The Jewish Left in Apartheid South Africa

A small minority played a crucial role in the struggle but were vilified by others

Andrew Feinstein was born and brought up in the South African Jewish community and involved in the struggle against apartheid, as were so many other members of that small community.

Their involvement was not exactly welcomed by those who ran the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, as Feinstein recounts below.

Andrew Feinstein. Photo: Daily Maverick

A note on the author:

Feinstein is a former ANC MP. He was the first MP to introduce a motion on the Holocaust in the South African Parliament. You can see his conversation with Jeremy Corbyn about ANC struggle hero, Denis Goldberg, here.

Feinstein was involved in the South African parliamentary investigation into corruption involved in a multi-billion arms deal in 1999 and eventually resigned from parliament when the investigation was blocked.

He now lives in London where he is Executive Director of Shadow World Investigations (Corruption Watch UK). His book The Shadow World, an  investigation into the secretive world of the global arms trade, was published in 2011. It is an area that Feinstein continues to research. He is also the author of “After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC.”

As in any country the Jewish community in apartheid South Africa was diverse and heterogeneous. This diversity was clearly on display in the political attitudes of Jews towards the racist state: 14 defendants from the banned African National Congress (ANC) in the notorious treason trial were Jews, as was the prosecutor who initially sought the death penalty against Nelson Mandela and his fellow defendants in the trial.

Many of South Africa’s Jews fled persecution and pogroms, particularly from what is today Lithuania. A number of those who arrived in South Africa in the early 1900s were Socialists or Communists whose own experience inculcated a deeply felt commitment to global equality and justice. It is, therefore, unsurprising that some of these immigrants, and their offspring later, identified with the down-trodden in the struggle against racist oligarchy.

In 1917 a Yiddish-speaking branch of the International Socialist League was formed in South Africa. A forerunner of the South African Communist Party (SACP), the League organized unions and co-operatives without distinction of class or colour. The SACP is often acknowledged as being crucial to the ANC’s adoption of the policy of non-racism.

Amongst the pre-eminent leaders of the SACP was Joe Slovo. Yossel Mashel Slovo left the village of Obelkei in Lithuania for South Africa in 1934 aged eight. Despite having to leave school at an early age because of poverty, Slovo, and his life partner and comrade Ruth First, were intellectual giants who were integral to the passionate and diverse political debates among activists in Johannesburg. After volunteering to fight the Nazis in WWII, Slovo was a delegate to the Congress of the People in 1955 which drew up the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s guiding document. He went into exile in the early 1960s and became a revered leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Ruth, a respected and much-loved academic and activist, who spent a number of years teaching Sociology at Durham University, was assassinated by the South African police in Mozambique in 1982.

Slovo fought on, playing a central role in negotiations that led to South Africa’s first democratic elections and taking office as the country’s first post-apartheid Housing Minister. His life in the struggle is emblematic of the courage, commitment, sacrifice and humanity of the Jews who played such a seminal role in overcoming apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s words at Slovo’s funeral reflected on all of these remarkable people:

We are assembled to mourn the passing of a leader, a patriot, a father, a fighter, a negotiator, an internationalist, a theoretician and an organizer. Indeed, it is the combination of all these qualities so splendidly in one individual, which made Comrade Joe Slovo the great African revolutionary that he was.

While many Jews did not engage in or with the liberation movement, probably the majority of Jews in South Africa adopted a classically liberal opposition to apartheid. For many years, Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party (later PFP and DA) was the only member of Parliament opposed to apartheid legislation. Suzman undertook extraordinary human rights works on behalf of political prisoners, and courageously raised the realities of apartheid both in Parliament and internationally. Her economics were mainstream, with close personal links to some of the most influential business leaders in South Africa, who were happy to benefit from the apartheid practices of migrant labour, repression of trades union, etc.

