Selfies: How photography might lose its soul


Wow, look at me at Auschwitz, isn’t it great? The arrival of the high quality camera as a standard feature on smartphones has brought with it not only an important news tool, but in the wrong hands a tool for contemptible behaviour by ignorant, insensitive voyeurs. Above, a group of tourists at the notorious gates of Auschwitz smiling for a selfie

PHOTOGRAPHERS today produce powerful images using sophisticated equipment, from dangerous places like Sudan and elsewhere, and places not necessarily dangerous, but containing crucial images. Such as the heartrending picture of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy on a Greek beach in 2015, one of 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, encapsulating the extraordinary risks refugees took to reach the west.

These photographs provide visual insight into situations ordinary people would not have access to. And the images are distributed wider and faster than in previous eras on the internet, with more immediate effect. Many cameras also have sound recording capabilities, adding to their power. The downside: the internet also provides an easy platform for doctored images, for agenda-driven purposes or ‘fake news’.

Looking backwards, there are some pictures that almost everyone will know. On June 8, 1972, a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped a load of napalm on its own soldiers and civilians, resulting in one of the most iconic photographs of that era. This photograph so moved people about the tragedy of the Vietnam War that it helped end it.

It was a picture of a nude, burning 9-year-old South Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running screaming down the road towards an Associated Press photographer. It was outside Trang Bang village, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon. She had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing, screaming, ‘Too hot! Too hot!’

The photographer poured water on her and got her to a hospital, with third-degree burns covering her body. The Pulitzer committee awarded him its prize in 1973. The image rapidly spread around the world, becoming a form of shorthand for the atrocities of the War. In that year, America’s involvement in the war ended.

Photographs can define an entire moment in the history of a conflict and influence its course. The horror of the picture of Kim Phuc was echoed in South Africa in June four years later in 1976 in Soweto.  Hector Pietersen, a 12-year-old Soweto schoolboy was just one of the children protesting the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans. He was shot by police when they opened fire on the students. This resulted in a shocking news photograph of the mortally wounded Pietersen being carried by another schoolboy, while Pietersen’s hysterical sister ran next to them. It was splashed across the front pages of the world’s newpapers.

That photograph too, became a form of shorthand representing the inhumanity of apartheid, and the lengths to which its white enforcers were prepared to go in suppressing black people. The anniversary of Pietersen’s death is marked next Monday, designated as Youth Day.

Photography dates back to the early 1800s, with blurry images. It took a while until quality black and white images allowed news photographers to show the world in detail what was happening to civilians in the midst of conflict.

Before cameras were available as a tool, all we had were second-hand accounts of what had happened to victims and heroes such as Kim Phuc, Hector Pietersen and others that preceded them. Added to the essential list would be the photograph of the Jewish child with a yellow Star of David on his lapel coming out of a bunker at the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 with Nazi troops at his back. And we can’t forget the brave, lone man who stood in the path of a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen square in 1989, blocking their advance after the suppression by the government of the massive student-led protests.

Intrepid South African photographers, nicknamed the ‘Bang Bang Club’ documented, at huge personal risk, unimaginable violence between the IFP and ANC in the townships at the end of apartheid. Later, photographer Alon Skuy documented the 2008 xenophobic attacks countrywide, which were rife with equally crude violence.

Quality digital cameras are now a standard feature on smartphones. How would those scenarios play themselves out in contemporary, selfie-rotten times?

Would the photographer have had the urge to turn the camera on himself, with the victim in the background, in the name of the crude narcissism of our age?

Everyone with a cellphone can call himself a ‘photographer’, epitomized by the man – or ‘tourist’- who stands in front of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking a selfie of himself to send to his friends.

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


Desperate measures for messy times


Mr President, my own country is after me, but you will stand by me, won’t you, even if you think I was elected in a political system out of control? American President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have established a close relationship, but Netanyahu faces corruption charges which may weaken his status

IT’S NOT often that many people will agree with United States President Donald Trump on almost anything, but he was right when he said, with characteristic arrogance, that Israeli election politics is ‘all messed up.’ We’ve watched with amazement over recent weeks as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried – and failed – to assemble a coalition government that would be able to shield him from indictment on corruption charges.

