Brexit’s true devil resonates in South Africa

(2) Participants in a Johannesburg march protesting xenophobic attacks in Soweto, April 2015 - Image MOELETSI MABE

Can we stop hating the “other”? Participants in a Johannesburg march protesting xenophobic attacks in Soweto, April 2015 – Image by Moeletsi Mabe

MANY people are suffering Brexit fatigue under the deluge of commentary following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Economists reassure us the financial consequences for South Africa might be harsh, but are manageable given our financial institutions’ strength.

The true devil, however, is the spirit of populist nationalism and hatred of the “other” growing worldwide – not just in Europe, but also South Africa where Mandela’s rainbow nation dream seems to be giving way to the opposite – racism and rage.

Europe still has sinister historical connotations in the Jewish psyche – including among SA Jews whose forebears derive mainly from Lithuania. Murky memories of pogroms, ghettos, blood libels and the Holocaust, intermingle with Europe’s brighter face – its cultural brilliance and achievements. With the rise of right wing nationalism, is Europe swinging back to its dark side?

One target of the British who voted for Brexit is the wave of Muslim immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, aside from Polish and other workers from the EU. The Twitterverse is booming with racist 140-character narratives telling people labelled as the “other” to “go back to your own country”. It is matched across the Atlantic by the bizarre phenomenon of loony US presidential hopeful Donald Trump with his “Take back America” sloganeering.

The sensitive Jewish hate-antennae developed over centuries have begun to quiver. History shows that once loathing of the “other” takes over a society, Jew-hatred invariably becomes part of the tide. For the European haters of today, the hijab and the kippah are not that different. The French example is indicative: The Jerusalem Post reported this month that according to a 2015 survey, over 40 per cent of French Jews are contemplating immigration to Israel because of anti-Semitism in France.

Is there a South African parallel here? Racial antagonism is obviously writ large in our apartheid and colonial history, but it is also no secret that xenophobia is prevalent in the South Africa of today, two decades after apartheid. Regularly during outbreaks of violence – as in Tshwane (Pretoria) two weeks ago – foreign nationals from other African countries, or people from other tribal origins have been targeted and sometimes killed and their shops and homes looted. Deputy President Cyril Ramophosa warned after Tshwane about the dangerous rise of tribal tensions.

In political life, different ethnic groups – including Jews and other minorities – feel increasingly insecure in the face of verbal and sometimes physical attacks. Calls to “kill the whites”, “decolonise” everything, and similar expressions are matched by racist remarks from whites like Penny Sparrow who calls blacks monkeys, adding to the poisonous mix. Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s anti-white rhetoric is chilling. One of the cries of protestors against the ANC’s mayoral candidates list in Tshwane was that they didn’t want a Zulu mayor – the ANC candidate, Thoko Didiza, is Zulu.

Who will stop South Africa exploding into the racial and ethnic war Mandela’s generation tried so hard to avoid? Leadership determines much of the course of history. The vacuum of leadership in South Africa cannot last, but President Jacob Zuma is not the man to lead the way. Contrast his behavior with British PM David Cameron who resigned immediately after the Brexit vote, saying the country needed “fresh leadership”.

Zuma, despite the High Court ruling that he must face close to 800 counts of corruption, and the Constitutional Court’s finding that he seriously violated the Constitution, simply carries on, lacking credibility or vision aside from seeking power and personal gain.

South Africa – the “miracle nation” – has bucked the trend before and defied negative expectations. Brexit is a victory of demagoguery, not democracy. Let’s hope we can defy that option as well.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

SA’s politics of rage – please don’t burn our books!

SCHOOLKID

Is apartheid still to blame for South Africa’s dysfunctional schools? A child walks to school in 2013 in the Eastern Cape. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

AMIDST thousands of tweets responding to the mayhem overtaking the city of Tshwane (Pretoria), with buses and municipal vehicles torched‚ businesses ransacked and roads blocked with mobs and burning tyres, one of the most poignant came from a young man, presumably a student, named Theodore Sebolai: “Please don’t burn the library. Police go protect the library… we have assignments and we’re heavily relying on it, Pleaase!!!”

The current violence exposes the ANC’s vicious internal struggles. The decision from its Luthuli House headquarters to appoint outsider Thoko Didiza as a Tshwane mayoral candidate in the coming municipal elections, overriding local voices, has provoked fury.

But Sebolai’s plea symbolises more than party squabbles. It is about the betrayal of the country’s youth over the past two decades, and how the casualties of government incompetence have been young people’s most precious things, such as education. Last month, 50 schools in the Vuwani area in Limpopo province were burnt down or vandalized in protests following an unpopular government decision to incorporate Vuwani into a new municipality.

Meanwhile, more fortunate South Africans continue going about their lives while anxiously following reports of the instability. The “lucky” ones who possess foreign passports hold them preciously as an insurance policy, and everyone stashes as much money as they can into foreign bank accounts, in case things get so bad that the anarchy comes to their doorsteps.

