JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (JTA) — South African President Jacob Zuma used a speech before his country’s main Jewish group to issue a call for expatriates to return home.
Many Jews have left South Africa in the years since the initial optimism following the end of apartheid in 1994 dimmed, replaced by concern about crime, political stasis and lack of economic opportunities.
Pessimism in the Jewish community appeared to grow when Zuma, who took office a little more than three months ago, defeated Thabo Mbeki for the leadership of the African National Congress in late 2007. Many young Jews said they were considering immigrating to Australia or Israel.
The community has fallen to approximately 80,000 members from a peak of 120,000 a generation ago.
“This country has a massive skills shortage as a result of decades of neglect and deliberate under-investment,” Zuma said in his address Saturday night to an audience of about 800 at the 54th national conference of the Jewish Board of Deputies, South Africa’s Jewish umbrella organization. “This problem is exacerbated by the emigration of skilled people. We must work to reverse the trend.
“The message we want to send to people who have left the country to live and work abroad is that South Africa will always remain their home and I will always welcome whatever contribution they can make to building this nation.”
The emigration theme was one of many Zuma touched upon in a speech designed to bolster Jewish confidence in his administration. Zuma, whose minimal formal education and unusual lifestyle — he has multiple wives — has made him a subject of some concern in the Jewish community, also talked about religious freedom, anti-Semitism and his country’s Middle East policy.
“As president, I regard as one of my duties the need to preserve the unity of this nation, and to cultivate its diversity,” Zuma said. “We must remain on guard against any manifestations of anti-Semitism and other intolerances. There is no place in South Arica for racism, tribalism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.”
Zuma, who was accompanied by several Cabinet ministers and senior provincial officials, was greeted warmly by the crowd. Though it was the first time Zuma addressed the Jewish community, he met a year ago with a delegation from the Board of Deputies.
Mervyn Smith, president of the African Jewish Congress and a former national president of the Board of Deputies, said Zuma “clearly put out a warm hand to South African Jewry and reiterated the government’s belief in freedom of religion.”
But, he added, “There are unquestionably elements within the government and supporters of the ANC who are not quite as correct.”
The ANC, which dominates this country’s political scene, is strongly pro-Palestinian. More than 80 percent of the country’s Jews support the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
For many community members, Zuma is less problematic than his party.
“Right now we believe we have direct access to the president,” said Michael Bagraim, national president of the Board of Deputies. “His being a people person does make a difference. He’s someone you can sit down and talk to, and you can feel that he’s listening to us as Jews. He has always borne in mind that we as the Jewish people are the people of the book.”
Zuma addressed the Arab-Israeli conflict in his speech.
“We support the position of the United Nations and the Middle East Quartet that the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that ends the occupation that began in 1967,” Zuma told the Jewish gathering. “It is a solution which fulfills the aspirations of both parties for independent homelands through two states for two peoples, Israel and an independent, adjoining and viable state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security.”
He called for supporting President Obama’s efforts in pushing the objectives.
“We will continue to offer whatever assistance we can towards the resolution of this matter, including sharing our experience in ending apartheid through negotiation,” Zuma said. “In this respect, we would like to work together with the South African Jewish community.”
Dalia Lichtenstein, a Cape Town lawyer, said that Zuma’s outreach to the Jewish community is good, so far.
“I think at the moment we’re doing OK,” Lichtenstein said. “The dialogue has got to continue, and I think the agreement to disagree and to respect each other is there and it’s a very good start.”
Jack Bloom, a member of the opposition Democratic Alliance, called the speech “very standard.”
“He made good pledges; I hope he delivers on them,” Bloom said. “It was a friendly action. It was the president of the country addressing the Jewish community. It was good outreach.”