The South African Jewish community traces its origins to the influx of a large number of British settlers in 1820, amongst which were three Jewish families and a handful of individuals. In 1841, seventeen Jews organised the first Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town, called the Tikvat Israel Congregation. Thereafter, the community grew slowly but steadily until the discovery of diamonds (1869) and gold (1886), combined with the massive worldwide migration of East European Jewry at the end of the 19th Century, saw its numbers being dramatically augmented.

To illustrate this remarkably rapid growth of the South African Jewish population, one need only consult the relevant census figures [1]. In 1880, there were no more than an estimated 4,000 Jews out of a total white population of 474,309, less than 1% of the total. A mere quarter of a century later, the figure had leapt to 38,101 out of 1,116,806, now comprising 3.4%. The community continued to grow over the next three decades, to 46,919 in 1911, 62,103 in 1921, 71,816 in 1926 and 90,645 in 1936. By the latter date, Jews constituted 4.5% of the white population, which meant that nearly one white person in twenty at the time was Jewish. Thereafter, while the Jewish population continued to increase, the general white population increased somewhat faster, so that the relative proportion of Jews gradually shrunk over the next seven decades.

In 1946, there were 104,156 Jews in South Africa, 4.4% of the total white population of 2,372,690. In 1960, while having increased to 114,762, it was only 3.7% of the white population and 3.1% in 1970 when it reached a peak of 118,200. Thereafter the community, after nearly a century of growth, began steadily decreasing. In 1980, it had dropped slightly to 117,963 (2.6% of the total white population of 4,551,068) and in 1991, was estimated at 105,711. Today, the Jewish population is estimated as being around 70-80 000 souls, well under 2% of the white population but, more significantly in a post-apartheid, majority rule society, no more than 0.2% of the total population of almost 50 million.

Most South African Jews today trace their origins to the arrival of East European immigrants, a high proportion of whom originated from Lithuania, during the growth years of 1880-1940. During the 1930s, there was a further influx from Germany as a result of Nazi persecution and from the 1970s, from Israel and a number of southern African states where there had at one time been reasonably substantial Jewish populations. The latter included Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia, or, as they were then called, Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and South West Africa. In the case of Zimbabwe, the Jewish population reached a peak of around 8,000 in the mid-1960s [2]. However, it went into steady decline thereafter following the outbreak of war between the ruling white minority regime and the black majority the following decade and even more so after the attainment of black majority rule in 1980 and the political and economic crisis that has beset the country in recent years. It is not known exactly what proportion of the former Southern African Jewish communities ultimately found their way to South Africa, but it is thought to be substantial.

As the community grew, both in numbers and influence, so did Jewish communal institutions begin emerge. The South African Zionist Federation was founded in 1898, only one year after the inaugural World Zionist Conference in Switzerland. The SAZF overshadowed the activities of all its communal rivals for the best part of the next 80 years or so, a testimony to the enormous groundswell of support for Zionism and the State of Israel that has traditionally been regarded as an outstanding feature of the South African Jewish community.

The Transvaal branch of the Jewish Board of Deputies was established in 1903 and the Cape branch a year later. The two branches merged to form the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) in 1912. The immediate reason for the formation of the Board concerned problems relating to Jewish immigration, in which anti-Alien legislation in the Transvaal, Natal and Cape at first served to exclude Yiddish-speakers. During these early years, the SAJBD successfully lobbied to have Yiddish recognized as a European language for immigration purposes. The SAJBD had a relatively low profile in the Jewish community until the 1930s, when a radical upsurge in antisemitism pushed it to the forefront of South African Jewish communal life, almost on a par with the SAZF.

Despite attrition through emigration, South African Jewry remains by far the largest Jewish community on the African continent. Most South African Jews today live in Johannesburg (50,000) and Cape Town (16,000), while the other main centres are Durban (2,700) and Pretoria (1,500). Originally, the community was evenly spread throughout the country, but the rural communities began declining shortly after World War II and are today largely defunct.

The Jewish community is also, from a communal infrastructure point of view, remarkably well-organised and cohesive, with a comprehensive network of welfare, educational, political and Zionist institutions in every major Jewish population centre. The acknowledged Jewish civil rights organisation is the SAJBD, the premier Jewish civil rights promoter that, amongst other things, monitors levels of antisemitism in the country and where necessary takes action. The SAJBD seeks to foster good relations with the Government of the day and meets regularly with key political leaders from across the political spectrum.

In the religious sphere, South African Jews are overwhelmingly affiliated to Orthodox congregations, comprising some 88% of the total, even if the majority of those who attend Orthodox synagogues are not, in fact, fully Orthodox in their personal practice. The Progressive movement accounts for most of the remaining affiliated Jews and there is one small Conservative congregation in Johannesburg. The latter broke away from the Progressive movement in the early 1990s, significantly weakening it, but failing to make any inroads itself into the broader Jewish community.

[1] The following census figures can be found in Dubb A A, The Jewish Population of South Africa: The 1991 Sociodemographic Survey, Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, University of Cape Town, Cape Town 1994, p7.

[2] ”Our First Hundred Years” – Centenary Brochure of the Harare Hebrew Congregation, June 1995.