How to keep your wits in a trigger-happy world

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Is it guns who kill, or the people who use them? Gun advocates such as US president Donald Trump say it’s the latter. The scourge of gun-related killings in America and South Africa – the worst in the world – puts his words to a severe test. 

HATE him or love him, American president Donald Trump provokes debate on just about everything, the latest being his theatrical pro-gun speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Friday. South Africans listening to it should be worried about guns in their own country, which comes second only to America on gun-related homicides per capita in the world.

Despite America’s shocking statistics on gun violence, Trump fiercely defended their right to own guns. America’s rate of gun violence exceeds all other developed countries – a 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun homicide than people in other wealthy countries. But Trump, insanely, advocates even more guns. To make his point, he quoted the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, where Islamist gunmen murdered staff at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, shoppers at a Jewish supermarket, and others. If civilians were armed, he said, “it would have been a whole different story.” Can you just imagine the bloodbath?

Sadly, the rate of firearm-related killings in South Africa ranks just behind America, which has 10.2 deaths per 100,000 population – the highest in the world. South Africa has 9.4 per 100,000. Next on the list is Switzerland, way down at 3.84. These figures are from a study by American medical professionals based on data from 2010-2012.

Middle and upper class South Africans don’t experience this reality directly because they are shielded behind high walls and security guards in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, and lead a semblance of first-world lives. But if they read the papers they may be aware of the effect on poorer people in townships and elsewhere. Studies report that 18 people are shot and killed every day in South Africa.

In America, politics plays a huge role for Trump: the NRA, one of the country’s most politically powerful groups which can make or break politicians, zealously resists gun control. It is generally easier to be a legal gun owner “than it is to be a legal driver,” says David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center.

South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa, promises to fix the country after the 9-year Zuma debacle. But he has enemies, and violence in SA society is deep-rooted and goes back decades. The figures are shocking: According to a 2014 report of the IEP (Institute for Economics and Peace) South Africa ranks as the 15th worst country worldwide for societal safety and security, and the 8th most violent, with a homicide rate – gun-related and others – of 31 per 100,000 people. Rates like this are generally found in countries with serious ongoing crises or at war.

Does a country with external threats risk higher internal violence because of stress? Not necessarily; Israel exists in a region of major violent conflicts along its borders, and continuous threats to annihilate it, but its rate of gun-related deaths, at 2.16 per 100,000 is extremely low compared to the 9.4 quoted above for SA.

The daily experiences of the two nations’ inhabitants reflect these figures. Israelis have no hesitation going out in the streets late at night, including young people, men and women. But drive through many neighbourhoods in South Africa and you’ll see the massive walls with barbed wire around the houses, and the cars of private security companies patrolling the streets. Go to almost any shopping centre at 9 at night, and you’ll find few people there, and entertainment facilities mostly closed by then.

Can South Africans repair their society? Trump has many followers in gun-happy America who want even more guns. Taking his cue and giving ‘innocent’ people more guns in South Africa would be madness. Yet how to stop it? It causes many of the best South Africans who can still leave, to do so.

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



Is this the moment when everything changes?


Hidden threat under cups of coffee: The liveliness and enjoyment of crowds in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighbourhood covers a sinister challenge for Israel – will it be irrevocably stained as Israeli soldiers are instructed to fire at unarmed protesters on the Gaza border?

IN EVERY nation, certain events are identified by historians looking back as tipping points which defined its character and soul. Israel’s wars are markers – the War of Independence, Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, which gave Israelis and Jews the feeling they weren’t doomed to forever be “strangers” in other peoples’ countries. Crucial moments in the Jewish soul.

It doesn’t have to be war in the conventional sense; it could reside under the surface of everyday reality, as it does on this seventieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

Anyone visiting Neve Tzedek, the artsy area in South Tel Aviv last Friday night would have seen the incredible buzz of people, young and old of all cultures and languages confidently enjoying themselves at cafes and strolling the streets, and might have been inspired at how far Israel has come and the confidence of its citizens. Israeli flags hung on almost every street pole, from every window, and on cars’ aerials. At the crowded shuk’s’ entrance, a man sang popular 1960s songs amidst the flags.

