The Jewish community welcomed President De Klerk’s rise to power in 1990 and his decision to dismantle apartheid. Jews stood firmly behind the negotiation process and the first democratic election in 1994. The country’s new Bill of Rights gave complete freedom of religion. While supportive of the new regime, many Jews worry about the future of the Jewish community in South Africa. Concerns included the freedom to practice a full Jewish life individually and collectively, the right to pursue Zionist activities and the continuation of relations between South Africa and Israel.
In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate crimes committed under apartheid. The first Jewish organization to contribute to the Commission was Gesher, a Jewish social action group based in Johannesburg. In the commission’s first report, religious communities (including the Jewish community) were censured for their lack of action against the apartheid regime. Individual and group efforts made by the Jews to fight for justice were noted in the report.
A visit by former South African President Nelson Mandela to Israel in October 1999 marked a process of reconciliation between the two. Because of Israel’s relations with the apartheid regime, Mandela had been critical of Israel in the past. Israelis had also been critical of Mandela because of his relationship with Yasser Arafat and support for the Palestinians.
Prior to the second half of 2003, the Jewish community in South Africa were in a state of transition. Approximately 1,800 Jews left the country every year, primarily due to concerns about crime and the economy. South Africa had the highest violent crime rate in the world, about ten times that of the United States; residences in the middle of cities were often surrounded by electrified ten-foot-high walls topped with barbed wire. The prevalence of crime, and the consequent economic woes, led to the depletion of the Jewish "viable middle," the young and middle aged adults who are needed to sustain the community. Many members of the disproportionately aged population, whose children have left, face problems as they grow ill, as government welfare subsidies have decreased sharply.
Despite the economic and demographic woes, however, the South African communities remained mostly optimistic. The Jewish population is very religious, 80% Orthodox and rising. This increase in religiosity has been attributed to a desire for stability in an otherwise unstable society. Anti-Semitism is negligible, and the intermarriage rate is only 7%. Many of the Jews who remain in the country do so out of the conviction that post-apartheid South Africa needs their support, and will soon pay social and economic dividends; of course, the rest of those who remain do so simply because they cannot afford to leave.
Since the latter half of 2003, South Africa's community of 75,000-80,000 Jews has largely stabilized.