White guilt: Why calling a spade, a spade is scary

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Is this white or black land? White dispossession of black people’s land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through colonial expansion was resisted by black lawyers who used the law as an instrument, but lost the fight. People such as advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi tell the story in his book The Land is Ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa, launched in Cape Town in May. Land and white privilege continues to haunt the country today

“DON’T YOU dare say I don’t belong here!” That’s what a group of mostly middle-aged Jews who lived through apartheid seemed, privately, to want to say to black advocate and author of the book “The Land is Ours”, Tembeka Ngcukatoibi,  last Sunday in Johannesburg. They were at a panel discussion that grappled with how whites and Jews make meaning of their lives in South Africa today. But what these people in the audience actually conveyed, pleadingly, was: “I beg of you, please tell me I belong.”

Ngcukatoibi insisted that to really belong, they needed to shed their ‘whiteness’. The aim, he said, was to create an ‘African’ identity. White and black must be transcended. But what about their ‘Jewishness’?

This is the anguished conversation playing itself out in a myriad ways in South Africa, 2018 and, in this case, at Limmud, a two-day conference with a range of workshops and talks on topics of relevance to South African Jews.

Ngcukatoibi was on a panel that included journalist Richard Poplak and SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng chair Marc Pozniak, and facilitator Lael Bethlehem.

Panelists drenched the audience in guilt for not fitting into the new South Africa. The discomfort was obvious, while not expressed openly. However, a quiet voice inside them seemed to say: “Do I actually want be part of this new South Africa, with its ghastly corruption, politics and violent crime? As a white, I am sidelined. When I apply for a job, I am told it is for blacks only. I have relatives in Australia; why should I stay?”

Hard questions. The panel was arguably one of the conference’s most relevant, and despite it being the last on a full schedule, the hall was packed. But while the topic should have ignited passionate arguments, there were instead polite platitudes and tip-toeing around deep feelings. Is there a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, the politically incorrect? South African politics today is a minefield of racial and other accusations, whether justified or not.

All panelists were on the moderate left. What was missing was someone from the right to provoke, to say unapologetically, as some whites do: “I am a white South African who didn’t ask to be born into apartheid, but worked incredibly hard my whole life for my living and my kids. I will not be made guilty, and will fight if you try to take it from me! Or I’ll leave the country with my skills and money.”

Disappointment in how South Africa has turned out is widespread among whites – you hear it everywhere in the Jewish community and other communities. The enthusiasm of Mandela’s era has been replaced by fear.

People who 25 years ago decided to stay and rebuild the country, are rethinking. Many audience members had always opposed apartheid in one way or another, even if they didn’t go underground. Bethlehem asked: “Can you be white and ‘progressive’ today, as in the past, by running an NGO and giving blankets, or is that space closed? Can Jews be part of the national project?”

Poplak issued a challenge: “When did Jews become white? They came to South Africa and negotiated their ‘whiteness’, sometimes with bad people, at the majority’s expense. But the gigantic gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation in 1994 has not worked out and we’re at the giving-back stage, way past charity and sewing blankets. You have to give up something to belong.”

Ngcukatoibi expresses blacks’ feelings eloquently: The cultural domination of whites suffocates black people, forcing them to negotiate inclusion into the cultural space determined by whites – the language, the institutions. ‘Whiteness’ remains the overriding cultural norm, in an overwhelmingly black country; whites must give up their supremacy.

Is giving up ‘whiteness’ even possible for South African Jews to consider? It might include giving up things like holiday homes and 4x4s. Is this community too comfortable in its affluence to rethink itself? The same questions apply to other communities. These questions need to be on the table even if there are no simple answers.

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


The Likud selfie: drawings that shout louder than words

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What’s in a pen? Drawings of political cartoonists are often the first thing people read in a paper, lampooning some essential quality about people and events, often delighting, and equally often outraging the subjects of their drawings. Zapiro, (above) has long been an iconic commentator on South African affairs

WHO WOULD have thought a shocking picture of a woman being raped by then president Jacob Zuma would appear on the oped pages of a major South African newspaper? Not a photograph, but a drawing. What about an image in an Israeli paper showing Israeli leaders as pigs? That’s what political cartoonists like Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – and Avi Katz do in South Africa and Israel: stab at peoples’ most sensitive impulses, to make a point. They have outraged people for years – and delighted many. And Katz was fired last Tuesday from his position at the Jerusalem Report magazine for his ‘pigs’ cartoon, reported Ynet.

For Zapiro, rape has been a potent image to depict South Africa’s ‘rape’ under Zuma, based initially on accusations in 2005 that he raped a friend’s daughter, known as ‘Khwezi’.