For South Africans, this has echoes of former President Jacob Zuma’s legal dodging and diving, with endless court appeals, to try and avoid appearing in court on corruption charges, and the ANC backing him in parliament to defeat votes of no confidence. One could correctly say that both Israeli politics and South African politics are ‘all messed up’, where the entire country is bent to serve one man’s needs – the leader of the government.

Israeli politics has long been intensely important to SA Jews, who have had a strong connection to Zionism over many decades. Amongst numerous SA Jews the passion for Israel remains; aliyah figures are high relative to other countries. But South African Jewish families are spread all over the world, in America and elsewhere, probably more than in Israel’s early years.

The ugly drama of Israeli politics upsets SA Jews as much as others, such as statements from far right leader, MK Bezalel Smotrich who insists that Israel should become a state governed by Jewish biblical law as in King David’s time. Smotrich, known for extreme right-wing opinions and a declared homophobe, announced during recent coalition talks that he wanted the justice portfolio. He won’t receive it – even from Netanyahu.

The world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel, have been growing further apart for a long time, with American Jews on the whole still more liberal than Israelis. A recent survey of 1006 American Jews by the American Jewish Committee revealed that the divide is growing faster than expected. Last year, 70 percent of American Jews questioned said that caring about Israel was a ‘very important’ part of their Jewishness. This year, only 62 percent said so.

Politically, the divide is more dramatic. On the explosive political issue about Jewish settlements in the West Bank, in 2018, 15 percent of respondents said Israel should be willing to dismantle all settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But in 2019, this had risen to 25 percent, according to Haaretz. Only 6 percent of Israeli Jews, however, were willing to dismantle the settlements.

A comparable split exists regarding the nature of a political settlement: Two thirds of American Jews support a two-state solution which establishes a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank; only 39 percent of Israeli Jews do.

Aside from the politics, Israel is experiencing a brain drain, primarily to America, adding to the alienation. Increasingly, Israel’s most educated citizens are immigrating, says a report by the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, of Tel Aviv University.

Those leaving come from the segment most crucial to Israel’s success – educated Israelis, professionals looking for a better lifestyle. Despite Israel being the ‘Start-Up Nation,’ workers in high-tech faced ‘huge pressure’ to go to America, closer to investors and markets. This has serious implications. Some 3 percent of Israelis work in high-tech, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports. Less political tension in their lives would also be a drawcard for professionals.

Trump may be right: Israeli politics really is all messed up. But given his own ‘America first’ agenda, his power and his closeness to Netanyahu, he is not the one to help clear things up.

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


Wear your kippa to the bundestag!

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Can a Jew wear a kippa in Germany? Jews have been warned not to wear a skullcap (kippa) openly in certain parts of Germany, for fear of an anti-Semitic attack. A German newspaper printed a skullcap on its front page in protest, urging all its readers to wear it. But Jews were even more anxious. Above, the blue skullcap on the Bild paper’s page

BLANK spaces in a newspaper can speak as loudly as words. In 1985, the South African anti-apartheid newspaper the Weekly Mail was bombarded one day by the powerful Security Police acting as state censors, who used red pens to cross out numerous words or lines, and whole pictures and stories to prevent publication. Rather than simply comply, however, the paper printed the issue with heavy black lines crossing whole sections, and censored pictures were removed completely, leaving blank spaces.

It was a provocative move; the editor thought the paper might be shut down by the government. But when Security Police arrived the next morning, they saw that the paper had essentially complied with the law. Those massive black lines and blank spaces were a graphic, powerful representation of censorship, displaying to all the world how much had been hidden from them.

The power of a publisher has also been used in profoundly negative ways, such as Der Stürmer, a vehemently anti-Semitic German tabloid published by Julius Streicher from 1923 to the end of World War Two. A significant part of Nazi propaganda, it often ran caricatures of Jews with Stars of David and hooked noses, accusations of blood libel, and sexually explicit, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, and anti-monarchist propaganda.

