Statues and heroes: the dangers of erasing too much

Confederate flag and Old SA flag

Would a man die for a flag? Symbols evoke rage and happiness. Should images of a bad past vanish when times change? America’s Confederate flag and South Africa’s old apartheid flag easily raise tensions

WITS University’s faculty members have been warned to prepare for trouble, as universities brace for protests against university fee hikes for 2018, amidst vehement demands for “decolonisation” in academia and abolition of symbols of the country’s racist past. 

Symbolism contains potent energies everywhere. Recent displays in alt-right marches in Charlottesville in the United States of swastikas and anti-Jewish and anti-black slogans, evoked calls for removing confederate statues across America for celebrating people who defended slavery.

What about statues of anti-Semites? An Israeli organisation on Tuesday demanded New York City remove memorials to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch director-general of New Amsterdam (now New York), because of his anti-Semitism, saying he “targeted Jews and other minorities including Catholics” and tried prohibiting them from settling there. Yet New York has one of the largest, most successful Jewish communities in the world. Most Jews probably don’t even know of his attitudes and smoked the eponymous brand of cigarettes for years.

The potency of symbolism and stereotypes spills into literature and film. Should Shakespeare and Dickens be banned? Critics say the former’s portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic. And Dickens’ fictional character Fagin, portrayed as a Jew in his novel Oliver Twist, is described as a “receiver of stolen goods.” Fagin has evoked much debate. In an introduction to a 1981 reissue of Oliver Twist, writer Irving Howe said Fagin was considered an “archetypical” Jewish villain.

A theatre in Memphis, Tennessee recently stopped showing the movie Gone With the Wind for being “racially insensitive.” The 1939 classic which won eight Oscars, tells the story of a Georgia plantation owner’s daughter during and after the civil war, based on a Pulitzer prize-winning 1936 novel. Considered a great American work, it is criticised for romanticising slavery. Celebrated writers, Roald Dahl and Graham Greene have been similarly fingered.

In South Africa, myriad symbols of our unhappy past, including statues, street names, the old flag and parts of the national anthem, remain all around us. Four people were arrested last weekend for disturbances at a Cape Town pub after complaining about the old South African flag hanging on the wall, symbolising apartheid. Some people call for Die Stem, the apartheid-era national anthem, to be removed from the current multi-language national anthem.

The Voortrekker monument near Pretoria – now renamed Tshwane – remains intact, with its dramatic frescoes portraying heroic-looking Afrikaners seeking freedom from English domination, fighting off assegai-wielding black warriors defending their land. Any attempt to tamper with this potent symbol of Afrikaner history would provoke violence. However, there have been numerous name changes of streets and towns from apartheid leaders to anti-apartheid fighters, which have been well received. At Cape Town University, in contrast, removal of a statue of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes provoked confrontations.

It is right for people to resist being bombarded with public symbols of oppression, particularly in public spaces. But what about private spaces? In the name of freedom of expression, should people be allowed to display whatever they want there? Such as a pub?

There are no easy answers. Where is the red line for “acceptable” content? Sanitising everything is dangerous – changing the past, rather than putting it into context. If we sanitise everything because of unsavoury aspects, we leech rich texture from history and culture, ending up with only the “party line” dictated by political correctness guardians.

Such was the Soviet Union. And in fascist societies, past and present, the only permitted symbols are those glorifying the regime and its leaders.

Politicians have a significant role to play. Exploiting symbols for populist, sinister goals is always tempting. For students, a university’s role is to teach them to discern the healthy red line. They battle amidst the tensions rampant in the country and the tricks of politicians.

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

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South African Jewry dwindles; not for the usual reasons

Wolmarans Street Shul 1

Reminders of the heyday: Grand Wolmarans Street synagogue building in downtown Johannesburg, once a centre of Jewish life, is empty after Jews emigrated from the country and others moved elsewhere

WHEN asked how many Jews remain in South Africa, Jewish leaders usually fudge the question, though they know the community’s size is falling. No-one wants to be a prophet of doom, but for most of them the answer is not a happy one. The generally accepted figure is 60-70,000, roughly half of the community’s size in its heyday in the 1970s.

Jews have always been on the move, everywhere they have lived. Large numbers came to South Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s from Europe to escape anti-Semitism and seek a better life.

