Darker clouds over a Diaspora dream

South African Jews in droves are abandoning South Africa for greener pastures? Do even the émigrés grasp what broke their beautiful dream?

Steve Apfel, | updated: 11:59

Steve Apfel
Steve Apfel
INN:SA

The clouds were dark in March 2016, when “The State of World Jewry” was published with my take on South Africa. “Today it is difficult for a Jew not to feel the weight of being a South African. Part of the problem is that all social and economic indicators are heading to hell in a basket.”

Three years later it is difficult for a Jew to admit that the basket has indeed arrived. Hell is not the end of the world, though. Life in a basket case country is not entirely bad. After all, how much lower can indicators head?

The economy is already in ICU. In hell you have to deal with elements more or less stable, more or less controllable, more or less mad. Only one thing really matters – to recognise what brought you to hell and what will keep you there unless you learn how you got to hell.   

So it is bigger than a Greek tragedy that the lesson has been lost on, of all people, Jews! Before the ballot in May I heard a member of my shul in Houghton, Johannesburg express the popular concern: “The new President must be allowed to do what he needs to do.” Like most ideas in fashion, it lacks insight. The statement, true in every word, is all together false. How so?

Take a well known example. News that the UN condemned Israel for disproportionate force is completely true. By omitting the all-important UN’s record on Israel, the news is wholly fake. So it is with the statement that the “President must be allowed to do what he needs to do”. Does he know what he needs to do? Do we know what he needs to do? Sure – he needs to rescue a broken down country by fixing all the broken parts: the power and water utilities, the police and the courts, the national airline and railway, and every public service gone to hell. And sure, to work such miracles he will need to root out corruption and incompetence.

Every word of this may be true, all of it is false. The doctor who wants to cure your fever instead of your flu is false the same way.


The slummy state schools and hospitals and courts and policing and power grid and wholesale looting are merely symptoms. A discarded meritocracy is the fundamental cause.
What actually ruined the Diaspora dream? What is making Jews in droves abandon South Africa for greener pastures? Do even the émigrés grasp what broke their beautiful dream?

Probably they’d blink if told it was the missing M word. A Merit-free society is a doomed society. Slummy state schools and hospitals and courts and policing and power grid and wholesale looting are symptoms. A discarded meritocracy is the fundamental cause.

South Africa went to hell in a basket after merit became the last consideration for filling jobs. Incompetence! your mind flashes. Not just. Corruption. Racial tensions. Service delivery protests. The culture of entitlement. Arrogance in high office. Treating public coffers as a piggy bank. Awarding tenders to pals. Running the country to ruin. Everything goes back to when merit was ditched. A society that regards Merit as a dirty word is ripe for destruction.   

Suppose you had zero merits relevant to power generation. You land a plum job on the strength of your colour, your gender, your standing in the political party, your crook of a friend in the President’s Cabinet. There you are, taking it easy in the executive chair. Would you not be disposed to do favours for your pals? Especially since law and order is a bought commodity, which will never catch up with you. Why not! What is not earned is not valued. Easy come easy go is the mother of a witch’s brew of indolence, turpitude and brazen extravagance.

Before a society celebrates the defeat of an evil system it should look at itself in the mirror.

Today investors, including the state’s own pension fund, avoid the power utility it owns like the plague.

Under wicked Apartheid the market rated the bonds of this utility a perfect risk-free asset. Under Apartheid the railways ran like clockwork. State schools were the equal of any in the world, and ran a tight ship. State hospitals were models for Britain to emulate.

Merit was king. Why should it not work as well for a democracy rich in talent as it worked for evil Apartheid?

At the installation of South Africa’s new President, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein asked God to bless the incumbent. Unless President Ramaphosa performs a somersault and rebuilds a meritocracy, even a blessing from above can’t remake the ruined Diaspora dream. That will need an open miracle.

As for now, Jewry will have to take heart from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s prophecy: South Africa will be good for Jews until and after Moshiach comes.  




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