Reflections on Jewish life in South Africa

I remember my childhood as a kind of idyllic dream where we Jews lived in big houses on large plots surrounded by magnificent gardens.

The writer and his sister Lynnette with the family watchdog Patchy in Johannesburg circa 1965 (photo credit: Courtesy)
The writer and his sister Lynnette with the family watchdog Patchy in Johannesburg circa 1965
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Recently I spoke to my eldest nephew who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was explaining to me how he had been experiencing a few sleepless nights because of the daily power cuts in Johannesburg.
“I have a wife and two young daughters sleeping in the house and with the thought of no electric lighting and compromised security, it’s difficult not to stay awake.”
The power cuts, a direct consequence of mismanagement, neglect and corruption over the past 12 years have become a nightmare for the citizens of that country.
“And it’s due to continue for the next 18 months.” My nephew told me.
I have bitter sweet memories of growing up in Johannesburg. My grandparents moved to South Africa from Lithuania in the early part of the 20th Century, soon after gold was discovered in the 1880s. For this reason, the Jews referred to it as Die Goldene Medina (The Golden Country) a Yiddish epithet that many used to describe the United States. By the time I was born, the city of Johannesburg had become a prosperous metropolis built on reefs of gold and cheap black labour.
I remember my childhood as a kind of idyllic dream where we Jews lived in big houses on large plots surrounded by magnificent gardens some of which had their own private swimming pools and tennis courts. Most families employed two or three black servants. In those days the South African ‘white’ lifestyle was very much modelled on the way the British lived in India, Kenya and other parts of the British Empire.  Despite the luxury and privilege, there was also a darker side to growing up there.
The conversation with my nephew reminded me of my early childhood when my parents entrusted our care to nannies. These were African women who had no real professional training as children’s nurses. They were simply recruited by word of mouth. In my family’s case, my parents would hire staff from members of the same extended family who came from the area of Rustenburg, about 120 miles from Johannesburg.
I have very fond memories of our nannies, especially Monica and Elizabeth who were cousins. Elizabeth Mamchop Motene worked for us for 19 years. She literally raised me and my older sister. Her hours were long and arduous and included babysitting at night when she would regale us with African stories including her own take on Aesop’s fables. We would sit on the carpeted floor of my Dad’s study and watch her ‘show and tell’ rendition of the Fox and the Hen.
Even back then, Johannesburg was not a safe place. There were armed robberies and break-ins all over the city, especially at night. When I think about this now, I realize how reckless it was for parents to have left their young children in the care of a defenceless young nanny. There were no burglar alarms in those days and few houses were protected by electrified fences or electronic gates. Our only forms of protection were manually operated floodlights around the exterior of the house and an old style telephone. 
We also had a guard dog, a feisty mutt called Patchy whose singular weapon was his ferocious bark. Most suburban homes had large gardens. The streets were not well lit and despite the curfews introduced by the authorities, marauders and gangsters were able to hide out in the trees and bushes that surrounded our homes. I can still recall the feelings of insecurity and dread when my parents were out at night. Everyday at school there were stories circulating in the playground:
“Did you hear what happened in Umgeni road last night? They broke into the so-and-so house and tied up the maid....”
Despite all this, my parents often relied upon the servants to take care of us. Nanny Elizabeth was devoted to us even though she herself was separated from her daughter, Dorothy who in turn was taken care of by her grandmother back in the homelands.
Twice a year, Lizzie (as we called her) was allowed to go home, once for a short break in the winter and then for 3 weeks in December to be with her Dorothy, upon whom she doted. African women were very vulnerable and there was no father or husband involved. Dorothy was born in our back yard in the servants’ rooms. She was confined and delivered by our neighbour Dr. Cohen. Once a year, Dorothy came to Johannesburg during the school holidays to spend a week with her mother. It was during this time that we got to know her. We played with her and tried to teach her English. Many years later she became my Mom’s carer. Sadly her life did not end well and like many black South Africans, she contracted the HIV virus and died of AIDS in 2008 aged 48.
Jewish families were often sought out by black domestic workers as favoured employers. Many years later I discovered that our cultures had common roots. The Tswana, Pedi and Sotho people make up a large proportion of the 11 indigenous tribes of the country. Their habits and customs are similar to ours. Despite considering themselves Christians, they observe family purity laws, do not eat pork and also observe a 7 day mourning period following a bereavement. Even their languages and dialects have words that hark back to Semitic origins. One theory is that many of these tribes migrated from East Africa as they were being pursued down the African coast by slave traders from the Arabian gulf. 
Generally speaking, Jews treated their servants more kindly than some other sectors of the white community. This probably had a lot to do with our common history of persecution and discrimination. Jews understood what it was like to be treated like 2nd class citizens. Their predominantly Russian and Lithuanian antecedents had faced pogroms and forced exiles. As a result, many Jews became involved in the anti-Apartheid movement.
