The thick skin of men in power


How to cock a snoot at the law: Powerful politicians develop devious ways of avoiding accountability for breaking the law; Former South African President Jacob Zuma (above) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are old hands at this

FORMER South African president Jacob Zuma and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu share something in common: No matter how much damning proof of wrongdoing piles up against them, they continue to behave without batting an eyelid. Zuma is out of office, after nearly destroying South Africa and should be in jail, but his cheerful face still appears on African National Congress party billboards and he is seen publically campaigning for the ANC, doing his characteristic dance, with no shame. People who rejoiced at the exposure of his corruption network thought, “We’ve got him!” But he projects himself as the victim of a conspiracy, saying, “I don’t know what I have done!”

Netanyahu’s three graft charges amount to very serious misdemeanours for which he could go to jail. But no crestfallen face has ever been seen from him. Withdrawing from politics to face his charges, which would be the right thing to do in good democracies, is totally unthinkable. That’s not how Israeli politics works and not how he works. Instead, he continues to behave as if he is a brave warrior fighting a sinister barrage of odds: “Without me at the helm to provide security, the country would fall!” is his message. Sadly, most Israelis believe him, as if there are no other capable people in the nation.

He claims a conspiracy against him from the ‘left’ and has made praise of anyone to the left of his politics as equivalent to a swear word: “It is the leftists who are out to get me”.  In a right wing country like Israel, with the left in disarray, this finds fertile ears.

Zuma has never gone to jail, nor will he: the rot of corruption in every aspect of South Africa with his fingerprints on it is so deep that it will take years to examine and tackle, no matter how many commissions of inquiry work at it. By then the country will have moved on with other things to worry about.

It is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will go to jail too, given the political boiling pot which is Israel and the Middle East. The mark of a canny politician is not only what he does while in office, but how he behaves after exposure for lying or stealing. Netanyahu is still firmly in charge of what happens now.

Politics is a slippery business, not a profession which inspires ethical behaviour in Israel, South Africa or elsewhere. Accountability is difficult to impose. In South Africa, with its toxic, racial mix in politics, most potential whistleblowers quickly withdraw when faced with accusations of racism. Fear of the consequences easily turns into turning a blind eye, all the way from the level of the shopkeeper who cooks his books to pay less tax, to the highest politician who rapes his secretary.

Zuma also made headlines in 2005 after accusations that he raped the woman known as Khwezi, earning him his nickname ‘shower head’ after saying he had taken a shower after sex with her. But he still has a huge, loyal following in KwaZulu-Natal province, which threatens President Cyril Ramaphosa’s power to do what is necessary. This despite the estimated R500 billion loss to the country through state capture which flourished under Zuma.

In politics, it is often the most shrewd, not necessarily the most principled politicians who end up having the greatest effect. But it sticks in the throat to see Netanyahu arrogantly strolling the streets of Jerusalem as if all is well, with his face on Likud posters smiling at the people, just like Zuma does in Johannesburg.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 




The Knesset: is it open to racists?

Mideast Israel Palestinians Rahm Emanuel

How far right should Jews go to defend themselves? Itamar Ben Gvir is an attorney and leader of far-right Oztma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, known to the public chiefly for his defense of far-right activists accused of hate crimes against Palestinians and other minorities. His clients have included several youths suspected of burning a Palestinian family alive in their home
(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

A DEMOCRACY cannot be judged by the nature of every party in its government. Its power is its ability to encompass widely different viewpoints. Even in extreme cases such as apartheid South Africa, where democracy only existed among whites, every white South African could not be classified as racist. Now it is Israel’s turn to be tested.

For power’s sake, politicians do foolish things which can be exploited against them. In the western world, the most potent accusation which can be hurled against a society today is that it is racist. Political leaders need to tread very carefully on this territory; whether true or not, the stain of the accusation remains.

Black populist politicians in South Africa who hate Israel would be delighted to get a story from reputable sources questioning whether Israelis are racist. BDS South Africa, which has lost a lot of its punch recently, would revel in this and blow it sky-high.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave them some of this weaponry in deciding to merge two rightwing parties for the upcoming Israeli elections, the one completely acceptable, the other so militantly extreme and racist that it has provoked massive reaction among Jews worldwide, particularly Americans. He couldn’t have predicted the virulence of the reaction, both for and against his move. Eminent rabbis in America and Israel are at each others’ throats. His opponents have said: “Shame on you!” for joining hands with despicable people.

