The thick skin of men in power

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How to cock a snoot at the law: Powerful politicians develop devious ways of avoiding accountability for breaking the law; Former South African President Jacob Zuma (above) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are old hands at this

FORMER South African president Jacob Zuma and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu share something in common: No matter how much damning proof of wrongdoing piles up against them, they continue to behave without batting an eyelid. Zuma is out of office, after nearly destroying South Africa and should be in jail, but his cheerful face still appears on African National Congress party billboards and he is seen publically campaigning for the ANC, doing his characteristic dance, with no shame. People who rejoiced at the exposure of his corruption network thought, “We’ve got him!” But he projects himself as the victim of a conspiracy, saying, “I don’t know what I have done!”

Netanyahu’s three graft charges amount to very serious misdemeanours for which he could go to jail. But no crestfallen face has ever been seen from him. Withdrawing from politics to face his charges, which would be the right thing to do in good democracies, is totally unthinkable. That’s not how Israeli politics works and not how he works. Instead, he continues to behave as if he is a brave warrior fighting a sinister barrage of odds: “Without me at the helm to provide security, the country would fall!” is his message. Sadly, most Israelis believe him, as if there are no other capable people in the nation.

He claims a conspiracy against him from the ‘left’ and has made praise of anyone to the left of his politics as equivalent to a swear word: “It is the leftists who are out to get me”.  In a right wing country like Israel, with the left in disarray, this finds fertile ears.

Zuma has never gone to jail, nor will he: the rot of corruption in every aspect of South Africa with his fingerprints on it is so deep that it will take years to examine and tackle, no matter how many commissions of inquiry work at it. By then the country will have moved on with other things to worry about.

It is highly unlikely that Netanyahu will go to jail too, given the political boiling pot which is Israel and the Middle East. The mark of a canny politician is not only what he does while in office, but how he behaves after exposure for lying or stealing. Netanyahu is still firmly in charge of what happens now.

Politics is a slippery business, not a profession which inspires ethical behaviour in Israel, South Africa or elsewhere. Accountability is difficult to impose. In South Africa, with its toxic, racial mix in politics, most potential whistleblowers quickly withdraw when faced with accusations of racism. Fear of the consequences easily turns into turning a blind eye, all the way from the level of the shopkeeper who cooks his books to pay less tax, to the highest politician who rapes his secretary.

Zuma also made headlines in 2005 after accusations that he raped the woman known as Khwezi, earning him his nickname ‘shower head’ after saying he had taken a shower after sex with her. But he still has a huge, loyal following in KwaZulu-Natal province, which threatens President Cyril Ramaphosa’s power to do what is necessary. This despite the estimated R500 billion loss to the country through state capture which flourished under Zuma.

In politics, it is often the most shrewd, not necessarily the most principled politicians who end up having the greatest effect. But it sticks in the throat to see Netanyahu arrogantly strolling the streets of Jerusalem as if all is well, with his face on Likud posters smiling at the people, just like Zuma does in Johannesburg.

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

 

 

Docility: Our society’s quiet calamity

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If I pay you under the counter will you cook the books? And if you refuse at first, will you do it if I raise the price?

 

WHERE are the youth protestors, the ‘trouble-makers’ who keep all societies alive? What on earth will it take for South Africans to become so riled up by the corruption revealed in the Zondo and other commissions that they take to the streets with placards, demonstrate outside the commission’s Parktown premises and block off roads outside homes of people implicated for corruption?

Remember the threats by thousands during the anti-apartheid struggle to make the country ‘ungovernable’? It seemed sure that after apartheid’s defeat, protest against injustice was embedded into this country’s DNA. But it appears that docility has won, that the self-indulgence of staring into cellphones for Tweets replaces action.

What a pity. In 2015 – not that long ago – we had the intense #FeesMustFall movement to stop increasing student fees, and the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes, symbol of British colonialism, at the University of Cape Town. Whether one agreed with all the actions of the angry protestors or not, what was important was the passion they displayed to correct things.

Why is corruption on the gigantic scale revealed by the Gupta and Agrizzi sagas and the theft of billions in public money designated for poor South Africans, not enough to get the blood of the youth boiling? Is it too abstract, removed from most peoples’ daily lives?

Leaders call for a calm approach, to ‘let the law take its course’. And the ANC, many of whose senior members face corruption allegations, continues deploying them on its campaign trail, including tainted former president Jacob Zuma. The party says they have not been legally convicted, so there is no reason for them not to be its public face.

But most South Africans don’t believe those guilty of corruption will ever suffer any consequences. If they are charged in court, they will drag out the process endlessly, with appeal after appeal, as Zuma did with charges against him.

What if a person has had enough of the charade, and wanted to protest individually, not wait for a movement? While South African and Israeli issues differ, there was an example of such an individual act on Sunday in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, when controversial Israeli performance artist and playwright Ariel Bronz chained himself by the neck with a lock and chains to a steel beam that is part of a Holocaust memorial sculpture. He said it was to protest what he called the ‘substandard treatment’ received in Israel by Holocaust survivors, and he was staging an ‘anti-event’ on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He was injured in the process and hospitalised.

What would be the equivalent individual act in South Africa? Would young people be prepared to chain themselves to the wheels of the expensive cars, paid for from the public purse, of corrupt officials who should be working to serve the country rather than driving such cars?

Last Sunday saw a major cricket match at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg. Cars filled the streets and happy cricket fans watched the game as if everything was well in the land. But it’s like a fourth monkey in the proverbial set of three brass monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, respectively. The fourth one neither sees, hears nor speaks: he just gazes smilingly at his cellphone, proclaiming ‘All is well’.

Most people in any society just want get on with their lives, educate their children, pay the rent and so on. It takes something special to get them riled up, a ‘trouble-maker’.  This society badly needs some of those.

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

 

Hero? Villain? Who gets to blow that strong whistle?

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Beware in spilling the heavyweight beans! Angelo Agrizzi has provided the Zondo commission names of senior ANC and other officials who he claims were long involved in serious corruption. He has received death threats. (Picture: Abigail Javier/EWN Jan 2019)

WHEN a bold man raises his head too far above the parapet, he risks having his head chopped off. By either side.

Angelo Agrizzi, the key whistleblower on corruption in the ANC and elsewhere, currently appearing at Judge Zondo’s Commission into State Capture, must be aware of this irony. He has become a champion of a strange kind to some. He will be remembered not only for past wrongdoing as COO of Bosasa, a channel for billions in laundered money, but for his act now of coming clean about the slew of powerful individuals involved, many of them heroes of the struggle who want him to shut up. The death threats against him are not surprising.

His revelations debunk the naïve notion that struggle heroes are by default honourable people. A procession of them have turned out to be dirty and corrupt, ranging from former president Jacob Zuma downwards. People ask: Is there anybody out there who is still to be trusted?

It is confusing, this switching of identities from hero to scoundrel and vice versa. It’s a theme of our times. Perhaps life was always like that, but it is often heard around dinner tables nowadays that it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. A nostalgia exists for less confusing days.

What to do with the Watson family from the Eastern Cape, for example, who bravely opposed apartheid and were members of the then-banned ANC and SA Communist Party. ‘Cheeky’ Watson refused to participate in trials for the 1976 Springbok team, instead playing rugby in black townships, thus breaking segregation laws. This made him a local hero. Later, he used his high-level contacts to accumulate huge, illegal wealth.

During apartheid, most people knew the racist system was bad, whether they opposed it or not. During the Second World War, most knew Germany was an enemy. In South Africa today, ordinary people instinctively reject corruption but don’t appreciate its extent as the biggest threat to the country which might bring it down – more than racism.

