Jews in Mandela’s South Africa

The year was 1994; South Africa was hanging on a thread. The first free general election was about to take place on April 27.

The world was waiting with baited breath to see whether civil war would erupt and blood would be shed.

 I had just moved from Cape Town to live in the most dangerous city in the world, Johannesburg. I could not have been more excited about my upcoming wedding four weeks from that date.  

When I was 8 years old, I remember sitting next to my grandfather and asking “Why did you not take the boat from Vilna to America?” “My darling,” he said, “do you think Jews could go anywhere they wanted?”

 There was a small quota in 1927 allowing Jews to emigrate from Lithuania to South Africa. So three generations ago, my grandparents fled oppression and anti-Semitism to go to a country on a different continent where some had rights, but many did not.

In hindsight, when I read about the events leading up to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, including the violence occurring on a daily basis in the townships and the tribal fighting, I am amazed at not only the turmoil and uncertainty in which we lived, but also how we continued with “life as normal”

I lived three minutes away from Alexandria Township, and hearing gunshots and seeing smoke from our balcony was a common occurrence.   However, since media censorship was still in place, we did not hear or see or read about most of the turmoil and violence. It was the outside world that truly had more insight into what was going on in South Africa. I remember some of our relatives and friends fleeing the country before our wedding, being convinced civil war would break out at any minute.

Instead of fearing the new political situation and its possible implications for me and the Jewish community in South Africa, I was filled with a sense of hopeful anticipation and a sense of purpose that all young people and specifically women could play in this new democratic country.

I foresaw the many opportunities in this  “New South Africa” At 25, I had started a market research company and would go into township and tribal areas to conduct in-depth interviews and group discussions with my teams of interviewers. Since no research had previously been conducted in any of these areas, and all groups had been kept separate from each other under the Apartheid system, we had very little understanding of the cultures, attitudes, needs and wants of communities.

I was fascinated by the differences in each tribe’s culture and realized that understanding a person’s culture is the foundation of respect in a new society.  When I lectured to research students on how to go about conducting qualitative and quantitative research it was many times them who taught me the appropriate terms of respect and endearment when addressing people of various ages.

From being a feared and regarded by many white South Africa as “persona non grata” whose name was mentioned in whispers, ” Nelson Mandela became our savior and leader. He assured each and every person that no matter their religious affiliations, tribal roots or the color of their skin, they had a home in the new South Africa — the “rainbow nation”. 

Despite these assurances, the many opportunities that presented themselves in the new South Africa and the adoration and respect for Nelson Mandela, I feared for the future of the Jewish Community in the New South Africa. I read about and witnessed the horrific, escalating daily crimes and the close alliances that the New African National Congress (ANC) government had formed with then Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gadhafi.

For generations, Jews in South Africa had been asking, “Is there a place for us, do we have a future?”  Before Mandela was elected President, we personally, and as a community, continuously debated this topic.

Now, with Mandela’s passing, we continue to ask the same question. While the world and the political environment have changed over the past 19 years, the debate for Jews in South Africa remains the same.

Mandela was a hero because he understood each group’s and each community’s insecurities and fears.  When one suffers, it is easy to become insulated and myopic. Mandela experienced suffering, dedicated his life to the freedom struggle, having spent 27 years in prison, sacrificing his family life and enduring harsh conditions. Yet somehow, he was able not only to forgive and reach out to those who had tormented him, but also to show empathize with them at the very things they feared.

Each time I heard Mandela speak, dressed in his famous “ African shirts,” I think of a man of immense power, but with amazing humility, modesty and compassion. To South African Jews, and to people throughout the world, he has a value we will never be able to quantify.  He represents the very best of human kindness, one that always tried to build a better South Africa for all South Africans.

Today as a Jew, what concerns me most is that there is no one in the South African Government who can maintain that same level of empathy and closeness for the South African Jewish community or who understands the Jewish community’s affiliations with Israel as Mandela did. He understood that Israel is not just a country, but also a part of each Jewish person.

South Africa’s Jewish community, in particular, will be forever grateful for the influence Mandela had on their lives not just as President, but also for the respect he showed for every religion.

Leora Raikin is a South African fiber artist, author, teacher and speaker on African tribal arts and customs through African Folklore Embroidery as well as The Jews of Southern Africa- From Vilna, to Cape Town to Los Angeles. She has lectured at  Skirball Cultural Museum and was guest artist at Camp Ramah. In South Africa she founded Strategic Property Research and was awarded Business Achiever of the year for her work in post-apartheid research. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Gary and son Joshua.

Fired gay day school principal settles with school out of court

The fired principal of a major Jewish school in Melbourne reached an out-of-court settlement on the eve of his unfair dismissal case in the Federal Court.