There was also, of course, a minority of Jews who were supportive of apartheid in its entirety, such as Mandela’s prosecutor, Percy Yutar. The ‘representative voice’ of the Jewish community, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, “worked happily with the apartheid regime, even as that regime violated the civil liberties and human rights of many Jews who were key figures in the anti-apartheid struggle. And Israel’s secret and wide-ranging arms and security ties with apartheid-era South Africa, in violation of a United Nations Security Council ban, enjoyed that same board’s full backing until the day apartheid died,” according to the Jewish Forward. (For more on this collaboration see Chris McGreal’s two important articles published by the Guardian in Feb 2006, Worlds apart and Brothers in arms – Israel’s secret pact with Pretoria.)

The relationship between apartheid South Africa and Israel was supported by many South African Jews. The two pariah states enabled each other to become nuclear powers, as recounted in Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s brilliant book, “The Unspoken Alliance.”

Sadly, organised Jewry and individual South African Jews were often highly critical and disparaging of the Jews who had committed themselves to the struggle against apartheid. I experienced this at first hand within my own family: In the mid-1980s I had been detained in the Crossroads squatter settlement along with 20 other students as we tried to bring relief to the tens of thousands of families who had lost their tin shanties and all their possessions as the police and army torched the militant settlement to the ground. We were only allowed out of the area three days later after an intervention by Helen Suzman. On arriving home stressed and weary, an uncle who was visiting, exclaimed to me: “What do you think you were doing? Are you on drugs? Forget politics, just be grateful it’s the Schwarzers and not us.”

‘Whites’ who supported the oppressed were often referred to by supporters of the status quo as “k*ffir boetie”, the South African equivalent of “n*gger lover.” This antagonism by the advantaged community towards other ‘whites’, and sometimes specifically Jews, who had been involved in the liberation struggle, didn’t disappear entirely with the end of apartheid. During the historic 1994 election, in my predominantly ‘white’ electoral district I was often angrily confronted as a traitor for being in cahoots with the ‘Communist ogre’, Nelson Mandela. During my maiden speech in Parliament, members of the former apartheid ruling party, shouted “Jou Kommunis, jou kommunis” [You Communist, you Communist”], assuming that as a ‘white’ Jew in the ANC I must be a communist. They were ejected from the Chamber.

What relevance does this have for our contemporary struggles in the UK?

First, it is important to recall, and be proud of, the extraordinary role played by committed, courageous Jewish activists in struggles for equality and justice around the world, and to channel that commitment and courage into confronting the racism, inequality and injustice that dominates the UK and the world today. Second, in our tawdry post-truth world, it is crucial that we keep alive the Jewish tradition of fact-based, diverse and passionate intellectual and political discourse, to ensure we continue our predecessors’ brave speaking of truth to power.

A particularly worrying distortion of truth, and accompanying intolerance and abuse, has arisen in accusations of antisemitism utilised to fight factional battles in the Labour Party: Life-long anti-racists accused of being “f*cking racists and anti-Semites”, even by people who benefitted personally from doing business with apartheid South Africa; Jews who support Jeremy Corbyn being described as “self-hating,” “the wrong type” of Jews or not Jewish at all; the Labour Party being investigated by a supposedly independent Equal Rights body, which in turn refuses to investigate parties with far greater prevalence of proven antisemitism, Islamophobia and other racisms; and the same people centrally involved in these accusations turning a blind-eye to those who use actual anti-Semitism in pursuit of political objectives, such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, amongst others.

When I came out on social media in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-racism, I was vilified by some fellow Jews as a self-hater, not really Jewish, etc. And when I added that my mother was a Holocaust survivor who lost 39 members of her family in the camps, a rabbi no less opined on social media that my mother must have been one of those Jews “who helped the Nazis, a kapo!” I felt as if I was again engaging with racists in apartheid South Africa, or the early years of our democracy – these characterisations are no different to the “k*ffirboetie” slurs used against radical opponents of apartheid. This is not the stuff of reasoned and legitimate discourse. It is a manifestation of deep prejudice, alarming intolerance and a disturbing lack of self-reflection or insight in a world that is devastatingly split between the haves and have nots, the powerful and the powerless.

