Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
How Many Jews in South Africa?
by Professor Allie Dubb
Department of Middle Eastern and African History
Tel Aviv University
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 1999-2000 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
This page URL: http://www.jewishgen.org/SAfrica/dubb-1.htm
Revised: 17 February 2000
Just prior to Union, the official censuses of the two Crown Colonies
and two Boer republics recorded 38,101 persons professing the Jewish
At that time, and until the 1980 census, over 95% of white South Africans
responded to the question about religious affiliation, and it was
generally accepted that the results were reliable. Thus the Jewish
population of South Africa comprised all (and only) those who had
declared their religion to be Jewish in the official census. Despite
this limitation, the official statistics were assumed to be a
reasonable reflection of the size of the community.
In the 1991 census, however, there was a change in the wording of
the question on religion: for the first time, respondents were specifically
informed that the question was optional. In all previous censuses,
only enumerators were informed of this. The consequence of this change
was that the number of whites who refused to answer the question rose
from 4.5% in 1981 to 20% in 1991. This meant that, for the first time
since Union, the national census did not provide definitive statistics
on either the size of the community, or on its demographic, social and
"How many Jews in South Africa? The truth is that there
is no way of really knowing. Had there been no known, drastic changes
it might have been possible - using birth rates, death rates and other
demographic tools - to arrive at a reasonably close estimate. But since
the mid-70's thousands of Jews have emigrated from South Africa, some
have re-immigrated, and some (mainly Israelis) have immigrated.
In addition, internal mobility into Johannesburg and Cape Town has
increased, while small- and medium-size communities have dwindled
dramatically or even disappeared. Not only are there no complete and
accurate records of these migratory movements, but their effect on
distributions of age, gender and socio-economic characteristics can
also not be accurately determined. All this adds up to even greater
difficulty and uncertainty in trying to estimate the population.
Thus in a 1991 socio-demographic study, it was concluded that the number
of Jews had declined from its peak of 118,000 to something between a
maximum of 106,00 and a minimum of 92,000. The most recent estimate
appears to be between 80-90,000.
We no longer know more or less exactly how many Jews there are in South
Africa nor is it likely that we ever will. We shall now have to make do
with estimates based on sample surveys, communal lists, and the
application of assumed demographic indices. What needs to be known about South
African Jewry today is, more important than size, the present nature and
quality of Jewish life, immediate and future community needs, and the
place of the Jew in the new, democratic South Africa.