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Behind the Headlines: South African Jewry Takes a Stand Backing Political Reform Referendum

March 16, 1992
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Regardless of its outcome, this week’s nationwide referendum on political reform here has forced the South African Jewish Board of Deputies to take a stand on a controversial issue.

For the first time in 44 years, the representative body of South African Jewry has openly taken sides on a fiercely divisive national political issue and, in the process, caught up with its constituency, the vast majority of South Africa’s 118,000 Jews.

The Board of Deputies vocally supported the reform process initiated by President F.W. de Klerk and his National Party against the strenuous opposition of the all-white, far-right Conservative Party, which would reinstitute the apartheid system.

The board urged Jews to vote “yes” to the question on Tuesday’s ballot: “Do you support continuation of the reform process which the state president began on Feb. 2, 1990 and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiations?”

It is an issue many believe will decide whether South Africa evolves peacefully into a non-racial democratic society or is plunged into civil war.

Since May 1948, the Board of Deputies had avoided entering the political arena. It wanted no repeat of the anxiety caused that year when it went on record against the National Party, which then supported apartheid, shortly before its surprise election victory.

Until now, the Board of Deputies has confined itself to pronouncements on moral issues, although in that context, its stand and actions against apartheid, injustice and discrimination in recent years has assumed a higher profile.


Then, in a joint statement with Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, endorsed by the South African Zionist Federation, the board’s national chairman, Mervyn Smith, called for a “yes” vote.

“The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has always been committed to the reform process in South Africa,” said Smith.

Harris added that he “looked forward to a decisive, positive ‘yes’ vote, which would enable the negotiation process to continue unabated.”

The chief rabbi was referring to the government’s negotiations with the African National Congress.

Professor Harold Rudolph, a former mayor of Johannesburg and chairman of the board’s Transvaal Council, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “while there is no such thing as a Jewish vote, it is quite apparent that the overwhelming majority of Jews will vote yes.”

That is particularly true in the cities, he said, adding that Jews who would vote “no” live predominantly in rural areas.

They constitute a small minority, he said, with most Jews living in urban areas. The region with the largest Jewish population in South Africa is the Transvaal, where Jews number approximately 60,000.

Opposition Jewish parliamentarian Tony Leon of the progressive Democratic Party said South African Jews should vote “yes” to avoid their citizenship being “negated” by the anti-Semitic Conservative Party and its right-wing allies, which oppose de Klerk’s reforms.

The leading Jewish women’s organizations, the Union of Jewish Women and the Women’s Zionist Council, have called on women to support the reform process.


Most rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — have echoed this call.

Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, head of the Yeshiva College and a large Johannesburg congregation, said in a statement that the referendum offers a political choice between negotiating a democratic future or choosing confrontation, with the threat of anarchy, disorder and even civil war.

It offers an economic choice between reconstruction and growth or a wasteland of increasing unemployment and poverty, he said. And as for sports and culture, it offers choices between international participation and domestic isolation.

The statement was signed jointly with Gerald Leissner, the college’s chairman and current president of the Board of Deputies.

Some right-wing Orthodox rabbis and a small number of other Jewish right-wingers, including some former Israelis, have publicly favored a negative vote and occasionally sounded as stridently racist as right-wing anti-Semites.

Among the prominent Jewish supporters of the ruling National Party, Issy Pinshaw, a member of de Klerk’s President’s Council, has actively promoted reform and negotiation in South Africa.

He invited Foreign Minister R.F. “Pik” Botha recently to address 600 residents of Sandringham Gardens, the largest Jewish old-age home in South Africa.

Botha told the audience, which included Yeshiva College pupils and cheering black staff members: “It you vote ‘yes,’ you are voting for a new South Africa. A ‘no’ vote will put us back into the dark days of isolation — far more dangerous isolation.”

Leading Jewish business people and sports stars have spoken out firmly on the side of reform.

Bertie Lubner, a top businessman, communal leader and supporter of de Klerk, predicted an “overwhelming Jewish ‘yes’ vote.”

He emphasized both the dire economic consequences of a “no” vote and his opposition to racial discrimination.


Ronnie Kasrils, a flamboyant Jewish member of the African National Congress and leader of the South African Community Party, highlighted an irony of the referendum: that as a former exile and fugitive from the South African Police, he would support the National Party state president in the referendum.

Recently retired Communist Party Secretary-General Joe Slovo, a Lithuanian-born Jew, also has advocated a “yes” vote.

The referendum campaign cut across partisan political lines. The reform process is supported by the National Party and Democratic Party, and opposed by an alliance of the right-wing Conservative Party, the Herstigte Nasionale Party and the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, or AWB, which uses a swastika-like emblem.

Although Jews in South Africa make up just over 2 percent of the white population, they have been eagerly courted by all sides.

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