JOHANNESBURG (JTA) – The euphoria that permeated all sectors of the South African population with its first democratic election in 1994 has degenerated into widespread pessimism with the forced resignation of President Thabo Mbeki.
Mbeki, who enjoyed a good relationship with the Jewish community and presided over a once-flourishing economy, was pushed out by his own party in late September after prolonged infighting.
With the election of the controversial Jacob Zuma as president of the African National Congress at the party’s national congress at the end of last year, many young Jews are thinking about emigrating.
“I remained relatively optimistic about this country after 1994,” said Evan Cohen, the marketing manager for a financial services company. “Former president [Nelson] Mandela brought about the most amazing reconciliation and, under Mbeki, the economy has boomed.”
Deriding what he called “a bunch of undisciplined, left-leaning populists” now leading the ANC, Cohen said, “I am concerned about the future, but as far as emigration goes, I have a wait-and-see attitude.”
After leveling off for several years, Jewish emigration from South Africa again is on the rise.
While no exact statistics figures are available – emigres generally do not make their permanent departure official – the Israel Center at the South African Zionist Federation sees a 300 percent increase in aliyah over last year’s 178 emigrants.
Ofer Dahan, the center’s director and the aliyah emissary, said the wave of emigration comprised both “pull” factors – Zionist ideology and strong opportunities – and “push” factors.
“The ‘push’ is brought about by South Africans who fear for the future of this country,” Dahan said. “There are some olim who have given this reason.”
Of the estimated 500 people still expected to emigrate this year, many will be on specially organized flights to accommodate the high numbers.
Dahan called the first flight a “historic event” – more than 100 mostly young people departed in July.
“We have another flight of 100 people – this time families – scheduled for December and a waiting list for a third flight next year,” he said, adding that “South African Jews constitute one of the best Zionist communities in the world today.”
Still, says David Saks, the associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the 2008 enrollment figures at Jewish day schools contradict perceptions of a new wave of emigration.
Johannesburg has seven Jewish high schools and Cape Town one, and there are even more primary schools. More than 80 percent of Jewish children have attended Jewish schools since the 1970s.
In February, Saks described the community as numerically stable, cohesive and extremely well-organized, although “the consequences of a net outflow of Jews from the country since the 1980s would be with us for many years.”
Despite increased emigration, he said the actual numbers of Jews in South Africa in recent years had changed little because of the increased birth rate, emigres returning and the influx of Jews from Zimbabwe.
From a peak of 120,000 in the 1970s, the South African Jewish population has declined to approximately 75,000 today, with more than 50,000 in Johannesburg and 16,000 in Cape Town. Since 2000, nearly half of the Jewish emigres have gone to Australia (44 percent), followed by the United States (18 percent), Israel (12 percent) and Canada (9 percent).
Saks said that South African Jewry was considerably better off than most of its Diaspora counterparts with regard to assimilation and anti-Semitism, the two most serious problems facing Jewish communities outside Israel. The intermarriage rate is no more than 10 percent.
While there are “strong pockets of anti-Semitism,” he said, “these rarely translate into actual anti-Semitic actions.”
The organized community’s leaders remain confident about the future.
“There is no cause for panic,” said Zev Krengel, the national chairman of the Jewish Board of Deputies, which met with Zuma only days before Mbeki’s demise.
“The ANC hasn’t changed its policies toward minorities in this country. Mbeki had an open door for us and Zuma, too, was very receptive. The whole process is part of our democracy and change, which always creates a certain level of uncertainty, just as it does in any business.”
Zuma faces possible prosecution for alleged fraud and racketeering following his role in a controversial multibillion-dollar arms deal with foreign suppliers while he served as the country’s deputy president under Mbeki.
On Sept. 25, Parliament elected Zuma’s deputy in the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe, as the new president – an unofficial caretaker post until Zuma himself is expected to take over after the general elections in the first half of 2009.
“Motlanthe has met socially and officially with the community leaders and is liked by them,” Saks said. “The fears regarding Zuma as his permanent successor are more about his supporters – the corrupt populace.”
Motlanthe sent New Year’s greetings to the Jewish community, which were well received.
“Mbeki’s going is just another tumble in the tug of war that our country has become,” said Ruth Rabinowitz, a member of Parliament for the Inkatha Freedom Party. “Our top-down system of cooperative governance has engendered a confusing political system filled with duplication – hence remarkable for its inefficiency, lack of transparency or accountability. Money, power and populism have become our country’s hallmarks.”
Not everyone sees Mbeki’s demise as a loss for the country. The former head of the official opposition Democratic Alliance, Tony Leon, told JTA that the future of the Jewish community was tied to the middle-class white community.
Leon, a longtime political and at times personal opponent of Mbeki, has been in demand on Jewish and public platforms to provide his assessment of the situation.
“I know that many in the opposition-minded community view current events with dismay and the looming arrival of Jacob Zuma with roughly the level of enthusiasm with which the Romans greeted the Visigoths,” he said.
While Leon credited Mbeki with some economic stability to South Africa, he faulted him for squandering the political and diplomatic gains of his predecessor, Mandela.
Lionel Stein, the former chairman of the Community Police Forum Area Board devoted to combatting the high level of crime, was upbeat about the prospect of Zuma as president of South Africa.
“I think for the first time in the past 10 years we will have a leadership that will put its attention into fighting crime, getting to the root cause of the problem and which will do something about it,” Stein said.
“Zuma is a true politician who knows how to rally for the people. It won’t matter to him if they are Jews, Muslims or Zulus – any sector of the population – he will be able to gain their confidence.”
On the eve of her emigration to Sydney, Australia, Galia Durbach told JTA that she had serious concerns about the country.
“I don’t get the sense that leaders are tackling some of the core issues,” said Durbach, a banking executive who left earlier this month with her husband, Steve, an academic, and two young children.
Durbach said she sees ongoing “fundamental problems” in addressing education and alleviating poverty, and that contributes to the high crime rate.
“If these problems were realistically addressed, I would not rule out the possibility of coming back,” she said. “However, at this stage, as a young family, we see ourselves as going to a first world country with a low crime rate, a similar climate and the important factor of a big Jewish community in Australia.”
On the local Jewish e-mail exchange, advertisements for the sale of furniture and household goods of those emigrating have escalated since talk of Zuma coming to power.
But the large Chasidic community in South Africa is staying put.
“We’ve seen multiple potentially explosive situations which have been miraculously solved in a peaceful way through democracy taking its course,” said Rabbi Shabsy Chaiton, administrator of the Lubavitch-run Torah Academy.
Mish Myers, 29, a financial services recruitment consultant, has lived in London for the past two years. Back in Johannesburg for the Jewish holidays, she said she left to better her future and because she feared the muggings, carjackings, rapes and high crime rate.
“Although I’m not politically inclined, our leaders change, the African National Congress changes, but there is not enough change for the people themselves,” she said.
“I feel safe in London but would be back like a shot if crime were controlled and the country was stable. South Africa is the best place in the world. Where else do you have such a beautiful country that has everything – the sea and mountains all in one place?”