As South Africa has remade itself, so have its Jews

johannesburg | For South African Jews, this Passover falls at a time when the symbols of oppression and liberation embedded in the Haggadah resonate particularly strongly with the atmosphere in the country.

South Africa is celebrating a decade of democracy, with national elections due April 14, the day after Passover ends.

The country’s first free election in 1994, which marked apartheid’s official end, brought Nelson Mandela’s largely black government into power. Since then, South Africa has attempted to remake itself into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls the “rainbow nation.”

It has put in place basic democratic institutions, such as a powerful constitutional court — headed by a Jew, Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson — but faces enormous problems of poverty and land distribution and the absence of a strong democratic tradition, which could pose challenges to future political stability.

The Jewish community also has gone through huge changes. One has been the accelerated emigration of Jews for English-speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, the United States and England.

Emigration has reduced the size of the community from roughly 125,000 in the 1980s to some 80,000 today. The reasons range from the violent crime rate — among the highest in the world — to whites’ difficulties in getting jobs and general anxiety about the country’s political stability.

After some years of demoralization, the Jewish community recently has begun to rebound. It has placed in key leadership positions young, dynamic people who are less burdened by the baggage of apartheid and who are vigorously engaging with symbols of the new South Africa.

Examples of this young blood are Yehuda Kay, 28, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies; Zev Krengel, 31, chairman of the board’s Johannesburg area council; Avrom Krengel, 35, chair of the South African Zionist Federation; Rabbi Craig Kacev, 32, acting director of the South African Board of Jewish Education; and Warren Goldstein, 32, recently chosen as the country’s chief rabbi.

“The fact that I was at school during the apartheid years and only voted for the first time in the 1994 elections enables me to relate to South African society with a clean slate,” Goldstein said in an interview with the South African Jewish Report.

In the upcoming election, most Jews are unlikely to vote for the ANC, the dominant black political party, which grew out of the liberation struggle. Though the ANC is credited with effectively steering the economy through difficult times in recent years, many Jews believe it represents the interests of the black majority more than those of minority groups such as Jews.

Jews are expected to vote more for the Democratic Alliance, a liberal opposition party headed by a Jew, Tony Leon.

In other areas, such as the arts, Jews continue to play a significant role in the new South Africa. Past examples have included Johnny Clegg, whose mix of African and Western music gained international acclaim and inspired many South Africans under apartheid by showing what could be achieved culturally with interracial cooperation.

Indeed, different artistic expressions are emerging that combine African and Western traditions. One Jewish proponent is Maurice Podbrey, an actor and theater director who left South Africa in 1957 for Canada and created the groundbreaking Centaur Theatre in Montreal.

As the South African Jewish community finds a renewed sense of identity, Jewish leaders and artists believe they can inject a new dynamism into the community, reinforcing Jews’ interaction with the wider society.


A chicken soup contest aimed at saving Jewish souls

Leaven the seder with rich, luscious chocolate

Many sides of freedom in film on African seder

As Passover arrives, so may a plague of locusts