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anti-semitism & racism in south africa

Bev Goldman, National Vice President of the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa, reports on Anti-Semitism and Racism in South Africa between November 2016 - April 2017.

Anti-Semitism in South Africa is almost always inextricably linked with anti-Zionist sentiments, despite many of those who are guilty of promoting it vehemently denying that they hate Jews, proclaiming instead that ‘some of (my) best friends are Jews, but I abhor the apartheid state of Israel.’

Below are a few examples of anti-Semitic tirades that have left many members of the South African community feeling a little more vulnerable, a little more anxious, a little more concerned. There is talk by some families of their desire to leave the country and move elsewhere, but at present and should that happen, the reasons appear to be more related to the current national political and economic turmoil and upheavals than specifically because of anti-Semitism.

During demonstrations against the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) last year, when BDS protestors were ostensibly criticising Israel’s so-called ‘apartheid’ policies, what emerged instead was fierce antagonism towards those Jews who failed to acknowledge and accept that Israel was an ‘illegitimate, racist state guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing and should be shunned, ostracised and excluded from participating in South Africa’s democratic culture.’ No boundaries between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were in evidence: they overlapped and perfectly verified the incendiary hatred that BDS has towards the Jewish people.

In January, the independent TV station ANN7 (owned by the Gupta family who are very close to President Zuma) organised a panel debate on security for a programme it was making on the subject. It was reported that one of the panellists, Zahir Omar (of the Muslim Lawyers Association of SA), made explicitly anti-Semitic comments during the discussion. 

The SAJBD contacted ANN7 to ensure that these were not included in what was broadcast and further asked that it be allowed to view the unedited footage of the debate. While there was no overt anti-Semitism in the programme subsequently broadcast, ANN7 declined to make the unedited footage available. The SAJBD, however, stated that ANN7 both acknowledged that anti-Semitic comments were indeed made by Omar and that it had taken steps to destroy the evidence. 

During the national and often violent #FeesMustFall protests late last year on all the campuses across the country, with students demanding free tertiary education for all (which incidentally was promised them in 1994), there were many incidents (especially on the University of the Witwatersrand campus in Johannesburg) during which chants were heard of “Whites must die! Jews must die!” during the protest rallies, accompanied by graffiti reading “Kill a Jew” and “F**k the Jews”. All these were predictable, and perhaps even inevitable, combining as they did the most vitriolic of racism and anti-Semitism in one basket. It was even suggested that the hidden hand of all-powerful Jewish finance was intimated to be behind the failure to provide free tertiary education to those unable to afford it.

Eleven years ago, BDS conceptualised their flagship programme Israel Apartheid Week – IAW - which became their annual platform to instigate hatred not just against Israel but against Jewish South Africans - the great majority - who support and identify with it.
And to be expected, the most brutish, barbaric and widespread anti-Semitic attacks in the period under review occurred during IAW events at the various campuses, again and especially at Wits University in Johannesburg.

Local radio station Radio Islam kicked off with an announcement of the launch of IAW as follows: “Israel Apartheid Week will be a trap for Israel and will move us closer to the liquidation of the Zionist entity”. Ostensibly their hostility was directed at Israel, but they were well aware that BDS had played a huge role in the run-up to and organisation of IAW, presenting a campaign which, by its inflammatory, extremist nature, resulted then, as it had done during past IAWs, in ugly forms of intimidation and Jew hatred. As an aside, this was also evident when BDS hosted plane hijacker Leila Khalid at the Durban University of Technology last year. The following morning, protesters called for Jewish students to be “deregistered” (i.e. expelled) from the University.

A report on the IAW in the Jerusalem Post said: "Some of the alarming incidents included BDS and anti-Israel supporters emulating Hitler in the Nazi goose-step, flying flags of terrorist organizations and advocating for the death of Jews and Israeli-Arabs … A BDS activist at Wits was heard advocating that “people want to kill Jews because Jews don’t behave when they are visitors in other people’s countries” … and a video emerged of a Muslim student using his finger to gesture a moustache while performing a Nazi salute and a goose step around the campus as he was egged on and congratulated by his friends in front Jewish and pro-Israel students…"

A visiting Israeli-Arab delegate from education organization StandWithUs was also told by pro-Palestinian students that he would be “the first to be killed when they (Palestinians) take over (Israel)” while Jewish students were also threatened that their throats would be cut.

A number of brawls broke out on the campus, and at Wits property belonging to the SA Jewish Union of Students (SAUJS) was thrown around, physically pulled from their hands while posters were torn and threats made by anti-Israel supporters and BDS members.
Commenting on the atrocities and hatred, a community leader said, ‘Despite the insistent claims by BDS supporters in SA media that IAW is not anti-Semitic, their true motive was unveiled. The Wits PSC (Palestine Solidarity Committee) staged an aggressive and hate-filled campaign to stop SAUJS students from providing a different perspective on the Israeli Palestinian conflict.’

