Stains that can’t be removed

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Netanyahu, stay away from Paris! On January 13, 2015 three million plus Parisians and foreign leaders participated in an anti-terror demonstration after terrorist murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery in Paris. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked not to attend by the French president for fear he would exploit the event for his own political purposes leading up to Israeli parliamentary elections in March. But he ignored the request and attended anyway. Here he is shown with a band of leaders. He also called on all the Jews of France to leave and go to Israel

LEGACY is an important thing, to anyone. What will you be remembered for? Too many heroes of the struggle against apartheid who gave their all for it, and were admired, became corrupt and immoral when the struggle was over. Former president Jacob Zuma, who was head of intelligence of the ANC, went on to become the epitome of corrupt government, leading to the country being robbed of billions of rands. The shine he and his ilk had during Nelson Mandela’s days is long gone, replaced by a myriad sleazy politicians driving fancy cars and stashing away their ill-gotten millions in foreign bank accounts.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to come to trial, after being indicted last week. Politically, his opponents will dance for joy at the fact that his legacy will forever be “Israeli prime minister indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.” It is a tragedy, since he and his family contributed hugely to Israel for its founding and after. He personally did this from his younger days, such as serving in an elite army unit, providing a sense of security to the country amidst its multiple enemies, and being its highly articulate spokesperson on the international stage. To this day, thousands of Israelis still believe in him totally and call him the king of Israel.

History is a harsh judge. It casts an exacting light on powerful people for whom their power has become addictive and has led them to believe they can do anything without accountability. A student of history who logs on to Wikipedia 50 years from now for information on Netanyahu, will probably find him described as the longest serving Israeli prime minister, but see him deemed, a sentence or two later, as the first Israeli prime minister indicted for serious misdemeanours while he was in office. Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings, which will dominate Israeli politics for years to come, he cannot remove this stain from his record.

Numerous powerful people and historical figures who have been discovered to have done something abhorrent will be remembered by history only for that act, not their greater deeds. When the former president of Israel, Moshe Katzav’s name is mentioned, it is not his term as president that comes to mind, but his abuse of women, and the fact that he was sent to jail.

Sidney Frankel, a billionaire stockbroker in South Africa supported homes for underprivileged orphans for many years, gave money to worthy causes, and was universally respected and admired, until it was discovered that he had been sexually molesting these same orphans. Now, whenever this man’s name crops up, all you can think of is these sexual crimes against vulnerable children. Think of former South African police chief Jackie Selebi, who goes down in history as a beneficiary of drug trafficking. Think of highly respected South African artist Zwelethu Mthetwa who murdered a prostitute in 2013, and will be remember for that, alone. What do you remember about world famous athlete Oscar Pistorius?

Legacies can move in the other direction, too. The famed German Oskar Schindler who saved 1 200 Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis by employing them in his own factories, was previously himself a card-carrying member of the Nazi party. Today his legacy is one of a selfless, courageous man. There are still Jews today who can trace their family to the people he saved.

Sadly, Netanyahu seems to have travelled a well-trodden path from the heights of glory to an ignominious end without ever being willing to let go. His legacy will not be his courage in battle, or his diplomatic talents but his arrogance, his wheeling and dealing and his corruption. Had he let go, it might have been different.

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



Words which have become rude

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What’s in a word? Depends who’s writing and reading it. The 1861 ink-splodged and messy manuscript of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations gives insight into the illustrious novelist.  It shows how Dickens constantly returned to his text to change words and nuances and alter sentences. In politics and history, texts and words are most often changed not for literary reasons, but convenience. What’s in a word?

WHAT is a ‘location’? To most people, it’s a place. But in South Africa it was once an area inhabited by mainly desperately poor black people; when many South Africans used that word, it suggested a dirty, unsafe area, where poor people cooked pap outdoors.

