Donwald Pressly: Beware lurking racial nationalism. ‘We are all Jews now’

Whenever the race topic is brought to light, ones biggest concern is standing on the wrong toes. As no matter what is said, someone is going to feel aggrieved. The latest sumission by Cape Messenger editor Donwald Pressly, is most likely no different and draws on Jewish history from retired University of Cape Town professor Milton Shain. Shain relfects on the anti-Jewish campaign in South Africa in the 1930s and 40s. And the dangers of a new kind of racial nationalism is emerging in current day South Africa, which is now directing its antagonism towards the white minority. Another worthwhile read. – Stuart Lowman

By Donwald Pressly*

Donwald Pressly, Cape Messenger editor.
Donwald Pressly, Cape Messenger editor.

For any form of xenophobia, one has to have a target group to focus one’s antagonism and the building up of a negative stereotype of that group over a significant period.

Shain, who addressed the Cape Town Press Club on the lessons to be learnt from the anti-Jewish sentiments of the 1930s and 1940s in South Africa, said that the anti-Semitic sentiments had been born on the diamond fields of South Africa in the 1870s and 1880s. By the time of the Union of South Africa in 1910 there was a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment floating about.

There was the caricature of Hoggenheimer, the Jewish financier, but the Jewish smous in rural towns was often “a figure of fun” or sometimes a lot worse. In the first World World War, Jews were accused of shirking the war cause – even though they joined in “in more than their (representative) numbers,” reported Shain.

With the 1917 revolution in Russia, the Bolshevik revolutionary radical was mixed with the other stereotype of the capitalist financier monopolist to stereotype Jews. This imagery was predominant in the South African media of the Union period. By 1930 Interior Minister DF Malan piloted through the Quota Act stopping East European Jews from coming to South Africa. The legislation was supported by the political parties and by English speakers and Afrikaans speakers alike. “That was not an addition to society that one wanted,” reported Shain. This antagonism against Jews was tied to the poor white problem and the Great Depression which started in 1929. One in five whites (mainly Afrikaners) lived below the poverty datum line. This fed into xenophobia and prejudice in South Africa and in the white population – which at that stage, of course, called the political shots.


It was the United Party – the combined party of General James Barry Hertzog and General Jan Smuts – which in October 1937 closed the loopholes in the Quota Act of 1930. This stopped West European Jews from coming into South Africa. The father of current Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, whose paternal line is German Jewish, managed to escape Nazi Germany on a ship bound for Cape Town in 1939. The reasons for this was it was likely that the Zille family already had family members in South Africa, allowing some Jews to escape Nazi Germany even after the 1937 loopholes had been closed.

Shain says that the coming to power of the National Party in 1948 which had elements of pro-Nazi support among its ranks, ironically saw the end to the publicly-articulated hostile campaign against the Jews. Prime Minister DF Malan (the same minister who passed the Quota Act) did a bit of an about turn. He insisted he had never been anti-Semitic. He was one of the first heads of state to visit Israel and wrote a forward to the Chief Rabbi’s book on the History of the Jews in South Africa. Shain said the anti-Jewish campaign in South Africa pretty much died a political death – although there were little bleats of it at various stages in the country in the 1950s and the republican period.

Read also: Trevor Jennings: SA – a light for the world. Let’s start the conversation.

We are all Jews now

Now, he was concerned that the focus of antagonistic racial nationalistic attention was white South Africans. While Julius Malema represented an extreme form of racialism nationalism, anti-white sentiment was starting to creep into the rhetoric of the governing African National Congress, which had been built on a foundation of non-racialism. While in the new South Africa non-racial constitution was “good for minorities” of all kinds – including Jews and South Africa whites in general – on paper, he warned that a new target group had been found to demonise. These were whites.

An academic friend of his said to his children at the advent of democracy in 1994. “We are all Jews now.” What he meant by that was that whites were now a minority and that minority would have to confront the future “not as a privileged class in an old order”.

Read also: James Myburgh: SA intelligentsia descended into ‘racial madness’

Indeed, there was much evidence that a “hostile stereotype” was being built about whites. It, in particular, focused on “white monopoly capitalism” and that whites were “inherently racist” and that whites had “not atoned” for their racist sins from apartheid. On top of this is that all the land had been stolen from the blacks, whites had derived their wealth from black exploitation and that the country is owned and dominated by whites. While there were elements of truth in all of this – like the Jews had benefited financially from the Weimar republic in Germany in the 1920s – “this (message) can be dangerous in a fragilie society… a target has been found… (we) have to be very careful”.

“If you look at those factors and the way in which Jews were targeted in the 1930s and 1940s… there is a potential for a white problem today,” said Shain. While there was no doubt, that whites continued to be “on the top of the pile”, but there was a need to fight for non-racialism using the country’s Chapter 9 institutions. South Africans mustn’t allow the constitution to be minimised and in the rocky road going forward, its infringements had to be challenged.

  • Donwald Pressly, editor, Cape Messenger
  • Professor Milton Shain, emeritus professor of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town and former Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, is the author of A Perfect Storm, Antisemitism in South Africa 1930 to 1948. It is published by Jonathan Ball.
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