Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Ramaphosa (2)

Is he South Africa’s best chance? Is President Cyril Ramaphosa up to the task of leading South Africa through the coronavirus crisis?

DO WE have another Mandela moment on our hands like the heady days after 1994 when Cyril Ramaphosa, under Mandela’s leadership, helped draw up the South African constitution and the country’s future looked bright? Or is this the beginning of the descent into violent social unrest of the sort we knew during apartheid?

At this writing, it is reported that mobs have attacked a truck carrying food parcels, and fights have broken out between residents of townships who are protesting that food parcels meant for them are going elsewhere. Hunger is rife in the country, and when people cannot feed their children, they will do anything. How long will it be before supermarkets are attacked and their shelves emptied or shoppers leaving stores are waylaid? Thugs have found fertile ground for their illegal actions.

President Ramaphosa’s challenge feels impossible. Known in professional circles as a ‘ditherer’, does he have the rational toughness we need to turn this situation around?

Despite public enthusiasm for him, a word of caution is necessary. In their desperation to beat Covid-19, South Africans have given the government wide-ranging powers which sound uncannily similar to the laws and regulations during apartheid. These include restrictions on travel, where one may work or reside, what one may eat, who one may associate with, what information can be broadcast, the carrying of personal documentation, and powers given to the police and army for arrest and entry into private property which only people who lived in apartheid will remember.

It is predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic will last a long time, and tail off gradually. Will the authorities relinquish all these new powers they have acquired? Politicians are notorious for clinging tenaciously to power once they have it. Can Ramaphosa control the police and army?

When he addressed the nation several times in the last few weeks to outline his plans for restarting the economy and helping needy South Africans, you could feel an air of excitement. Covid-19 has united this country in a way that seemed impossible just a while ago. But South Africans can be forgiven for being wary of promises. There have been so many disappointments. Enormous highs have been followed by devastating lows.

After Mandela, came President Thabo Mbeki, who refused to listen to scientists about HIV-Aids, and brought politics into the issue, reputedly resulting in the loss of 300,000 lives. Commentators refer to it as a genocide. His health minister Manto Tshabalala Msimang, was called ‘Dr Beetroot’ for promoting the benefits of beetroot, garlic, lemons, and African potatoes to combat the disease. After Mbeki we had President Jacob Zuma for a decade, who had been punted by Mandela as the best candidate to lead the country. Zuma nearly brought the country to its knees with corruption and shenanigans with unsavoury characters like the Guptas.

So far, Ramaphosa is following science in relation to Covid-19, but there are sinister political forces in the background looking for an opportunity.

Covid-19 is the biggest test the world has faced since World War Two. South Africa has done relatively well compared to other countries. The health infrastructure is intact, although under huge pressure; the World Health Organization has commended South Africa on its response.

Forever optimistic, South Africans seem willing to follow a credible leader, this time Ramaphosa. But middle class and wealthy South Africans living in their posh suburbs know they are not completely safe from the chaos Covid-19 could unleash from poorer areas all over the country, where hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford social distancing because they don’t have credit cards and can’t stockpile food.



Spare me a few rand?

beggars (2)

WORTH THE RISK? Does a beggar pleading for a few rand carry the Covid-19 virus? Would you avoid giving him anything if he did?

THERE’a cellphone-made video circulating in the radio waves of a man in a car spraying sanitiser on the cupped hands of a beggar, instead of filling them with coins. A future satirist might find this fitting material, but on the streets in the era of Covid-19, it is no joke.

If you drive down the busy Barry Hertzog Avenue in Emmarentia in the early morning, you will see homeless people emerging from under the trees in the park alongside the road, where they build small fires. If you proceed up the road towards the shopping centre, there is a good chance you will be approached by a beggar, asking for money. Will you do what you might have done a couple of months ago? Would you look around in your car or handbag for a few rands? If you will, are you still comfortable touching money, which the Covid-19 specialists tell us, are potentially covered in virus?

You might ignore the man, and stare straight ahead with pursed lips, as if he didn’t exist, while waiting for the traffic lights to change. Many people have done this for years. If your window was open, the beggar might approach you and appeal directly to your face, with a tragic story of need.

