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  • Writer's pictureJodi Samuels


We recently spent two weeks in South Africa. We had a great time traveling and spending time with family and friends.

Growing up in South Africa, as far back as I can remember, a frequent topic at the Shabbat table was about the future of South Africa. The discussion always focused on which country is the best to immigrate to and how long South Africa has before some apocalyptic event such as civil war or descent into economic disaster would occur. There were always die hard optimists who saw a rosy future.

Gavin and I left South Africa 26 years ago and have visited many times over the years. But this time was different - there were no people imaging a rosy future. Rolling blackouts, a plummeting currency and institutionalized corruption have dampened the enthusiasm of even the most optimistic of South Africans. Instead I saw three distinct groups:

Group 1:

"We always knew this place was going to implode! But now we really know it is imploding - I am getting out of here!"

Group 2:

"Our time is limited - we realize there is no long term future for our children." This group is divided into those who want to extract all the economic opportunity they can before they leave and there is definitely opportunity in chaotic situations! Then there are those that are too scared, too poor or have family obligations to leave.

Group 3:

The ostriches who bury their head in the sand; Their sentiments are expressed in comments like “Right now it’s just random shootings I will know it’s time to leave when they line us up one by one to kill us”. Or "there are problems all over the world – there are school shootings and terrorist attacks everywhere, it is better to stay where you know".

These later conversations reminded me of a time in the 90’s, my father, who like me had been a victim of several holdups contemplated the latest episode of violent crime involving our family. My brother was in a hold up in a pizza store and the owner was shot dead in front of him. I was living in Australia at the time and was completely freaked out when I heard about this. My father’s response, “We shouldn’t over-react, it’s not like it is Sarajevo here...”

The situation in South Africa is very complicated and well described by a recent Tablet Magazine article.

The functional top sliver of South Africa is itself a mess. The presidency of Jacob Zuma, spanning from 2009 until early 2018, was a kleptocratic orgy for the country’s governing class. State entities were ransacked, public services rotted; some $17 billion in looted public resources left for bank accounts in Switzerland, Dubai, and other financial havens. Power cuts are now routine occurrences in most major cities. Crime is out of control to the point where the army was recently dispatched to fight gangs in the impoverished Cape Flats; affluent neighborhoods are laced in electrical fencing and crawling with armed private security guards in SUVs. The unemployment rate for young college graduates stands at 31% and the rand lost nearly a third of its value over the course of 2018. Economic growth has been stagnant since 2015.

On the other hand, there is probably no other Jewish Community in the world numbering only 50,000 people with the amount of shuls, kosher restaurants, kosher certified supermarket products and communal institutions. Eighty-five percent of Jewish kids attend Jewish Day Schools. Over 60% of the community keeps kosher in their homes. Being religious is more “in” than “not cool”. Walking the streets over the Jewish holidays almost feels picture perfect. There are hundreds of people walking to a myriad of synagogues each catering to a niche

demographic. Everyone greets each other with smiles and Yom Tov greetings. There are Nannies in the parks with little kids so the moms can pray without interruption and teens schmoozing on the streets as well as big houses with fancy cars on the driveways.

But the gated streets, armed security guards including those with large automatic weapons, safe zones and armored cars patrolling the streets, ten foot walls with electrified fencing and the like all give away the “perfect” is not so “perfect”.

In shul on Yom Kippur the community was buzzing about the tragic murder of an esteemed psychologist. My friend suggested that they don’t discuss these things in front of me as I freak out. The lady next to me exclaimed “It is really not so bad here.” Yet none of the women wear their engagement rings, instead the jewels are safely stored in safes. The gossip over the next holiday was about a brazen carjacking right in the neighborhood in daylight while the area is crawling with security vehicles.

We had a blackout while preparing the Yom Kippur meal and started the fast in synagogue with no A/C and sweltering temperatures. We had blackouts while traveling in a game park and again at shul over Succoth. Everywhere we stayed we were supplied with candles, gas lamps and flashlights. It shocked me how everyone took this in their stride they were simply used to third world realities.

Jewish South Africans generally enjoy a great standard of living. Yet the discussion about the future is unnerving.

"Will the government expropriate land?......Will health care be nationalized?......Cape Town almost ran out of water, power cuts are the norm what will the future look like?.....The economy is stagnant, the rand declining and life in South Africa is becoming increasingly expensive.....Poverty is pervasive and 20 years after the fall of apartheid has life really improved for anyone?......Crime is crazy - home invasions, burglaries, hi-backings, murders and rapes - can my family in our gated community be spared this?.....Disinvestment, lack of investment and corruption dominate the headlines can the government can change the reality?......So many people have left in the last year. The community is under pressure - unsold high holiday seats to community institutions and charities not meeting their budget."

I am writing this blog on the flight back to Israel. A strange mixture of emotions – pleased to be going home and leaving surreal Johannesburg and a profound sense of sadness about the place that was once my home.


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