South African elections spark Jewish concern about crime

JOHANNESBURG — As Jews across this city cast their votes in local elections next week, some will have in mind the appeal South African President Nelson Mandela recently made against white emigration.

"Don't leave, don't let us down. You have nothing to fear" from the African National Congress, the South African leader said to an audience of 2,000 at an election meeting at Temple Emanuel here.

"I said this before the [previous] elections, and I am repeating it today."

The appeal came at a time when members of the Jewish community are speaking increasingly about a new trend of Jewish emigration. The emigration stems from a number of factors, including an increase in crime.

"My duty is to unite the people of South Africa. I have no time to indulge in party politics," Mandela said to those gathered at the temple.

On the platform with him were Jewish ANC candidates Martin Sweet, Clive Gilbert and Eve Jammy as well as the chairman of the northeastern branch of the ANC, Sol Cowan.

South Africans will vote in local elections Nov. 1. Among those voting will be some of the 100,000 Jews who call South Africa home.

One of the issues Jewish candidates — as well as Mandela — have had to address is the increase in crime during the last year in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg, where many Jews live.

Synagogues have stepped up vigilance during Shabbat and other holidays. Jewish citizens are among those who have volunteered to join in the civic fight against crime.

Meanwhile, diminishing congregations have served as testimony to the shrinking community. Many who stayed in South Africa throughout the apartheid regime, even through times of fear that a revolution would be needed to shepherd in democracy, are now choosing emigration to escape the daily violence.

"We are living in a society in transition," said candidate Sweet. "Everyone is afraid. The escalating crime rate does nothing to alleviate this fear."

Sweet added, "Our government has achieved a degree of reconciliation between black and white that few imagined was possible, and created a new country with many opportunities."

He said Jews needed a voice in government to fight for Jewish rights and to gain access to resources to fight crime.

"It's no use waiting on the sidelines, watching and criticizing," Sweet said. "We need to find a creative role in the new South Africa, otherwise we will become irrelevant."

Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris said he feels that the coming year would be a "make-or-break one" in the transition toward a new South Africa.

It will be a "challenging year for the Jewish community, which has to prove South African loyalties by assisting positive change with the application of Jewish talent and expertise in the many areas urgently requiring amelioration," the rabbi said.

Harris has been one of the principal forces behind Tikkun, a Jewish effort to contribute to the government's Reconstruction and Development Program.

Ivan Levy, a member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, "Jews, like all South Africans, are extremely concerned with the current high levels of criminal violence and this is the prime motivation for many considering the emigration option."

He appealed to those who have resolved to emigrate to "consider aliyah and not the halfway houses of Australia, Canada or the United States of America."

Saying that the crime rate is "unacceptable," Joe Simon, head of the South African Zionist Federation, predicted an increase in emigration in the year ahead and the loss of the best Jewish professionals and businesspeople.

Simon added that statistics for the past few months showed that of the 183 Jewish families and individuals who emigrated, 40 percent had opted for Australia, 40 percent had gone to the United States, a fraction had gone to New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and 16.3 percent had immigrated to Israel.

Prospects of peace in the Middle East are encouraging aliyah, Simon said.

Shirley Ancer, vice chairwoman of the Johannesburg branch of the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa, said she "feels sick" about the crime rate. However, she said she remains hopeful about the future of South African Jewry.

Ancer said she and two of her sons have been victims of seven incidents of crime and terror — including an armed carjacking and several muggings — during the past few months.

"There's no hope that the government or police are going to do anything about it in the foreseeable future," she said. "The only thing we, the citizens, can do is to get involved ourselves — like forming neighborhood block watches, not like taking the law into our own hands."

She added that the prevalence of crime would not abate until the unemployment problem is solved.

"What terrifies me is that I see in the Jewish community a return to tremendous right-wing and conservative attitudes which, in turn, could cause anti-Semitism and harm to the Jews," she said.

"In the year 5756 I would appeal to the Jewish community not to look inward and to avoid being negative," she said. "We should differentiate between criminals and decent people — thugs are both black and white."