Now Europe has again become a place of anxiety. It is astonishing that after the terrible things that happened there in the last century, including the Holocaust, Jews are in distress again there and urged to move. History keeps replaying itself.

Three countries serve as examples: In Spain, Barcelona’s Chief Rabbi Meir Bar-Hen warned last week after terrorist attacks in which 14 victims and five suspected terrorists died in Barcelona and Cambrils: “Jews are not here permanently”. The attacks were not aimed specifically at Jews.

“I tell my congregants: Don’t think we’re here for good… Better [get out] early than late.” He calls Spain a “hub of Islamist terror for all of Europe.”

In France last year, Paris’ Synagogue de la Victoire rabbi Moshe Sebbag claimed every French Jew is considering leaving because of anti-Semitism. French Jews number between 500,000 and 600,000. Many will not do so, because they fear the upheaval in their lives.

A recent Human Rights First survey said anti-Semitic incidents in France had risen dramatically in the last few years; and some 82% of Jews had experienced anti-Semitism, but not reported it. One leader said Jews in Paris and elsewhere feel “they can’t safely wear a kippah outside their homes or send their children to public schools, where Muslim children bully Jewish children.”

In Britain, an anti-Semitism survey shows British Jews feeling directly threatened by BDS’s anti-Israel activities; some 31% had “considered” leaving the country. And some 37% of respondents said they avoided “displaying outward signs of their Judaism in public.”

How does South Africa fit into this picture? The reasons Jews leave this country are starkly different from Europe. It is not anti-Semitism, which remains very low – indeed, displays of racism are generally confronted quickly and harshly by the media and government, and different faith groups live in relative harmony. Jews have little fear in identifying themselves publicly as Jews.

But there is increasing fear about the country’s future, as it teeters ominously under President Jacob Zuma’s corrupt and inept government. Uncertainty is rampant about future prospects, epitomised by the downgrading to “junk status” of its economy by respected international rating agencies. Questions are asked about how minority groups – such as the white Jewish community, Afrikaners and others – will be treated in future.

Many younger Jews, when asked, will say they are emigrating not so much for themselves, but for their children’s future, as they witness the decline in the quality of schools and universities, diminishing prospects for whites in finding jobs in the face of affirmative action policies, and other factors.

One local leader most familiar with the issue is Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, known as the “travelling rabbi”, who constantly traverses the country, taking care of 220 small Jewish cemeteries containing 30,000 graves, in rural areas and small towns where once flourishing Jewish communities no longer exist. In his address to a Jewish conference in Johannesburg on Sunday, he said one of the questions he is most often asked is how many South African Jews remain. The only answer he could give – rather glumly, as his expression at the podium revealed – is that “The numbers are down.”

That the numbers are declining is without doubt, and brings a sadness to people who remember the “old days.” The obvious question going forward is whether South African Jewry will manage to recalibrate itself as a smaller community in a country in tremendous and often traumatic flux, so as to remain part of the country and involved in its affairs. Or will it dwindle into a minor outpost of Jewish life?

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

South Africa, be cautious when you romanticise the liberator

MandelaMadonsela

Heroes who liberate a country: Will they always do the right thing? Nelson Mandela allowed serious errors in SA’s new democratic constitution, says Madonsela

GIVEN former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s hero-status for exposing state capture under President Jacob Zuma’s government, and her determination to get South Africa back on track – to “re-anchor” it – it was interesting to hear her criticise the visionary who contributed more than anyone else in bringing about non-racial democracy – Nelson Mandela. Not for malice, but naiveté.

Addressing a conference in Sandton on Sunday, she said Mandela had erred by not sufficiently empowering the people in the new constitution adopted in 1996. Its framers gave excessive power to public officials and too little directly to the people. For this, the country had paid dearly as officials from the president down, ran amok with their power, with little regard for the law and the people.

South Africa is admired for adopting, after the first democratic election in 1994, one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. But, said Madonsela, the country believed naively at the time that because of this, and the fact that illustrious struggle heroes – such as Mandela – would occupy major power positions, the spirit and letter of the constitution would be rigorously implemented, creating a better country.

