Israel: Can the enemy of my enemy really be my friend?

John Vorster in Israel

A friend of convenience? South Africa’s prime minister John Vorster (second from right) is feted by Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) and Menachem Begin (left) and Moshe Dayan during his 1976 visit to Jerusalem. Photograph: Sa’ar Ya’acov

THE current diplomatic flurry about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting numerous African countries all over the continent to strengthen or create ties has many positive angles, but also rattles skeletons in the closet, particularly for South African Jews.

Ties to the 48 states of sub-Saharan Africa have a complicated history with high-points and lows. Israel’s geostrategic interests have long been promoted there, especially in the Horn and East Africa. Training in intelligence and security has been given to countries such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Nigeria and others.

What about South Africa? The strong Zionist links to Israel of the South African Jewish community is one aspect. But when older South African Jews think of Israel-SA ties, several uncomfortable affairs come to mind, particularly Israel’s strong military ties to the apartheid regime in the 1970s. A lot has happened since, and it is used today mainly to discredit contemporary Israel. But the notion of who we make friends with is important.

Israel openly criticised apartheid through the 1950s and 1960s, with the spectre of the Holocaust still in recent memory as a moral background. Alliances with post-colonial African governments were forged. Then came the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Under pressure from the Arab world, most African states severed Israeli links, helping to make it a “pariah state”.

Looking around for friends, Israel drew close to another pariah state, South Africa. In 1976 it even invited SA Prime Minister John Vorster – former Nazi sympathiser and leader of the fascist Ossewabrandwag that sided with Hitler – for a state visit. South African Jews were uncomfortable with the ironies, as Vorster visited Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis. His visit produced an Israel-South Africa alliance which became a leading weapons developer locally and internationally.

Israel’s attitude was:  “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. They were both states driven by fear, seeing themselves in a struggle for their existence. In Israel until the late 1970s, the threat from its Arab neighbours was very real; the country had fought three wars to protect itself. White South Africans, meanwhile, watched with horror as colonial empires receded and black rule swept Africa. Scenes of whites fleeing Angola, Mozambique and (then) Rhodesia were used by the apartheid regime to terrify white citizens about black rule; phrases such as “swart gevaar” gained traction.

Today, South African Jews would like nothing more than for the SA government and the Israeli government to be on excellent terms. The countries do have formal diplomatic relations, including ambassadors, and below the surface there is much trade and other connections. But politically it remains a cold relationship, epitomised by calls from important ANC members to downgrade the links. The ANC’s criticism towards opposition leader Mmusi Maimane’s public visit to Israel earlier this year, ignoring President Jacob Zuma’s urging for South Africans not to visit there, shows how pervasive anti-Israel feelings still are.

Israel is strong today, no longer the pariah state it once was, even though it is portrayed that way in some places. Even BDS, the worldwide campaign to boycott it, has failed as an economic and diplomatic weapon. Israel’s gross domestic product of some $154 billion in 2006, when BDS began, has nearly doubled to $299 billion for 2015.

Israel still faces the eternal question of how political links should be used. Some of the African states that Netanyahu is courting use Israeli assistance to suppress democracy, engage in civil wars and perpetrate human rights violations. The dilemma about whether politics is only about “interests” or must also be driven by morality has no definitive answer. But it is given special fuel by the South African experience.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

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Criticism of Israel: Whose right is it, anyway?

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 To criticize or praise Israel? When South African Jews filled a Johannesburg park in August 2014 to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, other Jews from a group called Jewish Voice For A Just Peace gathered across the road to protest Israel’s policy towards the Palestinian territories 

IT is not unusual for elder South African politicians to use their anti-apartheid struggle credentials as political capital, as if their views are superior to others.

The issue found a reverse echo in Israel last week, when Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely – an ardent right-winger and settlement supporter – contemptuously criticised American Jews who “never send their children to fight for their country (America)… most of them are having quite convenient lives.” And they don’t really care about the kotel, she added. She, on the other hand, lives in Israel and serves in the IDF, as if that makes her views superior to Jews who don’t – which means most American Jews. Her comments outraged sections of American Jewry. A response in Israeli media from a high-ranking US military officer listed Jews who fought with the US army in World War Two, and hold high military positions today.

