Though there were periodical instances of a Jewish presence in South Africa from the initial settling of the land by the Dutch, it was only at the beginning of the 19th Century, when freedom of religion was introduced, that Jews were able to come to South Africa legally. At that time, smaller numbers of Jews arrived from Britain and Germany, and the first Hebrew congregation was established in Cape Town in 1841.
The discovery of diamonds and thereafter of gold from the late 1860s onwards attracted worldwide immigration to South Africa, including significant numbers of Jews. In the 1880s, large numbers of Jews began to arrive from Eastern Europe, mainly Lithuania, and their contributions changed the character of the community – mainly espousing a strong sense of Zionism.
Jews fought on both sides of the Anglo-Boer War, and were awarded equal status to Whites at the war’s conclusion. The Eastern European Jewish influx continued in the early decades of the 20th Century before anti-immigration quotas clamped down on immigration throughout the years leading up to the Holocaust. Jan Christian Smuts, a notable military leader, statesman, and Prime Minister from 1939 to 1948, was a longtime supporter of Zionism, ardently supporting the Balfour agreement, and becoming great friends with future Israeli president Chaim Weizmann. On May 24, 1948, nine days after Israel’s declaration of independence, Smuts’ government granted de facto recognition to the State of Israel, just two days before his United Party was voted out of office and replaced with the pro-apartheid National Party. South Africa was the seventh nation to recognize the newly-formed Jewish state.
The rise of the National Party and implementation of apartheid in 1948 constitutes a complicated legacy for South Africa’s Jewish community. A notably disproportionate number of whites who fought the apartheid system were of Jewish origin, many of them on the far-left of the political spectrum. By contrast it was Percy Yutar, the son of Lithuanian immigrants and South Africa’s first Jewish attorney-general, who famously secured Nelson Mandela’s life conviction in the 1963-4 Rivonia Trial. Helen Suzman, for thirteen years the sole representative of the Progressive Party in Parliament, was a vociferous opponent of the National Party and institution of apartheid. Another Member of Parliament, Harry Schwarz, who had immigrated to South Africa from Nazi Germany, was also a strong opponent of apartheid, serving in numerous shadow cabinets, and later serving as Ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1995 during the transition to democracy.
Mervyn Smith, National Chairman of the SAJBD from 1991 to 1995, was instrumental in the Jewish community’s condemnation of apartheid in 1985 and later efforts to support and contribute to the country’s transition to democracy. Joe Slovo, the leader of the South African Communist Party and leading member of the ANC, became the Minister of Housing under President Mandela in 1994. Ronnie Kasrils, the son of Lithuanian immigrations, served as Minister of Intelligence Services from 2004 to 2008, and Tony Leon, after several successful years as leader of the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance, served as Ambassador to Argentina from 2009 to 2012. Gill Marcus, a prominent member of the ANC in exile, served first as Deputy Minister of Finance and thereafter as Governor of the Reserve Bank. The famed anti-apartheid lawyer Arthur Chaskalson was appointed first as President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa (1994-2001) and thereafter as Chief Justice of South Africa (2001-2005).