I want to start by giving a quick South African overview. South African Jews came mainly from Poland and Lithuania in the early 1900s.
During the 1930s many Afrikaners (the kernel of the future apartheid government) came strongly under the influence of the Nazi movement. The primary reason for this was that Germany was the traditional enemy of Britain (the colonial power that ruled South Africa in the early 1900s), and whoever opposed Britain appeared a friend of the Afrikaners. The more belligerent Hitler became, the further hopes rose that the day of Afrikanerdom was about to dawn.
Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe was controlled under the Aliens Act and came to an end during this period. Although Jews were accorded status as Europeans, they were not easily accepted into white society. The sports clubs, for example, had an exclusive Europeans-Only and No Jews policy until the early seventies. Many Jews lived in mixed-race areas, from which they were forcibly removed to make way for whites-only developments.
The architect of grand apartheid, Hendrick Verwoerd, studied in Germany where he obtained a degree in psychology. He introduced anti-Semitic bills into law that were a means of suppressing all Jews. These bills suggested that Jews threatened to overpower Protestants in the business world, were innately cunning and manipulative, a danger to society and were involved in the Bolshevik Revolution and therefore intended to spread Communism in South Africa.
Although these policies gradually receded as WWII passed, the profile of the Jew in South Africa had been formulated and Jews lived in a prejuduced society. After WWII the Jewish community in South Africa shrank by almost 75% from over 250,000 to about 65,000 today.
In spite of the prejudice, the Jewish community has managed to thrive and many of the top businesses in South Africa are owned and run by Jews (in fact, if you count the Oppenheimer family as Jewish, by the 1960s Jewish businessmen controlled over 50% of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the twelfth largest in the world due to its mineral wealth).
Jews in South Africa were always at the forefront of business, politics, medicine and law. In fact, Helen Suzman, a great lady, was the leader of the opposition party to the nationalist government for decades, as was Tony Leon in more recent times. Mandela’s attorneys and many leading anti-apartheid figures were Jewish.
I was born into a traditional Jewish home. My great-grandparents came from Lithuania. We celebrated all the high holidays, went to Shul on most Friday nights (except when sports games conflicted, of course!) and did my bar mitzvah in a traditional manner.
Some of the best academic schools in South Africa were the private Jewish schools in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I attended Herzlia school in Cape Town (named after Theodore Herczl.) While we excelled academically, we were not that good at sports, and I was one of the only three Jews to ever represent the national cricket team in South Africa.
I grew up in a homogeneous Jewish community. My friends and I were together throughout school and University (it was almost as if we belonged to the same family). Even today, there is a group of eight of us who have known each other for 50 years and, such was the strength of our community, to this day we meet each year somewhere in the world.
We were constantly reminded of the need to support the Jewish community. Israel, too, had a very special meaning … growing up in a country that had laws aimed at reducing Jewish identity meant that having a safe haven country was of paramount importance. Indeed, the biggest difference that I have found living in the U.S. is the lack of fear on the part of Jews in the U.S. about their longevity in this country.
Even today, as we witnessed in the recent Gaza war, Jews in South Africa were harshly targeted.
When I look back at my school days, and my formative Jewish days, I believe that the most significant learning from my Jewish upbringing was that one always needs to fight for justice.
In many ways, until the age of understanding, South Africa was a perfect upbringing. Lots of sunshine and outdoor life, sports, etc. But as I grew older, the realization that all was not well in paradise started to dawn on me. Apartheid was a cruel and unjust system and as a Jew living as a minority in a country that I already knew held prejudices, my instincts were to fight for justice.
So when the first democratic election came about in 1994, Gill Marcus, then the Secretary of the African National Congress and to become the Governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, asked me to help build a bridge between the business community and the ANC (Gill, by the way, was also Jewish and a friend of mine). I accepted and I served with her as the Joint Head of Fundraising for the ANC prior to the first election.
Finally, I want to tell a little story that highlights the crazy country that is South Africa. One day before the first democratic election in 1994, Gill called and asked if I would accompany her to a voter education meeting in a black township called Reitz about three hours outside Johannesburg. Voter education was indeed necessary because many black people were illiterate and had never voted before.
Naturally I said yes, and off we set. We arrived at the township and proceeded to a dusty, dilapidated and broken-down town hall that was filled to capacity. As we entered the hall, the speaker asked us to come on stage.
To a huge ovation from the crowd, the speaker shouted ”Please welcome Comrade Gill Marcus,” followed by chants of “Viva Comrade Gill! Viva Comrade Gill!” from the crowd. Comrade, of course, was the manner in which the ANC addressed their compatriots.
Soon I was being introduced and to my amazement, chants of “Viva Comrade Lawrence!” echoed around the hall. The irony of an extreme capitalist being called “Comrade” was not lost on me!
So, I guess Verwoed was indeed correct—here we were two Jews, Comrade Gill and Comrade Lawrence, 60 years later spreading communism in South Africa.