The passing of an honorary Jew
Ramokgadi, the vice-president of the African Jewish Congress (AJC) and the president of the Swaziland Jewish community, who passed away at the age of 66 on Friday, 13 September, in Eswatini, Swaziland, was known as an “honorary Jew”. He died of cancer, which he believed he developed because he grew up near the mines in Rustenburg in North West Province.
Belling met him 30 years ago when she was editor of Johannesburg Jewish Voice. She received a letter from a Geoffrey Modise Menachem Ramokgadi who said he wanted to become Jewish. “This was a rather unusual request from a black South African. I wanted to meet him and interview him. He and [his wife] Dudu came to my house. I published his story. We have been firm friends ever since that memorable day.”
Belling and Country Communities Rabbi, Moshe Silberhaft said they recognised that Ramokgadi had a “Jewish soul”. He was first influenced by the Jewish family who employed his mother. Visiting that family during the school holidays, Ramokgadi would pour over their books about the Holocaust and Judaism, and recognised that this was the path he wanted to follow. He would say that “coming from South Africa, a country with a history of racial discrimination, I’ve really found myself within the Jewish people”.
Silberhaft, who also become his close friend, recalls, “When he decided to try to convert, he bought a flat in Berea to be close to the shul.”
He says Ramokgadi’s early passing is a huge loss as he played a key role in Africa-Israel Jewish relations.
The Ramokgadis visited Israel where they happened to meet 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”, alongside an equally large photograph of the Swazi king. Their home is full of Judaica, and even has paintings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Ramokgadi always hoped to convert Orthodox, but couldn’t do so because of various challenges. However, this didn’t deter him from following his passion – he learnt fluent Hebrew, wore a kippah, knew the services, attended shul as often as possible, and kept a kosher home where possible.
Belling and her husband would travel to Swaziland for Pesach, where she would bring Pesach-kosher food, and they would have the seder under the stars. “He always read from the Hagaddah in perfect Hebrew,” she says.
He had mezuzot on his doors, kept Shabbat and the festivals, put on tefillin, and asked to be buried in a tallit in a Jewish burial service. These wishes were granted when he was laid to rest last Thursday in a special section of the Rustenberg Jewish Cemetery, with Rabbi Silberhaft conducting the service.
Ann Harris, AJC president and the wife of the late Rabbi Harris, said, “Geoff was the AJC representative in Swaziland where he had lived for many years building up and organising several educational institutions. He wasn’t Jewish, but his love for the Jewish people and for Israel was one of the guiding principles of his life. People often use the phrase ‘a true ohev Yisrael’ without considering its full meaning. Geoff was just that. He loved us and all our faith stands for.
“We were so pleased early this year when his health improved a little that he was able to come to our conference in Cape Town, where we presented him with an award for his years of service to the AJC.”