As far as education is concerned, most who can afford it – middle class people, whether white, black, coloured or Asian – send their children to private or independent schools because of the appalling state of government schools. For example, over 85 per cent of Jewish kids go to Jewish day schools.

In 2013, basic education minister Angie Motshekga admitted to a parliamentary media briefing that “[t]he diagnostic test of the [National Development Plan] said 80 per cent of [South African] schools were dysfunctional”.

Who should we blame for South Africa’s travails? Is it still a result of apartheid, white racism and privilege, and white monopoly capitalism, as radical black politicians claim? Or the ANC’s inept governance, corruption and its lack of vision since 1994? Whatever the answer, we are sliding downwards.

In times of crisis, angry young people often help change things which seem intractable. So it was with the Soweto student uprising of June 1976, the watershed event which initiated the eventual demise of the apartheid regime. Perhaps they will do it this time too with the political leadership.

What about the human right to an education? A 1976 student leader Dan Montsitsi who is deputy chairperson of the June 16, 1976 Foundation, last week warned today’s youth: “[In 1976] we were dodging bullets and teargas… We burnt most of the beer halls throughout Soweto, and all administration board offices. [But] no single school was burnt… Each and every student was hell bent on defending their classrooms.”

Student movements cross red lines and make mistakes, but their militancy and energy tends to focus minds. The controversial “Rhodes must fall” movement at the University of Cape Town, for example, has initiated a crucial national debate about university policies and fees, despite several thuggish episodes such as burning artworks on the campus, the throwing of faeces onto the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and other violent incidents.

The energy of the youth needs to be affirmed and steered by elders into constructive directions. Ultimately, responsibility for the country’s sorry state lies with politicians – in this case the ANC – for failing to provide hope to young people. In particular, failing to educate them. The catastrophic education system has been described by respected South African commentators such as Judge Dennis Davis as a “crime against humanity”.

Indeed it is, no less than apartheid was. A burnt bus can be replaced tomorrow, but young South Africans whose fresh minds have been squandered by not being educated, will be handicapped for the rest of their lives.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Wit and vision at the grave of Mandela’s lawyer

JULES BROWDE

Who will replace people like this? Advocate and friend of Mandela, Jules Browde, was of a breed of men shaped by the major events of the twentieth century

IN South Africa’s current political climate, dominated by corrupt politicians’ bluster, unseemly scuffles in Parliament and mobs burning schools and artworks, among other things, it is refreshing to find spots of quietness and integrity behind the public din.

A funeral of a 98-year old man might seem an unlikely place, but such was last Sunday’s event at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg of advocate, activist and Jewish leader Jules Browde, infused with his optimistic wordview and enduring sense of humour. Sad as a good man’s passing is, the feeling was of a life well lived.

The warm friendship during apartheid’s early years between Browde and Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela was the start of a long, meaningful relationship. This took place before Tambo’s exile from the country to lead the ANC, and Mandela’s imprisonment for 27 years which interrupted the friendship – it resumed after his release in 1990.

Browde and Mandela had studied law together, and in the 1950s he was the legal counsel for Tambo in his application for admission as an attorney, despite the racial laws. Later, he acted for the legal practice of Mandela and Tambo – successfully – when the apartheid government attempted to evict them from their offices because they were in “white” Johannesburg.

“Today everyone likes to say they knew Mandela, but at that time, to be a friend of Mandela was not popular in white society,” said the rabbi to the mourners who included constitutional court judges, legal figures, artists, activists, and leaders of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim – he was its national president for 25 years.

The brutal application of racial laws by the apartheid regime, including imprisonment without trial, torture, evictions and other means, led Browde and other jurists to establish Lawyers for Human Rights in 1980, which publicised human rights abuses and confronted them through litigation. He was its chairman during the State of Emergency in the mid-80s. After democracy, President Mandela appointed him to investigate irregularities in the appointment of public officials.

A notable figure at the funeral was Johannesburg’s mayor Parks Tau – a member of the ANC ruling party – with an honour guard of black men and women in city uniforms to accompany the coffin to the grave. The rabbi noted with a smile that officially, Browde was still a city employee, evoking a warm nod from Tau. He did not believe in retirement, and still had several months to complete his contract.

Touching obliquely on the corruption issue – the hottest topic in public discourse today – Tau stressed the importance he placed on probity among city officials and Browde’s role in its integrity committee, in which he engaged with over 200 councillors to ensure their financial affairs complied with transparency regulations.

The city had offered him his first five-year contract when he was in his late 80s, despite his wry, humorous warning that because of his age he might not be there to complete it. But he saw it through, and was offered additional five-year contracts.

In a moving scene after completion of the formal Jewish ceremony, the city guard took up shovels and filled the grave with earth – a rare glimpse into a potential South Africa where colour didn’t matter.