There is genuine pity felt for the beggar living from hand to mouth in the lockdown, even if it is suspected that he spends most of his money on drugs, not food. But are you afraid if he ignores the 2m rule in his quest for money from you? Are you more afraid if he wears a facemask, or doesn’t?

These seem like bizarre questions from a crazy dream, but are real in today’s context. Hopefully, one outcome of this pandemic may be that serious problems which should have been addressed long ago by government and others, might be tackled more urgently: How to humanely uplift the beggars, and not endanger the people they beg from. There are solutions, complicated as they may be.

Thousands of food parcels have been collected by NGOs for distribution to poor families without work or other means of survival. Within the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands have lost jobs; hunger is rife. Even here though, amongst the poorest segments of society, the homeless beggar often still falls through the cracks.

He is mostly invisible to the driver on his way to the supermarket. Or he is an irksome reminder that if there are beggars, all is not well in society and there is work to be done. When there is a downpour in Johannesburg and everyone rushes inside for shelter, the beggar, draped in a dirty black rag remains in the street. He hopes that one driver will have enough sympathy to open their window to the elements and drop a coin or two into his hands. How he survives against the elements is mysterious to most.

The difference now, with the coronavirus, is that his health affects the health of the people in cars, or those in the streets who ignore him. There are many ways to address poverty, but it needs urgent attention.

But there is also, for the first time, an ironical converse to the situation. What if you, in your luxury sedan, have just returned from overseas, you are carrying the virus, and unbeknownst to you, you are contagious? As the beggar in the street extends his empty palm to you, together with your couple of rand, you give him something else: a case of Covid-19, to take home to his fellows.

In this topsy-turvy reality, nothing is as it was.


Lost, again, in the 20s


Will the 2020s produce another Sachmo?  A hundred years ago in the 1920s, after the First World War, the arts of all types flowered in the aftermath of the devastation of the war, producing iconic names such as Louis Armstrong, Picasso, and others, as countries rebuilt themselves. What will happen when the coronavirus is defeated?

WHAT does it mean to be a teenager in a time of coronavirus lockdown? You will grow into adulthood with a scar in your understanding of how society works and what is permissible. But maybe you will also become adult with an extra advantage.

Those who came of age during the carnage of the First World War, spent their early years in a time of massive sadness when huge numbers lost loved ones in the war, thousands were maimed and mentally damaged, and millions suffered the gruesome aftermath of the Spanish flu’s ravages. They are colloquially known as the ‘lost generation’. The generation of the 1920s suffered the physical and emotional wounds of their time, which they transmitted to further generations.

Gertrude Stein, American writer living in Paris during the 1920s, is credited with coining the term. Ernest Hemingway popularised it in the epigraph for his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises: “You are all a lost generation”.

But the doom and gloom of being mooted “lost” aside, that ‘roaring twenties era’ was full of great art, where the Charleston was the dance of choice, flappers and women’s rights held sway, where Picasso blossomed and the literature of F Scott Fitzgerald was seminal. It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance and the career of Louis Armstrong boomed.

Today’s coming-of-age youth, particularly the South African born-frees, a part of the millennial generation, are growing into adulthood in a society where apartheid is history and joblessness and hopelessness, the norm. Because of COVID-19, these young people – like the rest of us – are experiencing a society traumatised, where no-one can predict how it will end.

But end, it will. Humanity will survive; economies and societies will be rebuilt. We don’t know how; there are more questions than answers. Whatever else it brings, it will have a focusing effect for many people about what is really important in life. And about the urgency of doing the things that really matter.

One already hears stories about the resolve of couples who have long courted, suddenly deciding to move in together because no-one knows what will happen, and they abhor the notion of not being together. Or people with long grievances against each other, calling out of the blue to reconcile in friendliness. Or others trying to locate colleagues they have worked with in the past, with whom they had a special connection.

It might also have the opposite effect. People who have carried protracted resentment against each other, might decide to vent this anger without regard for the consequences, since they might not get another chance. Divorces, suicides and violence might easily be among the outcomes.

Will babies born now carry any particular identity as they grow older? What will a child who was taken out of school this month, away from his friends, carry with him about the notion of friendship? In years to come, will people who were born during this time be named after the virus? Like the ‘lost generation’ of the First World War or the ‘baby boomers’ after the Second World War’?

