Incendiary stories that turn the world

martin luther king

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’s 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 The Ward

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: 


The continent you called ‘home’ that you never even knew



Is literature a western thing? Anyone who knows Africa would disagree. The arts of all types are thriving in Nigeria and elsewhere. In September in Lagos, book lovers gathered for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018, seen in the picture. It celebrates books, literature, entertainment, drama, dance, music, poetry, and reading – the full house

THINK of Rwanda and what you imagine is grotesque mass killings, and villages filled with the detritus of the Tutsi genocide at the hands of the Hutus.

But tiny Rwanda, a country of 10 million which dubbed itself the “Switzerland of Africa,” is the continent’s fastest growing state, surrounded by arable countries – the DRC, Uganda and Tanzania – with countless hectares of good land they can hardly use.

This ironic sub-text pervaded last week’s seminar at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre about changing narratives for African war reporting, 25 years after the genocide which killed 800,000 people in 100 days. The African roller coaster is largely quiescent now but with memories of what happened when tribalism went wild. Veteran worldwide journalists spoke at the seminar.

Do we know Africa? Jean-Philippe Remy, Africa correspondent for French daily paper Le Monde has been living and working in Africa for 20 years. He says westerners still think of the continent as one country. But it is 74 diverse countries, each with its own character.

Amazingly, in the Rwandan genocide era, even good journalists used to say smugly, ‘we know Africa’ – just like good French colonialists. It was the era of parachute journalism, where French foreign reporters would arrive, do minor investigations and write through French eyes. In a welcome change, this attitude has lessened as cellphone journalism from locals became news sources, leaving commentary and analysis for major media.

Before the present era, journalists had to cover a continent overwhelmed by conflict in Ethiopia-Eritrea, Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere. Then, in the 2002 Kenyan elections, President Arap Moi retired after a 24-year rule. Nairobi celebrations attracted the largest crowd ever. Remy says everything changed. Later, to integrate more with its region, Rwanda even changed its alignment and language from the French to the Kenyan English one.

What about literature? Is it still ‘western’? Unfortunately, that’s the narrow way most of us see it. But from the early 2000s new African voices have emerged in countries such as Somalia and Nigeria. It has raised interest in African writing in countries such as Germany. Martin Hielscher, a specialist in fiction at a German publisher, said we can’t simply call things ‘African’ anymore, as if it’s all the same. Africa must speak for itself. African literature tends to be structured less around the linear ‘plot’ associated with western literature, but a mix of different voices.

Give the violent history of the continent, journalism must inevitably deal with African suffering. The journalist Salim Amin, who addressed the seminar, is the son of renowned Kenyan photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin, who in 1984 revealed to the world the Ethiopian famine which threatened to starve 7 million people. Mo’s pictures inspired the musician Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid, a 16-hour concert for Ethiopia featuring Queen, Freddie Mercury and others. It was watched worldwide by 1.9 billion people. In a stunning success, it raised millions of dollars, and is what many adult westerners remember about Ethiopia. Salim showed the seminar a film about Mo’s work in conflict zones which kept the audience spellbound.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa appealed to Jewish youngsters at Sunday’s SAJBD conference not to leave South Africa, but help rebuild it after a ruinous decade, he knew many had already gone to places with secure futures. Most had lived here in capsules of privilege in an Africa opaque to them. They will make their new homes in America and elsewhere without being able to say, authentically, that they ‘know Africa’.

Perhaps South Africa will flower again – like Rwanda? Sadly, those emigrants won’t see it.

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


Respect my values; I’ll respect yours

Haredi versus secular 1

Who is the real Jew, me or you? The tension between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews exploded in a ruckus aboard an El Al flight from New York to Israel, over shabbat observance. Above, an ultra-Orthodox and a secular Jew face off in Jerusalem (photo Times of Israel)

THE STORY which went viral in Jewish circles last week about chaos on an El Al flight to Israel which was delayed due to a snowstorm, would have been funny to an outside observer, like a scene in a British comedy, with black-coated Haredim running up and down aisles shouting, and secular passengers cowering in their seats. But for Jews, it captured the poisonous antagonism amongst them about religion. The plane, which left New York late, landed in Athens instead of Tel Aviv to avoid desecrating Shabbat.

Although Haredi passengers have been roundly condemned in the media for the ruckus they caused after believing they had been lied to by El Al, and voicing this vociferously to the crew, they were displaying the schism in the Jewish and Israeli world, with its own logic. Secular passengers have a right to be furious at the commotion, but need to look deeper.

