South Africa, be cautious when you romanticise the liberator

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Heroes who liberate a country: Will they always do the right thing? Nelson Mandela allowed serious errors in SA’s new democratic constitution, says Madonsela

GIVEN former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s hero-status for exposing state capture under President Jacob Zuma’s government, and her determination to get South Africa back on track – to “re-anchor” it – it was interesting to hear her criticise the visionary who contributed more than anyone else in bringing about non-racial democracy – Nelson Mandela. Not for malice, but naiveté.

Addressing a conference in Sandton on Sunday, she said Mandela had erred by not sufficiently empowering the people in the new constitution adopted in 1996. Its framers gave excessive power to public officials and too little directly to the people. For this, the country had paid dearly as officials from the president down, ran amok with their power, with little regard for the law and the people.

South Africa is admired for adopting, after the first democratic election in 1994, one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. But, said Madonsela, the country believed naively at the time that because of this, and the fact that illustrious struggle heroes – such as Mandela – would occupy major power positions, the spirit and letter of the constitution would be rigorously implemented, creating a better country.

For example, economic growth and redistribution would be actively pursued – crucial to reducing inequality. But instead, misguided government policies with devious agendas and mismanagement, and state capture by powerful private interests, created almost no growth. Overall unemployment was around 30 per cent and youth unemployment 50 per cent, while billions of rands was illicitly laundered through Dubai by officials and private families – the Guptas, although she avoided naming them – with government connections. Some R240m of public funds was used to upgrade President Zuma’s private home.

Contrary to the constitution’s intentions, Zuma and his cronies have abused their powers, rather than being guardians of the people’s interests. Self-enriching guzzlers feeding at the public trough. In many cases, people have watched helplessly as the country slides downwards, while officials appointed by party bosses perform abysmally, yet can only be removed by voting the governing party out at the next election, which takes place every five years.

It is an oft-repeated historical theme that when liberation fighters defeat former despots, they often become as bad as them, while ordinary people remain poor and powerless. Apartheid itself was created by Afrikaners fighting for liberation from English dominance; they then went on to become harsh rulers in their own repressive regime. The rise and rise of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is another case.

During the decades of apartheid rule, vibrant civil society organisations and individuals rose up to defeat the racial system. After 1996, however, in the euphoria of the new democracy, it was believed the constitution would ensure protection of people’s rights. In many cases the opposite has happened, because of despotic officials and the people’s insufficient say in how institutions and officials operate.

Speaking of her own office when she was public protector – one of several “Chapter Nine” institutions created by the constitution to protect democracy – her initial vision was to be the “voice of the people” to protect them from abuse by officials. But during her tenure, the concept changed to the public protector being more of an “enabler” for helping people speak with each other when necessary – ordinary people and officials.

One case where this had succeeded, she described, was where residents in a rural area who performed work for the government weren’t paid; instead of confronting the usual bureaucratic channels, she brought these people together in a room with officials familiar with the place the complainants came from, so they could explain the situation; the matter was settled.

The lesson of the crisis of South Africa today is to beware of romanticising liberation struggle heroes. Not to believe they are saints, incapable of erring. The chaos and corruption in the ANC – the once revered liberation movement – is enough proof. But even icons like Mandela should be treated with a healthy dollop of caution.

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

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Killarney to fortress Gupta: a walk to save SA

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Wealth and power amidst SA poverty: Guards patrol the entrance to the Gupta family mansion in Saxonwold. President Zuma is believed to be in the pocket of the family, acting for their and his interests and damaging the country

IT IS only three minutes’ walk from the intersection of Oxford and Riviera roads in Johannesburg’s Killarney neighbourhood, where beggars hold cardboard signs saying “No food, no job, please help”, to the Gupta family’s estate in the adjoining, elite Saxonwold neighbourhood, where menacing security guards and expensive cars are always present at the high walls. Government officials have been frequent visitors to the Saxonwold mansion for highly suspect reasons.

