The farmer Jews of South Africa

Afrikaners celebrating the Anniversary of the Great Trek in Volksrust in the 1930s (photo credit: Courtesy)
Afrikaners celebrating the Anniversary of the Great Trek in Volksrust in the 1930s
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In June 2018, on a farm near the South African town of Stellenbosch, a Jewish strawberry farmer, 62-year-old Jeffrey Zetler was murdered. The news shocked the entire Jewish community. Although the incident was categorized as armed robbery and murder by the media and the authorities, many Jewish farm owners are worried about their future in South Africa. They are concerned about expropriation of their land and further violence against them. This comes after Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the African National Congress (ANC) adopted a motion for the expropriation of white-owned land (meaning farms) without compensation. The motion was passed by the National Assembly earlier this year with a vote of 241 to 83.
The tradition of Jewish communities in rural South Africa goes back to the latter part of the 19th century. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were part of a stream of Jewish immigrants who moved from the cities to the rural areas, where they hoped to make a better life for themselves. The local white Afrikaans-speaking people referred to them as Boere Jode (Farmer Jews), though many of them did not actually own farms but set up small businesses to serve the surrounding farming communities. These Jews raised their families in small towns right across the country. They established synagogues, Talmudic learning circles, burial societies, cheders (Hebrew schools), charitable institutions and Zionist groups, including Jewish youth movements in dozens of towns across the country.
Upon visiting Lithuania for the first time in 1997, I travelled to the shtetls where both sets of my grandparents had been born and raised. I was amazed to see how similar the towns were in character and terrain to those in which they eventually chose to settle in South Africa. Ironically the Jews came to South Africa because they were forced out of their towns and villages in Lithuania and other parts of the Russian Empire. Many were murdered by marauding gangs of Cossacks and local peasants who terrorized the communities in order to force them off agricultural land that they wanted to expropriate. Jews were compelled to flee to the main cities where they could not find employment and where they met with further hostile antisemitism. Thus began the great migration to the West.
Although the United States was the preferred destination for Jewish immigrants some 40,000 out of a total of approximately 3,000,000 chose South Africa in the three decades before the First World War. They had heard about Johannesburg, a city “paved with gold” and the success stories of some of their landsmen such as Sammy Marks and Isaac Lewis who cashed in on the gold rush and the discovery of diamonds. The reality of life for most Jewish migrants was quite different. In both Cape Town and Johannesburg they struggled to make a living and became pedlars and small time tradesmen. They were not well received by the local white English-speaking citizens in the larger cities.
Articles began to appear in the English language newspapers where the new arrivals were lampooned in grotesque cartoons portraying the Jewish immigrants as “pauper peruvians.”
Having arrived by ship in Cape Town at different times, both my grandfathers made their way to Johannesburg to look for work. They lived for a while in the poorer Jewish neighborhoods where they met their fiancées, got married and then moved into the hinterland of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
Both of these territories had once been Boer Republics until the Boers were defeated in the Anglo-Boer War in 1902. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed out of the four British Colonies. The Cape Province and Natal retained a strong British influence while the Transvaal and the Orange Free State held on to their staunchly Afrikaner Boer culture, language and way of life. Ironically the Jews adapted well to life among the white Afrikaners. For a start their mother tongue, Yiddish was more similar to the language spoken by the Boers. A friend of mine, Charles Kaplan who grew up in the town of Winburg in the Orange Free State described how on the one hand Afrikaners respected the Jews because they were “the People of the Book.” “On the other hand,” he told me “the kids at primary school would bait me on Monday mornings about killing their Lord because that was what they were taught at Sunday School the previous day!”
Despite the latent antisemitism, the Jews generally got on well with the locals. In the late 1920s the Jewish immigrant population began to thrive. Their commercial endeavors meant that they could buy land and property, something that was impossible in the Pale of Settlement. Many bought farms and began to invest in agriculture and livestock. By 1929 there were 400 Jewish farmers settled on the Highveld within a 150 mile radius of Johannesburg.
My maternal grandfather and his sister both bought farms and then hired Boer farm managers to run their enterprises. Zeide Sam, as we called him, prospered in the town of Volksrust on the Transvaal, Natal border. The town was well known because of the famous Anglo-Boer War Battle of Majuba hill in 1891 when the British suffered the worst defeat in all of British military history. My grandfather ended up owning three liquor stores, a small department store and two farms. He was never formally educated, but taught himself to read and write. My grandmother’s two brothers and their families also settled in Volksrust and they in turn encouraged their extended families to come and join them. In its heyday Volksrust had a population of at least 30 Jewish families. Once again, the Boers welcomed the Jews who were accountants, lawyers, doctors, butchers, tea-room owners, grocers, haberdashers and hoteliers.
All over South Africa Jewish life flourished. Rabbis were engaged to come and serve the communities, officiate at ceremonies, perform circumcisions and carry out ritual slaughter so that the community could live a full Jewish life. My Mom was a member of Habonim and attended summer camps in the 1930s where she met and made friends with many other youngsters from the cities and country towns. Despite the idylls of country life, the Jews were not entirely free of antisemitism. My late Mom once recounted how in the late ’30s, the first ever Jewish mayor was elected in Volksrust. He was Harry Serebro, one of the town’s eminent businessmen. In 1938 during the 100th anniversary celebrations of The Great Trek, when the Boers first split from the British in the Cape and trekked by ox wagon into the hinterland, Serebro was approached by the Boer town councillors. They politely asked him to take a weekend vacation to Johannesburg with his wife and children because they did not think it was appropriate for a Jewish mayor to preside over the Voortrekker (Pioneer) celebrations at the time.
