Aug. 23th-24th: first days in Cape Town - Mandela's struggle, the Jewish community and the "new South Africa"

Our group started our exploration of South Africa with a trip to Robben Island to learn about the operation of that infamous Alcatraz of Apartheid. Walking through the gates of the prison brought a harsh reality to what we had all known about South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and the long road that this nation is still on towards what it calls the “new” South Africa. This prison is a symbol of how powerful the thirst for freedom can be and how dangerous contrary thought and action can be to a government subjugating its own population. As we would soon learn through a series of meetings with local Jews and survivors of the Apartheid era, the end of Apartheid marked the beginning of a new struggle toward economic and political stability.
From Robben Island, we went on a tour of the beautiful Cape of Good Hope and Cape Town area. It is truly one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with rocky outcroppings sloping severely down to beautiful blue ocean. We then capped our first day in Cape Town with a meeting with several prominent members of the young Jewish community in Cape Town. This community faces many of the same issues that the young Jewish community in the United States faces: intermarriage, the difficulty of balancing many different activities while staying involved in the community, and the discomfort that comes with being supportive of Israel in the face of the complexities of the political situation in the Middle East. On this last point, there are major concerns within the South African Jewish community regarding the ANC’s historical relationship with the PLO. Interestingly, just as Jews stood in solidarity with Blacks in the United States during our civil rights struggle, many high profile South African Jews worked against apartheid, and many were jailed as political prisoners for their efforts or went into exile due to threats by the state police (Albie Sachs, former Constitutional Court judge, is one such example -- he went to Mozambique, where S.A. secret special ops team blew him up. He survived, having lost an eye and an arm).

On our second day in Cape Town, we met with a series of individuals who expanded our understanding of the difficulties of life under apartheid. In the morning, we had a breakfast meeting with Ann Harris, who moved with her husband, Cyril Harris from London when he was named Chief Rabbi of South Africa in 1987 (served until his death in 2004). She is renowned for having participated in a vital meeting with leaders of the ANC (later to be the governing party), including O.R. Tambo, the leader of the ANC in exile at that time, before it was clear that the apartheid government would be forced to give up power. After the fall of the apartheid government, she and her husband championed interreligious efforts in the new South Africa and had a close relationship with Nelson Mandela as he built the new government. In the years since, she has worked to bring people from South Africa to Israel because, she says, people have begun to realize that they do not know that the truth about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians really is. Nelson Mandela asked Cyril Harris to officiate the wedding to his second wife, which he couldn't do, but gave the couple his blessing on their wedding day.

We then met with Albie Sachs, one of the biggest (Jewish) figures in the anti-apartheid struggle, and a former justice of the Constitutional Court (appointed to it in 1994 by Nelson Mandela), who introduced us to the concept of “Ubuntu,” or universal human respect, which is the underlying principle of the new South Africa. Israel and Palestinians, he said, have much to learn from South Africa’s approach to reconciliation.

Aug. 25th – Last Day in Cape Town

Finally a morning off! We used the extra time to explore downtown Cape Town and visit the District 6 Museum. District 6 was a mixed ethnic community in a centrally located part of Cape Town. However, during the apartheid era, the District was declared white only and more than 60,000 residents were removed from the area. The District 6 Museum documents the history of these forced removals and provides stories from former community members. The stories included letters from Holocaust survivors requesting that students are not only taught basic reading, writing and arithmetic, but also learn how about how to treat all people with respect.

From District 6, we walked over to the South African Jewish Museum and Holocaust Centre. We toured the Jewish Museum with a seasoned member of the local Jewish community as our guide, and then met with Richard Freeman, director of the Holocaust Centre. South Africa has recently made it mandatory for all public schools to include teaching about the Holocaust in their curricula. Even though few European Jews fled to South Africa during WWII, the curriculum is used as a means to teach about apartheid as well. Schools in South Africa are still largely segregated along racial lines as most whites send their children to expensive private schools unaffordable to the larger (and mostly black) population. At this point the government has not chosen to intervene. Since the Holocaust curriculum has only been in place for two years, its impact is not yet clear.

It was surprising to learn how prevalent racism still is within South Africa. I hope that Holocaust education can help highlight the importance of not judging others based on ethnic, religious or racial backgrounds. I noticed that some South Africans were in favor of not teaching about apartheid in schools. They believed that it was best not to dwell on the past and to move on to create a better life going forward. I still believe that educating children about the Holocaust and apartheid is one of the best ways to ensure that the pervasive discrimination of the past does not occur in the future. I wonder if South Africa’s Holocaust curriculum will be successful in teaching South Africa’s to treat everyone with respect. Just as the letters posted in the District 6 Museum requested.

