Whose shoulders are you dancing on? And why?

Adventures of mr toad

For the love of children and theatre: The Adventures of Mr Toad, based on Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows, was directed this year at the National Children’s Theatre in Johannesburg by Francois Theron. who produced 42 plays at the Theatre in the past eight years until his death last week

WHAT WOULD compel you to attend the funeral of someone you had never met? In the last ten days, two great men in the arts in South Africa have passed on: Francois Theron, artistic director of the National Children’s Theatre, and veteran photographer David Goldblatt. This country is the poorer for losing them, and the clarity they brought in confusing times.

Theron, who captivated children with classics such as The Pied Piper, The Wizard of Oz and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as local shows performed by professional actors, died last week. He was a maestro of children’s theatre in Johannesburg. Exposing young children to high-quality theatre to ignite a lifelong flame in them was his goal. Located in a heritage building in the old neighborhood of Parktown, the Theatre was founded in 1989 as a non-profit by Joyce Levinsohn. The current director is Moira Katz.


HOLD it with care: Francois Theron as Horton the elephant in Seussical.


Watching excited tots buzzing on the theatre’s floor in front of the stage, and their parents and schoolteachers revelling in the spectacle from behind, was Theron’s delight. During his eight years at the Theatre, he produced 42 plays.

Theron was born in 1965 and grew up during apartheid. By the time he came of age as a director, however, apartheid had been dismantled, and in the past eight years of his career at the National Children’s Theatre, he could concentrate directly on the children and performers, black or white. But in the past, apartheid affected everything. Great theatre confronting apartheid goes way back, much of it linked to the late Barney Simon, co-founder in 1976 of Johannesburg’s gutsy Market Theatre – home to the country’s first non-racial theatre movement. One had to be brave to fight the regime. Contravening racial laws and working under threat of arrest, Simon staged provocative plays with multiracial casts to multiracial audiences, challenging apartheid bullies.

Ballerinas also work on the stage, and during apartheid South Africa’s legendary prima ballerina, the late Phyllis Spira, was accepted at London’s Royal Ballet School in 1959, and was the only South African awarded the Prima Ballerina Absoluta in 1964, classical European dance’s highest accolade, in recognition of her work as a powerful influence on cultural trends in dance. She was never directly affected by apartheid or the growing cultural boycotts of South Africa, nor was her work overtly political in any way. However, she is still respected as one of the icons of South African art of that period.

While Spira captivated audiences with movement, another South African who made words dance like a ballerina during apartheid was Lionel Abrahams – described as the ‘yeast in the dough’ of South African literature. A novelist, poet, editor, critic, essayist and publisher, he was born with cerebral palsy, making him walk with undulating movements. He was eventually confined to a wheelchair – the ballerina’s opposite. But language was his joy, and critics said he “could make it dance as he himself, severely disabled from birth, could not”. Until his death, he enriched writers and artists as teacher, editor and critic, delivering advice with a cheeky humour.

Dancing happened on easels too in those times, with painters’ colours led by artist Bill Ainslie, a quiet man who established the Johannesburg Art Foundation in 1982 in an old heritage building in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. He was a major force in developing young black and other artists, such as Mmagkabo Helen Sebidi, William Kentridge, Dumile Feni and David Koloane, some of whom went on to have illustrious careers which they might not have done without his help in breaking through apartheid restrictions. He helped start the Federated Union of Black Artists in 1976; the Thupelo Art Project in 1985; and the Alexandra Art Centre in 1986, where he provided inspiration and possibilities to many young black artists. Ainslie was killed in a car accident in 1989.

At some point, even for artists, the dancing stops. What is left is their life’s work. Tuesday saw two very moving events, just three hours apart. One was the memorial in the main auditorium of the Market Theatre for Theron, attended by the cream of Johannesburg’s theatre industry. The other was the funeral of Goldblatt at West Park cemetery, attended by the cream of the intellectual and artistic world.