But if you went into a café and listened to conversations, you would hear sprinkled among them, the ‘war’ going on just across the border a few kilometres away over the Green Line, in the West Bank and Gaza, beyond the privileged Tel Aviv ‘bubble’. There is also talk of a new force in politics, not just to do with the shaky coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding together amidst scandals, but about a potent recent incident: The morality of Israeli soldiers shooting and killing unarmed protesters on March 30, at the Gaza border during protests there, which started a train of events Israel seems unable to stop.

That event may be what historians will identify as the point when even ardent believers in the justice of the Jews’ statehood could not excuse its actions – where in some respects, Israel lost something in its soul.

Such markers in a nation’s character don’t have to be bloody. In the United States, the Rosa Parks incident, where a black woman refused to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955, triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States. The flurry which the incident generated became a symbol of the indignities black people were constantly subjected to, affecting the soul of the nation and its sense of morality. She is internationally recognised as the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement” in America. Everyone knows the name Rosa Parks.

Other tipping points affecting inner, personal feelings in the United States include the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001, which future historians might one day interpret as the beginning of the third world war.

For the new South Africa, the 2012 killings at Marikana will probably qualify as the tipping point for negative perceptions about the ANC, as the 1960 Sharpeville massacre was for the apartheid government.

Sometimes tipping points are contradictory. South Africa’s difficult situation today regarding rising racial tensions, inequality and poverty, suggests that rather than being the dawn of a new, bright era, the much heralded 1994 democratic elections might be seen by future historians as the beginning of a new decline of SA into a corrupt, bankrupt country. What a tragedy, after the bitter struggle that was waged here.

Another glance at the buzz in Neve Tzedek reveals that behind the façade of joy and laughter, lies the uncomfortable knowledge that something much more difficult and complex is playing out. How to recapture the moral high ground after incidents such as the shooting of unarmed civilians is no less of a struggle for Israel than winning a war.

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


If I sing your anthem, will I feel at home in the world?


Anthems which ignite passions: Are they always liable to cause divisions by creating an enemy? Or unite people? In the picture, black and white players of the South African Springbok rugby team sing the South African national anthem.

WHEN Israeli writer David Grossman told bereaved Israelis and Palestinians on Memorial Day this month that “fortress Israel” is not yet a home for Jews because it is not “stable and relaxed” – among other things – it raised questions for South Africans about their own country. Are South Africans relaxed and feeling at home after the political earthquakes that have numbed and traumatised their society during apartheid and after it?

For South African Jews in particular, such questions become louder on occasions such as the recent Holocaust Memorial Day at Johannesburg’s West Park cemetery, when the singing of various anthems takes place after the speeches by Holocaust survivors and other dignitaries.

The South African anthem evoked nervous glances from white people in the crowd, looking to see if the black people present were offended that they didn’t know the anthem’s words – as if this would question their patriotism. The lyrics employ the five of the most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages – isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The five different languages were incorporated into the anthem as an attempt at South African reconciliation after apartheid. But the only part most white adults know is the English and Afrikaans, not the African languages, where they generally just hum along to the main refrain, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”

The African part was originally composed as a hymn in 1897 by Methodist school teacher Enoch Sontonga and became a symbol of defiance against apartheid. It means “G-d bless Africa.” Sadly, most white South Africans, particularly in the cities, cannot speak any African language at all or understand what black people are saying to each other.

The Jewish world has its own very special anthem which is in some ways a Jewish counterpart to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, based on Jewish experience. It is called the “Partizaner lid” – the Partisan Song – a defiant Yiddish song considered an anthem of Holocaust survivors which is sung in memorial services worldwide. It is about Jewish resistance and survival: After numerous attempts to destroy them by the Nazis and others, the Jews “are still here.” The lyrics were written in 1943 by Hirsh Glick, a Jewish inmate of the Vilna Ghetto who was inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Should Israel’s national anthem Hatikva be sung at such events? Some say it is essential, to celebrate the fact that the horror of the Holocaust was followed by the joy of Israel’s creation. A few people have reservations, however, saying that including it inappropriately politicises the event, since the Holocaust was a specifically Jewish trauma, not an Israeli one. Hitler targeted Jews of all stripes – Zionist and anti-Zionist, religious and non-religious.

