Friday, 18 April 2014

Should we be afraid

I remember Johannesburg in late 1976 – the riots, which started in Soweto in June of that year, had spread to other townships including Alexandra, a few miles from where we lived. The atmosphere was tense and uneasy. We knew that the press was censored so you never knew what was rumour or fact – no Internet nor overseas media.

We had returned to Johannesburg from London in 1970 to be closer to family but had not really settled.  While on the surface life was comfortable we began to realise that if we were not part of the solution we were part of the problem and by this point had decided to return to London.

My husband had two members of staff, an black African woman and a white Swedish woman. The black woman went out at lunchtime one day and was handed a leaflet which she was told to give to her white employer and which she did. She shrugged when she handed it to my husband and was fairly dismissive. It was badly reproduced, lots of typos and poor grammar but the message was clear – a certain day was declared “kill a white baby day” and domestic staff were urged to rise up and do that. Who produced the leaflet we never knew – a group, a couple of extremists, a political party – we never knew. The day passed like every other day.

I was concerned enough to go to the nursery school nearby where our children were and speak to the principal.  She showed me how the school had been designed so that it could be closed off – all windows faced into the courtyard - and there was a secret exit further down the road.  I was reassured, but convinced that I didn’t was to live my life like this.  (She was an amazing woman – Dr Unez Smuts (a great-niece of former Prime Minister General Jan Smuts) the first female minister in the Congregational Church of Southern Africa. She was a truly wise woman and I used to listen to her on the “Epilogue” SABC’s equivalent of Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. She retired some years ago and in googling her I see that the property is on the market – read about Dr Smuts and St Stephen's School

Why am I writing about this now? Last night we saw a press conference with John Kerry speaking about the talks that had concluded in Geneva about the Ukraine.  I have no idea who are the good guys and the bad guys, who is right and who is wrong but one comment he made which struck me was about a leaflet distributed in Donetsk to Jews leaving the synagogue after the Passover service. It called for all Jews over 16 years old to register as Jews and supply a detailed list of all the property they own, or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated.

It would now appear that these are not official (whatever that means in this context) and that they are a few individuals trying to provoke unrest.  To some extent they have succeeded as this news has reverberated amongst the Jewish communities in many countries.  This is an unsettling time of the year – Passover marks the flight of the Jews from slavery in Egypt – emotions are nearer the surface than usual perhaps.

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