Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

Mogoeng and Zuma 3

Building legal walls: In some places the outer image of politics is physical walls, in others it is the law. South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is increasingly called upon to rein in errant politicians such as President Zuma (above), while US President Donald Trump poses similar challenges to the law in his country

TWO presidents who excel in shamelessness loom over South Africans’ minds today: the United States’ Donald Trump and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Both are unpredictable, of questionable ethics, arrogant and cannot admit they are wrong; neither are very intelligent and both are damaging their countries.

When Trump arrives in Israel on Monday after visiting Saudi Arabia and before going to the Vatican – his trip encompasses key centres of Islam, Judaism and Christianity – he enters a minefield that has stymied the dreams of previous US presidents who wanted to go down historically as having ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump touts himself as the ultimate deal-maker. Does he have a policy or is he winging it? Does he favour a two state solution, or will he give West Bank settlers the carte blanche he implied during his campaign which led far-right Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who opposes a Palestinian state – to proclaim “The Palestinian flag has been lowered from the flagpole” and Culture Minister Miri Regev to declare jubilantly, “Obama is history, now we have Trump!”

They may be disappointed. Last week a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Trump’s visit outraged Israelis by saying Jerusalem’s western wall – the kotel – is “not your territory, it’s part of the West Bank.” Although the White House said it was unauthorised, tempers ran high. Trump after all believes in walls: he wants to build them around America to keep Mexicans and other “undesirables” – such as Muslims – out.

His arrival coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War victory over invading Arab armies and dismantling of the wall which split Jerusalem for 19 years. The war’s consequences have divided Jews worldwide ever since. Many on the right believe the victory was God-inspired; others on the left, while celebrating Israel’s survival, see it as the beginning of the bitter Palestinian occupation, which has even resulted in Israel building a long wall separating it from the West Bank to prevent terrorism. Israel won the war but has yet to win the peace, in contrast to the Berlin wall’s falling in 1989 which re-united Germany.

Trump seems an unlikely person to bring resolution. But with such a maverick, no-one knows what may emerge.

At home, South Africans are trying to build a different kind of wall – a legal one – to hold off Zuma’s bizarre behaviour and prevent the country’s decline into another African kleptocracy like Zimbabwe. Clearly the president has gone rogue and no longer cares what citizens or ANC members think of him. Meanwhile, a South African equivalent of the Arab Spring threatens to erupt as extreme poverty and inequality become too much for the masses to bear while political leaders luxuriate in expensive mansions at state expense.

There are spots of hope. Such as Monday’s fascinating constitutional court debate over whether the coming no-confidence motion against Zuma in Parliament should be conducted by secret ballot, as opposition parties are demanding. This would allow ANC members who oppose him to vote freely without fear of recrimination.

The concourt remains a fiercely independent bastion of democracy – a legal wall against Zuma’s abuse of his position. Will it hold? Last year the court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a report of the public protector that he should pay back public money spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. When Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the judgement, loud cheers permeated the nation which is sick and tired of the president’s thievery.

Zuma was eventually forced to repay some of the money. Yet shamelessly, he did not resign, nor did his party, the ANC, force him to do so. He continued on his path, thinking the fallout from the affair would blow over. Since then the courts have been increasingly inundated with petitions from political parties and NGOs such as the Helen Suzman Foundation aimed at curbing the corruption and maladministration of Zuma’s regime.

Both Trump and Zuma see their countries’ constitutions as an inconvenience rather than a jewel to be cherished. Both recently fired – literally overnight – very senior public figures for what seems like selfish reasons. Trump fired FBI head James Comey apparently for pursuing an investigation of Trump’s links to the Russians; Zuma fired respected South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who was holding the fort against the economy’s collapse but was blocking Zuma’s personal ambitions. Opposition to both men is rising and may eventually bring them down.

What comes after them, of course, is anyone’s guess.

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


Could Zuma be sent to jail, like Olmert?


Marchers at a recent protest in Johannesburg against President Jacob Zuma carried posters denouncing spiralling corruption for which he is blamed, but which he continues to avoid taking responsibility for.

THE cynicism of politics and self-serving public officials was given a welcome slap in the face in the past two Tuesdays in South Africa and Israel. In both countries, which are under severe stress for very different reasons, democratic values and the rule of law triumphed despite the ducking and diving of sleazy politicians. And ordinary citizens applauded.

This week, a chastened former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert entered Maasiyahu prison in the town of Ramla to start a 19-month sentence for bribe-taking while he was mayor of Jerusalem and obstruction of justice, even though he still attempted to deny criminal wrongdoing. And in South Africa last week, democracy was victorious as the Constitutional Court convened to determine the status of actions recommended by the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela regarding irregular state expenditure on President Jacob Zuma’s private homestead Nkandla – in essence, she told Zuma he must pay back the money.

Israel’s democracy is far from perfect, with concerns about the current rightwing government’s intrusion into areas such as freedom of speech, educational curricula in schools, artistic freedom and so on, aside from the ongoing juristic issues to do with Palestinian human rights. However, citizens often keep politicians in power not for their integrity or efficient governance, but for other reasons like their security credentials, religious and political agendas, etc. This applies in Israel’s case, in the midst of the seemingly interminable conflict with the Palestinians and the Muslim world, and the general mayhem in the region with Syria being torn to pieces and other places exploding.