In 2008 a Zapiro cartoon in the Sunday Times depicted Zuma preparing to rape ‘Lady Justice’ who was held down by major politicians, with one saying, “Go for it, boss!” And in 2011 a cartoon in the Mail and Guardian showed Zuma zipping up his pants, lasciviously, as an ANC politician held down a woman, with the words “free speech” draped over her body and Lady Justice looking on saying “Fight, sister. Fight!”  Then in 2017 a cartoon in the Daily Maverick depicted the Gupta brothers robbing the country with corruption – again, Zuma was shown zipping up his pants gleefully as one brother prepared to rape a woman draped in the South African flag, held down by political figures. The caption read: “She’s all Yours, Boss!”

South African Jews find Zapiro’s unashamed anti-Israel depictions highly offensive – he has gone so far as to draw analogies between contemporary Israel and Nazism. In April 2002 he depicted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as similar to a Nazi leader, when the IDF bombarded the West Bank town of Jenin after a wave of suicide bombings.

Rape for one, pigs for another: In Israel, veteran cartoonist Avi Katz rendered an image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud lawmakers as the pig characters in George Orwell’s iconic book “Animal Farm.” The unflattering image derived from a photograph which appeared in Israeli papers of the Knesset members taking a congratulatory selfie to celebrate the passage of the controversial nation state bill. The cartoon’s homage to “Animal Farm” included the widely known quote “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

In response, hundreds of outraged comments were posted on Katz’ Facebook page deploring his swine imagery – pigs are considered unclean in Judaism. Some compared his cartoon to anti-Semitic caricatures.

The cartoon was shared more than 2,800 times. “Crazy anti-Semite, filled with self-loathing…” wrote one commenter. Another wrote that within a few months, the brouhaha about the nation state bill will recede, but Katz’s cartoon will remain forever and become a new anti-Semitic Shylock image, like that from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, to be exploited by Jew-haters. It will be uncontrollable and enable hatred “of orthodox, of fat, of men, of Jews in general…”

Are Katz’s critics correct? In a statement, the Union of Journalists in Israel voiced support for him, saying: “Causing harm to a journalist because he expressed an opinion, let alone when it was approved by his editors, is a dangerous step that must not be accepted.”

We are living in dangerously deceptive times, where the internet makes it easy to tar the cartoonist as the ultimate enemy. Love them or hate them, the job of a political cartoonist is to confront and make people think, and they will do that even by resorting to the most inflammatory images conceivable. It’s their job.

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

Lavender power: Israel’s tinder box?


Gay pride, no longer any need to hide; it is a bedrock of the South African constitution: Simon Nkoli holding a sign representing the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) region (now Gauteng) at a pride march in 1998

FURIOUS PROTESTS currently going in Israel demanding LGBT rights and the surrogacy option, bring the spotlight home to what it was to be gay in apartheid South Africa – for many years illegal, punishable by fines and jail terms. Same-sex marriage, of course, was totally unimaginable. With worldwide shifts in social mores, how do things stand?

Same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006. The SA Constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, and South Africa was the fifth country to legalise same-sex marriage. Couples can adopt children and arrange IVF and surrogacy. Other countries allowing same-sex marriage include Belgium, Canada, Argentina, England and Wales, and the United States.

But legal legitimacy doesn’t automatically translate into gay acceptance, particularly in black rural areas and townships. Even before the question of same-sex marriage, let alone surrogacy or children, in any form, comes up, black lesbians face the horror of so-called “corrective” rape. Rapists believe they can “fix” women not conforming to conservative gender norms. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, including against lesbians, because they are lesbians.

The plight of LGBT people is continually highlighted in theatre, photography and dance, by artists such as activist photographer Zanele Muholi, choreographer Mamela Nyamza and playwright/artistic director Phyllis Klotz, in very important works which give victims voice and achieve wide audiences. The media gives significant coverage.

But it is not just in South Africa, and not just a contemporary issue. In the United States during the Cold War in the 1950s, Republican senator Joseph McCarthy led the Federal government to target gay men and lesbians, accusing them of endangering public morals and linking them to Communists. In a movement known as the Lavender Threat, hundreds of people were persecuted, bullied and lost their jobs because they were suspected of being homosexual.

What about LGBT people in religious communities, such as the Jewish communities in America and South Africa? The American community and the Israeli one are the two largest Jewish communities in the world. The South African one is very much smaller and still shrinking.

When the United States Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex marriage was to be legally binding in all 50 states, American Jews celebrated. Surveys showed that some 77 per cent favoured its legitimacy. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish streams – which together constitute most religiously identified US Jews – supported it.

