Is painting a rose permissible in the midst of SA poverty?

Rhodes statue

Students attack the defaced statue of British mining magnate and colonialist politician, Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed by a crane from its position at the University of Cape Town.

When a well known South African art critic last week bemoaned the decaying state of a once-venerable art museum in a major South African city, she was accused of seeing things through the myopic eye of her ‘privilege and its archaic association with art’, blind to the ‘social deprivation of our citizens.’ It was another indication of the battle going on in a country searching for its new identity after apartheid. When there is so much poverty and suffering, can we justify giving precious resources to things of beauty, like paintings?

The word ‘privilege’ has almost become synonymous in public discourse with the word ‘white’ and is used as a racial jibe. Populist politicians like EFF leader Julius Malema, call for lessening white influence in national life, and decry the influence of ‘white capitalists’. European values imported as part of the colonialist era are slated; 2015 was a year in which statues of arch-colonialists like Cecil John Rhodes were torn down – to the applause of some and dismay of others.

Amidst this difficult search for where this country is heading, it is easy to understand the anger of the people attacking colonialist vestiges, which to them represent white racism. Their rage is a legitimate part of the mixture of forces from which will emerge a new society. But South Africa has been a ship without a rudder for years, since Mandela’s potent push for a non-racial, liberal society. Self-serving incompetents now pretend to be leaders.

During the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1970s, ‘80s and beyond, pioneering white artists and mentors like Bill Ainslie, Sylvia Glasser, Lionel Abrahams and Barney Simon – among many others in visual art, dance, literature, theatre and music – were passionate about finding and nurturing young black artists as part of their protest against apartheid, and their vision of the new South Africa they hoped would come afterwards. For them, the making and cherishing of art would be intrinsic.

They went into impoverished townships looking for talented youngsters and provided spaces and facilities for them. Some of these protégés are now pillars of the cultural scene, such as Vincent Mantsoe, Mncedisi Shabangu and Gregory Maqoma to name but a few.

But something has gone wobbly along the way. Huge questions are being raised about the things the country should be doing. So what kind of society are we building?

A hint at an answer was provided in 1986 by Mandla Nkosi, a black artist from Soweto then in his early twenties. He lived in a shack with his mother until he was discovered by white artists. They arranged for him to move into a back room in Ainslie’s art school in Saxonwold, a white suburb of Johannesburg. This was when apartheid was in its last violent throes. A state of emergency had been imposed by the government, and widespread violence raged between township blacks and security forces.

Nkosi’s paintings portrayed these confrontations. His huge black, white and red collages hung in the hall of the art school, depicting larger-than-life figures of police with dogs and guns fighting with outraged black people. The combatants’ faces were twisted and anguished.

He was asked what this meant as an artist. Was his art inevitably political, did he have to be part of the political struggle?

He answered yes, of course his art was partly political. His experiences made it unavoidable. But his goal was beyond, in the realm of beauty, where one does not have to choose sides between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people and be defined by the ‘struggle’.

“I paint about anger, injustice and conflict. But I also like to paint a rose!”

After living at the art school for two years, a wealthy white family offered Nkosi a room in their house. Sadly, he was killed a few years later.

Art, beauty and things of the spirit are not about Verwoerd, colonialism and the legacy of the apartheid killing machine. There are many cultural institutions like the art museum mentioned above which are in decay, and denigrated as bastions of white privilege and colonialist culture. They should be embraced and re-dedicated by new visionaries, and merged with the vibrant energy of contemporary South Africa.

If we lose the ability to celebrate the rose because there is poverty and suffering, and because there was apartheid and colonialism, we will have lost the battle for a good society.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)

Is it racist for white South Africans to criticise their black president?


Angry blacks and whites join in a protest outside Wits University, Johannesburg, calling for Pres Zuma to resign for corruption and mismanagement

In the 1970s, white students protesting with anti-apartheid placards in the road outside Wits University were called “Communists and kaffir-boeties” by angry white motorists for threatening white supremacy. It’s an ironical twist of history that last week, in post-apartheid South Africa, some of those former students – now 45 years older – demonstrated with placards at the same spot against a corrupt black president, Jacob Zuma, and were called “white racists” by angry black motorists, who saw them as unwilling to accept black rule and forgo their white privileges.