But to its great credit, Israel’s legal system has sent both a former prime minister and a president – Moshe Katzav – to prison for financial and sexual criminality respectively. In other countries, something like this has generally happened only after a revolution or a coup, when the heated political climate allows or demands it. Even the United States decided to pardon former president Richard Nixon for ‘any crimes he might have committed against the United States while president’, rather than jail him for the Watergate affair and financial misdemeanours.

Israel has had other corruption scandals. Olmert’s first finance minister, Abraham Hirchson was jailed for embezzlement; former PM Ariel Sharon was tainted with money-laundering and bribery accusations; current PM Benjamin Netanyahu has had two corruption investigations and a third is under way; former PM Ehud Barak has been investigated for a money-laundering affair; interior minister Arye Deri was jailed for bribe-taking.

South Africa too, is under severe stress, 21 years after apartheid officially ended, with poverty worse than ever, unemployment at about 35 per cent, racial tensions soaring, and its economy teetering on the verge of junk status. Attempts by the ANC government to undermine key democratic institutions like the judiciary and the Public Protector in order to stay in power and protect its cadres in their jobs, have become almost routine.

Stories of corruption at all levels have become so commonplace that almost every citizen has one to tell. Such as a traffic cop stopping a speeding motorist and, before issuing a ticket, groaning to him about how hard it is to stand in the hot sun ‘without anything to drink’ – a clear hint that a bribe would be accepted for letting the motorist off the hook. Higher up the chain, ministers’ wives drive the most expensive German cars as a matter of course when there is no need for this, and government officials travel overseas in first class with bloated entourages, costing the country hundreds of thousands of rands unnecessarily.

The country can be immensely proud of its Constitutional Court judges’ performance last Tuesday, who were unrelenting in their probing questioning of lawyers for Zuma, the Public Protector, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, opposition parties and corruption monitoring NGOs. They reasserted constitutional supremacy against a president who seems to think he is above it.

The high point was when Zuma’s counsel, advocate Jeremy Gauntlett, conceded with drooping shoulders that the Public Protector’s recommendations are binding on the president, that he ought to have paid for a portion of the Nkandla upgrades since her report was made public two years ago, and that her report cannot be subverted by another report of the police minister which, at Zuma’s bidding, exonerated him from having to pay back money. What a beautiful moment it was, as legal correctness triumphed over political sleaze.

The proceedings raised the intriguing prospect of Zuma’s impeachment for violating his presidential duty to uphold the constitution. It would be a fine turn of events if he had to face impeachment proceedings initiated by opposition parties. Even if they did not succeed, it would set a precedent for correct presidential behaviour which might do this country immense good for the future. Again, the citizens would applaud. Assuming, of course, that violence did not erupt throughout the country as the ANC saw the possibility of losing its grip on power.

Corruption is a complicated thing to root out of any society. Comparing different countries is never truly objective. If many public officials are investigated and indicted it may indicate a corrupt country or, on the contrary, that law-enforcement is operating well. Nevertheless, some indicators can give a reasonable picture.

How do South Africa and Israel rank in public sector corruption relative to other countries? The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International shows 68 per cent of countries worldwide have serious corruption. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are the least corrupt of 168 nations. Israel ranks 32, and South Africa 61. The most corrupt are Somalia and North Korea. Sadly, six of the ten most corrupt countries are on the African continent.

Sending a head of state to jail is incredibly difficult to achieve, even in democracies, because of the power the position gives incumbents to manipulate politics and law, for example through appointing cronies to positions of authority. Could Netanyahu go to jail if shown to be guilty of corruption? Could Zuma, with his long list of failed attempts to indict him trailing behind him, be forced to have his day in court on Nkandla and other charges?

Fortunately, South Africa’s judiciary still exhibits significant independence, as we saw last week. Gutsy judges hold the fort. We must fight to keep it that way.

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


Thriving culture defies South Africans’ racial despair

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The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, started in 1976 as a venue for protest theatre against apartheid by Barney Simon, has partially realised his dream of a non-racial venue. Many other places are still skewed towards black or white audiences.

IS South Africa really on the brink of a race war? Two white journalists visited several places in Johannesburg last weekend to see cultural life behind the scenes, away from alarmist media headlines. Culture is indeed flourishing, but racial threads are ever-present.

Friday night was at the Market Theatre in Newtown, adjoining the city’s old CBD, where the play ‘Egoli’ – Johannesburg’s African name, meaning ‘gold’ – was performed by an all-black cast in a mixture of African languages and English. It describes black miners’ lives, where they descend 3000 feet underground in rickety lifts to extract gold, sleep in crowded, dirty hostels at night, and save their coins to send to wives and children in their rural homes. The play shows the traumatic aftermath of an underground explosion where one miner is killed.

