Springbok (Northern Cape)


Springbok is situated in Namaqualand in the Northern Cape, 565 km north of Cape Town and 258 km north of Van Rhynsdorp. The town was built around the copper mines, which were discovered by Simon van der Stel in 1685. The first copper mine was opened in 1852 on the farm Melkboschkuil (“milkweed pool”). This mine, named Blue Mine, was the first commercial mine in the country. The town of Springbok itself was laid out in 1862. Originally named Springbokfontein, it was shortened to Springbok in 1911. The town initially developed rapidly but declined in the 1870’s when richer copper deposits were discovered in Okiep, 10 km further north. However, Springbok remained the main source of water for the area, which ensured its development into the commercial and administrative centre for various mines.

The first Jews in the town were Jacob Morris Polavnick and Moses Schur in the 1880’s; Albert Fisher, Harry Braude, Philip Rosenberg, Joseph Dembitzer, and a Mr Kaplan, all in 1890-91. Later arrivals include Isaac Friedlander, Salmon Geffen, Paul Kahn, Raphael Morris Michel, Messrs Ginsberg and Nainkin, and Hermann Schapera, all between 1895 99.

The Springbok Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1918 to serve Springbok and the surrounding Namaqualand communities. In 1922 Jews from Bowesdorp traveled 60 km to Springbok to attend Yomtov services. The first minister to the congregation was Rev Segal from 1936 38. In 1935, 36 women were admitted as members of the congregation, two of whom were later elected to the committee.

Up until 1921 services had been held in the home of Boris Saharin. In that year, the Namaqualand Hebrew Congregation bought the original church of the Dutch Reform Church. This small stone building was converted into a synagogue and consecrated on the 15th of September 1922. In 1929 a larger synagogue was built and the small synagogue converted into a communal hall.

The community began to dwindle in the late 1940s and early 1950s when many members moved to Cape Town. By 1961 there was often difficulty in getting a minyan for Friday night services. Anna Priem, Joe Jowell’s secretary, used to enlist the assistance of Jewish commercial travelers in the area to make up the requisite number.

In the latter years of the congregation, baalei tefillah, often from Herzlia School, came from Cape Town to assist with services on the High Holy Days. The congregation ceased to exist in 1972.
In 1990 the SAJBD donated the synagogue building to the Springbok municipality to be used as a museum, the Namaqualand Museum, in memory of Joseph and Rebecca Jowell. This museum depicts the history of the pioneer Jewish and Afrikaans families of Springbok and the surrounding areas. A condition of the donation of this building was that it became the duty of the Springbok Municipality to maintain the Jewish cemetery, which was situated in Okiep.

Before kosher meat was available in Springbok, Dinah Rabinowitz, wife of Solomon Rabinowitz, used to receive kosher meat in a hand soldered tin from her father in Cape Town. During the 1930s and 40s shechita (ritual slaughter) was performed by the resident ministers. After Rev Stern’s departure in 1944, no kosher meat was provided until the 1960s, when Rosalyn Neuman’s mother sent meat by train from Cape Town to Bitterfontein from where it was transported by truck to Nababeep, 16 km away. Over the years, Namaqualand had a Zionist Society, established in 1919, a Women’s Zionist Society by 1935, and a Union of Jewish Women from 1944.

The early Jews in Springbok and surrounding areas were smouse (peddlers), speculators and prospectors, the most successful being Solomon Rabinowitz who discovered copper deposits near Steinkopf and an extensive diamond field near the Orange River. In later years the Jewish population made a notable contribution to the growth and prosperity of the area, being involved in all spheres of economic life.

Israel Gordon, who was born and educated in Riversdale, Cape, settled in Springbok in 1916. He was instrumental in forming the Springbok Village Management Board and was appointed to serve on the first Board. In 1933, when Springbok was proclaimed a municipality, he was elected the first mayor of the town. He was also the first non civil servant to be chairman of the Namaqualand Divisional Council. Gordon was also one of the personalities chiefly concerned in the finding of diamond deposits on the coast of Namaqualand in 1926, which culminated in the discoveries at Alexander Bay.

Julius Gordon helped to form the Village Management Board in 1922 and was its first Secretary. He was also the secretary for the School Board and for the Namaqualand Divisional Council. Joe Jowell was the founder of the JSE listed company Trencor. The transport empire developed from small beginnings when Joe Jowell bought into the motor business of J D du Plessis. The partners ran a garage and a Chevrolet sub agency which was gradually developed into a major transport business. In 1961, Joe Jowell started a daily air service called Namaqualand Lugdiens, catering for passengers and goods between Springbok and Cape Town. He was the mayor of Springbok from 1941 1968, 27 consecutive years. He was also an executive member of many civic institutions.

According the census figures, the Jewish population reached its peak in 1936 with 116 Jews; by 1991 this number had declined to 8.