Is Jacob Zuma the new King Kong?

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Does SA politics dominated by Jacob Zuma play to the same tune as the best of African jazz theatre, King Kong, with its poignant ending? In this scene from the musical in 1959, Nathan Mdlele, playing King Kong, dances with his girlfriend played by Miriam Makeba

THE theatricality of politics in South Africa today rivals a Shakespearean tragedy, with characters so colourful that The Bard himself would have reveled in its richness. Every morning one wakes to the news of something else to boggle the mind.

The leaked Gupta emails incriminating scores of political players with the stain of corruption, will provide years of fertile material for stage theatre. Characters range from the highest in the land, to the person in the street: fired former SABC head Hlaudi Motsoaneng, scandal-ridden former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, the sinister Gupta family plotting from their Saxonwold palace how to steal more money from the country, President Jacob Zuma’s former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who wants to become president, former DA leader Helen Zille with her damning colonialism tweets, and on and on. And Zuma himself, with more than 700 corruption charges hanging over his head.

Given all this, there is irony in the upcoming re-staging of a famous play that caused waves in 1959 and became an international hit – King Kong. Produced by Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, it will start touring in a few weeks.

It tells the story of a rural Zulu man, Ezekiel Dhlamini from Vryheid district in Kwazulu-Natal. Like many of his kin, he goes to Johannesburg – the fabled Egoli, City of Gold – to seek his fortune. He becomes a star boxer, known and revered by his nick-name ‘King Kong’.

His successes go to his head; he turns into a bully and braggart. When, one day, he is matched against middleweight ‘Greb’ Mthimkulu, he prances around the ring like a Zulu war dancer. His opponent lands a left on his jaw and King Kong is floored. His decline follows; he receives scorn rather than adulation. He stabs his girlfriend to death, is sentenced to twelve years hard labour for murder, and drowns in a river near Leeuwkop prison farm.

While this African jazz musical accurately captures intriguing aspects of racial South Africa, its most important achievement at the time was its staging in Wits University’s Great Hall in Johannesburg with black performers to a mainly white audience – a radical step, as apartheid’s architects were honing the system to prevent such a thing.

The play was written by Harry Bloom, promoted by businessman Clive Menell, sets designed by architect Arthur Goldreich, and music by Todd Matshikiza. Leon Gluckman, a champion of South Africa’s developing theatre, was producer, with director Stanley Glasser. The play’s jazz musicians, the Manhattan Brothers, went on later to an international career, never returning to South Africa.

Jacob Zuma should attend a King Kong performance. He might recognise himself. He too comes from humble rural origins in KZN, with minimal schooling. In the anti-apartheid struggle he played in the big league alongside icons such as Nelson Mandela. In post-apartheid South Africa, he rose to become citizen number one, with so much power that it went to his head. Seeking self-enrichment rather than serving the people, he did things that shamed his office and the once-illustrious ANC.

Intoxicated with power, he ignored the people’s angry voices, becoming despised by leaders such as Ahmed Kathrada who had been his allies against apartheid. The SA Council of Churches, Helen Suzman Foundation, Nelson Mandela Foundation, trade unions and others told him to leave the stage. He was booed in Parliament and public meetings and transformed into an object of derision. Yet he clung to his accumulated riches and the dark areas of influence he still controlled. In which river will he find his end?

King Kong and Jacob Zuma. One day a play will be written about Zuma’s rise and fall, the Guptas and their corrupt cabal. In the meantime, South Africans ride the roller coaster, trying to make sense of it.

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

Arms deals, peace deals: Trump treads holy ground

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Can deal-maker Trump clinch Mideast peace? In his foray to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity he brought massive arms deals in one hand and slogans about peace in the other. In the picture he listens to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) while visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017

PRESIDENT Donald Trump does not delve much into religion in his speeches in the United States, except to slam adherents of Islam. But during his past week’s jaunt to the Middle East and Europe to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there was much to do with religion that needed attention.

The political adage was apt: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Shouting reckless words to rally supporters while campaigning last year was one thing; it’s different now he’s in the power seat.

His speech in Saudi Arabia – the site of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places – was significantly more moderate than his campaign references to that country, when he said it wants “women as slaves and to kill gays” and was behind the terror attacks of 9/11. Even though it has indeed been a major terrorism sponsor, his speech’s thrust was clearly about deal-making, with scant reference to human rights.

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with 1,6 billion adherents, or 23 per cent of the planet’s 6,9 billion people. Christianity is the largest, with 2,2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the global population.

Trump was careful not to insult Islam. During his aggressive campaign he repeatedly and pointedly used the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ – which his predecessor Barack Obama refused to use – to describe Middle Eastern extremist groups, but while in Saudi Arabia he replaced it with ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘Islamists’, terms which are more ‘politically correct’.

The Saudis were receptive. Even his wife Melania, who stood out prominently at his side with uncovered hair in starkly ‘western’ dress that Saudi women are forbidden to wear, seemed naturally part of the proceedings.

The Saudi royal family’s red-carpet reception for him with parades and horses, elevated him to a dignity he entirely lacks in Washington. When he very publically signed the gigantic $110 billion arms deal with the Arab state, his stature rose even higher.

