Docility: Our society’s quiet calamity

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If I pay you under the counter will you cook the books? And if you refuse at first, will you do it if I raise the price?


WHERE are the youth protestors, the ‘trouble-makers’ who keep all societies alive? What on earth will it take for South Africans to become so riled up by the corruption revealed in the Zondo and other commissions that they take to the streets with placards, demonstrate outside the commission’s Parktown premises and block off roads outside homes of people implicated for corruption?

Remember the threats by thousands during the anti-apartheid struggle to make the country ‘ungovernable’? It seemed sure that after apartheid’s defeat, protest against injustice was embedded into this country’s DNA. But it appears that docility has won, that the self-indulgence of staring into cellphones for Tweets replaces action.

What a pity. In 2015 – not that long ago – we had the intense #FeesMustFall movement to stop increasing student fees, and the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, symbol of British colonialism, at the University of Cape Town. Whether one agreed with all the actions of the angry protestors or not, what was important was the passion they displayed to correct things.

Why is corruption on the gigantic scale revealed by the Gupta and Agrizzi sagas and the theft of billions in public money designated for poor South Africans, not enough to get the blood of the youth boiling? Is it too abstract, removed from most peoples’ daily lives?

Leaders call for a calm approach, to ‘let the law take its course’. And the ANC, many of whose senior members face corruption allegations, continues deploying them on its campaign trail, including tainted former president Jacob Zuma. The party says they have not been legally convicted, so there is no reason for them not to be its public face.

But most South Africans don’t believe those guilty of corruption will ever suffer any consequences. If they are charged in court, they will drag out the process endlessly, with appeal after appeal, as Zuma did with charges against him.

What if a person has had enough of the charade, and wanted to protest individually, not wait for a movement? While South African and Israeli issues differ, there was an example of such an individual act on Sunday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, when controversial Israeli performance artist and playwright Ariel Bronz chained himself by the neck with a lock and chains to a steel beam that is part of a Holocaust memorial sculpture. He said it was to protest what he called the ‘substandard treatment’ received in Israel by Holocaust survivors, and he was staging an ‘anti-event’ on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He was injured in the process and hospitalised.

What would be the equivalent individual act in South Africa? Would young people be prepared to chain themselves to the wheels of the expensive cars, paid for from the public purse, of corrupt officials who should be working to serve the country rather than driving such cars?

Last Sunday saw a major cricket match at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg. Cars filled the streets and happy cricket fans watched the game as if everything was well in the land. But it’s like a fourth monkey in the proverbial set of three brass monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, respectively. The fourth one neither sees, hears nor speaks: he just gazes smilingly at his cellphone, proclaiming ‘All is well’.

Most people in any society just want get on with their lives, educate their children, pay the rent and so on. It takes something special to get them riled up, a ‘trouble-maker’.  This society badly needs some of those.

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


Hero? Villain? Who gets to blow that strong whistle?

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Beware in spilling the heavyweight beans! Angelo Agrizzi has provided the Zondo commission names of senior ANC and other officials who he claims were long involved in serious corruption. He has received death threats. (Picture: Abigail Javier/EWN Jan 2019)

WHEN a bold man raises his head too far above the parapet, he risks having his head chopped off. By either side.

Angelo Agrizzi, the key whistleblower on corruption in the ANC and elsewhere, currently appearing at Judge Zondo’s Commission into State Capture, must be aware of this irony. He has become a champion of a strange kind to some. He will be remembered not only for past wrongdoing as COO of Bosasa, a channel for billions in laundered money, but for his act now of coming clean about the slew of powerful individuals involved, many of them heroes of the struggle who want him to shut up. The death threats against him are not surprising.

His revelations debunk the naïve notion that struggle heroes are by default honourable people. A procession of them have turned out to be dirty and corrupt, ranging from former president Jacob Zuma downwards. People ask: Is there anybody out there who is still to be trusted?

It is confusing, this switching of identities from hero to scoundrel and vice versa. It’s a theme of our times. Perhaps life was always like that, but it is often heard around dinner tables nowadays that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. A nostalgia exists for less confusing days.

What to do with the Watson family from the Eastern Cape, for example, who bravely opposed apartheid and were members of the then-banned ANC and SA Communist Party. ‘Cheeky’ Watson refused to participate in trials for the 1976 Springbok team, instead playing rugby in black townships, thus breaking segregation laws. This made him a local hero. Later, he used his high-level contacts to accumulate huge, illegal wealth.