In the demonstration, some 3 000 people of all races marched across Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown, Johannesburg with posters saying “Zuma Must Fall”. They were addressed by irate speakers such as former Cosatu head Zwelinzima Vavi, who said he was “gatvol” (fed up!) of government corruption. Similar protests occurred in Pretoria and Cape Town.

But the presence of so many whites made some blacks question their motives. Was their protest actually against Zuma, or black government per se? A nostalgia for white rule? Sadly, although apartheid is gone, race is still a highly volatile issue which intrudes into every corner.

Often, if a white person criticises a black politician’s performance – or a black coworker in a company – he will be accused of racism, as if he is accusing all blacks of incompetence. Many whites stay resentfully silent. But the Zuma disaster has prompted some to declare their anger more publicly.

A recent article in The Economist described how Zuma has damaged South Africa since 2009, asking if he has created a “Kremlinesque subversion” of democracy. Corruption and black poverty has increased nationwide, and the gap between haves and have-nots is among the largest worldwide.

But the debate on government performance is made immensely complicated by apartheid’s legacy. For example, young middle-class blacks who have ‘made it’ in the new South Africa with professions and good salaries, still feel excluded from what they perceive as a massive network of “white privilege”. Ferial Haffajee, author of a new book, What if there were no Whites in South Africa? says their bitterness is increasing. But they risk falling into a disempowering “victimhood” mentality which will serve them badly.

In reality, whites are a declining minority constituting only 8.4% of the population. The black middle class is larger than the white middle class, showing how in some respects post-apartheid South Africa has succeeded. In upmarket shopping malls like Rosebank in Johannesburg, for example, there is a friendly, warm mixing of races. Superficially, it is sometimes hard to believe apartheid ever existed.

Under the surface, however, black-white reconciliation has made little progress since democracy in 1994. The 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission was expected to pave the way. But the latest survey of the SA Reconciliation Barometer found that two out of three South Africans do not trust each other across racial lines.

Lack of social contact due to the physical separation of races is one reason. The apartheid government was hugely successful in forcing blacks and whites by law to live in completely separate areas. This is still largely intact, though without the laws. There is scant inter-racial socialising. Most whites still do not have a black friend.

The deepening racial narrative threatens Mandela’s “rainbow nation” dream. Populist black politician Julius Malema, leader of the thuggish EFF party, now calls Mandela a sell-out who compromised black liberation with his willingness to reconcile with “white capitalists”.

A visionary leader is desperately needed to counter this trend, or once again racism will dominate everything in South Africa, despite its liberal Constitution. Not through laws, but dangerous, racially charged public discourse. After the TRC tried to heal apartheid’s wounds, many naively believed the country could move on. But it will take a lot longer, probably generations.

At the TRC, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris apologised for the SA Jewish community’s immoral lack of protest during apartheid, with similar apologies from other faith leaders. But the multitude of personal stories of suffering are yet to be heard.

Aside from black pain, for example, there are also the little-known stories of young white conscripts forced – regardless of their politics – into military service, deployed in black townships to defend apartheid, ending up routinely humiliating or even killing black people. Or being sent to Angola to fight a war they didn’t understand. Some had terrible experiences and still suffer the consequences of PTSD.

In 1996, a Jewish organisation called Gesher, aiming to help blacks and whites get to know each other, brought Jews and black members of a Soweto Methodist church together for a workshop. A feisty black woman in the group said sternly to the white participants: “I’ve been waiting for 40 years for you people to want to talk to me. What took you so long?”

Blacks rightly get incensed by whites’ tendency to say glibly: “Apartheid is over now, and we must all move on.” Like Germans saying to Jews: “Get over the Holocaust already!” Until peoples’ stories have been listened to sincerely, there will not be trust and white motives at protests like last week’s will be regarded with suspicion.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)

Zuma’s wrecking ball gives SA satirists a field day


Protests against SA Pres Jacob Zuma are simmering for corruption and mismanagement, calling for his removal. In the photo, his private home, which was upgraded using R246m of state money.