For surely, as Jews, we should take pride in our compassion, our empathy, our solidarity with those who have suffered as we have historically. As former South African Deputy President (and briefly Acting President) Kgalema Motlanthe said of Joe Slovo:

he was proud to acknowledge the Jewish roots of his compassion. Brought up as a child in a Lithuanian ghetto, he experienced at first hand the degradation and misery of being unfairly treated for no proper reason. So in the South Africa he grew to love, he determined that no one should be singled out for unfair treatment for no proper reason.”

This solidarity, crucially, should apply to all those who are oppressed, regardless of the identity of the oppressor. As Irena Klepfisz, a child survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote:

I have concluded that one way to pay tribute to those we loved who struggled, resisted and died is to hold onto their fierce outrage at the destruction of the ordinary life of their people.

It is this outrage we must use to fuel our actions and vision whenever we see signs of the disruptions of common life: the hysteria of a mother grieving for the teenager who has been shot; a family stunned in front of a vandalised or demolished home; a family, separated, displaced; arbitrary and unjust laws that demand the closing and opening of shops and schools; humiliation of a people whose culture is alien and deemed inferior; a people left homeless without citizenship; a people living under military rule.

Because of our experience we recognise these evils as obstacles to peace. At these moments of recognition, we remembered the past, feel the outrage that inspired the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto and allow it to guide us in present struggles.



Comments (7)

  • Shaun Pye says:

    What a moving piece of writing. The simple fact of Andrew Feintein’s existence is a cause for celebration, despite our sick world getting sicker by the day.

  • Excellent piece making all the right connections. I remember in the mid-1980s interviewing Ben Turok a Jewish ANC member who at one time was in prison alongside Mandela. Turok met privately with individuals in the South African Board of Deputies asking them to make a sign – even hidden from public view – that they were on the side of the liberation struggle but they wouldn’t because he said they wanted to guarantee the security of their import/export licenses with Israel. That, he said, was their over-riding priority. About the same moral fibre as our beloved BoD. ie Bankrupt. He also told me how the Jewish establishment were literally policing leftist among the Jewish community by handing over names and addresses of Jewish activists to the authorities.

  • JanP says:

    A great piece of writing Andrew. As you most likely know, Jewish socialist and communists were also the backbone of the British Anti Apartheid Movement. An intellectual force to be reckoned with and such good campaign strategies – which we carried out in our own little group in a small provincial town. I was there through all the debates and voting at AGMs. So missed when many went back to South Africa after the elections. Wish we had a constitution like that.

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    Excellent, truly informative article bringing many facts to light.

  • ruth Knox says:

    I found this one of the clearest comments on the current controversy within the Labour Party I have read.

  • Norman Traub says:

    Andrew Feinstein in his comments on the “The Jewish Left in Apartheid South Africa” omits entirely the contribution of the South African Trotskyist Movement to the South African struggle. This is not surprising as he was a member of the ANC, which vehemently opposed the Non European Unity Movement of South Africa (NEUM), which was formed by the Workers Party of South Africa (WPSA}, a section of the South African Trotskyist Movement. I am a member of an organisation, African People’s Democratic Union of South Africa (APDUSA), which was affiliated to the NEUM. The NEUM is now known as the Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA).

    The origins of South African Trotskyism and the history of the WPSA are chronicled in “Revolutionary History” Volume 4, no 4, Spring 1993. The history and the role played by UMSA in the struggle for liberation in South Africa is dealt with by I.B. Tabata and Dora Taylor in the book “The Dynamic of Revolution in South Africa, a “Socialist Resistance” publication. Many of the ongoing struggles against the ANC government, in which black workers and peasants are involved , are dealt with at the APDUSA website,

    I am happy to discuss issues raised in the above publications.

  • Lungile Nkosi-Hill says:

    Thank you Andrew for the article, and reminding us of the importance of Solidarity and Internationalism.
    We will never forget those from more privileged communities who chose to join us in the fight for a democratic South Africa.
    The struggle continues!!

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