Jews and apartheid in South Africa | German-Jewish cultural heritage in South Africa | DW | 29.11.2012
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South Africa

Jews and apartheid in South Africa

During the Holocaust, some German-Jews immigrated to South Africa, which was in the middle of a different kind of ethnic conflict. Cape Town professor Milton Shain reflects on the role of these Jews in South Africa.

The situation in the mid-1930s was very tense. The Stuttgart steamship arrived at the end of October 1936 and was met with violent protests.

Among the protestors were leading academics, including future Prime Minister and apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, who were demonstrating against the immigration of German Jews.

These were offshoots of the radical right movement in South Africa, the so-called Gray and Black Shirts, who just a few years earlier had begun to imitate the Nazis and other fascists in Europe.

They were vehemently opposed to the continued immigration of Jews and looking for ways to restrict their presence and existential opportunities. They were not the mainstream, but they were an important and continually growing force.

The mainstream was occupied by Daniel Malan who would become the first prime minister of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1948. He argued that when the Jewish population became too large in a particular country, the potential for conflict would arise. He stressed that he was arguing in the best interests of Jews.

Another kind of discrimination

Around 3,500 German-Jews entered South Africa until the beginning of 1937 when, amid a big hoopla on the part of the opposition, the so-called Aliens Act was approved, effectively closing the door on German-Jewish immigration.

In this regard, the question of political activity under the Apartheid system must be considered. These German-Jewish immigrants, victims of classic racism and anti-Semitism, arrived in a country with a colonial, racially divided and exploitative society.

White Jews, who were still the victims in Europe, were suddenly the beneficiaries of a racial pecking order. That is a great contradiction and many of those affected were too young to understand the political connections here in South Africa or in Europe.

And, naturally, the majority of Jews lived like other white English speakers. However, there is no doubt that an above-average proportion of the Jewish community was part of the Struggle.

But let us take a step back in order to understand the issues of the period, for example the extermination of Jews from Lithuania, of which 90 percent were murdered during the Second World War.

South African Jews came de facto from Lithuania - there was a very close relationship. In light of this, that Jewish functionaries should have shouted their disapproval of apartheid from the rooftops is perhaps asking a little too much.

But the pressure became more intense. A new generation of young, well-educated Jews began to demand action. They had heard about collaborators in the Holocaust and didn't want to be that in this situation in South Africa.

And then, naturally, there were Jews from the extreme Left, outsiders in the Jewish community who opposed the regime head-on from day one. Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and many, many other names come to mind. From the 15 accused in the Rivonia Trial that put Nelson Mandela behind bars, five were white Jews.

To summarize, one must say that the balance of Jewish activism was impressive, at least much more impressive than that of the other minority groups. However, the Jewish community here, above all the young generation of Jews, continues to ask critical questions about the past.

Milton Shain is a history professor and director of the Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.

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