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 

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The Golem still lurks in our Brave New World

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Will unrestrained gadgets save or kill mankind? Religious sources celebrate humans’ creative genius, but warn about the monster hiding in the shadows

WHAT do religions say about the technological tsunami flooding our lives today? Is the increasingly rapid ‘disruptive innovation’ an angel or devil? Leading Johannesburg techno-gadget expert Arthur Goldstuck raised some ancient but relevant Jewish perspectives at a conference in Johannesburg last weekend.

The Limmud conference is an annual weekend gathering held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban attended by hundreds of people, with speakers and facilitators addressing myriad themes ranging from theology to politics, music, spirituality, history, technology and other topics.  It is part of an international network of similar conferences taking place in Jewish communities worldwide.

Sketching technological changes from 100 years ago to the present and into the future, Goldstuck left his audience fascinated, but also unnerved. A century ago, individual innovations appeared occasionally which we take for granted today, such as the portable electric drill; colourful gift-wrap created by Hallmark, which replaced brown paper wrapping; Converse All Stars athletic shoes; and others.

In 2017, however, every device and industry is constantly being technologically disrupted – or re-innovated – at increasingly speedy rates, with everything being connected via the Internet and other means, and building on each other. We can hardly keep up. And technology is all very well, but can machines make moral choices?

Facebook, for example, connects almost the entire world, except China where it is not allowed; in this era of instant innovation, new products and information reach millions within seconds. Some 2 billion people – 1 in 5 of the world’s population – and 17 million South Africans are on Facebook.

The benefits are manifold, but the spreading of ‘fake news’ is also one of the dangerous outcomes; and the idiocy of people like US President Donald Trump carelessly using facebook and Twitter to spread his political rantings, could just as well start a war by accident.

The next major innovative platform will be Virtual Reality devices, allowing one to experience events taking place around the corner or a world away. Soon, unmanned robots will proliferate as waiters in restaurants, as bank clerks, teachers and so on; they will be caregivers in hospitals and homes which will sense minute amounts of germs and report them to medical staff – Japan, with its elderly population, already uses 20 000 robots as caregivers.

By 2019, artificial intelligence devices should be pervasive. These would include, for example, devices fixed to peoples’ brains doing routine ECGs and electronically sending results to each individual’s doctor. Autonomous, self-driving cars already exist. By 2022, farmers will insert chips into livestock – such as dairy cows – in the field, to monitor temperature and other aspects, transmitting them to the farmer’s house to inform him which cows are ready for milking.

These devices do not only perform jobs previously done by humans, but accumulate masses of information about people’s movements, likes, dislikes and behaviour. Despite the benefits, this is potentially dangerous and invasive: Where is it stored; how is it used? It could be employed for nefarious purposes. Someone could hold you to ransom with such information. Hospitals’ patient records could be captured and only released for a payoff – this already happened recently in UK hospitals.

Could such technologies become an existential threat to humankind, outsmarting people? What if ‘intelligent’ devices behave negatively rather than positively? Such a technological scenario was predicted decades ago in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, ‘Brave New World’ in 1932. How do religious traditions view all this? What role for faith groups in restraining them?

Drawing on Jewish sources, Goldstuck referred to a legendary man-shaped creature made of mud created by the Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher the Maharal in the 1500s – the notorious Golem of Prague which has entered popular language as a saboteur of the foundations of a good society. Legend held that the Golem was given ‘life’ when a parchment containing holy words was placed under its tongue; if the creature became dangerously destructive, it could be ‘switched off’ by removing the parchment.

Could the Golem be an archetype for modern Artificial Intelligence? How would one switch it off?

Other Jewish sages approved of technology and innovation, seeing them as part of human creativity, but said the privacy of a person’s inner life is sacrosanct – meaning that Facebook’s collecting and using of such private information may cross a forbidden red line. With personal privacy being so crucial, including the ability to make moral and practical choices, trust in technology is lacking, even as people rely on their smartphones for more and more of what they do.

The sages foresaw the potential dangers of this techno-Golem centuries ago, as seductive as it is. How to control it may be one of the biggest challenges of our times.

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