For example, economic growth and redistribution would be actively pursued – crucial to reducing inequality. But instead, misguided government policies with devious agendas and mismanagement, and state capture by powerful private interests, created almost no growth. Overall unemployment was around 30 per cent and youth unemployment 50 per cent, while billions of rands was illicitly laundered through Dubai by officials and private families – the Guptas, although she avoided naming them – with government connections. Some R240m of public funds was used to upgrade President Zuma’s private home.

Contrary to the constitution’s intentions, Zuma and his cronies have abused their powers, rather than being guardians of the people’s interests. Self-enriching guzzlers feeding at the public trough. In many cases, people have watched helplessly as the country slides downwards, while officials appointed by party bosses perform abysmally, yet can only be removed by voting the governing party out at the next election, which takes place every five years.

It is an oft-repeated historical theme that when liberation fighters defeat former despots, they often become as bad as them, while ordinary people remain poor and powerless. Apartheid itself was created by Afrikaners fighting for liberation from English dominance; they then went on to become harsh rulers in their own repressive regime. The rise and rise of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is another case.

During the decades of apartheid rule, vibrant civil society organisations and individuals rose up to defeat the racial system. After 1996, however, in the euphoria of the new democracy, it was believed the constitution would ensure protection of people’s rights. In many cases the opposite has happened, because of despotic officials and the people’s insufficient say in how institutions and officials operate.

Speaking of her own office when she was public protector – one of several “Chapter Nine” institutions created by the constitution to protect democracy – her initial vision was to be the “voice of the people” to protect them from abuse by officials. But during her tenure, the concept changed to the public protector being more of an “enabler” for helping people speak with each other when necessary – ordinary people and officials.

One case where this had succeeded, she described, was where residents in a rural area who performed work for the government weren’t paid; instead of confronting the usual bureaucratic channels, she brought these people together in a room with officials familiar with the place the complainants came from, so they could explain the situation; the matter was settled.

The lesson of the crisis of South Africa today is to beware of romanticising liberation struggle heroes. Not to believe they are saints, incapable of erring. The chaos and corruption in the ANC – the once revered liberation movement – is enough proof. But even icons like Mandela should be treated with a healthy dollop of caution.

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

Charlottesville and Joburg: The impact of a blunt instrument

KKK and xenophoba

What does it take to talk? Is it possible for the Ku Klux Klan to re-emerge as a force to silence all in their way? Can South Africans get past their racial history?

IT has seemingly again become a trend to stifle arguments with blunt instruments. It might appear to be stretching a point to contrast recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, with post-apartheid South African discourse. But as our world increasingly sinks into hatred and intolerance, driven by populist leaders who care only for themselves, trends stand out which are weakening the post-Second World War ideal that people of different cultures and creeds can respect one another, and talk together.

Last year’s election of the lying, tweeting Donald Trump as United States President, with his contempt for ‘the Other’ – Mexicans, refugees and so on – epitomises this. His reaction on Sunday to violent demonstrations by alt-right, anti-Semitic hooligans in Charlottesville, in which a woman demonstrating for peace was killed by a car driven headlong into the crowd by a militant racist – a blunt instrument – confirmed it; he refused to immediately condemn the alt-right, since they were part of the constituency which elected him.

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history and political travails, and the damage President Zuma inflicts, this country is doing relatively well in inter-group tolerance. Remnants of Mandela’s dream remain, even if somewhat sullied. But an illustrative incident occurred at a Jewish-organised Limmud conference session last week in Johannesburg when a young black woman on a panel declared to the audience of mainly white Jews that she was going to be “brave”, and then pronounced vociferously: “There is no rainbow nation!” All whites were inherently guilty, and blacks had to separately re-examine their attitudes towards whites. The session’s topic was “The Tarnished Rainbow: South Africa in 2017”.

Audience members were angered by her bluntly lumping all whites together. In the auditorium were white veteran political activists, participants in projects of cultural engagement, helping the marginalised and poor, and so on. One white person countered her by saying her generation of young blacks had scant personal experience or knowledge of the role some whites played in demolishing apartheid, and their sacrifices.

Then a youngish white man spoke up, saying he agreed the country had racial demons to overcome because of its history. He then said politely but pointedly: “I am white and doing my best. What else do you want me to do now? Will it help, or atone for white sins during colonialism and apartheid, if I give away all the money in my bank account, give up my job and car, and go and sweep the streets?”

