South Africa’s solution is “Blowin’ in the Wind”


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Does Bob Dylan resonate for turbulent South Africa? His poetry which won him a Nobel Prize matches apartheid liberation songs, and echoes the rage of today’s young generation. (Photo: Kevin Mazur)

A STIRRING consequence of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature is the reminder that turbulent times may produce great poets who express rage and dreams so lyrically that they lift the soul, as Dylan did with his words and music.

It was equally true during South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, when liberation songs with potent words and melodies gave people the strength to carry on. A collection of dozens of these freedom songs was beautifully captured in the 2002 documentary film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, winner of the Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It features original recordings and new live performances by trumpeter Hugh Masakela, singer Miriam Makeba, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, and others.

When Nelson Mandela died, masses of people gathered outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, and rather than standing mournfully on the pavement, sang praise songs and danced in the street to celebrate his life, despite their feelings of loss. It was a natural expression.

The contemporary political chaos in South Africa has not produced its own “Dylan” yet, but interspersed among the people protesting the situation are poets and balladeers who we will hear more of in the future.

In Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and 70s, students and hippies promoted free love, slammed the establishment, protested against the older generation’s wars and hypocrisy, smoked marijuana and used LSD to get high. And they saw themselves as the vanguard of a better world. South African students protesting countrywide today for free higher education and a better South Africa are not always clear in their goals, partly because they are young and unformed – like the American students of the 1960s were – but are acting on instincts echoing Dylan’s song: “The Times they are a-Changing”.

The naivety of some members of the “Fallist” student movement – a general term for those fighting for fees to fall and education to be “decolonised” –  is epitomised by a video clip posted on YouTube last week which by Monday had garnered 430 000 hits. In it, an impassioned black student tells the University of Cape Town science faculty that it should “decolonise” science by doing away with it entirely and “starting all over again”.

Science is a product of western modernity and should be scrapped, “especially in Africa” she said. She cited a place in KZN called Umhlab’uyalingana where they believe that through magic “…you are able to send lightning to strike someone.” Scientific explanations don’t work, she says, “because it’s something that happens.”

Laughs aside, what is happening among the youth has a very serious angle. Despite their often misdirected energies, violence, and attempts to force universities to suspend academic programmes, this born-free generation sees historical wrongs done to blacks through white supremacy and colonialism, and want to rectify them. They are challenging the status quo of blacks’ economic exclusion and cultural oppression by “western colonialists”. These are noble goals, even if understood too simplistically by many in this complicated country with its huge social challenges.

Dylan rose from the crucible of angry American students. Now 75, he was raised in a Jewish community in the state of Minnesota, attended Zionist camps in Wisconsin, became a born-again Christian in the 1970s, and returned to his Jewish roots in the ’80s. He held his eldest son Jesse’s barmitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 1983. In later decades he participated in holiday services at Chabad synagogues.

It is an understatement to say we live in crazy times worldwide, epitomized by the buffoon Donald Trump coming close to being the president of the world’s most powerful country, and South Africa reeling under its local version of Trump in President Jacob Zuma.

Many South African students have never even heard of Bob Dylan, and would instinctively regard him as a western colonial import. But his iconic songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” apply in this country as much as they did in his 1970s America.

Dylan’s young generation didn’t succeed in changing the world – the success of today’s Trumps and Zumas testify to that. But he held up a searing mirror to society. South African students, with their often-irrational fury, are now doing the same.

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

Tutu dares religion and the law to allow assisted suicide


When a sick person is suffering unbearably, should one assist him or her to die? Desmond Tutu (85) says he does not wish to be kept alive “at all costs”. (Photo:AFP)

ANGLICAN ARCHBISHOP emeritus Desmond Tutu’s statement on Friday, supporting legalisation of assisted suicide in South Africa for desperately ill people who want to die, touches on a very sensitive issue. For people suffering unbearably, says Tutu, “immeasurable comfort” is afforded by knowing assisted death is possible.

Tutu, who is 85 and in poor health, said he wanted to enter the next phase of life’s journey “in the manner of my choice”. Speaking at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, he said he had prepared for his own death, and “I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs”.

Most legal systems and religious faiths, however, reject his stance. Official Anglican Church policy opposes assisted dying, although this stance is contested by some members of the church. The prevalent Jewish view is that only God gives life and only God can choose to end it.

The legal aspects of assisted suicide are highly contentious, with supporters and opponents equally vehement. They are illustrated by the case of a Spanish man, Ramon Sampedro, whose story was documented in a 2004 film, The Sea Inside, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It relates the 28-year campaign of the man, who was left quadriplegic after a diving accident, for the right to end his life with assistance from others, which was illegal in Spanish law.

In 1998 he succeeded in dying with dignity, after planning his death with help from loved ones in a way in which, because of how he set up the details, no-one could be charged with the crime. In one part of the film he implores the person he is closest to: “If you love me, help me to die.”

Opponents of legalising assisted suicide argue that it opens the door to a host of wrongful acts, such as helping deeply depressed people to die when other treatments may have helped them recover and lead meaningful lives. Or assisted suicide which is done for purposes of other, less noble agendas.

What if a sick patient cannot communicate the wish to die, and therefore has no choice but to go on suffering? To pre-empt this, some people take the route of signing a “Living Will” while of sound mind, stipulating that in the case of illness with no chance of recovery or quality of life, he or she should be allowed to die rather than kept alive artificially. Priests, rabbis, doctors and lawyers have been presented with Living Wills to hold for congregationists, patients and clients.

Some of these professionals, however, refuse to accept Living Wills since it violates their belief in the supreme sanctity of life, forcing individuals to find other places to lodge them to ensure no-one blocks implementing them.