Haredi and secular Jews both tend to see each other negatively. But what should a person do when his most precious symbol – such as Shabbat observance – is violated, beyond his control? Should he throw his proverbial toys out of the cot? Or step back and look for another way? And what about simple good manners?

The Haredis’ raucous behaviour is objectionable, and they would never have behaved like that on a Lufthansa or Swissair flight. But open-mindedness must allow for a contrary view. The truth is, most secular Jews don’t understand how important Shabbat observance is to religious Jews. They “just don’t get it!” as one commentator said. But perhaps the religious Jews should have planned their travels better to avoid any chance of violating Shabbat – things can always go wrong in the messy world of global travel.

Israelis are not, in general, an easy-going, tolerant people. Many Israelis of all stripes, secular and religious, have an anger issue and an unwillingness to hear the other side.

So here, roughly, are the two sides of the story. Secular passengers claim that 10 or 15 Haredi passengers, dressed in their black hats and coats, ran up and down the aisles,  yelling at the staff, “Liars, cheaters, you lied to us!” and started shoving flight attendants, some of whom apparently ended up crying, leading other passengers to intervene. Later, after the flight, other religious commentators claimed it was not as serious as that.

It sounds ugly. But one can also understand the Haredi anger, despite their inappropriate response. They had been hesitant about boarding the flight in New York. But after the pilot told them the plane would reach Israel before Shabbat, and then would not let them off, they were understandably furious at landing in Athens, having to spend all of Shabbat there. The scenario ended up as a power stand-off between Haredim and secular Jews.

What’s to be done? There has always been tension between religious and secular Jews. The genius of Jewish society derives partly from this. Each side has produced great minds. But the rift today is bitterer than ever, the sides more militant. Even the split between ‘secular’ Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast and ‘religious’ Israel in the Jerusalem hills displays this.

Step back for a long view. Jewish survival derives not only from study of Torah and Talmud, but also oppression by non-Jews over centuries, which made Jews stick together. Now that they are not oppressed, must they turn against each other by choice? It is sad and embarrassing; non-Jews must look at this scenario, and see not a comedy, but a community in vicious chaos, eating its own.

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


Must women be naked to be heard?

Emmline Pankhusrt 1

No place for a woman? Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the women’s suffragette movement, is arrested outside Buckingham Palace while trying to present a petition to King George V in May 1914 (Photo Imperial Warm Museum)

IN LIGHT of US President Donald Trump’s reputation for lewd remarks about women, it is fitting that a bare-breasted woman chased his motorcade on the Champs d’Elysées in Paris on Sunday, en route to events marking the centenary of the First World War Armistice. The words “Fake Peacemaker” were written on her chest.

Theatrics aside, we live in a chilling era, when the world’s most powerful man is told to rein himself in by a topless woman because his actions and language evoke the kind of foolish nationalism which led to the First World War between 1914 and 1918. Some 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died in that war. Rational people watch with alarm the drift towards aggressive nationalism today.

Women using their bodies for politics is not new. It’s a potent weapon capable of moving a male-dominated domain. English suffragettes in the First World War era demanded voting rights for women by chaining themselves to railings, storming parliament and battling police. They wore long dresses appropriate to the time. When imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes, leading the government to force-feed them. After the First World War parliament gave women over age 30 the vote under certain qualifications, and ten years later full electoral equality with men.

Their campaign had a Jewish thread. In November 1912, female Jewish leaders founded the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, linking feminist goals with Jewish loyalties, aiming to unite Jewish suffragettes of all shades of opinion.

South African women have used their bodies for dramatic statements, particularly about violence against women. According to the World Health Organisation, South Africa’s 2016 femicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000, almost five times higher than the global average of 2.6 per 100 000. Statistics SA reports that 138 per 100,000 women were raped in 2017, also the highest rate in the world. The number is probably higher, with a large percentage of rapes going unreported. According to a SAPS report of 2018, femicide increased by 11% over the last two years.

It’s incredible that a country which was the darling of the world two decades ago, contains such poison. People fighting back have a bitter struggle. At a Gender-based Violence and Femicide Summit in Irene at the beginning of November, attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa and more than 1000 delegates, women survivors of sex trafficking, rape, abuse, and violence recounted the horrors and demanded stronger laws.

What courage it must take for a woman to bare herself publically as a gesture about the society’s sickness. Phindile Ncube did it. Speaking from the podium, she said she was kidnapped, kept in a house in Tembisa and raped by a gang of eight men over several days. As a result, she had to undergo five surgical operations on her stomach – including one procedure to remove plastic that had been inserted in her.

She spoke emotionally of the desperate pain of seeing her attackers back on the streets after serving only four years in prison – again, an incredible indictment of the society. How did we come to this?