Among South African Jewry, which has traditionally been a conservative community, including towards gay people, greater acceptance of gays is apparent in recent years, following the trend in post-apartheid South Africa in urban areas. Prominent community rabbis have said openly that gays are welcome in their synagogues, without explicitly condoning homosexuality. Rabbis still refrain from conducting same-sex marriages, however, either because of personal reservations, or because the policy of their Jewish stream does not allow it.

The SA Jewish community has shrunk by half since its 1970s heyday to only some 60 000 people, and lacks diversity compared to the 5-million-strong American community, where Jews wanting to remain in the Jewish fold have numerous options, such as egalitarian minyans, similar to the Orthodox shtiebls which have sprung up in South Africa, but with a liberal slant.

Back in Tel Aviv, touted as one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities, legalisation of same-sex marriage and surrogacy seems, ironically, a long way off, despite the protests and the festive gay pride parade of 250,000 people earlier this year, for which the city closed major roads.

Haaretz reported this week on a Hadashot TV poll published on Tuesday, which found that a majority of Israelis across the political spectrum support the LGBT community’s fight for surrogacy rights. It showed that 56 percent of the public support the LGBT protests, while 33 percent oppose them.

Even right-wing parties backed the protests: 51 percent of Likud voters, and 58 percent  for Jewish Home, a largely religious party. Centrist and left-wing parties showed substantially higher support, with Zionist Union voters at 87 percent, Yesh Atid at 89 percent and Meretz at 82 percent

As expected, a majority among ultra-Orthodox parties opposed the LGBT campaign: United Torah Judaism and Shas registered 90 percent and 78 percent opposition respectively. The ultra-Orthodox opinion is crucial, since civil marriage is absent in Israel and all Jewish marriages must go through the Orthodox-controlled rabbinate, which follows the halachic injunction against homosexuality.

The Haredi parties’ political and religious power, however, rests on key positions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. Will the gender rights protest be the tinder box that ignites a new direction in Israel’s politics?

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

You call it cultural identity; he calls it racism – who is right?


Jewish first or citizen first? Israeli parliament members and other people take part in a protest march in Tel Aviv on July 14, 2018, against the new Nation-State Law, which has caused major divisions in Israel. The banner reads “this is the home of all of us”

FROM HERE at the bottom of Africa, with South Africa’s tragic racist history still dominating its people’s lives, Israel’s nation-state bill working its way through the Knesset causes a chill to run through the spine of lovers of Israel. We have seen in South Africa how a people’s legitimate drive to preserve their cultural identity – in the South African case, Afrikaans – can become an obsession with separateness from others, and ultimately separation between communities based on law.

Many items in the bill are quite reasonable for any nation proud of its identity. But vehement opposition to its initially proposed text honed in on a seriously objectionable clause, in paragraph 7(b), “to allow a community, including one composed of a single religion or nationality, to establish its own separate communal settlement.” This could permit, based on law, rejection of Israeli Arab citizens, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, from multiple Jewish settlements countrywide, and cause other groups with different identities to experience similar discrimination based on their religion, nationality or other criteria.

This is not South African apartheid, where power relationships and cultural issues were different. But enemies of Israel, and many friends, will see the trend as going in that direction –legalization of racism and ethnic chauvinism.

Fortunately, there are enough sane voices in Israel in the judiciary, politics, and even the Likud and the president himself, who see the terrible potential consequences of the trend towards this inward-looking mindset. This is not the Israel for which thousands of Jews fought, to have it turned into a place where separation of communities can be legislated based on religion, nationality, and similar defining characteristics.

All of this is not to say that communities should not be allowed to nurture their own identities, which already happens in a positive way in numerous places and helps build a strong society. Democracy has to be flexible enough to allow and encourage this. But to enshrine separateness in this kind of law opens potential deep chasms of division and is anti-democratic.

The fight-back from democratic forces resulted in revision of the wording of the most problematic section of the bill to read: “The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.” Meaning that establishing Jewish settlement is not to be based on discrimination as a basic value, but authentic realization of Zionism.

Zionism has often been called the “liberation movement” of the Jewish people. Like all liberation movements it is idealistic, and interpreted in complex ways. But what happened to the Universalist vision of Zionism and the state of Israel? Critics of the overall thrust of the proposed bill protest that it relates only to Israel’s Jewish nature, contrary to principles of Israel’s declaration of independence. Israeli democracy is unmentioned, nor the spirit of equality that has attracted Jews worldwide to identify with it as a source of enlightenment to themselves and the world.

Jews have prided themselves on how Israel has sustained the diversity of its society and democratic vibrancy despite never-ending attacks on it; other countries have reacted to such threats by becoming militant dictatorships. It seems an abrogation of that vision to defend a bill such as this, which does not acknowledge the one-fifth of Israel’s population that is not Jewish. Yet this is happening at the hands of an Israeli government.