Then on Monday, when he jetted into tiny Israel, predictably intense political arguments raged among his hosts, unlike in Riyadh which presented a totally united front. Israel is, after all, a noisy democracy with divisions vociferously expressed, contrary to Saudi Arabia.

It seemed out of character when this narcissistic man known for his crude, abusive comments donned a kippa on Monday and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the kotel – a holy site for the relatively minuscule 14-million Jewish global population, who constitute only 0,2 per cent of the world’s people. Yet his Israel visit carried as much significance – in some ways more – as his other stops.

Trump brags he will make the ultimate deal to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is unlikely he understands the complexities. While symbolism such as visiting the kotel is important, he is short on substance.

Jerusalem, for example, with 883,000 residents – 37 per cent of them Arabs – is a key emotive element for all sides which has stymied previous agreements. Jews and Palestinians – and the Arab world – both want to control major parts and will not yield. Its Jewish population is becoming increasingly religious and their political clout grows rapidly towards the right, less disposed to concessions for peace. Disputes about sovereignty over the Western Wall precinct is one example.

Among Jerusalem’s Jewish residents over age 20, some 35 per cent are ultra-Orthodox, and rising. About 66 per cent of Jewish students in the city attend ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. The ultra-Orthodox birth rate is more than double the national average.

These complexities are matched by the Palestinian Muslim population.

Trump’s foray into Islam’s and Judaism’s heartlands is powerful public relations, shifting attention from his political problems in Washington. But the Mideast is a minefield which his bragging cannot paper over. Can he stay the long course?

(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 )

Macron’s French win: Viva la dance!

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From Soweto hostel to international dancer: Gregory Maqoma was knighted this month by France, together with Georgina Thomson, director of the Dance Umbrella festival. Political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory on Sunday makes it more likely French backing for international arts will continue

AMONG the people who are relieved at political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election on Sunday, are arguably South African artists who have benefited over the years from French support. Macron won 66 per cent of the vote, against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent, which is nevertheless a significant percentage and also revealed the uglier, chauvinistic side of French society.

Their contrasting world views is not just political, but about values – Macron’s belief in creative, positive engagement with the world, versus Le Pen’s emphasis on a French machismo and rejection of ‘the other’ – such as immigrants and refugees – entwined with grandiose patriotic posturing. Her supporters have compared her immoderately to French historical heroine Joan of Arc.

Last week a moving ceremony at the French Embassy in Pretoria showcased French openness when South African dance guru Georgina Thomson, long-time artistic director of Johannesburg’s annual Dance Umbrella, was knighted by the French ambassador, along with Soweto-born dancer Gregory Maqoma, artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre. The latter is a protégé of contemporary dance pioneer Sylvia Glasser, who started the mixed-race company Moving into Dance Mophatong in the garage of her Johannesburg home in 1978, seeking out talented young black and white dancers and turning them into skilled professionals – a brave act at a time when the apartheid regime frowned on such inter-racial activities.

Other protégés of Glasser have thrived in France, including Vincent Mantsoe whose company Association Noa is based in Saint Pont. Glasser was knighted by the Netherlands in 2014 for her achievements.

Backing for South African arts has brought French artists to South Africa and promoted local artists internationally. In 1991 the iconic ‘white Zulu’ singer Johnny Clegg was knighted by France for his courageous voice against apartheid in its darkest years, and legendary South African choreographer Robyn Orlin received the French Order of Merit in 2009 for her “spirited and dedicated work in the sphere of arts and culture.” A similar honour was given in 2013 to Johannesburg-based artist William Kentridge.

Provocative performance artist Steven Cohen, who broke new ground for his genre locally, was headhunted by Paris-based Ballet Atlantique’s Régine Chopinot in 2002 and now lives in Lille, France. His seminal work Golgotha, which debuted at the prestigious Fest d’Automne at Paris’ Pompidou Centre, was billed by critics as the definitive 9/11 artwork in its engagement with loss. Cohen’s confrontational work later offended some Frenchmen in 2013 when he tied a rooster – the ‘Gallic rooster’ is a French symbol of nationhood – to his genitals at the Place de Trocadéro, known as the Human Rights Square near the Eiffel Tower, and subsequently was fined after a trial for indecent exposure.

As today’s politically tense South Africa attempts to clarify its own distinctiveness, and as militant ‘anti-colonialism’ among certain political activists wants to cut off European influence in all spheres, engagement with the French and other countries is doubly important. While nurturing indigenous, local arts is crucial to South Africa’s quest for a new identity, so is openness to the best of world culture, of which the French are a great example.

The rise of ultra-nationalists globally such as Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK, with their inward-looking ethos, will endure for the foreseeable future. A Le Pen win would have given another boost to this phenomenon and conceivably raised questions about continuing international support for the arts. For now, for Jews, growing anti-Semitism in France is causing extreme unease, which has led many Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. Some 94 per cent of French citizens who cast their ballots in Israel, voted for Macron. Negative sentiment against other minority communities, particularly Muslims, is running high.