Where do South African Jews stand? Must they take a position? As this country tries to heal its racial wounds, which easily provoke volatile reactions, this Zionistic community is moderately right wing in Jewish affairs. Jewish leaders say forcefully that they want to live in harmony with others, including Arabs if they make peace with Israel, and declare support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when Israel’s most fervent own proponents are arguing so intensely about its nature, which way should they turn?

According to Netanyahu’s plan, Israeli national religious party, The Jewish Home, will merge with the extremist party Jewish Power, which embraces the ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the Jewish Defence League founded in 1968. Kahane’s party, Kach, was designated a terrorist group by Israel and the United States in 1994 for its violent, racially motivated actions. Its blunt platform was to brutally expel all Arabs from Israel, in a way which makes people in the western world recoil. It perpetrated violent acts in different countries, and Kahane received jail sentences in America and Israel. His spectre has hung over Jewish affairs ever since, influencing modern Jewish far-right groups and promoting further violence, including in recent decades: In July 2003 the Shin Bet said “the threat to the life of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had grown” and “there was a threat from several dozen Kahanist extremists.”

Although Netanyahu’s motives were politically legitimate – to strengthen the rightwing bloc in the Knesset, rather than directly supporting Kach – it will not be judged this way by the world. Netanyahu feared that without the Kahanists joining them, The Jewish Home might not reach the electoral threshold to form a right-wing majority bloc.

An urgent statement by South African Jews on this issue would be important, even if just to deflect the accusation here that they support the Kahanists. Militant racism is part of South Africa’s history. It is dangerous for that genie to be let out of its bottle. Not only Israel must take great care on this, but the ball is also in the court of Jewish leaders in SA and elsewhere.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Is there such a thing as too many babies?

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Car, cars, cars one after the other! Will they never move? Traffic jams are a major problem in big cities. Tel Aviv has highest density per paved road in the developed world.

SOUTH Africans take it for granted that they live in a large country where the population of 56 million fits easily into it, and they can drive for hours in the countryside and pass through only a few towns with few people. Not all residents live well; aside from the poisonous racial obsession, most are poor and unemployed. The country is not an unqualified success by most indicators.

But other countries which are regarded as eminently successful, such as Israel, have their own problems. The Zionist ideal of Jews going there to build a flourishing society has been immensely successful, but success depends on the criteria used to measure it. Demographers from Israeli universities quoted in Haaretz are united in the view that Israel’s changing demography within current borders poses extremely hard challenges which could undermine the successes. Israel is not the same country it was in the early days of Zionist pioneers, when it pleaded for Jews to come and help build the kibbutzim and cities, and South African Jews and others responded enthusiastically.

The figures are startling. Today Israel is, worldwide, the third most densely populated developed country, after the Netherlands and South Korea. It is growing so rapidly – 2% a year versus just 0.5% for OECD countries – that by 2035 it will be the most densely populated.

If its population, currently at 8 million, reaches 18 million by 2050, 98% of Israelis will have to live in massive apartment towers containing hundreds of units each – essentially tiny cities. Parts of Singapore and Hong Kong already live like that, but people there have small families. Israeli families average 3.1 children; Singapore and Hong Kong average one.

The implications of a dense population are apparent in daily life. Try driving on the roads, which are the most clogged up in the developed world, with more cars per paved street than Spain, which comes second. Medical care is stretched: at 94%, Israeli hospital emergency rooms have the highest occupancy rate in the developed world. One demographer says you can’t measure the standard of living without relating to quality of life, such as “the ability to spend time outdoors without being overwhelmed by the masses.” Lake Kinneret’s shores, for example, are closed during Passover when they reach full capacity.

This is where demographers enter contentious territory; they say excessive population growth relates to the widespread view in Israel that “children are a blessing.” It encourages childbirth with child allowances and gives discounts for large families. Many Israelis, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox sector, have very large families, sometimes more than 10 children. It is almost heretical to suggest a negative view of this. But it is contrary to most developed countries, who expect future populations to shrink – Japan has already begun to do this.

There is also sensitive politics involved; Jews still believe Israelis face being overwhelmed numerically by Palestinians. Yet birth-rates among Israeli Arabs dispute this: over the last three decades the Israeli Arab birth-rate has dropped from an average of nine per woman to three. This does not account for the larger political dimension – the future of the West Bank and its relation with Israel. The demographers assume a political agreement will be reached for two national entities.

