My first visit to South Africa, and the impressions were jarring.
I grew up in liberal America, where apartheid was a curse and a cause rather than a way of life. I knew very few South Africans, Jewish or otherwise. And then I moved to Israel, and then Nelson Mandela whooshed to president from prisoner, and then life just went on for so many years. And now it’s 2012, and I land in Johannesburg for the Limmud conference, which took me to Durban and Cape Town, as well — legendary places along the seam between Atlantic and Indian oceans, between vicious past and misty present.
In Jo’burg it hits you right away, on the drive from the airport. Reddish earth, rusty buildings, poverty that makes Palestinian villages look wealthy. All the pedestrians, every last one of them, are black. The whites people today live in gated communities, where they sarcastically call themselves the “last outpost of the British Empire” and exchange stories about getting mugged as they look out past the barbed wire that keeps out the crime.
“That’s not barbed wire,” someone said, laughing . “It’s electric.”
Nearly two decades after its first democratic elections, South Africa is still a work in progress. Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, has been suppressed, and English has taken over as the public lingua franca.
Corruption is rampant, and this prevents the effective fighting of crime. More murders, rapes and carjackings here than anywhere else. The rand, once even with the dollar, is now worth about 12 cents.
At the same time, the country’s successful postapartheid constitution and mostly independent judiciary make for greater hope of genuine democracy than perhaps anywhere else in Africa.
And the Jews?
Jews here, like everywhere else, are torn between their ideals and the demands of communal survival. Not unlike the Jews of the United Kingdom and elsewhere, they are (a) generally liberal in both politics and religion, (b) struggling with an increasingly intemperate ultra-Orthodox minority and (c) embarrassed by Israel. (When asked why, one local Limmudnik answered, “Settlements, Lieberman and Lieberman.”)
But on that first day, I notice that embarrassment can run both ways, and my Boston-bred liberal instincts suddenly had me feeling very uncomfortable. The role of local Jews in both supporting and fighting apartheid is a very sensitive subject. People on both sides of the divide found themselves praying in the same synagogue.