Welcome to the whirligig

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Who will win the race against time, in seconds or in years? Warplanes can be shot down in seconds. Global warming is measured in years but those years seem to be slipping by faster and faster, with increasingly devastating consequences and victims. The Australian bush fires that have raged over past months, bringing the koala population to the verge of extinction and endangering other species, were speeded up by global warming. A koala is shown above. It’s as if time and the events it contains is accelerating everywhere

THE ten seconds that the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force had to decide whether to shoot down the Ukrainian passenger plane over his military base last week, typifies today’s superheated digital world. The plane was misidentified as a cruise missile. After it was shot, killing all 176 passengers, he was quoted saying that once it became clear what had happened, he thought: “I wish I was dead.”

This ten-second event has similar characteristics to the 15 seconds Israelis in the southern Israeli town of Sderot had in August 2018 to get into bomb shelters or reinforced rooms after the rocket warning siren sounded, when 150 rockets rained down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Today, digital media like Twitter spreads knowledge and opinions – both falsehoods and truths – planet-wide instantly. Some of it is immensely beneficial, but it’s an instantaneousness that is also dangerous. The master at exploiting it, United States president Donald Trump can, with a malicious word via Twitter insulting his opponents, cause ructions in global politics raising a risk of war.

Everything is speeding up, challenging our ability to ruminate and contemplate before taking action. So many dramatic events cram each month, it’s hard to notice time passing. Among the latest is panic about containing the Australian bush fires caused partly by rising atmospheric temperatures due to climate change. Bush fires have happened before but never on this scale. Nearly a billion animals have been affected. The nature of Australian life has to change.

In the Middle East, Israeli life has always been frenetic, to its credit. Israelis’ ability to deal with rapid change is a part of their strength. Now there is concern that weather patterns are becoming so unpredictable that it will affect how people live. The 2020s opened with a blast regarding climate change’s effect on rainfall. In the week of January 5 more than 20 percent of Tel Aviv’s average annual precipitation fell within three hours, breaking records. Low-lying roads, some in major arteries, became impassable. A second storm days later flooded cities in northern Israel. More heavy rain followed. Cars drowning up to their rooftops under fallen trees were seen.

Israeli forecasters had predicted stormy weather and warned people to avoid low lying areas. But they hadn’t expected anything so dramatic, so fast. Previously in 2013, the Ayalon – the highway cutting through Tel Aviv – had become a torrent because of what they called a “once-in-100-year storm.” But now it’s no longer a 100-year storm. It happened again the following year, and again in 2018.

Scientists don’t know how the multiple impacts from global warming will play out internationally. There is a consensus that in decades to come, extreme weather events will become the new normal. The atmosphere’s predictability will lessen. A once-in-50-year storm might become once a decade, or once a year.

In South Africa, it seems that we’ve always lived in our own bubble, politically at odds with trends in the outside world. This applies no less today regarding climate change, as our corrupt politicians squabble stupidly over their power. It is bizarre that while other countries are trying to reduce carbon emissions, South Africa is still building new coal-fired power stations – Medupi and Kusile – which will add to the amount of carbon it puts into the atmosphere.

Taking a distant view: What do an Iranian air defence operator and an Israeli meteorologist have in common? Time. The Iranian had to act within ten seconds. The climatological equivalent of this catastrophe might be the world’s climate deadline but the stakes are much higher: the whole planet.

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

 

The State Theatre: Bullies in the wings

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Is it racist to criticise a state funded theatre? The South African State Theatre opened in 1981. It is a government funded company originally intended to promote the development of the performing arts. Arts practitioners claim that it is in a very poor state today and its administration is sorely lacking. Critics have been attacked for saying this and accused of doing so for racist reasons

WHY would a professional who’s given a whole career to the arts industry suddenly be deemed racist? On Sunday I attended a performance by South African-born performance artist Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza, at Pretoria’s South African State Theatre (SAST), accompanied by arts journalist Robyn Sassen. Khoza is well-known throughout Europe and elsewhere, and collaborates frequently with South African-born choreographer Robyn Orlin.

We expected to watch the piece as we would in any theatre, based on criteria theatres worldwide honour. This includes making the audience safe, and feel safe, the production’s age limits, allowing for people with disabilities, not allowing dangerous aspects such as open flame to exist unattended.

