Beware the seductiveness of crafty leaders


Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s threats of violence to unseat President Jacob Zuma has some South Africans warning about a civil war (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

ECONOMIC Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s threat in an Al Jazeera interview on Sunday to remove President Jacob Zuma’s government through the “barrel of a gun”, should sound an alarm as South Africa marks Freedom Day this week and Jews mark Holocaust Day next Thursday. The kneejerk resort to violence that has overtaken South African politics among students, trade unionists, taxi operators, shack dwellers and others – many of whom are actually campaigning for worthy causes – is taking this country down a dangerous road which will be hard to reverse.

Malema said the ANC used violence to suppress dissent, such as ejecting his party from parliament after they heckled Zuma: “Part of the revolutionary duty is to fight and we are not ashamed if the need arises for us to take up arms and fight.”

Dangerous words. An ANC statement said it would pursue legal action against Malema’s “inflammatory, treasonable and seditious” words.

Alarm bells are ringing in some quarters, such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) which called on political parties to avoid statements that could incite civil war. Bishop Abel Gabuza‚ the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission chair‚ responded to Malema’s “war rhetoric… We have seen the evil consequences of civil war in other African countries‚ including massive loss of lives‚ a refugee crisis and irreparable damage to the economy.”

South Africa has today a robust constitution, a judiciary which has repeatedly proved its independence, a free press and other institutions which, although under attack from some quarters, still function as they should. The ANC and Zuma certainly deserve to be removed from power as soon as possible after so crassly betraying the country’s dreams, but in a manner that strengthens its democratic institutions rather than weakening them – through the courts, the press, the public protector, and non-violent civilian protests.

Words lead to actions. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi thugs were energised by the charismatic Fuhrer’s use of words – such as the iconic “sieg heil!” which means “hail victory!” – calling for action against Jews and others in his path to absolute power. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’, and went on to rule Europe.

During the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 the Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches”, words which were translated into the killing of 800 000 Tutsis in 100 days.

In the absence of inspiring leaders, one hears wry comments these days about “President Julius Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office, which rightly scares many South Africans. A chilling performance  in 2014 by satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” already predicted the scenario in its opening scene by displaying a Malema–like doll being given advice to assist him on his rise to power by Hitler, impersonated by Uys. The show was a walk through South African history since 1945, drawing a disturbing analogy between Germany in the early 1930s and South Africa today.

When the ANC was contemplating throwing Malema out of the party in 2011 for bringing it into disrepute – before he founded the EFF – Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hand of the Jews.’”

Hitler, said Uys, appealed with his populist rhetoric to the millions of Germans who had no jobs, after the First World War. Malema appeals in a similar way “to the millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Of all the politicians in South Africa today, Malema is by far the most charismatic, evoking smiles and even some fondness for his boisterous campaigns pointing at issues of serious concern to the country, including his attacks against Zuma and the ANC. Tolerance for his extreme rhetoric comes even from people who would be the first to suffer under a government run by him.

Beware of the craftiness of seductive politicians who woo people with their charisma into overlooking their thuggishness, and then move into the power centre. Hitler came to power through exploiting German democracy, combined with thuggery.

Malema demands loudly today that Zuma must adhere strictly to the constitution, and most South Africans applaud him for this. But will he also insist on strict adherence to the constitution when he is in power and others oppose him?

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

Look at me – I’m not what you think!

'I See You' Play by Mongiwekhaya performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, UK

The play “I See You” exposes the awkwardness between South Africans, as a black university student befriends an Afrikaans woman, and confronts a hero of the Struggle. Photo: Alastair Muir

One of the most complex slices of South Africa’s population which is calling for the ouster of President Jacob Zuma is the middle class black ‘born-frees’ who grew up after apartheid and for whom the pass laws, Verwoerd, Mandela and uMkhonto weSizwe are in the realm of folk history rather than personal experience. For many, Zuma’s heroism – and that of the ANC – during the Struggle is far less important than his anti-democratic, corrupt behaviour today, which they see threatening their futures.

