Merle Jacobs: 082 573 5447 /

Introduction to the Jews that contributed to the building of South Africa and the prosperity of Johannesburg.

The story of the Jews connection to the continent of Africa began way back in the 14th century when robust maritime and seafaring activities brought about the creation of the first map, created by a Jew, which plotted the initial 2000km of the African coastline. The work of another famous Jewish astronomer developed the first instruments of navigation used by the Portuguese explorers who navigated the route around the African continent, establishing the sea route to India. Among those on board these expeditions was a Jew who served as an interpreter, speaking Hebrew and Arabic, who was able to communicate with tribes settled along the African coastline, and most likely the first Jew ever to go ashore on the tip of Africa.

The first settlement at the Cape was of Dutch decent, established by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652, a representative of the multinational Dutch East India Company, whose restrictive laws stated that all employees of the company had to be of Protestant Christian denomination. This left very little opportunity for Jews, Catholics or any other religion for that matter, to flourish in this fledgling society. For the next 143 years of Dutch domination in the Cape Colony, Jews working for the company were either converted out of their religion of origin or non-professing. It is strange to note however, that the company went on to acquire a Jewish Chairman back in Holland, where Jews were eventually allowed to invest and become more active in company affairs, due to their growing financial standing and influence in European society.

1795 brought the arrival of the British to the colony as a result of Napoleon & the wars that ensued and the Cape Colony went back and forth under British and Batavian rule for a period of 11 years until in 1806 it reverted to permanent British rule where more religious freedom was granted according to the more tolerant Victorian-British ethos of the time. Jews began arriving in small numbers and began participating in the activities of the growing community. Moneylenders, doctors, lawyers & traders were among the first few to take part.


Now a British Colony, attempts were put in motion to bring more English involvement to this largely Dutch speaking colony and so in 1820, British settlers were brought in to make up the numbers, and settled in the Cape Colony, many in the eastern regions under harsh conditions. Approximately 18 of these '1820 settlers' were Jewish, of which a few came to be instrumental in establishing the first organized Jewish congregation of Cape Town from 1841 onwards.

Clashes between the British & Dutch (Boer) settlers in the Cape Colony saw large numbers of Boers leaving in 1835 and 'trekking' off into the great unknown to take up residence in different parts of the interior, which they considered (falsely) to be 'open' territory for the taking, where most established farms where they could continue with their preferred agrarian existence, but battles over territorial issues with native tribes ensued all along the way.

Jews were among the first major merchant capitalists and big-time entrepreneurs in the mid 19th century, establishing trading networks in the interior, developing the country's first wool markets with international reach, cold storage plants, shipping industries and financing enterprises which propelled the country's transition from a subsistence to a cash economy and the issuing of the country's first bank note.

1867 saw the discovery of the first diamond on the banks of the Orange River in disputed territory, which eventually became absorbed into the Cape Colony and the town of Kimberley became the hot-spot of attention from around 1870, when the diamond-rush began. This was South Africa's first thrust towards industrial and financial independence and prosperity. Along with the numerous arrivals to the area came many of the Jews that contributed greatly to the success of the diamond fields of Kimberley & later on, the gold fields of the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal, the territory east of the Cape Colony where the Boers were in control under the watchful eye of the formidable President Paul Kruger from 1882.


Jews were amongst the most successful diamond magnets of Kimberley, many of them acquiring much of the land around the gold strikes in the Witwatersrand (with money made on the diamond fields) after the 1886 discovery of the abundant Witwatersrand main reef, still being worked today after 125 years and showing no signs of exhaustion. This discovery founded the most prosperous big city on the African continent and Jews were involved in its development and success right from the very start.

From the first great industrialist and wealthy mining magnates (The Randlords), property developers, professionals, artists and entertainers, traders, religious leaders, community builders, retailers and soldiers…… the Jews contributed greatly in all spheres of South Africa's development & prosperity. They came mainly from England, Germany and the oppressed east European countries, establishing a lasting legacy, still very much part of the fabric of today's South African landscape.

Discover who ALL these fascinating characters were, what they did and how they contributed to the building of the South Africa of today!

THE WANDERING JEW heritage tours of Johannesburg will inform you of everything you never knew about these remarkable people of Jewish decent!


Merle Jacobs: 082 573 5447 /