 

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Zuma faces rising calls to resign

These are the stark, opposing South African realities: the former evoking shame, the latter producing widespread outrage at the Guptas’ capture of the country through their puppets President Jacob Zuma and his cronies. There were beggars and rich people here decades ago during apartheid – the blacks were workers from townships and the whites, residents of Killarney and Saxonwold. Today the country has a black government and president, but the inequalities remain and the poverty has increased, albeit with the racial divide somewhat blurred.

During apartheid, Killarney’s blocks of flats were inhabited largely by Jews, some of them high-profile leaders in business, politics and the arts. The population today is more diverse, as a large Muslim population has moved in, as well as other groups. The Saxonwold mansions are mostly owned by ‘old’ money, people who have been wealthy and rooted in the neighbourhood for many years.

South Africa’s current crisis shows Zuma as a tinpot dictator – a president gone ‘rogue’, says ANC stalwart Barbara Hogan – doing things that serve his interests and the Guptas, and threaten the country’s well-being. Such as last week’s dead-of-night Cabinet reshuffle to include people who will do his bidding, allow him to raid the Treasury and strengthen his patronage network. In response, S&P Global Ratings agency has cut South Africa’s investment rating to junk status, and Moody’s has also put the country on watch for a possible downgrade to junk.

Although this country’s history is riddled with angry citizens’ protests through the apartheid era – protest is almost part of South African culture – people don’t know what to do now as the ‘enemy’ is less clear than it was then. Marches are planned, but they alone won’t bring down Zuma. He could ignore them, and his supporters could easily mobilise counter-protests.

Legal actions in Parliament and the Constitutional Court, or decisions by ANC internal structures are necessary to force him out. There is a high prospect of all of them being pursued, as the national outcry against Zuma grows. But a display of disgust en masse is essential for citizens to express themselves and begin healing the country.

What if the people of Killarney – joined by others from elsewhere – took an initiative, assembled in Riviera road at the traffic lights where the beggars stand, and marched to the Guptas to picket at their gates, televised by the media?

The faces in the anti-Zuma protests shown on television, such as Saturday’s memorial to struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada, came from all parts of the society, religious and secular. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, leftists, rightists, rich and poor. Human rights  and political organisations have joined, for example the Helen Suzman Foundation which said Zuma’s action has “endangered the country’s economic and financial situation” and created “a constitutional crisis.”

The mandate of religion-based organisations like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies is to look after community interests, not get involved in politics. But many Jewish organisations have a long history of political action during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women and the United Sisterhood. Jewish individuals were active in the Black Sash, Operation Hunger and other NGOs. Now would be a good time for a new generation of activists to come forward. The country needs them.

During apartheid most people were afraid of protesting the brutal regime, except for a brave few who made huge sacrifices such as Ronnie Kasrils, Albie Sachs and others. Now there is little official danger, although the possibility exists of violence between Zuma opponents and supporters – the ANC Youth League has already threatened force against Zuma’s critics.

What should expat South Africans in Canada, Australia, the UK and other places be saying to friends and relatives living here? Should they urge them to leave, as this country threatens to become another ‘Zimbabwe’? Some might leave. But for the majority who stay, getting involved is crucial.

Whether the march from Killarney through the beggars’ intersection to the Gupta mansion happens or not, it is a metaphor and a message for what South Africans must do to reclaim their country.

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

Wacky Steven Cohen nudges South Africans out of their comfort zones

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Challenging tired old comfort zones: Performance artist Steven Cohen poses new ways of looking at art, identity and politics in the confusing context of South Africa today

WHEN 54-year old, controversial performance artist Steven Cohen astonished a sober gathering of arts lovers two weeks ago at the Wits Art Museum by bursting into the centre of them and doing his bizarre dance routine, anybody who happened to be thinking about something else was instantly riveted. He was dressed – actually only partially dressed, since much of his body was naked – in an outrageous get-up consisting of lily-white skin, high-heeled pointed shoes, naked backside behind half a black dress, and other tricks.

His entire performance lasted five minutes, then he was gone. But it left intriguing questions about what is art and identity, what is Jewishness – he wore a silver Magen David above his eyes and another mounted on top of his head which he discarded at a certain point, accompanied by music from Fiddler on the Roof – and what is the meaning of everything else?

