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Eternal vigilance – the price we pay for democracy

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On Freedom Day, Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), at the invitation of the MEC for sports, arts, recreation, and culture, participated in a Freedom Day walk to Chris Hani’s house in Dawn Park, Boksburg. Many of us remember the national trauma occasioned by Hani’s assassination by right-wing fanatics back in 1993, and how close this came to derailing the negotiation process. Thankfully, good sense prevailed, and almost exactly a year later, on 27 April 1994, South Africa’s first fully democratic, non-racial elections were held. Appropriately enough, when new public holidays were introduced, the date chosen for what would be Freedom Day was 27 April.

The 1994 elections ushered in a new era of freedom and equality for the country. After many decades of racial discrimination, violence, and repression, the famous opening words of the Freedom Charter, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, were poised to be realised. Well aware that “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”, those responsible for framing the new post-apartheid order instituted safeguards to prevent those hard-won democratic rights and freedoms from being eroded. They included a Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, which entrenched the rights of all to dignity and equality.

Regrettably, the manner in which two Jewish candidates were treated recently when being interviewed for judicial office clearly violated these rights. Both were subjected to a barrage of questions pertaining to their Jewish identity in a way that no other candidates were subjected to regarding their religious identity or affiliations. One was even pointedly asked about his level of religious observance, implying that this might have a negative impact on his ability to fulfil his judicial duties. The statement we released earlier this week drew attention to the prejudicial nature of this statement, which ran “contrary to the basic constitutional principles of protecting our citizen’s rights to practice their religion without fear or discrimination”. We further pointed out that no other candidate had been questioned about their religious practices.

It was also disturbing, to say the least, that questions posed to both candidates focused extensively on their association with the SAJBD. The SAJBD itself is the acknowledged representative elected body of South African Jewry mandated to uphold the civil and religious rights of the community, including combating antisemitism. We asked why it was that an organisation with the objective of protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the panel of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Equally disquieting were the barrage of questions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why was this issue brought up at all in this forum, and why was it that only Jewish applicants, not Muslim, Christian, or other, were grilled about it in this way? From the questions asked at the JSC interviews this month to Jewish candidates, one unfortunately has to ask whether the principles outlined in the Constitution apply equally to members of the Jewish community.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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