South Africa’s Jewish community has been caught up in the almost euphoric feeling of the general population following the country’s first all-race democratic elections last week.
The elections — extended to three and even four days in some areas to give all a chance to vote — went off without intimidation and violence for the duration of the voting.
There were long lines at the polling stations — some stood for up to seven hours waiting to cast their votes — and people saw a mingling of black and white in a spirit of unprecedented camaraderie.
With President F.W. de Klerk conceding defeat Monday after some 40 percent of the ballots had been tallied, the new government of national unity will have an African National Congress majority, to be headed by ANC President Nelson Mandela. De Klerk’s National Party will be the main opposition.
In recent days, members of the Jewish communities in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where the vast majority of the country’s Jews live, voiced their hopes and fears regarding the future — and optimism was the predominant sentiment they expressed.
Fueling this optimism, Mandela, in a statement of reassurance and reconciliation to the country’s white population. stated this week that he will find ways to bring Christians, Muslims and Jews into his administration to raise the moral tone of government.
Speaking from Cape Town, boutique owner Charlotte Resnekov, said, “Mazel tov on the birth of democracy — something we have waited for and worked toward for so many years. Throughout the apartheid era, the blacks have lived with hardship while we have lived with deep-seated shame.”
Resnekov said she is happy to be in South Africa “and not any other place in the world” at this time.
In her business travels abroad, she said, she was tired of being blamed for the evils of the apartheid system. “Now South Africa is no longer a pariah, we travelers no longer have to pretend we are Australian or British to avoid international criticism. We are free from the guilt and shame.”
Resnekov added that the Cape is different from the rest of the country, since there has always been more social contact among the various races in that region.
Although expressing “slight nervousness” about the future, Capetonian Eris Silke, a former Israeli and one of South Africa’s top artists, said her optimism outweighs her fears.
“I admire both Mandela and de Klerk personally. But I’m scared of crime and violence and hope the ANC can contain this.
“Also, as Jews, we are not madly popular with the Muslims, and I hope they will not think the new dispensation will give them an opportunity to express anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist sentiments.
“I am very glad to hear that there are provisions in the new constitution for minority rights,” Silke said.
Former Johannesburg Mayor Harold Rudolph, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Witwatersrand, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the overwhelming majority of South Africans are pleased apartheid has ended.
BIRTH PANGS OF A NATION
“While the change from the old system to the new has unfortunately been very violent, we can just hope it was the birth pangs of a nation,” he said.
He noted that the country’s new constitution provided for a government of national unity, “but what is probably more important is the question whether the necessary good will prevails among all the political leaders to promote a spirit of give-and-take.”
Rudolph believed there will be religious freedom in the new South Africa, adding that “in the process of national building, I can’t see any government discriminating against any religious group.”
Speaking as a constitutional lawyer, he said, “There are gaps in the constitution, but these would not impact on the Jewish community. I don’t think, simply, that the Jewish community is an issue at all.
“The country has bigger problems — the provision of facilities including housing and education — than to concern itself with a section of the community that probably does not constitute more than one-quarter of 1 percent of its population,” Rudolph said.
Stockbroker Martin Lowenthal was upbeat in his assessment of the country, particularly regarding the South African economy. “The stock market reached record highs on Friday of last week (April 29), and that is telling us good things. People are already spending, parking areas in the shopping centers are full — it is as if they are releasing all their pent-up emotions.”
Lowenthal, who has lost many of his friends through emigration, stated emphatically: “I would like to encourage all young Jews who left for the wrong reasons to swallow their pride and come back. The opportunities are here and not in all those crazy countries they left for.”
Banker Ilan Lessick shared Lowenthal’s optimism about the economy, “especially in the short-term.” While noting he was glad to see the end of years of oppression, he said his current concerns “focus on right-wing violence and potential right-wing violence when the ANC takes over control of their towns.”
Welcoming fresh opportunities in the insurance industry, insurance broker Steven Adler said that many avenues will open in his field, contributing to an upturn in the South African economy. He added that the country’s economic situation will be further enhanced by foreign investment.
A TREMENDOUS POTENTIAL
“The potential is tremendous — I’m positive and optimistic,” he said.
But Adler, an observant Jew who holds several leadership positions in the religious community, also expressed some reservations.
“My fears are that, in the new South Africa, there may be changes relating to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the Jewish community vis-a-vis certain religious practices as well as the Jewish day-school movement,” he said.
Jewish day schools currently receive a government subsidy.
“I also sincerely hope that the crime rate will drop now that the political uncertainty is over,” said Adler.
Irene Green, a housewife and mother of three, said, “It’s very exciting, but nerve-wracking at the same time, because you never know what is around the corner. I am afraid that the uneducated, who are expecting houses and motor cars, face the prospect of unfulfilled promises and then we will have more unrest.”
Student Evan Cohen said, “We are living through history. Those who persevere will prosper in the new South Africa. Those who left have lost out on history in the making.
“I do not have any fears – merely hopes and expectations,” said Cohen.
Business journalist Berenice Margolis said the election was “almost a spiritual experience. This is the first time in my life I have been proud and happy to be part of South Africa –and I hope that it’s goodbye to bigotry.
“I think the road ahead is long and hard, but we are going to make it,” she said. “And, although the Jews won’t be an issue under the new dispensation, the Jewish community definitely has a role to play.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.