When we arrived at SAST, however, we were confronted by a frightening array of experiences: we as white theatre-goers were treated with obvious hostility by certain people present; and SAST is mostly in a state of sad neglect. It exists on public funding. Sassen is a veteran journalist who has covered the arts extensively, for over 20 years, including productions at SAST. She has written about its condition previously.

The work, Red Femicycle, which focuses on South African femicide and bullying was hosted in an unusual space in the theatre complex. Ushers took us there via a convoluted route, which they clearly were not sure of themselves. Eventually we arrived at the venue’s appallingly shabby reception area.

It was clear that we as whites stood out like a sore thumb. When I picked up my cell phone to photograph the room’s state, I was aggressively confronted by a black man who told me he hadn’t granted me permission to do that. He did not identify himself.  I said we were from the media, this was a public place, and the pictures were not for publication, but a record of the room’s condition. Others had also been photographing. I asked why he had confronted me, not them. At that moment the work began. He said threateningly, “We will continue this afterwards!”

Sassen decided to write a story on her blog about the theatre itself and our experience there before she reviewed the work. It was published and immediately went viral. (the link to her story is given below)

The next morning a man who according to his Facebook page is associated with the regional secretariat of the ANC youth league, said in one of several rambling vitriolic Facebook posts: “…This Woman called Robyn Sassen is of no difference to a vulture of doom that is hovers over black lives… a scavenger that moves with great menace toward anything that represents black excellence!!! … we do not need an opinion of a bloody racist and bias agent …”[sic] A picture follows this text, of several angry-looking men, led by one holding a spear menacingly.

Clearly, this person is only one voice. But on Facebook, regardless of the credibility of the post or who it comes from, responses get exaggerated and polarised in the face of controversy: people publicly take a side or privately extend support by contacting one side or the other, as many did with Sassen. Khoza and his cast went out of their way to offer Sassen support.

We come from a ghastly racial history. The ANC has not yet learnt how to run a country, nor cherish the arts which it treats with disdain. It also hasn’t learnt to bring to book troublemakers and thugs who are embarrassing its good name or what is left of it.

The purpose of this article is not to make gross generalisations. It is to present a snapshot of an incident which left a deep, troubling impression.

Arts journalism is already beleaguered as an important critical field of art making. Sassen says she will not again review anything at SAST. It has to date, not reacted officially to her story other than “likes” from its artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi for some of the hostile Facebook comments.

Sassen story on State Theatre: State Theatre How Dare You

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

Our ‘spoilt brat’ heroes

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Who caused South African Airways to crash? The workers unions Numsa and Sacca reject claims that their strike crippled SAA financially. They say the board of SAA already knew the dire straits of the company.  In the picture, SAA workers bring the operations at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to a standstill

THOSE of us who were adults at universities in the 1970s and 1980s had a socialist bent, and the goal of keeping workers content was deeply felt. It overrode many other things. Many trade-union members and anti-apartheid activists came from idealistic Jewish youth movements such as Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair. Before that, Jewish activists historically played roles helping build unions throughout the 20th century. Anti-apartheid activist Solly Sachs, for example, was a Communist Party member in 1919, and secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union in 1928.

Now, what do we think of trade unions who have dominated the headlines for striking against South African Airways (SAA)? Are they there to ensure that national organisations like the airline run smoothly for the country’s good? Or are they there only for members to squeeze out as much as possible for themselves without concern for the consequences? The desired answer seems obvious. But it’s not so simple. Their members’ demands are often justified, but meeting them all in this country today is impossible.

The media is full of stories covering the fight between SAA and the trade unions NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) and SACCA (South African Cabin Crew Association). It’s bizarre for an airline that analysts say is in terminal collapse to be engaged in a fight like this. Professor Jonathan Jansen reportedly described the strike as akin to the Titanic’s crew striking. They wanted higher wages just after the ship hit the iceberg. Unfortunately, in South Africa’s hectic politics, striking has become almost the default position for voicing a grievance.

