South African community leader passes away

November 16, 2014 Agencies
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“If there was a Jewish organisation, I belonged to it – with my heart and soul,” was an oft-quoted utterance of veteran and world-renowned South African Jewish communal leader Mervyn Smith who passed away on Shabbat, November 15/22 Cheshvan, after a long illness. He was 77.



Mervyn Smith

His funeral is scheduled to take place in Cape Town at Pinelands No. 2 Cemetery on Monday, November 17 at 3pm.

Ann Harris, vice-president of the African Jewish Congress, said: “Our highly respected President, Mervyn Smith , passed away during Shabbat after several months’ severe illness. His death is a loss not only to his family, but to our whole community since he was such a driving force in so many communal organisations.

In particular , the African Jewish Congress has suffered a serious blow. Mervyn’s passion and commitment for the communities of Southern Africa was beyond the call of duty and kept our interests firmly on the agenda of the World Jewish Congress.We will all miss his wisdom and leadership.”

Suzanne Belling has written the following obituary”

A vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, president of the African Jewish Congress, an honorary life vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the first Capetonian in 100 years to be elected its national chairman, few could touch him when it came to his innate knowledge of the Jewish community, Jewish history and demographics, current events, Israel and politics.

Prominent practising attorney, visionary, orator and intellectual, he was known to have uplifted the Board’s image during the apartheid era. At the Board’s national conference in 1985, he was the prime protagonist in the passing of the historic resolution condemning apartheid.

Smith was the second Capetonian to receive the Lexus Lifetime Achiever Award at the Jewish Achiever Awards ceremony– for a lifetime of contribution to reconciliation, change and empowerment in South Africa in the fields of business and/or art, science, sport or philanthropy.

He was an expert on anti-Semitism, fought it fiercely, and advised the Board on legal matters, particularly in this regard. Active in Holocaust studies, he succeeded David Susman as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the SA Holocaust Foundation.

Mervyn was bold and unafraid. His quotes were eminently quotable and his brief, apposite statements, combined with his professional image, made him a darling of the media.

He had the ability to sway the more conservative among his colleagues.  And even though some disagreed with his stance, Mervyn retained one of the top places in the communal popularity stakes over the years.

His term as Board chairman coincided with South Africa’s transition to the new dispensation and he sailed through it with aplomb, despite the fact that he was concurrently holding offices as president of the Law Societies of SA, chairman of the Performing Arts Council of SA and CAPAB.  This was in addition to his workload as a partner in a Bellville law firm. He served until recently as chairman of Cape Town City Ballet, having been a director for many years.He was fond of saying: “I have always been skilled in time management, so I manage.”

Mervyn came from a background steeped in Zionism. His mother, Mabel, was active in the Zionist movement and his grandmother, Lily Osrin, sewed the flag for the first Zionist congress in Vereeniging.

Mervyn was born in that small town near the Vaal River and spent his early years in Vosburg in the Karoo before his family settled in Bellville, Cape Town. He was educated at Bellville Primary School, the South African College School (SACS) and the University of Cape Town.

He was active in Habonim and the then Students Jewish Association, chairing the Cape Town branch.

In the 1970s he was elected to the Cape Board of Deputies, serving on the public affairs sub-committee and later becoming vice-chairman. He was elected chairman of the Cape Council of the Board for two terms – from 1983 to 1987. At the same time, he served as senior national vice-chairman of the Board.

A cricket player for 25 years, Mervyn was life president of the Bellville Cricket Club and, in recent years, was chairman of the Democratic Alliance, Atlantic Seaboard.

The home of Mervyn and his late wife Tamar was always deeply connected to Jewish life and the community.  Tamar, a teacher, headed the Religious Instruction Department of the Board.   Apart from Mervyn’s daughter Rinah, whom he and Tamar lost tragically as a young child, Mervyn is survived by his children, Paul, Deborah, Raphael and Abigail, grandchildren and a brother.

The African Jewish Congress is comprised of Botswana, Zaire, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.


One Response to “South African community leader passes away”
  1. charles Fridlender says:

    Mervyn was s special soul.
    I have fond memories working with him in various community projects.
    The democratic alliance party in Cape Town.
    We discussed many alliances with the African Business Council then led by Prof Manyelle from Sorgham Breweries and Cape Town Chambers of Comnerce
    We in Australia created the African Business Council and we exchanged many project ideas.
    I wish the family Long Life and only Brochas and Simchas.
    Past Board Member Sothern African Council
    Charles Fridlender

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