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Violence, Political Future Worry South African Jews

Violent crime, political change and an energy crisis are fueling a growing sense of panic among South African Jews.

Several weeks ago the Jewish community was shaken when a Jewish man in Johannesburg named Sheldon Cohen was shot to death while sitting in his car waiting for his son to finish soccer practice.

In the past few months at least two other Jews were murdered in the same city, including an elderly man on his way to synagogue on Shabbat morning who was shot for the contents of his tallit bag.

The violence comes amid growing concerns among South African Jews about threats to the rule of law in the country following the election last December of the controversial Jacob Zuma to the presidency of the ruling African National Congress.

At its meeting last December, the ANC passed a resolution to push for disbanding the country’s crack crime-fighting unit, the Scorpions, whose probes resulted in an indictment against Zuma on counts of racketeering, money laundering, corruption and fraud.

With Zuma now leading the ANC, he is the favorite to succeed South African President Thabo Mbeki in 2009.

The Jewish community is “very nervous — the worst I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been in leadership,” said Michael Bagraim, the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s umbrella group.

To make matters worse, a local energy crisis has prompted frequent power outages in South Africa since the beginning of the year, hurting the mining industry, the bedrock of the nation’s economy.

“People want me to look in a crystal ball,” Bagraim told JTA. “They want to know if we’re going down the same road as Zimbabwe, whether the crumbling infrastructure will destroy the economy and whether there’ll be a future for their children.”

Many Jewish leaders here are afraid that concerns about the country’s future could fuel Jewish emigration, further depleting a community that has declined to 75,000 from a peak of 120,000 in 1970.

Zev Krengel, the chairman of the Board of Deputies, in a recent open letter to the country’s Jews acknowledged “a great deal of negativity and uncertainty.”

Krengel told JTA he sees a wave of emigration as “inevitable,” yet he insisted that South Africa remains a good place to be Jewish.

“Our rights are protected as a minority and we have the lowest anti-Semitism in the world,” he said.

Though Jews may not be singled out here for being Jewish, as well-to-do South Africans they remain targets of violent criminals that do not discriminate. The Jews’ exposure to crime coupled with the country’s political direction is prompting many to rethink their future here.

One Jewish woman interviewed by JTA recalled her upbringing in Congo in the 1960s, when at age 12 she and her family fled the civil war there. She believes her family may encounter a similar scenario of violence in South Africa.

“I feel that the young people and those that can afford it are definitely going to see a future away from South Africa because they have seen the writing on the wall,” she said.

Ivor Davis, a London native who as a journalist saw his fair share of African history firsthand during 33 years in Kenya, 12 in Zimbabwe and the last five in Johannesburg, also is concerned.

A resident of the affluent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, Davis has a guard stationed inside his house at night, and his property is secured with palisades and barbed wire.

“It’s a shame that our homes have to be turned into fortresses,” he said.

Aside from having to live under the threat of muggings, burglaries and car jackings, South Africans face the prospect of a president who himself has been charged with crimes.

In 2005, Mbeki dismissed Zuma as the country’s deputy president after Zuma was implicated in a corruption scandal. The next year, Zuma went on trial for raping a family friend at his home; he was acquitted.

Zuma is under indictment now on charges of fraud and corruption relating to a bribe he allegedly received from a French arms company in connection with a controversial arms deal.

One Jewish property administrator, Frank Stuppel, said the prospect of a Zuma presidency is “most disturbing and very worrying.”

“He has an unsavory history, and I think that’s a problem,” he said.

But other Jews said they’re not overly worried by Zuma.

Krengel contrasted the situation with B.J. Vorster, the president of apartheid-era South Africa from 1978 to 1979 and prime minister from 1966 to 1978 who had expressed support for Hitler.

“It’s not like when Vorster came into power and Jews were scared — this was a member of the Nazi Party,” Krengel said.

For the time being, Jewish leaders are urging the community not to panic.

In his letter, Krengel wrote that Jews should maintain a sense of perspective and remember that South Africa has gone through “far more difficult” periods in recent history.

South Africa’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, urged listeners in a recent radio address “to see the bad and the good,” noting that “South Africa is really the quintessential comeback kid.”

Bagraim says media reports and dinner-party conversations, rather than hard facts, are fueling negative perceptions of the situation.

“My answer to people is, let’s not get panicked because of the herd mentality,” he said. “The main and only factor which is a real issue is crime, and there we’ve taken the bull by the horns.”

The Jewish community’s 13-year-old Community Security Organization has assisted in rolling out a community watch program that puts armed guards on some street corners, runs vehicle patrols 24 hours a day and has a centralized call center.

Community Active Protection, as the program is called, has reduced violent crime by more than 80 percent in its areas of operation.

Nevertheless, Jews still live under the threat of violence.

Hayley Pogrund, an information technology specialist, was held up at gunpoint and robbed two years ago while visiting a friend in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia.

“There is an underlying tension that we all live with,” Pogrund said. “But at the moment we’ve chosen to be here.”

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