Once feeding tubes or other artificial means of maintaining life have been connected to a patient, should they be removed under any circumstances? The dominant Jewish view is that once connected, they must not be removed, since that would amount to proactively murdering the patient. However, whether such life support should be installed in the first place is a choice doctors, family or designated executors can make.

Tutu supports the organisation DignitySA, led by former University of Western Cape lecturer Sean Davison who was arrested in New Zealand for helping his cancer-ridden mother to end her life in 2006. The World Federation of Right to Die Societies will hold its 2018 conference in South Africa.

DignitySA is fighting a case where the ministers of justice and health and National Prosecuting Authority are appealing a judgment made last year by the Pretoria High Court, which allowed terminally ill lawyer Robin Stransham-Ford, who had cancer, to end his life. Stransham-Ford died two hours before the judgment was delivered. Lawyer Sally Buitendag who supports the right to die said: “Whatever the outcome, this case will end up in the Constitutional Court.”

Anyone who has watched a loved one suffering terribly with an incurable condition, must feel some sympathy for Tutu’s argument of allowing or assisting that person to die with dignity at his or her own choosing, and to end the wretchedness.

Tutu has long been a courageous voice of morality and reason during the anti-apartheid struggle and in other contexts. The issue of assisted suicide is, however, a new and very personal matter for him. Given the fervent, opposing viewpoints which assisted suicide evokes, it is not clear whether his stance will add to his moral standing as a man of compassion, or detract from it?

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

Can Israel-Palestine beat half century peace deadline, as SA did?


Tears for the enemy? Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas seems to be holding back tears at the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, September 30, 2016. Photo i24news

WHEN a senior Johannesburg rabbi this week eulogised the late former Israeli president Shimon Peres for successfully mediating in his lifetime between the opposite poles of political realism involving military force, and resolute belief in the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace, he remarked that it is now 40 years since the 1976 Entebbe raid where Israeli commandos flew 4000 km to rescue Israeli hostages at Uganda’s airport.

They were being held there by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had hijacked an airliner bound for Paris and diverted it to Entebbe. Peres played an important role behind the scenes in approving the commando raid, which some army people thought was so risky that it was doomed to end catastrophically.

But this only gives a tiny glimpse into the anguished history of that region. Indeed, Israel and Palestine – just like historical South Africa – have been in a desperate quest for peace for many decades.

Numerous religious leaders from different faiths in South Africa have taken sides over the years on the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, for example, has been harshly critical of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Other Christian leaders such as Rev Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, defend Israel vigorously, saying its security needs have left it no choice but to maintain control over the Palestinian territories. Muslim clerics for the most part support the Palestinian viewpoint.

The rabbi’s comments came during his sermon at a large Johannesburg synagogue for the Jewish New Year, which is traditionally seen as a time of taking stock and making new beginnings.

It is an astonishing fact that in nine months’ time it will be 50 years – half a century! – that Israelis and Palestinians have existed in an occupier/occupied relationship in the West Bank and Gaza. Several generations of Palestinians and Israelis have lived their entire lives in this reality, for which both sides are blameable, each pointing the finger at the other. Ending this deadlock with an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel is a dream Peres – who died last month – did not see fulfilled, despite tireless engagement with leaders in the conflict including Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Arabs and others. One notable person at his funeral was Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, who was criticised by other Palestinian leaders for being there.

In the 1967 Six Day War Jewish volunteers from all over the world – including South Africa – flocked to Israel to help defeat the combined Arab countries’ attempt to destroy it. The war, which Israel won in six days, resulted in Israel taking over the West Bank and Gaza from Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively, and holding onto them for its security needs. Later, Jewish settlements proliferated there, making a complicated situation even more complicated.

What Israel and these idealistic Diaspora Jewish volunteers never envisaged is that 50 years after that war, there would still be no genuine peace with the Palestinians and Arab world. Even Egypt, after nearly four decades of formal peace, still harbours in its society a deep hatred for Israel.

In 2003 Peres told a Jewish audience at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium that when he was younger, he used to believe Israel would end its problems with the Palestinians and Arab world long before South Africa solved its problems – that the South African situation under apartheid was so intractable, it could only result in an extended racial bloodbath into the foreseeable future.

Contrary to his view, South Africa is now a stable democracy, notwithstanding rumblings making it wobble ominously from time to time. Despite the ineptitude and corruption characterising its first two decades of democracy, basic democratic institutions are intact, such as an independent judiciary and free press. Student protests currently taking place at universities for fee-free higher education are expressions of these democratic liberties, even if disturbing, violent excesses sometimes occur from both sides, including students and law enforcement agencies.

Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on, with peace-dreamers seeming like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill which always falls down again. Most countries and people, including the majority of Israelis and Jews worldwide, accept that the only viable answer is the two-state solution. This includes South Africa, which maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel and cooperation with its ambassador, as well as welcoming a Palestinian ambassador.

Going back to the rabbi’s New Year message of hope: Is it possible that before reaching a full half-century of deadlock over control of the Palestinian territories there can be a turn towards a new reality? That rabbis will be able to celebrate not only “miraculous” events like the Six Day War victory and the Entebbe rescue, but also an end to the corrosive yoke both sides carry by being occupier and occupied?

Given current world events, it is clear progress does not depend only on Israelis and Palestinians. The Syrian mayhem, rise of ISIS-inspired terrorism, the buffoon Donald Trump potentially becoming leader of the world’s most powerful nation, and other bizarre developments are just some.

But if religious leaders can influence the goals their followers strive for, Israeli-Palestinian peace before the half-century is reached would be a worthy one.

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