JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — While Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has been trumpeting his recent visit to sub-Saharan African countries, declaring that Israel is “coming back to Africa” after decades of bumpy relationships, some South African Jews are asking whether they should be heading in the opposite direction.

Citizens are disillusioned with the downward slide under President Jacob Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) — Nelson Mandela’s former much-admired liberation movement — since the country’s idealistic heyday two decades ago.

And while many Jewish stalwarts are still committed to building the nation, others have serious doubts about its future.

The economy of this country of 55 million — a tiny 0.13 percent of whom are Jewish — is stagnant, and unemployment is at 26 percent. Half the young people are jobless. Government corruption is pervasive. Zuma himself has close to 800 corruption charges against him. Major state-owned entities such as South African Airways are in chronic crisis, which analysts attribute, at least in part, to their being headed by Zuma’s political friends regardless of their competency. A downgrade to junk investment status from Standard & Poor’s, Fitch and Moody’s is seen as a possibility unless the outlook improves.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Although the black middle class has grown to some 5 million — larger than the white middle class — overall black poverty is worse today than under apartheid, with a gigantic gap between haves and have-nots. The World Bank ranks South Africa among the world’s most unequal societies.

There is widespread anger towards the ANC, particularly among the urban middle class who are appalled at what they see as Zuma’s flouting of the Constitution. For example, 246 million rand of public funds went to upgrading the president’s private homestead, for which he was rebuked by the public protector and Constitutional Court.

South African president and African National Congress (ANC)'s president Jacob Zuma delivers a speech during the Party official launch of the Municipal Elections manifesto in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 16, 2016. (AFP/Michael Sheehan)

South African president and African National Congress (ANC)’s president Jacob Zuma delivers a speech during the Party official launch of the Municipal Elections manifesto in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, April 16, 2016. (AFP/Michael Sheehan)

Judge Dennis Davis, a Cape High Court judge and prominent member of the Jewish community, says corruption is nothing new in South Africa, including during apartheid, when the Nationalist government was “endemically corrupt, but it was hidden.” Now, with the country’s free press, it is exposed, he notes. Whether the corruption culture can be eliminated, he says, “depends on how competitive our national politics becomes. A more competitive national politics will likely… reduce corruption.”

Dennis Davis (Courtesy)

Dennis Davis (Courtesy)

Next week, nationwide elections take place for local municipalities, which analysts see as a referendum on ANC rule.

Surveys by polling company Ipsos show that for the first time since gaining power with an overwhelming majority in 1994, the ANC might lose three crucial metro areas — Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) — to a multi-party coalition led by the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is widely supported by Jews. The DA won Cape Town in 2006.

An anti-corruption march in Johannesburg, Dec 16, 2015 (Courtesy)

An anti-corruption march in Johannesburg, Dec 16, 2015 (Courtesy)

Growing violence countrywide between factions within the ANC and between different parties, particularly in communities suffering from the government’s failure to deliver basic services like clean water, tarred roads, schools and clinics, is extremely worrying.

Twelve ANC-nominated councilors have been killed in the past two months in Kwazulu-Natal province; in Tshwane during the month of June protesters torched buses and other public vehicles, looted shops and killed 5 people; the month of May saw 20 school buildings torched in Vuwani, Limpopo Province.

Political violence has reached university campuses, where buildings, artworks and historic statues have been vandalized and people threatened.

‘What future is there?’

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) held a pre-election panel in Johannesburg last month for a mainly Jewish audience with representatives of the ANC, DA, and other parties. The most telling moment was a question from the floor: “I am a white South African with young children. There is a large exodus of white, skilled South Africans from this country. What future is there for my children here in terms of education and jobs?”

Panel chairman, journalist Mandy Wiener elaborated: “If you go to a Shabbat table, everyone is talking about ‘Plan B’… Walking around with the question whether to leave or stay.”

Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (Wikimedia commons)

Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (Wikimedia commons)

Most of the panel avoided active engagement with the question.

Populist parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters (which failed to attend the panel, hinting at disdain for its audience), led by the charismatic Julius Malema, insist “white monopoly capital” is central to the country’s problems. The party wants to nationalize banks, farmland and other means of production. Mandela has been called a “sell-out” for negotiating with the apartheid regime rather than pushing for its total defeat, even at risk of civil war.

Most Jews live in relative affluence, comparable to during apartheid. But for many young Jews — and whites generally — affirmative action policies, aimed at redressing apartheid’s sins against blacks, deny them jobs. That, combined with concern about the future, makes them emigrate.

Davis has strong views on this topic.

“The future of Jews in this country depends on whether the non-racial project succeeds. Rather than complain, we must acknowledge that corrective action is an essential part of redressing historical injustices and helping the non-racial project succeed,” he says.

‘Rather than complain we must acknowledge that corrective action is essential’

In contrast to the negativity, however, stands a positive view — that declining ANC dominance and strengthening opposition parties indicate the emergence of genuine multiparty democracy. The upsurge in open expressions of anger on social media, such as provocative Facebook posts saying “All whites are racists,” are part of a necessary national debate about race and history, supporters of this view say.