The dictionary can never be an unbiased book. Every word that appears in it is coloured by history, politics, connotations and context, and is fuelled by fashion. South Africans are no foreigners to how words are poisoned and meanings changed by politicians. During apartheid, the word ‘native’ was used pejoratively for blacks as an official government term; there was even a ‘Native Affairs Department’ under the authority of the Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd. Actually, the apartheid government struggled repeatedly with coining euphemisms referring to blacks. Terms such as ‘natives’, ‘bantu’, ‘non-Europeans’ and ‘plurals’ all had their day; the latter was called ‘hilarious’ by the Sunday Times in 1978. There was once a ‘Department of Plural Relations and Development.’

But the shoe always tends to slide to the other foot eventually: Many black South Africans and politicians today are too easily tempted to call a white person who disagrees with them about anything a racist, often without cause. And despite losing power, Afrikaners are still famous for using the ugly k-word to refer to blacks, although doing so publically might be called hate speech and get them into serious trouble.

Slippery, politicised meanings of ordinary words are not a South African invention, however. Is the word ‘Zionism’ an ordinary word? Not so long ago, the ideology had to be inherently part of an Israeli government’s platform for it to succeed. But what about an Arab government party? It would be absurd to expect it to call itself Zionist.

Zionism is a particularly loaded word in South Africa, where the ANC, trade unions, leftist academics and NGOs are intensely hostile to Israel. Among politicised activists in black communities, it provokes awkwardness even among people who accept Israel’s existence. For the more extreme, Zionism is akin to a four-letter word. Every word has an implied back story: Many South Africans who use Zionism as a pejorative, are veiling anti-Semitism.

Ever since Theodor Herzl’s day in 1897, the word Zionism was the most central expression of Jews’ fight for a state. Israel now exists, but ironically amongst Jews, the word is being reconsidered amidst the hurly-burly of Israeli politics. Ask Israelis if they are Zionists: many might say they aren’t, Israel is simply the Jewish country where they live and will fight to keep it secure. Increasing numbers of American Jews, alienated from Israel because of differences in world view, would not describe themselves as Zionists.

In Israel, the prospect of an Arab party joining a minority government with Benni Gantz’s Blue and White party, allowed PM Benjamin Netanyahu to attack him using the word Zionist. He derided the possibility that Blue and White might form a government supported by the predominately Arab Joint List; instead, Netanyahu would form ‘a strong Zionist government’ excluding Arab parties.

Is the word Zionism just a term which was once important, but now isn’t? Some people will angrily reject this, saying that discarding the word is a betrayal of people who gave lives for it. But did they fight for something that existed then, but has changed now, and they must change too?

Words are always a weapon or tool: it depends who uses them. What would happen if the ‘z-word’ became forbidden in contemporary society? Or fell into disuse, like ‘plurals’? Would that anti-Semitic thread simply be expressed through a different word?

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

Our lethal penchant to fiddle

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Warmer water? Even the lobsters feel it: A juvenile lobster is returned to the water by scientist Diane Cowan during a survey of the lobster population on the shore of Friendship Long Island, Maine. Scientists say the Gulf of Maine is warming faster due to global warming than more than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. The temperature rise is prompting fears about the future of one of the Atlantic’s most unusual ecosystems and the industries it supports.  AP/Robert F. Bukaty

IN South Africa, a tornado hit the Pietermaritzberg area in KZN last week, injuring scores of people, destroying houses and washing away trees. Durban has been hit by a string of weather-related emergencies in recent years. In April, heavy localised flooding throughout the city resulted in 70 deaths, with more than 1,000 people displaced. The country’s weather bureau was quick to caution that extreme weather was not uncommon in that area, but when anxiety about a climate crisis is everywhere, the connection is quickly assumed. 

The threat to human life from climate change renders the disputes about religion, power and territory we traditionally fight over, archaic. A strange ‘benefit’ of the climate crisis is now nobody can deny humanity is one: either we work together to solve it, or die together.

What’s the point of arguing over where the precise border of a country or piece of land lies, if that land will be covered in water either from tides or from deluges from the sky? The flooding of the city of Venice is a current example of how water has no respect for what is precious to man, including  his historic buildings and artworks.

What does this climate emergency mean for local community life, particularly in a country like South Africa, where the majority of its population are poor and live in vulnerable rural areas? People have no air-conditioners there, and even if they did, it would not stop the other, broader effects of climate change.

