Villains, victims, untold stories of refugees and officials


Finding individuals among masses of migrants: A refugee and his tormentor in an Australian refugee detention centre in the play “When Swallows Cry”

WHEREVER they live today, most Jews have family memories of forebears arriving in a new country as immigrants or refugees after escaping from places such as Nazi Germany or Eastern Europe where they would be killed or persecuted if they stayed. The Jewish psyche instinctively understands a refugee’s feelings when a country’s doors are closed to him because of colour or religion.

A famous South African incident is the Stuttgart, a ship which arrived in Cape Town in October 1936 with 537 German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It prompted displays of Afrikaner hatred for Jews by the anti-Semitic Greyshirts organisation who protested their arrival, saying Jews were unassimilable, of questionable morality and a threat to Afrikaners. Fortunately, the refugees managed to disembark.

Today’s flood of refugees fleeing war-torn Middle Eastern or African states pose dilemmas for many countries which are leery of granting them entry, as Islamist terrorism shakes the world. Last Friday US President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the United States, echoing populist sentiments among Americans.

Who are the refugees and the immigration officials implementing the order? The many human faces of the conundrum are portrayed powerfully in a play currently on at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre called “When Swallows Cry”, by playwright Mike van Graan.

In the opening vignette set in Somalia, the son of a white Canadian mining magnate at whose mine near Mogadishu striking workers were killed, has gone there as a volunteer teacher to help heal the damage people such as his father have caused. The father and others had used their money to ensure the country was run by a tyrant helpful to them. Civil war rages, with terrified people trying to flee. The teacher is held hostage and beaten by Muslim insurgents who threaten to turn him over to radical Islamist group Boko Haram to get a ransom to rebuild a devastated village. The Canadian’s capturer films him with a cellphone and posts it on Facebook so his friends and relatives back home will see him describing the devastation ruthless colonialists have wrought.

The second scene is an American immigration entry point, where a distraught Muslim Somalian with a valid visa is being interrogated. Officials find a Koran in his baggage and demand to know what he intends doing in America. On their data-base they find his family name is identical to someone listed as a terrorist threat. He says he doesn’t know the man, pleading to be allowed admission, promising that all he wants is to make a safe new life away from his blood-soaked country. After they decide to put him on a plane back to Somalia, he grabs an official’s gun and shoots himself in the head, choosing to die rather than go back.

The third vignette, a harsh refugee detention camp in Australia, shows two black Zimbabweans who came on a leaky boat after walking from a devastated Zimbabwe to Kenya. Their family members died en route. A white Australian officer beats them mercilessly. They plead to be allowed in, but the assault becomes more ruthless. The officer loses his restraint and screams about his family who had been white farmers in Zimbabwe and whose land was violently seized, forcing them to flee. In uncontrollable rage he shoots the refugees.

Van Graan graphically depicts how there are villains, victims and untold stories on all sides. In art, as in life, people cannot be tarred haphazardly with the same brush like a homogeneous mob. The Greyshirts tried to do that with the Stuttgart’s Jews. Trump’s sledgehammer approach is doing it with Muslims and will only cause more hatred.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )

  • For a review of “When Swallows Cry” click here

Risky politics as Netanyahu flatters pit bull Trump

bibi-and-trump-4THE WARM congratulatory message Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu sent US President Donald Trump after his inauguration last Friday – “Congratulations to my friend, President Trump” – highlighted the schism between Netanyahu and a major portion of world Jewry disgusted by the new president; for them, his message was cringeworthy. He was definitely not speaking for the whole of Jewry, nor the whole of Israel.

Trump expresses admiration for Israel, bemoaning its “unfair” treatment in the conflict with the Palestinians. He will discover the conflict is infinitely more complex than he imagines, and cannot be solved with his famous simplistic bombast. He is referred to as the great deal-maker in entertainment and hotels, without political experience. But he resembles an unpredictable pit bull begging the question: Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

How will he react if the parties refuse his deal-making? The Middle East is not a hotel. When he comes up against the unceasing incitements from both sides – Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s settlement construction on Palestinian land – will he remain Netanyahu’s “friend”?