Hotovely also disparages Diaspora Jews who criticise Israel’s weakening of liberal values, and the occupation. Sadly, many American Jews – the world’s second largest Jewish community after Israel – who are overwhelmingly liberal, do not see Israel as part of their identity, but a problem evoking antagonism from other people because of the occupation. US Jews dislike racism and religious extremism. Despite being only 2 percent of America’s population, they played a huge part in the civil rights movement, and continue to do so in culture, the arts, politics and the economy.

Their relationship with Israel has weakened as the country has moved towards right-wing extremism and nationalism. If they have a Reform or Conservative religious identity – as the majority of American Jews do – they accuse Israel of acting arrogantly as if it held a copyright on Judaism. They perceive Israel’s Orthodox establishment as being contemptuous of other streams.

Israel was created as a worldwide Jewish project to be a moral, democratic state for all inhabitants, with the intention of being intimately connected to the Diaspora. Do Israeli public officials have the right to criticise Diaspora communities. Could Hotovely’s attack on US Jews also be applied to South African Jewry?

And should South African Jews criticise Israel, against the accusation that they don’t live there, face Middle East dangers, serve in the IDF, and so on?

South African Jewish institutions are loath to criticise Israel, believing it gives ammunition to anti-Israel groups such as BDS. The recent controversy provoked by a Johannesburg Reform shul inviting people with BDS connections to its sukkah, highlighted the issue. At Israeli-oriented events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut in Johannesburg, left-wing Jews demonstrate against Israeli actions, and promote the Palestinian cause, evoking anger among mainstream Jewry. Even moderate Jewish groups who support Israel passionately, but demand an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories are often branded, without any evidence, as belonging to BDS in order to silence them. They are accused of being traitors.

The SA political environment is receptive to attacks on Israel. The Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress, Jesse Duarte, for example, published an article in the Daily Maverick this week in anticipation of the ANC leadership conference later this month, saying: “Israel has continued to violate international law, occupation continues and the brutality of the Israeli system of oppression has, rightly, been likened to apartheid … As the ANC therefore prepares for its National Conference, South Africa’s future relations with Israel hangs in the balance and rightly so.”

For SA Jews who support Israel but oppose the occupation, it is a difficult line to tread. But it must not stifle meaningful debate about Israel, including praise and criticism where necessary. Like South African struggle veterans’ critiques of the ANC and South Africa, this kind of engagement is crucial.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

The visit ‘home’: Do SA émigrés ever wish they’d stayed?  

OR Tambo statue at airport

Is this place mine? Political turmoil in South Africa has led many people to leave over the decades. Did they make the right choice? In the picture, a statue of ANC president OR Tambo at the international airport in Johannesburg

ANYONE who has attended a 40-year high school reunion knows the uncomfortable feeling when you meet classmates from several decades ago, who immigrated to other countries and have had vastly different lives. After five minutes of warm greetings – “Wow, it’s so nice to see you again! Do you remember when we played Sunday league soccer together?” – an uncomfortable silence falls over the gathering, amidst awkward attempts to joke about the passing of time and how everyone is getting older. The gap between their lives and yours is too great for easy conversation.

That often happens when people who left South Africa decades ago, come visiting family here, to attend a funeral or wedding. The relative who has built a life in America – or the UK, Israel, or elsewhere – and has American kids, and who is full of praise for his new country, has little appetite for understanding the complicated, worrying politics of South Africa. He might rage about how Americans could elect someone like Donald Trump as president, but the equally bizarre realities of South Africa are of little interest, serving mainly to validate his decision to leave long ago.

We are living through ‘exciting’ times, for those with the insight to see it that way. No less than a new liberation struggle is required against the degenerate regime the once-proud ANC has become – similar to liberation movements elsewhere after they gained victory over oppressors.

Journalist Jacques Pauw’s recent book, The President’s Keepers, and other publications by struggle heroes such as Ronnie Kasrils, all confirm South Africans’ worst fears about how the corrupt ANC leadership has damaged this country.