The gathering marked the 80th birthday of a South African icon of the arts, Linda (Goodman) Givon, who for the past fifty years – through Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery – had encouraged, cajoled and facilitated development of a veritable parade of young black and white artists, during times when the apartheid regime did everything it could to discourage such mixing. The event marked a dignified end to her career, described eloquently by one of her gallery’s successes, celebrated artist William Kentridge, in his speech, and the handing of the baton to younger people.

Steven Cohen’s shaking up of conventional notions about identity, something he has done for the past twenty years, is a metaphor for the unpredictable events unfolding in this country today. Such as the thrashing which the ANC’s tired old men – epitomised by President Jacob Zuma and his cohorts – received in the recent elections at the hands of the young bucks of the EFF and DA opposition parties, which are bursting with fresh energy. The leaders of the latter parties – Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane – are in their mid-thirties and at the beginning of their political careers. Anything is possible.

In similar fashion, this country and its component minorities, including Greeks, Jews, Afrikaners and others, are in need of new, forward-looking people who recognise past history but are not hamstrung by old slogans hanging like lead balls around their elders’ ankles.

What will this country look like in twenty years time? No-one can say for sure if South Africa’s non-racial project will succeed. And what will minority groups look like, such as the Greeks and Afrikaners, when most of the older generation has passed on?

Given recent demographic trends, will the shrinking of the minority groups continue? If the size of the Jewish community today is already down to a mere 70 000 in a national population of 55 million, only half of its high point in the 1970s, will it have dropped to 30 000 in twenty years time? And if it is so much smaller, what kind of community will it be – both in Jewish and South African terms? Greeks and Afrikaners are asking similar questions.

Every generation has its challenges. Young South Africans who grew up after apartheid – the “born-frees” – do not want to be forced to follow the old Struggle catchphrases of their elders who fought apartheid. Those are now in the realm of folk history for most people, and things are different. Looking forward is the only meaningful path.

Every generation needs a Steven Cohen to shake things up and give a glimpse into a different way of looking at things. And it also needs the courage he has shown in charting his own path, despite the dangers it has sometimes posed. For example, on the day he walked onto Loftus Versfeld rugby field in Pretoria in 1998 during a match, dressed as an “ugly girl” in his characteristic, half-naked style, and confronted hundreds of conservative, macho, white – mainly Afrikaans – sports fans who couldn’t work out what he was saying to them, and some of whom wanted to attack him.

We live in exciting times, even if we can’t quite work out what it is all about.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Getting rude and dirty with politicians should be fine – or not?

 

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Should public figures be fair game for sexual portrayal by artists to argue politics? Ayanda Mabulu has touched a sensitive button with his new paintings of Jacob Zuma

ATTEMPTS by SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng to censor the public broadcaster show one face of the question of how far freedom of expression should stretch. Another is revealed by contentious incidents in South Africa and Israel of sexual political paintings which have raised hackles and evoked praise.

Can political art be compared to critical journalism? Israel is a society where robust debate is inherent in its makeup – but the head of the art department of Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College, Larry Abramson, resigned this week to protest censorship of a student’s painting. It shows a naked woman bearing a representation of right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face, against a background of colourful drapery. The student said the work, intended for exhibition with final projects by graduating seniors, was meant to induce “discomfort” conveying nihilism and an “absence of a coherent position.” College president Yuli Tamir ordered that it should be excluded from the exhibition, or else the face should be blacked out.

Abramson told Haaretz that without freedom of expression “we don’t have an art school”. If, out of self-censorship, images are silenced or hidden, then “[how] can we advance critical, open and provocative debate, all the things for which art exists?”

Should it make a difference if the work portrays a man or woman? Tamir – a woman who was previously minister of culture and also of education – said censoring the painting was motivated not by Shaked’s politics but the judgment that the work was hurtful toward women generally in leadership roles in Israel. “As a woman who has [repeatedly] suffered from sexist attacks… I will not let it happen.”

