Eruvs and Electric Fences: Inside the Walls of Johannesburg’s Jews

Twenty years of freedom later, yet with crime, poverty and corruption rampant, tens of thousands of Jews still call South Africa’s largest city home. What keeps them there?

Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid
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Economic Freedom Fighters' leader Julius Malema, top, greeting supporters, April 29, 2014.
Economic Freedom Fighters' leader Julius Malema, top, greeting supporters, April 29, 2014.Credit: AP
Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid

The Zulus call it eGoli – Place of Gold – for in 1886, the coveted metal was found in abundance on the Witwatersrand, the inland ridge on which Johannesburg lies. The promise of instant fortunes catalysed the largest, most rapid urban migration in southern African history. Earth’s bounty crowned rand lords, and also birthed a vast apparatus of economic exploitation.

Yet for most Jews, the story of their predecessors began not in gold speculation, but pogroms in Eastern Europe. Thousands fled in ships bound for Africa’s tip, and many came to call the City of Gold home.

Welcome to Jewburg

Jo’burg is a brash city: loud and furiously alive, a frenetic omelette of cultures, languages and lifestyles. Taxi vans honk incessantly, traffic intersections-cum-markets brim with vendors selling everything from cherries and feather dusters to plastic toys and brightly beaded Alice bands.

Amid the sprawling city of over four million people live approximately 55,000 Jews, just under three-quarters of South African Jewry, situated primarily in Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs.

With more than 50 synagogues and Jewish schools, yeshivas, mikvahs, kosher eateries and six eruvs (that together create the greater Johannesburg ‘super-eruv’), Jo’burg Jews live full, if fortified, lives. Add to that the Jewish old age and disabled persons homes and a private ambulance service: the community looks after its own. At one stage Jo'burg was even referred to as “Jewburg” on account of its burgeoning Jewish population, and had a Jewish mayor, Harry Graumann.

However, from its zenith of 120,000 in the mid-1970s, the country’s Jewish community has shrunk considerably, in three large waves of emigration: the first following the Soweto Riots in 1976; the second in the mid-1980s; and the final mass exodus during the period of transition to majority rule in 1994.

The first two waves were driven by political instability, opposition to Apartheid and international isolation (not to mention the draft of white men to fight border insurgencies). But crime is the most potent factor driving post-revolution emigration.

A plague on all their houses

Violence has reached endemic proportions. Assault and carjacking are commonplace, and there’s always a story about someone’s relative or friend floating around. Women and children are gang-raped. People are murdered in their homes, even those ostensibly protected by electric fences.

Those that can gate off their suburbs do, sealing them at military-style checkpoints manned by private security companies. While these developments, combined with an initiative of the Johannesburg Jewish community called CAP (Community Action Policing), have managed to cut crime rates in Jewish areas by an estimated 80%, poorer areas lacking the resources to pursue such ameliorative programs go largely unprotected.

A CAP security company sign outside a house in Glenhazel.Credit: Judd Yadid

Moreover, crime is just one of the bloated rivers feeding South Africa’s raging Gross National Suffering. Despite considerable advances since 1994, poverty remains rife. According to Statistics SA, approximately 45% of the country’s 52 million people live below the poverty line. At the most conservative of estimates, a quarter of the nation is unemployed, and over six million people are HIV-positive.

Political corruption has reached epidemic proportions. Even the current president, Jacob Zuma, is accused of using tens of millions of dollars of public money to make non-essential upgrades to his private residence in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Staying, and praying

In the face of these elephantine challenges, why do the remaining Jews stay? The answers are both simple and complex, material and emotional: family, money and community, mixed in with the magnetism of Africa. Emigration for the young and adventurous, less so for the middle-aged and the elderly.

Money matters. The deprecation of the South African Rand – from under ZAR4 to the dollar in the mid-1990s to over ZAR10 today – means that a family home in one of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs will not buy anything comparable in the Jewish areas of cities like Sydney, London, Toronto or Los Angeles.

Another reason to stay is the community’s robustness, says Wendy Kahn, National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “There’s an amazing vibrancy of Jewish life here it is a community that is both generous and engaged.” And unlike some countries, such as France, anti-Semitism in South Africa is not pronounced, though, according to Kahn, “There is a thin line between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric and we have seen this line being crossed.”

There is also a tangible trend of religionization within the community. Following the demise of white rule, the late Rebbe famously proclaimed that the Jews of South Africa should stay, and many have – dutifully and fruitfully multiplying, most evident in suburbs like Glenhazel, where kippahs and sheitels are as ubiquitous as bikinis in Tel Aviv.

An intersection in Johannesburg's main Jewish enclave of Glenhazel, with a kosher bed and breakfast in the background.Credit: Judd Yadid

Between the rainbow and apocalypse

Yet faith, rootedness and affluence may still not prove enough to save the community from long-term extinction. Every year, at least hundreds leave for countries like Australia, England, Canada and the United States, and for some, Israel.

If left unchecked, could this slow but steady exodus subject the community to death by trickle?

Kahn for one is hopeful, stressing that the numbers have stabilized. Emigration is slowing and the natural growth rates in the community are high, she says. “We are starting to see indications of growth especially in school enrolment – we’re even building new classrooms,” she says.

Even if South African Jewry’s numbers have stabilized, the coming to power of a radical government led by the likes of Julius Malema and his new Economic Freedom Fighters party – bent on nationalizing the mines and confiscating white-owned farms – could plunge the country into a spiral of economic collapse and racial war, as happened in neighboring Zimbabwe. That could spur the remaining Jews to flee en masse.

That seems unlikely to transpire anytime soon. Opinion polls suggest that the ruling African National Congress is on track to win a majority in the upcoming May 7 national election, albeit a reduced one. The Democratic Alliance, traditionally popular with Jewish voters, is set to retain its status as the national opposition, while Malema’s party is predicted to win less than 5%. For all of the ANC’s faults, many would say that it has, against all odds, held the country together for the past two decades, and critically for South African Jews, refrained from persecuting its minority populations.

In the long term, however, no wall may prove tall enough to protect South African Jewry from a takeover by forces in the mold of Malema and Zimbabwe's Mugabe. Or maybe, as it has done for twenty years, South Africa will continue to confound the skeptics and remain a place for one and all.

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