Aug. 25th

The African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) is the youth wing of the African National Congress. Its members are between the ages of 14 and 35. During the struggle against apartheid, the ANCYL was at the forefront of organizing ANC protests and was led by, among others, Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo. ACCESS was invited to meet with the ANCYL's current leadership at the ANCYL's first-ever National General Council, and we ended up with much more than we bargained for.

ACCESS group meets with the leadership of the ANC Youth League, the youth party of S.A.’s governing party, the African National Congress.

The ANCYL today embodies many of the contradictions of post-apartheid South Africa, which stands at a crossroads in its political development. Whereas senior ANC leaders are generally engrossed in the complex work of governing a developing multiracial country, ANCYL's leadership speaks the old language of revolution. We arrived at the ANCYL's National General Council meeting in the middle of ANCYL President Julius Malema's interminably long speech, in which he called for nationalization of South African mines and continued revolution. The speech ended with a short but enthusiastic rally, during which Malema led the assembly in the recently resurrected apartheid-era song/chant, "Kill the Boer, the farmer." Malema has gotten in trouble for using this slogan in the past, and now replaces "kill" with "kiss", but those present clearly understood what Malema meant, because many of those present stuck their fingers in the air and went "pow, pow."

Malema, a controversial figure who grew up in poverty but is now wealthy resident of Johannesburg's posh Sandton district, has said in television interviews that he is a "Marxist-Leninist" but not a Communist. Many of his pronouncements, including his call for nationalization of the mines, have been disavowed by senior ANC leaders. But they were well-received by the those attending the National General Council, and essentially repeated to us in greater detail by Secretary-General Vuyiswa Tulelo during our meeting with Tulelo and other ANCYL leaders after Malema's speech, Deputy President Andile Lungisa. We were treated very warmly by everyone, and given goody bags to take home, the same given to participants of the conference. This is perhaps an indication that while Malema's economic policies are favored by many in the ANCYL, his comments on racial matters are less popular.

The ANCYL's membership is comprised of young black men and women who grew up in the post-apartheid era. They view the government's policy of Black Economic Empowerment, an affirmative action program meant to integrate previously disadvantaged groups into the economy, as a largely failed program that has created a black elite while leaving the vast majority of South African Blacks in poverty. Thus, calls for nationalization reflect a growing discontent with the pace of change among younger South Africans in a country where, despite a small but growing Black middle class, many still live in abject poverty while White South Africans continue to enjoy prosperity.

Those White South Africans include most of the Jewish community. And though ANCYL policies do not appear to have gained currency among government leaders, and Malema is viewed by many South Africans alike as something of a clown, it is nevertheless troubling to see a South African leader of any kind talk this way while saying kind things about Robert Mugabe and his land seizure policies.

Sixteen years into the post-apartheid era, South Africa's multiracial democracy continues to be a work in progress, and the evolution of the ANC from a revolutionary movement to a governing party is also ongoing. The ANCYL asserts that the revolution is far from over. While Malema speeches repeatedly reference Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and others, it is not clear that he shares their goals of a peaceful, multiracial South Africa.

Aug. 26th: Our first full day in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is a sprawling city, and it's very difficult to orient oneself amidst the rolling hills and huge walls that surround private property along the streets. Johannesburg was chosen for its proximity to gold mines, and remains among few cities not located near a major body of water. The heart of Johannesburg, the Central Business District (CBD), had been classified as a whites only area under the Group Areas Act, imposed during Apartheid, and is home to many skyscrapers. The CBD is now largely vacated, as whites have moved their homes and businesses to areas like Sandton, where our hotel is located.

Today we visited another neighborhood of Johannesburg: Soweto. Soweto is an abreviation for South Western Townships, an historically black neighborhood.
Soweto strikes a stark contrast to the Sandton, the wealthiest square mile in Africa. Some of the homes in Soweto are seemingly "middle class", which we're told has grown since 1994, but others are decidedly for the poor. We took a brief walking tour of the neighborhood and stand among friendly people, who make pleasant conversation and ask politely for any assistance, food or monetary. Many don't have running water or electricity and live in shanties.

We also visit the former FNB stadium, renamed "Soccer City" for the 2010 World Cup. It's difficult to overstate the impact on the national psyche that the World Cup had on South Africa. Billboards a-plenty use World Cup imagery to convey what a world-class country South Africa is. It's a nice stadium for certain, and our tour guide is obviously impressed with the significance of the World Cup. The stadium is surrounded by the smooth trapezoidal hills of soil excavated for gold mines, and there are walls within the players' quarters of the stadium that have the appearance of those of a mine.