On a more philosophical level, the value of things might take on an entirely different meaning. If the whole world and humanity are under threat, what does it matter whether one was called a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian or an atheist? Or a vegetarian or a meat eater? Or for Iranians, whether their hatred of Israel had any value? Or for Israelis, whether it mattered who had control over the kotel? These questions hang in the air; but there is a future and humanity will survive.


How to laugh at what scares you

randy rainbow

Is it forbidden to laugh at catastrophe? Gallows humour? Celebrated American comedian Randy Stewart Rainbow has millions of followers of his political videos on YouTube. His reaction to the coronavirus pandemic shows bizarre statements from US President Donald Trump saying that everything is “under control”

HOW long does it take a global catastrophe to turn into humour? In the case of the coronavirus, very quick: the online world is replete with hilarious songs and vignettes concerning the terrible threats this world faces. American satirist Randy Rainbow with his refrain “someone could develop a cold” parodies a song from the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls, and US President Donald Trump’s evasive response to the virus. Israeli band the Jam and Joplin produced a darkly funny version of The Knack’s 1979 song My Sharona, as My Corona, where everyone is masked. All these works have the sole intention of releasing some of the great stress we all share during these difficult times.

Is this humour offensive or necessary? Gallows humour is often the only way one can respond to catastrophe. Falling apart is never really a solution.

And then, there is a cultural response. Flash mobs of people singing from balconies and streets, ordinary people living in apartment blocks in Italy, Israel and elsewhere, have become testimonies to the human spirit in a state of quarantine. Historically, some of the greatest works of art have their roots in human struggles, from Shakespeare to Charlie Chaplin.

In South Africa, while many theatres and arts festivals have glumly closed their doors, others are creatively rethinking their formats to meet the coronavirus head-on. The organisers of the National Arts Festival said on Tuesday that rather than cancelling the festival in Makhanda due to the travel ban, they would do something bold – the Festival will be going completely online for the full 11 days from 25 June to 5 July so it can continue sharing its magic and hope. Organisers called it “…An opportunity to connect when we are being asked to distance ourselves from one another.”

Similarly, while facilities for the elderly are in lockdown, cutting people off from their families, staff from old age institutions like Pretoria’s Jaffa have posted happy videos onto facebook of residents at lunch and recreation, for their loved ones to see. Communication technology enables connections beyond physical spaces.

Two types of leaders, whether political, community or otherwise, emerge from the coronavirus kind of scenario: One is motivated towards recognising the harsh reality, yet taking action to make it better; there is always something that can be done. The other sees only the gloom and passes it on to others.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on Sunday, eloquently imploring South Africans to resist panic while declaring coronavirus a national disaster, was the first type – statesmanlike and inspiring. This contrasted with other high level figures such as US President Donald Trump who in the beginning blustered as usual, insisting that the virus is under “tremendous” control when his own experts said it wasn’t.

Ramaphosa said South Africa faces “a grave emergency”. But if everyone acts together, decisively, the coronavirus will be beaten, echoing US President Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous phrase during the Great Depression: “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Fortunately, the response from major South African figures and organisations, Jewish and others, has been to follow the spirit set by Roosevelt in 1933, and now by Ramaphosa.

Real leadership will be needed in the coming weeks or months, or however long it takes to defeat the virus. An urgent warning is necessary to people in political parties, ANC factions and others who have spent many years stabbing each other in the back: your squabbles may be useful material for satirists, but your power-grabbing is neither heroic nor useful for the country. The virus will be defeated despite you.


Parliamentary games and rude words


How far can a member of parliament push? In May 2017 the Economic Freedom Fighters were forcefully removed from Parliament after creating violence in response to an appearance by President Jacob Zuma.
The showdown with Speaker Baleka Mbete, which came after the EFF failed to obtain a court interdict against the forceful removal of MPs, resulted in the most violent eviction of the party since it began demonstrating at appearances of the president

A PERLIAMENT can’t operate if its members don’t stick to etiquette. But nothing is perfect. The extreme emotions attached to politics frequently overrides protocol, as we’ve seen lately in this country. The modern world has seen parliamentary shenanigans nothing short of comical: from banging desks with shoes in front of stern-faced representatives, to offering to attend sessions naked. The real, burning issues may sometimes get lost in the quarrels, or actually find their true expression.