These figures give much food for thought, but what do they mean practically for South African Jews, many of whose children are immigrating to western countries such as Australia? It is not clear. Perhaps their concept of city life, including Israeli cities, will change; other world cities where people live happily are also densely populated. Changing one’s view is not easy.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Looming elections: Can the centre hold?

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Settlers and police: who will they vote for on April 9? Israeli settlers are on the right of the political spectrum and will play a key role in elections on July 8. In the picture, Israeli security forces clash with settlers at Beit El trying to prevent demolition of illegally constructed buildings, on July 28, 2015 (FLASH90). South African national elections are also due in on May 8, with the ANC likely to win, but with huge problems in the country


TWO ELECTIONS coming up will provoke serious arguments around South African Jewish dinner tables about values. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rightist Likud party which has been in power since 1977, alternating with Labour, has declared a snap election for April 9; he leads a confident country at the pinnacle of its economic and political power. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa heads the African National Congress and presides over a depressed country in desperate economic and political crisis, which wants him to save it from going over the cliff. Elections will be on May 8.

Every democratic society has radicals on the extremes, and a centre holding it together. It is instructive to compare the two countries. Centrist South Africans fret over Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to be on the left, but behaves like a fascist thug in a red overall, playing to the masses’ grossest emotions, like Hitler once did. Israel has radicals who would throw all the Palestinians out of their land, but a powerful centre skilled at knowing where the red lines are, and what would lead to war.

Netanyahu’s motives for calling the election are not so much about policies, but very personal: his concern about criminal charges against him for bribery, which the police have already recommended. If it was possible, he would probably have held elections sooner, so he would be doing so as leader of a popular, recently re-elected party. The Likud will almost definitely win. It’s a sad development: Israel’s previous great leaders, such as Menachem Begin, lived in small apartments and would never have flirted with corruption.

Netanyahu is a man accustomed to the trappings of power, but with his tail between his legs. According to polls, more than 50% of Israelis want him out. And his fight with the radicals, whether settlers or the ultra-Orthodox, constantly threatens to bring his government crashing down.

Ramaphosa represents the moderate left in his country, and is a resolute firefighter with a clean record, aiming to douse the meltdown from the failure for nine years of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma to govern effectively. But he has powerful political and tribal enemies; will he have sufficient time in office to do that?

The left in Israel is in disarray, both the moderate left and the radicals. It won’t recover anytime soon. But the centrist and extreme right has risen dramatically.

Bezalel Smotrich, for example, is leader of Israel’s furthest-right faction, the National Union party, and part of what he calls the “strong backbone” of the tent of the right. He could be called the Israeli equivalent of the racist, anti-white Malema. The media call him the “blue-eyed, bearded settler,” the youthful face of unashamed political and religious extremism. A second-generation settler, he was born in the Golan Heights and grew up in Beit El.

He is criticised as racist, homophobic, messianic and undemocratic – serious charges in Israel’s democracy. In 2005 the Shin Bet arrested him on suspicion of organising violent protests against the Gaza disengagement. He declared himself a “proud homophobe” and organised an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem to protest a gay pride parade, featuring goats and donkeys to ridicule the celebrating of so-called “deviant acts.”

To South Africans and the vast majority of ordinary Israelis, this comes across as bizarre. Smotrich would be unwelcome in South African politics – his views would be declared unconstitutional and branded as hate speech.

What attitude should Jews adopt towards the Malemas and Smotriches of this world? They vote in South Africa but think hard about Israel. Everyone must straddle the line between distaste and support.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Playing to seekers of excellence, African and European

mozart fest

Can Africans call Mozart one of their own? The flourishing of European classical music in South Africa, which still struggles to clarify its African identity, poses challenges to both its European and African roots. In the picture, the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival brings in capacity audiences, mostly white, at Johannesburg’s Linder auditorium

IS EUROCENTRICITY still a proverbial four-letter word in today’s South Africa? After the coming of democracy in 1994 there was political and social pressure to be more Afrocentric, to counter eons of brutal white and colonial rule that had emanated from Europe and persecuted Africa’s people.

But the society has matured and become less threatened by different ways people may identify themselves, whether ‘African’, ‘European’ or something in between.

Anyone parachuting into the huge Linder Auditorium on Wits university campus on Saturday to hear Italian pianist Mariangela Vacatello perform works by European composers including Mozart, might have thought it was a wholly European event. The 1,000 seat-plus auditorium was packed to the rafters, but noticeable was that the audience was almost exclusively middle-aged and white: hardly a black face was to be seen aside from waiters serving in the restaurant. Superficially, it looked like the 1960s, when apartheid was alive.

