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Ordinary Jews, extraordinary stories



When Nelson Mandela delivered the keynote address at the 1993 South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) national conference, he commented on how many anti-apartheid activists had come from the Jewish community. Since then, all the country’s presidents and many senior government representatives have spoken at the board’s conferences, and almost invariably, they have also pointed to our community’s impressive record in this regard. Those whose names regularly come up tend to be well-known figures in the annals of the anti-apartheid struggle, people like Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman, Isie Maisels and Ray Alexander. However, the road to nonracial democracy wasn’t the work of just a few prominent individuals. Just as important – if not more so – were the changes brought about by “ordinary” South Africans on the ground, people from all walks of life and backgrounds who in innumerable practical, hands-on ways that seldom find their way into the history books were involved in the fight for justice and equality. Here, too, a strikingly disproportionate number were Jewish.

A few years ago, the board embarked on a groundbreaking project to document the stories of some of these unsung heroes. In addition to preserving an important and hitherto neglected part of our community’s heritage, it would put on record and bring to wider notice the extent to which Jews were involved in South Africa’s transformation to democracy. We were fortunate to have on board acclaimed author and journalist Jonathan Ancer who, with the input and assistance of our professional staff, was engaged to conduct the primary research and write it up. These efforts bore fruit late last year with the publication of a compelling new book, aptly titled Mensches in the Trenches. It features a wide array of personalities from a diversity of backgrounds and professions, from teaching and academia, the media, law, the theatre, trade unions, student activism and even archaeology. We’re in the process of organising multiple launches of the book, as well as other events around it, and I(who is I here?) look forward to writing more about it closer to the time.

Celebrating a well-earned victory

For nearly 13 years, the Bongani Masuku hate speech case was a perennial item on the agenda of the board’s national and regional committee meetings. Virtually every meeting featured at least an update on where the matter stood as it slowly made its way through the system all the way up to the Constitutional Court. It came up again at last Sunday’s national executive committee meeting, but only to discuss how it had finally been brought to a successful conclusion. To mark the occasion, we took the unusual step of opening a bottle of champagne and having a l’chaim. There remain many difficult issues that the board has to deal with, and there will no doubt be many more in the future, but it was fitting on this occasion for us to take a moment to look back on and celebrate what has been one of the landmark achievements in the organisation’s 119-year history.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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