Another white ethnic group experiencing similar questions about belonging as the Jews are the Afrikaners, who during apartheid passionately sang their own anthem, “Die Stem van Suid Afrika” – “the Call of South Africa.” Many Afrikaans farmers may soon be singing another national anthem – Australia’s – following a statement by its home affairs minister Peter Dutton that he would fast-track visas for white South African farmers because of the “horrific circumstances they face.” The SA government protested against his comment.

What’s in an anthem? Is it still a unifying symbol for which people will live or die? David Grossman’s son Uri died as a soldier in the 2006 Lebanon War, fighting for his country and, by implication, for the words of its anthem. But in Israel too, the anthem has controversy attached to it. Not all Israelis will sing it.

The passion and patriotism of anthems inspire people to do great things, but equally, evil. It’s worth remembering that the Nazis also had their anthems.

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

When politics turns populist, the smell of blood is in the air

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Politics and populism: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema at the party’s fourth anniversary rally in Durban in July 2017. Speaking to a crowd of 7000, he hurled insults at then President Jacob Zuma, former president Thabo Mbeki, whites and KwaZulu-Natal Indians. He encouraged the crowd to occupy land.

DRAMA is nothing new for Julius Malema. Already making waves in 2013, the EFF leader appeared that year in the form of a large puppet of a baby in comedian and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys’ show, “Adapt or Fly.” Uys caricatured politicians who have governed South Africa from DF Malan onwards, showing most – excluding Nelson Mandela – as horrid. He transformed himself into the characters’ features, such as PW Botha’s gesticulating finger and scowl, and John Vorster’s thick eyebrows and sinister coldness, and held “Malema” in his arms. That infant is grown up now, and some of Uys’s predictions about Malema have come true.

The show was set in the period before the 2014 elections, amidst the horror of Jacob Zuma possibly becoming president again. At the end, Uys raised the house lights, sat on the stage facing the audience, and appealed to those younger than 25 who hadn’t yet voted, to register and take control – if only they had, we might have avoided the nine-year Zuma disaster.

Portraying Malema, Uys threaded an analogy with Hitler. Since then, Malema has become one of the most important South African politicians – his party is the third largest, characterised by its members’ unruliness and red garb. Last Saturday he brought Soweto’s Orlando Stadium, packed with thousands, to a standstill as he delivered his emotion-packed funeral tribute to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Social media was abuzz afterwards, praising him.

When Uys displayed the Malema puppet in 2013, the message was to remember how Hitler, an incredibly charismatic and populist speaker, achieved power, with his policy of National Socialism. He promised the German masses to fix the economy, provide jobs for everyone, bring back Germans’ dignity, and rectify the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty after the First World War. The seemingly direct simplicity of it appealed viscerally to Germans. Even some Jews endorsed him, not knowing what was to follow.

When Malema made his potent speech at Winnie’s funeral, filled with populist slogans with which millions could identify, such as ending corruption, free education for all, jobs for all, nationalising mines and banks, expropriating land without compensation, and eliminating ‘white monopoly capital’ some would say Uys’ cautionary voice was in the background – things aren’t as simple as the slogans.

Was Uys behaving like an irrelevant ‘old white man’ in 2013, detached from South Africa’s new reality? Some would say yes. Others recall his sharp satirical skills during his heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s, when he highlighted the apartheid state’s insanity. In his most recent show which opened a few weeks ago, entitled ‘‘When in doubt say Darling’’ he plays an elderly man in the process of packing his life into boxes before entering a retirement home. The sharpness for which he was renowned was blunted. He finds nothing important in the newspapers.

Malema has made a significant, positive impact on South African politics, forcefully raising crucial issues the old guard preferred to keep quiet. For that, South Africa must thank him.

His tribute to Winnie was dramatic, both in substance and in his passionate delivery: “She put the country first, above her own personal safety… and confronted gun-carrying white men who were sworn killers of the apartheid defence force…” He addressed her directly: “…you fought for what you believed was right, possessed only by your love for our people and the restoration of their dignity.”