Superficially, white South Africans’ lives, and the Jewish community, Afrikaners and other minority communities, have changed little since the émigrés left. They drive the same kinds of cars, live in similar large houses, employ domestic maids at tiny salaries, run successful businesses, and send their kids to private schools. Of course, they are surrounded by high security walls and electrified fences, but they say they have gotten used to it.

There was a brief historical moment after Mandela emerged from jail and became president, during which South Africans would gloat and say the émigrés who had left had erred, and had missed out on the inspiring country South Africa had become. Showing a South African passport when travelling was a proud action, then. Today, however, there is shame, with the decline to junk status financially and politically. It evokes gloating from those who had the wisdom to leave after Sharpeville or similar events.

Current happenings in Zimbabwe add fuel. Jews remember the once-proud Zimbabwe Jewish community which has all but vanished after 37 years of Mugabe’s despotic rule, the liberator- turned-dictator, who is finally being thrown out after destroying the country. Is that our destiny here?

Last weekend Professor Njabulo Ndebele, an academic and fiction writer, and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, addressed an ANC struggle veterans’ meeting, bemoaning the bunch of thieves the government had become. The country’s spirit may “run dry,” he said, without a new “imaginative political project to give life and shape to it… [South Africans] require entirely fresh perspectives from which to view and understand themselves.”

What will it mean in ten, twenty years to be a Jewish South African? It is up to far-sighted leaders to articulate a new vision for a community half the size of what it was in the 1970s, and still shrinking. Sadly, such leaders are scarce.

Ten years from now, when émigrés come visiting for a reunion, will they find family and friends inspired again? It certainly could happen, the country’s spirit, today, has not yet been broken. We are again at a crossroads. But the jury is still out.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

How to paint the town in #MeToo colours

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You raped me 24 years ago! The #MeToo movement urges women to tell about past sexual abuse by men who have gone on with their lives. In the photo, former South African soccer boss and politician Danny Jordaan, and former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson, who accuses him of rape (Photo: Agencies/AP)

THE growing worldwide momentum of the #MeToo movement through which women who were sexually harrassed are speaking out after remaining silent for many years, echoes two erstwhile women’s movements of equal passion: the Suffragettes in the late-19th and early-20th centuries demanding women’s right to vote in public elections; and the 1950s feminists campaigning for equal pay for doing comparable jobs as men, and similar issues.

Social media, a key platform for #MeToo, is a powerful vehicle. But in the social media environment, #MeToo competes with numerous other movements, many of which reach thousands of people and then fade away as trending stories move on. Some are serious, others, trivial or mischievous, all clamouring for attention. Will the #MeToo movement fade like others, or have a lasting impact on men accustomed to using their power for sexual favours from women?

The growing list of accused men includes ordinary people, but also many high-profile names such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey in the United States. There too, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, star of the box office hit “Wonder Woman” refused to sign onto a sequel unless distributor Warner Bros cut financing with producer Brett Ratner, who has been accused, among other things, of masturbating in front of actress Olivia Munn.

An upsetting inclusion in the list is the late Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate and icon of moral standing Elie Wiesel, who has been accused of groping the buttocks of a 19-year old woman in 1989 during a group photograph at a charity event. Important Jewish papers such as the New York Jewish Week wrote pain-filled editorials about the dilemma in how to cover the story.

In Israel, Haaretz journalist Neri Livneh has accused Alex Gilady, president of Keshet Broadcasting group and Israel’s representative on the International Olympic Committee, of sexual ‘indecency’ towards her 18 years ago. She said she chose to speak up now to support another journalist, Channel 10 anchor Oshrat Kotler, who told viewers she received an ‘indecent’ advance 25 years ago from Gilady, when he was CEO of Keshet. She said she did not speak up earlier because she worried about the possible negative impact on her career.

And so it goes, revelation after revelation, many concerning incidents purported to have happened decades ago. In South Africa, former singer and ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson has accused former national soccer boss and anti-apartheid activist Danny Jordaan of raping her 24 years ago in a hotel room. And a former freedom fighter in exile during apartheid, Sibongile “Promise” Khumalo, has accused former Pan Africanist Congress leader Potlako Leballo of raping her in the 1970s.

