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Genealogy Guide: South Africa

Brief History

The first Jews to explore South Africa were map makers, navigators and sailors who participated in the early voyages of exploration around the Cape of Good Hope in 1452 with the Portuguese voyages. Later, with the first settlement of Dutch colonies in 1652, there were at least four Jews who later converted to Christianity. After the British government took control of the Cape Colony in 1806, and granted people land in which to settle, at least five Jewish families that are known as the “1820 settlers” settled there. Other Jews had arrived in South Africa from Germany and Holland by the 1860s.

Benjamin Norden founded the first Jewish congregation in Cape Town in 1841, and, by 1880, about 4,000 Jews lived in South Africa. Jewish immigration to South Africa increased after the pogroms (1881-1882) and natural disasters in Russia.

According to the 1911 national census, there were more than 47,000 Jews in South Africa, mostly Jews who previously lived in the Russian Empire and identified as Litvaks, mainly from Grodno, Kovno, Vilna, Minsk, Mogilev, Suwalki, and Vitebsk. Between 1925 and 1938, approximately 15,000 Jews entered South Africa. Restrictions on immigration were put in place in the late 1930’s and, during the Holocaust fewer than 500 Jews entered South Africa.*

Based on the 1980 census, approximately 50% of South African Jewry lived in Johannesburg, 10% in the Johannesburg metropolitan districts of East Rand and West Rand, 20% in Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula, and the remaining 20% of Jewry were spread throughout the rest of the country.**

*Sack, Sallyann Amdur, and Gary Mokotoff, eds. Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy (Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2004). Genealogy Institute   CS 21 .A98 2004
**Cohen, S., "The Jewish Community of South Africa: An Outline", Avotanu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol. II, No. 2 (May 1986), 13-14. Genealogy Institute   International 1