Israel’s Knesset is no exception, amidst the country’s over-heated politics. In 2010, Arab MK Haneen Zoabi was cursed and shoved for relating her harrowing experience as a passenger on the Mavi Marmara ship which attempted to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. Other MKs shouted her down: ‘Go back to Gaza, you traitor!’ yelled one in Arabic. Russian-born MK Anastasia Michaeli alighted the podium, blocking her from speaking by standing between her and the microphone. Arab MK Jamal Zahalka ran to defend Zoabi. Arab and Jewish MKs scuffled in the aisles, requiring ushers to intervene. The Speaker expelled Michaeli and Zahalka from the hall.

A famous international protocol-breaking incident, which has become legend, occurred during the Cold War at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, filled with sombre international delegates. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev vociferously demanded the resignation of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, accusing him of acting for colonial powers. He then shocked delegates by loudly banging his shoe on the desk after the Philippines accused the USSR of imperialism in Eastern Europe.

How far can vigorous debate stretch without damaging the institution of Parliament itself? In South Africa in 1998, Manie Schoeman, leader of the New National Party from the Eastern Cape punched the ANC’s Johnny de Lange, who retaliated. Speaker Frene Ginwala described the incident as a ‘brawl’; Schoeman, who started the fracas, was suspended from Parliament for five days, and De Lange for one.

In 2016, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were thrown out of the Chamber for causing pandemonium during the State of the Nation Address (Sona) of then-President Jacob Zuma. And in the Sona this year of President Cyril Ramaphosa, the EFF made it impossible to hear him by constant interruptions; the Speaker suspended parliament. It was worse in the Sona debate a week later.

How you dress is a measure of your respect for your colleagues. But what counts as respect? In 2015 EFF leader Julius Malema, reacting to a parliamentary committee’s deliberations on a dress code, was rumoured to warn that his EFF MPs would discard their trademark red overalls and go naked in the Chamber if Parliament forbad the wearing of such apparel. He also rejected anything requiring the EFF to don the more formal-looking garb which characterises many parliaments, saying they would not dress like ‘colonial masters.’

Sadly, South African politics has become so unseemly that senior politicians – Malema and ANC figures – accused each other of domestic abuse, last week, in front of the parliament, the nation and the world, when gender-based violence is at an incredible high. Rightly, a huge outcry erupted from all sides of society. Why did the Speaker not show leadership and censor the guilty parties by ejecting them from the Chamber when this happened? The Speaker is as guilty as anyone for allowing it.

It goes further than the individuals concerned. One can argue whether making such accusations is technically a breach of etiquette, but it is certainly a breach of the spirit of parliament. Tragically, it makes South Africa look like a playground for bullying by adults who should know better. What must younger South Africans learn from this?

Mistletoe and COVID-19


Control? My foot! US President Donald Trump said on January 22 on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” about the coronavirus: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.”

PICTURE the scenario: It is winter in Europe. Snowing. Young men – soldiers – are in trenches, at war with one another. And then midnight strikes on December 24, and for a moment they are just young men, very far from home, celebrating Christmas. In the First World War, on Christmas day during the early period of the war, French, German, and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings. Men from both sides ventured into no man’s land to mingle and share food and souvenirs. They sang carols and played football. And then, all at once, it was all over and the men got back behind their cannons and bayonets, to continue war business as usual.

A positive similar side-effect, to global crises today like the coronavirus is that, in a world which never seems able to end its disputes, the virus might create a form of ‘peace’ because it does not respect borders. Your foe is as vulnerable as you; what happens to him might directly affect what happens to you.

International cooperation to fight the virus is occurring on a scale almost unprecedented in history. Although the pandemic doesn’t yet come anywhere near previous major pandemics, where death tolls were staggering, warning signs are there. The death toll crossed the 4 000 mark on Monday; the infection rate exceeded 113 000. Spanish flu, however, after the First World War, caused 50 million deaths, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most deadly epidemic of contemporary times, has been AIDS, which UNAIDS says caused 32 million deaths from 1981. Fiery sexual politics stirred by moral grandstanding, religious dogma and exploitation initially bedevilled the response to AIDS, as it has with coronavirus in the rhetoric of some religious figures.

