South Africa: dark clouds over a Diaspora dream

  • 2b-STEVE APFEL colour home
If the Jews do one thing well, it’s to imprint their mark on new lands. And if that imprint describes one pattern, it would be some black punishment for their trouble. As dark night follows bright day, this has been the law of exile.
by STEVEN APFEL | Feb 10, 2016

Only to deceive, many domiciles appeared to be the land of G-d’s promise. It would be hard for South African Jews not to have that kind of feeling about the country their forefathers adopted, warts and all.

If Jews were too late on the scene to shape the development of the American West, opportunistic types arrived in time to remake a primitive South Africa. “We built this country with heart and soul.” The slogan from Jewish Report’s 2015 “Annual Jewish Achiever Awards” was no idle blast. From the early magnates until today, business and the sciences have almost been Jewish preserves. 

Perhaps home-grown Jews were too busy making their mark to get their hands dirty with politics because, unlike their American counterparts, they never cared to mix it with business. The apartheid era did bring political activists out in droves, but more as communist ideologues than as Jews.

When democracy came in 1994, the transition was better than many had feared; Jews who skipped prematurely to pastures new, missed out on a golden age. Under President Nelson Mandela a Jew could live the old privileged life, now with a clear conscience.

When the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris stood on the inauguration podium next to his friend the president, it marked the peak of Jewish belonging. There’d be a price to pay; the exile was not meant for putting down roots which make a Jew feel that home is where the hearth is.

Two decades later a threatening cloud gathers over the community. Jews fret that heavyweight business clout can’t seem to buy any lobbying power. Muslim interests on the other hand are all over the government like a rash.

Communal leaders perforce had to fall back on the path of least resistance by employing two rules of thumb: 1) Do and say nothing that might close government doors on dialogue. 2) Avoid offending the nation by offending its favourite son, Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It was soon made obvious that both sacred cows felt free to treat the community with disdain.

In quick succession the ruling party hosted and feted a terrible trio: Leila Khalid the old matriarch of terror; Mahmoud Abbas, grand kleptomaniac, inciter and diplomatic thorn in Israel’s body; but more horrendous than both, Khaled Meshaal, the acceptable face of Hamas.

If the government must be appeased, the national icon, Desmond Tutu must be worshipped. Without lifting a finger, the wily cleric can tie the community in knots. Tutu wins contests by grinning while the Jews tear into one another over him.

Jewish palavers, thank you, don’t need provocateurs from the outside. There was the King David School prefect who donned a Palestinian scarf at a debating contest. It came as a rude jolt to a community cock-a-hoop after a mass rally for Israel.

The boy apologised. His statement was like the keffiyeh he’d worn, wild and posturing and oozing contradiction. Rather than tear the statement to pieces, parts of the community tore the boy, his family, and the school to pieces.

Israel-haters were quick to capitalise. Five hundred Jews found it in their capricious conscience to sign a letter in support of the boy. The ANC, on warm terms with Iran and other beacons of enlightenment, lionised their big-hearted, principled Jew while King David school worked manfully to dampen the big Jew bash.

Today it is difficult for Jews not to feel the weight of living in South Africa. One problem is that President Jacob Zuma and cronies act like Ali Baba and his forty thieves.

Another problem is that social and economic indicators are heading to hell in a basket. But one development weighs above all: that old bogeyman has come back to haunt a Diaspora community. Baiting and banging away at Israel is a device for diverting danger or gaining votes. Ask Europe. Without a bogeyman how would inept ANC power-huggers turn minds away from the ills they cook up daily in their potjie?

Meanwhile they’ve put members under a travel ban. The penalty for going to Israel, expulsion from the party, is not one to be taken lightly when ANC members can live off the fat of the land without doing an honest day’s work. So, comrades keep blinkers on while they knock away at the “illegal apartheid” state, otherwise known by the swearword “Israel”.  

Brazen BDS tactics are another poke in the community abdomen. If life for Jews on campus is not dangerous, it’s not comfortable either. Physical attacks are bad enough. Token assaults on rules and values that Jews hold dear also have the power to shock.

When activists contrived to sneak a pig’s head onto a counter at Woolworths, the image cut deep to Jewish nerve roots. To make life hotter still, BDS has formed a triumvirate with the press. The development was inevitable after the premier press group in the land was bought by a Muslim affiliated with the ruling party.

Throughout, the community has been kept on the right side of pessimism by an unlikely bright spot. Except for a long ago fire bomb lobbed harmlessly at a shul in Cape Town, the terror in Europe has kept away... all the more remarkable given that terrorist groups run camps in the empty spaces of the Karoo.

Maybe our government turning a blind eye is a blessing: why would jihadists mess on the doorstep of an accommodating host? 

If you look for a silver lining in the dark cloud, it peeks out tenderly and intermittently, as if not to give the Jews in exile, not even at the bottom of Africa, false hope.

Steve Apfel directs The Writing Artists’ Room, offering creative ideas and content to corporate clients. His book, Enemies of Zion, is due out in 2016. His articles have appeared in journals all over the world.




  1. 2 nat cheiman 11 Feb
    Don't read Independent Media papers ( Star, Mercury, Cape Times etc)
  2. 1 Jonni 17 Feb
    Aliyah is the only answer to this age old problem.


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