The newspaper originated at Nuremberg during Adolf Hitler’s attempt to establish power. From 1923 its circulation grew, reaching a large percentage of the German population, and peaking at 486,000 in 1937. In 1933, Streicher was calling for the extermination of the Jews in Der Stürmer; during the war, he regularly authorized articles demanding their annihilation. After the war, he was convicted of crimes against humanity, and executed.

Ever since, the publication of the Star of David in a German newspaper, whether positively or negatively, evokes shivers in the spines of Jewish readers with a sense of history: might this presage bad things, if German sentiments reverted to what they once were? These sensitivities were aggravated this week when a mass-circulation German tabloid touting conservative values and famous for its past images of topless women, placed an item of potent Jewish symbolism on its front page. The publication, the Bild, said its intention was to protect Jews; it has achieved worldwide acclaim for its imagination.

It was reacting to advice by Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism, that Jews shouldn’t wear a skullcap in public in certain places because it is dangerous. So the Bild published a blue cut-out-and-use skullcap on its front page, urging readers, non-Jewish and Jewish, to wear it. It thumbed its nose at anti-Semites, saying, in its editor’s words, ‘the kippa belongs to Germany.’ Like the Weekly Mail 34 years previously, it was standing against powerful right wing forces.

A daily tabloid, the Bild is a powerful paper; in 2018, it printed 2,2 million copies every day across Germany. Founded by journalist Axel Springer in 1952, it has been a major shaper of mass opinion in Germany ever since. It is hardly a conventional political paper, although it plunges into hot political topics. Its trademark identity for 28 years was the pictures of topless women on its front pages; its headlines are large and provocative, its articles short and hard hitting,

The use by Germans of the Star of David will always conjure up frightening images of the yellow ones Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. Gestures like the Bild’s front page kippa mimic the cheekiness of the Weekly Mail’s blank pages in the 1980s. But in an era when the anti-Semitic pot is boiling, right wing populist papers might print their own yellow Stars of David on their front pages.

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


What are we teaching our children?

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Are school textbooks conveying hatred to young people? Palestinians and Israelis have both been criticised for depicting the other as intrinsically hateful. The consequence of where this sort of education may lead is portrayed by Gunter Grass in his classic novel The Tin Drum, where a young boy looks at adults as hypocritical and evil. Above, a picture from a movie based on The Tin Drum

THERE is so much hatred in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after 70 years, it is impossible to conceive of children not absorbing it. Whatever one’s view about the politics of the conflict, both sides face the question of what to teach their children. For Israelis: Are all Palestinians terrorists? For Palestinians: Are all Israelis oppressors? To sane adults, it is obvious neither side can be simply defined. But can a small child withstand the cynicism and expediency of adults?

All societies at war, or after it, face the dilemma of educating children amidst rage about what has happened. What should Jewish educators teach about Germans after the Holocaust? Or Rwandan Tutsis about the Hutus who killed 800,000 Tutsis in the 1994 genocide? After apartheid’s end, what should black South Africans teach their children about white South Africans? As conflicts continue erupting and the phrase “never again” becomes hollower, the problem gets worse.

German writer Gunter Grass, a Nobel Laureate who as a child was forcibly conscripted to the Hitler Youth, was a careful thinker on this topic. With books like The Tin Drum, he created a child character that looked to the previous generation with horror at its hypocrisy. A thread in this novel is exactly this: whatever shall we teach our children in the wake of such atrocities for which we are responsible?

A US-funded study in 2013 carried out by the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, found that both Israeli and Palestinian textbooks depict the other as “the enemy” while presenting their own culture in positive terms; both teach their children little about the other’s religion, culture or economy; most maps in Israeli textbooks make little reference to the West Bank or Gaza; Palestinian maps often ignore Israel’s existence.