Joseph Gerassi, who is gay, sued Bialik College for millions of dollars in damages to his reputation and for lost income after he was dismissed by the board in 2011. The two parties settled for an undisclosed sum, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In a letter, Bialik President Graham Goldsmith said the relationship between Gerassi and the college’s board “had irretrievably broken down” but that his termination was not due to “any dishonesty or misconduct on his part whatsoever.”

There is no evidence that Gerassi, who is believed to be the first openly gay principal of a Jewish school in Australia, was fired because of his sexuality, according to the Herald.

Gerassi, a former teacher at the King David School in Johannesburg,South Africa, was ordered to resign or his employment would be terminated immediately.

Goldsmith acknowledged in his letter that the board could have handled the “manner in which his dismissal was carried out” differently.

“I don't know of any private schools in Australia where there are openly gay principals,” the newspaper quoted Gerassi as saying. “Boards of schools are quite conservative and would prefer not to have to deal with the issue. I'm not saying they are homophobic — it's just easier having someone who is not gay heading up a school.”

TRIBE Life: Game on

While urban hubs Cape Town and Johannesburg are home to thriving Jewish communities, with members whose personal convictions helped shape post-apartheid South Africa, the allure for many who make the long journey from the United States is the rare opportunity to experience wildlife in its most authentic setting. In other words, the original “eco-tourism” experience, which goes beyond anything that may be trendy in nature-focused vacations, is a major draw for travelers.

Safari lodge resorts like Kapama Private Game Reserve near Hoedspruit (on the outskirts of South Africa’s Kruger National Park) represent today’s South Africa at its best without trying too hard, thanks to ethnically diverse staffers and guides, superb cuisine and a relaxed, comfortable approach to luxury safaris.

At the Kapama’s sprawling complex, nature’s bounty, combined with uplifting examples of philanthropy and an eco-friendly lifestyle, are celebrated both on a grand scale and on a personalized, intimate level. The reserve is composed of several resorts of different sizes and settings, enabling guests to customize their safari experience to their own needs — families, honeymooning couples, corporate groups, guys’ or girls’ getaways, or hard-core adventuring travelers.

The compact but regal Kapama Lodge ( is quintessential safari South Africa. Its cottages are appropriately comfortable and elegant, yet free of the trappings of jungle kitsch or over-the-top five-star hotel décor. Dinners are served open air in a lapa (courtyard) with an array of seasonal, simple sides and made-to-order grilled meats. Daytime dining, meanwhile, benefits from the presence of local produce and a gorgeous terrace overlooking the nearby river.

While the resort has decent Internet access, e-mail loses its urgency when you’re surrounded by the serenity of the area’s lush greenery and sprawling river. Though camping here is hardly “roughing it,” Kapama’s approach puts you back in touch with nature, from a greeting committee of giraffes to nayala antelopes and monkeys strolling nonchalantly past your cottage, to elephants adding extra ambience to your spa experience, to the lodge’s astute and youthfully energetic staff.

Kapama Lodge’s guests enjoy braAi (pronounced “bry”), a traditional South African barbecue.

Though you could visit Kruger National Park on your own, guided tours are ideal for short stays and eco-tourism virgins. Game drives conducted by Kapama’s guides in tricked-out Land Rovers deliver on their promise of genuine thrills and “wow” moments, ample photo ops and plenty of witty commentary from guides as they make earnest efforts to ensure you see at least four of the “big five” (lions, elephants, water buffalo, rhinoceroses and the elusive leopards) as well as other equally interesting specimens of wildlife. However, this is the jungle, so expect surprises. Our group, for example, delighted in stumbling upon a family of normally elusive cheetahs en route to an outing outside the Kapama compound.

Firms like Distell (parent company of Amarula Liqueur and several internationally distributed wines, including Durbanville Hills) contribute significantly to the well-being of communities neighboring Kapama and Kruger National Park. Convening with nature on safari may be the focus of your journey, but a visit to the Amarula Lapa (visitor center) near the village of Phalaborwa brings an added dimension of human interest and cultural enrichment to a safari vacation, even if you are not an avid cocktail fan.

Marula fruit (a relative of the mango that in its fresh-picked state tastes like an eccentric hybrid of citrus, passion fruit and plum) has provided nourishment to elephants and humans living in this region for centuries. Prior to the arrival of Distell, locals used marula to manufacture local beer, fruit juice and beauty products. However, the economic value of this fruit grew when, nearly 20 years ago, Distell’s experiments to develop a marula spirit with international appeal, in a manner of speaking, bore fruit.

