Delegates from seven Sub-Saharan African countries gathered
in Johannesburg at the end of August to attend the 11th
annual meeting of the African Jewish Congress.
Representatives from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia,
Zimbabwe and Kenya, as well as the hosts, South Africa, took
part in the deliberations, reporting on developments in their
respective countries. Reports on behalf of Mauritius,
Mozambique and Madagascar were given by AJC Spiritual Leader
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, while AJC President Mervyn Smith
reported briefly on behalf of Zambia.
The ongoing political and economic crisis in Zimbabwe was one
of the main items of discussion. Peter Sternberg, President
of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies, said that
Zimbabwe's aged Jewish community now numbered only about 300
and was destined to decline still further. Somehow, the
community is still able to maintain its main communal
organizations, including three shuls and the Jewish aged
home, Savyon Lodge, in Bulawayo. Since daily services in
Bulawayo took place at Savyon Lodge, it was possible to
obtain a daily minyan, but in Harare, the capital, daily
services had fallen away as fuel shortages made it impossible
for enough men to get to shul.
Much discussion took place on whether the South African
Jewish community should openly condemn human rights abuses in
Zimbabwe. Many delegates were strongly of the opinion that
Jews had a moral duty to do so, although Sternberg expressed
scepticism as to the efficacy of such statements.
Also discussed was Mugabe's statement earlier this year on
SATV that Zimbabwe's economic decline was in part due to the
Jews leaving. Sternberg said that his Board had decided not
to register any protest against this since this would not
have achieved anything and in any case hardly anyone in
Zimbabwe had heard of the broadcast. So far as the future
went, Sternberg said that despite the stalking famine and
deep anti-Mugabe feeling in the cities, he did not anticipate
any violent popular uprising. The attitude of the population
was one of cowed resignation, epitomized by the attitude:
"Without food we will die. Tell us where we must lie down and
In contrast to the gloomy reports from Zimbabwe, both Richard
Lyons (Botswana) and Harold Pukewitz (Namibia) spoke
positively about their respective countries, emphasizing that
their government and judiciary was established on a sound
The main focus of the reports by the various delegates was
how their small Jewish communities are coping in the face of
diminishing numbers and geographical isolation and the role
of the AJC in facilitating the maintenance of Jewish life in
those localities. Most of the African Jewish communities
represented are continuing to shrink. Namibia now has only
ten Jewish families, down from a high of 120 in the 1960s,
and only about fifty Jews remain in Zambia, whose Jewish
population at around 1200 in the immediate post-war era.
However, while scaled down, organized Jewish life continues
in both countries, with assistance from the African Jewish
Congress and Lubavitch emissaries.
The once active community of Maputo (Mozambique) is now
reduced to about a score of individuals. The city's
synagogue, which was opened by Chief Rabbi Landau from
Johannesburg in 1926, was formally returned to the tiny
Jewish community in 1989 after years of being used as a
warehouse. However, it is seldom used and is today seriously
in need of renovation.
Two communities bucking the trend are Botswana and Mauritius,
which have shown modest growth from almost no Jews at all ten
years ago to a few score today. Earlier this year, Mauritian
Jewry celebrated the opening of the first shul and Jewish
communal center on the island.
The third-largest Sub-Saharan African Jewish community after
South Africa and Zimbabwe is Kenya's, a community described
by its President Dr. Vera Somen as "a small community with a
very big heart." About 180 Jews today live in Kenya, mainly
in the capital Nairobi. Only a minority of these are
permanent residents, the majority being Israelis temporarily
based in the country. The centenary of the Nairobi Hebrew
Congregation was celebrated in style in 2004.
Antisemitism rarely, if ever, surfaces in the AJC countries
and even attitudes towards Israel were reported as being
generally fairly positive. In part, this is due to the fact
that a number of their citizens have received training in
agriculture, hydrology and other essential skills as part of
Israel's outreach and upliftment programs on behalf of
developing nations. Active Israel Friendship organizations
today exist in both Mauritius and Madagascar.