Negative perceptions of unions may be unfair since they continue to ensure fair working conditions for thousands of members. But union leaders are perceived by many as behaving like children. They are seemingly oblivious to the dire state of the country, and unwilling to see further than their members’ immediate demands. South Africa has a 29% unemployment rate, and a sinking economy. It seems unions would blithely bring the country – and its airline – crashing down around them rather than act responsibly.

Their dealings with SAA are typical, insisting on wage increases far beyond what the airline or country can afford. They forced SAA to cancel scores of flights as a way of confronting it. This cost SAA hugely in terms of reputation and finances. It’s come to a sad pass. Commentators see unions today not as heroic fighters for fair working conditions, but as “spoilt brats”, as Sikonathi Mantshantsha wrote in Business Maverick last week. The reality is that in sane government circles today, there is talk of a general wage freeze in the public sector to curb costs, rather than giving salary increases.

What would the old idealistic Habonim activists think about the South African trade unions they were passionate about in their youth? Would they be disappointed to see them reduced from the heroes they were during apartheid to naughty children throwing their toys out of the cot? Would they even recognise them?

Many of the old activists would certainly have changed with time both in their worldview and lifestyle. Similarly, the unionists and the rationality of their demands have changed. But there is debate about whether it’s been for the good.

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

Stains that can’t be removed

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Netanyahu, stay away from Paris! On January 13, 2015 three million plus Parisians and foreign leaders participated in an anti-terror demonstration after terrorist murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery in Paris. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked not to attend by the French president for fear he would exploit the event for his own political purposes leading up to Israeli parliamentary elections in March. But he ignored the request and attended anyway. Here he is shown with a band of leaders. He also called on all the Jews of France to leave and go to Israel

LEGACY is an important thing, to anyone. What will you be remembered for? Too many heroes of the struggle against apartheid who gave their all for it, and were admired, became corrupt and immoral when the struggle was over. Former president Jacob Zuma, who was head of intelligence of the ANC, went on to become the epitome of corrupt government, leading to the country being robbed of billions of rands. The shine he and his ilk had during Nelson Mandela’s days is long gone, replaced by a myriad sleazy politicians driving fancy cars and stashing away their ill-gotten millions in foreign bank accounts.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to come to trial, after being indicted last week. Politically, his opponents will dance for joy at the fact that his legacy will forever be “Israeli prime minister indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.” It is a tragedy, since he and his family contributed hugely to Israel for its founding and after. He personally did this from his younger days, such as serving in an elite army unit, providing a sense of security to the country amidst its multiple enemies, and being its highly articulate spokesperson on the international stage. To this day, thousands of Israelis still believe in him totally and call him the king of Israel.

History is a harsh judge. It casts an exacting light on powerful people for whom their power has become addictive and has led them to believe they can do anything without accountability. A student of history who logs on to Wikipedia 50 years from now for information on Netanyahu, will probably find him described as the longest serving Israeli prime minister, but see him deemed, a sentence or two later, as the first Israeli prime minister indicted for serious misdemeanours while he was in office. Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings, which will dominate Israeli politics for years to come, he cannot remove this stain from his record.

Numerous powerful people and historical figures who have been discovered to have done something abhorrent will be remembered by history only for that act, not their greater deeds. When the former president of Israel, Moshe Katzav’s name is mentioned, it is not his term as president that comes to mind, but his abuse of women, and the fact that he was sent to jail.

Sidney Frankel, a billionaire stockbroker in South Africa supported homes for underprivileged orphans for many years, gave money to worthy causes, and was universally respected and admired, until it was discovered that he had been sexually molesting these same orphans. Now, whenever this man’s name crops up, all you can think of is these sexual crimes against vulnerable children. Think of former South African police chief Jackie Selebi, who goes down in history as a beneficiary of drug trafficking. Think of highly respected South African artist Zwelethu Mthetwa who murdered a prostitute in 2013, and will be remember for that, alone. What do you remember about world famous athlete Oscar Pistorius?

Legacies can move in the other direction, too. The famed German Oskar Schindler who saved 1 200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis by employing them in his own factories, was previously himself a card-carrying member of the Nazi party. Today his legacy is one of a selfless, courageous man. There are still Jews today who can trace their family to the people he saved.