How can a schoolchild be expected to distinguish between what is accurate and what is not? A grade 4 textbook in a state-supported ultra-Orthodox religious school says Israel is “like a little lamb in a sea of seventy wolves…” A grade 12 Palestinian textbook says: “…Zionist occupation and its usurpation of Palestine and its people’s rights comprise the core of the conflict in the Middle East…”

Should we believe Israel’s repeated complaints about Palestinian textbooks, or is it Israeli propaganda? The textbooks released in September 2018 are supposedly more radical than previous ones, encouraging Jihad and demonisation of Israel and Jews rather than engagement with peace-loving Israelis. Past peace negotiations between Palestinians, Israel and Arab states, such as the Roadmap, Wye Agreement and Israel-Jordan peace treaty are omitted, as well as the Jewish historical presence in Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Even maths education contains negative references to Israelis. Some would argue, “Who can blame the Palestinians, when Israel has robbed them of their land, beaten and humiliated them?”

International agencies are getting more involved. The European Union gives massive aid to the Palestinian Education Ministry, but with a condition that programmes financed should “reflect common values such as freedom, tolerance and non-discrimination within education.” The EU Parliament passed legislation in April 2018 intended to prevent European aid funds to the Palestinian Authority from being used to teach hate. Marcus Sheff, CEO of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, says the PA misuses EU money for “abuse of children” rather than “meaningful education for peace and tolerance.”

While adults rage, children are victims. Entire generations are conditioned to hate each other. It is supremely difficult to undo. But it must start with adults, and Israel and the Jews are the stronger side. Jewish institutions would be a good place to start.

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



Did I vote right?

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Do you work for the good of the common people? The ancien régime in France before the French Revolution of 1789 had opulent aristocrats enjoying privilege and the finery of life, divorced from the masses stooped in rags.  The term for political left and right derives from this:  the ‘left’ were commoners, the ‘right’ aristocrats. These terms influence how people vote today. In the picture, a member of the church, the aristocracy and the commoners

AMIDST the complicated post-election analyses going on in South Africa and Israel, ordinary people are often confused. And, notwithstanding the intellectual analyses, most people actually voted on a ‘tribal’ basis, in the sense that when they got into the voting booth, their emotional feelings dominated their minds and that’s where they placed their crosses.

There was a time when politicians were easier to understand and categorise than today – to the ordinary person, they were either left or right and their politics accorded with these labels. That’s not the case now: left and right can hardly be defined effectively.

Yet still, the most common division in politics everywhere remains what analysts call ‘right’ and ‘left’. It’s all relative: even during apartheid, when all South African political parties were essentially racist for participating in the white-controlled racist system, the more accommodating white parties were called the left wing, and the most unyielding – the verkramptes –  the right wing. In this system, the renowned anti-apartheid politician, Helen Suzman, would be called leftist, although today many blacks regard her as a white racist for being willing to sit in a racist parliament with total control over blacks.

The terms Left-wing and Right-wing originated from the French Revolutionary era, where the seating of the ancien régime of France from the 15th to the 18th centuries was arranged in such a way that the commoners sat on the left, and the aristocrats on the right. Thus leftists became associated with working for the good of the ordinary folk, and rightists with dominance and power over ordinary folk.

The left-right battle is always complex, even if the terms aren’t easily definable. This contemporary era is characterised by the rise of what are called right wing, neo-fascist groups worldwide, who emphasise ethnic nationalism above egalitarian politics. Even in Israel, this phenomenon is evident, as seen by the closeness developing between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to authoritarian rulers in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the ruling Fidesz Party of Hungary, who recently visited Israel. The nation-state bill passed recently by the Knesset defining Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, emphasised this movement.

How dominant is this trend? A leftist visitor to South Africa from the Meretz party in Israel, tried on Tuesday to unravel for a Johannesburg Jewish audience why the Israeli left, which advocates accommodation and compromise with the Palestinians, has performed so badly in elections; it has never spoken with one voice and its percentage of the vote has progressively decreased from one election to the next. But the right, led by Netanyahu who is determined not to yield to Palestinian demands, is better at marshalling diverse elements to form a formidable bloc to dominate the political landscape.

The South African far-left often labels Israel an apartheid state, an aspect which was raised on Tuesday. On the contrary, Israeli democracy within the 1967 borders is nothing at all like apartheid: it is vibrant and very strong, with a totally free press and full judicial authority in the Supreme Court which has traditionally been quite leftist in its rulings, including on women’s and LGBTI rights, and at times it has overturned government decisions; and it has other, powerful democratic elements. It is in the occupied territories with their 600,000 Jewish settlers, where the apartheid analogy may apply, with 2 million Palestinians with no voting rights. But even there, there are significant differences.

