Is a Zuma statue the ultimate conceit or just for the birds?

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Should taxpayers’ money be spent flattering a failed president? Statues of public figures are supposed to honour great men and women. Building one to stroke a corrupt man’s vanity raises deep concern.

AMONG the astounding revelations in the debate on the recent State of the Nation address was the plan of North West provincial premier Supra Mahumapelo to build a 6-metre bronze statue of President Jacob Zuma in Groot Marico, which the Democratic Alliance says will cost R6m in public funds. Zuma was arrested in the area in 1963 by apartheid forces and held under the 90-day detention law.

Zuma’s critics have already dubbed it the “Nkandla of the North”, with reference to the lavish amounts of public money previously spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla, in Kwazulu-Natal. He was ultimately forced by the Constitutional Court and the public protector to pay back some R7m to the state for this.

It illustrates the dissonance in South African politics that public officials still want to splurge taxpayers’ money on a vanity project like this, when poverty-stricken local inhabitants can hardly feed themselves, the unemployment rate is at 27 per cent, and South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

What are political statues, aside from spots for pigeons to rest? They are emotive symbols people have fought and died for. Ideally they should be unifying, but are often the opposite, being built by history’s victors, not the vanquished. The 2015 University of Cape Town student protests, for example, successfully demanded tearing down arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes’ statue on the campus as a symbol of oppression of Africans.

Dictators, of course, build statues to themselves to remind their people who is in charge. Last year Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe unveiled a 4-metre statue of himself with arm raised and fist clenched while the country and its people suffered their worst economic crisis in years.

At their best, statues convey universal values like freedom and reconciliation, as expressed by the figures of Nelson Mandela located in many far-flung places. One of the largest and most elegant is at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, his arms outstretched symbolising his embrace of the whole nation and one leg in front of the other indicating a country on the move. It replaced a sculpture of former Prime Minister JB Hertzog who served from 1924-1939, which was relocated.

There was humour and controversy when the sculptors, André Prinsloo and Ruhan Janse van Vuuren, cast a tiny bronze rabbit inside Mandela’s ear to leave a trademark as a substitute for their signatures. Sombre officials demanded its removal, but the sculptors were pardoned because “their intentions were honourable”. Mandela would probably have laughed at the incident.

Other Mandela statues stand in front of the South African Embassy in Washington DC; facing Big Ben in London near Westminster Palace; and looking towards the Peace Palace in The Hague’s international district. Last year the Palestinians inaugurated a 6-metre bronze statue of him in Ramallah donated by Johannesburg city, which angered some South African Jews. Former mayor Parks Tau said Mandela would have been “proud”.

His image has also been commercialised – some say cheapened. Such as that of him dancing in Sandton’s upmarket shopping mall where tourists take pictures without grasping the depth of his struggle.

Statues to political ideals may be inspirational, like the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, commemorating the United States’ sixteenth President, a founder of American democracy who ended slavery. At 8-metres tall, he stares across The Mall to the Capitol. In January, new US President Donald Trump made sure of being photographed in front of Lincoln before his inauguration, brazenly implying he was as great a man.

There are also many sad statues to failed dreams like Russian communism. Prior to the Soviet Union’s breakup, figures of ideologue Vladimir Lenin were built everywhere, one of the best-known in Moscow’s October Square. Karl Marx stands on Revolution Square at the Bolshoi theatre.

What does Zuma offer compared to these towering figures, aside from the descent into corruption and the decline of his country? It is unlikely a Zuma statue will ever find its way beyond the pigeons in Groot Marico.

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

Titan clash: Judges go head to head with corruptors, ideologues

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Can the law hold up against power? Israel’s Supreme Court will decide on the legality of a controversial Knesset bill passed by the powerful settler lobby to legalise illegal settlements. Courts elsewhere face similar confrontations with politicians.

IN THREE countries close to South African Jews – Israel, South Africa and the United States – a monumental fight is raging between defenders of the law and powerful politicians attempting to subvert it. Protagonists are public figures holding high office including presidents, judges and political leaders. The effects will ultimately be felt by ordinary people.

South Africans cheered last year when the constitutional court’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng ruled in a landmark case that President Jacob Zuma failed to uphold the constitution of the republic. He had refused to implement the public protector’s instructions to compensate for benefits he received from state money spent upgrading his private homestead Nkandla. The chief justice’s finding affirmed that the law applied equally to all, despite the president’s contempt for it, and Zuma had to pay back some R7m to the state. In parliament last week the Economic Freedom Fighters party aptly labelled him a constitutional “delinquent”.

In the United States in the last two months, judges stood firm against the new president, Donald Trump, ruling that his executive order signed immediately after taking office barring entry to people from seven Muslim-majority countries be put on hold until its constitutionality was properly tested. Trump’s response – consistent with his narcissistic temperament – was outrage towards the judges, who were doggedly teaching him the limits of his power. He had to abide by their rulings.

In Israel, a battle is raging between proponents of constitutional legality and the settler movement, which succeeded last week in passing in the Knesset the Regularisation Law, driven by Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. Dubbed the Land-Grab Law by its detractors, it would allow private Palestinian land in the West Bank to be expropriated by Israel to retroactively legalise settlements which were built there illegally. The settlers will not gain ownership of the land but will be allowed to remain.

