Dignity for All: 25 Years Since the End of Apartheid

south africa apartheid
R-L: South African President Frederik de Klerk shakes hands with ANC leader Nelson Mandela after they were awarded the 800,000-franc UNESCO peace prize for their efforts to end apartheid in South Africa, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Feb. 3, 1992. (AP PhotoRemy de la Mauviniere)

To live as a Jew in South Africa under apartheid was to live under a dark cloud. To live in a country where the desecration of the basic principle of Chazal, “Chaviv haadam shenivra betzelem” — “beloved is the human being created in G-d’s image” — was official government policy and an indignity of its own, an affront to the very identity of the majority of our fellow citizens.

Chazal teach us that an affront to the Tzelem Elokim in a human being is an affront to Hashem, Himself. That such disregard for human dignity, such institutionalized racism — such an egregious attack on the Tzelem Elokim — was written into law made life extremely uncomfortable for Jews.

We can, of course, be proud of the fact that Jews fought on the frontlines against this evil system. Of the struggle’s heroes, a disproportionate number were Jews. Indeed, of the 13 anti-apartheid leaders who stood trial at the infamous Rivonia Trial, which led to the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and most of the other accused, six were Jewish. In addition, Mandela and his co-accused were represented by a Jewish attorney, alongside a defense team of three other Jewish lawyers.

Many Jews were jailed, or exiled, or even lost their lives for their opposition. But Jews also fought the system from within. Helen Suzman, for example — whose Progressive Party stood for extending rights to all South Africans, and who for many years was the sole voice of South Africa’s oppressed in parliament — often directed strong public rebuke to the governing National Party, at a time when such a stance was unusual and even dangerous. And in general, the Jewish community tended to vote for the political parties in South Africa that advocated a complete change and dismantling of apartheid.

south africa apartheid
Rabbi Warren Goldstein

The other difficulty for Jews living in South Africa during the apartheid years was the state of instability and constant unease about the future. There was a prevailing sense that South Africa was lurching headlong towards civil war, and that the country would be torn apart by bloodshed.

And so it was with enormous relief, and gratitude to Hashem, that we witnessed President F. W. de Klerk, the leader of the ruling National Party in the late 80s and early 90s, begin a process of dismantling apartheid. Alongside de Klerk, Hashem also blessed the country with the inspired leadership of Nelson Mandela, who, after 27 years in jail, emerged without bitterness or resentment to negotiate a peaceful settlement and help create a non-racial democracy, founded on human rights and freedom for all.

This year we mark 25 years since the end of apartheid and the beginning of freedom and democracy in South Africa. In a profound sense, the end of apartheid was not only a liberation for black South Africans, but for white South Africans as well — a liberation from living in a country with immoral racist policies, and liberation from the fear of civil war and bloodshed.

From a Torah point of view, the last quarter-century has seen the kehillah in South Africa flourish. That we have been able to do so is testament to the incontrovertible fact that, for all the problems and challenges South Africa faces, this is a truly free country. We have free and totally independent media, which — heroically, and with tenacity and skill — continue to uncover many of the problems that face the country and to call out the ubiquitous corruption of state actors intent on derailing the South African dream. We have a free and totally independent judiciary, which holds the president and the government to account. We have a free political system with regular elections, and parties free to voice their opposition to the ruling government. We also have the internationally celebrated South African Constitution, enshrined in which is a Bill of Rights guaranteeing all the basic freedoms, including freedom of association, freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom of language. The constitution even mentions Hebrew among other languages afforded special protection. Encouragingly, one of the primary architects of this Constitution is the current leader of South Africa’s ruling party and the country’s president.

The ethos of the new South Africa is one of freedom and non-racialism. Incidents of anti-Semitism remain among the lowest in the world. Jews can walk freely with yarmulkes and participate in public displays of mitzvos in the streets. One of the challenges that we deal with is the South African government’s one-sided approach to Israel, born of an historical affinity with the PLO. But the views of the government are not reflective of those of the general South African population, most of whom are religious Christians who have an affection for Eretz Yisrael and for Klal Yisrael. south africa apartheid

These freedoms, and this culture of tolerance, have provided the fertile soil in which Torah in South Africa has thrived. The 1980s saw a sweeping baal teshuvah movement take hold, the scale of which probably has no precedent anywhere in the world. This movement has touched almost all families in the community in one way or another. With Torah communities now established across the country, it is almost unfathomable that there once were just a small number of shomer Shabbos Jews in South Africa.