The audience waited for some constructive response. Instead, she angrily retorted that his very question exposed his racism, because he seemed to believe black people just “sweep the streets.” A ripple of annoyance ran through the audience. One white woman muttered that the country’s black middle class numbered 6 million today, larger than the white one.

But the interaction showed something important. This young panellist’s ignorance and anger notwithstanding, many South Africans are trying to talk to each other. Indeed, she herself had come to the Limmud forum, to challenge a white audience and be challenged.

Turning back to the thugs in Charlottesville, Virginia, it seems incredible that after all the years since World War Two and the Holocaust, people still needed to protest against unmitigated Nazism from closed-minded people with no desire or willingness to talk. People who carried flags with large swastikas on them. At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville on July 8, a sign held by a white-hooded participant read: “Jews are Satan’s children… Talmud is a child molester’s bible.”

Despite how much anger there is in South African society, a sign like that would not be permitted.

It would be naive, of course, to think that all is perfect – far from it. There is as much to worry about in South Africa as anywhere else. But perhaps Donald Trump’s American South can learn something from this country about how people still manage to talk today, even across chasms.

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

 

The Golem still lurks in our Brave New World

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Will unrestrained gadgets save or kill mankind? Religious sources celebrate humans’ creative genius, but warn about the monster hiding in the shadows

WHAT do religions say about the technological tsunami flooding our lives today? Is the increasingly rapid ‘disruptive innovation’ an angel or devil? Leading Johannesburg techno-gadget expert Arthur Goldstuck raised some ancient but relevant Jewish perspectives at a conference in Johannesburg last weekend.

The Limmud conference is an annual weekend gathering held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban attended by hundreds of people, with speakers and facilitators addressing myriad themes ranging from theology to politics, music, spirituality, history, technology and other topics.  It is part of an international network of similar conferences taking place in Jewish communities worldwide.

Sketching technological changes from 100 years ago to the present and into the future, Goldstuck left his audience fascinated, but also unnerved. A century ago, individual innovations appeared occasionally which we take for granted today, such as the portable electric drill; colourful gift-wrap created by Hallmark, which replaced brown paper wrapping; Converse All Stars athletic shoes; and others.

In 2017, however, every device and industry is constantly being technologically disrupted – or re-innovated – at increasingly speedy rates, with everything being connected via the Internet and other means, and building on each other. We can hardly keep up. And technology is all very well, but can machines make moral choices?

Facebook, for example, connects almost the entire world, except China where it is not allowed; in this era of instant innovation, new products and information reach millions within seconds. Some 2 billion people – 1 in 5 of the world’s population – and 17 million South Africans are on Facebook.

The benefits are manifold, but the spreading of ‘fake news’ is also one of the dangerous outcomes; and the idiocy of people like US President Donald Trump carelessly using facebook and Twitter to spread his political rantings, could just as well start a war by accident.

The next major innovative platform will be Virtual Reality devices, allowing one to experience events taking place around the corner or a world away. Soon, unmanned robots will proliferate as waiters in restaurants, as bank clerks, teachers and so on; they will be caregivers in hospitals and homes which will sense minute amounts of germs and report them to medical staff – Japan, with its elderly population, already uses 20 000 robots as caregivers.

By 2019, artificial intelligence devices should be pervasive. These would include, for example, devices fixed to peoples’ brains doing routine ECGs and electronically sending results to each individual’s doctor. Autonomous, self-driving cars already exist. By 2022, farmers will insert chips into livestock – such as dairy cows – in the field, to monitor temperature and other aspects, transmitting them to the farmer’s house to inform him which cows are ready for milking.

These devices do not only perform jobs previously done by humans, but accumulate masses of information about people’s movements, likes, dislikes and behaviour. Despite the benefits, this is potentially dangerous and invasive: Where is it stored; how is it used? It could be employed for nefarious purposes. Someone could hold you to ransom with such information. Hospitals’ patient records could be captured and only released for a payoff – this already happened recently in UK hospitals.

Could such technologies become an existential threat to humankind, outsmarting people? What if ‘intelligent’ devices behave negatively rather than positively? Such a technological scenario was predicted decades ago in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, ‘Brave New World’ in 1932. How do religious traditions view all this? What role for faith groups in restraining them?