Sadly, Netanyahu seems to have travelled a well-trodden path from the heights of glory to an ignominious end without ever being willing to let go. His legacy will not be his courage in battle, or his diplomatic talents but his arrogance, his wheeling and dealing and his corruption. Had he let go, it might have been different.

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

 

 

Words which have become rude

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What’s in a word? Depends who’s writing and reading it. The 1861 ink-splodged and messy manuscript of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations gives insight into the illustrious novelist.  It shows how Dickens constantly returned to his text to change words and nuances and alter sentences. In politics and history, texts and words are most often changed not for literary reasons, but convenience. What’s in a word?

WHAT is a ‘location’? To most people, it’s a place. But in South Africa it was once an area inhabited by mainly desperately poor black people; when many South Africans used that word, it suggested a dirty, unsafe area, where poor people cooked pap outdoors.

The dictionary can never be an unbiased book. Every word that appears in it is coloured by history, politics, connotations and context, and is fuelled by fashion. South Africans are no foreigners to how words are poisoned and meanings changed by politicians. During apartheid, the word ‘native’ was used pejoratively for blacks as an official government term; there was even a ‘Native Affairs Department’ under the authority of the Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd. Actually, the apartheid government struggled repeatedly with coining euphemisms referring to blacks. Terms such as ‘natives’, ‘bantu’, ‘non-Europeans’ and ‘plurals’ all had their day; the latter was called ‘hilarious’ by the Sunday Times in 1978. There was once a ‘Department of Plural Relations and Development.’

But the shoe always tends to slide to the other foot eventually: Many black South Africans and politicians today are too easily tempted to call a white person who disagrees with them about anything a racist, often without cause. And despite losing power, Afrikaners are still famous for using the ugly k-word to refer to blacks, although doing so publically might be called hate speech and get them into serious trouble.

Slippery, politicised meanings of ordinary words are not a South African invention, however. Is the word ‘Zionism’ an ordinary word? Not so long ago, the ideology had to be inherently part of an Israeli government’s platform for it to succeed. But what about an Arab government party? It would be absurd to expect it to call itself Zionist.

Zionism is a particularly loaded word in South Africa, where the ANC, trade unions, leftist academics and NGOs are intensely hostile to Israel. Among politicised activists in black communities, it provokes awkwardness even among people who accept Israel’s existence. For the more extreme, Zionism is akin to a four-letter word. Every word has an implied back story: Many South Africans who use Zionism as a pejorative, are veiling anti-Semitism.

Ever since Theodor Herzl’s day in 1897, the word Zionism was the most central expression of Jews’ fight for a state. Israel now exists, but ironically amongst Jews, the word is being reconsidered amidst the hurly-burly of Israeli politics. Ask Israelis if they are Zionists: many might say they aren’t, Israel is simply the Jewish country where they live and will fight to keep it secure. Increasing numbers of American Jews, alienated from Israel because of differences in world view, would not describe themselves as Zionists.

In Israel, the prospect of an Arab party joining a minority government with Benni Gantz’s Blue and White party, allowed PM Benjamin Netanyahu to attack him using the word Zionist. He derided the possibility that Blue and White might form a government supported by the predominately Arab Joint List; instead, Netanyahu would form ‘a strong Zionist government’ excluding Arab parties.

Is the word Zionism just a term which was once important, but now isn’t? Some people will angrily reject this, saying that discarding the word is a betrayal of people who gave lives for it. But did they fight for something that existed then, but has changed now, and they must change too?

Words are always a weapon or tool: it depends who uses them. What would happen if the ‘z-word’ became forbidden in contemporary society? Or fell into disuse, like ‘plurals’? Would that anti-Semitic thread simply be expressed through a different word?

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

Our lethal penchant to fiddle

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Warmer water? Even the lobsters feel it: A juvenile lobster is returned to the water by scientist Diane Cowan during a survey of the lobster population on the shore of Friendship Long Island, Maine. Scientists say the Gulf of Maine is warming faster due to global warming than more than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. The temperature rise is prompting fears about the future of one of the Atlantic’s most unusual ecosystems and the industries it supports.  AP/Robert F. Bukaty

IN South Africa, a tornado hit the Pietermaritzberg area in KZN last week, injuring scores of people, destroying houses and washing away trees. Durban has been hit by a string of weather-related emergencies in recent years. In April, heavy localised flooding throughout the city resulted in 70 deaths, with more than 1,000 people displaced. The country’s weather bureau was quick to caution that extreme weather was not uncommon in that area, but when anxiety about a climate crisis is everywhere, the connection is quickly assumed. 