Over the last 25 years, this baal teshuvah movement has matured and developed. South Africa, with its approximately 70,000 Jews, has become a true makom Torah, with five yeshivos and seven kollelim, with two new kiruv kollelim on the way for Cape Town and Johannesburg, and eight Torah schooling systems, and with generations of talmidim who have learned in the great yeshivos of Eretz Yisrael and returned to help build the community, both as baalei batim and as avreichim.

Ninety percent of shul members are members of Orthodox shuls, and there is a widespread, deep-seated kvod haTorah — rooted in a strong sense of pride and tradition even among those who are not yet shomrei mitzvah. There is much work to be done, and that is partly what spurred the founding of The Shabbos Project in South Africa in 2013 and the other harbotzas haTorah initiatives such as Sinai Indaba, an annual Torah convention held in Johannesburg and Cape Town which attracts thousands of people; Generation Sinai, a parent-child Torah learning program active in all of South Africa’s Jewish day schools, and much else. Kiruv movements are particularly active, among them Ohr Somayach, Chabad, Aish HaTorah and Bnei Akiva. Crucially, South Africa also has one Beis Din for the kehillah, with one kashrus hechscher, which also encompasses a mehadrin standard. In general, there is a tremendous amount of achdus in the kehillah.

The revival of Torah in South Africa shows the eternity of our Torah and of Klal Yisrael. This idea was expressed by one of the founding fathers of the South African kehillah, Hagaon Harav Yitzchak Kossowsky, zt”l, the brother-in-law and confidante of Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, zt”l, and one of the Gedolim of Lita. Rav Kossowsky came to South Africa in 1933 to assume the position of the Av Beis Din of Johannesburg, in which capacity he served until his passing in 1951.

Rav Kossowsky, who served as Rav of Ivye and later of Volvkavisk, was among the most brilliant of the talmidim of Harav Lazar Gordon of Telshe, zt”l, and also learned under Harav Chaim Soloveitchik, zt”l, and Harav Shimon Shkop, zt”l. He was close to many European Gedolim, especially close to Rav Chaim Ozer, and was deeply involved in many of the latter’s activities for Klal Yisrael, and the two remained in close contact even after Rav Kossowsky moved to South Africa.

In his Pesach 5698 message, Rav Kossowsky asked why Chazal chose for the Yom Tov tefillos the word cheirus for “freedom.” The word cheirus, said Rav Kossowsky, originates from the Aramaic targum for the Hebrew word chofesh or dror, the words meaning “freedom” which are found in Tanach. He said that, as a general rule, when composing the words of the tefillos, Chazal used the purest Lashon Hakodesh from the Tanach. Although the Gemara and the Midrashim use the word cheirus, nevertheless it is a word which has its origins in the targum. Why, then, did Chazal use this term?

Rav Kossowsky explained that the key to understanding this is contained in the following Midrash:

At the moment that Yisrael stood at Har Sinai and said, “Everything that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will hear,” the Holy One, Blessed Be He, called to the Angel of Death and said, “Even though I have given you power over all creations, you will have no power over this nation. Why? Because about My children it says, ‘Engraved on the tablets’; do not read “engraved” (charus) but rather “freedom” (cheirus) — freedom from the Angel of Death, from [world] powers and from suffering.” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 18).

From this Midrash, we see that the concept of cheirus is something far more transcendent and powerful than mere chofesh. Cheirus is an eternal freedom — an exemption — from the ordinary laws of history by which nations come and go. The mere fact that Klal Yisrael exists today, after almost two thousand years of dispersion and persecution, is a miracle that defies these laws of history and that simply has no historical precedent.

And this, says Rav Kossowsky, is why Chazal chose the term zman cheiruseinu to describe Pesach, rather than chag geulaseinu, the festival of our redemption. Geulaseinu would have implied solely the redemption from the Egyptian slavery, which has since been followed by other eras of oppression and redemption. Cheiruseinu, on the other hand, describes the eternal, transcendent and indestructible dimension of Klal Yisrael. Rav Kossowsky urged his kehillah to take strength in difficult times from this Divine blessing of cheirus, which emerges directly from our connection to Torah.

I often think about what Rav Kossowsky might say were he to visit Johannesburg today. In the 30s and 40s, when he was the Av Beis Din, an outside observer may have wondered whether indeed there was a future for Torah in South Africa. And yet, Torah and Yiddishkeit have not only survived here, but thrived.

May the South African kehillah continue to flourish in Torah, until the coming of the final and complete cheirus of Klal Yisrael!