Trump’s election typifies the rise of nationalistic right wing leaders worldwide with xenophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes – although Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and would be outraged to be called anti-Semitic. His bellicose use of the “America first” slogan evokes memories of other populist leaders in history who pounded the table with such refrains while leading their countries to ruin.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organisation dedicated to combatting anti-Semitism which often speaks out on other forms of discrimination, pressed Trump last year to drop the slogan because of its tainted legacy from the America First Committee, the isolationist movement created in 1940 after Hitler invaded Poland. The America First Committee urged neutrality towards Nazi Germany, and even doing business with it because it didn’t threaten America directly. One openly anti-Semitic leader, aviator Charles Lindbergh, said Jews were a threat because of their control of the media, and that he was backed by a silent majority of Americans denied a voice by a hostile press. Trump, however, ignored the ADL plea.

At the over 500 000-strong anti-Trump women’s march in Washington on Saturday – part of two million demonstrators countrywide reported by AFP and CNN – a keynote speaker was Gloria Steinem, a founder of the 1960s feminist movement and daughter of a Jewish man whose family were immigrants from Germany and Poland. She challenged Trump’s assertion that he represents “the people” of America, saying: “I have met the people and you are not them!”

Trump supporters have mentioned a possible master registry of Muslim immigrants in America in response to radical Islamic terrorism. But the ADL’s head, Jonathan Greenblatt, said Americans must reject all forms of discrimination regardless of which minority group it targets. He pledged that “if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim… As Jews we know what it means to be forced to register.”

The Jewish world – as with broader society – is deeply split on Trump. Many conservative Jews in the United States and Israel back him, particularly in the Orthodox segment, hoping he will strengthen the Israeli right. His ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an Orthodox Jew on the far right of Israel’s political spectrum who opposes the two-state solution and strongly supports the settlement movement.

How will Trump react if anti-Semitism continues rising in the United States? Will he censure its perpetrators when many – the nationalists who hail “America first!” – will probably be people who voted for him? Will his recent nasty comments on the media’s negative coverage of him eventually translate into the old slogan that “the Jews control the media”?

Netanyahu did nothing diplomatically incorrect in congratulating Trump on his inauguration. It is normal diplomatic protocol. But his message’s obvious warmth was jarring to millions who believe Trump is a potential fascist.

Some argue Netanyahu is simply playing realpolitik and sees in Trump the opportunity to strengthen Israel. But many Jews are asking: Does Israel not endorse the humanistic values which two million women marched for on Saturday in defiance of Trump?

Nobody knows if Netanyahu’s warm words towards Trump will help the Israeli PM’s cause. They may return to haunt him when the pit bull turns vicious.

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

Will this be the politicians’ year of the toxic tweet?


Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking of consequences before pressing the Twitter send button, causing embarrassment and outrage among allies and enemies

OF THE three state leaders most relevant to South Africans with Israeli links for this coming year, not one is particularly likeable or inspires confidence for a better world.

United States president-elect Donald Trump, with no political experience, is like a schoolboy constantly looking for what outrageous thing to say next, but who prides himself on straight-talking and how he will make the world’s global superpower, America, “great” again. South African President Jacob Zuma, and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are the opposite – veteran political street-fighters skilled in manipulative phraseology. They have both been in office a long time, are disliked by much of their populace, yet still wield enormous power.

After Trump has settled in at the White House, it’s anybody’s guess what the consequences for the world – and South Africa – will be. The checks and balances in US politics will prevent him acting only by whim, but he can set the tone. Last week he outraged the CIA by tweeting accusations that the US intelligence community was reminiscent of Nazi Germany because of leaks about compromising data Russia allegedly has against him. Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking before clicking the Twitter send button, and the CIA director made no bones about his contempt for the man, saying on Fox News: “Spontaneity is not something that protects national security interests”.


Jacob Zuma’s race-baiting is designed to boost ANC fortunes after its dismal performance in government

Zuma doesn’t shoot from the hip like Trump, but his vacuous utterances are laden with tired slogans as he looks towards the African National Congress’ December conference to choose a new president. His race-baiting and repeated accusations that the country’s ills derive from white monopoly capital are dangerous, as he plays victim against the “wit gevaar”. As if he and the ANC have done a sterling job – which they haven’t.

His expedient attacks on the political opposition aim to boost the ANC’s fortunes among the electorate, such as slamming Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane for visiting Israel last week and being photographed with Netanyahu against a South African flag. Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa tweeted the picture, labelling their Jerusalem meeting as “excellent”. Maimane fell naively into Zuma’s trap by not anticipating negative exploitation of his trip, which first went public through Twitter.


Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest scandals have predictably provoked a Twitter fire-storm

In Israel the country’s Twitter universe has gone into overdrive, threatening Netanyahu’s power because of his alleged deal-making with mass circulation daily Yedioth Achronot for favourable coverage in exchange for financial benefits. Netanyahu is a fighter and won’t resign easily, however, and the agendas of groups such as the West Bank settlers are heavily invested in him staying in office. But most Israelis are tired of him, not just for ideological hypocrisy, but his profligate lifestyle – police are investigating alleged bribery by wealthy friends.

Politics doesn’t progress in a straight line, and nothing is certain. An old Yiddish expression says: Men tracht un G-t lacht (English translation: “Man plans and G-d laughs”).

The way things turn out this year could hinge on a fascinating new phenomenon – how the ubiquitous 140-character Twitter messages which have assumed disruptive power that most politicians don’t yet appreciate, are being used with abandon by presidents and prime ministers themselves. Democracy is manipulated these days not only by potential fascists, but the “mobocracy” of social media. A tweet from a careless or mischievous source goes viral in seconds, influencing millions regardless of its veracity in this era of “post-truth” politics.

Trump’s tweets – many of them definitely post-truth – are taken seriously, bizarre as they are. As are those of Netanyahu and Zuma’s acolytes.

It is likely that a year from now, as we enter 2018, these three state leaders will have impacted heavily – either from their actions or how they exit the stage.

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

Netanyahu tells media: Make me look good!


Can politicians force media to make them look good? Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Noni Mozes are suspected of a deal to give Netanyahu more favourable coverage

POLITICIANS with big egos and a hunger for power like to be seen in the papers hobnobbing with the rich, famous and powerful and praised for their achievements, whether real or illusory. It is good for their image and increases their chance of staying in power. The lengths to which they will go is illustrated by an Israeli scandal this week, where PM Benjamin Netanyahu is being questioned by the police on suspicion of secretly offering financial and business benefits to Israel’s mass-circulation, mainstream Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for it presenting him in a more positive light.

Israelis are outraged that a vintage paper like Yedioth, founded in 1939, which has historically dominated Israeli print media in circulation and advertising sales should be involved in this. It has for decades nurtured a reputation for a centrist, balanced attitude to Israeli affairs. Readers feel betrayed by another self-seeking politician – no less than the prime minister – and a pliant paper.

The details are still unclear, but the major evidence against Netanyahu is a conversation secretly recorded of him apparently hammering out a deal with Yedioth publisher and media tycoon Arnon Mozes that would benefit them both: Yedioth would reduce criticism of him and publish more favourable stories, and in exchange Netanyahu would limit the availability of Yedioth’s competitor, Israel Hayom, a free paper founded in 2007 and funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, which today has the widest circulation. This could bring Yedioth back into print media dominance.

Politicians do it everywhere, whether for egotistical or ideological reasons. We’ve had plenty in South Africa. During apartheid, control of the media was deeply entrenched, with white leaders of the regime mostly portrayed as heroic figures fighting the “swart gevaar” (black threat) and communism. South Africans who lived through those years remember the infamous regular “Current Affairs” programme of the SA Broadcasting Corporation, which conveyed the message that all was well and the only problems came from troublemakers who should be forcefully controlled.

In President Jacob Zuma’s era we’ve had, among other things, crude tactics by former SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng – allegedly with Zuma’s backing – banning images on SABC channels of public violence during civic protests, to make the ANC government look less catastrophic. Zuma is shown travelling the world, meeting with important and powerful people, with less comment about his corruption and incompetence. Most South Africans get their news from the SABC.

Another case is the establishment by Zuma’s close friends, the rich Gupta family, of their own newspaper and television channel, which presents positive news on Zuma and counters accusations against the family of influencing government officials for their business interests.

Netanyahu has been caught red-handed in a possible criminal act. Calls are being heard for him to resign. He is, aside from this saga, deeply unpopular, even among significant numbers of his own Likud party and the right wing, which he represents.

A newspaper’s credibility and the trust its readers place in it has to be built up painstakingly over a long time. It can be lost in an instant by such a scandal. Yedioth will have a hard time recovering trustworthiness.

All publishers and editors of serious newspapers experience pressure or enticements to report things in a way which will bolster certain viewpoints or the status of individuals. It is hard to resist when the publications’ financial well-being and sometimes their own jobs are on the line. But the red lines are there.

