Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring


Songwriters and demagogues: Leonard Cohen sang of what it is to be human. Populist politicians Julius Malema and Donald Trump speak in inflammatory rhetoric to seek power.

THE death of musician-poet Leonard Cohen and the ascent to power in the United States of billionaire-politician Donald Trump reflect the confusion of our era. Millions mourn Cohen, with his songs that touch the core of what it is to be human; it is hard imagining iconic pieces such as his “Hallelujah” ever being surpassed.

We don’t know what legacy President-elect Trump will leave. His attitudes echo rising right wing, fascist figures in other countries. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism and other social ills that were unacceptable in the last few decades, become respectable again.

Shocked Americans dismayed at his election win, look for a “silver lining”. Perhaps one aspect is that radical change is sometimes inherently good, as it moves people out of stale comfort zones and creates new energy. In the lyrics of his song “Anthem”, Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

It is hard imagining Trump as a bringer of light, but perhaps the crack in the political order was the left’s complacency and arrogance. In its enthusiasm for globalisation and multiculturalism, it neglected masses of ordinary local people worldwide who became poorer and jobless, while wealthy international elites were creaming it. Trump became the voice in America of those angry masses.

In times of social upheaval, minority ethnic groups always look around nervously for how they will be treated by the majority. Jews instinctively ask: “Is it good or bad for us?” Muslims in Western countries ask the same. Black people ask similar questions in white-dominated countries.

There is cause for concern: The rise of the new right brings racist stirrings, which goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism and hatred of other minorities. In countries where speaking publically against Jews has been taboo, open expressions of Jew-hatred have now become common. In France, Jews are emigrating in droves because of attacks on them.

Even in South Africa, which still clings to the memory of Mandela’s rainbow nation, the signs are worrying. Earlier this month, for example, graffiti at Wits university said “Kill a Jew!” and “Fuck the Jews!”; last month, a kippah-wearing student was called a “Motherfucking Jew!” by fellow students.

Despite such incidents, South Africa by and large has good inter-group relations. Anti-Semitism remains low compared to many other countries, and interactions between ordinary blacks and whites in the cities are generally friendly.

But racist talk from populist politicians such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to speak for millions of angry, jobless blacks, could change things. His tactics are similar to Trump’s, but from a leftwing perspective.

Demagogues like Malema use any means to gain power. He has not publically expressed anti-Semitism, but his insistence that “white monopoly capital” is the root of the problem could easily be tweaked to “Jewish (or another group) monopoly capital”.

Trump may turn out to be less catastrophic than the doomsayers predict. In politics, yelling recklessly from the sidelines is easy, but once a person gets his hands on the steering wheel, things look different. And the many checks and balances in US politics make it hard for any leader to go completely off track.

But for Malema, the political safeguards in South Africa are less robust, giving him freer rein. Just look at how President Jacob Zuma has got away with his rampant corruption and other shenanigans.

There are no prophets to tell us the future. One thing for sure is that we’re in for an interesting few years ahead – like Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future”, which ends with the words: “Things are going to slide in all directions…”

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

Is Malema South Africa’s Trump?


Sounds of populism: Julius Malema (right) is greeted by cheering supporters during launch of the EFF manifesto at Orlando Stadium, Soweto, in May 2016

BY the time this column is read by many people the American elections will be over and the next United States president will have been chosen – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The contempt for Trump by many is epitomised by Israeli peace activist and politician Uri Avnery, who said even if Trump had not said all the reckless things he has uttered, there was one overriding reason to reject him: “A sound. A sound I carry in my ears since my early childhood in Germany. The sound of hysterical crowds screaming after every sentence of the Leader.”

Jewish history tells where populist leaders can take people. Ironically, this column appears on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938, paramilitary forces and German civilians, motivated by the charismatic Adolf Hitler, vandalized synagogues, Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed Jews.

In South African politics, the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema evokes the sounds Avnery talks about when he addresses masses of his red-garbed followers, or when he and his party members behave like thugs in Parliament. On Monday he addressed EFF supporters after his appearance in the Newcastle Magistrate’s Court, charged with contravention of the 1956 Riotous Assemblies Act for calling on black people to illegally occupy vacant land around the country. In June this year he told supporters that white people can’t claim ownership of land because it belongs to the country’s black African majority.

He said: “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people‚ at least for now… The rightful owners of the land are black people. No white person is a rightful owner of the land here in South Africa and the whole of the African continent.”

Predictably, other political parties reacted angrily: The Democratic Alliance said Malema’s violent language had no place in South Africa’s constitutional democracy; Freedom Front Plus chairman Pieter Groenewald said Malema’s comments are “hate speech” and created the potential for civil war.