There are arguments among supporters and opponents of #MeToo about whether “social media vigilantism” is the appropriate way, where accused men are not given the chance to pursue formal legal processes to defend themselves, before being publically named. But in the absence of effective legal channels for redress, “vigilantism” is going to flourish. Sadly, the formal legal channels in most countries have been notoriously unsympathetic to women on this issue, leaving the field to the social media.

#MeToo should be taken seriously. Even though many accusations are about things that happened long ago, exposing them now may set a new tone for the future. To succeed, it must beware of all kinds of people jumping on the bandwagon, clouding the issues with their own agendas, and creating a witchhunt mentality. It is easier for a woman to log into facebook than call a lawyer to lodge a complaint.

It would be gratifying if #MeToo made a lasting impact, as did the Suffragettes and the feminists. To do this, the wheat must be carefully distinguished from the chaff.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Censorship: A double-edged sword

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THE clumsy attempt by the State Security Agency and SA Revenue Service to block printing and distribution of the book by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers, is nowhere near the censorship which prevailed during apartheid. But it eerily reminds us of how the slippery slope begins in that direction. A desperate President Jacob Zuma will go to any lengths to protect himself and his cronies from exposure for wrongdoing, as the book does, and possibly going to jail. He has turned the security establishment and SARS into his defensive tools.

Thankfully the country has constitutional safeguards against censorship, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary and a populace accustomed to freedom of expression earned by generations of struggle activists. For example, recent controversial artworks by Ayanda Mbuli depicting Zuma in lewd sexual poses with the Guptas, offended many, but it’s a tribute to the country that the works were never banned.

Predictably, Pauw’s book quickly gained a large global readership after government demanded its recall. It is now into a second printing. Local bookstores rejected the call to remove the book. Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk said: “I will censor a book that is blatantly racist, has hatred of Jews, hatred of black people or any other people. But a book like this, why should we refuse to sell it?”

Could the government have a case in demanding its recall? Do details about Zuma’s dodgy tax affairs violate his right to privacy? This is as much about politics as anything else. In a democracy, the government cannot suppress such facts about a public figure like the president, or censor someone’s opinion of him. It must take the matter to court, which would be a good thing, since then the beans about Zuma will definitely be publicly spilled.

Anyone who was politically aware during apartheid will remember the ideological absurdities of censorship. Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time which lauds kindness and respect, was apparently banned for using the word ‘black’ in the title, in conjunction with the word ‘beauty’. Burger’s Daughter by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, was banned for contradicting government’s racial policies by telling white anti-apartheid activists’ stories. In the sexual realm, the state’s defenders of ‘morality’ put Playboy magazine out of bounds, with its double-page spreads of naked women, but copies were smuggled into the country and passed from hand to hand.

Internationally, banning books with sinister ideological or religious themes sometimes has a more acceptable side. There have, for example, been many unsuccessful calls over the years for banning The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract which concocts a false Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, and was used as justification for Jewish persecution. And Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, was banned in Germany since the Second World War, but last year it became legal to publish and sell it as a commented edition.

South Africa’s political turmoil today, reflected in the many bizarre public statements and postures of its politicians, has an echo of the story in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, a parable extolling democracy while describing a workers’ revolution which goes horribly wrong. It’s about the successful overthrow of a harsh regime of human farmers by an animals’ liberation movement. The new order becomes corrupted, however, when leaders turn arrogant, and ‘alternative facts’ – the ‘fake news’ of today – are propagated to suit political ambitions. It sounds familiar, not unlike the tragic corruption of the once-admired ANC liberation movement.

Pauw’s book is not ideological in the traditional sense, except to the extent that law-breakers, whoever they are, should be exposed and punished, including the president if necessary. Zuma’s selfish motives in wanting the book recalled are so transparent, a child could see through them. But he doesn’t care; he knows he will probably never be called to account. Or could it be that the tide is finally turning against him?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Why murders on SA farms evoke knee-jerk racism

FARM MURDERS

Are white South African farmers and their workers safe on their farms in a crime-ridden country? Statistics show the murder rate of farmers is higher than the national average. What role does race play? In the picture, farmers at an anti-crime demonstration in Cape Town, October 30, 2017

A FARMER murdered while working his land is a shocking scene. Yet many people rejected this week’s countrywide protests, called Black Monday, by farmers against the plague of such killings in South Africa. It was said they were privileged white Afrikaners concerned only about themselves who maltreated their black workers. The protesting farmers, dressed in black, blocked highways with hundreds of vehicles. But while this image is ominous, its underbelly may bring hope.