Even satirists and comedians sometimes stop joking when things are really critical. Like the financial disaster president Jacob Zuma brought on South Africa last week by sacking respected finance minister Nhlanhla Nene who had opposed his monetary profligacy, replacing him with a compliant novice and plunging the country into a panic about impending bankruptcy and junk status. The country’s finest satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, known for his daring lampooning during apartheid of President PW Botha and other pillars of the white regime, was stony-faced when interviewed about the country’s decline under the ANC.

The rand plummeted to its lowest levels ever. Investors panicked and sent their money elsewhere, thinking the country was heading over a fiscal cliff. Billions were lost on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in a day, and billions more flew out of South Africa.

Uys has a supreme ability to find humour in uncanny situations. During the interview, however, he said icily with hardly a trace of humour: “A lot of the suspicion is that [if] you cross the line, you get elbowed aside [by Zuma]… But they [the government] work for us, we don’t work for them! They are not the Royal Family; they all look a little bit like Prince Charles, but they are not the Royal Family. That’s the legacy of apartheid among most South Africans – we still treat politicians like gods. They are not.”


At a rally of thousands in Johannesburg, former Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi demanded the ANC fire Zuma

One positive thing the resulting cacophony of public protest against Zuma showed, is that South Africa is not (yet) a dictatorship. But his disregard for the citizens’ well-being, deploying buddies in key positions with fat salaries and turning a blind eye to massive corruption, points ominously in that direction. A collective cheer erupted from South Africans when he did an about-turn on Sunday after receiving petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatories, letters of protest from the most respected intellectuals, and a virtual political revolt within his own party. Embarrassed, he hastily installed a more qualified man – a previous finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.

Another satirist who took on Zuma was cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro – aka Zapiro – who also has solid anti-apartheid credentials. His cartoon in the Mail and Guardian last week displayed serious concern as much as humour. Zapiro has long seen Zuma, who was once a hero of the liberation struggle, as a tragi-comical figure, and created an iconic image of the president with a shower-head mounted on his skull. This derived from the occasion when Zuma – before becoming president – said in court during a trial for rape that after having sex with an HIV-positive woman, he had showered, thinking this would reduce his risk of being infected.

In Zapiro’s cartoon last week, Zuma is a wrecking ball swinging on a chain – with his close friend, SAA head Dudu Myeni perched on it – sweeping Nene aside and demolishing the SA economy. The shower head was there, of course, lodged between Myeni’s thighs like a phallus – there are rumours the two are having an affair. The message, though, was deadly serious: Zuma is wrecking the country.

Uys and Zapiro are both Jewish, but have little to do with the mainstream Jewish community. For some SA Jews, Zapiro is persona non grata because of his stinging portrayals of Jewish and Israel-related issues. A 2010 cartoon, for example, evoked outrage among rightwing Jews when it showed former SA Judge Richard Goldstone staring forlornly through a Johannesburg synagogue window from the outside, as his grandson had his barmitzvah inside, the ceremony being presided over by the chief rabbi and officials of the SA Zionist federation and the shul; the phrase “Israel right or wrong” was pasted on the shul’s wall. This was after Goldstone’s UN-sponsored report had criticised Israel for possible human rights violations during the 2009 Gaza war. The judge had been threatened with pickets if he dared attend the barmitzvah.

However, Zapiro will be supported by most Jewish South Africans for his take on Zuma and the ANC government’s incompetence. A controversial Zapiro cartoon in 2008 showed Zuma loosening his trousers while his powerful political friends hold ‘Lady Justice’ down, saying: “Go for it, boss.” It was at a time when Zuma and his allies were threatening the judiciary in order to get corruption charges against him dropped, so he could become president. After the cartoon’s appearance, Zuma said he would sue Zapiro for R4m for defamation, but later withdrew.

