Minorities in South Africa: Where has all the passion gone?

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SA Jews have engaged widely in broader society, but as a tiny minority fear the future under Jacob Zuma’s government. Many are withdrawing or leaving. In the picture, pioneering choreographer Sylvia Glasser meets in 2003 with black dancers she trained though her company Moving Into Dance     (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

WITH the rising political chaos in South Africa as the populace reels under the corrupt, inept rule of President Jacob Zuma’s government, it is impossible to know what the country will look like ten years from now. A realignment of its politics is underway, as the once-great liberation movement the African National Congress appears to be close to breaking apart under the pressure of its warring internal factions.

All South Africans are feeling the anxiety, including minority groups such as the Afrikaners and Jews, who feel particularly threatened since they are largely excluded from the inner circles of power. The sense of powerlessness of minority groups is profound as they watch people well-connected to Zuma’s government sell this country down the river with incompetence and corruption.

When criticism of the government and Zuma is voiced too loudly by white people, accusations of racism tend to be hurled back at them, silencing many well-meaning citizens who don’t have the stomach for the fight. It is a form of “disenfranchisement” of minorities by what has become a majoritarian government rather than a democratic one. For many minorities, the response is to withdraw into separate laagers, to look after their own interests as best they can.

Looking at it through a Jewish prism, a high profile Jewish conference which took place last weekend, drawing some 5000 participants – the annual Sinai Indaba held at the prestigious Sandton Convention Centre in northern Johannesburg – illustrated the degree to which mainstream South African Jewry is withdrawing from engagement with the country.

The conference which featured international speakers on numerous topics, was lauded as a great success by many, and anybody who attended would have been struck by the speakers’ high quality and thought-provoking presentations about Judaism and Jewish-related topics. But the speakers and programme contained almost no reference to what it means to be Jewish in the specifically local South African context, the here-and-now of a country drowning in poverty, inequality and corrupt politics.

But South Africa is where most Sinai Indaba participants actually live. They face complex challenges about what it means to live in a rapidly changing, troubled society with an uncertain future. Jews constitute only 0.13 per cent of the population of 55 million. It is common knowledge that many have given up on this country over the years and have left, or are in the process of doing so. The Jewish population has shrunk from about 125 000 in the 1970s to some 70 000 today.

But for the ones who are staying, a meaningful understanding of their place here as part of a tiny minority which is growing ever smaller, is crucial to how they operate as citizens. Local rabbis, lay leaders and individuals grapple with it constantly.

South African Jews have in the past played a significant role in the social and political affairs of the country. Iconic names in politics, law, welfare and the arts spring to mind, such as parliamentarian Helen Suzman, jurists Arthur Chaskalson and Issie Maisels, underground activists Joe Slovo and Dennis Goldberg, Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer, choreographer Sylvia Glasser and many others. Jewish organisations and individuals have engaged intensely in the society over the years, often at personal risk during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women, the United Sisterhood and others. But now their older members complain that they are being replaced by fewer younger people, whose interests lie elsewhere.

The latest government debacle last week, with potentially disastrous consequences, is about Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s failure to put in place proper mechanisms for paying social grants on April 1 to some 17 million of the poorest, most vulnerable South Africans who depend on these meagre amounts to keep going. The disgrace of it should stir all people, including Jews, Afrikaners and others into urgent action to demand that those who created the crisis be brought to book. But the chances are that Dlamini, who is in Zuma’s close circle, will somehow be let off the hook, and the protestors will be sidelined to once again question where the country is headed.

Minority groups are asking what their future is here. For example, how many Jews will be left in South Africa in ten years’ time and what kind of community will it be? If current trends continue, it will be smaller than today. Will it be engaged meaningfully in the broader society, or live in a tiny bubble of its own, insular and inward-looking?

There are no easy answers, except to say visionary leadership is needed. There are no obvious candidates in place, but nature hates a vacuum.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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