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Party Led by Jewish Politician Does Well in S. African Elections

April 22, 2004
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A political party headed by one of South Africa’s leading Jewish politicians has entrenched its position as the second-largest party in the country.

The governing African National Congress continued its political dominance with a landslide win in the April 14 general elections, but the Democratic Alliance, led by Tony Leon, increased its vote by almost one-third, solidifying its status as the largest opposition party.

Leon called it a mark of progress in South Africa’s young democracy — established after the peaceful transition from white rule in 1994 — that his Jewishness was not an issue in the campaign, with one or two minor exceptions.

“The Palestine issue was brought up and injected into the campaign when I spoke in Lenasia,” a largely Muslim area near Johannesburg, he told JTA.

There are more than half a million Muslims in South Africa, which has a Jewish population of some 70,000.

There was also an anonymous threat by “Al-Qaida types” against his wife, Michal, who is Israeli.

Leon said appropriate security measures were taken.

Under South Africa’s proportional representation system, the ANC received almost 70 percent of the national vote. The Democratic Alliance received 12.5 percent.

No other party polled more than 10 percent of the vote.

In the first democratic elections in 1994, the alliance received only 1.7 percent of the vote. After Leon became party leader, support grew to around 9 percent in the 1999 elections.

Two other senior Jewish politicians will return to Parliament — ANC member Ronnie Kasrils, the minister of water affairs who is outspoken in his anti-Israel views, and Ruth Rabinowitz of the Inkatha Freedom Party, with its largely Zulu power base.

Several more Jews will take seats in the nine provincial legislatures.

Jews largely backed the Democratic Alliance. The South African government’s pro-Palestinian stance — it supported the Palestinian position during the International Court of Justice hearings on the Israeli security fence — increased this support, said Mervyn Smith, the chairman of the African Jewish Congress and a former national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the umbrella body of the country’s Jewish community.

Michael Bagraim, current national chairman of the Board of Deputies, said Jews now felt they were really making a difference when they voted, in contrast to the situation under the old apartheid regime.

“Now you feel free. You are proud of placing your cross. It doesn’t matter for which party. You are contributing to the country, making a difference and are part of the building blocks of the future,” he said.

Referring to an Op-Ed piece in the Cape Times during the run-up to the elections, which included accusations that the South African Zionist Federation was fomenting loyalty to Israel at the cost of allegiance to South Africa, Bagraim said he had met recently with Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad and the ANC leader in the Western Cape, Ibrahim Rasool.

“Both assured us we are absolutely equal to any other citizen of this country and protected by the full weight of the law,” Bagraim said. “Rasool went further and said he respects our allegiance as Zionists and it does not detract from our allegiance to South Africa as fully fledged citizens.”

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