The threat to human life from climate change renders the disputes about religion, power and territory we traditionally fight over, archaic. A strange ‘benefit’ of the climate crisis is now nobody can deny humanity is one: either we work together to solve it, or die together.

What’s the point of arguing over where the precise border of a country or piece of land lies, if that land will be covered in water either from tides or from deluges from the sky? The flooding of the city of Venice is a current example of how water has no respect for what is precious to man, including  his historic buildings and artworks.

What does this climate emergency mean for local community life, particularly in a country like South Africa, where the majority of its population are poor and live in vulnerable rural areas? People have no air-conditioners there, and even if they did, it would not stop the other, broader effects of climate change.

Communities cannot continue caring only for their own needs, as if the world will take care of itself. Clearly it won’t, as the warming of the earth’s climate by 1.5 degrees shows. Even if all countries switched to renewable energy, the earth’s temperature would still rise by 1.5 degrees. And a developing country like South Africa is still so dependent on coal-burning power stations like Eskom that it will take years for it to change to renewable energy. Eskom generates approximately 95% of electricity used in South Africa, and 45% used in Africa.

There are more questions than answers. Must climate awareness be made a public pillar of a community, any community? How would one do this in a poor, rural community in South Africa where peoples’ main concern is simply to put food on the table. The threat is pervasive and requires communities to act in cooperation, including individuals, business people and others. Schools could be brought in, enabling people to understand that all activities, big or small, are part of their carbon footprint, but what if the schools are virtually dysfunctional as in many parts of South Africa?

In some cases, these requirements would affect communities’ rights to follow their traditions and customs. For example, inward-looking communities whose population growth is often exponential, such as some in third world countries, Mormons for whom any birth control is forbidden, and Haredi Jews for whom every increase in their population is regarded as a blessing. The planet cannot support so many people.

People worldwide did not always understand themselves as part of a global community which needed to act together. Attitudes changed partly with NASA’s spaceflights and Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing, as people saw not just their own house, but the entire planet. A sense of belonging to a worldwide community increased. Events in one place resonated elsewhere: Kennedy’s assassination, the rise of Maggie Thatcher, Watergate.

Awareness of global warming took off in the 1970s. The ‘hole in the ozone layer’ was the buzz. It rose in South Africa too, but at the height of apartheid there were other issues and it took a back seat. Today, ethnic nationalism threatens the global approach to a solution with its emphasis on ‘separateness’ exemplified by American President Donald Trump. But the climate crisis might be the thing to defuse it. Even the nationalists might see that the recent migration crisis from the Middle East will be nothing compared to mass migrations caused by rising sea levels plunging large tracts of land under water.

The human being is a creative species, and dire as the climate change situation is, there are imaginative attempts to address it, epitomised by Swedish teenaged activist Greta Thunberg who became the world’s climate leader with a potent address to UN Secretary General Guterres and UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Executive Secretary Espinosa at the 2018 UN climate negotiations. She condemned the world’s political leaders for being in the grip of a ‘political-economy’ of exponential growth economics, and banking and multinational corporate interests who are destroying the earth’s capacity to support human life for money’s sake. She is a brilliant example of the youth who might lead the way against so-called ‘leaders’ who, because of their greed, are sacrificing their children and life on earth.

Thunberg says 100-million barrels of oil are burnt everyday. Oil has long been fundamental to industry in developed countries. In the mid-1970s, this became starkly clear in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members such as Saudi Arabia reduced supplies to Europe and America for collaboration with Israel. Oil prices quadrupled, British industry was reduced to a three-day work week, and American gas stations ran dry. But the prospect of stopping oil use was considered unthinkable.

With today’s understanding, however,  a reexamination of lifestyle and priorities is unavoidable. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer says, “If nothing matters, there is nothing to save.”

Are we beginning to hatch phoenixes?

