Tinderbox patterns on fabric

Confederate battle flag

The Confederate flag is allowed to be displayed in America, but for many it represents racism, slavery and division. After a mass shooting at a South Carolina black church last year, the state legislature ordered the flag removed from the capitol in Columbia

South Africa White Supremacist

Despite all South Africa’s problems today, the abandoning of the old apartheid flag, seen above, and the racist history it represents, is one of the biggest symbolic victories South Africans can celebrate. Gratuitous display of the flag is banned and regarded as hate speech

ANYONE who grew up and lived in apartheid South Africa will recall the old, evocative apartheid flag flying above government buildings everywhere, with its ugly associations for black South Africans and some whites, and its elements of the flags of European colonists and Boer republics emblazoned on it. South Africa has a new flag now, but the old one keeps hanging around causing controversy. At this writing, a legal spat is going on between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the South African Human Rights Commission, and AfriForum’s Ernst Roets over his display of the apartheid flag.

The NMF and SAHRC took the case to court, asking that the gratuitous display of the apartheid flag be stopped since it amounted to hate speech, and was grossly offensive to the dignity of black South Africans, which the judge agreed with. News24 reported that AfriForum asked for leave to appeal. The application was heard in the Equality Court, sitting in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg. But the judge said he thought another court would not come to a different conclusion and dismissed AfriForum’s application.

What is it about a piece of fabric with patterns and colours that can make people rush with a sense of mission into battle and get killed? Millions have died in wars, heroically emblazoned with their national colours: proudly dying for the flag! Even if they didn’t die in war, on the way to the graveside an important person’s coffin gets draped ceremonially in their national flag.

With the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Europe, fascist-like thugs brandishing flags with swastika look-alikes, reminiscent of the 1930s, are appearing expressing anti-Semitic obscenities. Jews fear displaying their own flags or Israeli flags outside synagogues, particularly in countries with intense anti-Semitism such as France.

Historically, flags have represented not just prejudice, but slavery. In the American Civil War in 1862, in which more than 620,000 died, the Confederacy’s national flag, called the Stars and Bars, flew during the war in pro-slavery Montgomery, Alabama. The war’s major cause was about slavery in the southern states; the Confederacy had seceded to form a new country to protect slavery. Incredibly, thousands of soldiers died willingly for this in the shadow of the Stars and Bars.

Such passions die slowly. Today, the Confederate flag is among the most recognisable, popular items in American memorabilia, appearing everywhere alongside the American flag, the Stars and Stripes. Americans argue about what the Confederate flag stands for now: is it heritage or hatred? Supporters of its continued use claim it is a proud symbol of the culture of the American south. In a national survey in 2015, 57% of Americans said the flag represented Southern pride, not racism.

Should some flags be banned? It’s unlikely you can repress something like that without reverting to a police state. Some countries have tried: in Germany, you cannot by law publicly display the Nazi flag except for historical and film purposes. But in the United States, free speech laws allow the display of such symbols. It’s a favourite of eccentrics like motorcycle gangs.

Jews are still fairly safe in South Africa from anti-Semitism, and it’s unlikely a Nazi flag with a swastika would be allowed to be publicly displayed. It would probably be called hate speech according to the constitution; the right to dignity of Jewish citizens would disallow it, and public sentiment would reject it. The Nazi flag is a close cousin of the hated apartheid flag, and would evoke similar distaste.

Freedom of speech is never straightforward. Countries which guarantee free speech will be sorely tested to define exactly what that means in practice. Similar to the dilemmas faced by words, a flag is much more than a simple piece of fabric with patterns and colours.




A jewel on the edge

Nigerians leave SA

Nigerians queue at passport control at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, September 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

SOUTH Africa has been forced by the mass xenophobic attacks on foreigners by its citizens to examine its identity and its image in the world. It is located at the bottom of Africa, far from the western world, but is it African or European? What are its values? Given what has happened, it can’t be business as usual, tomorrow.

South Africa is a puzzle. After being the admiration of the world 25 years ago for peacefully achieving democracy, led by the giant of reconciliation Nelson Mandela, today it desperately apologises to Africa for its citizens’ violent behaviour towards other Africans: Nigerians, Ethiopians, Somalis, and others. The destroying of their businesses and their homes, and personal attacks which has driven many to flee back to their countries of origin. It’s a disgrace, and a profound feeling of guilt runs among many enlightened South Africans.

It’s not enough for them to hang their heads in shame. More is needed, but the politicians are so busy arguing among themselves and wary of being stabbed in the back by others that they do not speak out strongly enough. And those who do speak out are not listened to, because a mass mentality has taken root against foreigners.

Business leaders are a good barometer of how a country is doing. Confidence in the country and its leadership has sunk to historic lows as reflected through the eyes of people in business. The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s BCI (Business Confidence Index) fell from 92 in July to 89.1 index points in August. This is its lowest level since April 1985, when the UN Security Council called for more sanctions against SA following the army’s raid in Botswana and the failure of the Eminent Persons Group talks, who were attempting to influence events in a positive direction.

But for many South Africans nothing has changed. Walk into a mall in the neighbourhood of Rosebank, Johannesburg, and you could be in Europe, seeing the world’s favourite brand names. Cars on the roads are the same as Europe, restaurants are urbane and sophisticated. Anything you can dream of, you can buy. The construction of fancy new buildings is taking place everywhere.

Nigerian novelist and journalist Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani whose book was named by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009, says South Africa is a ‘genetically modified’ African country, set in Africa but unlike the rest of African countries. Many Africans attribute its difference to the prevailing influence of the ‘Caucasians’ in their midst, she says.

