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An almost unbelievable story of the 'Black Jews' in parliament

News - Date: 17 March 2018

Written by: Anton van Zyl / Viewed: 20685


“I think Cyril Ramaphosa is one of the more interesting people in South Africa. He’s a Venda. There are half a million Vendas. Within the Venda he’s a Lemba, there are about fifty thousand Lembas, but of the half a million Venda one tenth, more or less, are Lemba. They are known as the Black Jews.”

Last year, while doing some research on the history of the newly elected ANC president, I stumbled upon this transcript of a Padraig O’Malley interview. O’Malley, a respected Irish-born author and political commentator, was interviewing the then chairman of the Broederbond and former rector of the Rand Afrikaans University, JP de Lange. The interview took place on 17 August 1992, not long after the start of the Codesa negotiations, which paved the way for a totally new political dispensation in the country. It was a period of turmoil and uncertainty, but also determination to find a new way forward.

A Lemba president?

The reference in the interview to the Balemba immediately roused my curiosity. As far as I could establish, Ramaphosa is not a Lemba surname. The former professor’s remarks about Ramaphosa were, however, interesting. “Now he comes from that group. Now if you look at Venda, the leadership comes from the Lemba and he, Cyril Ramaphosa, is one of those gifted Lembas,” De Lange said.

I first had to check whether Ramaphosa was not perhaps part of the Lemba group. The best person to check with was Mr David Tshidada, the official spokesperson for the Lemba clan. He was quick to point out that Ramaphosa is not a Lemba surname. As far as he knows, the young Cyril did not grow up in the Lemba tradition.

A Jewish friend once told me that there is no such thing as a “half-Jew”. It’s like being pregnant, she said, you either are or you’re not. This then settles the Ramaphosa question – he is not a Lemba. It may, however, be that from his mother’s side some Lemba blood flows in his veins. Tshidada could not answer this question, so I had to expand my search.

I posed this question to Dr Christopher Neluvhalani, an academic who has done a lot of research on the history of the Vhavenda. He obtained his doctor’s degree last year at the ripe age of 78. Neluvhalani knows the history of Cyril Ramaphosa very well, and that of his parents, the late Samuel and Erdmuth Ramaphosa. “They were christened in the Lutheran Church at Goedverwacht in Tshakhuma,” he said.

The fact that a young Cyril grew up in a Christian household does not mean that there were no Lemba influences. The Lemba in southern Africa have embraced the Christian religion and, unlike the Jewish faith, practice Christian rituals alongside the age-old beliefs such as not eating pork and for males to be circumcised. Neluvhalani was, however, convinced that the Ramaphosas are not Lembas.

Even Julius Malema’s name pops up

Professor JP de Lange may thus have been mistaken about Ramaphosa’s being a Lemba, but he was not mistaken about the leadership qualities of the Lemba people. The Lemba influence in the South African parliament is very evident. The names include former Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale, the former deputy arts and culture minister, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, and possibly even the somewhat controversial leader of the EFF, Julius Malema.

The inclusion of the names of Mathale and Malema in the Lemba discussion may surprise some, as both men are not Vhavenda, but rather Bapedi. The Lemba are, however, not limited to the Vhavenda and their influence extends to groups such as the Vatsonga, the Bapedi and the Shona in the southern part of Zimbabwe. The Vhavenda surname “Malima” (which is part of the Lemba group) is the variant of the Bapedi surname, “Malema”.

To fully understand the importance of the Lemba in South Africa, one must go back a couple of centuries. In fact, one must probably go back a couple of thousand years to find out where the “Black Jews” originated.

History of the Lemba

For many generations, the Lemba elders related the story of their origin to their children. The Lemba believe themselves to be Black Jews, descendants of the lost tribe of Israel. They tell their children that, about 2 500 years ago, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Buba left Judea. (Buba is still the name of one of the Lemba clans). They settled in Yemen, probably to become traders there. In Yemen, they built a city, which they called Sena.

About a thousand years ago, something happened that caused the Lemba to leave Sena. According to oral history, they crossed the “Phusela” and made their way to the east coast of Africa, where they built a new settlement and called it Sena. From here they migrated inland and, according to the story, they helped to construct the stone city of Great Zimbabwe.

It was in Zimbabwe where they apparently broke the law of Mwali (their deity) and were punished. Some say they ate rodents and because of this sin they were scattered among several nations in Africa. One group found their way south and settled among the Vhavenda, just south of the Limpopo River.

The Lemba were very good traders and artisans. They were also famous for their metalwork and pottery. They brought their “secret” arts with them, such as being able to mine for gold and copper. They were regarded as sorcerers, believed to have magic. The beads they brought with them are still treasured to this day and are used in divination and other magical ceremonies.

Throughout the centuries, the Lemba retained their rituals and beliefs, such as observing the Shabbat, not eating pork or other beasts forbidden by the Torah and practicing male circumcision. They continued to slaughter animals and prepare the meat in a manner that differs from African tradition. The Lemba also discourage their children to marry out of the Lemba clans.