In the early 2000s, I went back to Johannesburg to lead some business seminars. I found myself at a conference centre at a place called Lilliesleaf Farm in the suburb of Rivonia. The property was purchased by Harold Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich, two Jewish ANC activists. Lilliesleaf farm became the hub and nerve centre of the ANC. I ran my seminar in the museum that doubled as a library and conference room. On one wall were the framed photographs of the African liberators including Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu and Luthuli. On the opposite wall were the photographs of the predominantly Jewish activists such as Goldreich, Goldberg, Wolpe, Slovo and Sachs.
As a young impressionable Jewish student and member of the Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva, I like many of my peers was drawn to support the anti- Apartheid movement. My liberal convictions were reinforced by spending a year in the South African Defence Force. There I witnessed the real cruelty of Apartheid and the blatant abuse of the non-white sector of the population. I was stationed as a Medic at an infantry camp near Johannesburg. I worked in a clinic and part of my duties included taking blood from the African workers who worked in the kitchens. My abiding memory of this unpleasant phase of my life was the white Boer nurse who was in charge of the haematology clinic. She explained to me that it was not necessary to use new needles on the workers because they were “tough people who had a higher pain threshold than the whites.” I stood by, horrified and watched the men wince as she took blood from their arms using barbed needles. Experiences such as these had a huge impact on me and definitely influenced my decision to hasten my Aliyah.
In the late 60s and early 70s, the campuses of English-speaking universities were the only places in the country where any form of freedom of speech or interracial contact was tolerated. It was a time of youthful revolution across the globe. In America the civil rights movement was in full flow, in France there were student riots and “sit ins”. In Czechoslovakia there was the Prague Spring and in the US the Vietnam protests began.
There was no television in South Africa and all our news was filtered to us through shortwave radio broadcasts from the BBC or the Voice of America or the heavily censored English press. I like many of my fellow Jewish students and youth movement friends attended most of the protest meetings. The only place in Johannesburg where one was publicly allowed to protest was on the property of the University of the Witwatersrand. Every week we students were issued with placards.
We lined up on the perimeter of the campus facing Jan Smuts Avenue, one of the main arterial routes through the city. Across the road spectators, including members of the press and agents of the South African Special Branch were watching us and taking photographs.  I vividly remember Robert Kennedy’s visit to the University. He was invited to South Africa by the National Union of Students. His heroic arrival in defiance of the Apartheid government instilled in us an even greater desire to continue with our protests.
I remember gathering with thousands of my fellow students on the steps of the University Great Hall watching Kennedy being carried down those steps on the shoulders of the students while we sang We Shall Overcome, a song that was totally banned by the Apartheid government. We remained undeterred, despite the warnings of the Nationalist government. One day I attended a meeting in the Great Hall. I was sitting quite near the front. The next day my picture was prominently featured on the front page of the daily newspaper. My father was furious:
“Do you know how much trouble you can get yourself and us into?” He reprimanded. “Everyday youngsters like yourself are disappearing into 180 day detention without trial. Their families too could also get banned.” He warned.
Our Bnei Akiva Israeli emissary called us together at one of our weekly meetings and praised us for what we were doing but he also warned us about the danger of attending front line public demonstrations. We were caught in a dilemma of conscience. On the one hand we felt obliged to stand up to the evil forces of Apartheid but on the other hand we were genuinely afraid of the consequences. I remember sitting in a law lecture once when the Special Branch police burst in and abruptly arrested one of the female students under the Criminal Procedure Act of 1965.
Today South Africa is a free country and Apartheid is dead and buried together with some of the original architects of the regime like D F Malan, Hendrik Verwoerd and John Vorster. It has been replaced with democratically elected black leaders, the most beloved of whom was Nelson Mandela. Since Mandela left office, those who replaced him have been less than capable of filling his shoes. The country has slid into  political and economic decline. Once the “breadbasket of Africa”, South Africa is riddled with corruption and gross mismanagement as evidenced by the consequences of constant power cuts, food shortages, a desperately inadequate health care system and a weak currency.
All of this affects the Jewish community who live mainly in the urban areas. Many continue to live a “good life” in that they can still afford to live well in beautiful homes, albeit surrounded by high walls, electrified fences, cameras and private security guards. Yet despite these challenges, Jewish life continues with 85%  of Jews identifying with Orthodox Judaism and 80% of Jewish children attending Jewish schools. The community is still closely connected to Israel as it has been for the past 9 decades.
But the Jewish population is dwindling. Shock statistics released privately last June indicate that the present number of Jews living in South Africa is hovering at around 50,000 compared to the 120,000 that lived there in the early seventies. Approximately 350 Jews are emigrating to Israel each year. The general consensus is that the long-term future for the Jews of South Africa looks bleak. With affirmative action introduced by the black government nearly 30 years ago, career and job prospects for white people are poor. Anti-white political reforms such as land expropriation, the failing economy, diminished resources and the horrific crime rate (89% spike in Johannesburg in 2019) are the everyday realities of life in the cities.
On a more positive note, figures released in February 2020 indicate that antisemitic incidents are at a 15-year-low. Nevertheless. it remains to be seen whether the community can continue to sustain itself or whether the current challenges will push even more families to pack their bags and leave the once beloved “Goldene Medina.”