If I sing your anthem, will I feel at home in the world?


Anthems which ignite passions: Are they always liable to cause divisions by creating an enemy? Or unite people? In the picture, black and white players of the South African Springbok rugby team sing the South African national anthem.

WHEN Israeli writer David Grossman told bereaved Israelis and Palestinians on Memorial Day this month that “fortress Israel” is not yet a home for Jews because it is not “stable and relaxed” – among other things – it raised questions for South Africans about their own country. Are South Africans relaxed and feeling at home after the political earthquakes that have numbed and traumatised their society during apartheid and after it?

For South African Jews in particular, such questions become louder on occasions such as the recent Holocaust Memorial Day at Johannesburg’s West Park cemetery, when the singing of various anthems takes place after the speeches by Holocaust survivors and other dignitaries.

The South African anthem evoked nervous glances from white people in the crowd, looking to see if the black people present were offended that they didn’t know the anthem’s words – as if this would question their patriotism. The lyrics employ the five of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages – isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The five different languages were incorporated into the anthem as an attempt at South African reconciliation after apartheid. But the only part most white adults know is the English and Afrikaans, not the African languages, where they generally just hum along to the main refrain, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”

The African part was originally composed as a hymn in 1897 by Methodist school teacher Enoch Sontonga and became a symbol of defiance against apartheid. It means “G-d bless Africa.” Sadly, most white South Africans, particularly in the cities, cannot speak any African language at all or understand what black people are saying to each other.

The Jewish world has its own very special anthem which is in some ways a Jewish counterpart to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, based on Jewish experience. It is called the “Partizaner lid” – the Partisan Song – a defiant Yiddish song considered an anthem of Holocaust survivors which is sung in memorial services worldwide. It is about Jewish resistance and survival: After numerous attempts to destroy them by the Nazis and others, the Jews “are still here.” The lyrics were written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto who was inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Should Israel’s national anthem Hatikva be sung at such events? Some say it is essential, to celebrate the fact that the horror of the Holocaust was followed by the joy of Israel’s creation. A few people have reservations, however, saying that including it inappropriately politicises the event, since the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish trauma, not an Israeli one. Hitler targeted Jews of all stripes – Zionist and anti-Zionist, religious and non-religious.

Another white ethnic group experiencing similar questions about belonging as the Jews are the Afrikaners, who during apartheid passionately sang their own anthem, “Die Stem van Suid Afrika” – “the Call of South Africa.” Many Afrikaans farmers may soon be singing another national anthem – Australia’s – following a statement by its home affairs minister Peter Dutton that he would fast-track visas for white South African farmers because of the “horrific circumstances they face.” The SA government protested against his comment.

What’s in an anthem? Is it still a unifying symbol for which people will live or die? David Grossman’s son Uri died as a soldier in the 2006 Lebanon War, fighting for his country and, by implication, for the words of its anthem. But in Israel too, the anthem has controversy attached to it. Not all Israelis will sing it.

The passion and patriotism of anthems inspire people to do great things, but equally, evil. It’s worth remembering that the Nazis also had their anthems.

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

When politics turns populist, the smell of blood is in the air

Malema 4th ann EFF

Politics and populism: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema at the party’s fourth anniversary rally in Durban in July 2017. Speaking to a crowd of 7000, he hurled insults at then President Jacob Zuma, former president Thabo Mbeki, whites and KwaZulu-Natal Indians. He encouraged the crowd to occupy land.

DRAMA is nothing new for Julius Malema. Already making waves in 2013, the EFF leader appeared that year in the form of a large puppet of a baby in comedian and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys’ show, “Adapt or Fly.” Uys caricatured politicians who have governed South Africa from DF Malan onwards, showing most – excluding Nelson Mandela – as horrid. He transformed himself into the characters’ features, such as PW Botha’s gesticulating finger and scowl, and John Vorster’s thick eyebrows and sinister coldness, and held “Malema” in his arms. That infant is grown up now, and some of Uys’s predictions about Malema have come true.

The show was set in the period before the 2014 elections, amidst the horror of Jacob Zuma possibly becoming president again. At the end, Uys raised the house lights, sat on the stage facing the audience, and appealed to those younger than 25 who hadn’t yet voted, to register and take control – if only they had, we might have avoided the nine-year Zuma disaster.

Portraying Malema, Uys threaded an analogy with Hitler. Since then, Malema has become one of the most important South African politicians – his party is the third largest, characterised by its members’ unruliness and red garb. Last Saturday he brought Soweto’s Orlando Stadium, packed with thousands, to a standstill as he delivered his emotion-packed funeral tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Social media was abuzz afterwards, praising him.

When Uys displayed the Malema puppet in 2013, the message was to remember how Hitler, an incredibly charismatic and populist speaker, achieved power, with his policy of National Socialism. He promised the German masses to fix the economy, provide jobs for everyone, bring back Germans’ dignity, and rectify the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty after the First World War. The seemingly direct simplicity of it appealed viscerally to Germans. Even some Jews endorsed him, not knowing what was to follow.

