Sheldon Cohen’s murder, as well as the power cuts are still a burning issue amongst Johannesburg Jews. Some people I talk to there are either thinking seriously about leaving, or are in the process of taking out a second passport. Others don’t even want to contemplate leaving, but are hearing stories about other JHB Jews who are looking into emigration. Some South Africans living overseas are saying they don’t see how they can come back to live in Jo’burg. The Post asked me to write a news feature on what’s going on. What I don’t like about this story is that I feel that without actually being on the ground and getting a sense of what’s going on from face-to-face interviews, I can only generalize. The other thing I don’t like about this story is that I know what JHB is like, I grew up there, and I know you get used to living in a place with serious problems, like we got used to it here in Israel. There’s nothing really new in all this – its just sad to hear the same old story again – violent crime and meaningless killing in a place you love so much. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in a ‘normal’ country.
Anyway, the story appeared on today’s front page but was edited for space, so here is the full version:
Sheldon Cohen was sitting in his car outside a Johannesburg sports stadium last week waiting for his son Noah to finish soccer practice. He was talking to his father, Jack, on his cell phone when three young men ran passed him and shot him in the neck. Sheldon’s father heard his son’s dying breath and fearing something terrible had happened, sped to the stadium. The killers, who had moments before tried unsuccessfully to snatch a cellular phone from a woman parked nearby who was also waiting for her son, looked at Sheldon and thought he was calling the police. So they killed him. Jack arrived shortly after to see his son’s body slumped in his car, with his grandson Noah standing watch.
A week before that, a Jewish man walking to synagogue in Johannesburg was stopped by several men in a passing car. One man got out of the car and demanded that the Jewish man hand over his talis bag – thinking it contained valuables. The Jew refused, and was shot to death. Searching through his victim’s talis bag, the attacker found nothing of value to himself in it and threw it out of the car.
While Johannesburg’s Jews have been affected by South Africa’s rampant violent crime no more or no less than the rest of the population, the recent killings of the two Jewish men has got the Jews of Johannesburg down in the dumps and wondering where the country is headed. At Cohen’s funeral, South Africa’s young chief rabbi Warren Goldstein gave voice to the outrage when he said, “Sheldon’s death cannot go down as another statistic. Our government needs to be held accountable for this. We as the community are not going to stand for this and we say that one murder is one too much.”
Adding to the sense of dismay is the country’s persistent electricity outages which are affecting every corner of South Africa, resulting in up 3 hours per day of power stoppages in many areas. The government simply cannot supply the country’s electricity needs, even though it is, outrageously to some, selling electricity to neighboring states. On top of the violent crime and electricity crises, there is a growing sense of government corruption and ineptitude, with the return of Jacob Zuma to the helm of the ruling ANC party after a rape trial, and the demise of police chief Jackie Selebi on corruption and obstruction of justice charges.
The power debacle has its roots in the government’s decision seven years ago not to adhere to expert advice from Eskom, the government electricity company, to increase production and diversify power sources. The experts warned that by 2007 South Africa would be facing an electricity shortfall – and they were right.
According to South African press reports, police recorded 126,000 armed robberies in the 2006-2007 financial year; exactly a decade ago that figure stood at 70,000.
Ofer Dahan, the Jewish Agency’s shaliach in South Africa, says there has been a dramatic increase in applications for aliya over the past two months. Most of those looking to move to Israel are young singles and young families with one or two children. Dahan says his staff are working round the clock, and have even had to hire outside staff to help cope with the demand. Dahan says there has been a ten percent drop in registration at the two Johannesburg King David schools this year – an indication, he says, of a quickening pace of emigration. Increasingly, many in the community are weighing their love for the country with the fear for their family’s safety – and are invariably coming down on the latter.
While Jews throughout the rest of the country are affected by the power outages, it is really only those living in the greater Johannesburg area that are affected by frequent violent crime. Most of South Africa’s Jews, between 50,000 to 60,000 live in the greater JHB area, while between 12,000-15,000 thousand live in the greater Cape Town area. Dahan says there is a 100 percent increase in interest in aliya from last year, and 300% increase in those opening aliya files over the
past two months.