Whatever the context, things are so complicated today that care must be taken in easily labelling someone leftist or rightist. It is just not that simple.

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

Can a hidden life ever be a happy one?

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In August 2014, fighting between Hamas and Israel fueled anti-Semitic outbursts  in Germany and other European countries, especially France, ranging from violent attacks to chants of “Death to the Jews”. Jews kept out of sight, but synagogues were bombed, Jewish groups received hate mail and anti-Semitic slogans were spray-painted on buildings

LAST week, when the leader of the Chicago-based Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan condemned ‘Satanic Jews’ in a talk at the Sabina Catholic Church, it threw into relief religious freedom in South Africa. He said Jews dislike him because he exposes their ‘hatred of Jesus in the Talmud’. South Africans experience religious vitriol occasionally, but the society condemns it strongly and publicly, even where there is politics involved. South Africa is a highly religious society; a large proportion of its citizens identify strongly with a religious denomination, whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional African faiths, or others.

The Archdiocese of Chicago distanced itself in a pro-forma way from the Sabina Church’s decision to invite Farrakhan, saying his rhetoric has no place in American society when hate crimes are rising. But there was no country-wide outcry; the news of the day quickly moved on.

Universities are meant to be places of intelligent debate. But in August 2013 at Wits University in Johannesburg, Palestine solidarity activists, including BDS sang a struggle song containing the lyric ‘shoot the boer’, targeting a performance by Israeli musician Daniel Zamir, but transposed the words with ‘shoot the Jew.’ It drew such wide criticism, that BDS South Africa issued a statement condemning racism ‘even if it were to come from within our ranks’, while still attacking Zionism and Israel. Many people questioned their sincerity.

As unsavoury as this incident was, it is small fry compared to Jews’ experiences elsewhere. The walls around houses in Johannesburg are high, but they keep out criminals, not religious zealots.  Jews in America, Canada, and Europe would be pleased to have these high walls rather than the ones they have.

Schools are meant to be safe places. But in public schools in Belgium, for example, the biggest insult a child can pay is calling someone a Jew. Some 39% of Belgian respondents to a survey said they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the last year. The doors of the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, never used to be locked during visiting hours. After May 2014 when a jihadi terrorist killed four people, they were closed with a special lock. Belgium symbolises Europe’s diversity, home to EU institutions and Nato, and made up of three linguistic groups, French, Dutch and German. Facing hostility, parents move their children into Jewish schools. But they are fearful, since schools themselves may be targets.

In a civilized society, you should be able to walk in the street unhindered, whatever religion you follow. But in 2013, surveys found that nearly 40 percent of European Jews feared to openly identify as Jewish, including 60 percent of Swedish Jews, 51 percent of French Jews, and 43 percent of Dutch Jews. Some of them told CNN: ‘A happy life is a hidden life.’ This extends to institutions; synagogues are typically unmarked and encased by draconian security.

Should Jews withdraw behind closed doors? This would be tragic. Rather be a dynamic, living institution, open to engagement and dialogue. This is what the Belgium museum’s director of exhibitions, Bruno Benvindo wants. But it is an idealistic notion: it depends on the threat. Jihadists don’t want dialogue. Nor does someone like Farrakhan.

Nobody knows where South Africa is headed, with its topsy-turvy politics. But for now, you can wear a kippa safely in the streets, welcome and unhindered as a Jew, as opposed to Paris or most other European cities. Even EFF leader Julius Malema’s racist comments about whites have no Jewish element, and would be condemned if he moves in that direction. Amidst all the political chaos, it is something worth remembering.

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

Does nothing shock us anymore?

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Flower child or beast? In 1969 at the height of the hippie era, a guitar playing Charles Manson sent his young female acolytes to commit gruesome murders, leading many to question what a hippie stood for

WHAT has the power to shock us today, so deeply that we sit up and take notice? Could it be the increase of right wing demagoguery and nationalism in America that has peaked under US President Donald Trump’s reign? Neo-Nazi, fascist groups, anti-migrant and anti-Semitic, are on the rise in countries all over the world.