When Malema made his potent speech at Winnie’s funeral, filled with populist slogans with which millions could identify, such as ending corruption, free education for all, jobs for all, nationalising mines and banks, expropriating land without compensation, and eliminating ‘white monopoly capital’ some would say Uys’ cautionary voice was in the background – things aren’t as simple as the slogans.

Was Uys behaving like an irrelevant ‘old white man’ in 2013, detached from South Africa’s new reality? Some would say yes. Others recall his sharp satirical skills during his heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, when he highlighted the apartheid state’s insanity. In his most recent show which opened a few weeks ago, entitled ‘‘When in doubt say Darling’’ he plays an elderly man in the process of packing his life into boxes before entering a retirement home. The sharpness for which he was renowned was blunted. He finds nothing important in the newspapers.

Malema has made a significant, positive impact on South African politics, forcefully raising crucial issues the old guard preferred to keep quiet. For that, South Africa must thank him.

His tribute to Winnie was dramatic, both in substance and in his passionate delivery: “She put the country first, above her own personal safety… and confronted gun-carrying white men who were sworn killers of the apartheid defence force…” He addressed her directly: “…you fought for what you believed was right, possessed only by your love for our people and the restoration of their dignity.”

Was Uys wrong about Malema in 2013? Is he the future president who will inject new energy into the country? Or a threat? His vibrant youthfulness is his drawcard, while his aggressiveness and racism towards whites is tolerated. People said he would mature and become more reasonable. To some extent, he has, becoming more sophisticated in his politics. But who will he be tomorrow?

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


Is this the Wild West or the Middle East?

march of return

What to do about Gaza? Thousands of Palestinians joined in a March of Return at the border with Israel on March 30. Israeli soldiers set up positions facing them across the border. Snipers picked off individual demonstrators. The world watches as the casualties mount, and no-one knows how it will end. In the picture, Israeli soldiers face demonstrators.

ONE thing which puzzles Diaspora Jews seeing images of Israeli soldiers facing masses of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in the March of Return at the Gaza border, and hearing reports of killings by Israeli snipers, is: Why is Israel not using non-lethal means of riot control? Live fire is not the only way.

For South African eyes and ears, pictures of demonstrators being shot evokes memories of one of South Africa’s greatest traumas – the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when some 6,000 unarmed black people protesting the pass laws converged on police; many were shot, some in the back as they fled, resulting in 69 dead and 180 wounded.

The contexts of these two events are so fundamentally different that comparison is absurd – unless one considers the mere existence of Israel to be equivalent to apartheid. South African black people were never aiming to destroy the South African state, but destroy the apartheid system; the Palestinian goal, expressed clearly by Hamas, is destruction of Israel.

While that is true, Sharpeville’s effect on South Africa’s political landscape was profound; if the Palestinians’ March of Return gathers momentum and more are killed, it could reignite severe focus on Gaza and Israel’s role.

It seems that under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s response to ‘trouble’ from the Palestinians is to quickly resort to massive force rather than a non-violent approach. Diaspora Jewry is repelled by this, even if seen from their situation of relative privilege; an American Jew in the safety of his California home cannot imagine American soldiers firing on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. Why, they ask, should Israel do it? The answer is that Israel shouldn’t be doing it, there are other means.

Diaspora Jews’ existential dangers are nothing like Israel’s. But from where they sit, Israel seems to be unnecessarily choosing lethal means over non-lethal ones. It seems the hawkish Netanyahu is not interested in how the Diaspora sees him. But even high-profile, respected right-wingers in the Diaspora, such as Ronald Lauder, are beginning to speak against him.

Some people on the right claim Israel’s record is clean as a whistle compared to the sickening Syrian violence – the latest outrage being a gas attack by dictator Assad on his opponents. And that the world should stop complaining about little Israel.

But Syria is not the standard by which to judge the Jewish state. The value of human life is a Jewish precept, including a Palestinian demonstrator’s life. How to control riots without killing demonstrators?

The March of Return, which Hamas has exploited for its own agenda, is expected to continue for weeks. Thus far there have been close to 30 fatalities and hundreds wounded. Some Hamas members have tried to plant rudimentary explosive devices across the border fence.

Israel’s failure to develop nonlethal methods to disperse demonstrators at relatively long distances has been discussed in security circles for many years; the State Comptroller explicitly commented on it in 2003 and 2017. The historical background was that, at the height of the second intifada in 2002, IDF soldiers under the Gaza Division operated under flexible rules of engagement which allowed them to shoot at anyone approaching the border fence from Gaza.

Even then, this was not accepted by all officers. For example, the current IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, who was a young division commander at the time, objected to these open-fire directives and instructed his soldiers in armoured battalions to ignore them, and not routinely approve shooting at a person approaching the fence before their intentions were known.

Netanyahu should not be allowed to become the face of Israel today. A trigger-happy Israel loses not only the soul of the Zionist project, but also the support of Diaspora Jewry.

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