Could Zuma be sent to jail, like Olmert?


Marchers at a recent protest in Johannesburg against President Jacob Zuma carried posters denouncing spiralling corruption for which he is blamed, but which he continues to avoid taking responsibility for.

THE cynicism of politics and self-serving public officials was given a welcome slap in the face in the past two Tuesdays in South Africa and Israel. In both countries, which are under severe stress for very different reasons, democratic values and the rule of law triumphed despite the ducking and diving of sleazy politicians. And ordinary citizens applauded.

This week, a chastened former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert entered Maasiyahu prison in the town of Ramla to start a 19-month sentence for bribe-taking while he was mayor of Jerusalem and obstruction of justice, even though he still attempted to deny criminal wrongdoing. And in South Africa last week, democracy was victorious as the Constitutional Court convened to determine the status of actions recommended by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela regarding irregular state expenditure on President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead Nkandla – in essence, she told Zuma he must pay back the money.

Israel’s democracy is far from perfect, with concerns about the current rightwing government’s intrusion into areas such as freedom of speech, educational curricula in schools, artistic freedom and so on, aside from the ongoing juristic issues to do with Palestinian human rights. However, citizens often keep politicians in power not for their integrity or efficient governance, but for other reasons like their security credentials, religious and political agendas, etc. This applies in Israel’s case, in the midst of the seemingly interminable conflict with the Palestinians and the Muslim world, and the general mayhem in the region with Syria being torn to pieces and other places exploding.

But to its great credit, Israel’s legal system has sent both a former prime minister and a president – Moshe Katzav – to prison for financial and sexual criminality respectively. In other countries, something like this has generally happened only after a revolution or a coup, when the heated political climate allows or demands it. Even the United States decided to pardon former president Richard Nixon for ‘any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president’, rather than jail him for the Watergate affair and financial misdemeanours.

Israel has had other corruption scandals. Olmert’s first finance minister, Abraham Hirchson was jailed for embezzlement; former PM Ariel Sharon was tainted with money-laundering and bribery accusations; current PM Benjamin Netanyahu has had two corruption investigations and a third is under way; former PM Ehud Barak has been investigated for a money-laundering affair; interior minister Arye Deri was jailed for bribe-taking.

South Africa too, is under severe stress, 21 years after apartheid officially ended, with poverty worse than ever, unemployment at about 35 per cent, racial tensions soaring, and its economy teetering on the verge of junk status. Attempts by the ANC government to undermine key democratic institutions like the judiciary and the Public Protector in order to stay in power and protect its cadres in their jobs, have become almost routine.

Stories of corruption at all levels have become so commonplace that almost every citizen has one to tell. Such as a traffic cop stopping a speeding motorist and, before issuing a ticket, groaning to him about how hard it is to stand in the hot sun ‘without anything to drink’ – a clear hint that a bribe would be accepted for letting the motorist off the hook. Higher up the chain, ministers’ wives drive the most expensive German cars as a matter of course when there is no need for this, and government officials travel overseas in first class with bloated entourages, costing the country hundreds of thousands of rands unnecessarily.

The country can be immensely proud of its Constitutional Court judges’ performance last Tuesday, who were unrelenting in their probing questioning of lawyers for Zuma, the Public Protector, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, opposition parties and corruption monitoring NGOs. They reasserted constitutional supremacy against a president who seems to think he is above it.

The high point was when Zuma’s counsel, advocate Jeremy Gauntlett, conceded with drooping shoulders that the Public Protector’s recommendations are binding on the president, that he ought to have paid for a portion of the Nkandla upgrades since her report was made public two years ago, and that her report cannot be subverted by another report of the police minister which, at Zuma’s bidding, exonerated him from having to pay back money. What a beautiful moment it was, as legal correctness triumphed over political sleaze.

The proceedings raised the intriguing prospect of Zuma’s impeachment for violating his presidential duty to uphold the constitution. It would be a fine turn of events if he had to face impeachment proceedings initiated by opposition parties. Even if they did not succeed, it would set a precedent for correct presidential behaviour which might do this country immense good for the future. Again, the citizens would applaud. Assuming, of course, that violence did not erupt throughout the country as the ANC saw the possibility of losing its grip on power.

Corruption is a complicated thing to root out of any society. Comparing different countries is never truly objective. If many public officials are investigated and indicted it may indicate a corrupt country or, on the contrary, that law-enforcement is operating well. Nevertheless, some indicators can give a reasonable picture.

How do South Africa and Israel rank in public sector corruption relative to other countries? The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International shows 68 per cent of countries worldwide have serious corruption. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are the least corrupt of 168 nations. Israel ranks 32, and South Africa 61. The most corrupt are Somalia and North Korea. Sadly, six of the ten most corrupt countries are on the African continent.

Sending a head of state to jail is incredibly difficult to achieve, even in democracies, because of the power the position gives incumbents to manipulate politics and law, for example through appointing cronies to positions of authority. Could Netanyahu go to jail if shown to be guilty of corruption? Could Zuma, with his long list of failed attempts to indict him trailing behind him, be forced to have his day in court on Nkandla and other charges?

