The People of South Africa: Jewish South Africans

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Although small in size the South African Jewish community has played a rich and varied role in the country’s history. Today the 75,000 strong community is located overwhelmingly in the major cities, especially Johannesburg and Cape Town, but there was a time when Jewish pedlars roamed the country side, supplying remote settlements with a variety of hard to obtain necessities.

Eventually many settled in small towns as shopkeepers, hoteliers and tradesmen, while others became the founders of the wool, ostrich feather, citrus and other industries in South Africa. Some of those travelling merchants became known as ‘Boere Jode’ and a few even married Afrikaners. Most of the first Jewish immigrants to South Africa could not speak English and found Afrikaans easier to learn, as it was linguistically closer related to the Yiddish language that many of them spoke at the time.

The union of the two cultures have produced some well known artists – Olga Kirsch, the daughter of a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant, became only the second female poet to be published in Afrikaans. The well known satirist, author and social activist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, had a Berlin born Jewish mother. Singer, songwriter, playwright and director, David Kramer, had a Jewish Lithuanian grandfather.

The earliest recorded Jews arrived in the Cape with the first Dutch colonists in 1652. Ironically the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the Cape from 1652 – 1795, only permitted Protestant Christians to settle at the Cape, despite having a significant number of Jewish shareholders itself. The first Jewish colonists were thus forced to convert to Christianity. By the time the British took control of the Cape in 1806 there was more religious freedom and a small number of British Jews joined the 1820 settlers, most of whom settled in the eastern Cape.

The first Hebrew congregation in South Africa, the Tikvath Israel congregation, was founded in Cape Town in 1841. The first synagogue, built in 1863, known as the Old Synagogue, is now part of the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town. Other European Jews from Germany and the Netherlands followed and by 1880 Jewish numbers had increased to about 4000.

Jewish immigration to South Africa increased rapidly from the 1880s due to pogroms in Eastern Europe and the opportunities offered by the discovery of the diamond fields in the Kimberley area and the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand. Jews played a prominent role in the development of the diamond and gold fields, with Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato and others becoming notable Randlords. (Randlords were the entrepreneurs who controlled the diamond and gold mining industries in South Africa during its pioneer phase from the 1870s up to World War I.) The vast majority of the newcomers were Yiddish-speaking Litvaks from Lithuania and nearby areas such as Latvia, Poland, Russia and Belarus. By 1911 the South African Jewish population had grown to 47,000.

Lithuanian Jews in South Africa (unlike some of their local Anglo-Jewish co-religionists) enthusiastically supported Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish national renaissance and were instrumental in the creation of the South African Zionist Federation in 1898. The SAZF was responsible for coordinating all the Zionist activities throughout the country. Support for Zionism and the State of Israel remains a strong characteristic of the Jewish community in South Africa.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) was established in 1912 as a central representative institution of the South African Jewish community. Today the SAJBD represents nearly all of the Jewish community institutions and synagogues, works as a watchdog against antisemitic articles in the media, examines legislation concerning the Jewish community and maintains contact with diaspora communities world-wide, as well as other political and religious organisations in South Africa. One of the early reasons for the formation of the Board was concern over proposed anti-alien legislation that aimed to exclude Yiddish speakers. The SAJBD successfully lobbied to have Yiddish recognised as a European language for immigration purposes.

The 1930s signalled the end of mass Jewish immigration to South Africa with the implementation of the Quota Act of 1930, which denied Eastern European Jews entrance to the country on the basis that they were not ‘assimilable’ into white South African culture. Since the act did not include Germany, more than 6000 German Jews managed to flee Nazi persecution for South Africa by 1936. The Aliens Act of 1937 effectively closed the doors to Western European Jews as well – which meant many German Jews who might otherwise have been able to find refuge in South Africa, instead perished in the Holocaust.

The Great Depression and an increase in Afrikaner nationalism during the 1930s provided fertile ground for the rise of overtly antisemitic organisations like the Greyshirts and the Ossewabrandwag. At the same time the opposition National Party advocated a complete ban on Jewish immigration, a halt in the naturalisation of Jewish permanent residents and the banning of Jews from certain professions. The Jewish community was understandably apprehensive when the National Party took power in 1948.

After 1948 the National Party distanced itself from anti-Jewish discrimination and a certain amount of rapprochement took place between the government and Jewish leaders. Although significant numbers of Jews actively opposed the apartheid system, the Jewish Board of Deputies refused to take a stand against apartheid until 1985, arguing that it was not a Jewish issue.

Israel maintained diplomatic relations with South Africa throughout the apartheid era, although it was openly critical of the SA government’s policies during the 1950s and 1960s. The relationship warmed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, with both countries feeling the effects of international isolation. Part of Israel’s interest was due to the presence of almost 120,000 Jews in South Africa by 1970. One of history’s grand ironies occurred when the South African prime minister, John Vorster – interned during WW2 as a leader of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag – made a state visit to Israel in 1976.

Although many South African Jews have emigrated to the USA, Canada, Australia, Britain and Israel over the past 30 years, it remains by far the largest Jewish community in Africa and the 12th largest in the world.