From that seed emerged the Amarula Trust (, and if you travel to the Amarula Lapa during harvest season, you can witness firsthand the trust’s conservation efforts and community philanthropy in action. During the months the villages’ men are stationed at their jobs, the trust provides wives supplemental household income, as well as a medical facility and day-care center. The trust also oversees a scholarship program enabling young adults to further their education and train for field-guide careers.

Johannesburg-based Rabbi Baruch Goldstuck, meanwhile, has developed a uniquely Jewish way for his brethren from other countries to experience Africa’s majestic bush and wildlife, using his own memories of childhood vacations as a starting point. By converging the Jewish traditions that shaped him with the untamed wonders of nature, Goldstuck built a unique tour company offering tailor-made and strictly kosher safaris in Southern Africa a little over a decade ago. Today, The Kosher Wildlife Experience not only offers fully catered, glatt kosher safaris, but also has retained its quaint, personal approach, arranging a unique, custom-prepared vacation for each group.

For more information on South Africa, visit, and for information on flights into South Africa, visit Companies such as Momentum Tours (, The Kosher Wildlife Experience ( and Travel With Jacob ( also offer Jewish-focused tours of South Africa, which include safaris in their itineraries.

‘Catch A Fire’ ignites filmmaker’s memories of anti-apartheid dad

Shawn Slovo remembers how her Jewish parents, African National Congress activists, left home in the middle of the night to attend secret meetings. She recalls police regularly raiding their Johannesburg house and arresting her mother and father. All the while, she said, she resented “having to share my parents with a cause much greater than myself.”

Slovo grew up to become a screenwriter who honored her parents (and exorcised childhood demons) through her movies.

After her mother, Ruth First, was assassinated by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, she wrote “A World Apart” (1988) about their volatile mother-daughter relationship.

When her father, Joe Slovo, who was chief of staff of the ANC’s military wing, described the black freedom fighter Patrick Chamusso, she penned “Catch a Fire,” which opens Oct. 27.

If “A World Apart” is a tribute to the writer’s mother, “Fire” salutes her father — albeit indirectly — who died in 1995.The thriller recounts how Chamusso, a foreman at South Africa’s Secunda oil refinery, remained apolitical until he was falsely accused of bombing a section of the refinery. After he and his wife were brutally interrogated and tortured, the African became politicized and left his home near the factory to offer his services to Joe Slovo’s guerilla unit in Mozambique. Using his inside knowledge, he told the guerillas he could raze the coal-to-oil refinery and keep it burning for days. With Slovo he created his plan to sneak back over the border, with mines strapped to his body, to furtively enter the factory on a coal conveyor belt. Chamusso only partially succeeded in his mission; he was arrested six days later and spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island. But his solo act raised morale among blacks struggling to overthrow the apartheid regime.

“It sums up the spirit of Joe,” Slovo’s younger sister, Robyn, the film’s producer, said in a telephone interview.

Although Joe Slovo was one of ANC’s top leaders and a close friend of Nelson Mandela, “he was a man who more than anything was interested in ordinary people,” the producer said. “And Patrick Chamusso was an ordinary working man who was completely uninterested in politics until he was terrorized into action.”

The producer denies that Chamusso was a terrorist, or that “Fire” glorifies terrorism.

“There’s nothing equivalent in Patrick’s actions and events taking place in the world today,” she said. “Our film is about the struggle of a man to achieve the right to vote, and democracy in a police state that ran on race lines. It’s much more like the American War of Independence than the suicide bombings in the Middle East.”

Shawn Slovo believes the movie, directed by Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger”), ties in to a filmmaking trend that would have pleased her father: The telling of an African story from the perspective of a black man rather than a white outsider (her father appears only briefly in the movie). Hollywood studios have released a number of such films this year, including Kevin MacDonald’s recent “The Last King of Scotland,” about Idi Amin. “Fire” has earned mostly good reviews, including one from the Canadian magazine Macleans, saying it “is certain to generate serious heat at the Oscars.”

For the screenwriter, the film is much more than an African espionage drama.

“The parallel for me is the way in which the political affects the personal, and how apartheid shattered and destroyed family life,” she said. “My engagement with the characters and the history has to do with my past, and my family’s past.”

In 1934, the 8-year-old Joe (born Yossel) Slovo immigrated to South Africa to escape pogroms in his native Lithuania. Four years later, he was forced to abandon school to help support his impoverished family, taking a factory job, which was where he first learned of the wage disparity between blacks and whites. He was further politicized while discussing Marxist politics with fellow Jewish immigrants who shared his ramshackle boarding house.

By age 16 he had joined the South African Communist Party and rejected Zionism in favor of his own country’s liberation movement. Even so, he considered himself “100 percent Jewish” and linked his work to the historical Jewish struggle for social justice, Robyn Slovo said.