Of course, in those days there was a curfew for black people in white areas and they could not have attended. They had to keep to places such as Soweto, and carry a ‘pass’ signed by their white employer, to be in a white area.

Saturday’s performance left the audience breathless and demanding more. After a standing ovation Vacatello gave several encores, the last ending with Mozart’s lively Rondo alla Turca, with a jazz beat. She had come to South Africa under the auspices of the Johannesburg Musical Society, a more-than 100-year old institution currently managed by Avril Rubenstein, in partnership with Richard Cock’s Johannesburg International Mozart Festival (JIMF).

On Sunday, the Linder, which has, over the years, been host to significant luminaries such as Pinchas Zuckerman, saw a grand performance of the Mozart Requiem by the Johannesburg Festival Orchestra and the Symphony Choir of Johannesburg, programmed by JIMF and conducted by Richard Cock. There was not an empty seat and again, an almost exclusively white audience. They were there not because they were white, or because Mozart was European, but because that was the kind of music they love.

The dichotomy seems crude. And it is. There are many black lovers of European classical music in this country, as there is a growing interest in opera by black practitioners. But overwhelmingly, there is disproportion in audiences such as that of the Mozart Festival.

Does the skewed make-up of audiences indicate that South Africa’s non-racial project has failed? In this racially obsessed country, the likes of black populist politicians like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema question the place of whites in the country. Showcasing these so-called ‘European’ works could be interpreted by mischievous politicians as a statement that whites are not ‘African’, but European and not deserving of African status.

What place does this divisive argument have in the new South Africa, which is confused with identity issues and sees its rainbow nation dream wither? With elections coming soon, racist rhetoric will intensify as parties with a ‘white’ image such as the Democratic Alliance, compete against parties with a ‘black’ image, such as the African National Congress and EFF. Malema knows how to ride that wave, his party attracts votes through racial bombast. But in the broad sense, most people no longer regard it as sinful, politically or artistically, to be Eurocentric.

Too often in the recent past, art has received accolades not because of its quality, but its maker’s identity. This is dangerous and misleading. Mozart may have been born in Europe some 260-odd years ago. He may have been born white-skinned and male. But these are not the reasons he is loved. He is loved because of the brilliance of his work.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Docility: Our society’s quiet calamity

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If I pay you under the counter will you cook the books? And if you refuse at first, will you do it if I raise the price?


WHERE are the youth protestors, the ‘trouble-makers’ who keep all societies alive? What on earth will it take for South Africans to become so riled up by the corruption revealed in the Zondo and other commissions that they take to the streets with placards, demonstrate outside the commission’s Parktown premises and block off roads outside homes of people implicated for corruption?

Remember the threats by thousands during the anti-apartheid struggle to make the country ‘ungovernable’? It seemed sure that after apartheid’s defeat, protest against injustice was embedded into this country’s DNA. But it appears that docility has won, that the self-indulgence of staring into cellphones for Tweets replaces action.

What a pity. In 2015 – not that long ago – we had the intense #FeesMustFall movement to stop increasing student fees, and the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, symbol of British colonialism, at the University of Cape Town. Whether one agreed with all the actions of the angry protestors or not, what was important was the passion they displayed to correct things.

Why is corruption on the gigantic scale revealed by the Gupta and Agrizzi sagas and the theft of billions in public money designated for poor South Africans, not enough to get the blood of the youth boiling? Is it too abstract, removed from most peoples’ daily lives?

Leaders call for a calm approach, to ‘let the law take its course’. And the ANC, many of whose senior members face corruption allegations, continues deploying them on its campaign trail, including tainted former president Jacob Zuma. The party says they have not been legally convicted, so there is no reason for them not to be its public face.

But most South Africans don’t believe those guilty of corruption will ever suffer any consequences. If they are charged in court, they will drag out the process endlessly, with appeal after appeal, as Zuma did with charges against him.

What if a person has had enough of the charade, and wanted to protest individually, not wait for a movement? While South African and Israeli issues differ, there was an example of such an individual act on Sunday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, when controversial Israeli performance artist and playwright Ariel Bronz chained himself by the neck with a lock and chains to a steel beam that is part of a Holocaust memorial sculpture. He said it was to protest what he called the ‘substandard treatment’ received in Israel by Holocaust survivors, and he was staging an ‘anti-event’ on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He was injured in the process and hospitalised.