The power of a camera lens: David Goldblatt

Goldblatt was a great man who danced with his camera lens and enormous wisdom, and who will be sorely missed. He documented South African scenes in thousands of pictures over his lifetime, during and after apartheid, mainly in black and white, with the finest artist’s touch. His work is held in major museum collections worldwide and has been published in numerous books. A solo exhibition of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1998. A comprehensive retrospective of his work opened in the AXA Gallery in New York in 2001, offering an overview of his oeuvre from 1948 to 1999.

Theron and Goldblatt were humble men who brought magic. What is the value of standing at the graves of such giants, whether you knew them or not? It’s all we can do to thank them for giving us their gift.

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

  • A version of this article was first published in the SA Jewish Report on June 27, 2018


Cry the beloved State Theatre

STASTE THEATRE (3)IF AN OVERSEAS VISITOR wanted to understand some of the reasons people want to leave South Africa for Israel, the UK or other countries, he or she might visit Pretoria’s state theatre.

This huge complex was built doing apartheid by the government, in the brutalist architectural style popular at the time, a reflection of its status as a cultural icon presenting opera, classical concerts and ballet. It contains theatres and auditoria equipped with facilities for major productions. Its shows were never radical like the Market Theatre’s protest performances in Johannesburg, but in the euphoria of Nelson Mandela’s becoming president in democratic South Africa, expectations rose for a more adventurous tone.

But in the ’90s the theatre in effect became dormant. It reopened in 2001, offering its six venues – the Opera, Drama, Arena, Rendezvous, Momentum, and Studio – for hire.

Today it is in a state of such disgraceful decay, you would be ashamed to bring overseas visitors there. Upon arrival, you enter the underground parking, which is so confusing you have to ask a security guard where the entrance to the actual theatre is, and he must come with his keys to unlock the filthy doors. There are long stairways to be climbed, and no wheelchair access to some of the main spaces. When you pay for your parking, the guard stands alongside you at the machine, and when your R5 change comes out, he turns into a beggar, holds out his hand and says ‘for bread please?’ – implying that if you don’t hand it over, your car might not be looked after.

Most of the complex is closed and unused, like a morgue.  Yet, incredibly, within this awful mess, a brilliant play was performed last week in one of the smaller spaces, called ‘The Fall’ about the students’ movement to remove Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from Cape Town University campus.

The complexity of the struggle to ‘decolonise’ South Africa is portrayed with such brilliant directing and choreography that one leaves the theatre vibrating with the power of the performance and inspired that if South Africa contains such talent in its youth, all will eventually be well.

Then you return to the dirty corridors and tunnels back to the underground parking, and into the street where one is pounced on by pathetic beggars at your car window. The emotions of the evening’s experience fight with each other.

At dinner parties among white South Africans, conversations often turn to which country to emigrate to. Canada? America? Australia? Israel? The criterion is that whatever country is chosen, it must actually ‘work’. Where the government does what it’s supposed to do. The streets are clean, the bureaucracy functions. Many people have children or friends living elsewhere; the topic turns to the last Skype conversation with them, and the sadness that most will never return to this country; families they left behind will die here, lonely.

All the countries listed above have problems. America has Donald Trump and his support from hard right Evangelists. European countries have dangerously increasing anti-Semitism.

And Israel has its interminable political and security crisis, continuing to tear itself apart in arguments over occupation of the Palestinian territories, flaming kites from Gaza, and Netanyahu’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the country. But nevertheless, it feels like a country on the ‘upslope’, not the down, its economy booming and people flowing in.

Does one continue to be optimistic and believe South African politicians have the best interests of the country at heart, and the looting of state coffers will stop? Or that Ramaphosa will turn the country around after the Zuma nightmare?

South Africans are desperately seeking an assurance things will turn out okay. The state theatre is a metaphor for the country’s best and worst. If the government turned two thirds of it into a well-run hospital, but kept a small theatre for brilliant productions, it would be better than letting it rot. It’s about the difference between despair and hope.