Was Uys wrong about Malema in 2013? Is he the future president who will inject new energy into the country? Or a threat? His vibrant youthfulness is his drawcard, while his aggressiveness and racism towards whites is tolerated. People said he would mature and become more reasonable. To some extent, he has, becoming more sophisticated in his politics. But who will he be tomorrow?

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


Is this the Wild West or the Middle East?

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What to do about Gaza? Thousands of Palestinians joined in a March of Return at the border with Israel on March 30. Israeli soldiers set up positions facing them across the border. Snipers picked off individual demonstrators. The world watches as the casualties mount, and no-one knows how it will end. In the picture, Israeli soldiers face demonstrators.

ONE thing which puzzles Diaspora Jews seeing images of Israeli soldiers facing masses of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in the March of Return at the Gaza border, and hearing reports of killings by Israeli snipers, is: Why is Israel not using non-lethal means of riot control? Live fire is not the only way.

For South African eyes and ears, pictures of demonstrators being shot evokes memories of one of South Africa’s greatest traumas – the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when some 6,000 unarmed black people protesting the pass laws converged on police; many were shot, some in the back as they fled, resulting in 69 dead and 180 wounded.

The contexts of these two events are so fundamentally different that comparison is absurd – unless one considers the mere existence of Israel to be equivalent to apartheid. South African black people were never aiming to destroy the South African state, but destroy the apartheid system; the Palestinian goal, expressed clearly by Hamas, is destruction of Israel.

While that is true, Sharpeville’s effect on South Africa’s political landscape was profound; if the Palestinians’ March of Return gathers momentum and more are killed, it could reignite severe focus on Gaza and Israel’s role.

It seems that under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s response to ‘trouble’ from the Palestinians is to quickly resort to massive force rather than a non-violent approach. Diaspora Jewry is repelled by this, even if seen from their situation of relative privilege; an American Jew in the safety of his California home cannot imagine American soldiers firing on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. Why, they ask, should Israel do it? The answer is that Israel shouldn’t be doing it, there are other means.

Diaspora Jews’ existential dangers are nothing like Israel’s. But from where they sit, Israel seems to be unnecessarily choosing lethal means over non-lethal ones. It seems the hawkish Netanyahu is not interested in how the Diaspora sees him. But even high-profile, respected right-wingers in the Diaspora, such as Ronald Lauder, are beginning to speak against him.

Some people on the right claim Israel’s record is clean as a whistle compared to the sickening Syrian violence – the latest outrage being a gas attack by dictator Assad on his opponents. And that the world should stop complaining about little Israel.

But Syria is not the standard by which to judge the Jewish state. The value of human life is a Jewish precept, including a Palestinian demonstrator’s life. How to control riots without killing demonstrators?

The March of Return, which Hamas has exploited for its own agenda, is expected to continue for weeks. Thus far there have been close to 30 fatalities and hundreds wounded. Some Hamas members have tried to plant rudimentary explosive devices across the border fence.

Israel’s failure to develop nonlethal methods to disperse demonstrators at relatively long distances has been discussed in security circles for many years; the State Comptroller explicitly commented on it in 2003 and 2017. The historical background was that, at the height of the second intifada in 2002, IDF soldiers under the Gaza Division operated under flexible rules of engagement which allowed them to shoot at anyone approaching the border fence from Gaza.

Even then, this was not accepted by all officers. For example, the current IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, who was a young division commander at the time, objected to these open-fire directives and instructed his soldiers in armoured battalions to ignore them, and not routinely approve shooting at a person approaching the fence before their intentions were known.

Netanyahu should not be allowed to become the face of Israel today. A trigger-happy Israel loses not only the soul of the Zionist project, but also the support of Diaspora Jewry.

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

Is South Africa a society that throws its children down the toilet?

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Is a toilet too much to ask? In numerous schools in South Africa, toilet facilities for the children are either missing or dangerous. It is a priority that has been neglected in the basic school system for decades, both under the ANC and previous governments. Accidents are inevitable. The picture shows a rudimentary pit toilet at a rural school.