Politics creeps in where it can and coronavirus is no exception. In the US, disputes between health officials and President Donald Trump over whether his administration has done enough to combat the coronavirus, are rife. He says he has everything “under control”. In a tweet he blamed the media for trying to damage his government’s image. He said “The Fake News Media is doing everything possible to make us look bad. Sad!”

Last week it was reported by Ynet that when Israel was considering adding America to a list of countries from which visitors would be required to spend 14 days in isolation upon entry, the move was delayed by some government ministries for fear of compromising ties with the US and concern about Trump’s response to this.

But on Sunday, PM Benjamin Netanyahu told a press conference, that he was instead considering taking a wider step. On Monday evening Israel drastically ratcheted up its efforts to protect the country from coronavirus, requiring all those arriving from any country at all to go into self-quarantine for 14 days with immediate effect. Crisis can sometimes force even politicians to do what is necessary, even ones who don’t normally agree.

Similarly, the contemporary climate crisis awareness also has the potential to cross borders and bring people on opposite sides together. Increasing droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, new hurricanes in the Indian Ocean and a rise in the global temperature are signs that if humankind does not get its act together for the environment, the future is bleak. Through all the haze, a common enemy is becoming identified: the people who spew carbon gas into the atmosphere, plastic into the oceans, and the international companies supporting them. Will the climate change and coronavirus activists and the First World War Christmas revellers be a model for how to handle other human disasters?


Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and hate crimes


The ethos of apartheid pervaded South African life everywhere, against which ordinary people could not or did not want to fight. For most people it became simply the way things were, not a crime against humanity

MANY white South Africans probably can’t imagine that they might have been perpetrators of a crime against humanity. It sounds like such a gigantic, malevolent, bloody concept. On the whole, they saw themselves as going about their ordinary lives, growing up, getting educated, and raising their families, not necessarily as political activists. During their youth, many white South Africans travelled the world, associating freely with people from other countries.

Yes, there were anti-apartheid and anti-South African protests in various places, at various times, of which they might or might not have been aware, but these took a back seat and didn’t really affect the travels of the average South African. South African companies thrived all over the world and international companies came here and flourished.

The majority of ordinary white South Africans are also probably not aware of the wording of the Statute of Rome, or even the existence of the Statute. It says that the apartheid system in which they lived alongside black people or above them as masters for decades, was a crime against humanity, an international crime. The 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court says apartheid was similar to other ‘crimes against humanity’.

So when FW de Klerk and his foundation, without debate, issued a statement two weeks ago saying that the idea that apartheid was a crime against humanity was incorrect, many ordinary white South Africans were probably confused. In finer detail, he said it was an ‘agitprop’ project initiated by the Soviets and their ANC/SACP allies to stigmatise white South Africans by associating them with genuine crimes against humanity. Images conjured up by the words ‘crimes against humanity’ include totalitarian repression and the slaughter and torture of millions of people. The Germans in the Second World War did that; Stalin did it in Russia; the Hutus did it to the Tutsis in Rwanda. But South Africa did not do that.

De Klerk was joint deputy president under former president Nelson Mandela in 1994. He had previously been the last apartheid president. He had presided over the dismantling of the legislative framework of apartheid, freeing the way for the present non-racial democratic constitution. He jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, with Nelson Mandela.

Following outrage over his statement, and pressure from wiser South African leaders, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the FW de Klerk Foundation officially withdrew and apologised for the contentious statement on apartheid.

His statement stoked the uproar of the Economic Freedom Fighters in parliament last week at the State of the Nation Address. To onlookers, the EFF looked like a bunch of rowdy attention-seekers. But they claimed to represent black South Africa, to tackle the eons of white colonialism and apartheid and demanded that De Klerk, sitting in the public gallery, be kicked out as “he had blood on his hands”.

Predictably, they rejected the De Klerk Foundation apology, demanded that he be stripped of his Nobel Peace Prize, and lose his privileges as a former head of state. The unruly manner in which the EFF punted its message, or the apparent lack of focus of their attacks on people, from Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan to De Klerk, made it hard to listen to them. But does the EFF, and their fiery leader Julius Malema, really represent black South Africa today? Apartheid is gone; the country is on a different track, however tenuously, and with whatever problems. Whatever it is these people in red overalls represent, they make us sit up and take notice that the trauma of black South Africa has not gone away, nor the polarities between black and white.

