Khayelitsha, South Africa — Standing in the shadows of a corrugated shack that serves as a day care center and elementary school for a dozen children in the middle of this black township near Cape Town, Xolelwa Bobo receives some good news from a visitor one recent morning. The visitor tells Bobo, a 20ish mother who runs the Sakhisizwe Education Center, that a philanthropist in England has agreed to provide funding that will upgrade the simple building.
Bobo hugs the visitor, Helen Lieberman, a onetime speech therapist whose work with the country’s disadvantaged blacks started during the worst days of apartheid and has grown into Ikamva Labantu, South Africa’s largest non-governmental social service agency.
Leaving Bobo’s shack-turned-school, Lieberman approaches a group of bone-thin children playing around a grandmotherly figure across a dirt road. Lieberman opens a briefcase, passing out the sandwiches and sliced apples she had intended as her lunch that day.
“My husband asks why I bother to make lunch for myself,” she tells a visitor as she begins driving back to Cape Town. “I never end up eating it.”
Lieberman is often called “South Africa’s Mother Teresa,” a title she deplores. She prefers to refer to herself as “a Jewish mother.”
A legend at home and an object of honor abroad, Lieberman is both a self-effacing symbol and a living bridge whose work on behalf of South Africa’s underprivileged blacks has spanned the era of the Jews-against-apartheid myth and the Jews-still-engaged reality of the “new South Africa.”
The historical myth states that the country’s Jews lined up as a community to oppose the racist political system. While it is true that South African Jews — often communists, often estranged from the organized Jewish community — played a disproportionate role among the whites who actively took a stand against the apartheid system, it is equally true that those who did were a distinct, and usually criticized part of South African Jewry.
The myth of wide-spread Jewish activism against apartheid grew largely out of South African Jewry’s better-known Helen, the late Parliament member Helen Suzman, who served for years as a one-woman anti-apartheid gadfly and thorn in the government’s side, receiving Jewish votes in her liberal election district but remaining for years a lone dissident voice in government.
Neither Helen was a communist, choosing the humanitarian and political roads over the violence often favored by South Africa’s communists.
The mainstream Jewish community, including most rabbis and the Board of Deputies umbrella organization, took no official position on apartheid, leaving members’ actions up to their conscience. Gideon Shimoni, a South African-born scholar who made aliyah in 1961, documents this in “Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa” (2003, Brandeis University Press), writing that “on the whole the community’s leaders, lay and religious, acted consciously but with deep pangs of conscience … the assessment that the average Jew was significantly more liberal-minded than members of other white ethnic or religious groups is plausible, but rests on evidence that can hardly be said to be empirically sufficient and conclusive.”
Like the Jews of the pre-civil rights South in the United States who wished to maintain good relations with their white neighbors, most of the Jews of South Africa, fearing social ostracism or government pressure on their lobbying activities for Israel, privately disapproved of apartheid but publicly kept quiet, living the privileged lives of the country’s minority white population.
The new South Africa presents a new reality: a disproportionate number of Jews — individuals, or non-governmental organizations founded and heavily funded by Jews — who are actively helping to rebuild South Africa today, with the blessing of the organized Jewish community. They’re doing it in medicine and the arts, education and social welfare, sports and science, to an extent not fully documented or known even by leaders of the Jewish community, although the weekly South African Jewish Report recently began running a “Building South Africa” series of profiles.
“Today there’s no risk attached to it,” says Geoff Sifrin, editor of the Jewish Report.
Why this inordinate Jewish role in today’s South African society? Guilt or altruism? Good for the soul or good for the Jewish community’s image?
A little bit of each, South African Jews say — humanitarian inclinations, recognition of a shared fate here, desire to make amends for an apartheid-era record of silence.
Many South African Jews who were not involved in the struggle, now claim the mantle of those who “put themselves out on the limb” before 1994, says editorial cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, whose drawings earned his arrest during apartheid. Shimoni sees “a lot of [tacit] apologetics” in the swath of Jewish outreach.
An “atmosphere of soul-searching and contrition reverberated within intellectual circles in the Jewish community,” reflecting the nation’s post-apartheid spirit of reconciliation, he writes. Describing the work of the progressive Gesher organization, Shimoni cites the Jewish tradition that “the person or group that has committed a wrong must make peace with the person or group wronged.”