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African art has a long and mostly unrecognised history: The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe is a medieval artifact made from wood which is covered in thin sheets of gold from the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which is located in modern-day South Africa. It was found on a royal grave on Mapungubwe Hill in 1932 by archaeologists from the University of Pretoria

CAN we yet be bold enough to celebrate South Africa? Amidst our thirst for good news after the depressing news of the last decade, green shoots are visible. Not yet on the economic front, which remains dire, as finance minister Tito Mboweni outlined in his mid-term budget, but elsewhere, vigour is starting to gingerly show itself.

The obvious big one of the past week, which gave a gigantic boost to South Africans, is the Springboks’ win over England in the Rugby World Cup under the captainship of Siya Kolisi. The image of him holding the golden cup aloft amidst ecstatic celebration will resonate forever as a triumphant moment.

Sport is often a measure of a country’s mood. Johannesburgers of all colours and classes, and many others from elsewhere, joined together in another celebration last Sunday in the 42km Soweto marathon, nicknamed The People’s Race, whose route can be compared to a lesson in South Africa’s history. The marathon, which attracted some 40,000 runners from across the globe, takes participants past heritage sites that were key in the fight against apartheid, including Vilakazi Street and the one-time homes of president Nelson Mandela and his neighbour, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The former has become a site visited by tourists worldwide. The race passes the brightly painted Orlando Towers and is within eyesight of everything from the colossal Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, reputedly the third-largest in the world, to the colourful Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, where the ANC Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955 as the ideological cornerstone of the liberation movements. The marathon provides a glimpse into the possibilities of this country. Can it be a counterpoint to the gloom?

Sport is a culture which thrived during apartheid despite racial separation, and now freely embraces every race and creed. Contrary to common perceptions, culture as a whole, whether white or black, was something the apartheid government took seriously. But it forcefully kept black and white cultures separate, and exploited this separation for its racist political agenda. Seats at venues of high quality European and colonial arts of ballet, opera, theatre and fine art were traditionally occupied by the Jews and Afrikaans-speaking community. Today Jews are fewer, but Afrikaners are still very present. And a phoenix is rising in Pretoria. Once the heart of apartheid, where ideologues plotted their reprehensible deeds, this city hosts an opposite concept. A multi-million rand art centre of world class standard opened in September with several exhibitions of South African works from the past century of such high quality that the Museum of Modern Art in New York could just as proudly host them.

The Javett Art Centre is a green shoot in the cultural sphere, as important as a world class rugby win, particularly for its location and inclusive approach to who gets showcased. There are people who are willing to invest billions towards creating a place where the art of Africa is explored and celebrated. Current collections show signature works from 1912, including the cream from the likes of Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi, Irma Stern, Steven Cohen, David Koloane, Jackson Hlungwani and more. It is also the new home of the world-renowned Mapungubwe rhino, the first example of gold craftsmanship found in this continent, dating back to the 1100s.

We cannot be naive about the effect of these examples. They will not solve the mass poverty, crime and corruption which pull this country down. The pitiable beggars who stand at street corners in Johannesburg will never see them. Yet, many black Springboks came from impoverished backgrounds and fought their way to the top. Is hope again possible?

You can never apologise to the dead

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Can an apology for slavery make up for anything? The American Congress has apologised for the actions of America in the slave trade from Western Africa. The 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery to the Jamestown Colony, coupled with a project from The New York Times called the “1619 Project,” has fueled the ongoing national debate over whether reparations can be given to descendants of slaves. Other countries face similar questions about their history

IN the current era, it has become trendy to “apologise”, for almost anything, which makes the person doing it feel good while not necessarily helping the injured party, who may even be long dead.

After a very long time, the British government this month expressed ‘regret’ that apparently, soon after explorer James Cook and his crew on the HMS Endeavour landed 250 years ago in the country that was to become New Zealand, they murdered some Maoris. This was documented in the diary of Joseph Banks, the expedition’s botanist.

Cook’s example is minuscule in scale compared to other historical atrocities. Entire indigenous peoples and modern nations are now demanding apologies and recompense for what was done hundreds of years ago. In some cases, this becomes ridiculous.