Which takes us to some controversial paintings showing President Jacob Zuma in sexual poses. “The Spear”, by Brett Murray which was on exhibition in 2012 showed Zuma with genitals exposed, part of a solo show entitled “Hail to the Thief II”. The ANC threatened to sue for defamation and force Johannesburg’s Goodman gallery to remove the piece. It was later vandalised by visitors in the gallery.

This month, political paintings by artist Ayanda Mabulu were shown in an exhibition at Constitution Hill, one showing Zuma licking the naked posterior of billionaire businessman Atul Gupta, who has been accused of state capture. An ANC flag appears in the scene, which is a plane’s cockpit – a clear metaphor for capital flight from the country.

Mabulu defended his work saying he was “lashing the hands of the oppressor until they let loose.” He was opposed to “the hierarchical system where if you climb up, you can be looked at as a demigod, and we, the people on the ground, are looked at as nothing.”

In racially charged South Africa, the fact that Mabulu is black averted racism accusations. If he was white the outcome would probably have been more serious. Despite howls of protest on social media and elsewhere, the works remain untouched.

The incident reminds one of a work by cartoonist Zapiro in 2008 showing Zuma undoing his belt lasciviously while “Lady Justice” is being held down by his political cronies, apparently about to be raped. After its appearance Zuma started proceedings to sue Zapiro for infringing his dignity, but later withdrew.

What is the role of such lewd political artworks? Should they be banned out of respect for the person’s dignity? Or are they legitimate commentary which, if expressed in another medium – say words or film – would not raise such hackles? It comes with the territory of being a high-profile public figure that political adversaries can portray you in almost any manner.

In art as in journalism, the right to offend is inherent to freedom of expression. Once censorship begins, it is a dangerous slippery slope – epitomized by Motsoeneng forbidding SABC staff at a recent editorial workshop to question Zuma in coverage for next month’s elections, instructing them to “respect” him, because he is the president.

Does this mean he should be “untouchable”. The disrespect he has shown towards the people of this country has lost him the right to get respect in return. The portrayals of him by Mabulu, Zapiro and Murray – and others – are right on target.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Shocking visuals – will the real editor please stand up?

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Too shocking to watch? A public bus torched in Tshwane during violent demonstrations against the ANC’s choice of a mayoral candidate in local elections in August. Five people were killed in the protests.

AN ENCOURAGING outcome from SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s crude attempt to censor visuals of “bad” news and give South Africans sunshine journalism portraying the ANC in a good light, is the massive outcry against him. Eminent journalists, communications regulator ICASA, the public protector Tuli Madonsela, former SABC board members and even members of the ANC have got involved in combatting his abuse of his powers at the public broadcaster.

Images can be highly provocative, of course, and the media should not be a free-for-all in which any visual, however grotesque, should be aired. Editors face tough decisions when reporting on violence and bloodshed – Motsoeneng, however, is not an editor and should not be making editorial policy.

Responsible media channels are – or should be – careful in how they show visuals which violate the dignity and privacy of people who have gone through terrorist bombings or other traumatic events tearing them apart. Where to draw the line is not a rule set in stone, however – different editors will make different judgments in different circumstances.

Should a bereaved Israeli mother sobbing over the coffin of her murdered teenage daughter be shown to millions of anonymous viewers worldwide? Should a body with its head blown off by a suicide bomber be shown? Most good editors would be careful about how they use such visual material. At the very least, responsible media should give adequate warning to viewers about the disturbing nature of material they publish.

Political agendas may play a role in the editor’s decision and sometimes override considerations of dignity. For example, the shocking images published in May 2008 of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave being set alight by a mob in Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand during a xenophobic rampage, served an important role in raising revulsion among citizens and authorities and stopping the attacks – although there have been subsequent similar attacks.

Likewise, the horrifying image – which immediately went viral on social media – of a Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach as thousands of refugees fled the Syrian civil war in rickety boats, played an important role in making people worldwide understand how desperate was the refugees’ plight.