Then, in a shocking move, Ncube lifted her dress, wearing nothing underneath, exposing her body for all – including Ramaphosa – to see the scars. Audience members covered their eyes at the spectacle. Facing the president she said: “I was not born like this, this came as a result of my attackers, and I have to carry the scars while they walk free… Our lives can’t be paroled Mr President, the minimum sentence for sex offenders must be at least 50 years.”

Some people would say even 50 years is not enough.

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

The Arts: Not yours to fiddle with

Ahed Tamimi mural

Is any message in art permissible? In July Israel decided to expel two Italian graffiti artists who were painting a mural of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, on Israel’s separation barrier at the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Tamimi had been jailed after she was filmed slapping an Israeli soldier

THREE WEEKS ago Israel approved a draft law providing culture minister Miri Regev with authority to cut funding from cultural institutions that “contravene the principles of the state”, known as the “loyalty-in-culture bill.” Because of Israel’s condition of perpetual threat from its neighbours, some politicians argue that the arts must show loyalty to the state and its institutions.

Accordingly, Regev could reduce budgets to arts institutions for denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic state, incitement to racism, violence or terrorism, supporting armed struggle or terrorism against Israel, marking Independence Day or the establishment of the state as a day of mourning, desecration of state symbols and other criteria.

At first reading, it sounds reasonable to a patriotic Israeli or Jew, as a way to prevent terrorism or the undermining of the state. But, like everything in politics, motives must be questioned. Some politicians think she is trying to gag artists from criticising her party Likud. Trying to regulate the arts for such a political motive will be tantamount to forcing artists to march in lockstep, which is the death of real art. The Soviets tried to do this and what came out was dismal, a caricature of art.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, not regarded as a left-winger, supports Israeli artists’ stand against the Regev legislation and has pledged to compensate any cultural establishments hurt as a result of her loyalty law.

Historically, powerful people everywhere have tried controlling artists to make them produce works matching their political and cultural views. But for art to thrive, artists must be free to produce beautiful works as well those which make people angry.

The arts have thrived in Israel in music, literature, visual arts and other genres. Is Regev trying, for political reasons, to rein them in? Many Israeli artists and intellectuals think so. Dozens of respected cultural figures have produced a manifesto against the legislation, including author David Grossman, celebrated winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for literature.

Artists say Israel is a strong society which depends on being able to conduct multifaceted discussions embracing wide-ranging views. Public funds, they say, must not be used to prevent varied views in the public space. It’s about politics versus freedom of expression.

Israeli artists are particularly vulnerable compared to colleagues in America, where art is generally not state-funded, but operates in an open market, with artists beholden to wealthy patrons, private individuals and foundations. Thus, their work is almost completely uncensored by the state; it is evaluated through appeal to those institutions. In the European and Israeli model, however, artists often receive state funding for certain activities. Regev’s new bill grants her authority to cut funding to an institution whose politics she doesn’t like, such as one that publicly observes Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, or calls for a boycott of Israel or the settlements.

South African artists are familiar with this issue from historical experience. For decades, severe censorship was imposed by the government on newspapers and literature to make them conform to a particular view. Contrary to Israel, however, the SA government wanted racism, not nation-building. And in many ways, Israeli public debate is freer than it ever was in South Africa. Accordingly, its arts history is very different.

Nevertheless, art is like water, inexorably flowing to the sea: If you try to suppress it in one way, it tends to come out elsewhere. The work of satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys during apartheid is a South African example: Since the 1970s, he’s been unrelenting in lampooning the government with a smile on his face and their censors on his tail.

So where should the axe fall? Should Israeli artists capitulate to the security argument? An eternal question, without final answer. Ultimately, good art cannot be evaluated for its utilitarian value. It would go against the soul of great art, including Israeli art.

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


Beware the danger at the gate

jEWS IN sa

After the Pittsburgh massacre, could a “Robert Bowers” do the same in South Africa? The question of Israel causes tension between Jews and other South Africans politically, but an underlying goodwill tends to cross boundaries. In the picture, a demo in Cape Town containing blacks and Jews

SOUTH AFRICANS can see something of their own history in Robert Bowers, the killer of 11 Pittsburgh Jews in their synagogue on Saturday who said he “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” For him, Jews were outsiders coming to take over his beloved America.

Adult South Africans will remember the alarmist cry the Nationalist Government sounded about the ‘swaart gevaar’ – the black danger they said was at the gates waiting to come in and slaughter white people. Whites had to collectively man the barricades, they said. South Africa’s painful history is based on the horrible things you can do when you define another people as malicious outsiders. The whole structure of apartheid was built on seeing blacks as a danger to white society.