Communities cannot continue caring only for their own needs, as if the world will take care of itself. Clearly it won’t, as the warming of the earth’s climate by 1.5 degrees shows. Even if all countries switched to renewable energy, the earth’s temperature would still rise by 1.5 degrees. And a developing country like South Africa is still so dependent on coal-burning power stations like Eskom that it will take years for it to change to renewable energy. Eskom generates approximately 95% of electricity used in South Africa, and 45% used in Africa.

There are more questions than answers. Must climate awareness be made a public pillar of a community, any community? How would one do this in a poor, rural community in South Africa where peoples’ main concern is simply to put food on the table. The threat is pervasive and requires communities to act in cooperation, including individuals, business people and others. Schools could be brought in, enabling people to understand that all activities, big or small, are part of their carbon footprint, but what if the schools are virtually dysfunctional as in many parts of South Africa?

In some cases, these requirements would affect communities’ rights to follow their traditions and customs. For example, inward-looking communities whose population growth is often exponential, such as some in third world countries, Mormons for whom any birth control is forbidden, and Haredi Jews for whom every increase in their population is regarded as a blessing. The planet cannot support so many people.

People worldwide did not always understand themselves as part of a global community which needed to act together. Attitudes changed partly with NASA’s spaceflights and Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing, as people saw not just their own house, but the entire planet. A sense of belonging to a worldwide community increased. Events in one place resonated elsewhere: Kennedy’s assassination, the rise of Maggie Thatcher, Watergate.

Awareness of global warming took off in the 1970s. The ‘hole in the ozone layer’ was the buzz. It rose in South Africa too, but at the height of apartheid there were other issues and it took a back seat. Today, ethnic nationalism threatens the global approach to a solution with its emphasis on ‘separateness’ exemplified by American President Donald Trump. But the climate crisis might be the thing to defuse it. Even the nationalists might see that the recent migration crisis from the Middle East will be nothing compared to mass migrations caused by rising sea levels plunging large tracts of land under water.

The human being is a creative species, and dire as the climate change situation is, there are imaginative attempts to address it, epitomised by Swedish teenaged activist Greta Thunberg who became the world’s climate leader with a potent address to UN Secretary General Guterres and UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Executive Secretary Espinosa at the 2018 UN climate negotiations. She condemned the world’s political leaders for being in the grip of a ‘political-economy’ of exponential growth economics, and banking and multinational corporate interests who are destroying the earth’s capacity to support human life for money’s sake. She is a brilliant example of the youth who might lead the way against so-called ‘leaders’ who, because of their greed, are sacrificing their children and life on earth.

Thunberg says 100-million barrels of oil are burnt everyday. Oil has long been fundamental to industry in developed countries. In the mid-1970s, this became starkly clear in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) members such as Saudi Arabia reduced supplies to Europe and America for collaboration with Israel. Oil prices quadrupled, British industry was reduced to a three-day work week, and American gas stations ran dry. But the prospect of stopping oil use was considered unthinkable.

With today’s understanding, however,  a reexamination of lifestyle and priorities is unavoidable. As novelist Jonathan Safran Foer says, “If nothing matters, there is nothing to save.”

Are we beginning to hatch phoenixes?

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African art has a long and mostly unrecognised history: The golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe is a medieval artifact made from wood which is covered in thin sheets of gold from the medieval Kingdom of Mapungubwe, which is located in modern-day South Africa. It was found on a royal grave on Mapungubwe Hill in 1932 by archaeologists from the University of Pretoria

CAN we yet be bold enough to celebrate South Africa? Amidst our thirst for good news after the depressing news of the last decade, green shoots are visible. Not yet on the economic front, which remains dire, as finance minister Tito Mboweni outlined in his mid-term budget, but elsewhere, vigour is starting to gingerly show itself.

The obvious big one of the past week, which gave a gigantic boost to South Africans, is the Springboks’ win over England in the Rugby World Cup under the captainship of Siya Kolisi. The image of him holding the golden cup aloft amidst ecstatic celebration will resonate forever as a triumphant moment.