The serenity of a worthy life completed, with no need of fanfare. There were no political speeches, cries of “Amandla!” or earnest political party representatives with the red overalls of the  EFF, the blue T-shirts of the DA, the red, green and black symbols of the ANC, or others. No jostling for prominence.

Several women participated in shovelling earth onto his coffin during the ceremony. Although contrary to the Orthodox Jewish community’s custom of calling only on men to do this, it seemed entirely natural – and the rabbis did not stir. And when it came to the family saying kaddish at the end, his wife of 68 years, Selma, also participated with her sons. Again, this seemed entirely natural, though it was not the usual custom for women to do it. But for Browde, no-one would be excluded.

The generation of Jewish men who were born in the early part of the twentieth century – like Browde – were moulded by major events such as the Second World War against Hitler in which he fought for five and a half years in the South African artillery; the flourishing and expansion of South African Jewry; life under apartheid and the choice of whether and how to resist it; and the idealism for building a new, humane state of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Some of them, like Browde, became allies of giants like Mandela and Tambo.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was intended to heal wounds of apartheid by giving victims and perpetrators of atrocities the chance to face each other and tell their stories.

But reconciliation has fallen far short of its goal. The country stands at a dangerous crossroad – will it continue descending into violence, corruption and cynicism, or regain the idealism of Mandela’s rainbow nation?

Most of Browde’s peers – the visionaries and activists – have passed on. Who will replace them to help this confused, increasingly cynical country find its way?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Is Zapiro a racist or victim of doublespeak?

Zapiro cartoon monkey organ grinder

Last week’s cartoon by Zapiro (above) sparked a racial furore in South Africa about depictions of black people and censorship

 

WHEN South Africa’s best-known cartoonist, Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) was accused last week of racism for depicting a black man as a monkey in a cartoon in The Times, it showed how this troubled society has lost its compass and is eating its own best people.

The accusation’s trigger was Zapiro using the universal, comic metaphor of the organ grinder and his monkey. The cartoon commented on National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams (the monkey), seeming to be dancing to its master, President Jacob Zuma’s tune (the human organ grinder) by resisting reinstatement of over 700 corruption charges against Zuma, which were mysteriously dropped by his predecessor at the NPA before he became President.

During his decades-long career, Zapiro – arguably the Western world’s most respected political cartoonist today – has incurred the wrath of many powerful people, which is the lot of anyone speaking truth to power. He satirised apartheid’s political leaders, and lampoons the antics of post-apartheid figures, particularly the blunders and corruption of Zuma and his lackeys.

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa responded angrily last week that “Zapiro’s cartoons are now being used by racists in our country to glamourise their prejudice”.

Jews and black people have something in common – a hypersensitivity to how they are portrayed by others. Long histories of discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to violence and killings, have developed psychological buttons. For Jews, pogroms and the Holocaust are emblematic of this. For blacks, the sore points are colonialism, slavery and apartheid.

A caricature which enrages Jews is the “Shylock” image, portraying a Jew with hooked nose, cunning eyes and pockets stuffed with dollar bills, controlling the world with money and secret deals – an image used by Jew-haters to demonise them before killing them.

Not everyone who comments negatively about Jews or blacks is anti-Semitic or racist, however. Sometimes these subjects over-react. Some Jews tend to respond to any non-Jew’s criticism of Israel by labelling the critic an anti-Semite. The danger of genuine anti-Semitism is real and, sadly, is growing worldwide. But the term must be used carefully, or it loses its significance.

Zooming in on the local South African context: it is far too easy today to throw the word “racist” at anyone, regardless of appropriateness or the hurt caused. Nobody, black or white, Jew or non-Jew, is totally without prejudices – it is part of the human condition. But if everyone can be labelled a racist for the slightest hint of criticism, the term is drained of all meaning.

The sensitivity of the monkey image for black people is clear, particularly after the recent infamous incident where Durban estate agent and DA member Penny Sparrow caused a national social-media storm by referring to black beachgoers as “monkeys”. But where does the line lie between a sane perspective and the madness of today’s angry South African society?

Zapiro has previously portrayed all sorts of people as monkeys. One well-known cartoon shows white apartheid leaders Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk as neanderthals in various stages of development, with Nelson Mandela towering over them as the dignified, fully evolved human being. He has also enraged Jews with negative depictions of right-wing Israelis and SA Jewry, resulting in some calling him a self-hating Jew.

With public discourse so dominated by social media, the crudest verbiage spewed by idiots quickly reaches thousands, making racist slurs more dangerous. When words lose meaning, it leads to the kind of bizarre doublespeak portrayed in George Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a society where nothing means what it says.

The current furore surrounding Zapiro indicates rising paranoia among South Africans, exacerbated by an increasingly prescriptive, legislation-obsessed government. The underlying causes – basic insecurity when leadership is almost non-existent and the future uncertain – must be addressed to avoid the kind of outcome Orwell envisaged.

Undoubtedly, South African society is filled with racists of all colours. But they need to be confronted wisely, not like a sledgehammer to a spider.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)