Zuma has been exposed as a corrupt blunderer, out of his depth, who openly giggled in parliament when questioned about why state money was spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. His tenure as president has been compared by black and white commentators to the destructiveness of the apartheid era – the ultimate slur. Many feel the country is teetering on the edge of becoming a banana republic.

But South Africa recovered from apartheid, and will recover from the Zuma wrecking ball. The likes of Zapiro and Uys, and similar determined voices who helped defeat apartheid, will be with us long after the giggling president is history.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)

Whiteness and Jewishness smoulder in South Africa and France

haffajee book cover

The cover of Ferial Haffajee’s provocative new book on race and whiteness in South Africa asks penetrating questions about the country’s future

Raw nerves for Jewish South Africans will be touched by two new books published in France and South Africa, highlighting their uneasy identities as both Jews and whites. They are indicative of the confusing, scary times in which we live.

In France, popular Jewish author Eliette Abecassis’ novel “Alyah” probes the struggle of her wounded country still reeling from terrorist attacks, to protect her as a Jew. She asks: In the light of the growing anti-Semitism in France, can one still be both French and Jewish?

In the story, based on the author’s experiences, a Jewish teacher of French literature enters her classroom in a secular Paris school where most students are second- and third-generation North African immigrants. Abecassis’ parents also emigrated from Morocco in the late 1950s. A 15-year-old student immediately confronts her: “Teacher, are you a Jew-girl?… If you are a Jew-girl, does that mean you are a Zionist?”

She is shocked, as other students chime in aggressively: “She’s a Zionist! We will eliminate her!”; “And the Jews”; “There’s no difference!”; “It’s true, they are killing our brothers the Palestinians!”; “We’ll get rid of them all!”

French Jews have long viewed France as home. But the second intifada in Israel in 2000 caused a rift between the Muslim and Jewish communities of migrants from North Africa, who once had a cordial relationship. The former sided with the Palestinians, the latter with Israel. Ethnic antagonism multiplied and Jews were attacked.


Eliette Abecassis’ book asks whether it is still possible to be both French and Jewish

Through fear, Abecassis removed all external signs of her Jewishness in public places. She felt France betrayed her: “Until a few years ago, I did not understand that I was actually an exile in my country. France was my country, my culture, the definition of who I am and how I think. I thought our leaders would insure our security… The phrase ‘Jew and French’ was still possible. It almost exuded pride.”

Anti-Semitism is pushing Jews to leave France. Abecassis would like to continue writing in French and teaching French literature, and consider France her homeland. But she tells an intimate friend: “In 10 years, I will not be in France”.

He replies: “Then in 10 years, it will no longer be France.”

In South Africa, a book by Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, probes the sensitive race issue and “whiteness” in the country today, particularly white privilege, through stories from mostly black, middle class contributors. It is titled provocatively: “What If There Were No Whites in South Africa?”

One contributor, Milisuthando Bongela, a Rhodes alumnus who runs a feminist stokvel, tells of eavesdropping on a meeting in a Johannesburg cafe of “Jewish business people” who were discussing the production of teacups.

“Pure green jealousy settled inside me at the thought that these grown white men had the luxury of convening a business action about crockery,” he said. “And that they were probably going to make a lot of money from it. I tried to check the jealousy in me to understand why it was so buoyant, so relentless… The difference between them and me is that they inherited the peace of mind to craft and contemplate teacups on a Wednesday afternoon. I inherited the responsibility of discovering, addressing and solving a race, gender and class disparity I did not create.”

Non-racialism is a complicated, elusive South African ideal. Haffajee said in an interview: “When I grew up, that was what we staked our identity on, a non-racial future, which meant that… the eventual outcome of where I see you goes beyond the amount of melanin that you have in you. I see you for what you are as a human being.”

But things are in many ways going in the opposite direction. Negative racial stereotyping is growing. Recognising the racial problems of South Africa, the inequality and staggering unemployment among blacks, she notes ominously: “There is a substantial narrative, and it is largely but not only white, that is waiting for South Africa to fail.”

The subtext, obviously, is the notion some whites hold that blacks cannot run a country. The next five years, she says, “will separate out those with a pessimistic take and those of us who want our country to succeed.”