Theatre is a perfect arena to express the quest of these born-frees for their own individuality. It is inspiring how a new generation of playwrights and performers is creating sophisticated works, showing up the politicians’ bravado and posturing, and exploring what it means to be South African in post-apartheid society, with its many demons.

Two superb recent plays – one written by Steven and Kate Sidley, the other by playwright Mongiwekhaya and directed by Swaziland-born actress Noma Dumezweni who grew up in the UK – illustrate the born-frees’ efforts to establish their own distinctiveness relative to the Struggle generation, in the milieu of whites amongst whom they live and work. These whites face their own questions about their South Africanness, amidst accusations from angry young blacks that they are still privileged racists.

The first play, “Shape”, ran at Daphne Kuhn’s Theatre on the Square in Sandton last month. It is set in an up-market gym with three protagonists: a black gym instructor with a privileged education; a white fitness fanatic who battles nagging questions about his sexuality; and a white do-gooder woman who works for the Human Rights Commission, recently got divorced and has joined the gym – she is clearly out of shape – in an attempt to regain her sense of self.

When the black man approaches the woman to take him on as a gym instructor, she declines. He immediately retorts: “Is it because I’m black?” She, of course, instantly denies it so vehemently that it exposes her complicated feelings towards the topic. What follows is a fascinating exploration, told through the medium of gym equipment, change-rooms and tanning rooms, of each of their attempts to relate to the other as people, and ultimately, fellow citizens of the same country, while the familiar political correctness and gym jargon plays itself out.

The second play is currently on at the Market Theatre, called “I See You”. The main protagonist is a young black Wits student studying law who cannot speak Xhosa – the language of his parents – because he was taken overseas at age three when his family went into exile, and he grew up there. After a white Afrikaans woman befriends him in a Johannesburg club, they are driving in a car when they are stopped by a black cop, a former ANC paramilitary fighter turned policeman, who has a simmering resentment at the fact that his role in South Africa’s armed struggle, at great personal cost, is being ignored by young black South Africans who are educated, speak English rather than their mother tongue and have friends who are white.

During the night of abuse which follows, the cop and the Wits student confront each other heatedly, each from their own places in their lives, while the Afrikaans woman tries frantically to rescue the student from the clutches of the bitter policeman.

The Market Theatre was established by theatre legend Barney Simon in 1976 with the explicit goal of facilitating such penetrating, relevant drama. This is Noma Dumezweni’s directorial debut interrogating such issues – which are as important for the born-frees today as the anti-apartheid struggle was for Barney Simon several decades ago.

The play’s name, I See You, is a common Zulu greeting implying bearing witness to the other. In this confused society, how people acknowledge their fellow citizens is riddled with tension and awkwardness. The crass slogans being hurled around with abandon on social media that “all whites are racists”, blacks are “corrupt and inept” – and some are “monkeys” – and so on, must ultimately give way to “I see you”, if this society is to overcome its history and release itself from the grip of manipulative leaders.

The successful staging of these two plays to full houses consisting of all races shows that the process is indeed underway between ordinary people – if only sleazy politicians like Jacob Zuma and populists like Julius Malema will stop trying to sabotage it with convenient racial slurs.

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

  • For critical reviews of the above plays, visit  Shape and I See You

Can arts pioneers outpace cultural barbarism in South Africa?


Waiting for the barbarians? Angus Taylor’s large work which has been permanently installed at Nirox sculpture park in the Cradle of Humankind. (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

South Africans’ rage at President Jacob Zuma’s looting of the country for his own benefit, and the battle since December to protect the constitution, symbolised by Zuptagate and Nkandla, echoes another struggle for the country’s soul in art, music and other forms. The country’s citizens must ensure that the tide of anger and frustration does not obliterate precious things in its path. The burning of 23 artworks at the University of Cape Town during a student protest in February is an ominous portent.

