Phalaborwa (Northern Province)

Phalaborwa is situated in the Letaba district of the Northern Province (Transvaal pre 1994), 3 km from the Kruger National Park. The town was built on the site of centuries-old mining operations of iron and copper. Attempts at mining in 1904 and again in 1938 were unsuccessful. The main boost in mining activity came in the early 1950’s when phosphate bearing ore was discovered, and Phalaborwa was built to house employees of the new mining industry. The town was proclaimed in 1957, making it one of South Africa’s youngest towns.

Phalaborwa owes its existence to early Jewish involvement in mining operations. In the 1940’s, three prominent Johannesburg businessmen, Joseph Steinlauf, Sam Edenburg and Eric Rosen, established the Phalaborwa Phosphate and Vermiculite Company and began mining vermiculite. Joseph Steinlauf was the only one of the partners who lived at the mining camp. In time, their business grew into a huge operation, with interests in overseas companies. In 1951 the mining rights at Phalaborwa were nationalised. The number of Jews at Phalaborwa was never large enough to warrant the establishment of any communal facilities. Some of the Jewish families were country members of the Pietersburg Hebrew Congregation, and in the 1960s kosher meat was obtained from Pietersburg.

During the 1960s and 70s, with the boom in construction and development in Phalaborwa, there was considerable Jewish input into the growth of the town and its industries. There were many Jewish engineers and mining specialists who were involved both in a temporary and permanent capacity, some coming to Phalaborwa during the week and returning home at the weekend.

Community records indicate that there were six Jews here in 1964. By 1970 there were 20 Jews and by 1974 only one remained. The official census for 1991 recorded 4 Jews and by 1996 no Jews were left in Phalaborwa.