Or closer to home, could it be the rise of right wing and left wing populism in South Africa that shocks us? The elections that have just been completed this week will throw up many questions about this.

Talking about being shocked, let’s go back 50 years to a time when the world was profoundly stunned by a man called Charles Manson. Everyone knows the name and views it with horror. Manson signifies the depravity that can emerge from a seemingly benign mass movement when people stop thinking for themselves, such as the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s. He led a cult in California. With his long hair, charisma and ability to charm a crowd with guitar playing, he looked like a peaceful hippie filled with love and human fellowship1960s

He manipulated his followers into committing the most grisly murders: Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski, was slashed 16 times with knives by Manson’s acolytes. His highly publicised 1970 trial irrevocably tarnished the hippie image, appalling the world. He was sentenced to death, but saved from execution when California’s Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty in 1972.

Why, 50 years later, do we remember Manson? It is because at that time the world was so astonished by his crime that it felt as though society had shifted on its moral axis. Nothing like this had been done before. People weren’t sure how to exist in a world where such a crime was perpetrated. And thus, the hippie movement ended.

In the 1960s, news was received in a measured way via newspapers, radio and television. There was a time lapse between the event and its coverage. Today, news goes via the internet – the instant communication of social media into which gigabytes upon gigabytes of information and sinister ideas are poured, bludgeoning people into confusion about almost anything.

We can’t react rationally anymore to killings and catastrophes reported from around the world every day, whether they are true or not. We don’t have the ability to be shocked anymore the way people were at what Manson did. It’s just too much, so we scroll down; there were similar items yesterday and there will be more tomorrow. Yet we can’t switch off the internet because so much of our lives depend on it.

The dangers of our times are many; we hear about them via the internet. One of the biggest, which we have hardly begun to address amidst the others, is destruction of our planet’s ecosystem, through which human life could be obliterated. Climate change activists are the equivalent of the 1960s counter-culture. Hopefully there won’t be a Charles Manson among them.

For readers of this paper today, a never-ending burden is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which fills their Twitter and Facebook pages. There too, people struggle to make sense of it; it is so unrelenting in bad news that many people stop reading, and scroll down. The exchange of fire this week between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is the most recent example.

Truth be told, all these things are scrollable, on our devices. But no matter how much Twitter and Facebook shake us up, we can’t switch the internet off. We have to find other ways of looking each other in the eye.

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


Has freedom failed in SA?


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I will defend you in the courts of apartheid! Bram Fischer was the lawyer who confronted apartheid on behalf of Nelson Mandela and the other black anti-apartheid defendants in the infamous Rivonia trial of 1963, in which they received life sentences. In the photo, a scene from the film about Fischer, An Act of Defiance, shows him with a young Mandela

FREEDOM is intoxicating. When Freedom Day was established in 1994 as an annual holiday for post-apartheid South Africa, it was amidst the euphoria of the victory of the struggle. Optimism abounded; the country seemed to be headed towards a non-racial, prosperous future. In retrospect, such ideals were naive, given the scale and complexity of the problems.

What have we done with our freedom? There are some successes; lots of failures. It is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. Half of its population lives in poverty; 40% of its youth are unemployed and will probably never work; and a tiny, wealthy elite lives comfortably. Many people who can afford to leave are doing so, for fear of the future.

In this season of holidays and memorials, including the elections on May 8, the tendency to look at the past with nostalgia is epitomised by a new South African-made film called An Act of Defiance, made in 2017 and released here a day before Freedom Day. The film had its New York premier in 2018, and was a star item in the New York Jewish Film Festival. It is about the 1964 Rivonia trial in which Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.

It tells the story of Bram Fischer, the lawyer who put his life at risk to defend Mandela and his black and Jewish comrades in apartheid South Africa, which led to life imprisonment for Mandela for sabotage. Fischer, who was of Afrikaner stock, was especially hated by the apartheid leaders, who regarded him as a traitor to his people and treated him with increased brutality when he was imprisoned, such as denying him treatment for his cancer, and not letting him attend the funeral of his son. The Afrikaans cultural thread is expressed in domestic scenes, court scenes and scenes of the police pursuing Fischer and Mandela.