Robert Bowers saw Jews as outsiders who had to be stopped by any means. His comments on the right-wing GAB website, which regularly runs conspiracy theories and extremists, include: “Why hello there HIAS! [the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” For Bowers, the equivalent of the South African ‘swaart-gevaar’ was an American ‘Jew-threat’. His hatred of Jews was not about individuals. When he opened fire, he shouted, “All Jewish people must die.”

He was probably influenced by statements of US President Donald Trump, who has referred to African countries as “shithole countries” and has stigmatised Mexicans, refugees, Muslims and Africans. Trump claims Americans are under threat from outsiders. Nobody has accused the president of being an anti-Semite, but amidst the resurgence worldwide of hate speech and authoritarian regimes, his rhetoric fills people with resentment and fear.

Where does South Africa, land of the k-word, stand on an issue like this? An undercurrent of xenophobia exists, aimed at Indians, Muslims, as well as Africans from other countries such as Somalia. It has, at times, surfaced violently and chaotically, and people have been killed in their homes, shops and in the streets. Xenophobia is an ongoing, dangerous problem simmering under the surface.

For Jews, there have been unpleasant anti-Semitic incidents, particularly on social media, but no direct violence or anything like what Bowers did. On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned the Pittsburgh attack, and has called for society to refrain from anti-Semitism. A demand in South Africa for Jews to be thrown out would probably be condemned by all political groups. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility that an extremist might see Jews as representative of the white establishment and try to do something similar to Bowers.

Being an outsider is the most tragic theme in Jews’ long history, which has led indigenous populations to turn on them, including even sending them to gas chambers. Some people are more positive about this condition, believing that being an outsider is a source of Jewish genius, that not being allowed to truly ‘belong’ in a society gives you perspectives others don’t have.

Why do bigots like Bowers get so enraged at Jews? One thing which makes them seem sinister to him is that they look from the outside just like others in mainstream society. The same for homosexuals who, on the surface, appear like anyone else: the bigot becomes outraged at discovering it, as if he has been hoodwinked by some subversive being. On the other hand, blacks, Asians, Indians, as well as people with disabilities are immediately apparent.

America has been the most Jew-friendly country in history, although it feels a little less friendly now. South Africa too, has been good to its Jews. But if America could produce a Robert Bowers, South Africa could also do so.

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

Where have all the Jewish art firebrands gone?

Steven-Cohen (2)

Is there such a thing as Jewish Art? South Africa has a tradition of Jews taking leading roles in innovative arts as patrons and audiences. With the changing nature of South African society and the community, will this tradition wither? Performance artist Steven Cohen, who has received international acclaim, is shown in the photograph

WHEN Israeli-born concert pianist Aviram Reichert performed in South Africa in the early 2000s on a five-week programme, auditoriums were packed everywhere. Having performed as a soloist with major philharmonic orchestras worldwide, Reichert commented that it was “very seldom that you encounter such audiences” in their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Close to two decades later, internationally acclaimed Israeli-born pianist Amit Yahav joined the Odeion String Quartet last week to perform Chopin and Dvorak at the Linder auditorium in Johannesburg. The music was superb, but the hall was half empty; mostly old people came to hear him, a few of them Jewish.

Jews are almost absent in the arts today, particularly young ones. Younger Jews have either emigrated, are doing business degrees and are uninterested in the arts, or have become deeply religious.

In the past, the most innovative artistic individuals, institutions and the bums on seats, were Jews: the likes of Steven Cohen, William Kentridge, Moving Into Dance founded by Sylvia Glasser, The Market Theatre by Barney Simon, the National Children’s Theatre by Joyce Levinsohn, Daphne Kuhn’s Auto and General Theatre on the Square, Norman Nossel’s generous support of classical music, the Johannesburg Musical Society by Avril Rubinstein, to name but a few.

It’s natural that each generation becomes bored with the previous one’s ethos, in arts and elsewhere. Teaching staff at South African universities report that when struggle musician Johnny Clegg and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys are mentioned, many students have either never heard of them, or refer to them as ‘old white men’.

Added to this is the pressure of the social media generation, and its impatience with such precious memories. This generation doesn’t read books, walks around with its collective headphones on and cellphones at hand, not talking to anyone, engaging instead with virtual friends on digital platforms. The digital age seems unstoppable, with everything being gobbled up and digitised.

Yet there are signs here and there of a counter-revolution, small green shoots appearing with an ‘analogue’ ethos, where it matters that you can touch something with your hands, read a physical book and have it on your bookshelf, see people face to face, not just on a screen, and so on. One small example is the revival of vinyl records, because people find digital CDs too cold in their ‘perfectness’. Manufacturers of vinyl records are running at full capacity.