During apartheid, most people knew the racist system was bad, whether they opposed it or not. During the Second World War, most knew Germany was an enemy. In South Africa today, ordinary people instinctively reject corruption but don’t appreciate its extent as the biggest threat to the country which might bring it down – more than racism.

The villain-hero dichotomy goes beyond our borders. Robert Mugabe, once a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle to rid his country of the English oppressors, changed into the villain once he got used to being in power, almost destroying the country with corruption and authoritarian rule, and refusing to relinquish power. Zimbabwe has since stumbled from one catastrophe to another. However, many today long for the stability he brought.

The identity-switching cuts across generation and race.  A Wits lecturer says when she mentions the name of anti-apartheid music icon Johnny Clegg to black students, they call him an “old white man” not worth knowing about, denying him another identity regardless of what he did. Other white faculty report similar occurrences. Minority communities, such as Jews and Greeks, experience similar blanket labelling, with little attempt at unpicking nuances.

Confusion about identity isn’t just political, but social. Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, was once regarded as the hero who would democratise information and communication, away from the clutches of people with nefarious interests. Facebook is so intertwined with modern life, one cannot imagine being without it. But it is as much a channel for hate as for good – a ‘Big Brother’ collecting data about people and sinisterly watching their habits. Zuckerberg might be seen by future historians as a ‘Stalin’ manipulating the masses, rather than a hero.

Is the Zondo enquiry useful or futile in tackling corruption? No way to know yet, but if it gives the Agrizzis of this world a strong enough whistle to blow, it might just be the former.

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

Incendiary stories that turn the world

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Follow me to the skies! Martin Luther King Jr, with his potent oratory, led an entire movement to fight for their rights. He is shown here in Brown’s chapel, Selma, Alabama, 1965. Charismatic politicians are immensely powerful shapers of history

WHAT is it about a politician’s speech that you remember afterwards? His catchy phrases? His body language? The urgency in his voice? These are often more memorable than the content. Mostly, he is a storyteller on a stage.

Occasionally a story crosses your path which sets you alight with hope, a tale of a hero and victory. The oratory of gravel-voiced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contained such magic. His ability to tell the British during the Second World War the kind of stories they needed to hear about themselves and their struggle, inspired them to confront the bitterest odds and win. One of his most famous quotes from a rousing 1940 speech is, “…we shall fight them on the beaches…” after large tracts of Europe fell to the Nazis.

South Africa’s story during the last century was pitched to incredible heights by Nelson Mandela, a rural youngster from the Eastern Cape who rose to the summit, changed the world, and died an elderly man surrounded by loved ones. His heroic journey inspired South Africans to believe they could achieve great things – the triumph of good over evil.

It’s not just the story, but how it is told. One of the western world’s most stirring phrases came from the immensely charismatic Martin Luther King Jr who in 1963 inspired the Black Civil Rights Movement in America, just before being assassinated, with his “I have a dream…” speech during the March on Washington for an end to racism.

There’s always a flip side, however. Hitler was an equally charismatic storyteller, who inspired a culture of hate amongst millions of Europeans which poisoned the world and continues doing so. His noxious populism and calls for “lebensraum” tapped into the fears and resentment of vast swathes of German society, instigating attacks on his ‘enemies’, whether Jews, Marxists, foreign powers, or whatever he decided.

South Africa’s positive story had all the charisma and heroism of the others. It inspired the world. But has it been irredeemably poisoned through corruption, factionalism and racism? The sight of former President Jacob Zuma dancing with President Cyril Ramaphosa before 85,000 people in Durban last week at the ANC’s election manifesto launch, brought a collective groan to many who had hoped our positive narrative was still secure. If Zuma, despite the poison he has injected into the country’s life and politics, could still be lauded by so many thousands, we are seriously off track.

Yet, just as Churchill rallied the British at their darkest hour, so we wait for the South African ‘Churchill’. Time will tell if it is Ramaphosa. So far, signs are not good. His speech at the launch was so loaded with tired clichés that the response from many – not just whites – was cynicism. We’ve heard it all before from president after president.

It’s not that the country is falling apart. Its people are still friendly. Unlike the proverbial man on the street in many other countries, our people still have a smile for a stranger, even if their lives are tough and disappointing.

We are familiar with the more personal stories that play themselves out regularly at ground level. “Have a good life!” was the catchy farewell which one youngster called out cheerfully to a relative passing by last week as he walked out of a Glenhazel pharmacy on his way to a life in Australia. He can, because he has the youth and wherewithal to do so.

Should we try to make him want to stay? A lot more than catchy phrases in a storyline are required to reboot the country for that.

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