America has apologised to black Americans whose forebears were brought as slaves to what became the United States. The Atlantic slave trade began in 1619 with the arrival of enslaved Africans to the British colony of Virginia. Slavery officially ended in 1865 after the American Civil War, when Confederate soldiers of the Southern United States wanting to preserve slavery fought the Union from the north, resulting in 620,000 deaths. The Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the south in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

American politicians had demanded that the apology for slavery and Jim Crow be made since the government had apologized for the internment of Japanese citizens during World War Two, and for atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The World War Two bombs immediately devastated their targets and over the next two to four months, the effects killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

An extreme example of national guilt is the actions of Germany in World War Two. Not all Germans regret that entire communities of Jews in Germany and elsewhere were obliterated through Nazi policy, amounting to 6 million, and alarmingly neo-Nazis are on the rise again. As a government, however, Germany has officially apologised and has made serious attempts to compensate Jews and eradicate anti-Semitism.

On a more politically complex level in South Africa, black people warrant an apology from whites for European colonialism and apartheid. But given the society’s diverse nature, from whom exactly would such an apology come? And who among blacks would have the authority to receive it? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 tried to lay the ground for reconciliation by allowing perpetrators to tell the truth about what they had done, in front of the injured party, but it only partially succeeded. Many of the true devils of apartheid, such as the people responsible for the deaths of anti-apartheid activists such as Ahmed Timol, Steve Biko, Neil Aggett and David Webster, for instance, slipped through loopholes.

In Southern Africa, a numerically small example of injury against a people is the San, the earliest inhabitants of the region. The San’s demise occurred during the last few hundred years, from the impact of colonialism from the 17th century onward, when they were enslaved and sometimes exterminated. But apologising to them would be an empty act to no-one’s benefit.

One could go through the whole world’s history, finding examples of different peoples taking over and destroying others. Insincere moral grandstanding about this, however, is dangerous and too easy. Cynics might say that the complex human society is inherently prone to those sort of troubles, and that humans are not actually programmed to live at peace with each other.

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

SA whites’ bubble in the room

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To stay or to go? The complex white dilemma in South Africa is a source of much debate, since whites are small in numbers but hold major power and influence in the economy

AS the Democratic Alliance threatens to implode, the sense of security it has given to the small white population of South Africans, many Jews and other minority groups among them, gets shakier. Despite its flaws, its existence represented a political home, in a confusing context where they struggle to find another. This is not ideological, in terms of helping to build a great country to tackle the misery of the masses, but mainly about their personal standard of living and security.

To put it more crudely, can they still preserve their box of privileged life amidst mass poverty? The DA seemed to offer this. Everyone knows that the white liberal minority on which the DA depends is only small in numbers, but immensely powerful in wealth and influence.

Whites who teach in universities and work in managerial positions in business and elsewhere report a pervasive anger among young blacks today towards whites, and accusations of racism based on minor incidents. Whites who weren’t born during apartheid are accused of blocking transformation, and made to feel unwelcome in this country. Their response is, “yes I know the terrible history of black oppression, but what do you expect me to do now? Is the only route for me to accept your rage and leave?”

After Sharpeville in 1960 some whites left the country because they felt it was destined to plunge over the precipice, and didn’t want to raise families in such a place; others left for moral reasons because they didn’t want to be part of the racist apartheid system. Apartheid is gone, but the essentials of this racial disparity still exist.

Where do smaller sub-groups of whites stand on this issue, such as the Jews, the Greeks and so on? Must they follow the white exodus, for safety or moral reasons?

Three categories of whites remain here: Firstly, those who would like to leave but for whom emigration is impossible for financial or other reasons. They are reconciled to staying and making the best of it, knowing they will never be truly African. They live in a bubble, developing their own communities and institutions, and limiting their engagement with broader society, government and national bodies to a minimum. They build their own schools, welfare organisations and financial institutions. In a sense they have ‘left’ the country but remain here.

Secondly, those who aggressively stand their ground as African, declaring to all that they are fully South African, despite being white, and intend staying. They insist on participating in the non-racial project and broader society on an equal basis no matter how much rejection they experience from black pan-Africanists, and despite the anger and accusations that they are still privileged white colonialists.