THE horrendous death of a five year old schoolgirl, Lumka Mketwa, who fell into a pit latrine at an Eastern Cape school last week and drowned in human faeces, and whose body lay there overnight before being found, highlights a stark reality of South African society. This is the chasm between the high quality first-world bubble in which the South African elite – including middle class blacks, whites and most Jews – live, compared to the millions of desperately poor, who don’t even have a proper toilet. It is not the first such incident: In 2014, five year old schoolboy Michael Komape fell into a dilapidated pit latrine at his Limpopo school and died.

It will likely happen again. Thousands of children attend schools with filthy, dangerous toilets. A reliable report in January said 37 Eastern Cape schools had no toilets at all, 1945 had plain pit latrines and 2585 had ventilated pit latrines. How can children and their parents function with optimism under such circumstances?

Contrast this with white schools in the city – whether Christian, Jewish or other properly organised, comparable schools, where the absence of good toilets is unimaginable, let alone other essentials such as adequate school buildings, desks and so on.

Which of the two examples above adequately describes the country South Africa – the abysmal poverty of Lumka’s world, or the relative wealth of the Jewish or Catholic child’s world?

How would other countries answer a similar question? In an attempt to get a handle on this, a report released on March 14 compares the ‘happiness level’ of various countries, evaluated by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations. It takes data from 156 countries, ranking them in terms of six variables that support a person’s well-being. These are: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity.

It found that the top countries included Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Finland. The most unhappy countries were Burundi, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen.

South Africa is not regarded as a particularly happy society. It ranks two thirds down the list, at 105. Obviously, within the SA elite’s first-world bubble which has access to health care, resources, community, charities and so on, the ranking would be far higher, probably closer to Germany. But the poverty of the masses brings it down. The pathetic beggars motorists encounter at city street lights are the tip of the iceberg.

How much credibility do such studies have? Mark Twain popularised a term in the United States: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Undoubtedly, some indicators cannot be precisely measured for a report like this, but it nevertheless gives a broad overview.

The notion of comparing different countries’ well-being came from the prime minister of Bhutan in 2011. In 2012 the UN General Assembly declared March 20 as World Happiness Day, recognising “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations… and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.” The idea may seem a little woolly to some, but it has taken root in government policy in certain places.

Israel was ranked a respectable eleventh in well-being, one notch below Australia, and firmly above Germany and the United States, at 15 and 18 respectively – an interesting finding, given Israel’s stress because of threats against it. Clearly, Israelis are relatively happy.

The Palestinian territories, in contrast, rank much lower than Israel, at 104, which should worry those concerned about relations between them.

Can South Africa’s ranking rise in the foreseeable future, so another Lumka Mketwa will not die? It is now 24 years since apartheid ended, and SA President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed shock at her death and ordered urgent action to give all schools proper toilets. But heads must roll in this country, quickly and totally, and not just about toilets.

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

Messy business of Jews, their roots and land

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Hillbrow: Crime spot or wellspring of creative energy? This cosmopolitan, black Johannesburg neighbourhood is a no-go land for many whites, who fear it, although they once owned it. Now, white land ownership is coming under political scrutiny, as blacks demand the return of what colonialists ‘stole’ from them centuries ago

JOHANNESBURG northern suburbs Jews and other whites generally fear going to Hillbrow, believing they’ll be mugged. But anyone attending the Hillbrow Theatre – previously the historic Andre Huguenot theatre – last weekend to see the show Hillbrowification staged as part of the Dance Umbrella Festival, might have been impressed by a neighbourhood abuzz with pulsating street life amid Art Deco buildings, and the cosmopolitan mix of black immigrants and local black people. Undoubtedly problems of poverty and crime exist, but the energy is infectious.

Adult Jews remember a largely white Hillbrow in the 1960-70s which hummed elegantly with shops and cafes like the popular Fontana, and buildings such as Highpoint in which the first Exclusive Books was born. For residents, Hillbrow was a first step up for many poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who had started off in the humble Doornfontein neighbourhood to the south.