The Market Theatre was started in 1976 during apartheid as a venue for protest plays by anti-apartheid actor and director Barney Simon and Mannie Manim, and has hosted many great names in South African theatre. It is today a partial realisation of his ideals – the packed house  for ‘Egoli’ comprised primarily young black theatre lovers, with a sprinkling of whites, reflecting the country’s demographics. Mixed-race audiences were illegal during apartheid.

The neighbourhood of Newtown, however, still reflects the old regime’s obsession with separating whites and blacks. It is almost totally black. Whites live elsewhere; most are leery about driving to that part of town because of a perception that it is not safe. The whites in the audience that night were mainly theatre professionals – actors, directors, critics and publicists with an innate love for the place. In a nearby restaurant whose customers and staff were black, a young waiter asked the white journalists politely if their dinner there was a prelude to attending the play, and smiled approvingly when told it was.

Saturday morning’s venue was the Constitutional Court building – the land’s highest court, tasked with ensuring government and citizens adhere to the liberal constitution – which was symbolically built on the site of a former jail where the apartheid regime held political prisoners.

A young Afrikaans woman, Stacey Vorster, whose husband has the surname Botha – you can’t get more evocative than those two vintage Afrikaans names in terms of South Africa’s history – and a young black man named Katlego Lefine took the journalists through the Court’s art collection, which they are passionate about reviving from its dreadful neglect over recent years. Vorster is the curator of the collection. One of the Judges, Edwin Cameron, has joined them in their quest.

The collection was set up after the founding of the Court by jurist and struggle hero Albie Sachs – who has one arm and one eye because of an explosion in which the apartheid regime tried to kill him – amidst the euphoria of the Mandela era, to symbolize the arts’ contribution to human rights. It includes local and international works.

Sadly, the building itself has also been neglected. Parts of it are shoddy – a sign, perhaps, of the government’s ambivalent relationship with the Court, which has not been shy to criticise its actions. The Court reflects well the new South Africa, consisting of a majority of black judges, including Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Sunday morning saw a walk in a beautiful public park in the posh, primarily white neighbourhood of Melrose in northern Johannesburg, a favorite venue for people to walk their dogs. At times, the place looks like a Fellini movie, with folks of all cultures mingling, accompanied by dogs ranging from manicured Poodles to Border Collies, Labradors and others. This scene contrasts with a starkly different reality in another part of the park – a black vagrant living in a large tin drum propped against a tree, with an old plastic chair which he sits on most of the day. Joggers and dog-walkers nod to him warily as they go past.

This Sunday coincided with a gathering of a charismatic African Church on the banks of a stream running through the park. Some 50 black Church members, dressed in striking white robes with a cross on the back, stood out starkly against the lush green of the trees and grass. In the river itself, four men stood waist-deep in the water, chanting and conducting a religious ritual with a young man, throwing water over him and pushing him under the surface.

A friendly Church member approached the journalists who had sat down nearby to watch. He explained that the ceremony derived from the biblical story of John the Baptist. It was the exorcism of a curse.

Sunday midday was an Afrikaans play, ‘Pruimboom’ by Jan Groenewald, at the Foxwood theatre in the posh Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. The theatre is a converted former stable on the premises of a large, historic building once owned by the Oats family which dates back to the 1820 settlers from England. The audience consisted of smartly dressed white Afrikaners – aside from three coloured women and one black man – who sipped tea and wine in the manicured garden prior to the performance. To a casual observer, the scene could have been lifted straight from apartheid South Africa.

Then, Sunday afternoon was a visit to the 1870-seat luxury theatre at the Montecasino gambling complex to see a performance of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. It was packed to the brim by an almost totally white audience coming to see this famous American classic. Five minutes into the show, the electricity went out, plunging the theatre into darkness and causing considerable anxiety in the crowd about being trapped in a dark place with so many people.

After a few minutes a voice came onto the intercom, apologizing for the power outage and saying they were sorting it out – meaning they were getting generators going which have become standard equipment because of the unreliability of the state-run power utility Eskom. This is another sore point against President Zuma’s government. The announcer wryly thanked Eskom for the incident, evoking laughter from the audience.

With the lights back on, the show resumed. It was superb, performed by local South African actors who imitated the American accents and choreography of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and others flawlessly. It is set in 1927 in New York at the end of the silent movie era, when sound first came into films with the pioneering show The Jazz Singer.

After three days of culture, the journalists returned to the ‘other’ South Africa, with racial jibes flying in every direction in newspapers and social media. Politicians, journalists, analysts, and every Joe Blog on facebook and Twitter lamenting and reminding us how we all hate each other.

How bad really are the racial tensions? Dr Frans Cronje, head of the SA Institute of Race Relations, says: “If you read newspapers and read what commentators say, you would think we are a week away from a race war, but if you ask people nationwide how they feel about race relations, the data is actually very positive.”

A recent Institute survey asked 2500 South Africans whether they thought the relationship between different races had improved since 1995. Some 60 per cent of blacks and 33.5 per cent of whites said yes. About 15 per cent of blacks and 40 per cent of whites said it had worsened. The rest said it remained the same.

South Africa is far from being the happy rainbow nation Mandela envisaged. But on the ground, it has come part of the way. For the rest, the jury is still out.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report)