The illustrious New York Times faced a crisis in 2003 when one of its reporters was found to have fabricated stories, and it had to apologise. Some editors resigned. In its apology, it said a newspaper depends “on the confidence that readers place in it, a confidence based on the belief that every day, the paper struggles mightily to get things right … Like all human enterprises, journalism is not perfectible. But it should always be heading in that direction.”

Netanyahu’s apparent deal-making with the media for the sake of his image shows how much he is just like any other politician concerned more with his own power than the good of the country.

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


The hilarious back-story of the “Saxonwold shebeen”


Whose house is this anyway? South African theatre people have created hilarious scenarios, portraying through humour and satire the intricacies of race, and how well-heeled white South Africans and others grapple with their ingrained attitudes.

WHAT would you do if you woke up one morning in the servants’ quarters of your wealthy house, put there by your maid while you were asleep? Meet Sheila Shler, the creation of veteran South African actor Robert Colman through a facebook channel. Sheila is a complex character who appears in post-apartheid South Africa, 22 years after democracy. She is a well-to-do white “madam” who owns a house in the elite Johannesburg neighbourhood of Saxonwold.

According to the plot, she was recently moved from the main house to live in the servants’ quarters by her black maid Tryfeena, who has established a shebeen (African pub) in the primary residence. Colman, dressed in drag and playing the part of a confused Sheila who stares directly into the camera and whose facial expressions speak volumes about the challenges of her new inverted life, has produced six short episodes thus far, with more promised.

The plot is sidesplitting yet deadly serious. It is a take-off on one of the major political dramas of 2016 surrounding the infamous billionaire Gupta family which lives in a veritable palace in Saxonwold. The family has been accused of state capture – the bribing and influencing of politicians and government officials, from President Jacob Zuma downwards, for their business interests.

The sub-plot is a public statement by former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe who was suspected of being implicated in the Guptas’ network, that he had not visited their house. When his visit to the area was proved by cellphone records and documented in an ominous public protector’s report on state capture, he admitted he had been in Saxonwold, but said he might have been visiting a local shebeen in the area. It was received with astonishment by the country.

Colman has converted the incident into political satire, digging into the pathologies of South African society with humour and irony. Sheila, talking in her upper-class Johannesburg northern-suburbs accent, bemoans her fate, but is trying hard to understand the social and political dynamics that brought her to this situation. She talks about doing a course with Racists Anonymous and how it feels to have to address her former maid as “madam”.

Previous great names in South African satire include Evita Bezuidenhout, a caricature during apartheid of an Afrikaans woman from a conservative background who embodies aspects of her racist origins but has a subtle understanding of its absurdity. She is the creation of theatre personality PieterDirk Uys, who during apartheid lampooned politicians such as former President PW Botha. Evita was so well-known by anti-apartheid movements – she was called the “most famous white woman in South Africa” – that she had an official meeting with Nelson Mandela after he came out of jail.

When future historians look back on 2017, they will say major parts of the world expected it to be a bumpy ride. The previous year had shaken up the establishment’s complacency, providing political shocks and placing people like US president-elect Donald Trump and his ilk in positions of power in America, the UK and other European countries, with their xenophobia, populism and disdain for the liberal democracies built since World War Two.

Apprehension about this year applies also to South Africa for its own reasons. A major characteristic of 2016 was re-emergence of overt racism – it had never disappeared, but under Mandela’s rainbow nation spell had been submerged and politically incorrect.

But last year, highly publicised incidents ranged from white Durban estate agent Penny Sparrow’s tweet about blacks being like monkeys; Afrikaans farmers placing a black man in a coffin, threatening to set it alight and publishing a video on social media boasting of their act; EFF leader Julius Malema’s consistent anti-white rhetoric; and students at university campuses displaying posters with the words “fuck the whites”. South Africans fear racist antagonism will accelerate, stoked by populist politicians and thoughtless people using social media for their diatribes.

One thing South Africans have in their favour, however, is a basic decency and sense of humour. Coleman’s character Sheila Shler taps into that.

The society has a long way to go before apartheid’s racial legacy is overcome. A character like Sheila cannot solve it, but can hold up a mirror making people laugh uproariously in recognition of themselves, while being thoughtful about it. We look forward to more episodes of Sheila.

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