Anti-Semitism & Racism in South Africa

Report from South Africa, September 2017 – February 2018

Update from South Africa

The dramatic and very welcome change in South Africa’s regime on 9th February this year, with the much-longed-for resignation of Jacob Zuma and the swearing-in of Cyril Ramaphosa, former deputy-president under Zuma, as new President of the country, has brought renewed optimism and promise to the aspirations and aims of many South African citizens. President Ramaphosa has very good credentials.  He is a most successful businessman (and a billionaire); quietly spoken and dignified; determined, certainly in his speeches and promises to date, to rid the country of many of the disasters that befell it under Zuma; and aware of how tough his job will be and how many almost insurmountable obstacles he’s going to have to trounce.

It’s too soon to break out the bottles of Champagne, but we are sanguine and upbeat, and many more South Africans are smiling these days.

For more than 8 years we have been held ransom by an increasingly corrupt and inefficient government, itself primarily under the influence and control of one family – the Gupta brothers originally from India, who found easy pickings within our ruling party by tempting  Zuma and his sycophants with the promise of the golden apples – who set in motion the destruction of all the good that former SA presidents had created after the 1994 establishment of democratic South Africa.

South Africa’s Constitution, which ranks among the world’s most sophisticated, equitable and impartial, and whose final document owes much to President Ramaphosa who was involved with it from the start, emphasises and accentuates issues of non-racialism and non-discrimination.  It is totally opposed to any form of bias or bigotry, intolerance or partisanship. In a perfect world, it would no doubt be the ideal constitution for all mankind.

But as with all such documents and pronouncements in today’s world, it is ultimately people who implement ideals; and this is equally applicable to our Constitution.  Because there are fine lines drawn to delineate the parameters of racism, anti-Semitism and hate speech, and because freedom of speech is highlighted but in some respects not clear enough in its explanation for ordinary folk, boundaries are at times blurred to the detriment of those individuals, groups or organisations who are in the firing line.

That of course is how officialdom and the bureaucracy of any state work, which of course makes it sound far more negative than it is in practice.  In fact, permit me to quote from my last report on this topic:

“Racism in our country, some agree, is more a problem because of extremists at the fringes of society than because South Africans are inherently racist. That of course can be debated at length, but when one looks at the interactions between members of the different races on the ground, there is no dearth of warmth and friendly gestures; acknowledgement that our differences are not to be used as the yardstick of our agendas; and understanding and respecting that our cultures differ but not to the extent that we should have no communication with ‘the other’.  South Africans are often warm, accepting, hospitable, convivial and easy-going. At this level of society, the significance of colour has faded.”

So, the oldest hatreds: anti-Semitism followed by racism, both battling for first place for centuries, both creating and simultaneously leaving in their wake unspeakable horrors perpetrated by man against man, both more often than not violating the constraints or parameters within which supposedly liberal, tolerant people operate, and both exposing man’s inner demons for all to see. But we must never forget that light on the horizon, the one we call hope, and the genuine acceptance by ordinary citizens that we are basically the same people irrespective of our colour differences, sharing so much emotion and so many characteristics but with different cultures and languages, which makes us interesting but certainly not automatically antagonists.

Racism in South Africa

The Economic Freedom Front (EFF) is one of the two (based on representation in parliament) official opposition parties in the SA government, the other being the Democratic Alliance (DA). Headed by a young firebrand, Julius Malema, the EFF stance is to challenge virtually every move and policy introduced and implemented by the ruling ANC; to cause chaos and disruption during parliamentary sittings; to take up the cudgels on behalf of those it feels are South Africa’s most disadvantaged citizens; and to propose at regular intervals somewhat unconventional (another word for outrageous…) laws to ensure their dominance in certain areas.  On a one-to-one basis, the leaders are co-operative and even charming; but public statements issued by their spokesman usually belie this image.

For some time (again mentioned in my previous report), the government had close links with a British multinational, public relations, reputation management and marketing company, Bell Pottinger (which has since imploded thanks to investigative journalism carried out by some of South Africa’s finest journalists). Taking its cue from the brief given, the Bell Pottinger catch-phrase “White monopoly capitalism” hit the headlines across the country.  This was accentuated and repeated at regular short intervals by former president Zuma, as well as many of his acolytes, and as expected, this ‘capture of the country’s resources’ raised the ire of many in the black community, specifically those of members of the EFF (who for the most part are young unemployed blacks bearing the brunt of SA’s shockingly high unemployment statistics and seeing no future for themselves in the country .This is mainly what laid the foundation for the emergence of the EFF as a party to represent those who had not before had any representation).

