‘Mr Community’ Gerald Leissner passes on

  • SuzanneLeissnerobit
Gerald Leissner, “Mr Community”, one of South African Jewry’s top leaders, who spearheaded its move to democracy in the 1990s, passed away on Friday, December 16 in Johannesburg at the age of 74. He was buried in West Park Jewish Cemetery on the same day.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Jan 19, 2017

In Nelson Mandela’s address to the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in August, 1993, the former president singled out Leissner as one of the Jewish leaders in the forefront of the struggle for human rights and said South Africans owed much to the example Leissner set.

Leissner was a yekke down to his fingertips - everything about him was organised, punctual (you could set your clock by him), logical and accurate.

Yet, he tempered this precision with quietly-spoken measured tones, modesty and a gentleness that can rarely be ascribed to businessmen and Jewish leaders of his ilk; he made the Sunday Times “Rich List” on December 11, 2016.

He held office as chairman of Beyachad, national chairman and president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, chairman of the SA Friends of the Hebrew University, administrator of Foundation 2000 and a trustee of the SA Holocaust Foundation.

He was a past chairman of Yeshiva College and the Yeshiva College Hebrew Congregation.

In business, he was chief executive officer and executive director of Arrowhead Properties Limited, chief executive officer and director of Go Global, Inc and a director of ApexHi - multibillion rand property companies. He was previously MD of Anglo-American Property Services (Ampros).

He defined his kick start up the business ladder as an approach in 1964, after completing his articles, by Manfred Gorvy, his former senior clerk in the small accountancy firm where they had worked.

“Gorvy was then secretary of Townsview Estates, a property management company for the Schlesinger Organisation and suggested I join as an accountant. That was my defining moment in business. The company was purchased by Anglo-American in 1974. Working with the Anglo-American Corporation, one was able to develop and be innovative,” Leissner told me in an earlier interview.

Leissner’s tenure at Ampros saw the rise of the giant Carlton Centre and Hotel, but, later “the demise of most of the CBD. We sold the Carlton Centre for R32 million.” Today the replacement value would be R2 billion.

“I cannot complain, I have done very nicely,” he used to say euphemistically, leaving out all his achievements and the fact that he was widely known as a mover and shaker in commercial property circles.

Leissner had another facet as a businessman - politics - and his support of the ANC in the early nineties (at the time unpopular among his peers).

“I was probably the first business leader who spoke for the ANC on a public platform and was a card-carrying member of the party.”

As chairman of the Board of Deputies, he founded the Johannesburg Jewish Voice in 1990, with the objective of guiding the Jewish community into the new South Africa.

“I think the release of Nelson Mandela was a defining moment in the lives of most people in this country. I regard myself as a proud South African,” he recalled.

But his political allegiances never compromised his strict observance as an Orthodox Jew.

“We used to live in Parkmore and I was very involved in the Beis Hamedrash Hagadol in Sandton. Rabbi Ziggy Suchard encouraged my son Jonathan to join Bnei Akiva. When he came back from camp in standard four (grade 6), Jonathan was insistent on going to Yeshiva College. We agreed, moved to Glenhazel and I became totally involved in the school and shul.

“I understood that fundraising was crucial to our Jewish organisations and became Johannesburg chairman of the United Communal Fund.”

Leissner was a fundraiser par excellence (he could get blood out of the proverbial stone), but said: “That move put me into the school, the shul and the community and my various leadership positions on the Board of Deputies.”

In his unassuming way, he took Jewish organisations to new heights, put them from the red into the black and appropriately earned him the nickname “Mr Community”.

Born in Johannesburg, Gerald Leissner attended Highlands North Boys’ High School and graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand with a CTA and CA (SA).

He leaves his wife Shirley, a lecturer in French, and four children, Wendy, Nicky (who is married to Chazan Colin Schachat and lives in Israel), Jonathan and Michael and 12 grandchildren. He also leaves a sister, Coral Smith, who lives in Australia.




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