On another note, the SAJBD has more than once urged South Africans, when commenting on issues of public concern, to avoid resorting to anti-Semitic hate speech, including sinister invocations of behind-the-scenes Jewish financial domination. It is becoming more commonplace for those in leadership to refer to “Jewish based entities” somehow being behind financial institutions and engineering politics through economic power. This equating of Jews with questionable financial gain, accusing them of “having members of government in their pockets and holding ordinary citizens to ransom” and of exerting their power “behind the throne” to bring about changes in government and policy, is a canard that has been frequently used when all else has failed to destroy the legitimacy of the Jewish people. 

More than once here in SA, as elsewhere, Jews have been singled out and accused of manipulating political leaders through their alleged financial power.
Yet research has shown that there is in fact less overt anti-Semitism in South Africa than in many other countries around the globe; so perhaps we have something to be thankful for, however small that something may be.


Racism is ugly and destructive; it transcends social class and educational qualifications; it lays bare the very obvious differences in society; it humiliates both the perpetrator and the victim.

In 1994, at the dawn of a new era of democracy in South Africa and the birth of the ‘rainbow nation’, there was widespread agreement that perhaps the racism that had been so endemic and pervasive during the reign of the apartheid government would begin to dissipate and herald more integration in a country greatly in need of healing.

Sadly the converse was true. Under the baton of the late great Nelson Mandela, the citizens of the country enjoyed a brief hiatus of warmth and co-operation in the spirit of building a new nation. That did not last. President Thabo Mbeki stirred the flames of racism; and today, under the disastrous leadership of President Jacob Zuma, racism has become the rallying cry of a large majority of South Africans who have allegiance to and honour the president, who believe his lies and fabrications, and who follow him blindly as he blames ‘the whites’ and ‘the colonialists’ for all the ills in the country as a means of avoiding taking responsibility for his inept and corrupt governance. “White privilege” remains one of the most inflammatory phrases stoking the fires of racism across the nation; and the epidemic growth of social media is adding to this crisis.

Many ordinary South Africans, and many in civil society, have for the first time made their voices heard by standing up against the disastrous policies that the government under President Zuma is implementing. Over the past few months there have been radical and questionable changes in the Cabinet, an increase in nepotism and ‘jobs for pals’, accusations of State Capture, growing corruption, and criticism leveled at the ruling ANC party, whose president is President Zuma, for side-lining ordinary citizens in favour of the inner circle and clique who pay homage to him. In the past two months there has been an extraordinary uprising against all of this by members of the opposition parties, of civil society and of South Africans of all colours and creeds, in the form of marches and protests against the ruling elite. Unheard of previously, there is now a growing momentum of people determined to bring about change in the country.

Yet despite the huge numbers of black South Africans forming part of the protests, the president has condemned them as being ‘racist’; and has in his inflammatory speeches encouraged his supporters to feel the same way and to blame all the current ills in the country on the ‘privileges which are still in the hands of white people’.
Just recently when addressing crowds in his home province of KwaZulu Natal, and speaking to them in Zulu as opposed to the English which he uses elsewhere, Zuma blatantly lied when he said that less than 10% of businesses in South Africa had black CEOs or managers: the figures are closer to 45%, but it suited his purposes to incite his audience and light another candle under the racism banner.

Racism is a feature of life around the world. It is not particular to South Africa, but given the country’s tragic history, it will always be lurking somewhere and there will always be times when it will rear its ugly head. It is very evident in the number of white farmers being targeted by radical members of the black community, and killed in the most cruel and barbaric ways.

As I noted in my first report on this subject some months back, “SA today, say the black radical movements, has not defeated the scourge of racism, largely because it has neither reversed nor even tried to reverse the economic legacy of apartheid. Economic patterns still retain their racial character, with blacks occupying the bottom rungs of the social, economic, cultural and development ladders.”

Well-known South African columnist Max du Preez recently wrote of racism in the country: ‘The notion that the white minority can be insulted, cursed and threatened with impunity has taken hold in our society. Almost every sane person in the country agrees that white-on-black racism is evil and nasty and should be fought tooth and nail, but in some circles being openly “anti-white” or insulting whites in the crudest terms are regarded as a badge of honour, almost a precondition for acceptance as a “proud black”. It is also linked to the idea that black people can’t be racist, only whites can. It would be helpful if we could develop some form of consensus around this issue.’

And of course anti-Semitism is often conflated with the racist acrimony that is regrettably a feature of everyday life in South Africa, especially on social media. It is so often the fault of the Jews here, who ‘own and run the country and keep all the money for themselves’!

But all is not doom and gloom, and there is another side to this story. Ordinary South Africans of all colours and creeds intermingle and integrate on a day-to-day basis with little if any hostility and with a large amount of goodwill. At schools and colleges, students (excluding the very radical ones) study together and socialise with one another; they cycle and gym and run and frequent bars and restaurants and to a large extent accept and respect each other’s differences. They protest together against a government they can no longer trust; they share feelings of frustration and anger as they watch the demise of the morality and values that were so dear to the heart of Nelson Mandela, and perhaps in time their challenge will bear positive fruit.

Interestingly, African Americans visiting South Africa – and there are many of them – have been heard saying that the racism here is less overt and less violent than that in the USA; they could live happily and more freely here than in their home country. Whether or not that sentiment is shared by black South Africans has not been confirmed.