The villain-hero dichotomy goes beyond our borders. Robert Mugabe, once a hero of Zimbabwe’s struggle to rid his country of the English oppressors, changed into the villain once he got used to being in power, almost destroying the country with corruption and authoritarian rule, and refusing to relinquish power. Zimbabwe has since stumbled from one catastrophe to another. However, many today long for the stability he brought.

The identity-switching cuts across generation and race.  A Wits lecturer says when she mentions the name of anti-apartheid music icon Johnny Clegg to black students, they call him an “old white man” not worth knowing about, denying him another identity regardless of what he did. Other white faculty report similar occurrences. Minority communities, such as Jews and Greeks, experience similar blanket labelling, with little attempt at unpicking nuances.

Confusion about identity isn’t just political, but social. Billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, was once regarded as the hero who would democratise information and communication, away from the clutches of people with nefarious interests. Facebook is so intertwined with modern life, one cannot imagine being without it. But it is as much a channel for hate as for good – a ‘Big Brother’ collecting data about people and sinisterly watching their habits. Zuckerberg might be seen by future historians as a ‘Stalin’ manipulating the masses, rather than a hero.

Is the Zondo enquiry useful or futile in tackling corruption? No way to know yet, but if it gives the Agrizzis of this world a strong enough whistle to blow, it might just be the former.

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

Filth, filth everywhere: who can you trust?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided being found guilty on numerous corruption charges. Israel’s highest court has now given police the go-ahead to publicize indictment recommendations in two long-running corruption investigations which could lead to a new scenario for him (Photo: Amir Cohen)

HOW do corrupt politicians cling to power even after being fingered? In Israel, something which shields Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accused of corruption time and time again, is Israelis’ perception that he is tough on security, which is crucial in that neighbourhood. Although disliked and mistrusted by many, his security credentials win the day.

How did Jacob Zuma stay for so long as South Africa’s president when he was clearly destroying the country? Future historians will puzzle over it, but it has something to do with the ANC’s belief that it owns the country after leading the liberation struggle, and couldn’t allow itself to be seen as installing a crook as president.

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President Jacob Zuma

It was social critic Mark Twain who said: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

While South Africans fume at Zuma’s shenanigans, political corruption was not invented here. It is endemic in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. It includes countries like Israel, to many Jews’ dismay. In the United States, law enforcement authorities are trying to nail President Donald Trump for the same thing.

Transparency International monitors sleaze in 176 countries. Its 2016 corruption perceptions index lists Denmark and New Zealand as the most squeaky-clean, least corrupt, both at number 1. At the list’s bottom, at 174-176, are the most corrupt – North Korea, South Sudan and Somalia. The United States is 18, Israel 28, and South Africa 64.

In Israel, several prime ministers in the last two decades have been criminally investigated, including Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, whose period in office is second only to Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, has been investigated for a range of things, including receiving expensive gifts from businessmen, a newspaper collusion scandal, a submarine procurement affair, a problematic natural gas deal, a Bezeq (Israel’s telephone company) probe, a case involving furniture in the two Netanyahu residences, and others.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has likened Netanyahu to a mafia boss. In July last year he listed on Facebook criminal investigations linked to Netanyahu, and he posed the question to Israelis: “Hasn’t the time come to put an end to all of this? Have we all gone crazy?”

Netanyahu was initially investigated for fraud and breach of trust in 1997 during his first term as prime minister, and was accused of appointing an attorney general who would deal favourably with a political ally. Two years later, he was investigated for fraud regarding accusations about a government contractor.

Other prime ministers have been no less suspect. In the late 1990s, Sharon was believed to have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in the “Greek Island Affair.” The accusation involved Israeli businessman David Appel bribing Sharon, who was then Foreign Minister, to help Appel win approval for a development in Greece.

Olmert was given a prison sentence in 2014 for fraud and breach of trust in the “Holyland Affair”, a housing project in Jerusalem where he was mayor before becoming prime minister. He was also convicted in 2016 of taking bribes in the “Talansky Affair” where American businessman Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash.

