The chairman of the Likud South Africa group was remembered as a “true Zionist” and “dedicated member of the Jewish community,” days after he was gunned down at his workplace in South Africa by unidentified assailants.
Sergio Kowensky, 67, was killed last Tuesday in a southern suburb of Johannesburg at his air-conditioning firm, in what the police force of the crime-ridden city is treating as a workplace dispute but some in the Jewish community speculate may have been linked to his Jewish and Israel activism.
The death of Kowensky, an outspoken advocate for Israel, came as a shock for the Jewish community of South Africa’s largest town, which numbers some 50,000 members.
“His death is a terrible tragedy,” Avrom Krengel, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation of which Kowensky was a member representing the Likud party, told The Times of Israel Sunday. “There is no other way to put it.”
Kowensky was “always very involved in the federation and the community, deeply dedicated to Israel and really engaged with the country and with the politics there,” Krengel said.
As chairman of Likud South Africa, a branch of World Likud, Kowensky was responsible for overseeing the group’s activities in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
World Likud is the Israeli Likud party’s “wing for global communication and networking,” according to its website, and “aims to increase support for Zionism using its global branches.” The South African chapter under Kowensky ran “youth programs, educational sessions and serious work against anti-Semitism and BDS (the Boycott Divest and Sanction movement),” said Yaakov Hagoel, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and head of World Likud.
Hagoel, who described Kowensky as a good friend and said he had spoken to him just days before the murder, said he had a “huge influence” in establishing the Likud chapter as a “key player” in the South African Jewish community.
“He was a true Zionist who made a huge contribution to the community,” Hagoel said.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kowensky grew up in the small town of Moisés Ville in the province of Santa Fe, which was founded by Eastern European and Russian Jews escaping persecution in 1889. He immigrated to Israel in 1978 and there met his wife, Alison Kowensky, before moving to her native South Africa some two decades ago.
In the words of the South Africa Jewish Report, “Kowensky spent his entire life dedicated to Zionist ideals, with an intense passion for the well-being of the State of Israel. He was an outspoken supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and was not afraid to speak his mind on matters related to Israel.”
After his death, Kowensky’s body was flown to Israel to be buried in the southern city of Beersheba last Friday.
“My father breathed Zionism,” said Joni Kowensky, one of three children to survive him, at his funeral. “As a religious man, he knew all sides and engaged everyone on the subject, including those who held opposing views. He knew the history of Israel backwards, and enjoyed engaging people on the subject, including people like well-known United States lawyer Alan Dershowitz.”
While police are currently treating the murder as a criminal homicide, citing an ongoing labor dispute with several former employees, World Likud’s Hagoel speculated that Kownsky’s Jewish and pro-Israel activism may have played a part in the incident.
“It may have been an employee that was angry over being fired, but there is a huge atmosphere of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in South Africa right now and it’s possible that the feeling of anger that the employee felt toward him was pushed over the edge by feelings of anti-Semitism,” he said, stressing that his theory was speculative and not based on knowledge of the investigation.
The incident closely followed warnings by representatives of South Africa’s Jewish community who said they were seeing an uptick in anti-Semitic rhetoric in real life and on social media.
“A flurry of viciously anti-Semitic and threatening attacks have been made against South African Jews, both on social media and in direct face-to-face encounters,” the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies said in a statement last week, unconnected to the murder.
Others in the Jewish community, however, disputed the notion that Kowensky’s death was linked to anti-Semitism, putting it down instead to the soaring crime rates across South Africa and specifically in “the world’s most dangerous city,” Johannesburg.
“It doesn’t look like it’s related to his Israel activism but it seems like a typical criminal act,” said the Zionist Federation’s Krengel, who noted the murder two weeks prior of another Jewish South African, Jeffrey Zetler, a 62-year-old strawberry farmer, near Cape Town.
Zetler was stabbed to death in an alleged robbery at the Mooiberge strawberry farm in at attack police said bears no resemblance to a hate crime.
Howard Feldman, a South African media personality and member of the Johannesburg Jewish community, said that in personal conversations, Kowensky had expressed worries that matched suspicions in the police investigation.
“I had a conversation with him a few weeks ago and he looked quite stressed and he told me he was having a lot of labor-union-related issues,” Feldman said. “He said they had threatened to track him down and he said he was under a lot of pressure about the whole thing.”
Whether related to anti-Semitism and his work with Likud or not, “what this issue does show is how cheap life is here,” Feldman said. “It’s just horrific.”