At this point in South African politics, when a wide spectrum of people are desperate to get rid of President Jacob Zuma, Malema’s conduct is tolerated for political expediency, because he is also demanding Zuma’s ouster in a dramatic way.

His aspirations reach sky-high. One hears wry comments about “President Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office. A 2014 performance by celebrated satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” featured a Malema–like doll receiving advice from Hitler on his path to power. The show traversed South African history, providing disturbing analogies between early 1930s Germany and South Africa today. 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 hands of the Jews.’ Hitler appealed to millions of Germans who had no jobs after the First World War. Malema appeals to millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Black anger against white domination and land theft is justified. One only needs to go back to the Natives Land Act of 1913 which allocated about 7 per cent of arable land to blacks, leaving the more fertile land for whites and introducing territorial segregation into legislation for the first time since Union in 1910. Or apartheid’s Group Areas Act which allowed blacks to live only in designated black areas. To rectify these immoral laws’ consequences requires a legal and fair land restoration process. Malema’s utterances, however, are racist and if followed up could indeed provoke civil war.

Donald Trump’s offensive comments in the American presidential race about Mexicans, Muslims, migrants, women, and others feeds into the resurgence of jingoism and bigotry worldwide. The sounds evoked by hysterical, cheering followers of populists like Malema and Trump ultimately threatens everyone.

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

South African theatre points the way on this wild ride


What makes a South African? Can theatre help the people of this tortured country get past their history and look each other in the eye, as in the play Suddenly the Storm?

THE last few weeks’ Orwellian rollercoaster in South African politics shows how confused this country is about itself and where it’s going. Set against the smoke and noise on the national stage, Mandela’s Rainbow Nation seems like an old black-and-white movie we once saw in a bioscope where we ate popcorn and cheered, and which we remember as “the good old days”. The actors and plots about the freedom struggle are like a folk legend, as we question what it means to be South African nowadays.

Most countries, old or new, face this question in one way or another. Donald Trump’s astounding rise in the politics of the United States to where he stands a chance of becoming the next president, has caused millions of Americans to re-examine who they really are and what they share as a nation. Is that crude buffoon truly the face of America?

Israel’s creation 68 years ago was driven by radically different narratives of what Zionism meant. Would the new Israel be epitomised by a suntanned secular kibbutznik ploughing the fields at day and reading poetry at night? A religious Jew returning to his Holy Land? A haven against anti-Semitism after the Holocaust? Or something else? Vigorous contestation about what it is to be Israeli continues today.

South Africa is also a new country, post-apartheid and post-Mandela. Who are its people now, as they stumble from crisis to crisis? Will EFF leader Julius Malema’s anti-white demagoguery, the white estate agent Penny Sparrow in Durban referring to blacks on the beach as monkeys, and furious black students burning books as they demand decolonisation of universities, forever be the dominant tunes to which they sing? Is President Jacob Zuma in essence a tribal chief dispensing patronage to his subjects, as he seems to think, with a Divine right to rule the country?

Great art may often hold a mirror to society, warts and all. Three excellent recent plays in Johannesburg by local writers portray the challenge of South Africans in finding each other through their anger and conflicted histories. The first, called “I See You”, by Mongiwekhaya, portrays a young black law student named Ben at Wits University who was taken out of South Africa as a very young child, grew up in England and hardly speaks his parents’ Zulu language or knows their culture. He meets a flirtatious white woman, and while in the car they are stopped by the police. A black cop, a bitter man who calls himself a “comrade” of the Struggle who has not benefitted from it in any way, assaults Ben viciously and mocks him for not speaking Zulu and for his flimsy cultural identity, as if he is a traitor, while Ben rattles on about his “rights”.

Another, called “Suddenly The Storm”, by Paul Slabolepszy, exposes the tortured feelings of a white former apartheid policeman who, during those dark days, did the unthinkable by falling in love with a black woman, who was also in love with him and with whom he conceived a child. She left him precipitously one day in a desperate attempt to protect him, telling her family he had raped her, and went into exile with a new husband, where she died after many years. During the performance set in post-apartheid South Africa, a dignified, beautiful woman arrives one day at the old policeman’s dingy house and reveals that she is his daughter. A torrent of feelings emerges in them both, transcending the tortuous categories of white and black.

The third play called “Dop” by Retief Scholtz, is set in a bar where the barman is a young Afrikaner who was taken as a child to Australia when his parents emigrated to escape South Africa’s political chaos, and has come back to find himself. An old, lonely Afrikaner enters the bar, and as he consumes dop after dop of brandy, getting completely drunk, a heartfelt connection develops between them concerning love and identity.

After all that has happened in the country, it will take far more than a generation to tie together the threads of humanity between South Africans, so they can actually see each other. Hopefully, Mandela’s vision will not remain just an old black and white movie.

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