What would be the equivalent individual act in South Africa? Would young people be prepared to chain themselves to the wheels of the expensive cars, paid for from the public purse, of corrupt officials who should be working to serve the country rather than driving such cars?

Last Sunday saw a major cricket match at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg. Cars filled the streets and happy cricket fans watched the game as if everything was well in the land. But it’s like a fourth monkey in the proverbial set of three brass monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, respectively. The fourth one neither sees, hears nor speaks: he just gazes smilingly at his cellphone, proclaiming ‘All is well’.

Most people in any society just want get on with their lives, educate their children, pay the rent and so on. It takes something special to get them riled up, a ‘trouble-maker’.  This society badly needs some of those.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


Hero? Villain? Who gets to blow that strong whistle?

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Beware in spilling the heavyweight beans! Angelo Agrizzi has provided the Zondo commission names of senior ANC and other officials who he claims were long involved in serious corruption. He has received death threats. (Picture: Abigail Javier/EWN Jan 2019)

WHEN a bold man raises his head too far above the parapet, he risks having his head chopped off. By either side.

Angelo Agrizzi, the key whistleblower on corruption in the ANC and elsewhere, currently appearing at Judge Zondo’s Commission into State Capture, must be aware of this irony. He has become a champion of a strange kind to some. He will be remembered not only for past wrongdoing as COO of Bosasa, a channel for billions in laundered money, but for his act now of coming clean about the slew of powerful individuals involved, many of them heroes of the struggle who want him to shut up. The death threats against him are not surprising.

His revelations debunk the naïve notion that struggle heroes are by default honourable people. A procession of them have turned out to be dirty and corrupt, ranging from former president Jacob Zuma downwards. People ask: Is there anybody out there who is still to be trusted?

It is confusing, this switching of identities from hero to scoundrel and vice versa. It’s a theme of our times. Perhaps life was always like that, but it is often heard around dinner tables nowadays that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. A nostalgia exists for less confusing days.

What to do with the Watson family from the Eastern Cape, for example, who bravely opposed apartheid and were members of the then-banned ANC and SA Communist Party. ‘Cheeky’ Watson refused to participate in trials for the 1976 Springbok team, instead playing rugby in black townships, thus breaking segregation laws. This made him a local hero. Later, he used his high-level contacts to accumulate huge, illegal wealth.

During apartheid, most people knew the racist system was bad, whether they opposed it or not. During the Second World War, most knew Germany was an enemy. In South Africa today, ordinary people instinctively reject corruption but don’t appreciate its extent as the biggest threat to the country which might bring it down – more than racism.

The villain-hero dichotomy goes beyond our borders. Robert Mugabe, once a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle to rid his country of the English oppressors, changed into the villain once he got used to being in power, almost destroying the country with corruption and authoritarian rule, and refusing to relinquish power. Zimbabwe has since stumbled from one catastrophe to another. However, many today long for the stability he brought.

The identity-switching cuts across generation and race.  A Wits lecturer says when she mentions the name of anti-apartheid music icon Johnny Clegg to black students, they call him an “old white man” not worth knowing about, denying him another identity regardless of what he did. Other white faculty report similar occurrences. Minority communities, such as Jews and Greeks, experience similar blanket labelling, with little attempt at unpicking nuances.

Confusion about identity isn’t just political, but social. Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, was once regarded as the hero who would democratise information and communication, away from the clutches of people with nefarious interests. Facebook is so intertwined with modern life, one cannot imagine being without it. But it is as much a channel for hate as for good – a ‘Big Brother’ collecting data about people and sinisterly watching their habits. Zuckerberg might be seen by future historians as a ‘Stalin’ manipulating the masses, rather than a hero.

Is the Zondo enquiry useful or futile in tackling corruption? No way to know yet, but if it gives the Agrizzis of this world a strong enough whistle to blow, it might just be the former.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Incendiary stories that turn the world

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Follow me to the skies! Martin Luther King Jr, with his potent oratory, led an entire movement to fight for their rights. He is shown here in Brown’s chapel, Selma, Alabama, 1965. Charismatic politicians are immensely powerful shapers of history

WHAT is it about a politician’s speech that you remember afterwards? His catchy phrases? His body language? The urgency in his voice? These are often more memorable than the content. Mostly, he is a storyteller on a stage.