A story hard to believe

It took many centuries for the Lemba’s account of their history to gain credibility. South of the Limpopo, the first reference to the “Walembers” was made in a 1721 report of the Dutch East Indian Company. In 1728, a report by someone called Mahumane referred to the 'Walembers’ in the vicinity of the Zoutpansberg as being traders and a separate people. In 1777, an explorer for an Austrian agency, William Bolts, reported back to the authorities in Vienna about a big and important city called Zimbabwe, where gold was mined, and gold articles were manufactured by a tribe known as the Balemba. Various references can be found in this period of the mining and manufacturing skills of the Lemba people, but more importantly, they were described as a very distinctive and very different group of people.

Closer to home, in the early 1850s, Thomas Baines heard of the gold that can be found between Zoutpansberg and Blaauwberg that were among the “Slaamzyn” (a reference to an Islamic group of people). Johannes Flygare wrote in 1899 (freely translated version):

“The Balemba, a small despised tribe, lived among the Bawenda. They completely differed in appearance and language, customs and religion. Their history and origins remain a secret ... One finds their settlements mainly in the North and Northeast. They kept themselves completely separate from the Bavenda and had completely different religious customs, which indicate in some way connections and relatedness with the Semitic nations.”

In 1908, the Swiss missionary Henri A. Junod recorded one clan member as saying: “We have come from a very remote place, on the other side of Phusela. We were on a big boat (some say on the back of a tree). A terrible storm nearly destroyed us all. The boat was broken in two pieces. One half of us reached the shores of this country, the others were taken away with the second half of the boat and we do not know where they are now. We climbed the mountains and arrived among the Banyai. There we settled, and after a time we moved southwards to the Transvaal; but we are not Banyai.” (From his book The Balemba of the Zoutpansberg).

The Balemba continued to intrigue anthropologists and historians in the years to come, but their story remained an oral history that sounded almost too unbelievable to be true. It was only in the mid-1980s that a British historian, Dr Tudor Vernon Parfitt, turned his attention to this small group of people living in the south of Africa.

The experts get involved

Parfitt was probably the perfect candidate to enter the scene. In 1984, Parfitt was commissioned by the London-based Minority Rights Group to write a report on the Ethiopian Jews who had fled Ethiopia. They had migrated to escape persecution and famine but were dying in large numbers in the refugee camps along the border between the Sudan and Ethiopia. Israel got involved and Parfitt documented this sad chapter in a book that was translated into many languages.

During a visit to South Africa, Parfitt heard about the group of Lemba people describing themselves as the Black Jews, and his attention shifted to the south of the continent. He spent many months living among them, listening to their fascinating stories. The stories included a version of how the Lemba lost their very important “book”. A woman told Parfitt: “…but the Arabs were jealous and destroyed the book. Ours was the book of the Mwenye. Theirs was the book of Allah.”

Parfitt realised that some proof would be needed to substantiate the tales. His first efforts were spent in trying to find the places referred to in the oral history, such as Sena in Yemen and the “Phusela” river. Parfitt visited Yemen and was directed to a town called Sena in the south. To get to the sea from Sena, one must cross the Masilah River (which sounds a lot like “Phusela”). The port town of Sayhut on the southern coast of Yemen would have been the ideal place to launch ships to Africa. The ships of the time were quite capable of reaching Tanzania and even Sofala (Mozambique).

Parfitt continued to find many more links between the Lemba and Yemen. In the Hadramawt valley, where Sena is situated, many of the tribes have similar surnames to those used by the Lemba, like Sadiki and the Hamisi. When Parfitt’s book, Journey to the Vanished City, was published in 1992, it was much to the delight of the Lemba, who felt that this was confirmation that their oral traditions are true and that they are indeed Jews from the Middle East.

Still, sceptics said it could just be coincidence, and more proof was needed. This is where the genetic testing entered.

To the science labs

To understand how DNA tests can link the Lemba to Jewish tribes, one must first look at the work a Jewish priest, Dr Karl Skorecki, had done. He wondered whether genetic comparison could link the Conahim priests to the descendants of the biblical Aaron, brother of Moses.

The chromosome that provides the clue to what had happened in the past is the Y chromosome that gets passed from father to son. Unlike the X chromosomes, the Y chromosomes are passed down unchanged, apart from possible mutations that occasionally occur. It makes it an ideal tool to reconstruct the history of a population, because each lineage’s mutation patterns are slightly different.

With the assistance of a genetics expert, Skorecki tested the Y or male chromosomes among the Conahim priests. It was found that 45% of the Ashkenazi priests and 56 % of the Sephardic priests have the “Cohen” signature, compared to between 3 and 5 % of general Jewish populations.

Parfitt and his associate, Neil Bradman of the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at London’s University College, collected DNA samples from the Lemba, which were sent to an Oxford population geneticist, David Goldstein. The results surprised even the scientists. The Cohen genetic signature was found in 9% of Lemba men in South Africa. In the case of men belonging to the Buba clan, it was as high as 53%.

