Ramaphosa reassures leaders about community’s place in SA
President Cyril Ramaphosa has assured communal leadership that the South African Jewish community has an important place in society and a crucial role to play in nation building and making South Africa a better place for all.
The president met members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) last week at his home in Sandhurst, Johannesburg.
It has been three and a half long years since the president first addressed the Jewish community at the Gardens Shul in Cape Town in September 2018 and again soon after at the Gauteng Conference of the SAJBD in November that year.
His words at the time filled a jittery and nervous community with a sense of renewed hope and expectation.
However, a lot has transpired since his friendly posing for selfies with Jewish runners along the Sea Point promenade in 2018.
The ruling African National Congress and the government’s foreign policy stance towards Israel during this time has kept South African Jewry on its toes.
The meeting last week gave communal leadership a chance to express how it felt.
“The single most pressing issue we have is the government’s obscenely anti-Israel stance and the incessant Israel bashing where the Jewish state is the pariah and the Palestinians can do no wrong. This is where we diverge. In all other areas, from schools, shuls, to security, we’re the most protected Jewish community in the world today,” Zev Krengel, the vice-president of the SAJBD told the SA Jewish Report this week.
“It was the most important meeting to take place in a long time,” he said.
“The president took time to listen and understand our concerns as a community, to hear that we’re not running away, that we’re here to stay, committed to making this country work for all,” he said.
Krengel said the president “made it clear” that South African Jews were key stakeholders in the project of building this country and had an important role to play.
Ramaphosa met a delegation of the Board including its National President Shaun Zagnoev, Krengel, National Director Wendy Kahn, and National Chairperson Professor Karen Milner. Ramaphosa was joined at the meeting by National Security Advisor Sydney Mufamadi.
“It was the first opportunity for our leadership to engage formally with the president since 2018, and some very difficult issues concerning antisemitism and Israel were raised and addressed in a relaxed and open way,” Krengel said.
“It was the first time we’ve had this level of intensity with the president on these pressing issues, and he listened,” said Krengel.
He said an array of issues were raised during the hour-and-a-half-long meeting which took place in the lounge of the president’s home last Wednesday, 20 April.
“Though levels of antisemitism in South Africa are very low compared to the rest of the world, we explained with statistics that antisemitism in South Africa rises when there is an uptick of violence in the Middle East, and that this is linked to the African National Congress and government’s anti-Israel stance,” he said.
“We agreed that South Africa had a role to play in any world conflict, but that when it came to the conflict in the Middle East, Ramaphosa had the Palestinian’s ear and didn’t have the trust of the Israeli government to be an honest peace broker because of its stance.
“We explained that as long as there was this anti-Israel stance, Israel wouldn’t see South Africa as an honest broker and we couldn’t add value to the peace process.
“It’s clear that we both want a peaceful two-state solution to the problem, the difference lies in how we’re going to get there,” said Krengel.
He said a number of positive South African-focused initiatives were also discussed during the constructive meeting, including the Board’s COVID-19 relief and KwaZulu-Natal flood-relief efforts, as well as efforts to help during the devastating riots last year.
“He was very interested to hear about our University of the Witwatersrand [Wits] funding initiative, which helped prevent protests from taking place during the registration process at Wits earlier this year,” said Krengel, adding that the president expressed his gratitude for it.
“We expressed the South African Jewish community’s commitment to this country and the Jewish state. We told him we continued to be loyal partners in the endeavour to uplift and transform the country, and pledged our continued partnership with him in building this country.”
Said Krengel, “I believe we’re fortunate to have a president willing to engage with the South African Jewish community, to listen to our concerns.
“The president also continued to commit to protecting and securing South African Jewry and all minority communities, which is a massive thing considering other countries around the world.
“Our frustrations are about Israel and the conflict, and this remains a continuous debate, but engagement around it is vitally important and we will always push for dialogue.”
Krengel said the meeting was an important opportunity to “discuss our differences and share our commonalities”.
“At the end of the day, we hope there will be a certain amount of neutrality and understanding if South Africa wants to play a meaningful role in the Middle East conflict, and this is what we expressed.
“Are we going to see any policy changes regarding Israel? I’m not going to hold my breath, but I do think debate and engagement is important. We all agree that we want South Africa to work. This is our main goal,” he said.