  • Read a review of THE FALL by independent art critic Robyn Sassen

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

  • A version of this article was first published in the SA Jewish Report on June 22, 2018

Fiddling with strangers: why do we think we can?

Gay Pride Parade Tel Aviv June 07/2013

Breaking boundaries, taboo or not? Since 1998 gay pride parades have grown in Tel Aviv. This year the parade attracted 250,000 people, for which main roads were closed off in the central city. The photo shows the parade in 2017

DO YOU remember a time in this country when people thought it was witty to call a man who seemed effeminate by the derogatory term ‘moffie’? Such pejorative language made homosexual people frightened to openly be themselves. That word is mostly gone now, but societies still struggle to catch up with the increasing recognition of different kinds of sexuality, which were once hidden.

Other forms of punishment exist. Incredibly, “corrective” rape of lesbians is still perpetrated in South African townships. It has been highlighted by black lesbian Zanele Muholi, a self-described visual activist working in photography, portraying black lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex people – the LGBTI community. She is a professor at University of the Arts Bremen in Germany. In a story in The Guardian last year, she called her work “a space for people to be visible, respected and recognised”.

Her message: Despite having the most progressive constitution and equality laws, South Africans are far from accepting the prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation – in other words, accepting different forms of sexuality. The LGBTI population fears attacks, murders and “corrective” rapes. Women photographed by Muholi have died after “corrective” rape. A recent play by Phyllis Klotz – founder of Sibikwa dance and theatre company – called Chapter 2 Section 9, reinforces this point, portraying true stories of black women, broken for being lesbians.


zanele (2)

Works from an exhibition by Zanele Muholi in Nottinghamshire, UK, called Somnyama Ngonyama (Hail, the Dark Lioness in isiZulu), comprising over 75 photographs using the body as a canvas to confront the politics of race and representation

Elsewhere in the world, the picture is different: Last Friday saw a festive gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, of 250,000 people, for which the city closed major roads. Religious figures who don’t accept gay legitimacy recoil at this, such as leaders of Orthodox Judaism. They say homosexuality is a “choice”, not inherently part of a person’s identity, and through therapy people can – and should – be persuaded to choose otherwise. Are people in the parade transgressing G-d’s will? Some say no. Others say yes, that mere large numbers don’t prove such a point.

For rabbis who reject homosexuality, it’s a difficult dilemma when a gay member of a congregation wants to hold a formal position in a shul, or study to be a rabbi. Or a gay Jewish man wants to marry another man, which is legal in 26 countries including South Africa, Australia, Canada and the United States, and wants the rabbi to perform the ceremony.

Is one’s LGBTI status a religious or human rights issue? America’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman said he was “proud” of the Tel Aviv parade, tweeting: “…Promoting, protecting, and advancing human rights – including the rights of LGBTI persons – has long been the policy of the United States.”

Some gay rights activists directly confront the establishment. Steven Cohen – one of South Africa’s most flamboyant performance artists – grew up during apartheid, served in the army, and now lives in Paris. In the past, he courageously attended a rugby game at Pretoria’s Loftus Versveld stadium dressed as a character he devised called Ugly Girl, in feathers and other provocative regalia, and mingled with the ultra-conservative crowd, who called him derogatory names and threatened him.

Why is somebody else’s sex life everybody’s business? Some people ask why the LGBTI community makes such a parade – why not just be who you are, without a big show? Part of the answer is that coming out with one’s identity is difficult. A mass parade gives support.

Pressure on the LGBTI community takes different forms. They may be practical and violent such as “corrective” rape. Or subtle, by shunning and shaming. Outwardly, a world of difference lies between Zanele Muholi’s artworks and Tel Aviv’s parade. But the message is similar – there are a myriad legitimate ways to be human.

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


Labels and epithets: who are you calling ‘loony’?

dylan-bm in Jerusalme 1983

Call me Zionist if you want: Bob Dylan attended the barmitzva of his son Jesse at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 1983, in the period when he had also been dabbling in Christianity.  He recounts how the press worldwide interpreted his visits to the Wall as evidence that he had become a “Zionist”

EVERY one of South Africa’s diverse communities has its rebels who stand outside, or who go against the mainstream on contentious issues – Jews, Greeks, Afrikaners, Chinese and others. Sometimes the mainstream closes ranks and rejects them; at other times an argument ensues, with all sides weighing in. For the Jewish community, the relationship with Israel is an issue which constantly simmers and divides Jews, as Israel’s complex standing internationally swings between positive and negative, and its needs for defense and security factor in, along with the search for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There is a term  which mainstream Jews use for Jews on the far left who show up at Israeli-oriented events and protest against Israel with pro-Palestinian supporters, condemning Israel for its ‘oppression’ of the Palestinians – they are called the ‘loony left’. Should one endorse or take exception to this label? Among them are members of the group JVJP (Jewish Voices for a Just Peace) who have waved vitriolic anti-Israel banners at Israeli Independence Day celebrations and elsewhere.

When a speaker at a Limmud seminar (a Jewish group which explores different perspectives on being Jewish in this era) in Johannesburg last weekend used the term ‘loony left’, it evoked a strong response from an audience member: “I take issue with your use of that phrase….” The speaker apologized immediately, showing that the term is not endorsed by all.

The challenge the ‘loony left’ poses to Jews is: what is Israel about, and what is Zionism? Most Jewish South Africans are ardent Zionists. Their rage is palpable – even understandable, given that Zionism is a pillar of their community life – when the ‘loony left’ shows up with negative banners and slogans at their celebrations of Israel and Zionism.

What should one make of these ‘aberrant’ Jews? Dismiss them as self-hating? Or be more sympathetic, believing everyone is entitled to their viewpoint and should be engaged with? Or perhaps be supportive – historically, it has often been the aberrant members of society, blowing their whistles, who were retrospectively identified as bearers of the sanest stance although they were reviled at the time.

Being Zionistic is almost axiomatic for SA Jews; this community has traditionally been one of Israel’s greatest supporters. But Zionism is not axiomatic for Jews everywhere. Among American Jews, for example – the world’s second largest Jewish community – attachment to Israel, once strong, has weakened considerably in recent years, particularly among the youth who say Israel’s values today, such as aggressive nationalism, ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and a failure to seek peace with the Palestinians, conflict with their own values.

Some American Jews were never Zionists. The world’s greatest folk singer, Bob Dylan – recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – explores in his autobiography, Chronicles, the personal difficulties of being revered by the masses. He didn’t want to be the “toastmaster” of any generation, he says, and as a wry tactic to counteract being seen as a perfect leader by the leftist counterculture of the ‘60s who were unsympathetic toward Israel, “…  I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist.”

SA Jews outside the mainstream are also not all Zionists. But studies show that most of those who identify strongly with being Jewish, whether they are professionals in general society, academics, writers and so on, and whether they are politically right or left, support Israel’s right to exist even though they may not explicitly call themselves Zionists. But they are critical of its government’s policies. Current events such the Israel-Gaza conflict disturb them, but also deeper issues such as Israel’s embrace of US President Donald Trump, despite the buffoonery of the man who now heads the world’s most powerful nation.

The same applies to many members of the Jewish ‘loony left’ – they support Israel’s right to exist, but object to its government’s policies, and abhor Trump and what he stands for.

Where does this leave the mainstream community? Could the ‘loony’ label itself be discarded, with a recognition that they have something worth listening to? Or could the mainstream itself change its borders, to incorporate a greater degree of debate and argument about what Israel and Zionism stand for?

For the foreseeable future, the relationship to Israel will roil and boil among Jews as long as the conflict remains unresolved. It may be seen as a poison in their midst; or as part of the important debates about peoplehood, nationalism and community, and how individuals fit into these things.

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