Few, if any, Jews remain in Hillbrow today. They sold up and moved north to the more suburban areas of Orange Grove, Sydenham and Highlands North.

That move was organic, driven by personal decisions and aspirations to own better properties. But this may change with the radical possibility threatening white property owners today, as the black EFF party wants government to seize white-owned property without payment, claiming it was stolen from South Africa’s original black inhabitants by white colonialists. An EFF motion in Parliament last month to review the Constitution to allow ‘expropriation without compensation’ (EWC) was supported by the ANC.

Rural land in Jewish hands today is small, compared to the 1960s when there were a multitude of Jewish farms; for example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie in Mpumalanga was almost entirely Jewish farmland. Today, the effects of Jews losing properties would be felt mainly in cities.

The argument is often made that Jewish South Africans’ success in this country, whether in property ownership, business or elsewhere is not because they lived in a country that legally discriminated against blacks and favoured whites. Rather, they worked extremely hard throughout their lives and deserve what they achieved – including property they own – and they shouldn’t have to pay for what colonialists did centuries ago. Many will say Jews are inherently industrious and creative, and succeeded in whichever country they emigrated to from Eastern Europe, whatever the circumstances.

There may be some truth in that, but land is an emotive issue and the argument won’t satisfy black people who believe it was stolen from them. What’s to be done? President Cyril Ramaphosa says it needs careful consideration and there will be no ‘smash and grab’ – such as the Zimbabwean catastrophe, with rampant seizure of white farms.

The issue is complex, whether you support EWC or reject it. From whom should land be taken, and to whom it should it be given? For example, there are whites whose forebears arrived here in the 19th century and who are fifth generation South Africans. Must they still pay for what the colonialists did, as if they are not South African?

Furthermore, to whom should land be given? Which people qualify as ‘original’ South Africans from whom the colonialists stole land? South African history is replete with events where one group took land from another. Perhaps the only genuinely original inhabitants were the San – the so-called ‘Bushmen’ who are virtually extinct today?

What no-one can dispute is the need for major land reform. In a country with a majority black population, ownership of most land by whites is both immoral and a recipe for disaster. What does this have to do with Hillbrow? It is still a metaphor for the country, a reservoir of pulsating energy bordered by land largely owned or controlled by the privileged. Imagine if the pent-up energy crammed into those few blocks was released into bringing life to new places.

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


The leadership quandary: Trust me, I’ll make your nightmares real


What kind of leaders does the world and South Africa need? As the international scenario heats up with bellicose posturing by powerful politicians, the morality of leadership takes a knock. In post-apartheid South Africa, racial tensions still fume as politicians use them for their gain. In the picture, the anti-white leader of the EFF party Julius Malema explodes in an outburst

WHAT makes a leader? Morality, humility, wisdom? The question becomes increasingly relevant as the planet seems to be hurtling towards potential self-destruction. Ordinary people watch fearfully as international leaders threaten stability in ways not seen since the Cold War. For us in South Africa, the country seems rudderless, lacking any true national leader.

Authentic leadership goes deeper than having a clean record. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been under police investigation for corruption, yet most Israelis still regard him as best choice for prime minister and vote for him, because no-one else in the political landscape seems able to ensure Israel’s security.

Israelis are anyway cynical about political leaders’ morality: President Moshe Katsav was jailed for rape in 2011; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for corruption a few years later; and Shas leader and cabinet minister Aryeh Deri was jailed in 1999 for bribery and breach of trust.

Ironically, one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders was an ardent right-winger, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led the Likud to electoral victory in 1977 after three decades of Labour Party dominance. He was initially reviled by the left, but today is admired as a role model by people across the spectrum for common sense and propriety. He is the leader who made peace between Israel and Egypt with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, with whom he received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace.

In America, President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure in the White House and irrational tendency to change positions on major local and international issues, continues eroding confidence among Americans who believe he is unfit for the job, and creates disdain elsewhere. But he sits in the power seat and could lead the world into a hell from which it would take forever to recover.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin belligerently brags about the ability of his country’s nuclear weaponry to reach targets anywhere, particularly the United States, terrifying people who fear another nuclear arms race.