Another theme articulated in the film is the Jewish one: aside from the Jewish defendants, the state prosecutor, Percy Yutar, was also Jewish, and acted according to the legal rules, although these were apartheid rules. Joel Joffe, later Lord Joffe, the instructing solicitor for Mandela’s defence team, was Jewish. He played a key role in helping the future South African president and his compatriots avoid the death penalty. Mandela made reference to his Jewishness and called him “the general behind the scenes in our defence.” And all five of the white defendants at the Rivonia trial were Jewish. Another two Jews escaped from detention before the trial.

The film’s director, Jean van de Velde is at pains to represent the texture of South Africa in the early 1960s. But when you leave the movie house, you realise that today’s dire reality in South Africa is not that different. Mirrored in seemingly innocuous scenarios, some things remain as they were during apartheid, when whites were bosses and blacks were servants.

In a lush park in a fancy neighbourhood near Rosebank Mall, Johannesburg, there’s a black beggar whose sole activity is to pick up the dog poop left there by mainly white people who come on weekends to walk their pedigree dogs. He calls himself Shepherd.

Take a step back from this: In Paris, you can be fined for letting your dog mess on the pavement. In South Africa, the wealthy see it as a right to have a black man, spade and plastic bag in hand, waiting behind their crouching poodle. For Shepherd, last Saturday was just another day in the park, despite it being Freedom Day.

Does South Africa as a society still have the will to change, as it fiercely believed it could, on April 27, 1994? At that time too, there were the proverbial ‘shepherds’, but also the hope that apartheid’s devils could be defanged.

South Africans are confused and uneasy. Tribalism and racism are rising; national pride is falling. In this condition, some countries turn to an autocrat who promises to sort things out. But autocrats who start off as benevolent, generally turn into harsh rulers who won’t leave. A glance north to Mugabe and Zimbabwe is a warning.

South Africa faces a rough ride to get back on track.

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


Is your democracy more flawed than mine?

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Who will get to the front of the queue first to vote? On 27 April 1994 all South Africans, black and white, voted together in free and fair elections for the first time, after all discriminatory race laws were abolished. In the photograph, a line forms of people waiting patiently to cast their vote (SAHistoryOnline)

DESPITE the doom and gloom which characterizes South Africans’ mood these days following the catastrophe of former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure, South African democracy is still relatively healthy, although with shortcomings. According to the Democracy Index of The Economist magazine, which ranks the democracies of 167 territories based on a wide range of indicators, with Norway the most democratic at number 1, it is placed 40th in the Index. This is a remarkable achievement given its apartheid and colonialist history, and its difficulties.

Both South Africa and Israel are regarded by the Index as “flawed democracies”. They hold free and fair elections, and though there may be problems, basic civil liberties are respected.

What about the world’s other democracies? Does America still qualify as the leader of the free world? No, it doesn’t; the ranting of loose-cannon President Donald Trump makes this idea unconvincing today. The Index regards America also as a flawed democracy, although ranking higher than South Africa, at number 25. For comparison, Japan ranks 22 and France 29. A main problem in America is not so much about Trump, but erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will try desperately to increase his hold on power in South Africa’s crucial national elections on May 8. Warring factions in the African National Congress threaten to undermine him, and unrest and political dissonance are flaring up countrywide. Rising social tensions and economic populism are challenging his ‘new dawn’ vision for the country.

The diversity of South Africa’s population is its richness, but there is a flip-side: The country lacks a clear sense of what it means to be South African, and the violence inherent in the society makes this dangerous. Public protest often turns violent and racist. Last week’s unrest which began in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and has spread elsewhere is the most recent example. The tone of political debate is often threatening. The positive side is that the population’s interest in politics is very high. Everybody talks politics, from the taxi-driver to the housewife.

