OPINION: With the help of our friends from the beautiful south

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OPINION: With the help of our friends from the beautiful south

Zaki Cooper, co-founder of Integra, reflects on the contribution of South African Jews on the eve of a state visit by President Cyril Ramaphosa

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa with President Joe Biden earlier this year.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa with President Joe Biden earlier this year.

I have never set foot in South Africa but I feel a connection to the country. That’s probably because three of my closest friends hail from the “rainbow nation”, all intelligent, warm-spirited and great company. I have therefore personally befitted from the influx of South African Jews to Britain. On the eve of the state visit by South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa to the UK, King Charles’ first as sovereign, it’s time to reflect on the contribution of South African Jews to Britain.

An academic study by Royal Holloway, published in 2010, showed a successful community with high-levels of charitable giving. South African Jews in Britain typically combine a strong love for Israel with an attachment to their motherland, often reinforced through familial connections. Numbering only a few thousand in Britain, they have made an outsized contribution to our community and the country.

The end of apartheid, culminating in Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990, was a wonderful and necessary development, but has led to upheaval which resulted in many South African Jews emigrating (mainly to Israel, the USA and Britain).

Zaki Cooper

South Africans have occupied leading positions in our community. The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, was born in Johannesburg but eventually moved to the UK in 1992, via Israel and Ireland. He was not the first Chief Rabbi to have a connection with South Africa. Rabbi Joseph Hertz, who held the position from 1913 to 1946, was a community rabbi at Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg from 1898 to 1911.

The mining businessman, Sir Mick Davis, gave distinguished service as a community leader. He was chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council for eight years, before becoming CEO of the Conservative Party, helping to ensure Jeremy Corbyn did not become PM.

Other South African business leaders and entrepreneurs have given generous philanthropy and service to the community. This includes the retail tycoon Natie Kirsch (who was the primary supporter of the rebuild of South Hampstead Synagogue), the pharmaceuticals boss Isaac Kaye and the tech entrepreneurs Robin and Saul Klein.

Others successful entrepreneurs who give to Jewish charities include Martin Moshal and Sean Melnick.

There have been plenty of South Africa Jews who made a splash in British business and public life. Bernard and Ian Kantor, as well as Stephen Koseff, founded Investec bank and shook up financial services. The financier Sir Bradley Fried recently stood down as Chairman of the Court of the Bank of England, one of the most important positions in the city.

South African-born mining businessman and community leader Sir Mick Davis

Sir Sydney Lipworth, who was co-founder of Hambro Life Assurance (now Zurich Financial Services), became chairman of the Competition Commission and was a substantial philanthropist. Sir Sydney Kentridge KC, who just turned 100, was one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers during the trials and a highly respected barrister in the UK.

Away from finance and the professions, South African Jews have made an impact on arts and the creative industries. The actors Sir Anthony Sher (who died last year) and Dame Janet Suzman, became household names playing a series of Shakespearean and other prominent roles. The interior designer Kelly Hoppen, born in Cape Town, achieved success and appeared on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den.

Back to our community, South African Jewry has supplied its fair share of inspiring rabbis and educators to our community. Rabbi Barry Marcus and Rabbi Shlomo Levin (and his family) have had a galvanising impact on different communities, while the classes of Rabbi Akiva Tatz have been attended by thousands of people over the years. There are many other examples, particular in the religious outreach movement.

It’s not only outstanding people but powerful ideas that we have imported. Shabbat UK was taken from the concept developed by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in South Africa. Biltong, the dried, cured meat hailing from southern Africa, has become popular in parts of north-west London.

The story of South Africans in Britain goes way beyond the Jewish community, of course. There are an estimated 250,000 South Africans in the country.

Those mentioned in this article have done a lot for our community and our country. Of course, it’s not an exhaustive list and there are others. Those who’ve left their homeland to come here to pursue a new life have enriched their new country.

They have managed to balance a three-pronged identity of British, South African and Jewish. As we welcome the South African president for this week’s state visit, we can reflect that South Africa’s loss has most certainly been our gain.

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