Even the members of the South African Jewish community who maintain that Jews were silent too long during apartheid and took too long to become involved in the national rebuilding effort afterwards agree that the widespread participation of identified Jews and Jewish institutions is sincere. “The spin-off is the P.R.,” says Mervyn Smith, former president of the Board of Deputies.
There is the expected grumbling (Jewish needs should take priority over outsiders’ needs, Jewish money should not go to black causes), but it is infrequent, and from a distinct minority of Jewish voices, community leaders say.
While the Jewish population has decreased from a high of 120,000 in the 1970s and leveled off at about 70,000 since the early years of this decade, the extent of Jewish involvement in the wider society has increased, community leaders say. Those who left did so because of a rising crime rate or inadequate job opportunities or unwillingness to accept the interracial, post-apartheid way of life; those who stayed are committed to making a better South Africa.
“I’m surprised at the sheer number and scope of these [Jewish-initiated] projects,” says Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. “It has transformed the community.”
Aviva Pelham, a veteran opera singer who grooms promising musicians in the townships, says she “can’t help” doing this volunteer work. “I know there’s so much talent” in the black community.
“The culture of volunteerism permeates our society,” says Vivian Anstey, a lay leader of the Board of Deputies.
Virtually every Jewish organization in the country has “what they call ‘outreach programs’” to the black community, says Sifrin. “There is an awareness in circles of power and in general society,” he adds, “that there is a [major] Jewish component.”
This Jewish recognition of blacks’ history on the continent is evident at two major institutions: the Cape Town Holocaust Center, which contrasts the Jewish experience during the Shoah with the black experience during apartheid; and an under-construction Holocaust museum in Johannesburg that will feature an emphasis on the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
The latest addition to the Jewish list of organizations that aim to rebuild South Africa is AGGA (Anti-Greed/Graft Activists), an independent organization designed to fight corruption, which unveiled itself in Johannesburg two weeks ago. AGGA was formed by Colin Bancroft, an Orthodox Jew from Johannesburg, and Thami Zwane, who is Zulu.
“It’s a Jewish need to change the world,” Bancroft says.
AGGA, like the other Jewish-initiated activities, is a marriage of chesed and Ubuntu.
Chesed is Hebrew for kindness, the Jewish concept of doing for others. Ubuntu is a Buntu word for community involvement, roughly translated as “a person is a person through other people.”
The Ubuntu ethos fueled Nelson Mandela’s spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation after he emerged from nearly three decades in prison to lead a “Rainbow Nation” of blacks and whites and the country’s mixed-race “colored” population.
Today, Ubuntu has brought the nation together.
Today, the Jewish community has made some sort of peace with its past. The Board of Deputies recently honored Albie Sachs, an anti-apartheid activist who was largely unpopular within the Jewish community during the apartheid era. Now respected in the Jewish community, he has served as a judge in post-apartheid South Africa.
Today, Jews are regarded as leading figures in the social rebuilding of the land. Prominent among them are controversial (for his criticism of Israel) editorial cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro), and Xhosa-speaking comedian Nik Rabinowitz, whose performances of humor/social commentary draw capacity crowds that cross-racial borders.
Black recipients praise the community’s largesse.
Sitting on a tattered couch in the living room of a spartan house in Kathlehong, a township near Johannesburg, Rosie Mthembu, who founded an orphanage for children who lost their parents to AIDS, talks about volunteers who regularly visit her institution, Fountain of Love. The teenage volunteers from Johannesburg’s Yeshiva College, a day school, play with the young students, tutor them and take them to the zoo, she says.
When the school year ends, Mthembu says, the volunteers and children part in tears.
In the unlit meeting room of an old age home being converted into a college campus in north Johannesburg, Bandile Mathebula and Thabang Malima, fledgling university students who grew up in Soweto, South Africa’s largest township, describe the education they thought they would never receive. Like all the black students enrolled in the decade-old CIDA City Campus university, which bills itself as the country’s “first virtually free higher education institution,” they are on scholarship.