Drawing on Jewish sources, Goldstuck referred to a legendary man-shaped creature made of mud created by the Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher the Maharal in the 1500s – the notorious Golem of Prague which has entered popular language as a saboteur of the foundations of a good society. Legend held that the Golem was given ‘life’ when a parchment containing holy words was placed under its tongue; if the creature became dangerously destructive, it could be ‘switched off’ by removing the parchment.

Could the Golem be an archetype for modern Artificial Intelligence? How would one switch it off?

Other Jewish sages approved of technology and innovation, seeing them as part of human creativity, but said the privacy of a person’s inner life is sacrosanct – meaning that Facebook’s collecting and using of such private information may cross a forbidden red line. With personal privacy being so crucial, including the ability to make moral and practical choices, trust in technology is lacking, even as people rely on their smartphones for more and more of what they do.

The sages foresaw the potential dangers of this techno-Golem centuries ago, as seductive as it is. How to control it may be one of the biggest challenges of our times.

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

 

Do racial slurs lance SA’s boil or poison the wound more?

Helen of Troyeville

Can a country with South Africa’s history ever get over its mixed emotions about how races relate to one another? Whites and blacks, Indians and Coloureds all have their own cauldrons of paranoia and anger to do with other races. Art and theatre can be a good way of articulating this (Photo: Suzy Bernstein)

THE wild mixture of feelings people of different races experience in today’s South Africa was eloquently portrayed in a play last week at Wits Theatre, called Helen of Troyeville, written by Mike van Graan and performed by skilled Jewish actress Gina Shmukler. It expressed some things we can’t talk about openly, but which are roiling under the surface. Such as the confusion of whites who want to support this new country, but feel silenced in the face of black anger for their privilege, and who cannot openly complain about corruption, violence and misrule for fear of being called racist.

Shmukler plays a middle-aged white woman who grew up during apartheid, immersed in the opportunities and empowerment her skin colour conferred. She accumulated the benefits of education and possessions, but finds herself at this moment locked in the guest toilet of her fancy house in which black robbers are plundering her possessions, including her dogs that she is distraught about. Totally disempowered, she is forced to reflect on her own life.

She regards herself as having been a do-gooder white who treated her maid well and made a point of buying trinkets from black beggars at the roadside. Now she is a terrified woman filled with guilt, despair and anger, disempowered in a country where the blacks who run things have little empathy for the feelings of people like her. Poverty still remains the lot of most blacks, as it was during apartheid.

She considers: what if they kill her? That might be the only thing which can enable her to retain some dignity, since she cannot undo the history in which her children were cared for by her black domestic while her own children lived elsewhere in a poor black area.

What is the role of racial rage? Is it a necessary component of lancing the boil created by years of white oppression during colonialism and apartheid? A catharsis? Paradoxically, according to surveys of the Institute of Race Relations, attitudes between different races are better today than ever; most blacks, for example, rank poverty and unemployment as bigger problems than racism. It is often politicians who aggravate racial issues for their own ends.

Did the odious Penny Sparrow incident in January 2016 – when an estate agent posted on facebook that blacks filling Durban beach on New Year’s Day were like “monkeys” – have a positive outcome, because the national outrage it provoked from both blacks and whites made such expressions no longer acceptable? Or add more dirt to an infected wound?

Political leader Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters party made controversial public comments about Indians in KwaZulu-Natal in Durban on Saturday, saying they treated Africans as sub-humans, and their business success derived from exploitation: “They are ill-treating our people. They are worse than Afrikaners were. This is not an anti-Indian statement‚ it’s the truth.”

Was Malema’s straight-talking doing South Africa a service by bringing murky race obsessions to the surface, to be argued about openly rather than festering below? Or was it playing with fire in a country where racial tension could still be ignited and ravage the country? He also said: “If we can tell whites the truth we must also tell them.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Satish Dhupelia criticised Malema: “[You labelled] all Indians as being people who are ill-treating others and that is so blatantly wrong on so many levels.”

Racial paranoia is as potent a force as racism. The ‘Helen of Troyeville’ Gina Shmukler portrays could as well have been ‘Helen of Glenhazel’ hiding behind the high walls of her smart house, while the country is being plundered.

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