Geoff Sifrin is a veteran South African editor, journalist, columnist. See more of his work on his blog

Call me by my name

street names SA (2)

WHITE and black South Africans, looking back well over thirty years from this month, will remember the days when, if a white man’s car got a puncture on the roadside, the owner was able to call out to a passing black man with the words: “John, please come and help us fix this tyre!” Some black men would comply to avoid trouble. It seems incredible today, but such was the power relationship of white over black.

Some white South Africans who immigrated over the years, and even elderly white South Africans still living here, aren’t accustomed to the radical changes. It is not uncommon to hear expatriate South Africans who have lived in Australia for many years still refer to black people in derogatory terms used during apartheid. Even the taboo “sch- word” and the forbidden k-word have currency among some. In disgruntled local white communities, this reminds them of the power they once yielded.

But what they know is that times have changed and they cannot call out across the road that way, assuming they will be complied with.

If you think about it, since the ground-breaking speech by then SA president FW de Klerk 30 years ago this month, announcing the dismantling of the apartheid laws, it has become markedly unacceptable for black people to accept the generic ‘John’ or ‘Lizzie’. These names were coined for white tongues during apartheid, which could not pronounce black birth names because they contained sounds like ‘x’, ‘q’, ‘c’, ‘hl’, or other African sounds. Birth names are increasingly used, forcing whites to deal with the Hlengiwes, Qinisos, Mncebisis or Nonhlanhlas of this world. The world-respected South African painter formerly known as Helen Sebidi, particularly when she was employed as a domestic worker during the earlier part of her life, now celebrates herself as Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi, with the emphasis on Mmakgabo.

This dual-naming situation has a clear echo in Jewish society. It was a naming fashion for decades among diaspora Ashkenazi Jews who came to South Africa to give your child a name the rest of society could use, complying with usage in the secular world, and another more appropriate to religious tradition but which was not frequently used. For example, Brian, Colin, Brenda and others were appropriate in the secular world.

But these days, young Jewish couples who are shifting rightwards in their religious observance, dispense with this tradition, and the Ephraims and Rivkas of this world no longer feel it necessary to have English equivalents. Along with this comes an assertion and reclaiming of Jews’ ethnic pride and identity, similar to black South Africans.

The same phenomenon of unfamiliarity occurs among secular people with the Jewish names they haven’t heard before. And confusion about whether they have heard it correctly or how to pronounce it.

A next Jewish step might even be to revert to the usage which Jews had in the villages, or shtetls in Eastern Europe a century ago in which their lineage was included. Thus, Ephraim might be referred to as ‘Ephraim the son of Moishe’ (in Hebrew, Ephraim ben Moshe). Another layer is that Jews in parts of Eastern Europe were required by the authorities to adopt surnames. They often did this by using a name which corresponded to the work they did, or the place they came from. Thus, the well-known Jewish surname Shneider means tailor.

As part of the trend of name reversion among black people here, the actual meaning of popular African names previously unknown to whites emerges. The popular Zulu name Amahle means ‘the beautiful one’. The Basotho name Amohelang means ‘receive’. Dikgang means ‘arguments’. Lehlohonolo means ‘luck’.

There are also ‘English-seeming’ names which derive from an occurrence in the life of a child, which are translations from an African language relating to that event. The name ‘Consolation’ for example, might derive from the African word for the death of the baby’s mother in childbirth.

Is it important for whites to know the meaning of a black person’s name? Or is it important for someone to know the meaning of a Jew’s name? Many awkward situations arise where well-intentioned white South Africans bend over backwards to ‘do the right thing’ and ask black people what the meaning of their name is, like some kind of colonial curiosity. Or when a secular person asks to know the meaning of a Jew’s name, forcing the Jew to talk about his name in this way when he might not even know what it is, to his embarrassment. Turning the thing around, would you ask someone called ‘Joan’ what her name means?

Calling someone by their name is never a simple gesture. The enormity of the political significance of being generically named “John” because you are male and black was completely lost in the awareness of the white people who used it. Hopefully our society will never allow it to be lost again.