“Without CIDA” a college degree “would just be a dream,” Mathebula says. CIDA, which offers a bachelor of business administration degree that has led some 1,000 graduates into financial services jobs, was created by Teddy Blecher, a South African Jew; he was succeeded as executive director by Philip Hirschsohn, another member of the Jewish community.
If Helen Lieberman — whose activities as founder of Ikamva Labantu (ikamva.com) bridged the times of oppression and freedom (the name is Xhosa for “the future of our nation”) — is the altruistic face of South African Jewry today, MaAfrika Tikkun is its most-visible showpiece.
Formed in 1994 by then-Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and businessman-philanthropist Bertie Lubner, MaAfrika Tikkun (maafrikatikkun.org.za) — the Hebrew name means “repair from Africa” — sponsors a wide variety of community health care and social relief programs, disaster relief services and other activities.
Mandela agreed to serve as patron-in-chief, one of the few organizations with which the in-demand icon officially affiliated.
The organization was originally named Tikkun; the MaAfrika was added to avoid confusion with the progressive magazine and movement of the same name in the United States.
The name “Tikkun” stamps the organization, whose work is centered around “vulnerable children” in a half-dozen townships, as a Jewish player, driven by Jewish values.
“Judaism has never restricted its confines to the Jewish people only, but has always sought a wider, more universal role,” Rabbi Harris wrote in the organization’s mission statement. “A reading of the Jewish religious sources strongly indicates that non-involvement is not a Jewish option, that in the South Africa of today we are under a definitive moral obligation to contribute our Jewish talents and expertise for the benefit of the population at large.”
Most of South Africa’s 40 million blacks still live in townships, and the name township is a misnomer. The sprawling cities, major parts of which resemble refugee camps — some were formed as early as the 1930s by the pre-apartheid white-controlled government to keep blacks separate from urban whites — are expanses of wooden and tin sheds, some with running water and electricity, some without, designed to provide white families with a nearby supply of lowly paid black domestic servants and gardeners. Some are located only yards from wealthy, still-mostly white communities, perhaps across a road from golf courses or swimming pool, often the townships, many with estimated populations of a million residents or more, are located alongside equally decrepit squatter camps.
The townships and squatter camps line the road during a 20-minute ride along a highway from Cape Town to Khayelitsha.
“All the way back to town this will follow us,” says Lieberman, behind the wheel. “This is everyday life.”
Lieberman, whose organization is based in a modest office suite in Cape Town, drives herself to the surrounding townships every day, except on Shabbat.
During apartheid and the forced separation of the races, it was illegal for whites to enter a township. Lieberman tells of parking her car out of sight of police, climbing through fields and over fences to visit black families for speech therapy.
Today, whites mix freely in the townships, buying produce at roadside shops. Students from Jewish day schools go to the townships regularly as volunteer tutors.
Lieberman, 70ish, goes there daily — she gives no sign of slowing down.
“As a Jew, how could I not get involved?” Lieberman asks rhetorically on the ride back to Cape Town. “There was no way I could stand by and watch.”
Once Lieberman saw the needs in the townships, she kept going back. Ikamva Labantu now sponsors 1,000 projects that serve 70,000 people.
When her life is over, she says, “I’m going to thank God for this privilege. Because this is a privilege.”
More information: Jews Helping To Rebuild South Africa
Among the Jewish individuals and organizations engaged with contemporary South Africa are:
* Claudette Davis, who formed African Home (african-home.co.za), a Fair Trade firm that identifies artisans in the townships and markets their work.
* The Union of Jewish Women (ujw.co.za), which sponsors several outreach projects.
* Dr. Mitchell Besser, who formed a medical program he calls mothers2mothers
* Edna Freinkel, who works with the learning impaired.
* Taffy Adler, a trade union organizer who helps build affordable housing in downtown Johannesburg.
* Cricket legend Ali Bacher, who has worked to integrate the sport and now chairs an anti-AIDS project.
* Josie Adler, an advocate for the homeless.
* Sylvia Glasser, who teaches dance to blacks.
* Brothers Renney and Wayne Pitt, who have revitalized sections of Johannesburg’s inner city.
* Jane Levinson, who runs an animal clinic in Khayelitsha.
ADD YOUR COMMENT
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.