Occasionally a story crosses your path which sets you alight with hope, a tale of a hero and victory. The oratory of gravel-voiced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contained such magic. His ability to tell the British during the Second World War the kind of stories they needed to hear about themselves and their struggle, inspired them to confront the bitterest odds and win. One of his most famous quotes from a rousing 1940 speech is, “…we shall fight them on the beaches…” after large tracts of Europe fell to the Nazis.

South Africa’s story during the last century was pitched to incredible heights by Nelson Mandela, a rural youngster from the Eastern Cape who rose to the summit, changed the world, and died an elderly man surrounded by loved ones. His heroic journey inspired South Africans to believe they could achieve great things – the triumph of good over evil.

It’s not just the story, but how it is told. One of the western world’s most stirring phrases came from the immensely charismatic Martin Luther King Jr who in 1963 inspired the Black Civil Rights Movement in America, just before being assassinated, with his “I have a dream…” speech during the March on Washington for an end to racism.

There’s always a flip side, however. Hitler was an equally charismatic storyteller, who inspired a culture of hate amongst millions of Europeans which poisoned the world and continues doing so. His noxious populism and calls for “lebensraum” tapped into the fears and resentment of vast swathes of German society, instigating attacks on his ‘enemies’, whether Jews, Marxists, foreign powers, or whatever he decided.

South Africa’s positive story had all the charisma and heroism of the others. It inspired the world. But has it been irredeemably poisoned through corruption, factionalism and racism? The sight of former President Jacob Zuma dancing with President Cyril Ramaphosa before 85,000 people in Durban last week at the ANC’s election manifesto launch, brought a collective groan to many who had hoped our positive narrative was still secure. If Zuma, despite the poison he has injected into the country’s life and politics, could still be lauded by so many thousands, we are seriously off track.

Yet, just as Churchill rallied the British at their darkest hour, so we wait for the South African ‘Churchill’. Time will tell if it is Ramaphosa. So far, signs are not good. His speech at the launch was so loaded with tired clichés that the response from many – not just whites – was cynicism. We’ve heard it all before from president after president.

It’s not that the country is falling apart. Its people are still friendly. Unlike the proverbial man on the street in many other countries, our people still have a smile for a stranger, even if their lives are tough and disappointing.

We are familiar with the more personal stories that play themselves out regularly at ground level. “Have a good life!” was the catchy farewell which one youngster called out cheerfully to a relative passing by last week as he walked out of a Glenhazel pharmacy on his way to a life in Australia. He can, because he has the youth and wherewithal to do so.

Should we try to make him want to stay? A lot more than catchy phrases in a storyline are required to reboot the country for that.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Denialism: What you refuse to know can kill you


Who would go into the heart of darkness where your loved ones lie? A memorial honoring victims of the AIDS epidemic, near the former St. Vincent’s Hospital site in New York, where many early victims of AIDS were diagnosed. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

HIV/AIDS doesn’t make the headlines these days as it once did. It has largely slipped under the radar because medically, the disease is now managed successfully.

But in 1993, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, medication wasn’t available and people everywhere were terrified of being overrun by the virus, like a mysterious octopus associated with gay people. That was when South African photographer Gideon Mendel went to London and asked to enter a ward treating desperately ill AIDS patients and take pictures of them. Most were young gay men.

Of course the hospital said no, but after reassurances about sensitivity and confidentiality, and explicit consent from the patients, permission was granted. Mendel said it was to help combat the stigma against them. He was allowed by Middlesex to go into the wards of four dying AIDS patients – John, Ian, Steven and Andre – and photograph their treatment and ward life, including the intimate way their partners, staff, patients and families related to each other. They died soon after the pictures were taken, just before medication became available.

Being gay was still frowned on in many places, and aside from the lack of successful medical care, the AIDS stigma was gigantic. Nurses treating patients didn’t tell their own families; AIDS wards in hospitals were hidden; even the plaque marking the opening of the AIDS ward at Middlesex by Princess Diana was covered by a painting. In an attempt to penetrate the wall of silence, in the United States in 1987 a gigantic AIDS Quilt was shown on the National Mall in Washington DC, created from panels with names of people who had died of AIDS. Many funeral homes refused to handle their remains.

Now, 25 years later, Mendel has assembled a poignant collection of those photographs in a book called The Ward. Its cover picture shows a grief-stricken, healthy man draping himself over and kissing the lips of his sick male friend lying in a hospital bed. You can tell from their body language that they had once had a joyful, loving life together. It is heartbreaking.

