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Sunday, 24 April 2016

The genesis of apartheid in South Africa


The book "SOAP TO SENATE: A GERMAN JEW AT THE DAWN OF APARTHEID" by Adam Yamey is the story of an enterprising man. His life was dedicated to improving the lot of those who were less fortunate than him, as well as advancing his own family. He lived in South Africa during the gestation period of apartheid  that was completed a dozen years after his death. Had there been more men who acted as he did, it is possible that apartheid might never have seen the light of day.

The man was my great-grandfather, the late Senator Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936). 

At the age of eighteen, he migrated from Germany to King Williams Town in the eastern part of the Cape Colony (in what is now ‘South Africa’). During the 56 years that he lived there, he served his adopted country and its people generously. He was a ‘Victorian’ man. However, he stood out s being unusual amongst his contemporaries because he tried to counter the relentlessly racist tide in South African governmental policy-making - something that he was able both to observe first-hand and also to criticise in the positions of public office that he occupied for many decades.

Ten years after Franz’s death, Steve Biko, the black anti-apartheid activist, was born in the King Williams Town (‘King’). This man, a founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, was callously murdered by the South African apartheid government in 1977. They were terrified by him, his ideas, and his powerful influence. In 2003 when I visited the Steve Biko Foundation headquarters in King, I was shown a room that contained a number of commemorative wall plaques. Each of these celebrated someone who was considered to have been important by the Foundation. With the exception of one, all of the plaques commemorated black Africans involved in the struggles for their rights. The exception was one to remember my great-grandfather. At first sight, there would appear to be little to link a German Jewish immigrant, such as Franz was, with a martyr to the cause of freedom of the black people in South Africa. However, there is a connection. Biko was born and also lived in an African ‘township’ in King Williams Town. Steve’s birthplace, Ginsberg Township, was named in honour of my great-grandfather. Franz wanted it built to give his African workers better housing.

Franz arrived in South Africa with a high-school German education, and then began working as a photographer’s assistant. Within a few years, he became one of King Williams Town’s leading industrialists. Soon after that, he entered local, and then, national politics. In 1927, he was awarded a great honour: he was elected a Senator in the South African Parliament, the first Jew to be so elected.

This book describes the life of my great-grandfather, who left Germany both to seek his fortune and also to escape religious prejudice. In his adopted country, South Africa, he found himself privileged to be a white man accepted by other Europeans on the basis of merit rather than religious beliefs. However, being a man of conscience with great sympathy for his non-European neighbours, he tried to strike a moral balance between easing the lot of his severely disadvantaged non-white compatriots and safeguarding the superior advantages of the white man. Franz exemplified the words of the famous Jewish scholar Hillel the Elder:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?

The book is fully illustrated with photographs and maps




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