The Law’s illegality is so blatant that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin publically condemned it, since Israel has not established sovereignty over the West Bank. This principled stand by Rivlin, who actually supports settlements and reportedly believes in a binational state with equal citizenship among Arabs and Jews as the solution to the conflict, echoed that of Israeli attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, who said he would not defend it before the Supreme Court, which is where it will inevitably land up.

Rivlin said: “Israel has adopted international law [and cannot] apply and enforce its laws on territories that are not under its sovereignty. [Doing so] will cause Israel to be seen as an apartheid state, which it is not.”

The word apartheid is usually applied to Israel by rabid Israel-haters such as the BDS movement and similar groups. South African Jews who lived through apartheid are highly sensitive to its use, claiming it is totally inappropriate for Israel. Now, alarmingly, Israel’s president has himself warned the country by reference to this word. The extremists among the settlers don’t seem to care, however.

Legally, the case against the Regularisation Law is clear and the Supreme Court will almost certainly declare it unconstitutional. But extreme rightwing political forces will not buckle so easily, and the settler lobby is threatening to undercut the Supreme Court’s authority by passing a law enabling the Knesset to override the Court in certain cases. Fortunately, other eminent rightwing figures in the government have said they would oppose this, such as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon: “We have no other Supreme Court and it must not be harmed.”

What’s in a name? The law’s proponents call it the Regularisation Law; but those who call it the Land-Grab law have a point. Hopefully, the principled Israelis in positions of power who are defending the country’s commitment to legality will prevail.

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

A blind eye in exchange for Israel support is risky

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Donald Trump leads the greatest democracy, John Vorster was an apartheid Prime Minister. Support for Israel from both, but at what price?

FALLOUT for South African Jewry from Donald Trump’s controversial presidency in the United States has not been felt directly thus far. It is experienced more as general anxiety about the rise of nationalistic demagogues with open or disguised anti-Semitic leanings in many countries and fear about the future. For Jewish interests specifically, this challenges attitudes towards Jews’ and Israel’s situation in the world.

South African Jewry, with its history of passionate Zionism, is internally divided similar to other Diaspora communities about Israel’s place in Jewish life: Is it primarily a Jewish sanctuary in an untrustworthy, hostile world, or a society representing the best universal Jewish values? Some people cling to idealistic Zionism as the Jewish people’s liberation movement in the process of creating a flourishing Jewish state which must do whatever it takes to survive; others support Israel as a Jewish state with every right to exist, but criticise it for various human rights considerations. Israel’s complex situation means neither side is always correct.

To what extent should support for Israel outweigh other considerations? If someone practices objectionable policies yet backs Israel – as Trump says he does – should he be embraced? Jews who are appalled at Trump ask why Israel is so supportive of him when he represents much of what Jewish history tells us should be rejected. His polarising effect on South African Jews was illustrated by the anger against this column for criticising Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently for showing such warmth to Trump and publically calling him “my friend” after his inauguration.

Support for Trump comes at a price. This is already apparent in Israel’s muted reaction to the omission of any reference to Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. Trump’s administration said it is better not to single out Jews in order to be “inclusive” of others who suffered. But Jewish individuals and organisations – such as the Anti-Defamation League – were shocked and saw it as a case of disguised Holocaust denial. Netanyahu’s silence on the matter, however, was deafening.

American white supremacist Richard Spencer, ideologue of the so-called “alt-right,” said not mentioning Jews or anti-Semitism was an important step in the “de-Judaification” of the Holocaust. The White House press secretary called critics of the statement “pathetic”.

Israel seems scared to criticise Trump. Is Netanyahu prepared to give up recognition of Jews’ central place in the Holocaust, hoping Trump will be his friend, allow more settlement building in Judea and Samaria and sabotage the two-state solution?

There are unfortunate echoes of this sort of policy in South African Jewish history. Israel openly criticised apartheid in the 1950s and 60s, building alliances with post-colonial African governments. But after African states broke ties after the 1973 Yom Kippur war under pressure from the Arab lobby, it drew closer to the apartheid regime in Pretoria. In 1976 it invited Prime Minister John Vorster – a former Nazi sympathiser – to visit. At a state banquet, Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin said both countries faced “foreign-inspired instability and recklessness”.

Israel was not alone in its ties to South Africa. Despite international sanctions against the country during apartheid, numerous states, including those who condemned the racist system, maintained ties with South Africa in various areas, sometimes open, often covert. Israelis have often complained about the hypocrisy of singling out only Israel for criticism.

Many South African Jews were deeply embarrassed by Vorster’s Israel visit, seeing it as a grave diplomatic error. Others justified it by saying Israel had been unfairly branded a pariah state in international forums and needed support, even from another pariah state such as South Africa. Negative reaction about this perceived closeness to South Africa – including military cooperation – was a reasonable price to pay, they argued. Until today, Israel still faces an abiding coolness towards it from post-apartheid South Africa, despite having diplomatic relations.

Rightwing Jewish and Israeli leaders seem to risk repeating this by ignoring Trump’s threats to important progressive global alliances and his offensive attitudes towards women, the LGBTI community, immigrants and Muslims which are causing a furore in his own country – including among a huge number of Jews – in exchange for support for Netanyahu. And given Trump’s intemperate nature, this support could change whenever it suits him.

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