Attitudes have changed and the furor seems alien now, with anti-retrovirals allowing HIV-positive people to live full, healthy lives. But in 1993 it took nerve to do what Mendel did.

In South Africa, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys began travelling around South Africa in 2000 with his AIDS-awareness showFor Fact’s Sake!” to educate people. He visited over 1,5 million school children, reformatories and prisons. Public figures such as constitutional court judge Edwin Cameron and musician Bryan Schimmel declared their HIV-positive status. The Treatment Action Campaign approached the constitutional court to force President Mbeki, accused of AIDS denialism, to initiate anti-retroviral treatments immediately. December 1 is still called World Aids Day.

What’s the lesson for today? The AIDS denialism of those days is similar in its impact to today’s climate change denialism. Leaders of the most powerful countries – such as US President Donald Trump and leaders in India and China – continue behaving as if there’s lots of time, while the earth shakes. Our future is bleak unless major action is taken on climate change very urgently. Already the seas are warming and the icecaps are melting, and scientists hope we can limit the rise in global temperature to only 1.5 degrees, rather than the 2 degrees which would eventually kill us all. Global greenhouse gas emissions must be at zero by mid-century.

We need climate change activists of the sort who tackled AIDS, or most of the planet’s civilisations are doomed, and the Gideon Mendels of the future will come and photograph the ruins.

  • Read independent arts critic Robyn Sassen’s review of the 
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GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


The disgrace of a country that lies to its children


We say we educate our children, but what chance does a child have with a mud hut for a school and no teachers? In the photograph, a child walks to school in June 2013 in a village outside the town of Mthatha in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

THE CHILDREN of South Africa have been betrayed by the education system. And the clamour to enter universities has given them a false sense of a passport to a better life. But it isn’t, given the declining state of our universities, and the abysmal matric system which sent them there.

Now, in an unbelievable move, the minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor, has lowered the minimum admission requirement for a Bachelor’s degree at a university to a matric which includes attaining only 30% in the language of learning and teaching of the university they’re applying for – which is mostly English – among other very low requirements. Yes, 30% for matric English is now enough to get a university-entrance matric! The implications are heartbreaking.

The overwhelming feeling among academics at South African universities is despair about the direction in which they are going, including the formerly best, such as Wits. A huge percentage of students coming in today have little adequacy in intellectual and analytic abilities. In addition, lecturers report that it is established practice by many universities to artificially boost their numbers by condoning passes. Remember the era when to get a university degree was a prized, difficult achievement? Wits also once brimmed with Jewish students and faculty, who worked hard to get their degrees, but came from a rigorous basic education, not only from the private schools. Now it has few Jewish students.

With such low competence levels because of appalling basic education, students simply cannot cope with a university environment. Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor in the Education Faculty at Stellenbosch University, calls the 2017 matric results, which government touts as an improvement, a “disgraceful freak show”.

To believe that the 2017 matric pass rate is 75.1%, about 2.5% higher than in 2016, is asking, says Jansen, “that you forego common sense”. Some 78% of children in Grade 4 cannot read with understanding, a finding Jansen cites that placed SA last among 50 countries with which it was compared; 9% of Grade 6 teachers cannot pass a Grade 6 maths test. Actually, the rot has set in from Grade 1.

“It is not as if the few who passed and even those who graduated with a so-called Bachelor’s pass have a solid academic education to see them through tertiary studies” he says. The quality of the matric examination is “so weak in the intellectual demands made of pupils that any fool can scale the 30% passing hurdle.” Most will drop out.

Flip Smit, former vice chancellor of the University of Pretoria, says the move by Pandor to lower university entrance requirements is reckless. Universities already receive between five and nine times more applications than they can accommodate. The new rules will make it far easier to get a matric Bachelor’s pass, and open flood gates for additional applications. And the ease of achieving a matric pass misleads learners into thinking they can complete a degree course.

Jansen says this government and its basic education department “are a disgrace to the nation. They have failed our children, mainly black and poor learners stuck in dysfunctional schools.”

You, who are reading this column, might be an alumnus of a South African university. But what does this mean for your children and those of other middle class South Africans, white and black, including the Jewish community, who were able to send their children to quality private schools where they received a good education? Less and less will send their youngsters to SA universities, rather they will send them overseas. And when you have studied overseas, you are unlikely to come back.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: