Homelessness: It’s never what you think

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Street teacher: Moses Velaphi is a homeless man from Kwazulu-Natal who found a way of earning money from regular drivers at traffic lights by teaching them a new Zulu word each day on his board (CCTN AFRICA)

WHAT is the personal story of the black beggar in dirty rags who approaches your car window at a traffic light, pointing to his mouth, asking for food? You often hear complaints from residents of Johannesburg’s middle class neighbourhoods about being bothered by homeless beggars, making them scared to open their windows.

Three weeks ago at the Kingsmead Book Fair, hosted at Kingsmead College – an elite girls-only school in upmarket Rosebank, Johannesburg – one of the most moving panel discussions focused on a critically acclaimed film called Vaya, whose team included Anthony Mafela, a once-homeless man. Vaya enjoyed a limited screening at local cinemas last year and gave rise to a book, Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg. The film tells true stories of rural people from Kwazulu-Natal coming to the city, who land up in desperate situations. After the speakers’ presentations a sincere question came from an obviously privileged white woman in the audience: “What is it like to be homeless?” None of the panelists answered satisfactorily; they skirted the question. How to describe having nothing, to someone with everything?

Vaya, directed by Akin Amotoso, portrays real-life stories of three homeless people – the kind drivers might glimpse from car windows. A taste of the underbelly of Johannesburg – one of the world’s most unequal cities – existing alongside mainly white middle class suburbs like Glenhazel, Sandton or elsewhere. The script is crafted from the Homeless Writers’ Project, which started in 2009.

It opens with three hopeful people on a train from rural KZN en route to Johannesburg – each expecting help from family, but finding themselves alone and in danger. The first, Nhlanhla, has no money for lobola to marry Sihle in KZN, so he is going to Joburg to make money after a cousin offers him a job, but is quickly trapped into the world of gangsters, becoming a killer dependent on gang bosses. The second, the beautiful young woman Zanele, comes to the city with her friend’s child, wanting to be a dancer and finds herself – and the child – on the point of being sold into the illegal trade in women. The third, Nkulu, has come to fetch his migrant-worker father’s dead body from the mines, to take home to his KZN family for the ancestors’ sake, only to discover that his father had built a second family in the city and only visited his original wife and family in KZN every six months, leaving Nkulu in limbo in Johannesburg.

In streets leading up to Kingsmead College on the day of the fair were parked rows of gleaming 4x4s and other expensive fair-goers’ cars; across the road at Rosebank Mall were shops selling international brands of clothes and food. And as if to push the searing disparities in your face, barefooted beggars in dirty rags hung around the avenue of jacaranda trees at the school entrance.

The exploration into ‘underground’ Johannesburg includes an intriguing book series by Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis called ‘Wake up, this is Joburg’, published by Fourthwall Books. It tells stories of ten inhabitants in the city’s ‘alternative economy’. One depicts ‘survivors’ carving out a precarious living chopping up S’kop – cows’ heads rejected by traditional butcheries whose meat is eaten amongst poorer sections of the society – under the highways and in abandoned buildings, invisible to ordinary Johannesburg residents. They fly by the seat of their pants, amongst xenophobia and a changing city.

What do the visitors to the Kingsmead Fair – and the readers of this column – with roofs over their heads and cars in their garages, make of this other, invisible world? At least the sense that the ragged people at their car windows have stories as interesting and relevant to the city as theirs.

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


Ways of seeing: you, me and them

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Does the camera lie? One of the pictures taken by a photojournalist during the 1976 Soweto riots helped bring down apartheid. Today, with cameras in every cellphone, social media can send images, not always accurate, across the world instantly

SAM NZIMA died two days before last week’s killings along the Israel-Gaza border. He was the South African photojournalist for The World newspaper who took the picture during the 1976 Soweto riots of the bloody schoolchild Hector Peterson being carried in the arms of a frantic young boy after being shot by apartheid police. Most people don’t know Sam’s name. But by the next day the photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from New York to Moscow and is held worldwide as a symbol of the reality that was black peoples’ lives. It marked a turning point in the struggle.

Israel is not apartheid, nor are Palestinians black South Africans. But the pictures flashing around the world from the Gaza killings are seared into peoples’ minds as symbols of what happened. Israel looks as bad as apartheid – how many Hector Petersons were there that day?

After thousands of words have been written about historical events, it is often the photographs that most define their meaning. For example, the naked 9-year old Vietnamese girl running down a road in 1972 away from a napalm attack – known later as Napalm girl – which made Americans see the Vietnam War differently; the lone man – later called Tank Man – who stood in front of a column of Chinese army tanks in 1989, after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests; an unidentified man falling headfirst after jumping from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center – later nicknamed Falling Man – in 2001 after Al Qaeda terrorists crashed aircraft into the building and destroyed it; the picture of the Jewish boy with a yellow star of David on his lapel, walking out of a building in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, hands in the air, surrounded by German soldiers with rifles, which became emblematic of the Holocaust.

Three Israeli pictures from May 14, when seen together, capture the crudeness of what happened that day: The first is a beaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the new American embassy building in Jerusalem, with a Barbie-doll-like Ivanka Trump unveiling a plaque with her father’s name – US President Donald Trump – followed by the singing of “Hallelujah” by the right-wing politicians from both countries.

The second smiling image was when 50,000 Israelis congregated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to celebrate Israeli singer Netta Barzilai’s win at the Eurovision Song Contest, and hear her sing her song ‘Toy’ twice over.

The third, as if on another planet yet just an hour away, was the bloody confrontation between IDF soldiers and 40,000 Gaza Palestinians who were storming the border fence, resulting in 60 Palestinians killed and thousands injured. To viewers around the world, particularly South Africans, the melee looked like Soweto, June 1976 – stolid security forces facing frantic rioters. It wasn’t, but that’s the way it looked.

“What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history,” Netanyahu told the inauguration ceremony at the US embassy. The mixture of the three scenes will be viewed by future historians as so bizarre as to wonder if the facts are correct. Why was he smiling so cheerfully when the Gaza border was burning?

Images can be spread instantly worldwide these days via social media. But life is not made up only of images. Beneath, lies a reality. Gaza is a desperate place. Israel is not fully responsible for what is happening there. Hamas rules cruelly, and wanted the world to see Israelis killing Palestinians. It succeeded wildly.

Sam Nzima’s picture of Hector Peterson influenced millions. Last week’s pictures of Israel, looked at together, swayed millions against it. Can this negative tide be turned, for now and for history?

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

Is there any solid ground in this quicksand of rage?



The rage and the response: Palestinian protesters on Israel’s border with Gaza face teargas and other harsh means as Israel tries to keep them away from the border fence. Some 60 Palestinians were killed by live fire from Israel in the protests

SOUTH AFRICAN Jews can be forgiven for being confused about Israel and South Africa, both of which concern them immensely. The abiding feeling is a conflict of loyalties.

This week’s conflagration in Israel looms large, with Monday’s lethal clash with some 40,000 Palestinians protesting along the Gaza border, and reports saying 60 were killed and 1200 wounded, with more expected in coming days.

SA Jews generally believe the United Nations is biased against Israel. Thus, when two-thirds of the Security Council expressed “profound concern” Monday night, complaining that a 2016 resolution demanding that Israel must stop building settlements on Palestinian land was being ignored, they were not surprised. Nor that Ireland – also considered anti-Israel – demanded an independent investigation into the killings.

But when, to many Jews’ dismay, the SA government, in crude and one-sided, inflammatory language, immediately recalled its ambassador to Israel and called on Israel to “withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories”, it was too much: South Africa didn’t seem to know that Israel withdrew in 2005.

All of this came just after Israel’s Independence Day celebration and opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, which most SA Jews praised. So whose side to take?

The official response of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation said the government’s decision was “outrageous and displays gross double standards… against the Jewish state.” But many will criticise it harshly for entertaining no questions about any conceivable failures on both sides in the situation, even if they were unintentional – an “Israel is completely right, the Palestinians are completely wrong” attitude. They will see it as a blind closing of ranks with no grey areas, and not as a call for all South Africans to understand that there are many sides to the conflict.

The SAJBD’s long-standing mandate is looking after Jewish community welfare, not national politics. But where does the line lie? It will argue that SA policy towards Israel directly affects the welfare of the Jewish community and that SA criticism of Israel provokes anti-Semitism. Many Jews will agree. Some may not.

Numerous questions beg answers from Israel and South Africa. Israel had put in place measures to avoid loss of Palestinian lives, particularly because of criticisms after unarmed Palestinians were killed in previous weeks. What happened?

Who controls SA foreign policy? Is it President Cyril Ramaphosa, admired as the man who will repair the country? SA politics is as complex as Israel’s; no one knows what’s going on in the struggle between him and the old Zuma network of patronage. Until recently there was a feeling of ‘ramaphoria’ about him – the messiah coming to save the country.

He has begun fixing things and ejecting corrupt individuals. But his support is fragile; he treads carefully around powerful people. If he proposed a different Israel stance, would he anger ANC members? How important is his Jewish constituency? ANC policy supports the two-state solution – Israel living alongside Palestine. But ANC heavyweights strongly favour the Palestinians.

In the SA media, Israel was a front page story for some, but it won’t last. The truth is, most people are tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s more of the same, year after year, with no solution in sight.

Most ordinary people watch the news and shrug. Some take an emotional position after watching a certain item, but change it soon after; there are too many variables, it’s too complex. Ultimately, many withdraw and go on with their lives. The danger is that at times like this, people get sucked into a mob mentality, separating everyone into ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ as if those on the other side are not human.

There are people on all sides with dreams and hopes for a better life.

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



How to keep your wits in a trigger-happy world

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Is it guns who kill, or the people who use them? Gun advocates such as US president Donald Trump say it’s the latter. The scourge of gun-related killings in America and South Africa – the worst in the world – puts his words to a severe test. 

HATE him or love him, American president Donald Trump provokes debate on just about everything, the latest being his theatrical pro-gun speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Friday. South Africans listening to it should be worried about guns in their own country, which comes second only to America on gun-related homicides per capita in the world.

Despite America’s shocking statistics on gun violence, Trump fiercely defended their right to own guns. America’s rate of gun violence exceeds all other developed countries – a 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun homicide than people in other wealthy countries. But Trump, insanely, advocates even more guns. To make his point, he quoted the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, where Islamist gunmen murdered staff at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, shoppers at a Jewish supermarket, and others. If civilians were armed, he said, “it would have been a whole different story.” Can you just imagine the bloodbath?

Sadly, the rate of firearm-related killings in South Africa ranks just behind America, which has 10.2 deaths per 100,000 population – the highest in the world. South Africa has 9.4 per 100,000. Next on the list is Switzerland, way down at 3.84. These figures are from a study by American medical professionals based on data from 2010-2012.

Middle and upper class South Africans don’t experience this reality directly because they are shielded behind high walls and security guards in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, and lead a semblance of first-world lives. But if they read the papers they may be aware of the effect on poorer people in townships and elsewhere. Studies report that 18 people are shot and killed every day in South Africa.

In America, politics plays a huge role for Trump: the NRA, one of the country’s most politically powerful groups which can make or break politicians, zealously resists gun control. It is generally easier to be a legal gun owner “than it is to be a legal driver,” says David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center.

South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa, promises to fix the country after the 9-year Zuma debacle. But he has enemies, and violence in SA society is deep-rooted and goes back decades. The figures are shocking: According to a 2014 report of the IEP (Institute for Economics and Peace) South Africa ranks as the 15th worst country worldwide for societal safety and security, and the 8th most violent, with a homicide rate – gun-related and others – of 31 per 100,000 people. Rates like this are generally found in countries with serious ongoing crises or at war.

