Is your democracy more flawed than mine?

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Who will get to the front of the queue first to vote? On 27 April 1994 all South Africans, black and white, voted together in free and fair elections for the first time, after all discriminatory race laws were abolished. In the photograph, a line forms of people waiting patiently to cast their vote (SAHistoryOnline)

DESPITE the doom and gloom which characterizes South Africans’ mood these days following the catastrophe of former President Jacob Zuma’s tenure, South African democracy is still relatively healthy, although with shortcomings. According to the Democracy Index of The Economist magazine, which ranks the democracies of 167 territories based on a wide range of indicators, with Norway the most democratic at number 1, it is placed 40th in the Index. This is a remarkable achievement given its apartheid and colonialist history, and its difficulties.

Both South Africa and Israel are regarded by the Index as “flawed democracies”. They hold free and fair elections, and though there may be problems, basic civil liberties are respected.

What about the world’s other democracies? Does America still qualify as the leader of the free world? No, it doesn’t; the ranting of loose-cannon President Donald Trump makes this idea unconvincing today. The Index regards America also as a flawed democracy, although ranking higher than South Africa, at number 25. For comparison, Japan ranks 22 and France 29. A main problem in America is not so much about Trump, but erosion of trust in government and elected officials.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will try desperately to increase his hold on power in South Africa’s crucial national elections on May 8. Warring factions in the African National Congress threaten to undermine him, and unrest and political dissonance are flaring up countrywide. Rising social tensions and economic populism are challenging his ‘new dawn’ vision for the country.

The diversity of South Africa’s population is its richness, but there is a flip-side: The country lacks a clear sense of what it means to be South African, and the violence inherent in the society makes this dangerous. Public protest often turns violent and racist. Last week’s unrest which began in Alexandra township in Johannesburg and has spread elsewhere is the most recent example. The tone of political debate is often threatening. The positive side is that the population’s interest in politics is very high. Everybody talks politics, from the taxi-driver to the housewife.

What about Israeli politics, which last week handed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a fifth term? To the chagrin of many supporters of Israel, the Index consistently ranks it as a flawed rather than a full democracy. Kneejerk defenders of Israel would claim it is because of anti-Semitism, but it is primarily about the Law of Return – the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel. Arab citizens are guaranteed the same civil rights, but only Jews have the ‘right’ to citizenship.

This analysis of Israel does not account for the simmering conundrum of the Palestinians under its control. They have no vote; does this reduce Israel’s democracy ranking? Without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would have to do that.

Notwithstanding these issues, the Index ranks Israel’s democracy 30th out of 167, between France and Belgium. Despite the divisiveness of Israeli politics and the shift to the right, the country is moving in a liberal direction in areas such as improvements in LGBT rights and in women’s rights. However, because of history, ideology and security challenges, it cannot be more than a flawed democracy.

The internet is the new kid on the block when it comes to measuring democracies, where validation can be found for almost any belief, and “facts” are a matter of personal preference. In America, South Africa, Israel or elsewhere, it is getting harder for voters to make informed, rational choices about crucial matters. On this roller-coaster, voters will have to work harder to distinguish between fact and fiction. It’s not an easy ride.

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



Cry the beloved SA Jewry

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Does the SA government agree with the placards? Protesters take part in a march to parliament in Cape Town, May 15, 2018, to protest the use of deadly force by Israeli troops against Palestinians at the Gaza border. The SA government has recalled its ambassador to Israel, saying “he will not be replaced”

THE ANC-led government does not kowtow to Jewish interests nearly as much as SA governments once did, particularly in relation to Israel. Jews remember nostalgically when former SA President Nelson Mandela visited Israel in 1999 after retiring as the first democratically elected president, and called out to chief rabbi Cyril Harris at his hotel in Jerusalem: “My rabbi is here, now I feel at home in Jerusalem!”

Could President Cyril Ramaphosa do the same? With his slim hold on power, it would be impossible in today’s anti-Israel climate among South Africa’s body politic, even if he personally has a good relationship with the Jewish community and might otherwise be willing. Other factions in the ANC, and more radical parties would immediately make political capital out of it to use against him.

Mandela was already out of office, but nevertheless had the clout to visit, despite the politics. Jerusalem carries huge significance for Jews, particularly the Kotel, but to Muslims Jewish control of it is anathema.

Nothing in politics is fixed forever, there are too many variables. In South Africa, minority groups such as the Jewish community who once held major sway in government and elsewhere are experiencing significant contractions in how they are perceived and treated, although Jews still wield economic influence through business and major corporates.