Geoff Sifrin is a veteran South African editor, journalist, columnist. See more of his work on his blog


The danger of anything goes


JUST boy and his imaginary buddy? Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) and Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). Photograph courtesy IMD

SHOULD IT BE morally permissible for a film to be made, portraying Hitler as a clown, where constant salutes to him of “Heil Hitler” are a joke? Is comedy an appropriate medium for portraying the Nazis, 80 years after the Holocaust, when their millions of victims are still within living memory? When Taika Waititi (44), director of the satirical Nazi film Jojo Rabbit walked onstage at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre on Sunday to huge applause, to receive an Oscar for People’s Choice, one of the first Māori New Zealanders to win, the answer seemed to be a resounding ‘yes!’. In his film, he was expressing the theatrical nature of our era, in which anything goes, even portraying Hitler, the embodiment of evil, as a fool, a slapdash participant in a one-dimensional plot, not unlike a child’s story about ‘cops and robbers.’

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) was a similar poking of ‘fun’ at Hitler and his dangerous, fiery rhetoric on the European scene. Similarly, in 1942, The Fuehrer’s Face was a song by US band Spike Jones and the City Slickers, which topped the hit parade for a year. When these shows were on, Hitler was already in power, stirring the German masses to fight for their fatherland and their Aryan race with cries of “Deutschland uber alles!” but the horror of the Holocaust was not yet known.

This type of political tomfoolery was not, arguably, that different from the ways in which our generation today pokes fun at child-like US President Donald Trump, with his thumping of the drum about making America great again, bragging about what he has done for the country, the danger letting non-American migrants in, and the stirring of the American masses to support him without knowing what he does and according to what values.

Implicit in parodying Hitler is a trivialisation of his millions of Jewish and other victims. They are hardly mentioned in JoJo Rabbit in any serious way which could provide some context for a viewer, particularly one who is not familiar with that period in history. A child may come out of the movie thinking that Jews really are ‘different’ and have the figurative ‘horns’ they are accused of, because of all the references to them being so. Today’s generation hardly reads books, and many would see JoJo Rabbit with no understanding of what the Second World War was about and the role that Hitler played in it. Would traditional Holocaust memorials screen JoJo Rabbit, or a Holocaust survivor approve of the movie?

How would South Africans react to a film poking fun at apartheid’s victims and turning its leaders into innocent buffoons who had no idea of what they were doing or fighting for, and who felt misunderstood by the world?

Fiction and history can be difficult bedfellows. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2006) by Jon Boyne is a ‘Holocaust’ tale with saccharine values that dangerously digress from what the Holocaust was. It is told from the viewpoint of a 9-year-old German boy named Bruno, the privileged son of a Nazi commandant during the Second World War who befriends a Jewish boy on the other side of the concentration camp fence. There too, the stark reality of what was happening in the camp takes second place to the fictional childish tale.

Waititi claims Jewish heritage tenuously:  He mentions his maternal grandfather’s Russian Jewish identity. He used his mother’s surname, Cohen, for himself in some of his works. He describes himself as a “Polynesian Jew”. He says he experienced prejudice growing up as a Māori Jew. Making Jojo Rabbit, he says, has reminded him of the need to educate our children about tolerance and the need to remember that there’s no place in this world for hate. Children are not born with hate, they are trained to hate. Sadly, these blushing statemes are so overused and bland, that they have become meaningless. Do Waikiki’s vague Jewish links give him the credentials to laugh at Hitler and the Holocaust? Moral grandstanding and platitudes of this nature are the poison of our age which allow terrible things to happen, with no-one having the guts to stand up and say it is wrong, lest they be accused of being ‘politically incorrect.’

Based on Christine Leunens’s 2004 novel Caging Skies, which Waititi’s mother insisted he read, Jojo Rabbit follows the life of Johannes, a lonely German boy, a Hitler youth who has been completely brainwashed, who discovers that his single mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their attic. Aided only by his imaginary friend – Adolf Hitler – Jojo must confront his blind nationalism as the war continues to rage on.

Waititi’s description of the film as an “anti-hate satire” aside, it poses profound questions about contemporary society and the role of film and the arts in general. In an interview, Waititi said comedy was a very good satirical medium. Previous films and books have attempted to see war and the Nazis through the eyes of a child, with a humorous flavour to them, such as Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, which was a darkly controversial  film in 1979. In The Tin Drum, the child is so disturbed at what he sees in the behaviour of adults that he decides to throw himself down the stairs in order to thwart his growth and thus, never to become an adult.

