Anti-Semitism in South Africa: Should we be concerned?

  • antisemitism
South African Jews were justifiably outraged at a recent Holocaust-related tweet (and subsequent comment) from Andile Mngxitama, the leader of Black First Land First (BLF).
by Milton Shain | Sep 14, 2017
Of concern is that Mngxitama’s intervention follows upon similar outbursts from people who should know better. Ugly incidents are becoming increasingly common. Social media too reflects a disturbing turn. “Kill the Jew”; “May you burn in Hell”; “You must get out of South Africa and don’t come back, you Jewish bastards”, can be read online. “Keep calm and Kill the Jews”  was even posted on the ANC Youth League website.
Are such comments harbingers of rising anti-Semitism and do they threaten the wellbeing of South African Jews in the foreseeable future?
Clearly one needs to go beyond fringe statements to assess public opinion. On the other hand, even calibrated polls are often contradictory and present difficulties for those wishing to gauge the national mood.
By way of example, some years back the SA Jewish Report led with the headline “Low anti-Semitism in SA  but don’t be complacent”, while a week later the SAZF in Israel reported that “South Africa almost tops anti-Semitism charts”.
The former article was based on a talk by David Saks of the Board of Deputies who reported that South Africa had a relatively low rate of anti-Semitism. It was, he noted, 10 times higher in the UK, France and Argentina, 15 times higher in Australia and 20 times higher in Canada and Germany.
Saks’ figures had been calibrated in terms of anti-Semitic incidents. The SAZF, on the other hand, based its claim on a Pew Global Attitudes Survey which found that South Africans, along with Spaniards, Mexicans and Brazilians, held some of the most negative views of Jews outside of the Muslim world.
According to the 2008 Pew Survey, 46 per cent of South Africans harboured unfavourable views of Jews and of those 46 per cent, two thirds disliked Jews in the extreme. A much lower figure of 11 per cent was recorded in Australia which had more incidents.
Are these figures a cause for panic?
In the first instance, it seems to me important to separate ideas of the Jew from actions against the Jew. For example, measures of anti-Semitism in the United States in the 1930s were horrific  yet anti-Jewish traction in public life was minimal.
But ideas are important and should not be minimised  especially within certain political contexts. Consider our radical white right in the 1930s.
Heightened Afrikaner ethno-nationalism at that time ensured a “Jewish Question”. On the other hand, in the 1980s Eugene Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) failed to present a threat.
Political context is everything. In the “new South Africa” the white right is of marginal concern.
But what about the black majority? In the first instance, it is important to note that historically blacks never focused specifically on Jews when articulating grievances and aspirations. The struggle was to overthrow white minority rule.
Nonetheless, studies from the early 1970s have shown that blacks are not immune to anti-Semitism. In more recent times industrial protests have identified specifically “Jewish capitalists” and anti-Semitic placards have been displayed at a number of strikes around the country.
All in all, however, the black population cannot be accused of serious anti-Jewish actions.
Where we do see ugly manifestations of Jew-hatred is in anti-Zionist discourse. Few will forget the infamous United Nations Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001. Deep-seated anti-Semitism  cloaked in anti-Zionism  was perhaps best illustrated when, at an anti-Zionist rally in Lenasia in 2009, South Africa’s deputy foreign Minister, Fatima Hajaig, spoke of “Jewish money” controlling the US and Western Europe.
For some anti-Zionists, Jews are diabolically evil. They have even latched onto Holocaust denial. In 1996, Radio 786, a Muslim radio station, had to apologise for airing an interview with Dr Ahmed Huber, who spoke of the “Holocaust swindle”. Two years later, the same radio station interviewed Dr Yaqub Zaki who, besides claiming that the “million plus” Jews who died in the Second World War, had died of infectious diseases, spent much of his time engaging in elaborate Jewish conspiracies.
The outbursts of Mngxitama thus have a long pedigree.
Yet for all that, post-apartheid South Africa has a strong anti-racist ethos and one need not necessarily fear the worst. Classic Jew-hatred has no place. Importantly, Fatima Hajaig had to apologise for her anti-Jewish tirade.
Our respect for pluralism  including religious pluralism  mitigates against vulgar anti-Semitism. Constitutionally enshrined Chapter Nine institutions such as the Human Rights Commission, are a further bulwark.In trying to assess the significance of contemporary anti-Jewish outbursts, we should perhaps separate what the historian Todd Endelman has called “private” from “public or programmatic” anti-Semitism.
By “private” anti-Semitism, Endelman means expressions of contempt and discrimination outside the radius of public life, as opposed to “public” anti-Semitism which is the injection of anti-Semitism into matters of policy and the manipulation of anti-Semitism for partisan political ends.
In that sense, South Africa does not have a “Jewish Problem”. No political movement is calling for the curtailment of Jewish rights. On the other hand, that some individuals have questioned Jewish support for Zionism is of concern. It certainly limits full Jewish expression.
Also worrying is a creeping African racial nationalism. But the turn to racial chauvinism targets Indians, coloureds and whites, rather than specifically Jews. It does, however, suggest that the “rainbow” nation is unravelling and in this sense, Jews, like other whites, will feel the pressure.
Milton Shain is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Historical Studies and a former director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town. His latest book, ‘A Perfect Storm. Antisemitism in South Africa, 1930-1948’, published by Jonathan Ball, won the Recht Malan Prize (Media 24) for English and Afrikaans Non-Fiction for 2016.

1 Comment

  1. 1 nat cheiman 15 Oct
    Its all about being educated properly, which Mngxtitama is not. He is your average, garden variety of moron.
    Africa has always been a problem and perhaps that is the reason for the continents regressive nature.
    Colonisation looms big, again for Africa. Perhaps by the Chinese or Russians. Who knows? 


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