In 2007, 240 South African Jews and former Israelis made aliya, an increase from 143 people in 2006 and 98 people in 2005. While the overall numbers are small compared to the number of Jews in SA, Dahan says there is a dramatic increase in people coming to inquire about aliya.
Living behind increasingly tall, barbed-wired walls, and having to be escorted into and out of their residences [more and more Johannesburg Jews are living in secure compounds] by private, armed security companies, members of the community, especially the young, are looking at options abroad. Some look to Israel which has a strong and vibrant expatriate community in centers such as Ra’anana, Modi’in and Beit Shemesh, while others look to Australia, America and Canada. The Jewish population of South Africa has dropped from about 120,000 in 1970 to an estimated 75,000 today. In the 1980 some South African Jews left because they couldn’t live under Apartheid. Just before Apartheid ended, in the early 90’s, more Jews left due to uncertainty over the country’s immediate future. Now, some are leaving and many more are thinking about leaving because of a combination of factors, including crime, corruption, non-supply of services and the weak currency, the Rand, which is back to being one of the world’s worst-performing currencies in 2008. And despite the strong growth in certain sectors of the economy, the chronic energy crisis is likely to slice into economic growth as a whole.
One of Johannesburg’s important rabbis, serving in one of the city’s major synagogues, was recently asked by a congregant whether Johannesburg’s Jews should stay or seek out a better, safer life elsewhere. The rabbi answered that he could not make that decision for any of the congregants and that each person would have to decide on their own. While that answer was a neutral one, observers point out that the rabbi didn’t tell the congregants to stay in Johannesburg, as followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe tell their congregants [it is known that the rebbe said that Jews should stay in South Africa because the country would be stable and prosper]. The increasing signs of a possible Jewish emigration have even led to a recent attempt by Sydney’s Jewish community to help Jews emigrate from Africa to Australia – an initiative unceremoniously debunked by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. According to the Jewish Agency, of the Jews that leave Johannesburg about a third go to Australia, and two-thirds to Israel and other places. In a first for the agency, it is bringing a full planeload of South African olim in July.
While acknowledging the general sentiment of dismay, anger and creeping negativity about the country and its future amongst the Jewish population, Geoff Sifrin, editor of the South African Jewish Report, says there is still a lot going for the country, and that even if things sometimes feel like they’re falling apart, “South Africa is definitely not falling apart.” Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone from his editorial offices in Johannesburg, Sifrin says the electricity outages have made putting out his weekly paper more of a challenge than usual, with his team frantically looking over final proofs and sending to the printer before the electricity cuts out. The power crisis “says a lot about where this country is headed,” Sifrin says. But electricity and government ineptitude, no matter how frustrating, are things people can live with and work around. The feeling of a lack of personal safety is much harder to live with. “Questions about staying or leaving are more prevalent in people’s minds now, especially when there is a combination of negative events like the Sheldon Cohen killing and the power cuts,” Sifrin says. Sifrin points out that many of the successful companies having a positive effect on the South African economy were started by, and are run by young Jewish businessmen, and that on the whole, the community is doing very well.
Many Joburg Jews knew Sheldon Cohen, 47 at the time of his death, a successful businessman and contributor to the community. He was head boy of his school and a junior city councilman. He always came to pick up Noah from soccer practice. What shocked the community was the senseless nature of his murder: the man was gunned down while minding his own business and waiting for his son to finish soccer practice. Cohen, the former chief executive of Amalgamated Appliances, was murdered at about 8pm last Monday outside the Balfour Alexandra Football Club, in Highlands North, not far from the neighborhood of Glenhazel, a major Jewish population center in Johannesburg. The fact that the murder occurred so close to their neighborhood also has the community shaken. Cohen’s killers are still at large.
There is even talk that South Africa may lose its hosting of the 2010 World Cup if the country cannot get its crime problem down and increase its electricity production. For many, this scenario would signal that South Africa has not lived up to the promise it held after the fall of Apartheid, and that it has, officially, taken a turn for the worse.
Click here to read a thorough analysis of the current situation in South Africa [hat tip to Dovi Myers]
By the way, its not just the Jews who are thinking about leaving. This article says skilled professionals are deserting SA in droves.