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Coronavirus may be the last straw to spur South Africa’s Jews to leave in large numbers

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The Nelson Mandela statue in Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg

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When I reflect back on my arrival in South Africa in September 2010, it was a place full of hope and cautious optimism. South Africa had just hosted the FIFA World Cup, GDP growth was almost identical to developed economies such as Canada, and the country’s democracy was maturing.

In a 2005 report conducted by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), 92 per cent of respondents were “likely to stay in South Africa over the next five years.” It was this period of national optimism and possibility that lured me from the US to South Africa, where I have lived for close to a decade as a citizen.

But times have changed for South Africa and its Jews. A new report by UCT’s Kaplan Centre and the U.K.’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research was conducted in 2019. The report’s introduction contextualized, “The past two decades began with a sustained period of rapid economic growth that was interrupted by the global financial crisis, and ended with a long period of economic and political malaise.”

Why was there such a massive shift in attitude between 2005 and 2019? To a large extent, it was due to the increasing incompetence of the government. In 2009, Jacob Zuma became the president of South Africa, and used his nine years in power to institutionalize corruption, weaken the rule of law and hollow out the state’s ability to deliver the most basic services to its 58 million citizens, of which 40 per cent live in poverty.

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Rolling blackouts, or load shedding, became commonplace, due to corruption and lack of planning at the state-owned electricity company. The term “state capture” was coined during Zuma’s nearly two terms in office, during which an estimated C$20 billion were stolen from the state by Zuma and his cronies. Even though Zuma resigned in February 2018, it was no surprise that 95 per cent of Jews surveyed in 2019 still indicated that government corruption was a “very big problem.”

“The Zuma presidency created an environment of instability and uncertainty, upon which it would be impossible to lay a foundation for one’s future,” said Aiden Dinsdale, a 27-year-old consultant who immigrated from Johannesburg to Toronto six months ago.

Following South Africa’s 2001 census (which included religion), there was a broad consensus that South Africa’s Jewish population was approximately 70,000, down from its peak of close to 120,000 in the 1970s. “Since 2001, the community has been saying that there are at least 70,000 Jews in South Africa, despite evidence of continued emigration,” said Professor Adam Mendelsohn, Director of the Kaplan Centre.

Maxi Discount Kosher Butcher is one of about a dozen kosher shops in Johannesburg, South Africa, all of which may see fewer customers due to rapid emigration of Jews

According to the new report, South Africa’s Jewish community is now numbered at 52,300, meaning nearly a quarter have emigrated since 2001. This figure is significant because, for the first time, a minority of South African-born Jews still live in the country. This shocking statistic was not received well by all. “Our estimate is significantly lower than some communal leaders expected or wanted,” admitted Mendelsohn.

David Saks, Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), said his organization believes the community’s size is closer to 60,000. SAJBD will conduct a separate study in the near future. Between deaths and emigration, Saks estimates the community is losing between 700 and 1,000 members a year.

David Saks, Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says the community is losing up to a thousand Jews to emigration per year

Demographics aside, there was a marked difference between 2005 and 2019 in how South Africa’s Jews feel about their future. In 2005, only seven per cent of Jews thought they were likely to leave South Africa over the next five years, whereas in 2019 it jumped to fifteen percent. Most alarmingly, 43 per cent considered leaving South Africa permanently in 2018-19.

Of the 15 percent likely to leave in the next five years, 51 per cent listed Israel as their top choice country. Though home to a large South African Jewish ex-pat population, Canada has remained consistent at four percent as a top choice country in both 2005 and 2019. According to the Israel Aliyah Centre in South Africa, 417 citizens immigrated to Israel in 2019. This is a very significant increase, considering that between 2005 and 2014, an average of just 75 immigrated annually to Israel.

Prior to South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 in December, business confidence was already at its lowest since 1985, and emigration was a popular topic in Jewish circles. Prior to the outbreak of Coronavirus, “more than half of my friends had already left, and those who were still in South Africa were either making active moves to emigrate or were considering it,” recalled Dinsdale.

According to Canadian-born South African economist Miriam Altman, who serves on the National Planning Commission of the Presidency, the pandemic could result in South Africa’s unemployment rate increasing from 29 to 36 per cent in a best-case scenario, and up to 43 per cent in a worst-case scenario; she estimates that the GDP change for 2020 could be anywhere from negative 10 per cent to negative 20 per cent.

Canadian-born South African economist Miriam Altman, who serves on the National Planning Commission of the Presidency, said the pandemic could result in South Africa’s unemployment rate increasing from 29 to 36 per cent | Photo: Miriam Altman (Twitter)

What do these economic scenarios mean for a community that was already very concerned about the country’s trajectory prior to the pandemic? “If anything, the crisis will exacerbate many of the other push factors causing individuals to leave the country, such as the current state of the South African economy,” predicted Dinsdale.

“We also have to accept that unless South Africa substantially turns a corner after more than a decade of decline, emigration rates will inevitably continue,” said Saks.

Boston-born Dan Brotman is an American/Israeli/South African entrepreneur, activist and writer currently based in Johannesburg. During his almost decade in South Africa, he co-founded one of the country’s leading global business immersion companies, served as Executive Director of the South Africa-Israel Forum and managed Media & Public Affairs for the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. He is a regular commentator in the South African media on issues related to the Jewish community and public policy. His column in TheJ.ca focuses on stories in the Jewish world outside of North America and Israel.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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