Sport is often a measure of a country’s mood. Johannesburgers of all colours and classes, and many others from elsewhere, joined together in another celebration last Sunday in the 42km Soweto marathon, nicknamed The People’s Race, whose route can be compared to a lesson in South Africa’s history. The marathon, which attracted some 40,000 runners from across the globe, takes participants past heritage sites that were key in the fight against apartheid, including Vilakazi Street and the one-time homes of president Nelson Mandela and his neighbour, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The former has become a site visited by tourists worldwide. The race passes the brightly painted Orlando Towers and is within eyesight of everything from the colossal Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, reputedly the third-largest in the world, to the colourful Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown, where the ANC Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955 as the ideological cornerstone of the liberation movements. The marathon provides a glimpse into the possibilities of this country. Can it be a counterpoint to the gloom?

Sport is a culture which thrived during apartheid despite racial separation, and now freely embraces every race and creed. Contrary to common perceptions, culture as a whole, whether white or black, was something the apartheid government took seriously. But it forcefully kept black and white cultures separate, and exploited this separation for its racist political agenda. Seats at venues of high quality European and colonial arts of ballet, opera, theatre and fine art were traditionally occupied by the Jews and Afrikaans-speaking community. Today Jews are fewer, but Afrikaners are still very present. And a phoenix is rising in Pretoria. Once the heart of apartheid, where ideologues plotted their reprehensible deeds, this city hosts an opposite concept. A multi-million rand art centre of world class standard opened in September with several exhibitions of South African works from the past century of such high quality that the Museum of Modern Art in New York could just as proudly host them.

The Javett Art Centre is a green shoot in the cultural sphere, as important as a world class rugby win, particularly for its location and inclusive approach to who gets showcased. There are people who are willing to invest billions towards creating a place where the art of Africa is explored and celebrated. Current collections show signature works from 1912, including the cream from the likes of Helen Mmakgabo Sebidi, Irma Stern, Steven Cohen, David Koloane, Jackson Hlungwani and more. It is also the new home of the world-renowned Mapungubwe rhino, the first example of gold craftsmanship found in this continent, dating back to the 1100s.

We cannot be naive about the effect of these examples. They will not solve the mass poverty, crime and corruption which pull this country down. The pitiable beggars who stand at street corners in Johannesburg will never see them. Yet, many black Springboks came from impoverished backgrounds and fought their way to the top. Is hope again possible?

You can never apologise to the dead

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Can an apology for slavery make up for anything? The American Congress has apologised for the actions of America in the slave trade from Western Africa. The 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery to the Jamestown Colony, coupled with a project from The New York Times called the “1619 Project,” has fueled the ongoing national debate over whether reparations can be given to descendants of slaves. Other countries face similar questions about their history

IN the current era, it has become trendy to “apologise”, for almost anything, which makes the person doing it feel good while not necessarily helping the injured party, who may even be long dead.

After a very long time, the British government this month expressed ‘regret’ that apparently, soon after explorer James Cook and his crew on the HMS Endeavour landed 250 years ago in the country that was to become New Zealand, they murdered some Maoris. This was documented in the diary of Joseph Banks, the expedition’s botanist.

Cook’s example is minuscule in scale compared to other historical atrocities. Entire indigenous peoples and modern nations are now demanding apologies and recompense for what was done hundreds of years ago. In some cases, this becomes ridiculous.

America has apologised to black Americans whose forebears were brought as slaves to what became the United States. The Atlantic slave trade began in 1619 with the arrival of enslaved Africans to the British colony of Virginia. Slavery officially ended in 1865 after the American Civil War, when Confederate soldiers of the Southern United States wanting to preserve slavery fought the Union from the north, resulting in 620,000 deaths. The Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the south in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

American politicians had demanded that the apology for slavery and Jim Crow be made since the government had apologized for the internment of Japanese citizens during World War Two, and for atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The World War Two bombs immediately devastated their targets and over the next two to four months, the effects killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day.