What about South African leaders? Obviously the historical giant amongst them was struggle icon and former President Nelson Mandela. He is history now, although the memory of his vision lives on, disappointed as the citizens may be at his country’s decline.

And the others? President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to prove himself; many people believe the task of reconstructing South Africa is too big for him. He succeeded in removing the poisonous President Jacob Zuma from office, but not yet the rot Zuma created.

On a much smaller, charismatic scale, we have Julius Malema. It may seem ludicrous to include him in a descriptive list containing the likes of Putin and Trump, but we are talking qualities not scale. One may not like his politics, but he makes enough noise on the national and even international stage to be noticed by people interested in South Africa. Whether his leadership brand will produce anything positive is unlikely because of his toxic anti-white racism, epitomised by his latest statement, “We are cutting the throat of whiteness,” referring to plans to remove Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip because he is white.

Sounds familiar? It is little different from apartheid leaders HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, whose target was blacks not whites.

Does a leader have to want the best for his people? Not necessarily. Hitler, as repulsive as he was, inspired Germans to move mountains, even if they were in the most depraved direction and eventually brought catastrophe down on them.

South Africa’s record on leaders is not a good one. Are there any potential Mandelas or Hitlers waiting in the wings? This country has a tendency towards great drama, and must beware of the likes of Malema, whose anti-white slogans could easily morph into anti-Indian, anti-Muslim or anti-Jew.

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


The BDS knee jerk: Almost a witch hunt?

Liel and rally in Jer 2012

Is a Palestinian state alongside Israel possible? Dr Alon Liel (right), former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to South Africa and Turkey, and Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian Authority Minister, say yes. The picture shows them at a peace rally in Jerusalem in 2012, where Israeli and Palestinian flags were waved. Liel was in South Africa in February to promote his views.

SOUTH AFRICA’S Jewish leaders have work to do concerning ANC members’ negative perceptions of Israel, exemplified in Parliament last week during a speech by then minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor. Her speech formed part of the debate following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address and was meant to respond to the international co-operation objectives he’d announced. However, Pandor’s comments in this regard had nothing to do with foreign affairs and was instead used as an opportunity to slam Israel. Pandor was confirmed on Monday as  minister of higher education in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But how should Jewish leaders relate to Jews criticising Israel? For example, a group recently formed in South Africa calling for Israel to end the “occupation” of the West Bank. The group is called SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation). An unfortunate response in the Jewish community is a hunkering down whereby anyone, Jewish or not, who criticises Israel is labelled a BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) messenger.

Some Jews label anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, and might justifiably point to the distasteful comments by ANC MPL Sharon Davids in the Cape Legislature last Friday, who said Premier Helen Zille is “too much in love with the Jewish mafia.” She added that the Democratic Alliance “fabricated” Cape Town’s water crisis deadline so desalination contract kickbacks could occur. A sub-text can be easily inferred, that such contracts would come from the world’s expert in water affairs – the Jewish homeland, Israel.

There may be some truth in parts of that. But how should Jews debate amongst themselves about Israel? Such as when the abovementioned South African group made up of born and bred Israelis, Jews who have lived there, and Jews who simply love Israel, says current Israeli government policy is wrong and it should withdraw from the West Bank – the most contentious Israeli issue.

Amongst the Israelis, the group includes the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa at the time of Nelson Mandela’s ascendancy to power, Alon Liel, who was also previously director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and who had a close relationship with the South African freedom icon. In a 2013 article in YNet he said: “I met [Mandela] just five days after assuming the position of Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. Even before I submitted my credentials, Mandela himself telephoned me at 6 am… and said, ‘I’ve heard Israel is changing its policy. Let’s talk.’”

When this group, which includes several South African notaries such as a judge of the high court, asked recently to engage with Jewish institutions, many Jewish community leaders – although not all – said no, and certain individuals were summarily labelled “BDS”. However, the Cape Board of Deputies hosted him, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – which supports a two state solution to the conflict, thus implying an end to the occupation – met with him and his wife and issued a statement afterwards.