Do South Africa and Israel share anything on this topic? Both countries have the sense of a grand mission. The former soared to euphoric heights through Mandela’s vision, and although things have since gone wobbly, it still resonates, although not as potently. Israel was seen by its founders as the glorious redemption of a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an inspiration and a haven for the Jewish people.

But politics is politics, and Mark Twain rings true regardless of grand ideals.

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

Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

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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 )

Minorities in South Africa: Where has all the passion gone?

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SA Jews have engaged widely in broader society, but as a tiny minority fear the future under Jacob Zuma’s government. Many are withdrawing or leaving. In the picture, pioneering choreographer Sylvia Glasser meets in 2003 with black dancers she trained though her company Moving Into Dance     (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

WITH the rising political chaos in South Africa as the populace reels under the corrupt, inept rule of President Jacob Zuma’s government, it is impossible to know what the country will look like ten years from now. A realignment of its politics is underway, as the once-great liberation movement the African National Congress appears to be close to breaking apart under the pressure of its warring internal factions.

All South Africans are feeling the anxiety, including minority groups such as the Afrikaners and Jews, who feel particularly threatened since they are largely excluded from the inner circles of power. The sense of powerlessness of minority groups is profound as they watch people well-connected to Zuma’s government sell this country down the river with incompetence and corruption.

When criticism of the government and Zuma is voiced too loudly by white people, accusations of racism tend to be hurled back at them, silencing many well-meaning citizens who don’t have the stomach for the fight. It is a form of “disenfranchisement” of minorities by what has become a majoritarian government rather than a democratic one. For many minorities, the response is to withdraw into separate laagers, to look after their own interests as best they can.

Looking at it through a Jewish prism, a high profile Jewish conference which took place last weekend, drawing some 5000 participants – the annual Sinai Indaba held at the prestigious Sandton Convention Centre in northern Johannesburg – illustrated the degree to which mainstream South African Jewry is withdrawing from engagement with the country.

The conference which featured international speakers on numerous topics, was lauded as a great success by many, and anybody who attended would have been struck by the speakers’ high quality and thought-provoking presentations about Judaism and Jewish-related topics. But the speakers and programme contained almost no reference to what it means to be Jewish in the specifically local South African context, the here-and-now of a country drowning in poverty, inequality and corrupt politics.

But South Africa is where most Sinai Indaba participants actually live. They face complex challenges about what it means to live in a rapidly changing, troubled society with an uncertain future. Jews constitute only 0.13 per cent of the population of 55 million. It is common knowledge that many have given up on this country over the years and have left, or are in the process of doing so. The Jewish population has shrunk from about 125 000 in the 1970s to some 70 000 today.

But for the ones who are staying, a meaningful understanding of their place here as part of a tiny minority which is growing ever smaller, is crucial to how they operate as citizens. Local rabbis, lay leaders and individuals grapple with it constantly.

South African Jews have in the past played a significant role in the social and political affairs of the country. Iconic names in politics, law, welfare and the arts spring to mind, such as parliamentarian Helen Suzman, jurists Arthur Chaskalson and Issie Maisels, underground activists Joe Slovo and Dennis Goldberg, Nobel Laureate in Literature Nadine Gordimer, choreographer Sylvia Glasser and many others. Jewish organisations and individuals have engaged intensely in the society over the years, often at personal risk during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women, the United Sisterhood and others. But now their older members complain that they are being replaced by fewer younger people, whose interests lie elsewhere.

The latest government debacle last week, with potentially disastrous consequences, is about Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini’s failure to put in place proper mechanisms for paying social grants on April 1 to some 17 million of the poorest, most vulnerable South Africans who depend on these meagre amounts to keep going. The disgrace of it should stir all people, including Jews, Afrikaners and others into urgent action to demand that those who created the crisis be brought to book. But the chances are that Dlamini, who is in Zuma’s close circle, will somehow be let off the hook, and the protestors will be sidelined to once again question where the country is headed.

