South African Election Raises Questions for Nation's Jews

News Analysis

By Moira Schneider and Uriel Heilman (JTA)

Published May 21, 2009.
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When it became clear that the African National Congress had coasted to another victory in South African elections last month, Jewish community officials reacted differently than some of the community’s rank-and-file.

Michael Bagraim, the president of the Jewish community’s umbrella organization, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, told JTA that his group’s relationship with the president-elect, Jacob Zuma, had “always been good.” He also noted that South African Jews voted for “every single political party.”

But with more than 80 percent of the country’s Jews supporting the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, many community members highlighted the ANC’s problematic record on Israel.

In a country dominated by a single political party – the ANC, which began as the black liberation movement, has won every election in the country since the end of apartheid in 1994 – South African Jews are faced with a dilemma.

“Do they engage in an aggressive campaign against the ANC when they condemn Israel and Jews, or do they try to curry favor with the government in the hope that in the long run it serves our interests?” asked one Jewish South African activist who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity. “The Board of Deputies has taken the latter approach in order to secure Jewish rights in South Africa.”

Jewish reaction to Zuma’s election as president underscores the delicate balancing act that Jews in this shrinking community must practice concerning a political party many find hostile to some major Jewish concerns.

Hailed by blacks as the party of liberation, the ANC also has a long history of anti-Israel activity.

Last year, the ANC was a signatory to a statement that described Israel as an apartheid state whose very birth was illegitimate. Some in the ANC, which is allied with an anti-Israel trade union party and the country’s Communist Party, favor cutting ties with Israel and subjecting the Jewish state to a trade embargo.

At the ANC congress in Polokwane at the end of 2007, at which Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki in a fierce battle for the party’s presidency, the ANC passed a resolution widely seen as anti-Israel.

Yet despite the overwhelming Jewish vote against the ANC, Jewish community officials have taken pains to say publicly that they see Zuma as being responsive to Jewish concerns.

At a meeting last September with leaders of the Board of Deputies, Zuma said that while there indeed are individuals within the ANC who favor adopting a harsher line toward Israel, the ANC remained in favor of a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than Israel’s elimination. After the meeting he issued a public letter to that effect.

But Zuma also denied that the Polokwane resolution was anti-Israel, saying, “It was a resolution specifically on Palestine and solidarity with the Palestinian people given our historical relations.”

The PLO supported the ANC during the apartheid era.

While the ANC’s victory in April was the latest in an unbroken string, the election did mark something of a break with the past. For one, the ANC’s vote total declined for the first time. Also, the party also lost a province, the Western Cape, to the opposition and failed to keep the two-thirds majority it had in parliament.

Zuma himself is also unlike previous ANC leaders. Whereas his predecessors, notably Mbeki and Nelson Mandela, hailed from the black elite, which had some relationships with Jews, Zuma comes from different stock. He was born in rural Zululand, never finished high school and has multiple wives.

He’s also been a controversial figure in South Africa: In 2005, Zuma was charged with rape. He was acquitted.

Zuma’s record on Jewish issues is not long. In June 2007, he sent a letter to the fund-raising dinner of the End Israeli Occupation Campaign that condemned the West Bank security fence as an “apartheid wall” that aims to extend Israel’s borders, “imprison large sections of the Palestinian population into ghetto prisons, is calculated to destroy Palestinian family and economic life, and entrap a whole nation into a life of poverty and dispossession.”

Yet the Board of Deputies says Zuma has been warm toward the Jewish community. Bagraim said he met with Zuma shortly before the elections and that Zuma told him he was interested in visiting the Jewish community in Cape Town soon after the vote.

“It’s almost a Mandela-type approach: We hug him when we see him,” Bagraim said of Zuma. “He’s very open to discussing anything. I think he’ll be a greater friend than Mbeki.”

Privately, some South African Jews say the best they can hope for is that this government won’t take any major steps to alter ties to Israel.

While the Board of Deputies has complained about the ANC’s pro-Palestinian stance, Bagraim said that “unbalanced” statements on Israel in the 14 years since the country’s transition to democracy mostly have come from the ANC, not the government itself.

When a deputy foreign minister, Fatima Hajaig, told a pro-Palestinian rally in January that “the control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money,” then-South African President Kgalema Motlanthe met with Jewish officials to assure them that everything would be done to ensure the community’s safety.

Milton Shain, a professor of history and the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, said the ANC is not anti-Semitic.

“In the ANC, there’s a broad antipathy to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism,” he said.

Daniel Mackintosh, a 24-year-old law student, said there is a great deal of unjustified fear-mongering in the Jewish community about the government.

“I think South African Jews are going to continue to be amongst the most prosperous and happy groups in the country for the next five years,” he said.

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