Fortunately, South Africa’s judiciary still exhibits significant independence, as we saw last week. Gutsy judges hold the fort. We must fight to keep it that way.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email


Bad Jews and Afrikaners agonise over their South Africanness

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An image in the exhibition ‘Ik ben een Afrikander’ at a Johannesburg gallery which explores the complex Africanness of Afrikaners, shows a man sewing the new SA flag  (image by Strijdom van der Merwe)

IT is ironic that the provocative play ‘Bad Jews’ – a brilliant romp through the minefield of Jewish ideals and neuroses – is performing to packed houses in Johannesburg at the same time as the saga of Israeli Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who fled Israel because of sexual harassment charges and is wanted by Interpol, is playing itself out in a neighbourhood just north of the city. They both impact on the Jewish community’s sense of their belonging in South Africa, and who should take responsibility for Jewish behaviour, whether good or bad.

This echoes another minority group’s struggle in the post-apartheid country – the Afrikaners, who not that long ago ruled the country. Their anxieties are equally sharp, epitomised by a current exhibition in a Parkwood gallery entitled ‘Ik ben een Afrikander’, and by the political activism of the Afrikaners’ advocacy organisation Afriforum, demanding that their language and culture remain respected and relevant.

Bad Jews is on at the Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Written by US Jewish playwright Josh Harmon, it explores the myriad quirks embedded into Jewish identity, expertly portrayed in the past by show-biz figures like Woody Allen. But this show updates them to the 21st millennium, throwing in everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘politically correct’ Jewish intellectuals who scorn their Jewish heritage but are fascinated by other cultures, the Holocaust’s significance – or lack of it – for young Jews, women’s religious roles as rabbis, and overprotective mothers. And, of course, the eternal biggie: marrying out, and the alarm in a Jewish man’s family when he falls for a blonde, blue-eyed gentile woman and proposes marriage.

While Bad Jews was written in New York about American Jews, South African Jews carry the same baggage, with the added huge challenge of trying to find their secure place in a rapidly changing, confused South African society ridden by racial tensions and roller-coaster politics.

Rabbi Berland is a charismatic leader of a fundamentalist Jewish sect who has resided for several months in a hotel north of Johannesburg with hundreds of his followers. The SA police have tried, unsuccessfully, to arrest him for extradition to Israel. He always manages to slip away, allegedly because of tipoffs from shady sources.

What has this got to do with the SA Jewish community? Mainstream SA Jewish organisations, secular and religious, have collectively demanded that Berland return to Israel to face the law. In contrast, if an individual Christian were to break the law, it is unlikely the churches would feel it necessary to issue a statement distancing themselves from him. They would simply let the law take its course.

Given their history, Jews are inherently insecure and feel the need to protect their image among non-Jewish South Africans. After all, anti-Semites are always looking for ammunition. Being a white minority group in today’s confused South Africa adds another toxic layer to the problem. Who knows when a populist politician – such as Julius Malema – might accuse Jewish ‘capitalists’ of being responsible for the country’s malaise?

The Afrikaners’ crisis of identity has other threads. The exhibition in Parkwood explores their sense of Africanness not from the point of view of insecurity, but resentment. Legend has it that the first person to have identified himself as an Afrikaner, Hendrik Biebouw, in 1707, proclaimed “Ik ben een Afrikander” when threatened with expulsion from the Cape. He did not want to leave South Africa. The exhibition contains works of five white artists and a black one, who were born prior to 1994 – the year of democratic elections – and whose formative years coincide with the transition to democracy.

One main work is a triptych of three huge colour photographs showing an Afrikaans man who looks like a farmer sitting in an open field with a flag draped over his knees. The first picture is a flag of a pre-1910 Boer republic, morphing in the second picture into the old apartheid-era South African flag with its embedded Union Jack and the flags of the Boer republics. The third picture shows him dismantling and reconstructing that flag it as it morphs into the new South African flag. There is an intense, conflicted expression on his face.

Afrikaners feel their language and culture being threatened. For example Stellenbosch University, one of the most prestigious Afrikaans institutions during apartheid, last year bowed to public pressure and decided the main language of instruction would in future be English. Afriforum insists on an Afrikaner’s right to continue being taught in his ‘mother tongue’ and intends approaching the courts to ensure Afrikaans remains a language of instruction in universities. Afriforum Youth spokesman Ian Cameron said: “There is absolutely no reason why we, as an Afrikaans group, don’t deserve the same treatment as any other group in the country. We are here to build a nation and to make sure that everyone – all groups – deserve and get equal recognition right across the country.”

So who and what is a South African and where do Afrikaners and Jews fit? Their plight is not completely separate from the struggle of the majority of black South Africans, who are asking the question about themselves. The piercing American play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, which opened last Friday at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre to a capacity house, kept the overwhelmingly black, middle class audience spellbound. Timed to coincide with Black History Month, it portrays the search of black Americans for ethnic pride against whites, and the struggle of young blacks to rise from poverty after the previous generation had fought for civil rights under leaders like Martin Luther King.

The question of South Africanness will not be settled in this generation. Maybe not even the next. In the meantime, it’s a fascinating terrain, although scary at times.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email