When I Stepped Out of Israel and Into South Africa

Published on Haaretz

On a recent visit to Johannesburg and Cape Town, I discovered a diverse and gifted Jewish community working to fulfill the promise of the rainbow nation. But BDS and the Israeli occupation could threaten their legitimacy.

I knew about the gaps between rich and poor and I have seen poverty in Africa before. But nothing prepared me for the visual dissonance between the magnificent homes in Johannesburg’s white gated hilltop communities – far superior to my upper-middle class childhood house in Queens, but surrounded by high walls and electrified fences – and the housing for the black masses; row after row of ticky-tacky one-floor, 30-to-40-square-meter shoeboxes housing 6 or 8 or 10 people, some with plumbing, many with outhouses, forming townships stretching as far as the eye can see, themselves bordered by neighborhood-sized shantytowns of make-shift shacks. My first thought, as much as I tried to push it away, was to wonder how the white minority escaped a bloodbath when apartheid fell in 1994.

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I suspect my initial reaction is not uncommon for first-time visitors to South Africa. I had been invited to share my passion for Israel and concern for the direction it’s headed in at Limmud Johannesburg and Cape Town, a trip rounded out by visits to townships and the Western Cape. Twenty-one years after the first all-race elections brought the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela to power, many in the Jewish communities there are still anxious about the future of South Africa.

The country faces gargantuan social problems; a small income base from a mining economy in decline, 25-percent unemployment, legal and illegal immigrants from elsewhere in Africa estimated to be in the millions, housing shortages, gang warfare, regular power outages, and alleged endemic political corruption and incompetence. Soweto, home of the 1950s Freedom Charter, the youth uprising of 1976, and for a time, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has around a million inhabitants, with tens of thousands more living in shacks.

What is there to give the residents hope?

But a second look revealed a society in transition, with grand aspirations and a daily struggle not to despair. A black middle class has slowly begun to integrate previously white enclaves. If some new township homeowners have decamped to shacks in their postage-stamp-sized yards to generate rental revenue, the more affluent residents have refaced their homes, or added a second story. There are billboard campaigns to reject the xenophobic and deadly violence against illegal migrants as un-South African, or to fight TB or AIDS.

I was particularly struck by the pride taken in the South African Constitution, a liberal masterpiece intended to establish both in law and in principle the rejection of apartheid. “We the people of South Africa recognize the injustices of our past,” the preamble begins, “honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land … believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity … lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law. “For an American-Israeli-Jew, this is stirring. Even if it is not Israel’s vision, some would find this language threatening back home.

A Constitutional Court was established two decades ago as the highest court in the land, its locale and design laden with symbolism; judges and citizens seated at equal height, signs in all 11 official state languages, and a direct view of the jail where anti-apartheid activists were detained. At a time when Israel’s justice minister attacks High Court rulings before they are issued, and her party colleague threatens to bulldoze the court itself, it was inspiring to see a society venerating its constitution and judiciary.

After visiting Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, one can only be humbled. Mandela’s vision of a rainbow nation sought equality for South African citizens of all religions and races: for the small white minority, the black majority, but also Indians and colored people, groupings peculiar to apartheid. I can not grasp how a man who spent the best decades of his life humiliated daily and confined to a tiny and decrepit space without even a bed did not emerge defined by vengeful bitterness, and used his power to prevent violence rather than to settle scores. Mandela’s presence hovers like a guardian angel over the country, his image omnipresent, urging South Africans to stay to true to his vision.

The Jewish community of South Africa – benefiting from white privilege, but a minority itself – has always faced unique challenges. Individual Jews played remarkable roles in fighting apartheid, testimony to which is abundant in Mandela’s autobiography. And while it was never the entire community that took an active part in the struggle, a sizable cadre of Jews today promotes progress and cares for society’s most disadvantaged.

I don’t know that I have met as diverse, gifted, welcoming and intriguing a group at any Jewish gathering as at Limmud South Africa. There was David Bilchitz, a professor of constitutional law researching the role rights can play in addressing poverty, who also lectures on theater and music and chairs international Limmud. Then there was Erica Emdon Elk, who heads an NGO that provides pro bono legal services to the country’s most disadvantaged, including refugees, and has published a novel. Her husband, Clifford Elk, is a businessman who runs an enrichment program in dozens of township primary schools. Philip Krawitz is an industrialist and board leader of an NGO that operates model early childhood and primary school learning centers and training programs in townships struck with unimaginable poverty. And then there’s Dennis Davis, a High Court judge who hosts televised debates on social issues (he led a discussion at Limmud on how the Jewish community should react to calls by black students to demolish a monument to legendary leader and racist Cecil Rhodes).

South Africa’s ruling ANC party officially endorsed the BDS campaign against Israel in 2012, although the relationship is not one-dimensional; the government maintains relations with Israel and endorses a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, there were nasty and threatening pro-BDS protests in South Africa earlier this year.

Given the attacks on Israel that accuse it of being an apartheid state, and the import attributed to sanctions and boycotts in ending apartheid, such historical resonance could bolster BDS in South Africa and place its Jews, many of whom are deeply attached to Israel, in a terribly uncomfortable position: having to defend Israel against criticism of the occupation, while not appearing to compromise the Jewish community’s commitment to the values of the rainbow nation.

I am in no position to judge the new South Africa’s success or failure, but everyone I spoke to – black, white, Indian or colored – shared their concern about the direction the country is headed in. They complained about the current national leadership, increasing violence, and government corruption and incompetence. They all seem to be waiting for a new Mandela. We could use one in Israel, too.

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