At law school, he met First, daughter of Russian Jewish communists, and Nelson Mandela, with whom he helped found the ANC’s military wing in 1961. Slovo was abroad, two years later, when Mandela and others were arrested and sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island.Shawn was 13 that year, and she was desperate for her parents’ attention as her father vanished into exile; in retaliation for his disappearance, First was arrested and placed in solitary confinement, where she attempted suicide to avoid cracking under psychological torture. With her father labeled South Africa’s most wanted man and “Public Enemy No. 1,” Shawn was taunted at school, where even her Jewish best friend ostracized her. (Robyn and another sister were hounded as well.)

“A 13-year-old doesn’t understand politics; she just wants her parents,” the screenwriter said. “But I also felt guilty, because how could I complain about their absence when they were fighting for the liberation of 28 million blacks?”

After her mother’s suicide attempt, the family was allowed to immigrate to England, where Shawn Slovo insisted upon attending boarding school because she felt unsafe at home.

“It was also a rebellion, a reaction to the past turbulence,” she said. She entered the film business because “it was as far away from my parents’ work as I could get.”

During the rest of her childhood, Joe Slovo was mostly abroad in ANC training camps, reachable only through an intermediary or a fake name and address.

In the early 1980s, when she was in her 30s, she began to confront her parents about their devotion to politics over family. Joe declined to answer her questions, in his avuncular, matter-of-fact way: “His response was always, ‘This was in the past, let’s put it behind us and move forward,'” the screenwriter recalled.

Alleged Israeli Mob Member Faces Trial

An alleged Israeli mobster is facing charges in South Africa that include murder, kidnapping, robbery and intimidation.

The trial of Lior Saat next March will proceed following a ruling last week by Johannesburg’s High Court that it has the jurisdiction to try him. It is considered one of the highest-profile South African criminal trials in years and represents a potential point of embarrassment for the country’s Jews.

The trial has been dominated by a series of dramatic events: the daylight murder of a prominent Johannesburg socialite and key witness, allegations of police involvement in the kidnapping of the accused, a challenge to the jurisdiction of the court and the judge recusing herself. In addition, two other potential witnesses in the case have been slain.

Hazel Crane, a wealthy businesswoman and close friend of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of ex-President Nelson Mandela, was gunned down last month near her home in an affluent Johannesburg suburb by an unknown assailant. She was killed while driving to court to attend the trial.

Crane, 52, was previously married to Shai Avissar, reportedly the head of the Israeli mafia in South Africa, who was murdered in 1999, although his body was only discovered in a shallow grave near Pretoria, about 30 miles from Johannesburg, in February 2000.

Saat is accused of murdering Avissar with a baseball bat and a gun, with the assistance of another Israeli mobster. One of the other charges against Saat alleges that he held a pistol to Crane’s head in 2000, threatening her life if she testified against him about Avissar.

Until her death, Crane was in court almost every day during the first three weeks of the trial, often accompanied by Madikizela-Mandela. Crane said her life had been threatened on several occasions, and bodyguards often accompanied her to court.

The day after Crane’s killing, police said they wanted to question Amir Moila, alias David Milner, in connection with the shooting. At the time Avissar’s body was discovered, newspaper reports said Moila was wanted for questioning in regard to that murder.

In the meantime, Saat had entered a special plea: neither guilty nor not guilty. He alleged that the South African courts had no jurisdiction to try him, because he had been arrested illegally.

He claimed that he had been kidnapped in Maputo, Mozambique, which shares a border with South Africa, and then was illegally brought into South Africa in April 2001. There is no extradition treaty between South Africa and Mozambique.

On Dec. 3, Judge Geraldine Borchers accepted the police version of the arrest, ruling that the court had jurisdiction to hear the charges against Saat. Borchers added, however, that she would not preside at the trial. She said her views on Saat’s credibility, including a finding that he was capable of dishonesty, could be seen as affecting her impartiality as a judge.

In court proceedings on the legality of Saat’s arrest, it emerged that he had fled South Africa in March 2000, shortly after the discovery of Avissar’s body, using a false passport under the name Jonathan Cohen. At the time of his arrest in Mozambique, he was using the name Yosef Eden and had another false passport, this time an Israeli one. Police said he was arrested in Mozambique because his visa had expired.

An apparent attempt was made on Saat’s life in downtown Johannesburg shortly after his arrest. An unknown gunman opened fire on the police vehicle transporting Saat and several other prisoners to court.

Saat was wounded in his buttocks. The prisoner next to him, facing a minor drug charge, was killed. No arrests have been made in the shooting. Saat now has a special police security escort at all times.