Parfitt’s research on the Lemba confirmed what was being said for centuries, namely that a link exists between this southern African group of people and Yemen. Breaking away from tradition, the Lemba decided to honour Parfitt and made him an honorary Lemba.

But not all agree

In 2013, the result of a research study was published in the South African Medical Journal under the title: “Lemba origins revisited: Tracing the ancestry of Y chromosomes in South African and Zimbabwean Lemba”. The study was much more comprehensive and DNA tests were conducted on 261 males. The method of testing was also much more extensive.

The conclusion reached was that the further DNA testing did not reveal a direct link between the Lemba/Remba groups and Jewish ancestry. “Rather, this study suggests a stronger link with Middle Eastern populations, probably the result of trade activity in the Indian ocean,” writes the researcher, Dr H Soodyall. Soodyall points out that, although the SA Lemba and the Zimbabwean Remba originated from the same founding population, several differences were observed in the composition and frequencies of their Y chromosome pool. This was perhaps because of “a drift and human contacts the groups have had following their split,” was the conclusion reached.

The new DNA research proved what a number of other historians have been saying for some time, namely that traders on the east coast of Africa have been leaving behind a lot more than footprints for thousands of years.

The “white” stone builders of Zimbabwe

In his book The Stone Builders of Great Zimbabwe, Bryan Orford describes the influence the Lemba had had on the development of the African continent. He details the Lemba’s journey from Senur/Sena in Israel to Yemen and then to Abyssinia/Ethiopia. From there the traces lead to the lower Zambezi and Gorongoza to Zimbabwe.

When reaching Mberengwa (in Zimbabwe), they purportedly discovered gold and some silver (probably iron). “They made bangles, trading far and wide and they got the name Mushavhi which means traders,” writes Orford. The contact with traders, possibly from Arab countries, was very evident among the Lemba and they were often referred to as the Ba-Lungu (the “white people” or “spirits of the dead gods”). They were respected for their skills.

Chief Mbelengwa, also called Nkalahonye, was a famous leader of the Lemba and lived at an estimated date of 1500 to 1540. “He was said to have used magic power to overpower the other tribes. He was a handsome man very light in colour, with a prominent nose, and many of these Sena were almost as white as Europeans,” writes Orford.

More than three centuries later, in 1871, when the German explorer Karl Mauch arrived at Great Zimbabwe, he was told that “white people” had once lived there and had built the ruins. Mauch was taken to the many iron working sites in the Great Zimbabwe area and noticed that a different method of smelting was used. The “white” was probably the reference to the Sena people, who often were of light skin colour. “Mauch was observant enough to see a Jewish connection at Great Zimbabwe, but he got side tracked with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and this error was to affect many people in the future,” writes Orford.

Moving south

When the Lemba started moving south of the Limpopo, they brought their skills and customs along. The original copper miners of Musina are said to be Balemba and their presence probably stretches as far as Phalaborwa, where copper mining activities occurred.

The Lemba were eventually absorbed by the Bavenda, but they retained their leadership positions and influence. Legend has it that the great king Makhado was the first chief to be circumcised in a Balemba lodge. In Van Warmelo’s book, The Copper Miners of Musina (which is a compilation of vernacular accounts), he writes: “The saying that the Vhalemba women need not hoe the chief’s gardens because they are women of the chief kraal takes its origin from the fact that royalty used to marry the daughters of the Vhalemba.”

The book also explains why the chief may have been tempted to opt for a Lemba bride. “…and in respect of physical beauty it is said that they are very well formed. There is the phrase, ‘That girl is as beautiful as a MuLemba,’ which means that the girl is very handsome indeed.”

A history that is still being written

The Lemba still maintain their age-old traditions and stay in contact with other clan members. In September every year, thousands of Lemba members travel to Sweetwaters, not far from Elim in Limpopo. According to David Tshidada, last year’s gathering saw people from as far away as the United States attending.

The members are still discouraged from marrying outside the Lemba clan. They are, however, born leaders and the Mushavhi blood also means that a large number of them are financially very well off.

As far as Julius Malema is concerned – his family history may include more than a dab of whiteness. He may have some Jewish blood, mixed with Arab influences and there may even be some Portuguese or even Indian traces -  which probably makes him a thoroughbred African.

During Vhavenda king Toni Mphephu Ramabulana’s birthday celebrations last year, Julius Malema was also present. In the photo Ramabulana greets the EFF’s Julius Malema (right) when he arrives at the event. (Picture: Kaizer Nengovhela)


Several people attended the birthday party of the then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the FNB Conference Centre in Sandton in November last year. Photographed from left to right are: Chief Livhuwani Matsila, Dr Tshepo Motsepe and Mr Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo supplied.

Earlier this year ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa visited the Vhavenda king. Photographed on this occasion are from left to right Chief Livhuwani Matsila, Vhavenda King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana and president Cyril Ramaphosa. (Picture: Kaizer Nengovhela)


Anton van Zyl

Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.


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