Jewish South Africans have been actively involved in local politics and global events since the 19th century:

Jews fought on both sides during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). An estimated 2,800 fought on the British side, while about 300 fought with the Boers. During World War II over 10,000, more than 10% of the Jewish population, served in the Union Defence Force and with other Allied forces. Jewish South Africans have been mayors of Cape Town and Johannesburg and prominent members of parliament since the 1800s. Many Jews were involved in the anti-apartheid movement, with Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, Dennis Goldberg, Harry Schwarz and Helen Suzman among the most notable.

The South African Jewish community has some distinctive characteristics compared to other Jewish communities:

      More than 80% are affiliated to Orthodox congregations.
      More than 80% of South African Jews are of Baltic (Litvak) descent, forming an unusually homogeneous community.
      Jewish South Africans are traditionally one of the most Zionist communities in the world. South African Jewry led the world for many decades in its per capita contribution to Israel.
      Over 80 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in the Jewish day school system, which consistently produces excellent scholastic results. During apartheid Jews were part of a privileged minority dominating a multiracial society. A situation vastly different from their historical experience in other countries.

South Africans of Jewish descent have made enormous contributions to South Africa and the world in almost every sphere of life. A few prominent examples (by no means exhaustive):

  • Politics and civic affairs:
    Helen Suzman: politician and anti-Apartheid activist. Spent 13 years as the lone parliamentary opposition to the Apartheid government
    Ronnie Kasrils: minister for intelligence services in the ANC government (2004 – 2008)
    Tony Leon: leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (1999 – 2007) and South African ambassador to Argentina
    Joe Slovo: leader of South African Communist Party
    Harry Schwarz: anti-apartheid politician, lawyer and South African ambassador to USA
    Helen Zille (two Jewish grandparents, practising Christian): Premier of the Western Cape and leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance
    Ina Perlman: founder of Operation Hunger, a not-for-profit organisation concerned with the problems of chronic malnutrition and poverty.
  • Science:
    Sydney Brenner: biologist and 2002 Nobel prize winner
    Philip V. Tobias: palaeoanthropologist; world leading expert on human prehistoric ancestors; nominated three times for a Nobel Prize
  • Law:
    Percy Yutar: South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general and prosecutor of Nelson Mandela in the 1963 Rivonia Treason Trial
    Arthur Chaskelson: President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa (1994–2001) and Chief Justice of South Africa (2001–2005)
    Albie Sachs: Constitutional Court judge
    Richard Goldstone: Judge and international war crimes prosecutor
  • Arts & Literature:
    Irma Stern: internationally renowned artist
    Nadine Gordimer: writer, Nobel Prize in Literature (1991)
    Johnny Clegg: musician
    William Kentridge: multi-award winning artist best known for his prints, drawings, and animated films
    Jonathan Shapiro: cartoonist under the name Zapiro
  • Commerce and Industry:
    Barney Barnato: diamond magnate
    Alfred Beit: diamond magnate
    Sammy Marks: influential industrialist and financier
    Sir Ernest Oppenheimer: diamond and gold mining entrepreneur, financier and philanthropist, who controlled De Beers and founded Anglo American Corporation
    Raymond Ackerman: supermarket tycoon
    Gustave Ackerman and Morris Mauerberger: joint founders of the Ackerman’s chain of stores
    Sam Cohen and Michael Miller: founders of the O.K. Bazaars retail chain
    Sol Kerzner: founder of the entertainment and leisure giant Sun International
    Donald Gordon: businessman and philanthropist; founder of insurance company, Liberty Life
  • Sport at international level:
    Cricket: Ali Bacher, Lawrence Seeff, Mandy Yachad
    Canoeing: Shaun Rubenstein (2006 World Marathon Champion)
    Motorsport: Jody Scheckter (1979 Formula One champion)
    Rugby: Okey Geffin, Sydney Nomis, Wilf Rosenberg, Joel Stransky
    Surfing: Shaun Tomson (1977 IPS World Champion)

So next time you drive through the South African countryside and spot a beautiful old synagogue in a small town, let it be a reminder of the intrepid Jewish pioneers who played such an extraordinary role in the creation of modern South Africa.

Further reading and worth a visit:
The SA Jewish Museum in Cape Town relates the story of the Jews of South Africa spanning over 150 years

The South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation strives to address antisemitism, as well as all other forms of discrimination and prejudice.


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5 thoughts on “The People of South Africa: Jewish South Africans

  1. I am seeking relatives of Sam Cohen (OK Bazaars) S/Africa
    My Late Father was Ralph Cohen who I believe was a relative in London

    • I am searching for a relative of Sam Cohen, Doris Cohen. She was the only daughter of Sam Cohen’s brother in Scotland. Are you by any chance related to her ? She should be about 83 years of age (if still alive).

  2. Once again. Well written, to the point and with just enough, not too much, info to enlighten your audience. I enjoyed reading and learned a lot. Thanx.

  3. Thank you for a well researched and well written article. I think we desperately need a Jewish Minister of Education.

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