The growing Muslim interests are becoming more important to the SA government than they were before. As this shrinking SA Jewish community, once a jewel of the Jewish world, loses its influence and its confidence, it’s a painful reality for Jews to accept, and they need to guard against too much pessimism. But it is better to look this scenario straight in the eye, to re-format the community’s understanding of itself, where its strengths lie and its new place in this evolving new country, rather than deny it and hanker after the ‘good old days’. Even if some of the best of the Jewish community in all fields – business, the arts, and others – have left for safer shores, the basis on which they grew up here is strong enough to re-invigorate itself.

It will not be easy. The Jewish presence in SA society is sparser than ever; many South Africans, such as those in rural schools, grow up and live without ever encountering a Jew and are left only with stereotypes that they hear or read about.

The latest blow to this Zionistic community which indicates political realignment is the government’s decision to permanently recall the South African ambassador, Sisa Ngombane from Israel. The ambassador was withdrawn in May 2018, in line with an ANC resolution at its 2017 elective conference, following the killings of protesting Palestinians by the Israeli army in Gaza. International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu declared last week that the ambassador “…will not be replaced.”

The decision is simple-minded. And coming just before the elections, it smells of cheap electioneering by the ANC to appease the dogs snapping at its heels – the EFF and others. Even many Israelis and Jews who object to policies of the Israeli government feel this way.

It has a sadder tone for South Africa than Israel. Many South Africans still bask in the glory of the Mandela years. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that those years are gone, as this country drowns in bad government and has difficulty keeping the lights on.

For most world citizens, South Africa is just a dot on the map. As politics shifts, SA Jews and the ANC need to be more agile to balance. It would be better to increase interaction with Israel rather than reduce it.

Who really is the Son of the Soil?

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Get out of my Parliament! Security personnel (in white) remove EFF MPs from Parliament in Cape Town during the State of the Nation Address on February 09, 2017. The EFF members fought back with violence and insults after disrupting proceedings for nearly an hour during former president Jacob Zuma’s address. (photo Esa Alexander)

AN ALIEN from Mars landing in Johannesburg would see many smiling posters from political parties fixed to street poles, and think everyone is so polite, despite the tough battle going on for peoples’ votes in the upcoming election.

Everywhere, you see bakkies with enthusiastic youngsters jumping out to affix posters of Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, in his characteristic red beret, smiling amiably, with the words ‘Son of the Soil’. The message: If this honest young man found a million dollars on the street, he would search for the owner, and not keep a cent. The country would be safe in his hands.

However, any follower of South African politics knows his other face: He is feared for his aggressiveness and regarded as a potential fascist; he and his unruly comrades have been thrown out of parliament for disruptions, been accused of assaulting a journalist, fired live rounds illegally at the EFF’s anniversary, and constantly used derogatory anti-white racial language. Nervous whites say the country is doomed if he gets significant power.

In his posters Malema does what all politicians do: project a positive image of himself and a negative one of his opponents. An old adage says the most successful political leader is not the most honest one, but the best liar, who can convince millions to follow him. Honest politicians get relegated to the sidelines. History is littered with dishonest leaders sending thousands of soldiers into futile battles.

In the internet era, it’s not just physical posters on street poles that manipulate potential voters; Twitter and Facebook are ideal. At the highest level, US President Donald Trump unashamedly uses Twitter like a street poster to broadcast positive or negative messages. Other international politicians do the same, regardless of their positions, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday – a week before the Israeli elections – Ynet in Tel Aviv reported on a synchronized system of Facebook and Twitter accounts that has been discovered by internet watchdog, the Big Bots Project, employed for the purpose of praising Netanyahu and discrediting his opponents. Netanyahu denied involvement in it.

In South Africa, digital placards are less used because the population is less internet-savvy. But in the more prosaic, physical poster-war on street poles in Johannesburg, dreary-looking images of African National Congress leader, President Cyril Ramaphosa, call out: “Let’s grow South Africa together!” The message: We are the hundred-year old ANC, the older sons of the soil, who destroyed apartheid and will lead South Africa to prosperity. For the election, the ANC is relying on the notion that even if it is stained by corruption today, most South Africans will vote for it, believing it is not the ANC that is corrupt, but certain individuals, who will be rooted out.

In other places, posters of others parties dominate, such as the Democratic Alliance and Freedom Front Plus. Amongst minorities, the Jewish vote is so small as to be almost irrelevant.

Everyone knows Ramaphosa’s hold on power is precarious, because the old guard of former president Jacob Zuma’s supporters are waiting to stab him in the back. The reassurances his posters are meant to convey are tenuous. Malema’s posters are slightly more effective: The man is actually in charge of his party. If the EFF was not racist, some whites might even vote for it.

All things considered, it might be best for the country if the tired ANC collapsed and was rebuilt from scratch without the rogues who ruined it. Is this possible? For a start, South African voters would have to put their votes elsewhere to convey the message.

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