South African Jewry is especially qualified, having lived for decades in a society where communities were separated based on law, to sound warning bells about the direction in which Israel is heading. Will anyone here do it?

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



Are we friends, if I look the other way?


Is he Israel’s friend? Growing ethnic nationalism in the West carries dangers of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and hatred of the “other”.  Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orban, warns against  accepting refugees, who he calls a “Trojan Horse”

REMEMBER the Hebrew writing on South African weapons during apartheid’s war against its enemies in the 1970s? Israel needed whatever friends it could get at the time, and so did South Africa. Working together, they became a leading weapons developer and force in the international arms trade, although Israel made pronouncements elsewhere about being against apartheid. That was realpolitik.

Many other countries in the West and elsewhere, including France and Britain, also cooperated extensively with South Africa.

Realpolitik has again guided Israel recently, on an issue with roots back to the Holocaust and the groundbreaking 1985 film Shoah, a 9-hour documentary about the Holocaust made by Claude Lanzmann, who died last week. The film contains interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators conducted during visits to German Holocaust sites across Poland, including extermination camps. Its approach was radical in that it included no archival footage, but relied on first-person engagement. Simone de Beauvoir hailed it as a “sheer masterpiece.”

However, the film was badly received in Poland, which said it accused that country of complicity in Nazi genocide. This view still simmers among Poles, and six months ago the government passed a law intended to stifle discussions of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Anyone suggesting that it participated in the Jewish genocide could be charged with libel and imprisoned. Outrage emanated from Holocaust survivors, intellectuals and governments worldwide, who demanded the law be revoked.

For Israel, the situation was difficult because Poland is a strong ally. The two governments entered into discussions, and on June 27 announced an agreement to amend the law, removing the aspect that criminalizes anyone who says Poland had a role in Holocaust guilt. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had protected the “historic truth of the Holocaust.” It was realpolitik in action.

Where should the diplomatic line be drawn? Netanyahu was slammed in Jewish circles, who said he had given Israel’s stamp of approval to a cover-up about Poland’s Holocaust role. The respected Holocaust historian, Yehuda Bauer, castigated Netanyahu, saying the belittling of the Polish role in the destruction of Polish Jewry “borders on betrayal.”

Diplomats defend realpolitik because, in this dangerous world, every country must balance moral values against pragmatic interests, which constantly change. Lord Palmerston of Great Britain is credited with putting it thus: “In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Most world leaders have faced this dilemma. Israeli leaders say since Israel’s security is constantly endangered, its fundamental interest must be its security – whatever the demands of realpolitik.

It is seven decades since the Holocaust. For many, it is a vague memory, not reality, which allows Israel more diplomatic flexibility. Nevertheless, it boggles the mind that the Jewish State’s Prime Minister stands accused by scholars of aiding Holocaust revisionism, which is only expected to come from rabid Jew-haters.

Israel is criticized for other recent examples of realpolitik, of turning a blind eye to immoral regimes and anti-Semitism, for other interests. On June 4, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer praised Hungary, saying it was Israel’s friend and had a “zero tolerance policy” towards anti-Semitism. But Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who is due to visit Israel in mid-July, is regarded as one of the new crop of populist European neo-fascists.

EU monitors of his campaign in Hungary’s recent elections reported “intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric” against migrants and others. His politicians use time-worn anti-Semitic tropes and blame Jewish billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, with his “open society” philosophy, for Hungary’s problems.

Orban has praised Hungary’s World War II dictator Miklos Horthy, who the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum says was “complicit” in the extermination of Hungary’s Jews. Some analysts say Herut founder Menachem Begin would be ashamed of Netanyahu’s whitewash of Hungary’s anti-Semitism and Poland’s Holocaust revisionism

Realpolitik has long tentacles. Netanyahu’s warmth towards United States President Donald Trump, with his “America First” mindset and attack on liberal internationalism, is hazardous. It seems convenient in the short term, but in the long run, Israel will probably pay for this.

In the 1970s, Israel justified embracing racist South Africa during apartheid, including military cooperation, as realpolitik. How does history judge it? Some SA Jews say this was correct at the time. Others are uncomfortable with it. Today’s dilemmas again pose the question where the red lines are.

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

Words we are not allowed to use: Who decides?


Crude words carry a price: Using the k-word in South Africa today to refer to black people can lead to legal action. In the picture, Vicki Momberg at her trial for abusing black policemen who tried to help her

WHAT SHOULD we do about the k-word? Flight crew evicted a woman from a flight about to take off from Johannesburg to Durban two weeks ago, after she used the word in an sms to refer to the black captain and passengers, and another passenger noticed it and complained to the crew. The woman, Alochna Moodley from Midrand, admitted it was wrong, but protested that the other passenger, Reverend Solumuzi Mabuza, invaded her privacy by reading her sms. She reportedly lost her job at her company as a result. Mabuza later said that although he forgave her after she made a public apology, he still planned to open a charge of crimen injuria (wilful injury) against her.