What the SABC has done, however, has nothing to with editorial sensitivity or respect for human dignity. In banning images of mobs burning government and other buildings and property, and claiming that this is to prevent viewers being influenced to do the same, the aim is to prevent people understanding how catastrophic ANC rule has been for this country, and how angry South Africans are about not receiving what the party promised them year after year. When mobs burn down tens of schools in Vuwani, torch public buses in Tshwane, and engage in similar acts, they are expressing their rage.

Sadly, these kinds of violent actions have almost become a norm in South Africa today, where people feel they will only be listened to if they become violent, burn things or kill people. This poses grave dangers to the country. South Africans are in the main extremely generous and warm-hearted, but a poison has taken root in the society. Strong leadership is needed to turn the ship of violence around – or else we will see more scenes like the burning Mozambican.

Motsoeneng is said to be close to President Jacob Zuma and has an interest in protecting him. But it’s incredible that the people running the public broadcaster from whom 7 million people receive their news, still think they can get away with censorship and sunshine journalism in the era of the internet. What kind of bubble do they live in? Hopefully the saga will end with him being fired together with his board of lackeys. Perhaps this saga might even be the tipping point when South Africans say “Enough!” to Zuma and his cronies and their contempt for the law?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

SA’s politics of rage – please don’t burn our books!

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Is apartheid still to blame for South Africa’s dysfunctional schools? A child walks to school in 2013 in the Eastern Cape. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

AMIDST thousands of tweets responding to the mayhem overtaking the city of Tshwane (Pretoria), with buses and municipal vehicles torched‚ businesses ransacked and roads blocked with mobs and burning tyres, one of the most poignant came from a young man, presumably a student, named Theodore Sebolai: “Please don’t burn the library. Police go protect the library… we have assignments and we’re heavily relying on it, Pleaase!!!”

The current violence exposes the ANC’s vicious internal struggles. The decision from its Luthuli House headquarters to appoint outsider Thoko Didiza as a Tshwane mayoral candidate in the coming municipal elections, overriding local voices, has provoked fury.

But Sebolai’s plea symbolises more than party squabbles. It is about the betrayal of the country’s youth over the past two decades, and how the casualties of government incompetence have been young people’s most precious things, such as education. Last month, 50 schools in the Vuwani area in Limpopo province were burnt down or vandalized in protests following an unpopular government decision to incorporate Vuwani into a new municipality.

Meanwhile, more fortunate South Africans continue going about their lives while anxiously following reports of the instability. The “lucky” ones who possess foreign passports hold them preciously as an insurance policy, and everyone stashes as much money as they can into foreign bank accounts, in case things get so bad that the anarchy comes to their doorsteps.

As far as education is concerned, most who can afford it – middle class people, whether white, black, coloured or Asian – send their children to private or independent schools because of the appalling state of government schools. For example, over 85 per cent of Jewish kids go to Jewish day schools.

In 2013, basic education minister Angie Motshekga admitted to a parliamentary media briefing that “[t]he diagnostic test of the [National Development Plan] said 80 per cent of [South African] schools were dysfunctional”.

Who should we blame for South Africa’s travails? Is it still a result of apartheid, white racism and privilege, and white monopoly capitalism, as radical black politicians claim? Or the ANC’s inept governance, corruption and its lack of vision since 1994? Whatever the answer, we are sliding downwards.

In times of crisis, angry young people often help change things which seem intractable. So it was with the Soweto student uprising of June 1976, the watershed event which initiated the eventual demise of the apartheid regime. Perhaps they will do it this time too with the political leadership.

What about the human right to an education? A 1976 student leader Dan Montsitsi who is deputy chairperson of the June 16, 1976 Foundation, last week warned today’s youth: “[In 1976] we were dodging bullets and teargas… We burnt most of the beer halls throughout Soweto, and all administration board offices. [But] no single school was burnt… Each and every student was hell bent on defending their classrooms.”

Student movements cross red lines and make mistakes, but their militancy and energy tends to focus minds. The controversial “Rhodes must fall” movement at the University of Cape Town, for example, has initiated a crucial national debate about university policies and fees, despite several thuggish episodes such as burning artworks on the campus, the throwing of faeces onto the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and other violent incidents.