Zev Krengel at pro-Israel rally, Johannesburg August 2014 (Ilan Ossendryver)

Zev Krengel at pro-Israel rally, Johannesburg August 2014 (Ilan Ossendryver)

Zev Krengel, a past president of the SAJBD who calls himself a “passionate South African,” told a gathering organized by Chabad South Africa this past February that the country faces an economy in distress, a nation in uproar and bitter controversy over social media racism.

But, he said, it has overcome graver challenges, such as in the 1990s, when “political violence threatened to engulf it, yet it succeeded in negotiating a peaceful, democratic solution.”

‘Playing our part’

The challenge is summed up by 40-year old Professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Johannesburg, David Bilchitz, who also chairs Limmud International. He came to adulthood in Johannesburg during Mandela’s era, and says he was inspired by the vision of “a future based upon the values of dignity, equality and freedom for all.”

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein speaking at Nelson Mandela's memorial ceremony on December 10, 2013. (screen capture: Sky News, YouTube)

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony on December 10, 2013. (screen capture: Sky News, YouTube)

After studying at Cambridge University in the UK, he returned to South Africa, feeling a “moral obligation to contribute towards the re-generation of South African society… I wanted to play my part.”

Prof David Bilchitz (Courtesy)

Prof David Bilchitz (Courtesy)

Staying in South Africa remains for Bilchitz a “deeply Jewish act of faith to hold onto the possibility of a better future amidst a deeply troubling present.”

Numerous Jews were politically active during apartheid against the regime. But today Jews are virtually absent from formal politics. Davis believes this is partly because the community is older and smaller. It is also part of a broader withdrawal of the minority white population from national politics.

However, Davis says, “Jews have by no means withdrawn from political activism in NGOs — for example the (AIDS lobby group) TAC, Equal Education and GroundUp.”

Many of these young Jews come from Jewish day schools and youth movements which draw on Jewish teachings about justice.

An attempt at renewal

People still clinging to Mandela’s “rainbow nation” vision are getting more involved in tackling the problems.

Businesswoman Reeva Forman, for example, plans on transforming a historic 80-year-old synagogue, Temple Israel in Hillbrow near Johannesburg’s inner city, into a center of Jewish activism to work with local black immigrant communities in combating a host of social ills.

Temple Israel in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, July 2016 Courtesy)

Temple Israel in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, July 2016 Courtesy)

She launched the project at a gathering earlier this month, with the city’s mayor, Parks Tau, public protector Thuli Madonsela and Israeli ambassador Arthur Lenk as guests.

Tau said its location in cosmopolitan Hillbrow, the “reception area” to Johannesburg, where people begin building new lives in the city and country, is “ideal.”

He promised it would feature in the inner city renewal program.

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky meets with South African Pastor Linda Gobodo and Nigerian Pastor Olusegun Olanipekun and other members of a South African Christian delegation at his office in Jerusalem, July 27, 2016. Reeva Forman is third from right. (Avi Mayer for The Jewish Agency for Israel)

Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky meets with South African Pastor Linda Gobodo, Nigerian Pastor Olusegun Olanipekun and other members of a South African Christian delegation at his office in Jerusalem, July 27, 2016. Reeva Forman is third from right. (Avi Mayer for The Jewish Agency for Israel)

Forman is also the liaison between “Africa stands with Israel,” a coalition of African Christian groups who support Israel, and the Jewish Agency for Israel. She represents SA Friends of Israel, a group affiliated to the SA Zionist Federation. They met on Wednesday with Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky in Jerusalem.

Former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Johannesburg 2006 (Courtesy)

Former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Johannesburg 2006 (Courtesy)

Jewish activism in post-apartheid South Africa is exemplified by the organization Afrika Tikkun, co-founded two decades ago by former chief rabbi Cyril Harris, a friend of Mandela who was passionate about the “new South Africa.”

It works in poverty-stricken black communities, drawing on Jewish resources. Its “cradle to career” projects assist children from infancy into adulthood and employment.

Staying versus leaving, or optimism versus pessimism, is an old Jewish dilemma.

During apartheid, fearing a racial bloodbath, many emigrated along with other whites, particularly after the Soweto riots in 1976.

In the community’s heyday in the 1960-70s it numbered 135,000. Today it is half that, at some 70,000, most in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Jews have traditionally left countries because of anti-Semitism — the latest example being France, where large numbers are emigrating. In South Africa, however, emigration is low compared to other Diaspora communities.

Here, Jewish optimism has ebbed and flowed: A 2005 survey by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at Cape Town University found 79 percent of Jews were “very likely to continue living in South Africa” in the next five years, compared to only 44 percent in 1998. If the talk at Shabbat tables mentioned by Mandy Wiener is anything to go by, it is likely Jews are more pessimistic now than in 2005.

Mandela epitomized an optimism that South Africa’s non-racial project would succeed after apartheid’s defeat. Will Afrika Tikkun and Temple Israel be the symbol of Jewish South Africans who won’t give up on it? Next week’s elections will give an indication of which way the wind is blowing.