This follows another case when Vicki Momberg a white, former real estate agent was sentenced to an effective two years in prison for a racist tirade in 2016. She was found guilty of crimen injuria, after she had lashed out at a black police officer who helped her after a smash-and-grab incident in Johannesburg. In a video clip that went viral, she complained about the “calibre of blacks” in Johannesburg. She used the k-word 48 times. In sentencing her, the magistrate said the policemen who assisted her were in their uniform ready to serve, and Momberg’s slurs stripped them of their dignity. There was widespread public support for her sentencing.

The controversial word goes way back in South African history, and was once common among sections of the white population to refer to black people. To South African ears, it is profoundly insulting, implying that the person referred to is inferior, uncultured and subject to the power of the word’s user. Colonialism and apartheid’s cruel spirit embodied in a word.

It appears in important literature, for example through the mouth of a clearly racist Oom Schalk Lourens, a complicated character in a racial country created by one of the country’s admired writers, Herman Charles Bosman. Lourens says: “I could never understand why (G-d) made the ‘k’… and the rinderpest”

The k-word has a close cousin in the United States in the insulting n-word, which has long evoked emotional reactions. In February, two books regarded as literary classics – the Pulitzer-prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, depicting racial injustice in Alabama, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain dealing with slavery in pre-Civil War America, which contains offensive language by racist characters – were removed from school syllabuses in Minnesota over fears their use of racial slurs would upset black students. Both books have been lauded over the years as anti-racist, although set in racially loaded contexts.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the decision, saying the books use hurtful language “that has oppressed people over 200 years.” But free speech organisations criticised it, with the National Coalition Against Censorship saying rather than ignore difficult speech, educators should create spaces for dialogue to teach students to confront racism. It’s like banning Charles Dickens for portraying Fagin, the Jew.

The k-word and n-word have been red flags to a bull in South Africa and the United States. Now, in some quarters, including South Africa, a new word has been added: the z-word (Zionist), which has taken on almost as insulting a meaning when mouthed by virulently anti-Israel or anti-Semitic groups. How long will this list of no-nos become?

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ decision last week to lay criminal charges for hate speech against three men who posted violent Whatsapp messages against Zionists and Jews, saying the Holocaust will be a picnic compared to what they are going to do to them, will test free speech boundaries. Should those men be punished for hate speech, or are their utterances legitimate political discourse?

This country is early in the process of defining its red lines on speech. EFF leader Julius Malema, a firebrand political figure, uses militant racial statements against whites and Indians, such as accusations that “the majority of Indians are racists,” and barbs against other groups such as coloureds – should it be allowed? In many western countries, such utterances by a politician would end his political career. Crude words, when repeated often enough, tend to provoke violent actions by reckless people. Malema is a potential Mussolini-in-the-making, and dangerous.

The topic tends to become irrational. But confronting it is a necessary process in clarifying post-apartheid South Africa. Remember the reputed banning of the children’s novel Black Beauty during apartheid because censors didn’t want the words ‘black’ and ‘beauty’ on the same page? Some scholars refute this, but whatever the case, the last thing we need now is to go back to that crazy mindset.

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



Whose shoulders are you dancing on? And why?

Adventures of mr toad

For the love of children and theatre: The Adventures of Mr Toad, based on Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, was directed this year at the National Children’s Theatre in Johannesburg by Francois Theron. who produced 42 plays at the Theatre in the past eight years until his death last week

WHAT WOULD compel you to attend the funeral of someone you had never met? In the last ten days, two great men in the arts in South Africa have passed on: Francois Theron, artistic director of the National Children’s Theatre, and veteran photographer David Goldblatt. This country is the poorer for losing them, and the clarity they brought in confusing times.

Theron, who captivated children with classics such as The Pied Piper, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as local shows performed by professional actors, died last week. He was a maestro of children’s theatre in Johannesburg. Exposing young children to high-quality theatre to ignite a lifelong flame in them was his goal. Located in a heritage building in the old neighborhood of Parktown, the Theatre was founded in 1989 as a non-profit by Joyce Levinsohn. The current director is Moira Katz.


HOLD it with care: Francois Theron as Horton the elephant in Seussical.


Watching excited tots buzzing on the theatre’s floor in front of the stage, and their parents and schoolteachers revelling in the spectacle from behind, was Theron’s delight. During his eight years at the Theatre, he produced 42 plays.