The huge physical distance that separates Soweto from Sandton is reflected in the status of the people who live there. The era of apartheid is only recently over (16 years) but the intent of the system, to physically and economically separate people based on the color of their skin, has lasting impact. Johannesburg remains a segregated city, and the lack of public transportation makes difficult the mixing of people of different economic status. BRT (bus rapid transit) lines are in place, but people are afraid to use them, due to violent terrorist acts conducted by the taxi "mafia" whose business will be threatened by the lower-cost mass transportation options. The Gautrain high-speed rail line connecting the airport and Sandton with planned lines extending to Pretoria is expensive with visible police presence everywhere.

ACCESS group meets with Ann Harris, wife of the late S.A. chief rabbi and activist on behalf of S.A.’s poor, and Wendy Kahn, executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

We close the day at a restaurant with members of the young South African Jewish community. In contrast to a day where we see how differently people live within the same city, we see how easily Jewish people from disparate parts of the world can relate to one another.

Aug. 26th

We visited Soccer City right outside Johannesburg, which hosted the first and last games of the World Cup earlier this year. We enjoyed a private tour of the locker room, conference room, VIP room, and more. The newly designed stadium, resembling a calabash, a gourd and common South African drinking vessel, certainly has a special appeal to the locals. Inside the stadium, 10 lines pointed to the nine other South African stadiums, as well as Germany, which hosted the last World Cup.

After our morning of awe, and jealousy that we missed the real action of World Cup, we were on our way to Soweto – or the “South Western Townships” – which refers back to its origins as a Black township under the apartheid government. Though some neighborhoods in Soweto are wealthy (Winnie Mandela currently still lives there, and Nelson Mandela moved back there for a short period of time after his release from Robben Island), the majority of people are impoverished. We visited a large shanty-town where children were begging for money (they had no school due to the nation-wide strike by government workers.) We were invited into the home of a widow and her 5 children in a barely 2-room shack with no amenities. It was a very sad state.

Winnie Mandela's home in Soweto

Home in shantytown near Soweto

Though we all left depressed after seeing the incredible poverty, unemployment, lasting negative effects of the apartheid years and corruption of the current government, our spirits were quickly renewed when we visited Ma’Afrika Tikkun - a Jewish-founded NGO that runs several holistically developed programs in Soweto and a few other places and that includes health care, education and afterschool programs. The staff welcomed us with singing, drumming and dancing, and we realized that all Africans seem to have an innate talent for singing. What a treat! Our tour of the school culminated in a fashion show by a group of young girls. The organization does incredible work for the local community, and is fortunately expanding. For more information, look here

Children during nap time at Ma'Afrika Tikkun, a Jewish project fostering self-sustainable communities (Orange Farm project)

Warm welcome at Ma'Afrika Tikkun

Following our MaAfrika Tikkun tour, we visited the Apartheid Museum. With so much to learn on the topic, in addition to the special exhibit on Nelson Mandela, our hours at the museum flew by. For a deeper look into the museum and the themes of race, (in)quality, and South African history it focused on, see here ....

To finish up the day, we enjoyed the best dinner of our trip yet at Gramadoelas. With a delectable buffet of African-influenced delights (incl. Malay food), we enjoyed dinner and conversation with our South African young Jewish leadership counterparts.

ACCESS Delegation meets with young South African counterparts.

Aug. 27th: A visit to the South African Constitutional Court and meeting a former Justice

The ancients believed that the body is the temple of the soul. This is true both in the sense that the body houses the soul, and also that how we treat our bodies often indicates how we feel about ourselves. Similarly, a country's public buildings often speak to its values, as well as its history. The neoclassicism of Washington DC evokes the democratic values America inherited from ancient Greece and Rome. The transparent dome of the German Reichstag transforms a building associated with monarchy and dictatorship into a potent symbol of a restored democracy.

South Africa's Constitutional Court, Johannesburg

On a recent visit to South Africa, our ACCESS group had the opportunity to visit the country's Constitutional Court in Johannesburg -- one of the most moving public spaces I have ever encountered. The Court building is built at the site of an apartheid-era prison that housed political dissidents and activists. Parts of the original structure remain, and the court chamber itself is constructed from bricks that once formed the prison's walls.

The interior of the Court has architectural elements borrowed from Western courtroom design such as a bench for judges, facing podia for counsel and a center lectern from which counsel address the judges. In addition, the Court incorporates traditional African elements, including an animal skin patterned carpet and -- most strikingly -- tanned cowhides draped over the Justices' bench, with an individual hide for each justice. The dual traditions create the amazing effect of feeling that one is simultaneously in a Western courtroom and sitting under a tree in the Savannah with tribal elders. The diverse elements work together to create this effect, which is especially powerful in light of a history in which Western law was for centuries used as a tool of oppression.

In the courtroom wall that separates the chamber from the street, a narrow eye level window allows people inside to see out into the street, but only at the level of the knees of the passing pedestrians. Thus, the motion of the people is visible, but not their race -- South Africa's take on blind justice; here, justice is not blind, she can see the people, their speed, cadence and direction, but their race is invisible, thus presenting the ideal of a color-blind society.