The energy of the youth needs to be affirmed and steered by elders into constructive directions. Ultimately, responsibility for the country’s sorry state lies with politicians – in this case the ANC – for failing to provide hope to young people. In particular, failing to educate them. The catastrophic education system has been described by respected South African commentators such as Judge Dennis Davis as a “crime against humanity”.

Indeed it is, no less than apartheid was. A burnt bus can be replaced tomorrow, but young South Africans whose fresh minds have been squandered by not being educated, will be handicapped for the rest of their lives.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

Beware the seductiveness of crafty leaders

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Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s threats of violence to unseat President Jacob Zuma has some South Africans warning about a civil war (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

ECONOMIC Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s threat in an Al Jazeera interview on Sunday to remove President Jacob Zuma’s government through the “barrel of a gun”, should sound an alarm as South Africa marks Freedom Day this week and Jews mark Holocaust Day next Thursday. The kneejerk resort to violence that has overtaken South African politics among students, trade unionists, taxi operators, shack dwellers and others – many of whom are actually campaigning for worthy causes – is taking this country down a dangerous road which will be hard to reverse.

Malema said the ANC used violence to suppress dissent, such as ejecting his party from parliament after they heckled Zuma: “Part of the revolutionary duty is to fight and we are not ashamed if the need arises for us to take up arms and fight.”

Dangerous words. An ANC statement said it would pursue legal action against Malema’s “inflammatory, treasonable and seditious” words.

Alarm bells are ringing in some quarters, such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) which called on political parties to avoid statements that could incite civil war. Bishop Abel Gabuza‚ the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission chair‚ responded to Malema’s “war rhetoric… We have seen the evil consequences of civil war in other African countries‚ including massive loss of lives‚ a refugee crisis and irreparable damage to the economy.”

South Africa has today a robust constitution, a judiciary which has repeatedly proved its independence, a free press and other institutions which, although under attack from some quarters, still function as they should. The ANC and Zuma certainly deserve to be removed from power as soon as possible after so crassly betraying the country’s dreams, but in a manner that strengthens its democratic institutions rather than weakening them – through the courts, the press, the public protector, and non-violent civilian protests.

Words lead to actions. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi thugs were energised by the charismatic Fuhrer’s use of words – such as the iconic “sieg heil!” which means “hail victory!” – calling for action against Jews and others in his path to absolute power. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’, and went on to rule Europe.

During the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 the Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches”, words which were translated into the killing of 800 000 Tutsis in 100 days.

In the absence of inspiring leaders, one hears wry comments these days about “President Julius Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office, which rightly scares many South Africans. A chilling performance  in 2014 by satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” already predicted the scenario in its opening scene by displaying a Malema–like doll being given advice to assist him on his rise to power by Hitler, impersonated by Uys. The show was a walk through South African history since 1945, drawing a disturbing analogy between Germany in the early 1930s and South Africa today.

When the ANC was contemplating throwing Malema out of the party in 2011 for bringing it into disrepute – before he founded the EFF – Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hand of the Jews.’”

Hitler, said Uys, appealed with his populist rhetoric to the millions of Germans who had no jobs, after the First World War. Malema appeals in a similar way “to the millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Of all the politicians in South Africa today, Malema is by far the most charismatic, evoking smiles and even some fondness for his boisterous campaigns pointing at issues of serious concern to the country, including his attacks against Zuma and the ANC. Tolerance for his extreme rhetoric comes even from people who would be the first to suffer under a government run by him.

Beware of the craftiness of seductive politicians who woo people with their charisma into overlooking their thuggishness, and then move into the power centre. Hitler came to power through exploiting German democracy, combined with thuggery.

