CAPE TOWN, Oct. 2 (JTA) South Africa is a country as much concerned with its apartheid past as with its future. Now, the country’s Jewish community is responding to questions about its stance during the apartheid era by strengthening its drive to reach out to South African blacks and help rebuild this racially divided country. That has won praise from former South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. Mandela called the programs of Tikkun, the Jewish community’s outreach umbrella group, “a miracle.” “There are many good men and women in all communities, but I never expected that we would have organizations of this nature that have brought hope,” Mandela said on a visit to one of Tikkun’s main projects a kibbutz-style agricultural settlement and training center in the province of Gauteng, which includes a farm, bakery and school. While individual Jews were among the most active whites to oppose apartheid, the community as a whole did not take a stand against the system until the mid-1980s. That prompted a past president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to say last month that the community had failed “the struggle,” as the fight against apartheid generally is termed here. But as South Africa made the transition to democracy, the Jewish community embarked on an outreach campaign to assure their compatriots that Jews intended to make their mark in rebuilding the country. To do that, many Jews turned to social activism. That campaign is still going strong, and with South African Jewry marking its 100th anniversary this year, Tikkun which is Hebrew for “repair” is redoubling its outreach efforts. For the most part, Jewish-black ties in South Africa are marked largely in terms of Jews’ involvement in social-welfare projects that benefit blacks. On a recent trip to South Africa, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which builds ties between Jews and American blacks, said black-Jewish ties in South Africa had not reached the stage of reciprocal concern as in the United States. “I feel that is probably the next step in the evolution of the process that to me would define an authentic, genuine relationship,” Schneier said. “At present, it’s something of a one-way street.” Before the fall of apartheid, the Jewish group World ORT, which provides educational resources and technological training, refused to operate in South Africa. ORT now sponsors a variety of education and training projects in the country. When the groups’ board of directors held a meeting here last year, the then-mayor of Cape Town, Gerald Morkel, said he was grateful for ORT’s work. “In the midst of mass unemployment and resultant poverty, we suffer from a desperate shortage of those skills which are necessary to oil the wheels of the modern technological state,” Morkel said. “ORT’s vocational and educational training opportunities will equip our people with those skills and competencies without which they will never hope to succeed in the brave new world.” Nompucuko Pamela Ncapai participated in one of ORT’s training programs. Now a lecturer at ORT/Tech, the group’s Western Cape outreach arm, Ncapai has trained over 500 teachers in education technology. Ncapai spent the first six years of her life in a Jewish home, where her mother was a domestic worker. She recalls fondly the Jewish family’s financial assistance, which enabled her to attend a prestigious boarding school. “They made sure that my school fees were paid in advance, saving me from the embarrassment of being sent home,” she said. Now, she said, “ORT has empowered me to be a confident teacher.” Tikkun also works in South African schools, operating after-school programs for students in disadvantaged areas. The programs include the teaching of life skills and leadership training, but also help blacks understand Jewish history, highlighting commonalities between Jews and blacks. At one participating high school, Langa, students were quick to sing Tikkun’s praises. Student Portia Mbele said that the Tikkun program had helped her “understand the world differently.” “I didn’t know that Jews were as badly treated as we were,” she said after a visit to the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. Like many of the other Jewish social programs, the schools program also benefits Jews, particularly when it comes to cultural education. Kim Feldman, a Jewish eighth-grader who participates in some of Tikkun’s cross-cultural programs, said she enjoys meeting disadvantaged students, as at a recent camp that Tikkun organized. “We felt welcomed and comfortable,” she said. “We made friends and took phone numbers. It was an amazing and awesome experience.” Nozipho Gqomo, of Langa high school, said the camp gave her self-confidence. “Since then, my life has been absolutely amazing,” she said. Langa’s principal, Poobalan Murugan, said he was impressed with Tikkun’s programming. “It is one of the few that has demonstrated consistency, continuity and sustainability,” he said. “I can see the difference in individual students.” A black Tikkun facilitator, “MC” Mgobozi, said that when he was in school he didn’t have the chance to meet children from other cultures. “It’s very important for the future of this country that young people grow up knowing each other,” Mgobozi said. Speaking during last month’s World Jewish Congress meeting in South Africa, educator Franz Auerbach said that despite the fact that Jews “on the whole” didn’t support blacks’ struggle for liberation, blacks “on balance” are well-disposed toward the Jewish community. But the liberation movement’s close ties to the PLO also have engendered substantial sympathy in the black community for the Palestinians, he said. Nevertheless, Auerbach characterized relations between blacks and Jews in the country as “reasonably good.”
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Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa. A law graduate and psychology major, she is the Cape Town correspondent for the South African Jewish Report. She contributes to London's Jewish Chronicle, is a reporter for the Cape Jewish Chronicle and has been published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.