Theron was born in 1965 and grew up during apartheid. By the time he came of age as a director, however, apartheid had been dismantled, and in the past eight years of his career at the National Children’s Theatre, he could concentrate directly on the children and performers, black or white. But in the past, apartheid affected everything. Great theatre confronting apartheid goes way back, much of it linked to the late Barney Simon, co-founder in 1976 of Johannesburg’s gutsy Market Theatre – home to the country’s first non-racial theatre movement. One had to be brave to fight the regime. Contravening racial laws and working under threat of arrest, Simon staged provocative plays with multiracial casts to multiracial audiences, challenging apartheid bullies.

Ballerinas also work on the stage, and during apartheid South Africa’s legendary prima ballerina, the late Phyllis Spira, was accepted at London’s Royal Ballet School in 1959, and was the only South African awarded the Prima Ballerina Absoluta in 1964, classical European dance’s highest accolade, in recognition of her work as a powerful influence on cultural trends in dance. She was never directly affected by apartheid or the growing cultural boycotts of South Africa, nor was her work overtly political in any way. However, she is still respected as one of the icons of South African art of that period.

While Spira captivated audiences with movement, another South African who made words dance like a ballerina during apartheid was Lionel Abrahams – described as the ‘yeast in the dough’ of South African literature. A novelist, poet, editor, critic, essayist and publisher, he was born with cerebral palsy, making him walk with undulating movements. He was eventually confined to a wheelchair – the ballerina’s opposite. But language was his joy, and critics said he “could make it dance as he himself, severely disabled from birth, could not”. Until his death, he enriched writers and artists as teacher, editor and critic, delivering advice with a cheeky humour.

Dancing happened on easels too in those times, with painters’ colours led by artist Bill Ainslie, a quiet man who established the Johannesburg Art Foundation in 1982 in an old heritage building in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. He was a major force in developing young black and other artists, such as Mmagkabo Helen Sebidi, William Kentridge, Dumile Feni and David Koloane, some of whom went on to have illustrious careers which they might not have done without his help in breaking through apartheid restrictions. He helped start the Federated Union of Black Artists in 1976; the Thupelo Art Project in 1985; and the Alexandra Art Centre in 1986, where he provided inspiration and possibilities to many young black artists. Ainslie was killed in a car accident in 1989.

At some point, even for artists, the dancing stops. What is left is their life’s work. Tuesday saw two very moving events, just three hours apart. One was the memorial in the main auditorium of the Market Theatre for Theron, attended by the cream of Johannesburg’s theatre industry. The other was the funeral of Goldblatt at West Park cemetery, attended by the cream of the intellectual and artistic world.


The power of a camera lens: David Goldblatt

Goldblatt was a great man who danced with his camera lens and enormous wisdom, and who will be sorely missed. He documented South African scenes in thousands of pictures over his lifetime, during and after apartheid, mainly in black and white, with the finest artist’s touch. His work is held in major museum collections worldwide and has been published in numerous books. A solo exhibition of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1998. A comprehensive retrospective of his work opened in the AXA Gallery in New York in 2001, offering an overview of his oeuvre from 1948 to 1999.

Theron and Goldblatt were humble men who brought magic. What is the value of standing at the graves of such giants, whether you knew them or not? It’s all we can do to thank them for giving us their gift.

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

  • A version of this article was first published in the SA Jewish Report on June 27, 2018


Cry the beloved State Theatre

STASTE THEATRE (3)IF AN OVERSEAS VISITOR wanted to understand some of the reasons people want to leave South Africa for Israel, the UK or other countries, he or she might visit Pretoria’s state theatre.

This huge complex was built doing apartheid by the government, in the brutalist architectural style popular at the time, a reflection of its status as a cultural icon presenting opera, classical concerts and ballet. It contains theatres and auditoria equipped with facilities for major productions. Its shows were never radical like the Market Theatre’s protest performances in Johannesburg, but in the euphoria of Nelson Mandela’s becoming president in democratic South Africa, expectations rose for a more adventurous tone.

But in the ’90s the theatre in effect became dormant. It reopened in 2001, offering its six venues – the Opera, Drama, Arena, Rendezvous, Momentum, and Studio – for hire.

Today it is in a state of such disgraceful decay, you would be ashamed to bring overseas visitors there. Upon arrival, you enter the underground parking, which is so confusing you have to ask a security guard where the entrance to the actual theatre is, and he must come with his keys to unlock the filthy doors. There are long stairways to be climbed, and no wheelchair access to some of the main spaces. When you pay for your parking, the guard stands alongside you at the machine, and when your R5 change comes out, he turns into a beggar, holds out his hand and says ‘for bread please?’ – implying that if you don’t hand it over, your car might not be looked after.

