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The Jewish Report Editorial

Jews should get back into South African politics




We are two decades after our first democratic elections in 1994, when the euphoria accompanying that historical moment propelled South Africans to vote en masse as an act of ecstatic celebration, producing a huge majority for the ANC liberation movement-turned-political party. With elections coming up next April, Jews, as members of an ethnic minority, must make their crosses.

There are more parties today than ever, which is good for democracy. But it is unlikely that most Jews, aside from a handful, will vote for small niche parties rather than the major contenders, the ANC or the DA.

During apartheid, Jews generally voted for the DA’s precursor, the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman, Tony Leon, Harry Schwarz and other well-known liberals, based on its Western liberal philosophy and its opposition to apartheid.

But is the DA’s liberal ethos still the key factor in its race to win power, as it seeks to attract black voters and others? The contribution of Jewish Struggle activists in the past is rapidly becoming a historical footnote.

The younger generation is not interested. And as the DA adapts to the new political reality, the “natural” choice for Jewish voters might not be quite so natural anymore – more options are possible.

During apartheid, the Progs had numerous Jewish politicians at all levels. And the ANC, then a banned movement, also had Jews at all levels. Today, however, Jews have largely withdrawn from politics and major public roles. Of the few remaining, most are in their twilight years – such as ANC Parliamentarian Ben Turok.

How many Jews will vote for the ANC or join it? There have recently been ugly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents deriving from that party which have created discomfort among Jews. For example, ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman’s crude outbursts aimed at winning Muslim votes by equating the DA –  the province’s governing party – with support for Israel, and accusing it of giving business to Jews in preference to Muslims.

Then last week International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said the ANC top brass would not currently travel to Israel. The former has not been silenced, while the latter has effectively been repudiated.

There are, however, clear examples of Jews at home in the ANC – such as Joy Coplyn and Councillor Sol Cowan. Clearly the party is capable of providing an ethos with which Jews feel comfortable.

The ANC’s huge majority precludes any minority – Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Afrikaners or others – from having much political clout. But the party is not monolithic. During apartheid it had a common rallying point, binding together everyone who shared the vision of the Freedom Charter. The common enemy was more important than ethnic origin.

Today it struggles to find that rallying point. Tensions of different groups pulling in different directions are apparent. Even ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, last week used the ethnic bogeyman to warn a voter who expressed doubts about voting ANC again, that if she did not do so, the “boers” might come back in.

The two major groups are Xhosas and Zulus. Zuma surrounds himself with Zulus; the Xhosa dominance of Mandela, Mbeki and the party’s founding fathers is fading. And with Ramaphosa being Venda, there is opposition to him being in the upper echelons and even succeeding Zuma as president.

What does this have to do with Jews? They cannot, as a minority, simply sit back as say they have no role to play. It is incumbent upon them to involve themselves in South African politics with verve and passion. Despite not having major political clout, they can still play a positive role.

The DA would benefit from the energy and talent of numerous Jews again; there is a place for them in the ANC; other parties would welcome them too.

Jews must not be satisfied with clout in business, academia, the professions, the arts, etc. Politics should not be a terrain they avoid. Minorities are as much South African as anyone else, and politics is an important way to express this.


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