Malema demands loudly today that Zuma must adhere strictly to the constitution, and most South Africans applaud him for this. But will he also insist on strict adherence to the constitution when he is in power and others oppose him?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)

Guptagate: Beware the ethnic slippery slope

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Ajay and Atul Gupta, brothers of Indian origin, are accused of major corruption, including ‘buying’ and manipulating numerous SA government officials including President Jacob Zuma, leading to fingers being pointed at their ethnicity – a dangerous thing in race-obsessed South Africa

Wily politicians are adept at turning popular frustration about poverty and social ills against convenient targets to suit their aims. What might happen if rage against the Gupta business family for their “state capture” – in the form of the “buying” and manipulating of numerous government officials for their financial gain – were to take on a broad anti-Indian tone?

There have already been negative public references to the Gupta’s origins, demands that they “go back to India”, and politicians like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema saying decisions about the country should not be made over a “bowl of curry”. One even hears ordinary South Africans of Indian descent being crassly described as “Guptas”. Comments about the country being run from the family’s palatial estate in the posh neighbourhood of Saxonwold, Johannesburg, evoke deep resentment. In a race-obsessed country like South Africa, this is fertile territory for an explosion of racial attacks.

Jews know the dangers of this from their own history – how a few Jews’ actions were exploited in different places by anti-Semites to condemn entire Jewish communities, regardless of their contributions and integration into society. Hitler’s blaming of Jews for Germany’s troubles to serve his sinister political ends, are one example among many – with catastrophic consequences.

Ethnic tensions simmer in this country amongst all groups. It doesn’t take much, for example, to ignite xenophobic violence by local Africans against Somalis, Malawians and other “foreign nationals” running businesses in townships who are perceived to be succeeding where they have failed. The iconic image of 35 year old Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave’s gruesome death in 2008 in Ramaphosa township on the East Rand after he was set alight by a mob, provides an example of what happens when you go down that road.

The Guptas are the symptoms of our sick political culture, not the cause. In every country, business tries to influence politicians. Successful nations like the United States flourish through the interaction of government and the myriad businesses which create wealth and jobs and pay taxes. Businesses invest money where government policies are to their liking, and naturally try to influence things in this direction.

There is nothing wrong with that, as long as the political system has adequate safeguards to prevent corruption, and that those who break the law are punished.

Sadly, South Africa’s political system, despite our fine constitution and our institutions tasked with safeguarding democracy, has failed spectacularly in protecting the society. Bribery and corruption have become the norm. What a terrible disappointment, after the idealism to which Mandela’s generation inspired us not that long ago.

Making money through business should dovetail with a concern for the national good. Business leaders – Jewish businessmen among them – should be outspoken about the betterment of the society being the ultimate goal, and follow it up with concrete actions. We are indebted to those that already do – and there are many who give huge energy and funds to social causes.

South Africans’ outrage should be directed at the African National Congress and its leaders who succumbed to the Guptas’ temptations and demands, and used their positions to accumulate personal wealth and power. The Gupta family’s crass power-mongering for the sake of their own pockets, with no guiding vision for making a better country, evokes disgust. But the mafia they have created contains an entire network of government operatives, including the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, who has abrogated any sense of civic duty. Sadly, even after Zuma is hounded out of office – which hopefully will happen as soon as possible – the system of patronage he created will take far longer to dismantle.

Talk at Jewish dinner tables about Guptagate these days often includes the comment: “Thank God they are not Jewish”, showing Jews’ inherent insecurity. If the Gupta affair were to turn into a racial question, Jews might not be far behind as a convenient target for politicians to camouflage their own failures.

No particular ethnic group is responsible for South Africa’s ills, nor for its achievements. South Africans of Indian descent have long since paid their dues in the struggle against apartheid and other areas. Their South Africanness is as solid as anyone else’s; the Guptas’ shenanigans cannot sully this.

As Guptagate unfolds week after week like a soap opera with new, shocking revelations about their tentacles which reach into the innermost corridors of power, it serves as an urgent wake-up call for South Africans. The fact that the ANC as a liberation movement led the anti-apartheid struggle and became the key player in establishing democracy, doesn’t protect it from corrupt behaviour in its own ranks, including from its own president.

Indeed, the rot runs so deep in the ANC today that one wonders whether it is now the country’s biggest problem rather than its saviour.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)