South African Buzz: South!

One of the major known unknowns in South Africa today is “How large is the Jewish community?” Nobody seems to know with certainty.

Cape Town, South Africa (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cape Town, South Africa
(photo credit: REUTERS)
JOHANNESBURG – The word “south” has recently become quite a negative word. It means something that is failing or has no value.
For example, “That business is going south” means that it is trouble. It has crept into general usage for some reason, but for those of us who live in the South, we just have to carry on.
Jewish community
One of the major known unknowns in South Africa today is “How large is the Jewish community?” Nobody seems to know with certainty.
In the mid-1970s it was accepted that the community was about 130,000 souls. Then after the 1976 riots and unrest, many people who could, emigrated – mostly young qualified professionals and others who were well off enough to relocate. The chosen destinations were Australia, Canada, Britain, New Zealand and the USA , all English speaking, which meant that learning another language was not an issue.
This as an issue with Israel. Despite South Africa being a country where the Jewish community was mostly Zionist and supportive, Israel was not really an option. It was not the “chosen country.”
This, despite the fact that top class Jewish schools had given pupils a good grounding in Jewish culture, history and even basic Hebrew.
After 1980 the Jewish community was halved, but today exactly how many Jews live here remains guesswork. One of the reasons is that there are many Israelis settled here, but how many is unknown. Whenever there has been a census, most Israelis simply ignore it. There are Israelis who have settled here for good; others are, so to speak, in transit; others on extended “holidays” or on family visits. In supermarkets and shopping malls, Hebrew is often heard being spoken with its “lamalors,” “kagakagas,” “tordarabas” and, of course, much more. Israelis are comfortable here; they fit in, or fit themselves in.
So it is believed that the Jewish community has plus minus 60,000 members, of which about 40,000 live in Johannesburg, mostly in the northeastern neighborhoods, often referred to as “The shtetl.” At the last count there were 56 places of Jewish worship in the area. Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria have small communities but the rest are spread thinly over the ground.
For the last six weeks, the country has been obsessed with the Rugby World Cup taking place in England and Wales. Rugby is not a game which resonates much among the African and Indian sections of the community, but among the Afrikaans speakers it is almost a religion.
The general feeling, from the start, was that New Zealand, whose team is called “The All Blacks,” ironically would be the winners, which, last week, they were. South Africa, whose teams have been called “The Springboks” since 1906, came in third having recovered from an opening match defeat by Japan, today called “The biggest upset in world rugby history.” The country here, was traumatized! There has long been a belief that the Springboks needed to have a Jewish player in its team. It was considered essential. Since the first Springbok team there have been 10 Jewish players, known warmly as “The Springbok Minyan”; the last one to play was Joel Stransky, who scored the winning points in 1995 when South Africa beat the All Blacks in the Final. Today there is not one Jewish player who could be considered for selection; in fact I know of none who even plays at top class level.
A cynic remarked that a good reason to have a Jew in the team was that if the Springboks lost a match, they would have someone to blame!
University uproar
It all started with a casual announcement that all university fees would be increased by 10 percent next year, when the new term starts. This caused the uproar, starting at Witwatersrand University (Wits) in Johannesburg. Students came out into the streets and demonstrated, with placards demanding that the “Fees Must Fall.” Some went further: They wanted free tertiary education. To use the current buzz word, the demonstrations went viral and virtually every student body in South Africa came out on strike. In Cape Town students tried to disrupt Parliament which was sitting. Clashes with the police took place.
Television showed thousands marching around the country, singing, dancing (toi toi-ing as it is called), there was even a massive march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria – which is the government offices. Was it just coincidental that all this was taking place while exams were due to start, which were then canceled as the universities closed? Certainly many of the marchers did not seem like university students; they seemed to be too young. Was this the start of “The African Spring?” we wondered, similar to what we had seen in Tunis, Egypt, Syria and other places – marchers clashing with police, tear gas, baton chargers, arrests.
An attempt was made to burn down the Wits library; fortunately unsuccessful.
Were we about to see the realization of that true expression started in Nazi Germany: When books are burnt, after that people are burnt? For the moment there is an uneasy calm.
Lunch with the grannies
I was recently at a WIZO function and sat at a table with five grannies.
It turned out that every one of them had children and grandchildren living outside South Africa. Of course, photographs were produced with the grannies proudly showing their children’s children.
There is hardly a Jewish family in South Africa that does not have children living out of the country, overseas, as we call it. Of these five grannies, three had children living in Australia (PFP, packed for Perth) two had children in Canada in Toronto (TRT. To run to). Then because of the weakness of the local currency (rands) and the distances involved it is difficult and expensive to get to see the children regularly.
Often when the ex-pats visit here they justify their emigration by criticizing what they see here. Rather annoying it is. Mind you they do have a lot to criticize, but also a lot to enjoy.
Question: What do Jewish grannies here have in common with the Queen of England? Answer: They all think their grandsons are princes!