The heyday of anti-Semitism in SA, and its relevance for today

David Saks writes on Milton Shain's new book "A Perfect Storm: Antisemitism in South Africa 1930-1948"


It is not generally known today that originally, when pundits and politicians spoke about the problem of ‘racism’ in South Africa, they were referring to tensions between the English and Afrikaner sections of the white community. Only much later did prejudice against what can broadly be termed “people of colour” become an issue; prior to that, it was considered quite normal, even in liberal circles, to hold and express disdainful views about blacks, and for that matter people of mixed race and Asians.

Similarly, prejudice against Jews – whether based on religious or racial grounds or, as was usually the case, on both – was not seen as being something to be particularly embarrassed about. Only after World War II, for various reasons, did antisemitism, at least when openly expressed, become taboo in polite society, and by and large that is the case today.

There was a period, however, when anti-Jewish sentiment in this country took a virulent, programmatic form that went far beyond the relatively casual manner in which it had manifested before.

In the pre-war years, it moved from being a fringe phenomenon to becoming a major issue of public debate, impacting significantly in the political arena as well as on South African law in terms of immigration and freedom of expression.     

In A Perfect Storm: Antisemitism in South Africa 1930-1948, (Jonathan Ball, 2015), Cape Town academic Prof Milton Shain provides the most thorough and detailed analysis of a phenomenon that, to date, has received little scholarly attention outside the Jewish community.

It has considerable value for the fresh insights it provides into the unfolding of white political developments during that time, particularly the rise of the Gesuiwerde Nasionale Party (the book concludes in 1948, the year of the National Party’s fateful election victory) and the rise of a resurgent and aggressive Afrikaner nationalism. Moreover, one can hardly miss the resonance its themes have in terms of what is happening in South Africa in our own times.

Speaking at the book’s Cape Town launch last November, Tony Leon caused ructions by drawing parallels between  South Africa as it was then and the situation today, commenting that, “The presumed power and wealth of the 1930’s Jewish community, finds contemporary expression in the attacks, on all fronts these days, on the white community as a whole in South Africa”.

Back then, Jews were scapegoated as the cause of the country’s economic plight, accused of excessive control of the economy and depicted as being an alien, unassimilable element operating as the agents of sinister foreign powers. This, increasingly, was how whites were being spoken of today.

Even today’s controversial “black empowerment” questions had their counterpart back in the 1930s, when none other than Hendrik Verwoerd argued for quotas limiting the number of Jews in the professions and the economy and thereby facilitate the socio-economic upliftment of the Afrikaner.   

Leon has interesting observations to make as well about Dr D F Malan, leader of the opposition National Party during those years. He makes the point that while not sharing the extreme antisemitic views of the extreme right, Malan did not scruple to exploit such sentiments for political gain, notably when attacking the United Party government of the day.

The situations may differ in many important ways, but it can hardly be denied that today’s ruling party is increasingly resorting to anti-white racial rhetoric as a way of keeping its supporters within the fold. This tactic, of course, has from the outset been at the core of the programme of the EFF. In the Western Cape, ANC Provincial Leader Marius Fransman has even on occasion singled out Jews for special negative attention (such as alleging during a 2013 radio interview that Jewish businessmen were unfairly benefiting at the expense of Muslims through the iniquitous policies of the DA).  

A common theme of antisemitic discourse was that Jews exercised too much economic power, to the detriment of the rest of the white population. Shain records how pro-Nazi agitators like Louis Weichardt, citing “outrageously inflated statistics”, would tell audiences that 90% of licensed hotels, 100% of wholesale butcheries, the stock exchange, theatres and bioscopes”, 70% of retailers and 90% of the press were in Jewish hands.

As was intended, such ‘revelations’ did much to stir up feelings of resentment and distrust against Jews, and to at least some degree we are seeing similarly emotive, and factually questionable, claims being made about whites today. The afore-mentioned Fransman, for example, told the Cape Town Press Club in October 2013 that whites (and particularly Jews) constituted 98% of land owners and property owners.

Shain meticulously details how after 1930, antisemitism shifted from being a fringe phenomenon located essentially in the realm of ideas to the centre of public discourse. It was a major issue, for example, in the 1938 General Election, when it was used by the opposition Gesuiwerde Nasionale Party as a stick with which to beat the government. In addition to this leading to legislation radically cutting down on German Jewish immigration (the Aliens Act of 1937) it involved debating whether to place restrictions on the economic and professional activities of Jews already in the country.

Far from being limited to the Afrikaner community, moreover, such sentiments were common currency amongst English speakers, including not a few prominent intellectuals. Nevertheless, it was within Afrikaner nationalist circles that antisemitism was especially pronounced.

This can be attributed both to the prevalence of severe poverty (‘Poor Whiteism’) in this sector and to the rapid burgeoning of an assertive, exclusive form of Afrikaner nationalism which mirrored in many ways the basic tenets of German National Socialism.

Intense anti-British sentiment, dating back to the defeat and absorption into the Empire of the former Boer republics following the Anglo-Boer War was a major driving force within Afrikaner nationalism, leading many to identify with Britain’s enemies. A similar reason might be advanced to explain why, in its foreign policy, today’s ANC-led government consistently adopts positions antithetical to the Western democracies.      

If parallels can indeed be drawn between pre-war South Africa and our own times, it is vital not to overstate them. Regarding anti-Jewish prejudice, this can only in part be attributed to scapegoating and fears of competition at a time of widespread economic hardship.

As Shain makes clear, the Jew-baiting rhetoric of the time “resonated precisely because a widely shared negative Jewish stereotype had been firmly laid in the preceding decades”. By contrast, anti-white feeling amongst blacks, rather than being driven by crude race or religious-based prejudices, are rooted in very real and bitter historical experiences, even if this often manifests in questionable generalisations, over-statements or factual inaccuracies.

Engrained prejudice dies hard, however. Beneath the surface, racist notions continue to fester, as recent events have made so palpably clear. At the same time, we find resentment over wrongs endured in the past does not simply disappear once the cause of that resentment has been removed.

Rather, it, too, lingers within the collective consciousness of those who have been aggrieved, often resulting in their discriminating against and even oppressing others in their turn. Thus was the case regarding Afrikaner nationalism, which was to great extent was driven by an abiding sense of injustice over their loss of independence to Britain. Are we seeing something similar beginning to unfold within black African politics today?    

Much more, of course, could be said concerning these and other compelling questions raised by A Perfect Storm. Suffice it to say that Shain has produced a great deal more than an account of what was experienced by a minority community within the white population during the pre-war and wartime years. As readers will discover, it provides trenchant new insights into political developments during a watershed period in South African history as well as providing much food for thought with regard to where the country finds itself today.   

David Saks is Associate Director of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

The book can be purchased on Kindle here: Perfect Storm: Antisemitism in South Africa 1930 - 1948