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Geoff Ramokgadi’s covenant with Judaism

  • geoff Ramokgadi
Wearing a yarmulke, Geoffrey Modise Menachem Ramokgadi draws stares from most people he encounters, whether in his adopted country of Swaziland, his home town of Rustenburg, or in the synagogues and Jewish shops of Johannesburg.
by STAFF WRITER | Dec 13, 2018

This happened particularly frequently in the early nineties, when he took the decision to affiliate to the Jewish people and Israel.

“They were not used to seeing a ‘darkie’ don a kippah,” he says, but wearing one has earned him the respect and admiration of Jew and non-Jew alike.

Ramokgadi, 65, tells his life story in the book, My Covenant: The Honorary Jew, launched last week in Rustenburg, when his “boss”, African Jewish Congress (AJC) Chief Executive Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, took copies for distribution. The book was commissioned by Silberhaft for a number of reasons, but especially because Ramokgadi brings people of diverse faiths together by example as a true ambassador against ant-Semitism.

Ramokgadi is a Vice-President of the congress, and the head of Swaziland’s small Jewish community, where he has arranged shul services, Pesach seders, and Jewish communal events. He was responsible for having ground consecrated for a Jewish cemetery, and travels the world to attend World Jewish Congress meetings, and throughout sub-Saharan Africa for AJC gatherings.

Wherever he goes, he spreads the word of Torah and love of Zion. King Mswati III of Swaziland, the royal family, business people, and labourers alike have fallen under the spell of Ramokgadi’s devout commitment to the Jewish way of life.

It all started with another dream. Ramokgadi told his school principal that he wanted “to be an astronaut”. His principal told him it was an unattainable goal for a young black boy from a poor family. So, Ramokgadi left school early to embark on a music career, gaining a reputation as lead singer and musician in the first multiracial band at the height of apartheid.

Because he left school barely in his teens, Ramokgadi made a covenant with his grandmother and his creator that one day, he would make a contribution to education.

Before that, he spent his school holidays at the home of his mother’s employers, the Abramowitz family in Johannesburg. His mother, Ellah Mampe Moche – later Ramokgadi – was a domestic worker who was totally versed in kashrut. The Abramowitz family had a wealth of Jewish literature, including books and pictures of the Holocaust, which Ramokgadi pored over during his vacation.

“I could not believe the oppression and genocide of the six million under the hateful Nazi regime. I could not help thinking that, although us blacks suffered under apartheid, there was no comparison.

“Then, I felt Judaism and love of the Jewish people burning in my heart, and resolved to adopt the faith.”

He and his wife, Dudu, later visited Israel “and as if it were a sign, we met then Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, at the Kotel”. A huge framed photograph of Shamir shaking hands with the Ramokgadis takes pride of place in the entrance to their home – named The Kibbutz – in Mbabane, alongside an equally large photograph of the Swazi king.

His home is full of Judaica, menorahs and Magenei David. It is par for the course for him to be in the company of Jewish community leaders and ambassadors, who often spend Jewish festivals with him.

Ramokgadi can speak and read Hebrew like a pro. He is partly self-taught, but was helped by his friend, Nathi Gamedze, a linguist at the University of the Witwatersrand, and now an Ohr Somayach rabbi living in Israel.

Another “sign” for Ramokgadi was the Ethiopian Jews’ arrival in Israel. “They had no idea of modern facilities, including flushing toilets, so I thought to myself, if they can be Jewish, so can I.”

Ann Harris, the President of the AJC, wrote a letter to Ramokgadi in the book, stating: “I have watched you many times fit so comfortably into Jewish life and practice. You have often put me and others to shame! Here I am, a Jewess, born into an old Orthodox family, giving service to Jewish communities the world over, but I often, as so many of us do, grumble about the weight of our religious and communal burdens. Not you, my friend.”

There have been setbacks, like the premature birth of the Ramokgadi’s daughter, Cohava Shoshana. She was born in Johannesburg, as there were no gynaecologists in Swaziland, smaller than a wristwatch strap. She raised the concern of the doctor, as babies were dying in the hospital because of a Sabex drip contamination. Ramokgadi, wearing his kippah, said to the (Jewish) doctor, “It’s all in the hands of Hashem.”

Today, their daughter is 28 years old, having survived further vicissitudes, including Down Syndrome and a form of autism.

But she is the light of Ramokgadi’s life, and a warm, affectionate child, remaining in the body of a 12-year-old.

Ramokgadi, who has friendships across the spectrum, including the family of the late Nelson Mandela, kings and queens, pop stars, and paupers, has not been well of late, and has become somewhat frail.

  • The book is available from the Kollel Bookshop in Glenhazel, and the Jewish Museum shop at Café Riteve in Cape Town.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Zakhe Mabaso 20 Feb
    I am so happy to see this article about Geoff. I knew him when he came to Swaziland in the early eighties and opened Xanadu Boutique at the Swazi Plaza. I worked for Standard chartered bank then and was a devout Christian. Fast forward I moved to live permanently I London and discovered TORAH in 2008 and started to observe Shabbat and all the moadim in Leviticus 23. I must meet Geoff when I come to Swaziland G_d willing this year 2019. I am now in a congregation which meets on Shabbat and we study TORAH. Baruch Hashem!!!!!!!

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