And thirdly, there are those who drift around in the middle, bouncing between the poles in search of their identity, longing to leave but knowing they can’t, trying to feel more for the South African project but knowing that they will never feel truly African. It is this third group who are the most miserable.

And then of course there is a group who don’t have to be counted here: those whose applications for emigration to Australia or other places are already in process, and are simply waiting to go.

The fact that this debate on the DA predicament is happening every day around white dinner tables shows how unsettling the problem is. The DA may yet regroup, but rather than see this crisis as a collapse of the political landscape that has given reassurance to whites, it could present a significant opportunity to realign the mindset of South African whites, and to clarify why and on what terms they are living here.

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

Tinderbox patterns on fabric

Confederate battle flag

The Confederate flag is allowed to be displayed in America, but for many it represents racism, slavery and division. After a mass shooting at a South Carolina black church last year, the state legislature ordered the flag removed from the capitol in Columbia

South Africa White Supremacist

Despite all South Africa’s problems today, the abandoning of the old apartheid flag, seen above, and the racist history it represents, is one of the biggest symbolic victories South Africans can celebrate. Gratuitous display of the flag is banned and regarded as hate speech

ANYONE who grew up and lived in apartheid South Africa will recall the old, evocative apartheid flag flying above government buildings everywhere, with its ugly associations for black South Africans and some whites, and its elements of the flags of European colonists and Boer republics emblazoned on it. South Africa has a new flag now, but the old one keeps hanging around causing controversy. At this writing, a legal spat is going on between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Human Rights Commission, and AfriForum’s Ernst Roets over his display of the apartheid flag.

The NMF and SAHRC took the case to court, asking that the gratuitous display of the apartheid flag be stopped since it amounted to hate speech, and was grossly offensive to the dignity of black South Africans, which the judge agreed with. News24 reported that AfriForum asked for leave to appeal. The application was heard in the Equality Court, sitting in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg. But the judge said he thought another court would not come to a different conclusion and dismissed AfriForum’s application.

What is it about a piece of fabric with patterns and colours that can make people rush with a sense of mission into battle and get killed? Millions have died in wars, heroically emblazoned with their national colours: proudly dying for the flag! Even if they didn’t die in war, on the way to the graveside an important person’s coffin gets draped ceremonially in their national flag.

With the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Europe, fascist-like thugs brandishing flags with swastika look-alikes, reminiscent of the 1930s, are appearing expressing anti-Semitic obscenities. Jews fear displaying their own flags or Israeli flags outside synagogues, particularly in countries with intense anti-Semitism such as France.

Historically, flags have represented not just prejudice, but slavery. In the American Civil War in 1862, in which more than 620,000 died, the Confederacy’s national flag, called the Stars and Bars, flew during the war in pro-slavery Montgomery, Alabama. The war’s major cause was about slavery in the southern states; the Confederacy had seceded to form a new country to protect slavery. Incredibly, thousands of soldiers died willingly for this in the shadow of the Stars and Bars.

Such passions die slowly. Today, the Confederate flag is among the most recognisable, popular items in American memorabilia, appearing everywhere alongside the American flag, the Stars and Stripes. Americans argue about what the Confederate flag stands for now: is it heritage or hatred? Supporters of its continued use claim it is a proud symbol of the culture of the American south. In a national survey in 2015, 57% of Americans said the flag represented Southern pride, not racism.

Should some flags be banned? It’s unlikely you can repress something like that without reverting to a police state. Some countries have tried: in Germany, you cannot by law publicly display the Nazi flag except for historical and film purposes. But in the United States, free speech laws allow the display of such symbols. It’s a favourite of eccentrics like motorcycle gangs.

Jews are still fairly safe in South Africa from anti-Semitism, and it’s unlikely a Nazi flag with a swastika would be allowed to be publicly displayed. It would probably be called hate speech according to the constitution; the right to dignity of Jewish citizens would disallow it, and public sentiment would reject it. The Nazi flag is a close cousin of the hated apartheid flag, and would evoke similar distaste.

Freedom of speech is never straightforward. Countries which guarantee free speech will be sorely tested to define exactly what that means in practice. Similar to the dilemmas faced by words, a flag is much more than a simple piece of fabric with patterns and colours.