Obituary to AJC President Mervyn Smith

  • Smith Mervyn PIC Ilan Ossendryver HOME
“If there was a Jewish organisation, I belonged to it - with my heart and soul,” was an oft-quoted utterance of veteran and world-renowned communal leader Mervyn Smith, who passed away on Shabbat, November 15/22 Cheshvan, after a long illness. He was 77.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Nov 16, 2014

His funeral is scheduled to take place at Pinelands No 2 Cemetery on Monday, November 17 at 15:00.

Smith Mervyn with others

RIGHT: Ronald Lauder, president of the WJC presented Mervyn Smith the AJC Lifetime Award while Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft looked on with pride - South Africa 2009

A vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, president of the African Jewish Congress, an honorary life vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the first Capetonian in 100 years to be elected its national chairman, few could touch him when it came to his innate knowledge of the Jewish community, Jewish history and demographics, current events, Israel and politics.

Prominent practising attorney, visionary, orator and intellectual, he was known to have uplifted the Board’s image during the apartheid era. At the Board’s national conference in 1985, he was the prime protagonist in the passing of the historic resolution condemning apartheid.

Smith was the second Capetonian to receive the Lexus Lifetime Achiever Award at the Jewish Achiever Awards ceremony -  for a lifetime of contribution to reconciliation, change and empowerment in South Africa in the fields of business and/or art, science, sport or philanthropy.

Served community in many capacities

He was an expert on anti-Semitism, fought it fiercely, and advised the Board on legal matters, particularly in this regard. Active in Holocaust studies, he succeeded David Susman as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the SA Holocaust Foundation.

Mervyn was bold and unafraid. His quotes were eminently quotable and his brief, apposite statements, combined with his professional image, made him a darling of the media.

 He had the ability to sway the more conservative among his colleagues.  And even though some disagreed with his stance, Mervyn retained one of the top places in the communal popularity stakes over the years.

His term as Board chairman coincided with South Africa’s transition to the new dispensation and he sailed through it with aplomb, despite the fact that he was concurrently holding offices as president of the Law Societies of SA, chairman of the Performing Arts Council of SA and CAPAB. This was in addition to his workload as a partner in a Bellville law firm. He served until recently as chairman of Cape Town City Ballet, having been a director for many years. He was fond of saying: “I have always been skilled in time management, so I manage.”

A background steeped in Zionism 

Smith Mervyn PIC Ilan OssendryverMervyn came from a background steeped in Zionism. His mother, Mabel, was active in the Zionist movement and his grandmother, Lily Osrin, sewed the flag for the first Zionist congress in Vereeniging.

LEFT: Ilan Ossendryver's iconic picture of Mervyn Smith

Mervyn was born in that small town near the Vaal River and spent his early years in Vosburg in the Karoo before his family settled in Bellville, Cape Town.

He was educated at Bellville Primary School, the South African College School (SACS) and the University of Cape Town. 

He was active in Habonim and the then Students Jewish Association, chairing the Cape Town branch.

In the 1970s he was elected to the Cape Board of Deputies, serving on the public affairs sub-committee and later becoming vice-chairman. He was elected chairman of the Cape Council of the Board for two terms – from 1983 to 1987. At the same time, he served as senior national vice-chairman of the Board.

A cricket player for 25 years, Mervyn was life president of the Bellville Cricket Club and, in recent years, was chairman of the Democratic Alliance, Atlantic Seaboard.

The home of Mervyn and his late wife Tamar was always deeply connected to Jewish life and the community.  Tamar, a teacher, headed the Religious Instruction Department of the Board. Apart from Mervyn’s daughter Rinah, whom he and Tamar lost tragically as a young child, Mervyn is survived by his children, Paul, Deborah, Raphael and Abigail, seven grandchildren and a brother David from California, USA. Raphael and Paul both live in London.

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