The Black First Land First group, which is itself racist, urged South Africans not to support the protests, claiming white farms are “zones of violence for black people.” Sadly, there are indeed many racial incidents. Last week, two Afrikaans farmers were sentenced to many years in jail for forcing a black man into a coffin and threatening to set it alight. But the overall reality is more complex, containing good and bad.

The protests began in Cape Town with a group called “Enough is Enough” after Joubert Conradie was murdered on a Stellenbosch farm. In a video which went viral, farm manager Chris Loubser said if he were a magician, “the whole City of Cape Town would’ve been surrounded by tractors.” Afrikaner-dominated lobby group AfriForum backed the protest. A convoy of hundreds of vehicles arrived at Cape Town Stadium on Monday; farmers also gathered at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria and elsewhere.

Following last week’s release of annual crime statistics for the country, consternation over deteriorating farm safety was voiced by various organisations, although farm crimes were not specifically mentioned in the figures. The national murder rate was 34 per 100 000 people in the 2015/2016 period. MP Piet Groenewald of the Freedom Front Plus party said in Parliament in April that the farm murder rate was 133 per 100 000, based on estimates by crime analyst Dr Johan Burger at the Institute for Security Studies. Burger, however, saw the figure only as a vague indicator affected by how one defines farm murders. Others estimate a lower rate, but all agree there is a serious problem.

Burger bemoans racialisation and politicisation of the killings: “The reality is that our farming communities are under siege.” Farm attacks are not just about white farmers, he says: “Every year there are far more black workers killed than white farmers.” This may reflect the larger number of workers compared to farmers, but it’s not about race.

Events in this country quickly become racialised in knee-jerk fashion. White farmers protesting are seen as protecting their interests while resisting transformation in post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, that accusation contains some truth. Certain farmers are also saying there is a “white-genocide.” Worryingly, some protestors carried the old South African flag, and others sang Die Stem, apartheid South Africa’s national anthem. AfriForum, however, insists it told people to wear black but “did not call on them to bring flags or call for any political affiliations.”

In the mid-1900s there were numerous Jewish farmers. For example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie (Leandra) in Mpumalanga province consisted almost entirely of Jewish farmers. Almost all have left, having sold their farms to Afrikaners. If they were still there, would they have joined the protests? Would there be an anti-Semitic backlash?

Last week’s Sunday Times front-page headline blared: “Gangster Republic!” Most people understood the meaning without even reading the article: The country has become a hotbed of criminality, violent and non-violent, under President Jacob Zuma. South Africans from all groups and economic strata are affected, and are gatvol. Could white farmers, with all their imperfections, trigger a wider protest? It would be ironic for mass civil action to emerge from conservative white farmers. But from whatever source, it must be encouraged: it could represent a tipping point.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Could Israel-Palestine peace rest on personal stories?

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CAN individual Palestinians and Israelis get past their violent history and see each other as people? A documentary screened in the past two weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town shows attempts at this by a group calling itself Combatants for Peace. It has tiny echoes of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, in which Israelis and Palestinians tell their personal stories to each other face to face, not sparing the pain.

Called “Disturbing the Peace”, the film, directed by Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young and feted by international film critics in the New York Times and elsewhere, was released last year and portrays real people and events, using archival and re-created material, describing the group’s genesis and formal establishment in 2005.

In the film, an Israeli soldier in an elite commando unit, Chen Alon, is ordered to deny passage at a checkpoint to a Palestinian father desperate to take sick children to hospital. Alon, a father himself, is appalled. Other Israelis are as well.