Today, it seems, anything goes. To say something is forbidden, such as the trivialisation of the Nazis and their victims in Jojo Rabbit, would earn opprobrium and raised eyebrows. From a South African context, censorship was the bane of our existence. But weighing up the value of a vanity project of the nature of Jojo Rabbit, the platitudinous principles articulated by Waititi and the unimaginable pain that Jews still know from the Holocaust, should Jojo Rabbit have been allowed to be made?

  • Geoff Sifrin is a veteran South African editor, journalist, columnist. See more of his work on his blog
  • See here  for another opinion on Jojo Rabbit by independent arts critic Robyn Sassen

Welcome to the whirligig


Who will win the race against time, in seconds or in years? Warplanes can be shot down in seconds. Global warming is measured in years but those years seem to be slipping by faster and faster, with increasingly devastating consequences and victims. The Australian bush fires that have raged over past months, bringing the koala population to the verge of extinction and endangering other species, were speeded up by global warming. A koala is shown above. It’s as if time and the events it contains is accelerating everywhere

THE ten seconds that the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force had to decide whether to shoot down the Ukrainian passenger plane over his military base last week, typifies today’s superheated digital world. The plane was misidentified as a cruise missile. After it was shot, killing all 176 passengers, he was quoted saying that once it became clear what had happened, he thought: “I wish I was dead.”

This ten-second event has similar characteristics to the 15 seconds Israelis in the southern Israeli town of Sderot had in August 2018 to get into bomb shelters or reinforced rooms after the rocket warning siren sounded, when 150 rockets rained down on southern Israel from the Gaza Strip.

Today, digital media like Twitter spreads knowledge and opinions – both falsehoods and truths – planet-wide instantly. Some of it is immensely beneficial, but it’s an instantaneousness that is also dangerous. The master at exploiting it, United States president Donald Trump can, with a malicious word via Twitter insulting his opponents, cause ructions in global politics raising a risk of war.

Everything is speeding up, challenging our ability to ruminate and contemplate before taking action. So many dramatic events cram each month, it’s hard to notice time passing. Among the latest is panic about containing the Australian bush fires caused partly by rising atmospheric temperatures due to climate change. Bush fires have happened before but never on this scale. Nearly a billion animals have been affected. The nature of Australian life has to change.

In the Middle East, Israeli life has always been frenetic, to its credit. Israelis’ ability to deal with rapid change is a part of their strength. Now there is concern that weather patterns are becoming so unpredictable that it will affect how people live. The 2020s opened with a blast regarding climate change’s effect on rainfall. In the week of January 5 more than 20 percent of Tel Aviv’s average annual precipitation fell within three hours, breaking records. Low-lying roads, some in major arteries, became impassable. A second storm days later flooded cities in northern Israel. More heavy rain followed. Cars drowning up to their rooftops under fallen trees were seen.

Israeli forecasters had predicted stormy weather and warned people to avoid low lying areas. But they hadn’t expected anything so dramatic, so fast. Previously in 2013, the Ayalon – the highway cutting through Tel Aviv – had become a torrent because of what they called a “once-in-100-year storm.” But now it’s no longer a 100-year storm. It happened again the following year, and again in 2018.

Scientists don’t know how the multiple impacts from global warming will play out internationally. There is a consensus that in decades to come, extreme weather events will become the new normal. The atmosphere’s predictability will lessen. A once-in-50-year storm might become once a decade, or once a year.

In South Africa, it seems that we’ve always lived in our own bubble, politically at odds with trends in the outside world. This applies no less today regarding climate change, as our corrupt politicians squabble stupidly over their power. It is bizarre that while other countries are trying to reduce carbon emissions, South Africa is still building new coal-fired power stations – Medupi and Kusile – which will add to the amount of carbon it puts into the atmosphere.

Taking a distant view: What do an Iranian air defence operator and an Israeli meteorologist have in common? Time. The Iranian had to act within ten seconds. The climatological equivalent of this catastrophe might be the world’s climate deadline but the stakes are much higher: the whole planet.

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