Liel and his cohorts are hated by the political right in Israel, amongst other things for alleged ties to the leftist organisation Breaking the Silence, and promoting boycotts of goods from the “occupied territories” to make it clear the settlements endanger Israel’s future.

Are they too far left for most SA Jews? Organisations who shunned them included the SA Zionist Federation, Johannesburg’s main Jewish community centre, and the youth movement Habonim – which was warned not to host him. Although his group repeatedly asserted its opposition to BDS – which advocates total boycott of Israel and supports its destruction – some Jewish leaders still accused him of representing BDS.

Shunning people like this group is misguided. SA Jews miss the opportunity to strengthen their views by debating contesting perspectives even if they disagree, and they push to the margins Jews reluctant to express themselves in the mainstream for fear of being ostracised.

Other, larger Jewish communities successfully incorporate wide-ranging debate on Israel. But SA Jewry is small. It is essential not to provoke people to leave because of their Israel perspectives. The last thing we need is an echo chamber of identical views.

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

South Africa: Send me!

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From a catastrophe to a new dawn? New SA president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to end corruption, fix government, give jobs to the youth and a host of other remedies, after the disastrous nine years of the Zuma presidency. In the picture, then deputy president Ramaphosa went jogging on the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town the dawn after Zuma resigned, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and met some of  his citizens.

FROM the perspective of their new lives in London, New York and other places to which South African ex-pats have fled over the decades during apartheid and after it, will the revived spirit of hope brought to South Africa by new President Cyril Ramaphosa inspire any of them to consider coming back?

South Africans overseas have often felt smug looking at the country’s decline during the catastrophe of former president Jacob Zuma, when it hurtled towards becoming yet another failed African state. They, after all, had been smart enough to leave and were far from Africa’s problems.

The huge emigration of many whites and others started during apartheid, particularly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, continuing until Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his ascendancy to the presidency. Amidst the euphoria, emigration slowed as South Africa seemed again a place with a future. There was talk of expats coming back.

This country’s story is about cycles of betrayal and hope, betrayal and hope, again and again. Can it now return to the spirit of hope?

Today the newspaper headlines on the street poles proclaim “goodbye Zuma” and “a new dawn begins.” Addressing the nation from parliament, Ramaphosa quoted from a song by legendary musician Hugh Masekela – known as the father of SA jazz – about everyone lending a hand.

Masekela’s life is a metaphor for this country. He left after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, helped by anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, going to the UK, then to the US.

He married another South African icon, jazz singer Miriam Makeba. Masekela wrote well-known anti-apartheid songs, such as Bring Him Back Home, about the movement to free Mandela. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after Mandela’s release and continued to compose and perform locally and on the world stage. The muso, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, died last month. A line from one of his songs, Thuma Mina, goes: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around.” Indeed, he was.

There are not many Masekelas, and it is unlikely many SA expats will return, no matter how rosy the South African dawn sounds. They have put down roots elsewhere; their children were raised as Canadians, Americans or with other identities. And the changes in South Africa are not yet solid enough. Can Ramaphosa pull off this gigantic task of renewing the country? It is not yet certain.

One consequence of this past decade is that the ANC – Mandela’s glorious liberation movement turned government – has tainted itself by supporting Zuma. Its hands are dirty. Can Ramaphosa cleanse it? Whether he succeeds or not, the manner in which Zuma was sent off into the wilderness according to strict constitutional principles, shows South African democracy’s solidity.

Many expat South Africans look down their noses at this new multiparty African democracy from the comfort of their mature European and American democracies. But maturity is a relative thing. The parliament building in Cape Town from where Ramaphosa spoke so elegantly to the nation this week, is the same place in which the apartheid rulers formulated the brutal racial policies of their time, and also the place where Zuma sat as president while his cronies looted the country’s coffers. Has betrayal turned to trust again? Can expats in London see it or not?

Ramaphosa, when he was still deputy president, was jogging recently along the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and encountered some young Jewish women also jogging. A warm, happy selfie of all of them is circulating. Hopefully it will also reach the expats in London. He’s going to need that warmth and trust from everyone if he’s going to untangle the mess of this country.

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