Most of the complex is closed and unused, like a morgue.  Yet, incredibly, within this awful mess, a brilliant play was performed last week in one of the smaller spaces, called ‘The Fall’ about the students’ movement to remove Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from Cape Town University campus.

The complexity of the struggle to ‘decolonise’ South Africa is portrayed with such brilliant directing and choreography that one leaves the theatre vibrating with the power of the performance and inspired that if South Africa contains such talent in its youth, all will eventually be well.

Then you return to the dirty corridors and tunnels back to the underground parking, and into the street where one is pounced on by pathetic beggars at your car window. The emotions of the evening’s experience fight with each other.

At dinner parties among white South Africans, conversations often turn to which country to emigrate to. Canada? America? Australia? Israel? The criterion is that whatever country is chosen, it must actually ‘work’. Where the government does what it’s supposed to do. The streets are clean, the bureaucracy functions. Many people have children or friends living elsewhere; the topic turns to the last Skype conversation with them, and the sadness that most will never return to this country; families they left behind will die here, lonely.

All the countries listed above have problems. America has Donald Trump and his support from hard right Evangelists. European countries have dangerously increasing anti-Semitism.

And Israel has its interminable political and security crisis, continuing to tear itself apart in arguments over occupation of the Palestinian territories, flaming kites from Gaza, and Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the country. But nevertheless, it feels like a country on the ‘upslope’, not the down, its economy booming and people flowing in.

Does one continue to be optimistic and believe South African politicians have the best interests of the country at heart, and the looting of state coffers will stop? Or that Ramaphosa will turn the country around after the Zuma nightmare?

South Africans are desperately seeking an assurance things will turn out okay. The state theatre is a metaphor for the country’s best and worst. If the government turned two thirds of it into a well-run hospital, but kept a small theatre for brilliant productions, it would be better than letting it rot. It’s about the difference between despair and hope.

  • Read a review of THE FALL by independent art critic Robyn Sassen

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

  • A version of this article was first published in the SA Jewish Report on June 22, 2018

Fiddling with strangers: why do we think we can?

Gay Pride Parade Tel Aviv June 07/2013

Breaking boundaries, taboo or not? Since 1998 gay pride parades have grown in Tel Aviv. This year the parade attracted 250,000 people, for which main roads were closed off in the central city. The photo shows the parade in 2017

DO YOU remember a time in this country when people thought it was witty to call a man who seemed effeminate by the derogatory term ‘moffie’? Such pejorative language made homosexual people frightened to openly be themselves. That word is mostly gone now, but societies still struggle to catch up with the increasing recognition of different kinds of sexuality, which were once hidden.

Other forms of punishment exist. Incredibly, “corrective” rape of lesbians is still perpetrated in South African townships. It has been highlighted by black lesbian Zanele Muholi, a self-described visual activist working in photography, portraying black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people – the LGBTI community. She is a professor at University of the Arts Bremen in Germany. In a story in The Guardian last year, she called her work “a space for people to be visible, respected and recognised”.

Her message: Despite having the most progressive constitution and equality laws, South Africans are far from accepting the prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation – in other words, accepting different forms of sexuality. The LGBTI population fears attacks, murders and “corrective” rapes. Women photographed by Muholi have died after “corrective” rape. A recent play by Phyllis Klotz – founder of Sibikwa dance and theatre company – called Chapter 2 Section 9, reinforces this point, portraying true stories of black women, broken for being lesbians.


zanele (2)

Works from an exhibition by Zanele Muholi in Nottinghamshire, UK, called Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness in isiZulu), comprising over 75 photographs using the body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation

Elsewhere in the world, the picture is different: Last Friday saw a festive gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, of 250,000 people, for which the city closed major roads. Religious figures who don’t accept gay legitimacy recoil at this, such as leaders of Orthodox Judaism. They say homosexuality is a “choice”, not inherently part of a person’s identity, and through therapy people can – and should – be persuaded to choose otherwise. Are people in the parade transgressing G-d’s will? Some say no. Others say yes, that mere large numbers don’t prove such a point.

For rabbis who reject homosexuality, it’s a difficult dilemma when a gay member of a congregation wants to hold a formal position in a shul, or study to be a rabbi. Or a gay Jewish man wants to marry another man, which is legal in 26 countries including South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States, and wants the rabbi to perform the ceremony.

Is one’s LGBTI status a religious or human rights issue? America’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman said he was “proud” of the Tel Aviv parade, tweeting: “…Promoting, protecting, and advancing human rights – including the rights of LGBTI persons – has long been the policy of the United States.”

Some gay rights activists directly confront the establishment. Steven Cohen – one of South Africa’s most flamboyant performance artists – grew up during apartheid, served in the army, and now lives in Paris. In the past, he courageously attended a rugby game at Pretoria’s Loftus Versveld stadium dressed as a character he devised called Ugly Girl, in feathers and other provocative regalia, and mingled with the ultra-conservative crowd, who called him derogatory names and threatened him.