Back with the arts: while Jews are withdrawing, it is ironic to see the young Afrikaans community, always highly cultured and now largely freed from apartheid’s stigma, producing excellent artworks engaging openly with post-apartheid South Africa.

As an example, a courageous Afrikaans-language film currently on circuit called Kanarie, directed by Christiaan Olwagen, looks piercingly into tough issues in Afrikaans culture. It focuses on a sensitive 18-year old Afrikaans boy (played by Schalk Bezuidenhout) from a conservative, rural village. He is drafted into the South African army during the 1985 state of emergency when unrest was at its peak. Being musical and talented, he enters the army choir. There are almost no black people in the movie; it is entirely about what young white, mainly Afrikaans boys faced in the army and the propaganda they were fed by the mainly Afrikaans regime. A brave movie for young Afrikaners to make.

SA Jews also went through the horror of apartheid and the army. They too have cutting edge stories to tell and explore. Are there storytellers brave enough to do it, in this generation? Will the pendulum swing for Jews, and pull back into its ranks innovative, young people? Ultimately, it always does. In the meantime, green shoots must be nurtured.

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


Boycott to and fro: Be careful what you ban


If I stop buying your goods, can I change you? Boycotts are a common political tactic, but they are sometimes more fashionable than successful, and their outcomes are not entirely predictable

SOUTH AFRICANS know a few things about boycotts, and Israel and those who want to boycott it could learn a bit, even though the two countries are worlds apart culturally and historically. From the 1960s until almost the end of apartheid, the trade, cultural, sports, academic and other sanctions against South Africa were intended to force the white regime to abandon its racist policies and its suppression of the black majority.

Historians will forever argue over how much the sanctions were responsible for apartheid’s demise, compared to other factors such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which changed the political environment. Nevertheless, being cut off from the world was painful; even travelling overseas on a South African passport was uncomfortable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement’s first major victory, in 1961, forced South Africa to leave the Commonwealth. In 1962, the UN General Assembly asked member states to impose a trade boycott. In 1963, the Security Council called for a partial arms ban.

Expecting South Africa to capitulate, there was one effect the boycotters didn’t adequately foresee. Among certain sectors of the population, particularly conservative Afrikaners who wielded power, the boycotts induced a stubborn, creative camaraderie, a determination to hold things together and flourish despite sanctions – the opposite of the demoralisation the boycotters wanted. It was the midst of the Cold War, and politicians rallied conservative white groups by labelling liberal anti-apartheid protestors ‘communists’ – a damning indictment in the Cold War mindset. So South Africa continued stubbornly, for decades, to endure while the world was busy with the Cold War.

There is much talk today about partial or full boycotts of Israel. Anti-Israel movements use the South African boycotts as their model. But it is misguided. Africa is not the Middle East, and despite its flaws, Israel is not South African apartheid. Internationally, a major destabilising factor today is the complex conflict between the Islamic and western worlds. And boycotts can have the opposite effect to what is intended.

BDS makes a lot of noise, but achieving a full boycott of Israel is highly unlikely. It can only be symbolic. Israel stands on the highway of the world and is as strong as it has ever been. Most participants in ‘boycott’ groups know this.

So one wonders why Israel bothered to detain at Ben Gurion airport the 22-year-old American student Lara Alqasem who arrived on October 2 on a study visa. It was absurd when security officials who blocked her, cited her membership of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Florida, and her alleged support for BDS. All it did was raise the boycotters’ profile; it had no practical effect. And by coming to Israel to study at the Hebrew University, Alqasem gave up any claim to represent the boycott movement.

Fortunately Israel’s Supreme Court has now overturned the decision of the Minister of the Interior to deny her entry, and she has entered the country after a two-week delay.

Pressuring Israel to change policies towards the Palestinians is urgently necessary. Its occupation of the West Bank will, if unchecked, foreclose any possibly of a two-state solution. But contrary to their intentions, supporters of boycotts are only giving the current government and its prime minister more politically expedient ammunition to tell Israelis that once again, ‘the whole world is against the Jewish state’. He will elevate BDS to the level of an existential threat, and rally Israelis behind him as if they were fighting yet another mortal, ‘anti-Semitic’ enemy.

South African sanctions had a huge effect on the country. But BDS will ultimately fail. Opposition to Israeli policies must come from within the Israeli and Jewish world. The question is how much damage, through overreacting, the prime minister will allow it to do to Israel’s image in the meantime.

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