The idea that whites still owned and monopolised the majority of big profitable companies in SA resulted in a deluge of racist vitriol against the white citizens.  Zuma worked hard to assure (or tried to assure) the public that he was definitely not a racist, but rather someone committed to share the profits of the country across all colour groups (his words and actions, however, continued to be contradictory throughout his tenure).

The EFF and members of the ANC, as well as individuals in public, were heard on occasion stating that there was no room for white people in SA and every one of them should leave. Many young (and older) black people as a result have heightened antipathy against whites and there are intermittent spats which could become more serious. What does get much publicity is the regular number of murders of white farmers which continue to cause tensions particularly among white agriculturalists. On the other side, incidences of abhorrent torture against and harassment of poor black farm workers by their employers are equally reprehensible.

Education remains a huge problem and is one of the priorities to be dealt with by the new government.  24 years into a democratic South Africa, there are still hundreds of thousands of young black children attending what pass for “schools” (more like shack buildings with no facilities whatsoever, no toilets or running water or classrooms or stationery), while many white children, and black children from middle-class families, either attend private schools or top-class ‘Model C’ schools where the teaching is superior and results are guaranteed.  In the field of tertiary education, there have been countless protests at universities across the country by students (again mainly black) calling for free education and participating in the #FeesMustFall movement that has swept the country with its passion and rallies.  Again, this has often led to increased racist attacks against white students, the majority of whose parents or guardians are able to afford the very high fees that are in place. This looks to be an ongoing and disturbing issue despite the pronouncement by Zuma (against the advice of members of his cabinet, for financial reasons, and made just prior to his resignation) that tertiary education will be free for a swathe of needy students.

Where racism vis-à-vis crime used to be colour-based, much of it now seems to have an economic tone, and many in the black middle class have become extremely vulnerable.

The internet is a huge disseminator of racist hatred against white South Africans.  There are blogs and web pages and vlogs that spew contempt for and aversion to the white population; there are equally large numbers of social media platforms voicing the same sentiments against the black community.  Yet again I would like to reiterate that it is more often than not extremists who hold these radical views:  South Africans as a whole want to live in peace, sharing high standards of education and health benefits and employment opportunities.

This is a very complex country; there are a myriad of issues at stake all the time; there are countless problems and dilemmas that need solutions; the political landscape is continually changing; but the country remains beautiful and hope springs eternal that someday, the simmering will end and the ‘rainbow nation’ will finally be at peace with itself.

Contemporary Anti-Semitism 

“Rising anti-Semitism is rarely the lone or the last expression of intolerance in a society.”
Samantha Power

“People are feeling and sensing a return of anti-Semitism – even in Europe, which, seventy years after the Holocaust, is a very scary thing. I think they are feeling that Israel is very isolated and doesn’t always get what they see as fair treatment in the European media.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

“Antisemitism is unique among religious hatreds. It is a racist conspiracy theory fashioned for the needs of messianic and brutal rulers, as dictators from the Tsars to the Islamists via the Nazis have shown. Many other alleged religious ‘hatreds’ are not hatreds in the true sense. If I criticise Islamic, Orthodox Jewish or Catholic attitudes towards women, for instance, and I’m accused of being a bigot, I shrug and say it is not bigoted to oppose bigotry.” Nick Cohen

“… I am forced to conclude…that the new anti-Semite is an anti-Zionist…someone who is willing to deny a national refuge to only one group in the world: the long- oppressed Jews. They assume that every other group on Earth deserves its own nation, no matter how barbaric its leaders and citizens may be.” Phyllis Chessler

Anti-Semitism in South Africa

South Africa is not quite as much a victim of rabid anti-Semitism as are Europe, eastern Europe or other parts of the world where Jewish communities systematically experience such loathing.  But that does not mean we here are immune from it, not at all.  Regular albeit isolated incidents occur across the country; small groups of fanatical right-wingers ensure that their feelings and expressions of repugnance are given publicity; individuals have no compunction, even in public places, to swear at, abuse and curse the people they feel have since time immemorial been responsible for all the evils and ills in the world.  So sad.

