When writing about the eminent Jewish communal leader, lawyer, and humanitarian activist Ann Harris, one needs to be careful to avoid the usual clichéd observations that typically feature when it comes to the wives of distinguished personalities who have themselves achieved success.
In Ann Harris’s case, she was married to an especially celebrated Jewish leader, Rabbi Cyril Harris (1936-2005), who as South Africa’s chief rabbi was the public face of the Jewish community in the country’s dramatic and inspiring shift from white minority rule to multi-racial democracy in the 1990s. Hers, however, was never just a supporting role; in her own right, she was an active and forceful presence in the affairs of her adopted country, both during and for many years after the transition to democracy. From the outset, theirs was very much a partnership of equals.
Remembering a celebrated Jewish communal leader and activist
Ann Harris, who died in March 2023 at the age of 85, was born in Manchester in 1938. At the time of her husband’s appointment as chief rabbi of South Africa in 1987, she was a partner in a leading London law firm. The couple arrived at a time of turmoil in South Africa. Countrywide resistance to the hated Apartheid policy was at its height, and ever escalating political violence and draconian crack-downs by the embattled white regime was the order of the day. They found a Jewish community sunk in pessimism and uncertainty about the future, something reflected in and in large part caused by an unprecedentedly high rate of emigration, in particular by its younger members. The prevailing feeling at the time was that Jewish leaders, whether religious or secular, should keep out of politics; but this neither Rabbi Cyril nor Ann Harris had any intention of doing. Both were firmly of the view that major changes were about to take place in South Africa, and that it would be hopelessly short-sighted for the Jewish leadership not to prepare the Jewish community for this by becoming involved in the process.
That Ann Harris was serious about this was shown by her taking part in a delegation from the organization Jews for Social Justice that met with representatives of the African National Congress (ANC) in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1989. This was despite the ANC then still officially being a banned organization in South Africa, which meant that any such engagements were technically illegal. There was indeed a backlash from more conservative elements in the community, but it was short-lived. Within a few months of the Lusaka visit, the ANC and other proscribed organizations had been unbanned and all remaining political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, were released. Before long, the mainstream Jewish leadership was regularly soliciting meetings with the ANC, which for nearly three decades had been seen as a “terrorist” organization but which was now recognized as being de facto a government in waiting.
Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris had been among the first out of the starting blocks in this regard. In the next few years leading up to the transition to democracy in April 1994, they continued to lead by example, encouraging other Jews to be an active, contributing part of the changes that were taking place.
Achieving political rights for all South Africans was just the first step towards confronting the baleful legacy of colonialism and apartheid. Recognizing this, the Harrises began concentrating their efforts in the field of social upliftment, involving themselves in a range of Jewish-headed efforts to address poverty and inequality in the Black community. Writing in the SA Jewish Report, Ann stressed that if SA Jewry were to be meaningfully engaged in building a new and just society, the goal had to be “to assist disadvantaged families and communities to give their children the chance to be tomorrow’s productive citizens.” She chaired the Oxford Synagogue Skills for Adults Centre, established a decade earlier to assist disadvantaged Black people in Johannesburg. Aside from her purely humanitarian work, she continued to be active in the civil rights field. As a lawyer, she involved herself extensively in the field of women’s rights, inter alia serving on the South African Law Commission’s Committee on Jewish Divorce, which in 1996 resulted in the adoption of the Divorce (Amendment) Act. She was further extensively involved with the work of the Wits Campus Law Clinic, including serving from 1993-6 as chairperson of its Governing Committee and as acting director.
Alongside her multifaceted work in the general society, Ann was also thoroughly engaged in Jewish communal affairs, and in particular on the African Jewish Congress (AJC). The AJC was established in 1994 with the core purpose of providing a forum enabling the small and geographically isolated Jewish communities of Sub-Saharan Africa to build bridges with and assist one another in maintaining Jewish life in the regions. It was further intended as providing Africa and African Jews with a voice in international Jewish affairs, notably through its affiliation to the World Jewish Congress.
Ann Harris also shared with her husband a deep commitment to assisting smaller Jewish communities located in areas far removed from the main Jewish population centers in keeping Judaism and the greater Jewish heritage alive in their respective centers. Through her role on the AJC, initially as a member of the executive, then from 2014 until going on aliyah six years later as president, she was extensively involved in promoting and safeguarding Jewish life in communities throughout Southern African, from Namibia, Mauritius, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique.
Whether as a highly respected Jewish communal leader who represented Southern African Jewry on the global stage, as a social justice and human rights activist, or as an accomplished lawyer and legal academic, she unstinting placed her skills and experience at the disposal of numerous worthy causes. Through this, she continually helped to make a positive difference in whatever field she involved herself in. ■
The writer is CEO of the African Jewish Congress.