As we approach 2016, the bogeymen of racial and ethnic animosity are taking on more openly expressed forms than they have for a long time. For this country, the question begs itself: If there were no whites, would South Africa still be South Africa? The road ahead differs depending on one’s answer.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on December 9, 2015)

De Klerk-type leadership needed to prevent Israel apartheid


Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, the two leaders who made the end of apartheid possible. Is their brand of leadership possible in the Mideast, to implement the two-state solution and avoid Israel becoming an apartheid state?

Many Jews will reject the warning a week ago by the last white South African president, FW de Klerk, that Israel is heading towards apartheid, that unless it urgently begins implementing the two-state solution, it will plunge into the ‘abyss’ South Africa experienced. Interviewed by a journalist in Tel Aviv while attending an anti-racism conference at the Berl Katznelson Foundation, he said Israel is not today an apartheid state.

“But,” he said, “if the two-state solution is not implemented, and if, in such a situation, the Jews have special rights while the Palestinians live as second-class citizens, Israel will become an apartheid state… As an outsider, it seems to me that the window of opportunity for the two-state solution is about to close. You might miss this chance.”

Who better than De Klerk would recognise apartheid? He was the last Afrikaner president of apartheid South Africa, who stunned the world in 1990 by announcing freedom fighter Nelson Mandela’s release after 27 years in jail, unbanning of African liberation movements, and dismantling of the racist system. He won a Nobel Peace Prize.

A common response to the ‘apartheid-Israel’ argument is that comparing Israel and South Africa is wrong. The latter had only itself to worry about. It never faced terrorism, hostile enemies and religious conflict endemic to Israel’s situation in the volatile Middle East. There was no ISIS, no external enemies poised to destroy it. Furthermore, several genuine attempts by Israel to create a Palestinian state all ended disastrously, including the assassination of Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and repeated rejections by the Palestinians.

The ‘knife intifada’ currently raging in Israel will increase enactment of more rules separating Palestinians from Israelis and removing more of their rights. How can Israel prevent a Palestinian state from becoming another jihadist entity right in its heart? Is de Klerk naïve about Israel’s situation? South African solutions are not automatically transferrable.

Global politics have also changed since De Klerk and Mandela led South Africa into democracy through their sheer power of great leadership.

But therein lies the nub: it is ultimately about great leadership. Watershed moments in human history are defined more by great leaders who rose to the occasion than the circumstances ordinary people saw as insurmountable. When he was elected SA President, De Klerk represented the right wing in a right wing white party, yet he led the party to the agreement with the ANC.

“They voted for me because they thought I was the most conservative of all candidates. They were wrong about me. A leader’s job is not to follow opinion polls. Leadership requires taking an initiative, a vision, a true aspiration to improve the situation, and the ability to convince your voters that the change in the status quo will benefit them in the long-run. That’s what I did on the white side, and that’s what Mandela did on the black side. We both did it while facing harsh criticism from our camps.”

Israel has had great leaders, as have Arab countries. For example, a few years after the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli PM Menachem Begin joined with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat – who had sent Egypt’s army into battle, believing it would destroy Israel – to establish peace between their countries, which has lasted nearly four decades.

Sadly, the Palestinians haven’t produced a leader with the willingness and power to meet the challenge. PLO leader Yasser Arafat was not the man; nor is PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Is Netanyahu made of that ‘right stuff’? He officially favours two states, although his actions often point elsewhere. If a suitable Palestinian leader arose, could he meet the challenge as De Klerk did with Mandela and forge a historic new path?

Some believe popular Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the first and second intifadas who is serving jail time in Israel, might be the one. Could he, like Mandela, make decisions from prison no one else dares make on the outside?

“The lesson we learned many years ago, before we freed Mandela,” said de Klerk, “was that you have to negotiate with whoever has the support of the majority.”

Imagine the scene: Netanyahu and Barghouti shaking hands to thunderous applause as they receive the Nobel Peace Prize, watched by billions of people, for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Is it naïve, wishful thinking?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on December 2, 2015)