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Arts & Culture New Book by Jewish Leader Gives Insider’s Take on Zimbabwe’s Decline

September 2, 2004
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Abe Abrahamson has always been a fighter for social justice. From his days as a Cabinet minister in the government of Southern Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — to his involvement in Jewish communal organizations there, as well as in those of his adopted home of South Africa, he has walked the world stage, rubbing shoulders with political leaders on three continents in his quest for social justice.

Now in his 82nd year, Abrahamson is telling the story of his life in “The Moon Can Wait,” a new book chronicling his life — starting with his beginnings in the city of Bulawayo, as the son of immigrants who found refuge in Africa from the pogroms and discrimination of Eastern Europe, and leading up to today.

The book was written along with author Paul Clingman.

It is a story spanning most of the 20th century, and provides an insider’s account of the factors that sparked the downward spiral of events resulting in the disaster that is pr! esent-day Zimbabwe.

Over the past several years, some blacks, backed by mercurial ruler Robert Mugabe, have invaded white-owned farms across the country and turned out their owners in a chaotic attempt at land redistribution.

The country’s economy has deteriorated with rampant unemployment and runaway inflation and more than 80 percent of the black population now lives below the poverty line.

The Jewish community has dwindled drastically from 7,500 at its peak in the 1960s to a mere 400 today.

According to Abrahamson’s account, the country’s prospects were not always so bleak.

In 1960, when he played a prominent role at London’s Lancaster House conference to negotiate a new constitution for Southern Rhodesia, it seemed as if the violent chaos that was to become almost endemic to Africa’s liberation struggles might be avoided.

Reflecting on those times, Abrahamson told JTA: “I had a great deal of hope that we could establish a multiracial society, where ! every man or woman was judged for what they could contribute.”

But this was not to be — his party was swept from power in the “fatal” 1962 election called as a referendum on land apportionment. Abrahamson calls the election a “crass error of judgment.”

“By holding an election to ask the electorate — 99 percent of whom were white — for permission to repeal the Land Apportionment Act,” which reserved the better land for whites, “we never stood a hope,” he said.

Had the act simply been repealed without resorting to an election, a path Abrahamson supported, he feels that none of today’s confiscation of land would have occurred and that the intended beneficiaries, rather than ruling party cronies, would have benefitted.

Abrahamson wonders whether South Africa would have enjoyed its relatively smooth transition to democracy 32 years later, had that nation’s former president, F.W. De Klerk, gone to the country to seek approval for the changes he envisaged. “I wonder if he didn’t learn his lesson from his northern neighbor,” Abraham! son says.

While the election defeat heralded Abrahamson’s retirement from national politics, his standing allowed him to intercede with the country’s leaders in matters of concern to the Jewish community.

It was as such that Abrahamson became part of a three-man delegation that successfully lobbied the Rhodesian prime minister to release funds collected for Israel that were being blocked by the country’s stringent exchange control, which placed severe restrictions on money leaving the country.

Abrahamson relates how the Jewish community had to accustom itself to new political realities after Mugabe’s accession to power — among the changes being a PLO presence in the country.

In one illustrative incident, a visiting Israeli shochet, or ritual animal slaughterer, was told that his passport was not a valid travel document.

As a result, Abrahamson led the first official Jewish delegation to Mugabe to inform him of the community’s dismay at the turn of eve! nts. Mugabe pleaded ignorance, promising to put the matter right. No m ore was heard about the invalidity of Israeli passports.

Later, Abrahamson learned that the Palestinian representative to Zimbabwe had been kept apprised of the content of every government meeting with Jewish delegations.

After his move to South Africa in 1986, Abrahamson achieved pre-eminence in that country’s Jewish affairs as well, chairing the South African Zionist Federation and later being elected its honorary life president.

It was in the former capacity that he was part of the delegation that accompanied De Klerk on a visit to Israel.

And Abrahamson was one of six Jews who met Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison. In the book, Abrahamson recalls that the meeting had in fact been requested by Mandela, who had been pictured embracing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after he was freed.

At the time, Mandela was quoted as saying that “he didn’t care what the Jews might say.” Mandela felt that he had been misrepresented and wished to correct “a! ny negative perceptions that may have arisen in the Jewish community.”

Abrahamson says that as the delegation was leaving, Mandela told him that he would like to consult him on the art of governing, to which Abrahamson replied that he had no doubt that the iconic black leader could “well manage” on his own.

The foreword to the book is written by legendary anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman who describes it as “a good read for anybody interested in the evolution of Southern Africa in the 20th century.” Its title is taken from a speech delivered by Abrahamson to the International Labor Organization in Geneva in 1962 when he said, referring to breaking the space barrier, “The moon can wait, but social justice cannot tarry.”

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