Some brief examples:

  1. A school in Cape Town invited and played host to Jewish pupils.  On their arrival, the Jewish pupils were confronted with anti-Zionist posters displayed in the classroom windows.
  2. A poster with the drawing of a swastika and the word Nazi on it was displayed at a sports event involving pupils from a Jewish day school and a government high school.
  3. Pamphlets purporting to come from ISIS headquarters and slandering ‘the Zionists’ were distributed around a particularly Jewish suburb in Johannesburg.
  4. A Jewish father taking his child to cricket practice at an upmarket sports club was asked by a Muslim father to remove his IDF cap.  When he refused, the Muslim father made Hitler associated comments to him
  5. A member of the community served on a body corporate and was incorrectly blamed for the failure by a former employee of the body corporate to be given a job he later applied for.  In retaliation he sent her an abusive email which included the following: “I hope I never bump into you in the future. I will kill you you, Jewish bitch. You should of (sp) been gassed years back. The other trustees should watch out too”.
  6. A community member was accosted in an upmarket shopping centre in Johannesburg; and when he replied and tried to defend the Jews, the Muslim male who had accosted him called out loudly, “Death to all Jews” in the public forum.
  7. The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre received the following Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic e-mail which called the Holocaust “a lie to kill innocent German people, innocent white babies” and described Jews as “parasites who suck people dry with their banks as corruption!!!”
  8. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) received the following e-mail from Nawaaz Cassiem. Extract: “Israel is a state built on dishonesty, theft, murder, Nazism (yeah strange), ethnic cleansing. You are truly the most evil nation this world has ever seen”.
  9. An anonymous hard-copy document was sent by ordinary post to the SAJBD in Johannesburg. It claimed the Jewish religion to be inauthentic, genocidal, sexually perverted and anti-Christian and Jews to be corrupt plotters who impoverished non-Jews through their deceitful practices.
  10. The head office of the SAJBD and its satellite office in Bloemfontein received the following email from someone signing himself as ‘John Bannon’ (definitely an alias name – probably from a Muslim).  The letter provided a lengthy series of quotes from Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures purporting to prove that Jewish theological claims are false. Extract: “The Jews hated Jesus and tried their utmost to kill him! That is why they want to get rid of all Palestinians by killing them off only because of their hatred of Jesus who exposed their evil deeds and cursed them!”

Demonstrating Hatred

The recent declaration by President Trump, that the US Embassy would be relocated to Jerusalem which was the undeniable capital of the State of Israel, caused immense anger and venomous outbursts from local pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist supporters.  Protesters gathered outside the US Embassy in Pretoria and the Israeli Trade Office in Sandton; they demanded that President Trump recant his words; they blamed the Jews for being the strongest lobby group in Washington which is why the declaration was made; they vocalised their anger and frustration in the most overt and hateful ways; a council member of the ANC in Cape Town even blamed the Jews for the devastating drought that is now punishing one of the world’s most beautiful cities.   But in a number of cases, research proved that the seemingly large numbers of protestors were inclusive of groups of ‘rent-a-crowders’, unaware of why they were there other than to receive free T-shirts and refreshments, and at the same time quite oblivious to the political machinations of the pro-Palestinian organisers.

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) and the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI, an auxiliary of the SAZF) have together made huge and very valuable breakthroughs into the Christian Zionist communities across the country.  For the first time ever, thousands of Black Christians are standing behind both Israel and the Jewish people; relationships are being forged and encouraged; many more religious leaders of black communities are visiting Israel and returning with positive and favourable accounts of the country and its citizens, whose pride in and admiration for what Israel has achieved in so short a time, exceeds all expectations.  There’s a way to go yet, but the unqualified support for Israel and by association the Jewish people exhibited by so many black South Africans is without doubt the beginning of changed attitudes which we all hope will spread widely across the nation.

Anti-Semitism Worldwide

This report does not cover anti-Semitism across Europe and the rest of the world.  I would like, however, to mention one that occurred In Belgium recently.  A man attacked an orthodox Jew in Antwerp after ripping out several mezuzahs at the entrance to Jewish homes over the past weeks, apparently in the name of “Palestine.”  Security cameras in the area of the attack recorded a man following an ultra-Orthodox man and violently knocking his hat off of his head.  The assailant, believed to be Muslim, was recorded several weeks ago destroying at least 20 mezuzahs and vandalizing the entrances to Jewish institutions in the city.  He then proceeded to anti-Zionist vitriol, placing a Quran outside a synagogue and yelling at a Jewish passer-by that “this is our land, Palestine!” and “we will show you!”

Yes, the oldest hatred in the world, alive again and flourishing. But the South African Jewish community is uncompromising in its attempts to rectify this mindset, bolstered by its new friendships and alliances with people and organisations who recognise the Jewish connection to Israel, and who understand how much Israel has to offer the rest of the world, especially the developing world.  Nothing is impossible.

“If you will if, it is no dream”, said Theodor Herzl.  Israel became a state in 1948; perhaps in time, if the dream is strong enough, South Africa will assuage some of the pernicious and malignant anti-Semitism that is so ubiquitous across our nation.

National Vice-President
Union of Jewish Women South Africa