Why is somebody else’s sex life everybody’s business? Some people ask why the LGBTI community makes such a parade – why not just be who you are, without a big show? Part of the answer is that coming out with one’s identity is difficult. A mass parade gives support.

Pressure on the LGBTI community takes different forms. They may be practical and violent such as “corrective” rape. Or subtle, by shunning and shaming. Outwardly, a world of difference lies between Zanele Muholi’s artworks and Tel Aviv’s parade. But the message is similar – there are a myriad legitimate ways to be human.

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


Labels and epithets: who are you calling ‘loony’?

dylan-bm in Jerusalme 1983

Call me Zionist if you want: Bob Dylan attended the barmitzva of his son Jesse at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 1983, in the period when he had also been dabbling in Christianity.  He recounts how the press worldwide interpreted his visits to the Wall as evidence that he had become a “Zionist”

EVERY one of South Africa’s diverse communities has its rebels who stand outside, or who go against the mainstream on contentious issues – Jews, Greeks, Afrikaners, Chinese and others. Sometimes the mainstream closes ranks and rejects them; at other times an argument ensues, with all sides weighing in. For the Jewish community, the relationship with Israel is an issue which constantly simmers and divides Jews, as Israel’s complex standing internationally swings between positive and negative, and its needs for defense and security factor in, along with the search for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There is a term  which mainstream Jews use for Jews on the far left who show up at Israeli-oriented events and protest against Israel with pro-Palestinian supporters, condemning Israel for its ‘oppression’ of the Palestinians – they are called the ‘loony left’. Should one endorse or take exception to this label? Among them are members of the group JVJP (Jewish Voices for a Just Peace) who have waved vitriolic anti-Israel banners at Israeli Independence Day celebrations and elsewhere.

When a speaker at a Limmud seminar (a Jewish group which explores different perspectives on being Jewish in this era) in Johannesburg last weekend used the term ‘loony left’, it evoked a strong response from an audience member: “I take issue with your use of that phrase….” The speaker apologized immediately, showing that the term is not endorsed by all.

The challenge the ‘loony left’ poses to Jews is: what is Israel about, and what is Zionism? Most Jewish South Africans are ardent Zionists. Their rage is palpable – even understandable, given that Zionism is a pillar of their community life – when the ‘loony left’ shows up with negative banners and slogans at their celebrations of Israel and Zionism.

What should one make of these ‘aberrant’ Jews? Dismiss them as self-hating? Or be more sympathetic, believing everyone is entitled to their viewpoint and should be engaged with? Or perhaps be supportive – historically, it has often been the aberrant members of society, blowing their whistles, who were retrospectively identified as bearers of the sanest stance although they were reviled at the time.

Being Zionistic is almost axiomatic for SA Jews; this community has traditionally been one of Israel’s greatest supporters. But Zionism is not axiomatic for Jews everywhere. Among American Jews, for example – the world’s second largest Jewish community – attachment to Israel, once strong, has weakened considerably in recent years, particularly among the youth who say Israel’s values today, such as aggressive nationalism, ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and a failure to seek peace with the Palestinians, conflict with their own values.

Some American Jews were never Zionists. The world’s greatest folk singer, Bob Dylan – recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – explores in his autobiography, Chronicles, the personal difficulties of being revered by the masses. He didn’t want to be the “toastmaster” of any generation, he says, and as a wry tactic to counteract being seen as a perfect leader by the leftist counterculture of the ‘60s who were unsympathetic toward Israel, “…  I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist.”

SA Jews outside the mainstream are also not all Zionists. But studies show that most of those who identify strongly with being Jewish, whether they are professionals in general society, academics, writers and so on, and whether they are politically right or left, support Israel’s right to exist even though they may not explicitly call themselves Zionists. But they are critical of its government’s policies. Current events such the Israel-Gaza conflict disturb them, but also deeper issues such as Israel’s embrace of US President Donald Trump, despite the buffoonery of the man who now heads the world’s most powerful nation.

The same applies to many members of the Jewish ‘loony left’ – they support Israel’s right to exist, but object to its government’s policies, and abhor Trump and what he stands for.

Where does this leave the mainstream community? Could the ‘loony’ label itself be discarded, with a recognition that they have something worth listening to? Or could the mainstream itself change its borders, to incorporate a greater degree of debate and argument about what Israel and Zionism stand for?

For the foreseeable future, the relationship to Israel will roil and boil among Jews as long as the conflict remains unresolved. It may be seen as a poison in their midst; or as part of the important debates about peoplehood, nationalism and community, and how individuals fit into these things.

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