Ina Perlman, born in Bloemfontein to German-Jewish parents, was a stubborn fighter for social justice. Using connections associated with her well-to-do status, she threw herself into the hard work of addressing starvation in the Black townships of Apartheid South Africa. A determined fundraiser for “Operation Hunger,” Perlman believed that the Jewish community’s focus on Israel was an evasion of their necessary involvement in pressing South African moral concerns. She changed the face of humanitarian work in South Africa, urging self-empowerment for the disenfranchised rather than paternalistic hand-outs.
Ina Perlman was born in South Africa and spent decades addressing Black poverty. She believed passionately in self-empowerment. Small but stubborn, she succeeded in changing the face of South African charity.
Ina Perlman was born in 1926 in Bloemfontein to parents born in Germany. Her father had been sent by his affluent family to South Africa late in the nineteenth century. Apart from his two brothers, the entire Perlman family later perished in the Holocaust. Perlman’s father did well in South Africa, acquiring sheep farms that he sold when the wool trade collapsed. He married late and Ina was born when he was 50, but he strongly influenced her upbringing.
While Perlman’s father was proudly Jewish, he was agnostic, outspoken in his criticism of religion in general and the Jewish faith in particular. Her mother’s family were staunchly German Orthodox Jews, and their origins could be traced back to Frederick the Great’s liberation of the Jews. Charity was always important in Perlman’s maternal grandparents’ home, and her German grandfather had spearheaded the cause to aid less fortunate Jews at the time of the pogroms in Eastern Europe.
An only child, Perlman frequently acknowledged that her middle-class German Jewish upbringing contrasted strongly with that of her working-class Lithuanian Jewish peers. In South Africa, most of the family’s friends were Jews from Eastern Europe, apart from a few non-Jewish Germans with whom her mother socialized.
Soon after Perlman was born, the family moved to Port Elizabeth, where her father worked for a well-known South African business, the Imperial Cold Storage group. Ina was tended by an Afrikaans-speaking nanny and grew up fluent in German, English, and Afrikaans.
FIGHTING INJUSTICE, POVERTY AND HUNGER:
Perlman attributed her social activism not only to her parents and their liberal circle of friends, but also to the strong female teachers she encountered at her secular girls’ school. Soon after her marriage to Michael Perlman, a doctor, in 1949, she became involved in the African Children’s Feeding Scheme, and she later moved into the African Self-Help Association. She joined the Black Sash, an organization of liberal White women who opposed government policies by non-violent means, such as marches, demonstrations and vigils, despite warnings from her father-in-law that such involvement would unleash antisemitism in Apartheid South Africa.
Despite her small stature, Perlman was energetic and resolute, and she threw herself into many humanitarian concerns. She became frustrated with her work at the Black Sash, and later with race relations, observing that while many liberal South Africans wanted to get involved in political activism, few were prepared to address the hard task of working in the community. She was also critical of economic sanctions imposed on South Africa by the rest of the world, aware of the drastic effect on the Black population.
Working the System
Perlman was well-connected, as a result of her upper-middle-class status, equally at home with the disempowered and the powerful. She employed Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zindzi while her father was still under arrest and helped Winnie Mandela establish a day care center in the arid village to which she was banished by the Apartheid government. She also used her powerful connections to great advantage. In 1978, “Operation Hunger” was established by Drs. Selma Browde and Nthato Motlana in response to the devastating malnutrition prevalent amongst non-Whites in Apartheid South Africa. Perlman joined the organization in 1980 and was instrumental in raising money (largely through corporate sponsorship) to enable the huge number of African communities left poverty-stricken by the economic implications of Apartheid to feed themselves. Although funded by wealthy Whites, the organization rejected the patronizing attitudes of many White volunteers, insisting on community-led intervention and encouraging self-sufficiency. Operation Hunger was ground-breaking in that it challenged the prevailing paternalistic welfare model in South Africa.
The Union of Jewish Women was one of ten original organizations that co-founded Operation Hunger, and Perlman (although apparently not a member of the Union) often acknowledged Jews’ prominent contributions to organized charity in Apartheid South Africa. While Perlman recognized the important role played by individual Jews in the anti-Apartheid movement, she believed that the community’s focus on Zionism was an evasion of necessary involvement in pressing South African issues. Referring to Jewish women in particular, she lamented their focus on Zionist fundraising. She suggested that if there were to be a future for Jews in South Africa, local issues needed to be prioritized. Post-Apartheid, she was critical of the community’s attempts to excuse and even deny its poor behavior.
Perlman suggested that her family’s liberal views and anti-Apartheid activism had distanced them socially from many of their Jewish peers. Her criticism extended to Israel, where she saw many commonalities between the Bedouin projects (in which Bedouins in Israel were uprooted by the military and confined to a designated area east of Jerusalem) and the Bantustans of South Africa.
Ina Perlman retired as executive director of Operation Hunger in 1993. By that time, she had grown the organization into an endeavour feeding over two million people, with at least 50 000 people benefiting from its self-help projects. Perlman’s later years were spent in the Southern Cape, involved to the end in community empowerment projects in Nature’s Valley. She died, much lauded, on June 28, 2012 at the age of 86. Her husband, Dr. Mike Perlman, predeceased her, and she was survived by her four children and her grandchildren.
Shimoni, Gideon. Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa. Glosderry: David Philip Publishers, 2003.
Suttner, Immanuel. Cutting Through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists. Johannesburg: Viking, 1997.