Another protagonist, Palestinian woman Shifa al-Qudsi, decides to become a suicide bomber to kill Israelis, but is arrested before carrying out the mission. She spends six years in an Israeli jail, where she encounters a guard whose brother was killed in a Palestinian suicide attack. She is horrified. The film is peppered with grisly scenes of Israeli buses blown up by suicide bombers and Palestinian families grieving as they watch their homes being demolished by Israeli bulldozers.

In one of the most potent scenes, a Palestinian man and woman watch on television the bodies of dead Israelis strewn on the ground after a Jerusalem bus bombing. The woman expresses sadness. The man is perplexed: “They are the oppressors! This is our struggle”. She retorts that Israeli mothers losing children suffer like Palestinian mothers.

Through a hush-hush message, the small Israeli group is invited to meet similar-minded Palestinians in the territories, secretly. They enter a room and are seated on a row of chairs facing several Palestinians. Both sides begin, tensely, telling their personal stories. The Israelis had friends and relatives killed in terrorist attacks; the Palestinians have lost friends and relatives, been held in Israeli prisons, and had homes demolished. It is an incredibly moving moment.

Through the formation of Combatants for Peace, the Israelis declare they will continue serving in the army defending Israel, but will refuse service in the occupied territories; the Palestinians renounce violence. Both sides call for a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Israelis in the group are despised by some other Israelis as leftist radicals. At a Tel Aviv rally, a man swears at a demonstrator: “You piece of shit! You are traitors! Go and live with them!”

The film’s weakness, yet paradoxically also its strength, is its focus solely on Israelis’ and Palestinians’ human side, not the macro-reality. Can a solution emerge from this level? Or are they naïve? Does a tiny group like this have relevance amidst the harsh reality of a century-old conflict in a region engulfed in turmoil, with terrorist group Hamas still vowing to eliminate Israel, and Iran, Russia and the United States embroiled with their own interests? And with the most right wing government in Israel’s history, still building settlements.

One vignette shows the group addressed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu through a specially recorded video, encouraging them to pursue their dream, as South Africans did.

In the last decade, the political centre supporting the two-state solution and opposing the occupation has withered in South Africa, leaving moderate Israeli-oriented Jews without a political home. Extremes such as BDS and the Jewish right-wing are dominant. This film contributes to a more hopeful approach which says people on the other side are human beings, not just killers. Cynics may roll their eyes and call it naïve, yet everything else has failed to solve the conflict.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • Screening of Disturbing the Peace in Cape Town and Johannesburg arranged by South African branch of pro-peace organisation SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation)

What happens when sins of the past come out of the closet?

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Reaching closure: Nearly five decades after anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol plunged to his death from the tenth floor of police headquarters, an inquest has determined he was pushed by police rather than jumped. His brother Mohamed Timol (above) praised the judgment (photo: Gulshan Khan)

A LONG, dirty thread links the sadistic killers of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol and South African President Jacob Zuma to sex offenders who thought they would get away with it as time passed. But people cannot control how they will be remembered in history.

In 1971, Timol died in police custody after jumping or being pushed through the tenth-floor window of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. It was so long ago that many young South Africans today don’t even know his name. The policemen who tortured him have since died or are too old to recall the facts, and were never brought to book. Yet his family, believing he was pushed through the window rather than jumped, pursued the issue tirelessly, demanding a new investigation. It determined last week that Timol was pushed. His tormentors will be remembered as murderers, not policemen.

Zuma is widely considered a criminal using his position to steal from state coffers, today and in the past. He avoids prosecution by manipulating the judiciary with endless stalling tactics, hoping the incidents will fade in the public memory. But the Supreme Court of Appeal this week leapt back time-wise, declaring he should be charged on 783 fraud and corruption counts for his actions during the arms deal in 2002. Charges were dropped in 2009 during his presidential election campaign, after he asserted that the timing of the charges aimed to damage his election prospects – the so-called “spy-tapes” saga.

A similar dirty thread links him to villains of another type – sex pests. His alleged rape of a 31-year-old family friend came to court in 2005. He claimed the act was “consensual,” and rallied his supporters to back him. He thought it had faded in peoples’ memory and continued with his political ambitions, but it has been resurrected in broadcaster Redi Tlhabi’s new book ‘Khwezi’ about his rape accuser Fezekile Kuzwayo. Chances are, Zuma will go down in history not only as a corrupt thief, but also a sexual criminal.