It is well documented that many of the Afrikaner nationalists were supporters of Hitler and the Nazis. In 1939 they formed their own organization, the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag and many of their leaders were interned by the British as enemies of the Union. In 1938 my Mom was made “head girl” of the Afrikaans Volksrust High School, quite an accolade for a young Jewish girl. She was fluent in both English and Afrikaans. She also captained the girl’s hockey team and was very popular with her classmates.
Every Saturday night she and some of her Jewish and Gentile friends would get together at my grandparents’ house for a “social,” which included “jiving” and dancing with a select group of teenagers, including some of the good-looking blonde haired, blue-eyed Afrikaner boys. The proceedings were watched over by my eagle-eyed Grandma and her husband. My Mom told me how one day at school she was walking to class when some of the boys called to her.
“Thelma!” They beckoned in Afrikaans. “Come and have a look at this.” She greeted them enthusiastically and walked over to where they were standing. Each in turn then flipped over the lapels of their jackets exposing the hideous image of a black swastika on a white and red border sewn into their school blazers. My Mom was quite shaken by the experience. When she got home and told her parents and younger brothers what had happened, her father reacted angrily. He had experienced Jew hatred in Lithuania in his youth. From then on, the Saturday evening “socials” ended and the boys were no longer welcomed into their home.
My father’s growing up experiences were not dissimilar. He grew up in the Orange Free State town of Wepener at the foot of the Jammerberg mountains.
There his father and mother opened a small general supplies store. While my grandmother ran the store, my grandfather would travel on horseback for days at a time to the Basuto Kingdom where he would trade with the local people and acquire cowhides and sheepskins. He would then return to the town and sell the skins at auction. There were between 20 to 30 Jewish families living in Wepener. The town too had its own synagogue with a very organized community. As a youngster my Dad was frequently threatened and bullied by some of his Afrikaner classmates. He was eventually sent to school in Johannesburg some 270 miles away where he lived with relatives.
Despite the initial hardships the farmer Jews prospered in South Africa. They made their fortunes in maize and potatoes in towns like Bethel, Delmas, Ermelo, Klerksdorp, Bothaville and Lichtenburg.
My memories of spending the Jewish holidays in Volksrust with my grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins are filled with nostalgia. I have vivid memories of Seder night at my great uncle and aunt’s house, of opening the door for Elijah the Prophet only to be confronted by a rooster and two hens who tried to gate crash the Seder! I have fond memories of my Grandfather’s store with its mixed fragrances of chewing tobacco and carbolic soap. I remember how he would stand at the entrance of the shop schmoozing with the Boer farmers who would go out of their way to come over and greet him. I also remember being packed off to the small synagogue with my cousins and the other Jewish kids in the town where the old Rebbe (Rabbi) tried to conduct a children’s service on the Sabbath and festivals while most of the adults were at work!
According to my own research on the Jewish Gen South African Jewish cemeteries project site, there were at one time 190 country communities spread across South Africa. Well over 80 percent of these communities were in the Boer heartlands where the Jews lived and earned their living among the Afrikaners.
The decline of Jewish life in the rural areas began in the late 60s when families were confronted with the reality of educating their children. The Jews spoke English at home and generally wanted their children to aspire to professional careers. This was only possible if the younger generation were sent to the three major English universities in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Grahamstown. Some families even sent their younger kids to be boarders at the Kind David Jewish day school in Johannesburg.
The younger generation rejected the idea of returning to the Platteland (rural areas). It became clear that the life and legacy of the farmer Jews was disappearing.
Following the Soweto riots of 1976, Jews began to emigrate to the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and Israel. This further decimated the Jewish population in the provincial towns. The estimated census figures show that at its height, the Jewish population of South Africa was some 120,000 strong. Latest figures indicate that there are about 75,000 Jews left in the country with a steady flow of emigration estimated at 1,500 souls leaving each year. One of the most prominent figures involved in serving the surviving rural communities in South Africa today is Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft. He travels the length and breadth of Southern Africa visiting the small communities where he provides “pastoral” support including the upkeep of Jewish graves and burial grounds.
While the Zetler farm murder cannot be linked to an antisemitic hate crime, there is concern over the actions of Andile Mngxitama, who founded and heads the far-left Black First Land First (BLF) party. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies recently sued him for tweets he posted denigrating the Holocaust and mocking its victims.
Nevertheless, despite these incidents and a growing fear of anti-White populism among young black South Africans, Jewish life continues to thrive with a substantial economic contribution coming from the agricultural sector and Jewish farm owners. In preserving the legacy of the “Farmer Jews” an organization called the South African Friends of Beit Hatfutsot has been established in Johannesburg. Over the past 20 years they have extracted information from an extensive database going back to the 1820s. The database includes records preserved in the archives of the Board of Deputies, South African Zionist Federation and the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town. The net result is the publication of 5 hefty volumes covering different regions of the country with more volumes planned for the future. The work of this organization is a fitting tribute to the history of South African Jewry and the important part that the “Farmer Jews” played in laying down the foundations of the “Bread Basket of Africa” as South Africa is commonly known.