An extreme example of national guilt is the actions of Germany in World War Two. Not all Germans regret that entire communities of Jews in Germany and elsewhere were obliterated through Nazi policy, amounting to 6 million, and alarmingly neo-Nazis are on the rise again. As a government, however, Germany has officially apologised and has made serious attempts to compensate Jews and eradicate anti-Semitism.

On a more politically complex level in South Africa, black people warrant an apology from whites for European colonialism and apartheid. But given the society’s diverse nature, from whom exactly would such an apology come? And who among blacks would have the authority to receive it? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 tried to lay the ground for reconciliation by allowing perpetrators to tell the truth about what they had done, in front of the injured party, but it only partially succeeded. Many of the true devils of apartheid, such as the people responsible for the deaths of anti-apartheid activists such as Ahmed Timol, Steve Biko, Neil Aggett and David Webster, for instance, slipped through loopholes.

In Southern Africa, a numerically small example of injury against a people is the San, the earliest inhabitants of the region. The San’s demise occurred during the last few hundred years, from the impact of colonialism from the 17th century onward, when they were enslaved and sometimes exterminated. But apologising to them would be an empty act to no-one’s benefit.

One could go through the whole world’s history, finding examples of different peoples taking over and destroying others. Insincere moral grandstanding about this, however, is dangerous and too easy. Cynics might say that the complex human society is inherently prone to those sort of troubles, and that humans are not actually programmed to live at peace with each other.

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

SA whites’ bubble in the room

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To stay or to go? The complex white dilemma in South Africa is a source of much debate, since whites are small in numbers but hold major power and influence in the economy

AS the Democratic Alliance threatens to implode, the sense of security it has given to the small white population of South Africans, many Jews and other minority groups among them, gets shakier. Despite its flaws, its existence represented a political home, in a confusing context where they struggle to find another. This is not ideological, in terms of helping to build a great country to tackle the misery of the masses, but mainly about their personal standard of living and security.

To put it more crudely, can they still preserve their box of privileged life amidst mass poverty? The DA seemed to offer this. Everyone knows that the white liberal minority on which the DA depends is only small in numbers, but immensely powerful in wealth and influence.

Whites who teach in universities and work in managerial positions in business and elsewhere report a pervasive anger among young blacks today towards whites, and accusations of racism based on minor incidents. Whites who weren’t born during apartheid are accused of blocking transformation, and made to feel unwelcome in this country. Their response is, “yes I know the terrible history of black oppression, but what do you expect me to do now? Is the only route for me to accept your rage and leave?”

After Sharpeville in 1960 some whites left the country because they felt it was destined to plunge over the precipice, and didn’t want to raise families in such a place; others left for moral reasons because they didn’t want to be part of the racist apartheid system. Apartheid is gone, but the essentials of this racial disparity still exist.

Where do smaller sub-groups of whites stand on this issue, such as the Jews, the Greeks and so on? Must they follow the white exodus, for safety or moral reasons?

Three categories of whites remain here: Firstly, those who would like to leave but for whom emigration is impossible for financial or other reasons. They are reconciled to staying and making the best of it, knowing they will never be truly African. They live in a bubble, developing their own communities and institutions, and limiting their engagement with broader society, government and national bodies to a minimum. They build their own schools, welfare organisations and financial institutions. In a sense they have ‘left’ the country but remain here.

Secondly, those who aggressively stand their ground as African, declaring to all that they are fully South African, despite being white, and intend staying. They insist on participating in the non-racial project and broader society on an equal basis no matter how much rejection they experience from black pan-Africanists, and despite the anger and accusations that they are still privileged white colonialists.

And thirdly, there are those who drift around in the middle, bouncing between the poles in search of their identity, longing to leave but knowing they can’t, trying to feel more for the South African project but knowing that they will never feel truly African. It is this third group who are the most miserable.

And then of course there is a group who don’t have to be counted here: those whose applications for emigration to Australia or other places are already in process, and are simply waiting to go.

The fact that this debate on the DA predicament is happening every day around white dinner tables shows how unsettling the problem is. The DA may yet regroup, but rather than see this crisis as a collapse of the political landscape that has given reassurance to whites, it could present a significant opportunity to realign the mindset of South African whites, and to clarify why and on what terms they are living here.

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