This year, South Africa commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the youth uprisings which tore through the country on 16 June 1976, and ended up being just as important as the Sharpeville Massacre in terms of radicalising black South Africans and hastening the demise of the apartheid government. The country now finds itself at a volatile turning point. After twenty-two years in power, the ANC has become a sclerotic monolith, run by a president who treats state coffers as his personal bank account. Meanwhile, a black intellectual movement has rejected Mandela’s notions of forgiveness and reconciliation, with the Rhodes Must Fall movement demanding the removal of all apartheid and colonial iconography from public spaces, and Fees Must Fall calling for the elimination of impossibly high university fees.
In the last year, a series of racist statements posted by white South Africans on social media sites has exploded the conversation about who “belongs”. The consensus position is that white people got a free pass after the fall of apartheid—they were absolved of their sins by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and in turn were allowed to maintain and increase their economic power in service of the ANC’s trickle-down theories. While Mandela’s ANC successfully managed the political turnover, they badly botched the economic transition.
Black Economic Empowerment initiatives, along with other ill-conceived affirmative action programmes, replaced a narrow Afrikaner elite with a narrow black elite, all underwritten by old white money. In the event,the bulk of the country’s wealth has stayed in white hands, with only enough dribbling down to maintain South Africa’s position as the most unequal society on earth, as measured by the Gini coefficient.
What has this meant for the country’s Jews? Tens of thousands left the country at the turn of the regime, and about 40,000 or so remain. Nonetheless, the community punches above its weight. At the memorial service shortly before Mandela’s funeral in 2013, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein stood alongside other religious leaders and performed a moving inter-faith service for the millions watching the event. For Jewish South Africans, the Chief Rabbi’s presence signified the miracle of Mandela’s tenure: the acceptance of the Jewish community into mainstream South African life following the end of apartheid in 1990.
But there was an irony at work here. Jewish leaders during the apartheid years were by no means enemies of the state. The Jewish Board of Deputies believed that antagonising the predominantly Afrikaner National Party, who counted Nazi sympathisers and avowed antisemites amongst its luminaries, would lead to South African Jewry’s destruction. A deal was struck, and in trading silence for safety the community was forever blighted.
to read more – a longer version of this article appears in the Summer 2016 issue of JQ.
The featured image is of young men with dompas (an identity document that every African had to carry), White City, Jabavu, Soweto, November 1972. cc. David Goldblatt.