What about Israeli politics, which last week handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a fifth term? To the chagrin of many supporters of Israel, the Index consistently ranks it as a flawed rather than a full democracy. Kneejerk defenders of Israel would claim it is because of anti-Semitism, but it is primarily about the Law of Return – the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel. Arab citizens are guaranteed the same civil rights, but only Jews have the ‘right’ to citizenship.

This analysis of Israel does not account for the simmering conundrum of the Palestinians under its control. They have no vote; does this reduce Israel’s democracy ranking? Without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would have to do that.

Notwithstanding these issues, the Index ranks Israel’s democracy 30th out of 167, between France and Belgium. Despite the divisiveness of Israeli politics and the shift to the right, the country is moving in a liberal direction in areas such as improvements in LGBT rights and in women’s rights. However, because of history, ideology and security challenges, it cannot be more than a flawed democracy.

The internet is the new kid on the block when it comes to measuring democracies, where validation can be found for almost any belief, and “facts” are a matter of personal preference. In America, South Africa, Israel or elsewhere, it is getting harder for voters to make informed, rational choices about crucial matters. On this roller-coaster, voters will have to work harder to distinguish between fact and fiction. It’s not an easy ride.

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



Cry the beloved SA Jewry

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Does the SA government agree with the placards? Protesters take part in a march to parliament in Cape Town, May 15, 2018, to protest the use of deadly force by Israeli troops against Palestinians at the Gaza border. The SA government has recalled its ambassador to Israel, saying “he will not be replaced”

THE ANC-led government does not kowtow to Jewish interests nearly as much as SA governments once did, particularly in relation to Israel. Jews remember nostalgically when former SA President Nelson Mandela visited Israel in 1999 after retiring as the first democratically elected president, and called out to chief rabbi Cyril Harris at his hotel in Jerusalem: “My rabbi is here, now I feel at home in Jerusalem!”

Could President Cyril Ramaphosa do the same? With his slim hold on power, it would be impossible in today’s anti-Israel climate among South Africa’s body politic, even if he personally has a good relationship with the Jewish community and might otherwise be willing. Other factions in the ANC, and more radical parties would immediately make political capital out of it to use against him.

Mandela was already out of office, but nevertheless had the clout to visit, despite the politics. Jerusalem carries huge significance for Jews, particularly the Kotel, but to Muslims Jewish control of it is anathema.

Nothing in politics is fixed forever, there are too many variables. In South Africa, minority groups such as the Jewish community who once held major sway in government and elsewhere are experiencing significant contractions in how they are perceived and treated, although Jews still wield economic influence through business and major corporates.

The growing Muslim interests are becoming more important to the SA government than they were before. As this shrinking SA Jewish community, once a jewel of the Jewish world, loses its influence and its confidence, it’s a painful reality for Jews to accept, and they need to guard against too much pessimism. But it is better to look this scenario straight in the eye, to re-format the community’s understanding of itself, where its strengths lie and its new place in this evolving new country, rather than deny it and hanker after the ‘good old days’. Even if some of the best of the Jewish community in all fields – business, the arts, and others – have left for safer shores, the basis on which they grew up here is strong enough to re-invigorate itself.

It will not be easy. The Jewish presence in SA society is sparser than ever; many South Africans, such as those in rural schools, grow up and live without ever encountering a Jew and are left only with stereotypes that they hear or read about.

The latest blow to this Zionistic community which indicates political realignment is the government’s decision to permanently recall the South African ambassador, Sisa Ngombane from Israel. The ambassador was withdrawn in May 2018, in line with an ANC resolution at its 2017 elective conference, following the killings of protesting Palestinians by the Israeli army in Gaza. International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu declared last week that the ambassador “…will not be replaced.”

The decision is simple-minded. And coming just before the elections, it smells of cheap electioneering by the ANC to appease the dogs snapping at its heels – the EFF and others. Even many Israelis and Jews who object to policies of the Israeli government feel this way.

It has a sadder tone for South Africa than Israel. Many South Africans still bask in the glory of the Mandela years. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that those years are gone, as this country drowns in bad government and has difficulty keeping the lights on.

For most world citizens, South Africa is just a dot on the map. As politics shifts, SA Jews and the ANC need to be more agile to balance. It would be better to increase interaction with Israel rather than reduce it.