Does a country with external threats risk higher internal violence because of stress? Not necessarily; Israel exists in a region of major violent conflicts along its borders, and continuous threats to annihilate it, but its rate of gun-related deaths, at 2.16 per 100,000 is extremely low compared to the 9.4 quoted above for SA.

The daily experiences of the two nations’ inhabitants reflect these figures. Israelis have no hesitation going out in the streets late at night, including young people, men and women. But drive through many neighbourhoods in South Africa and you’ll see the massive walls with barbed wire around the houses, and the cars of private security companies patrolling the streets. Go to almost any shopping centre at 9 at night, and you’ll find few people there, and entertainment facilities mostly closed by then.

Can South Africans repair their society? Trump has many followers in gun-happy America who want even more guns. Taking his cue and giving ‘innocent’ people more guns in South Africa would be madness. Yet how to stop it? It causes many of the best South Africans who can still leave, to do so.

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 moment when everything changes?


Hidden threat under cups of coffee: The liveliness and enjoyment of crowds in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighbourhood covers a sinister challenge for Israel – will it be irrevocably stained as Israeli soldiers are instructed to fire at unarmed protesters on the Gaza border?

IN EVERY nation, certain events are identified by historians looking back as tipping points which defined its character and soul. Israel’s wars are markers – the War of Independence, Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, which gave Israelis and Jews the feeling they weren’t doomed to forever be “strangers” in other peoples’ countries. Crucial moments in the Jewish soul.

It doesn’t have to be war in the conventional sense; it could reside under the surface of everyday reality, as it does on this seventieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

Anyone visiting Neve Tzedek, the artsy area in South Tel Aviv last Friday night would have seen the incredible buzz of people, young and old of all cultures and languages confidently enjoying themselves at cafes and strolling the streets, and might have been inspired at how far Israel has come and the confidence of its citizens. Israeli flags hung on almost every street pole, from every window, and on cars’ aerials. At the crowded shuk’s’ entrance, a man sang popular 1960s songs amidst the flags.

But if you went into a café and listened to conversations, you would hear sprinkled among them, the ‘war’ going on just across the border a few kilometres away over the Green Line, in the West Bank and Gaza, beyond the privileged Tel Aviv ‘bubble’. There is also talk of a new force in politics, not just to do with the shaky coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding together amidst scandals, but about a potent recent incident: The morality of Israeli soldiers shooting and killing unarmed protesters on March 30, at the Gaza border during protests there, which started a train of events Israel seems unable to stop.

That event may be what historians will identify as the point when even ardent believers in the justice of the Jews’ statehood could not excuse its actions – where in some respects, Israel lost something in its soul.

Such markers in a nation’s character don’t have to be bloody. In the United States, the Rosa Parks incident, where a black woman refused to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955, triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States. The flurry which the incident generated became a symbol of the indignities black people were constantly subjected to, affecting the soul of the nation and its sense of morality. She is internationally recognised as the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement” in America. Everyone knows the name Rosa Parks.

Other tipping points affecting inner, personal feelings in the United States include the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001, which future historians might one day interpret as the beginning of the third world war.

For the new South Africa, the 2012 killings at Marikana will probably qualify as the tipping point for negative perceptions about the ANC, as the 1960 Sharpeville massacre was for the apartheid government.

Sometimes tipping points are contradictory. South Africa’s difficult situation today regarding rising racial tensions, inequality and poverty, suggests that rather than being the dawn of a new, bright era, the much heralded 1994 democratic elections might be seen by future historians as the beginning of a new decline of SA into a corrupt, bankrupt country. What a tragedy, after the bitter struggle that was waged here.

Another glance at the buzz in Neve Tzedek reveals that behind the façade of joy and laughter, lies the uncomfortable knowledge that something much more difficult and complex is playing out. How to recapture the moral high ground after incidents such as the shooting of unarmed civilians is no less of a struggle for Israel than winning a war.

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