South Africa remains an important country in Africa. It hosted the recent World Economic Forum in Cape Town where the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed by 54 of Africa’s 55 countries, was discussed. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni says it’s the most important post-colonial development in Africa, the world’s largest trade group since formation of the World Trade Organisation. The agreement is expected to boost trade by African countries among themselves by 52% by 2022. Mboweni harshly condemns hostility towards foreigners and says they would vastly contribute to South’s Africa’s economy and society. Any African should be allowed to settle wherever they want in Africa. If Nigerians or Ethiopians want to live in South Africa it should be open to them.

But last week a privately owned Nigerian airline said it would repatriate around 600 Nigerian citizens fleeing xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

Parallel to the recent xenophobia which has dominated the headlines, is the upsurge of gender-based violence, which is rife in the country, highlighted in the wake of the rape and murder of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, who was killed by a 42-year-old post office employee two weeks ago. The ANC Women’s League wants the country to consider chemical castration against men found guilty of rape. Yet all studies show that rape is not about sex, but power and control and even the death sentence does not reduce it.

The anger, fear and frustration has created a movement called #AmINext to give women a platform to share their feelings with others. But the answer must be found within the inner corners of society, in families, schools, churches, homes and social venues. One could assume that the #AmINext movement is about young black women like Mrwetyana, only. But one would be wrong. Even the Jewish community which puts looking after its own as a high priority is not immune, and gender-based violence often occurs behind the proverbial closed doors.

The harsh reality is that while South Africans broadly are a generous, warm-hearted people, their country has become a violent society for many who live here. People who come back for a visit after living elsewhere, are shocked to find the tension in the society where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders and people in the suburbs live behind high walls.

South Africa has been  a country on the edge for as long as most people can remember, through colonialism, apartheid and now the current situation, a long continuum with a few years’ break during which Mandela lifted the spirits. Yet through each crisis, it has survived, prospered and grown, and its sophisticated economy is one of the largest in Africa, which is why Nigerians and other Africans come here in droves to be associated with it.

Pessimists say it can’t go on like this and must eventually stop working and go down the tubes. Optimists, however, see huge opportunities here for brave people with the initiative to reinvent this gem.

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




Nights of broken glass, again

Xenophobia (2)

A man kicks a burning piece of furniture during a riot in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein on September 2, 2019 as angry protesters loot alleged foreign-owned shops in a wave of violence targeting foreign nationals

THE attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg this week look chillingly like the historical pogroms perpetrated by Russians and Lithuanians against Jews in Russia, where they were beaten up and their shops looted. Or more sinister in later years, like Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’, the rampage through Jewish areas in Germany in 1938 perpetrated by Nazi thugs encouraged by Hitler, preceding the Holocaust. In Kristallnacht, 91 Jews were killed, 177 synagogues were burnt or damaged, and 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed.

This time the broken glass is the looting of the shops of foreign nationals by crowds of local people in Johannesburg. Cars were set alight in similar rampages in the Pretoria CBD and elsewhere, where foreigners were attacked and their shops looted. Office workers in surrounding buildings locked their doors and watched anxiously. Motorists were warned on radio stations to stay away from the area.

Memory is a fluid thing and changes over time; nothing is clear-cut or cast in stone. In years to come, the grandchildren of these looters, and the foreigners, might come to regard them positively, as people who fought to defend their society, to make ends meet in a corrupt society and to put food on the table for their families. Eventually, it becomes part of the people’s folk history. But for now, all that is visible to outsiders is the hysteria of mobs attacking shops and their owners.

This sight becomes part of the landscape of memory of Johannesburg which visitors will take with them when they leave, reflecting the anger of people who are starving and jobless, and have been so for years, whilst the politicians argue amongst themselves for power and privilege. The incidents, involving attacks against Nigerians, Ethiopians, Somalis and others, are unlikely to be the last. Amidst a general xenophobia in South Africa, which in a flare-up in 2008 resulted in 60 people being killed and thousands forced from their homes, looters claim that foreigners are taking their jobs and bringing drugs which get sold to children. Some decent South Africans who wouldn’t go as far as violence, say they want the foreigners to leave.

Foreigners claim that , on the contrary, through their enterprise they are creating jobs, and that they bring with them many other, positive aspects of a cosmopolitan society. A Nigerian who was interviewed amidst the ruins of his car repair shop, said: “I employ ten South Africans. How can you say I am taking jobs?!”

Former white South Africans living in Australia, the UK, the USA, Israel or elsewhere  read about the events with concern. What do they tell their new friends and family about their South African heritage? They won’t talk about the looting, which was always mostly out of sight for the majority of whites and remains so today. Jewish kids growing up in Canada can look back simplistically on the former lives of their parents in South Africa. The big political issue then was apartheid. South Africans who believed they were against apartheid – even if it was in the safest way by voting for Helen Suzman – feel morally good about themselves today. If they are more honest, their memory might include embarrassment about how they and their parents went along with apartheid because it provided them with a high standard of living.

Folk memory has many sides, depending on who is doing the remembering. Poverty and anti-Semitism in Europe, symbolised by the pogrom, and the chance of opportunities in gold-rich South Africa, pushed Jews to leave for the New World. A folk image for South African Jews is how poor European Jews arrived in the late 1800s with nothing, and through determination and acumen became, by the second generation, a middle class people able to send their kids to good schools and universities.

Meanwhile, new memories continue to be made in Johannesburg by attacks on Nigerians, as looting and xenophobia carries on, office workers cower in their buildings and the no-go areas for ordinary residents of the city grow. The ominous words that one outraged Nigerian shop owner put to a newsman, as he tried to salvage goods from the scarred remains of his shop in Turffontein, ring alarmingly: “South Africa is sitting on a time bomb!” Meanwhile the politicians continue squabbling among themselves.