Minority groups are asking what their future is here. For example, how many Jews will be left in South Africa in ten years’ time and what kind of community will it be? If current trends continue, it will be smaller than today. Will it be engaged meaningfully in the broader society, or live in a tiny bubble of its own, insular and inward-looking?

There are no easy answers, except to say visionary leadership is needed. There are no obvious candidates in place, but nature hates a vacuum.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist 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)

In our era of doublespeak, dictators get peace prizes

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President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has ruled since 1980 as a despot responsible for major human right abuses, yet was offered a peace prize last year in China, and was received warmly in Japan this month

While South Africans have been preoccupied lately about Guptagate and the future of the country in which a liberation movement leader – President Jacob Zuma – has become a betrayer of the struggle for a democratic country, the bizarre antics of another African liberation leader in our northern neighbour should give us pause.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 92, has led the country since independence in 1980, his rule characterised by violent land seizures, economic decline, mass emigration and systematic human rights abuses. Zimbabwe is a foreboding symbol for South Africans of the direction in which our country should never go. Yet the world of realpolitik is governed by different values.

On Monday, Mugabe was warmly received by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although the United States and European countries have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for human rights violations. He was visiting Japan for the fourth time as president.

The Japanese leader said he wanted to work with Mugabe to help with Japan’s push to reform the UN Security Council. He called him an esteemed African elder. Not surprising to some analysts, since Mugabe even chaired the African Union in 2015 – to the chagrin of human rights activists.

In October 2015, Chinese scholars awarded Mugabe the Confucius Peace Prize, which was set up in 2010 as a Chinese alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. This happened after the Norwegian Nobel committee gave its peace prize to the jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, enraging Chinese leaders who had jailed him for co-writing a pro-democracy manifesto.

At the time of the Confucius award, the Chinese President referred to Mugabe as a renowned African liberation leader and an “old friend” of the Chinese people. Previous winners of the Confucius prize include Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro. Mugabe, however, was reported to have declined to follow up on the award.

The title “1984” was given by satirical author George Orwell in 1949 to his iconic book about doublespeak – the crazy world of Big Brother in which peace means war, freedom means slavery, love means hate, and other inversions deriving from politicians’ machinations. But he might just as well have called it 2016, so contradictory is the world these days.

Qiao Damo, the chairman of the Confucius award committee, said he supported recognising Mugabe’s achievements: “If Zimbabwe did not have Mugabe as its president, the country would be facing great difficulty…”

We live in a strange world, where a peace prize is offered to the despot of Zimbabwe and the world’s most powerful countries welcome him enthusiastically.

It is not that Japan and China are regarded as rogue regimes, however, engaging in indecent diplomacy. On the contrary, they are respected members of the international community with excellent relations with virtually the entire world, including South Africa and Israel.

The welcome mat laid out for Mugabe comes in the context of competition between China and Japan for influence in Africa, which is seen as presenting major economic growth potential. A conference on African development is due to be held in the near future in Kenya, sponsored by Japan. South Africa has amicable relations with both Asian countries.

When Dore Gold, DG of Israel’s foreign ministry visited South Africa last month, he enthusiastically told a Jewish community gathering in Sandton that Israel was also developing closer ties with both China and Japan, particularly on agriculture and technology, thus disproving allegations that it was becoming isolated internationally due the activities of BDS and its policies towards the Palestinians.

While Guptagate has caused embarrassment and anger among South Africans at the failure of the country’s first black government to govern properly, the fact that there is such a furore across the spectrum about Zuma’s corruption and self-enriching shenanigans should give us satisfaction. The uproar proves that the determination of South Africans for building a free, prosperous, non-racial country remains intact, despite the setbacks.

Also, the fact that it has been exposed by our vigorous free press to all and sundry is cause for celebration. This could not have happened in Zimbabwe, which still stands as a portent for where we don’t want to go.

(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)

Could Zuma be sent to jail, like Olmert?

CORRUPTION PIC - ANTI ZUMA MARCH JHB 16 DEC 2015 (13)

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)