Jewish Social Justice in Post-Apartheid South Africa?


I have been full of curiosity since we arrived in Cape Town two weeks ago as scholar-in-residence. What would an Orthodox Social Justice movement look like in post-apartheid South Africa? What unique opportunities does the Jewish community have in 2012 to address the racial and economic dynamics that still plague the region?

Similar to the Civil Rights movement, Jews were overrepresented in the struggle against apartheid. Many distinguished themselves in the struggle against apartheid, including:

  • Helen Suzman, the lone Progressive Party representative in Parliament for years, who constantly denounced apartheid. Opponents frequently told her to “Go back to Moscow” or even “Go back to Israel,” to which she retorted: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”
  • Joe Slovo was a long-time colleague of Nelson Mandela in the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party. Governmental repression forced him and his wife, Ruth First, in exile, where she was assassinated by a parcel bomb. Slovo is said to have his family roots in the Soloveitchik dynasty.

However, most Jewish establishments and Jews remained primarily focused on internal Jewish communal issues rather than addressing the apartheid and it really was not until 1985 that the rabbinate as a whole condemned apartheid. Of course, in 1990, the Jewish community supported President DeKlerk’s dismantling of apartheid, the negotiation process, and the first democratic elections in 1994. Many Jews in Cape Town have shared their shame with me of this part of their history.

There are about 70-75,000 Jews in South Africa today, a population that is declining. There is significant wealth and infrastructure in the community and we found multiple domestic workers in just about every home we visited. I wondered what it would be like to open conversations and learning about our societal obligations to alleviate poverty, suffering, and oppression of all people in our midst.

The first comment I received after a class I gave on labor rights and business ethics was: “You should have come 25 years ago!” The next comment was: “We have never heard these Jewish teachings.” To be sure, there have been great rabbis in South Africa, but similar to the trend in the United States, the focus of the observant communities has continued to minimize the importance of social justice, civic engagement, and collective responsibility.

Jewish communities around the world are missing opportunities to show moral leadership on crucial local and national issues because rabbinic leadership is often focused on maintaining ritual commitment and not in inspiring public leadership, ethics, and social responsibility. In Cape Town, a city much safer than Johannesburg, Ohr Somayach and Chabad are growing as they promote strict ritual observance, while the modern orthodox leadership and community remain very small.

I cannot help but wonder how much greater of a role the Jewish people could have had in preventing the harms of apartheid had they still viewed themselves as minorities and not merely as “whites” or if they viewed fighting injustice and oppression as a Torah mandate. How can we ensure that religious leaders around the world charge their communities beyond their comfort zones to intervene at the most morally precarious times?

It is always easier to critique from the outside. Most religious Jews in America, after all, were pretty removed from the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The situation in South Africa was perilous, as the entire nation was stained with apartheid, not just a region.

While South Africa was part of the British Empire during World War 2, many Afrikaners (the Dutch Boers) sympathized with the Nazis, which created an atmosphere of fear. In the post-1945 era, the Cold War began to dominate the political field. In South Africa, anti-communism was enjoined with support of colonialism and apartheid. South Africa legislation institutionalized apartheid, especially after 1948: laws banned marriage or extra-marital sex between races, defined people by race, forced blacks and other races to live in separate areas (Bantustans), required blacks to carry identification (the Pass Laws), and jailed nonwhite people if they were found outside their assigned place of residence. The Communist Suppression Act of 1950 deemed any activity that opposed apartheid to be communist, and thus all opposition was banned.

The South African government maximized its propaganda as well, backed up with wealth and military might. It raised fears that the end of apartheid would lead to a bloodbath of communism and tribal war, enlisting the help of Zulu Chief Buthelezi against the ANC, most of whose members (including Mandela) were members of the Xhosa tribe. For years, many Western nations were reluctant to criticize South Africa for Cold War considerations. To many in the Jewish community, especially after 1967, opposition to apartheid meant an alliance with communists and anti-colonial forces who in turn were increasingly antagonistic toward Israel. The “lesser of two evils” predominated.

One legal career illustrates this philosophy. Percy Yutar, the son of Lithuanian immigrants, became a lawyer, but due to discrimination had to slowly move up the legal ladder until he eventually became a prosecutor in the Transvaal. When Nelson Mandela was seized in the government raid on ANC headquarters, Yutar was appointed as the prosecutor for the 1964 Rivonia trial, which resulted in the convictions and lifetime prison terms for Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders for crimes against the apartheid state. Yutar was an enthusiastic prosecutor, calling Mandela and others communist stooges. In retrospect, many see his vigorous prosecution as a way to establish his credentials as a loyal South African, as opposed to several of Mandela’s codefendants who were Jewish (notably, Denis Goldberg).

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela became the President and national hero. In spite of the brutal repression he had endured, Mandela chose not to extract revenge from his political foes. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed apartheid agents to confess their crimes in exchange for amnesty, exemplified his approach. In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, reflecting on South Africa's Jewish community, he wrote about the Jews."I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” While he acknowledges communists and anti-colonialists as allies, and does not agree with policies of the current Israeli government, Mandela expressed support for the existence of a secure Israel in 1990. In 1995, as President, he invited his former legal nemesis Yutar to lunch. To his credit, Yutar acknowledged his past error and praised Mandela.

In South Africa, we were too late to act, but now is the time to deal with global problems. The Torah calls upon us to convert our religious fervor into social activism, standing tall and proud with the oppressed, wherever they may be.

If we are a community of prayer, then we must ensure our prayer works as a subversive force to inspire us to change society. “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision” (Heschel, On Prayer, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 257-267).

Today, South Africa is plagued with violence, HIV, and poverty. For example, the South African Department of Health Study estimated that in 2010, among pregnant women age 15-49 years, more than 30 percent had HIV. While this level has reached a plateau (the government was slow to acknowledge the situation), this remains an enormous problem. Preliminary results from a UNICEF report indicate that more than half of South Africa’s children live in poverty, and a quarter (5 million) have HIV. Fully two-thirds of all child deaths could be prevented with improved primary care.  

Two decades ago, de Klerk partnered with then-African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela to end the notorious system of racial separation known as apartheid. De Klerk said in an interview last week: "Fact is that in South Africa, transition is taking its time. I'm convinced it's a solid democracy and it will remain so, but it's not a healthy democracy…It is practical policies which have failed to bring a better life to the masses, which led to the enrichment only of the few, also amongst the new black elite. The middle class is growing fast, but somehow or another, the quality of service delivery had deteriorated substantially. Education has actually moved some steps backwards." Unemployment remains very high, with a rate of 50 percent among blacks between ages 18 and 34.

The Jewish community here can and must play a crucial role to address the local suffering. More than 80% of the South African Jewish community consider themselves Orthodox, an astounding number. This religious community has a tremendous opportunity to create a real Kiddush Hashem as the globe continues to watch how the South African drama evolves in the coming years. There are partners in Israel and the United States to help support the South African Jewish leadership in this struggle.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.