Other villains on that sexual thread include Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and South African billionaire Sidney Frankel. They also thought the passing of time would make the grisly events fade, and they would get away free.

Weinstein was publically accused in the last two weeks by women in the Hollywood film world of sexual molestation over many years, exploiting his powerful position. He had such sway that giving him sex could make or break an actress’s career. His accusers include famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow and others. Weinstein, who has resigned from the company he founded, is learning that despite time passing, old skeletons may come back to haunt.

SA Jewish billionaire Sidney Frankel sexually abused children at the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home and other places in the 1970s and 1980s. In the many years afterwards, he thought life had moved on and he wouldn’t be fingered. But last year, eight accusers claiming he assaulted them as children brought a civil claim against him. He endured public disgrace, but died earlier this year before being sentenced. His name will go down as a paedophile. His case caused Johannesburg’s High Court to declare Section 18 of the Criminal Procedure Act unconstitutional, effectively removing the 20-year prescription bar on sexual offences. Other well-known sexual predators who have been exposed include tennis star Bob Hewitt, and television’s man of clean “family values”, Bill Cosby.

Politics moves on after time with new leaders. But sexual abuse is not repairable: The abuser moves on, but victims remain traumatised.

“What goes around, comes around,” says the cliché. Sometimes the wheel does turn, and old skeletons come back to haunt. Will Zuma, in time, pay for his crimes too?

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

 

 

Skin deep: Is conflict still inevitable between colours and races?

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Who cares about race when the team is winning? Black and white players in South Africa’s Springboks celebrate their win over Argentina in Port Elizabeth last month in the Rugby Championship opener  (Photo: EPA)

THE past week’s events in the United States and Germany add fuel to a perennial question: What is a nation’s true nature, behind its outward veneer. What demons hide there, racial or otherwise? The relevance for South Africa is clear.

The US constitution posits a society with everyone equal before the law. Yet to President Donald Trump’s outrage, black American footballers refused to stand for the national anthem before a game, kneeling in front of thousands of spectators to protest police brutality towards blacks. For them, America is not what the anthem’s stirring words profess. Predictably, Trump roared publically in speeches and tweets that they must stand, or be “fired”. But they won’t.

Germany’s demons are emerging from the closet too, shown by dramatically increased support in last week’s federal elections for the far right, ultra-nationalistic party, Alternative for Germany, making it the Bundestag’s third largest party. It calls for Germans to stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes, to honour Wehrmacht soldiers who served in World War Two, and to examine crimes of the Russian Revolution’s “Jewish murderers”. It has likened Muslim refugees and asylum seekers to “invaders” and expressed understanding for a right-wing nationalist’s mass murder in Norway.

Since the War and the Holocaust, Germany has resolutely presented itself as an enlightened democracy. Does this shift to the right signal reversion to previous identities – anti-Islam, anti-black, anti-Jewish?

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history, it is doing relatively well on such issues. Last Sunday marked Heritage Day, when people across the spectrum of hues, languages, religions and ethnicities celebrated their diversity, with different groups donning traditional clothing, hairdos and other items. While politically the country is under assault by corrupt shenanigans of President Zuma and the Guptas, assisted by enablers such as auditing firm KPMG and PR agency Bell Pottinger, who stoke racial tensions, as a society it shows a remarkable degree of tolerance, even friendliness, among different groups. It is by no means perfect; racism and xenophobia are often expressed by individuals and politicians, but in the public domain they are generally slapped down as anti-South African.

Beneath the surface, racial tensions will take generations to solve – if ever. And the dynamics of race relations are more complicated than just black and white.

An excellent film in Afrikaans (with English subtitles) currently on circuit called Vaselinetjie, unpacks some of the fine nuances of what skin colour means, beyond the black-white labels. It portrays a young white-skinned girl’s anguish growing up in a poor Coloured village, reared by her Coloured ‘grandparents’, who is maliciously derided by school peers for being “too white.” At the school principal’s prodding, she is sent to a Johannesburg orphanage containing white kids. They regard her as white, but she never feels safe enough to reveal that her grandparents are Coloured, or how this situation came about. The veneer collapses when her grandparents attend a social event at the orphanage, leading friends she had trusted and loved to label her, contemptuously, as a “half-breed” – not white enough, nor black enough to fit in. She is shattered, but clings to the memory of her grandmother’s words: “G-d doesn’t make mistakes.”