In contrast to this cultural barbarism, South Africa also has visionaries cultivating South African art, such as entrepreneur Benji Liebmann, who established a huge sculpture garden in the Cradle of Humankind, north-west of Johannesburg, called Nirox. It is open to the public a few months each year, featuring works by celebrated sculptors such as Nandipha Mntambo, Hannelie Coetzee, Willem Boshoff and others, and offers residencies for selected artists to live there to produce works. In May, the festive opening for 2016 takes place. Equally bold, Liebmann’s son Jonathan is the developer of Maboneng arts precinct in Johannesburg’s CBD, where well-known and rising artists have studios.

South Africans should be highly sensitive to artworks’ desecration. As German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote prophetically in 1821: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

UCT’s vice chancellor Max Price faces an unenviable task in trying to hold the fort against destructive rampages born out of the students’ #RhodesMustFall movement. But it seems he has already surrendered a significant point of principle.

The university has reacted to student violence by taking down or covering dozens of its artworks that might be considered “offensive”. Its large collection includes 1,100 pieces displayed in 50 buildings on five campuses by 520 South African artists. The important Porer collection includes works by noted artists such as Steven Cohen, Cecil Skotnes, Pippa Skotnes,  Marion Arnold, Guy Tillim, Malcolm Payne, Mark Hipper and Paul Stopforth. Others include Diane Victor, who has expressed dismay at the covering of her work.

A UCT Task Team is assessing the collection through the prism of the “transformation” of the new South Africa, particularly seeking pieces which might offend for how they depict black people, and looking – according to its brief – for artworks that “may be seen to recognise or celebrate colonial oppressors”.

According to whose artistic viewpoint are these decisions being made? In recent weeks more than 70 works, some by the country’s best artists, have been taken down or covered. Among them, Willie Bester’s Saartjie Baartman and anti-apartheid playwright Breyten Breytenbach’s painting Hovering Dog. Others whose works have taken the chop include William Kentridge, Stanley Pinker and Zwelethu Mthethwa.

These dangerous trends have echoes from tragic history. During the Second World War in areas under Nazi control, Hitler sought to rid Europe of what he considered ‘degenerate art’. Hundreds of paintings were removed from museums, many eventually going up in flames in symbolic burnings. The Nazis also looted many of the best works of European art – the ones Hitler considered not degenerate.

European museum officials acted assertively. The Allied armies assembled a team of museum directors, curators, and art historians known as the “Monuments Men” who accompanied the forces, attempting to minimise damage to European monuments, architecture, and artworks. They also tracked down art stolen and hidden by the Nazis in hundreds of repositories in mines, castles and other places.

With South Africa’s history of white domination and contempt for black people, one can understand black students’ ire at pieces they find offensive. Some of UCT’s halls are adorned with portraits of dead white men in colonial mode, evoking discomfort. To add to this is the dominant colonial-era architecture, influencing the students’ experiences.

However, great art can come from anywhere, notwithstanding the artist’s politics. JH Pierneef’s landscape paintings, for example, are exceptional despite his racism and role in the Broederbond. His racial views on society might be offensive to many, but his art is highly acknowledged. Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery recently hosted a major exhibition of his works.

For many Jews, Wagner’s music has been shunned because of his anti-Semitism and status as Hitler’s favourite composer. For years, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra did not play Wagner. Yet classical music without him would be infinitely poorer. And looking from the other side, some of the world’s greatest, provocative artists have been Jews, such as the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s – Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and others.

In South Africa, performance artist Steven Cohen has rocked many boats with his wildly provocative depictions of Jewish and South African themes. However, he has become a celebrated artist in France – where he now lives – and elsewhere, although still reviled by some.

South Africa’s cultural battle, like the political one, will be fought for many years to come. Its post-apartheid identity is in flux. The best art provokes questioning. If we only allow sanitised, politically correct works which toe the “party line”, society will be the worse for it. Art which disturbs must be countered not by destroying it, but producing other art.

Populist politicians pursuing their agendas through narrow racial prisms are rampant in South Africa. This is as dangerous in politics as it is in the arts.

At Nirox, there are magnificent works by sculptors such as Angus Taylor, which viewed through the narrow lens of racial rage, might be interpreted as “offensive” to some. With any luck, the burning mobs will not get there; or if they do, hopefully the lovers of great art will be there to protect them and the society’s cultural future.

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