Our visit to the Court came a few days after meeting one of its distinguished former Justices in Cape Town: The Honorable Albie Sachs who served from 1994-2009. Justice Sachs, who is white and Jewish, worked for decades as an anti-apartheid activist, and lost his right arm to a car bomb set by agents of the apartheid government. He spoke of many subjects and, in response to a query from a member of our group, discussed the most challenging case he had decided as a judge. The case (Grootboom) involved an action for eviction brought by white landowners against poor blacks who were unlawfully squatting on their property. In finding a solution, Justice Sachs' found a way to protect the property rights of the owners while respecting the human rights of the squatters. A maimed body sheltering a courageous and wise soul.

Aug. 29th: Last Day In JOBURG

South African Board of Jewish Deputies (SAJBD) Gauteng Council Annual Meeting, Johannesburg.

Perhaps it is fitting that the final day of our journey to South Africa was spent at SABJD’s Gauteng Council Annual meeting. The keynote address was delivered by AJC’s Rabbi David Rosen, who spoke about his work to foster interfaith dialog. It was a largely optimistic speech focused on Rabbi Rosen’s success in bringing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel into discussions with Christians and Muslims. There has been only limited success in South Africa reaching out to the Muslim community, which numbers close to one million (Jews number 75,000 in the country)

Opening of the Gauteng Council Annual Meeting

The Gauteng Council meeting is held each year to discuss issues both large and small that come before the community and to elect leaders for the coming year. The South African Jewish community is a well-oiled machine. In a country where citizens can’t always rely on government-provided municipal services, SA’s Jews provide for their own security, education, health care, senior care, etc. Their effectiveness in doing so is something to be marveled, but it also highlights the luxury we as American Jews have in being able to devote so much of our efforts to outward facing issues such as defense of Israel and human rights advocacy.

This isn’t to say the community is insular and only concerned with self-preservation. On the contrary. SA’s Jews are doing great work in their surrounding communities fighting poverty and hunger through highly professional and well-funded projects like MaAfrika Tikkun. The community’s true spirit of charity and concern for its fellow citizens was exemplified, however, through volunteer drives to support the victims of Xenophobic violence in 2008 and more recently, to fill-in at hospitals during the ongoing civil service workers strike which has left many without access to health care.

Staff at Orange Farm Community Center (a MaAfrika Tikkun sponsored project) entertain us.

One of the principal debates at this year’s meeting revolved around whether the community should speak with one voice – on domestic policy, on Israel and religiously.

There was little disagreement that the community should speak with one voice as it relates to domestic policy, and the SAJBD has done a remarkable job making sure the community’s voice is well represented, having developed relationships with President Jacob Zuma as well as a number of ministers and local representatives. On Israel, there was some debate over whether the community’s stated policies are too far to the right, but the South African Zionist Federation largely adheres to a policy of avoiding public criticism of Israel – a democratically elected sovereign government – supporting her right to exist as a Jewish state. Behind closed doors and among “friends,” however, including in direct meetings with Israeli government officials, SA Israel advocacy groups work as hard as they can, for example, to point out the difficult issues such as settlement expansion and perceived poverty in the Territories, pose to those who want to defend Israel in hostile environments like South Africa.

Perhaps the most controversy centered on the ability of the community to unite along religious lines. 90% of South African Jews consider themselves Orthodox despite the fact that a significant number of them do not keep Kosher or Shabbat. Still they attend Orthodox shuls and feel strongly about maintaining strict standards on rituals, education, Kashrut, marriage and conversion, which is concerning to a small but vocal minority of Progressive Jews who feel alienated. To me as an outsider and to most of my ACCESS colleagues, the alienation and protests expressed by the Progressive members of the community were uncomfortable to hear. I had to step back for a moment to realize, however, that we were viewing the situation through our own biases. We don’t even attempt to achieve a semblance of cohesion on religious matters here in the U.S.; we simply form new groups to suit our needs. Jews in South Africa need to stick together due to their small numbers and mostly common interests, and the community must therefore cater to the majority.

While I’m not ready to fully excuse the alienation felt by the Progressive members, I must give credit to the SABJD for the inclusion of all groups within the structure of its governance and its ability to reach acceptable compromises on most topics. This is quite an achievement for Jews, who by our nature rarely agree on anything. Which brings me back to the first point I made, the SAJBD is quite an impressive institution for all it has achieved, and one feels a sense of optimism for the continued survival, vibrancy and ability for the South African Jewish community to thrive in spite of its numbers.

And to our hosts for the entire week – both in Cape Town and Johannesburg – I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to the SAJBD, and in particular Wendy Kahn, for devoting so much care attention to our delegation in the midst of the strike volunteer drive and preparations for the Gauteng Council meeting!