What is it to be South African? White minorities – Afrikaners, English, Jews and others –  fear for their long-term future among the country’s huge black majority, still struggling with the racial legacy of its history. So do minorities like the Coloureds.

Racial demons lurk everywhere despite grand proclamations of liberal constitutions, including Trump’s America’s or Merkel’s Germany. Is South African society far enough down the road of multiracial tolerance to stay on track?

There are good and bad signs. But mischievous politicians scratching the wound for expedient ends could easily sabotage the idealistic “rainbow nation” project once again.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

  • Read a review of the film Vaselinetjie by arts critic Robyn Sassen 

 

Master stories and their multiple virginities

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Stories are slippery things: Who tells the real story of South Africa? Is it politicians like President Zuma, whose people spread smears about contenders like Cyril Ramaphosa? Or a homeless man in Johannesburg, one of 30 million South Africans living in poverty?

NIGERIAN poet and novelist Ben Okri wasn’t referring specifically to South Africa when he wrote: “To poison a country, poison its stories… A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves.” But he might as well have been, if measured by the toxicity pervading our body politic today.

As the ANC’s December conference to elect a new president approaches, rumours are heard that powerful politicians fearful of losing control might create such chaos, it would be aborted. The “poisoners” of this nation propagate carefully-timed smears such as the supposed extra-marital affairs of presidential contender Cyril Ramaphosa, with objectives so obvious that a child could see through them: Can you trust a politician who has an affair (even if Ramaphosa has admitted to one several years ago)? Previous ominous smears have said opposition to the ANC is a western plot for “regime change” rather than democracy at work. Or that former public protector Thuli Madonsela who revealed the curse of state capture, was a CIA agent.

But politicians will be politicians. Okri also said: “The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.” The next few months will be a roller-coaster of magician-like, dirty tricks as President Jacob Zuma fights Ramaphosa’s rising popularity.

Not only South Africa lives in almost surreal times; it is everywhere. No-one knows what to believe, as fake news goes viral through Twitter and Facebook. Historians fifty years down the line will try, with the benefit of hindsight, to penetrate the fog. But even historians always differ on the “real” story.

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. A moving memorial and museum containing names of the 3000 people killed was created at Ground Zero. But that story is far from finished or understood. Will future historians call it the beginning of the Third World War? Or the West’s wakening to the scourge of terrorism from which even America was not immune, and the beginning of the fightback? Or the grossness of powerful politicians whose reactions created more hatred and chaos rather than less.

Stories are told differently as events recede. Barney Simon, icon of South African theatre and co-founder of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, whose craft was story-telling, remarked: “A story has a thousand virginities.”

What does this mean? On the street, for example, immigrants to this country from Eastern Europe or elsewhere – such as Jews, Italians, Greeks and other communities, some of them refugees – often arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with nothing but a suitcase and a story. Many were unable to even speak the language. Forced to reinvent themselves, their families now tell stories of resourcefulness and success – within a generation many children of these people were educated professionals. The same can be said for many later immigrants from the Congo, Somalia, Nigeria and other African countries, many of whom have established businesses and enterprises small and large.

So, are the master stories South Africans are telling about themselves, healthy or poisoned? Is it still triumph over apartheid and inspirational attempts by blacks and whites on the ground to overcome racism? Or the epic of great reconciler Nelson Mandela which made us the darlings of the world – though some young people call him a “sellout” for negotiating with the apartheid government to avert a civil war? Or a tale of intense disappointment at the country’s decline to junk status economically, socially and politically so soon after the Mandela euphoria? Stats SA says one in two South Africans – about 30 million people – live under the poverty line, more than ever before. Is this fixable, and who can do it?

It is not clear whether this country will drown in its poisonous stories, or negotiate the current mess and thrive heroically in its healthy ones. Okri never gave us a crystal ball.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )