By Chaya Singer, Executive Director SAZF Cape Council
Shalom and happy Youth Day South Africa, this is a message to our Cape Town Jewish youth, those who are young at heart, and all those who remember the tragic massacre of young people in Soweto on 16 June 1976.
We unite on Youth Day as South Africans to commemorate a turning point in the struggle for our Democracy, the high-school student led Soweto Uprising, which saw thousands of students mobilise and march in protest of apartheid education policies.
176 school learners were brutally shot dead, and many more wounded and detained. We unite on Youth Day as South Africans to remember.
I’d like to take a moment, to also remember the life and legacy of a Jew, a Zionist — and a deeply committed South African, who also lost his life on that tragic day, in the course of his work to improve the lives of Soweto youth, Dr Melville Edelstein.
Dr Edelstein was born in King Williams Town in 1919. As recounted to me by his daughter Janet, he was both a religious and liberal Jew, a humanitarian, and a Zionist who loved Israel. He traveled to Israel in 1954 and deeply considered making aliya but was torn about leaving South Africa and his family. While in Israel, Edelstein made a trip to the kibbutz Sde Boker and stayed with David Ben-Gurion, and his wife Paula. When he discussed his dilemma, Paula told him that “happiness resides in the bluebird of your back garden.” So he moved back to South Africa and started doing social work in Soweto.
Edelstein was a popular and well-loved member of the Soweto community and was employed by a government department which dealt with welfare in the community, focusing on education and employment particularly of young people and the disabled. He warned the government that violence would occur if oppressive apartheid laws were not reviewed and revoked. He fought for the right to education for Soweto youth, but his report was ignored.
On the day the protests began, Edelstein was opening a new employment centre. When he heard about the protests, he rushed back to his offices, worried about the safety of his co-workers. He was found by reporter Peter Magubane. He had been stoned to death by the mob, and there was a protest sign hanging around his neck. Magubane said, “If they’d known who he was, this would never have happened.” A sentiment confirmed by Murphy Marode, as Meville Edelstein was loved as a peacemaker.
I recall the 2017 National Youth Day ceremony when a plaque commemorating the contribution of Edelstein to the people of Soweto was unveiled near the Morris Isaacson High School, built by Jewish philanthropist Morris Isaacson in 1956. Melville Edelstein’s grandson Levi celebrated his barmitzvah with an Aliya in the heart of Soweto, beside the plaque, in the company of government representatives and ANC struggle stalwarts, to honour the life and tragic death of his grandfather Melville.
Dr. Edelstein had been active in the Jewish community and volunteered at The South African Jewish orphanage, Arcadia. He was a member of the Sydenham-Highlands North Hebrew Congregation and the synagogue also houses a plaque erected by the Jewish community commemorating his work and contribution.
As South African Jews, we have a legacy of courageous Jews who fought and gave their lives at the forefront of the struggle to end apartheid and to create our rainbow nation with the freedoms enshrined in our constitution. Many were proud Jews, inspired by the humanitarian tenets of Judaism. Some were socialists, communists, libertarians, and yes many were Zionists.
To those with short memories who would seek to take this proud legacy from us as a community, to those detractors who would undermine the social cohesion that unites us as South Africans, and incite hatred towards us, boycotting our businesses and making our children feel unsafe, to those who undermine our representative civil rights and religious organisations, elected leaders and institutions, to opportunists who would vilify us and undermine the very freedoms of association, religion, and expression our Jewish grandparents and many others fought and died for, know this:
You do not speak for all Jewish anti-apartheid activists or pacifists, or for those who were jailed, exiled or made the ultimate sacrifice and aren’t here to speak for themselves. You do not speak in my name. And you will not make me feel lesser because I am a Jew, because I am white, because I am a Zionist.
Over the last few weeks, some young people in our community have experienced intimidation and threats, particularly online, but also on university campuses and at schools around the country.
Youth Day reminds us that we are all South Africans. We all share in the legacy of our reconciliation and we all need to work towards social cohesion and building our rainbow nation.
“Happiness resides in the bluebird of your back garden.”
*The above is the full script of the video released by the SAZF (Cape Council) in honour of Youth Day. Click here to watch.
• Published in the PDF edition of the July 2021 issue – Download here.
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