Macron’s win, however, seems to be an encouraging sign from the liberal centrists that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

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

  • Read about the Pretoria knighthood ceremony here

The ultra-nationalists and John Lennon’s broken dreams

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‘The other’ is not welcome here! Rabid nationalism epitomised by French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (above) comes half a century after The Beatles celebrated individualism and sharing of the world

A PIECE of popular history which throws light on today’s confusing world is the release 50 years ago in 1967 in England of The Beatles’ album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – soon to be re-released. It was followed in 1971 by John Lennon’s iconic song ‘Imagine’ with its key line “Imagine there’s no countries…”, positing a globalised world based on individualism, self-expression, feminism, gay liberation and similar values. Countries’ borders were less important.

Things have changed. Last year’s statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Conservative party conference epitomised the resurgence of identities defined by nationhood and rejection of ‘the other’: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Other countries such as France are following. Its national election next Sunday will determine if ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen will become president. Her National Front party is accused of Holocaust denial; last month she caused outrage by suggesting France was not responsible for the round-up of Jews – perceived as ‘the other’, despite being citizens – who were sent to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Will France embrace hard right populism with its anti-immigrant, super-nationalism?

Human identities are a balancing act between competing sentiments. For South African Jews, Israel is a key part of their identity, epitomised by moving ceremonies this week for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzamut. The former mourns 23,544 men and women who died defending Israel and its pre-State Jewish population, and 3,117 terror victims. The latter celebrates Israel’s independence. This year also marks 50 years since the Six Day War in which Arab countries tried to obliterate the nation of Israel.

But there are other forces vying for SA Jewry’s attention in rivalry with Israel, such as dramatic local events crucial to South Africa’s future. These include what happened on Monday in Workers Day ceremonies around the country. Some descended into chaos. In Bloemfontein, President Jacob Zuma was booed out of a Cosatu trade union federation rally and departed in his twelve-car motorcade surrounded by bodyguards without delivering his keynote speech. People ask how long the ANC will survive before it implodes, and what happens afterwards? Will African nationalism and anti-colonialist rage dominate, and what will be the place of whites and Jews?

Zuma never cherished South Africa’s democracy and nationhood, and the country should celebrate the shaming of a man who has robbed it for personal enrichment. Hopefully, its citizens will regain their optimism individually and collectively.

Israel’s nationhood, in contrast, seems solid, despite vulgar arguments in its body-politic. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University shows both its Arab and Jewish populations are optimistic and have a sense of national identity. It found 71 per cent of Israelis (73 per cent of Jewish respondents and 61 per cent of Arabs) were either “very” or “quite” optimistic about the country’s future, and over 80 per cent said they were “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israelis. Not surprisingly, Jewish respondents took greater pride in Israeli identity (86 per cent), but even 51 per cent of Arab respondents described themselves as “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli.

The clash between aggressive nationalism and those individuals attempting to cross boundaries is ugly, however. Ultra-right protesters heckled a 4000-strong alternative Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony in Tel Aviv on Sunday – held for the 12th consecutive year – featuring bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. They called Israeli participants “traitors.”

Wherever it is in the world, the cosmopolitan counterculture of The Beatles and the ultra-nationalism epitomised by Theresa May and Marine Le Pen cannot ever happily exist together. South Africa’s and Israel’s place in this universal tussle will never be simple, but the ride is certainly interesting.

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

Does ‘Never Again’ apply only to Jewish loss?

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When will babies stop dying in Syria? The war which has raged since 2011 is described as a genocide. As Jews remembered the Holocaust on Sunday, questions were asked about why the Syrian carnage is allowed to continue.

WHEN Holocaust survivor Don Krausz talked movingly on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday to a packed audience at West Park cemetery, Johannesburg, about his experiences as a boy in the Nazi concentration camps, an uneasy question hung in the air about what Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust who was in the Buchenwald camp, said in a recent interview on Israel’s Army Radio – that another “shoah” or holocaust was taking place on Israel’s northern border in the six-year Syrian war.

Lau said what is happening is unequivocally a holocaust. He stepped into contentious territory by using this term, which contemporary dictionaries regard as applying only to the Holocaust in the Second World War in which six million Jews died. He also implied Israel should be doing something to stop the carnage.

For South African Jews, Syria seems a far-away conflict they can do nothing about. And they have huge problems in their own country to deal with. Yet SA Jewry’s strong ties to Israel, which borders on Syria, adds weight to the issue. And the prolific use of the phrase ‘Never Again’ in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day raises a moral imperative.

In the planning of the annual event, it would be appropriate to mention Syria. It would not detract from memorialising Jewish Holocaust victims, but would indicate that the message is taken seriously.

A theme always present in Holocaust Remembrance Day is that the world’s nations did little to prevent European Jews’ mass murder, when they could have saved many. Everyone knows what is happening in Syria today, yet the world powers stand by and let it go on.

Half a million Syrian men, women and children have been killed and 11 million displaced, many becoming refugees seeking sanctuary in other countries. Chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin have been used against civilians. In 2013, artillery shells containing sarin killed 700 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta; earlier this month Syrian air force planes launched it in bombs. Last December, a quarter of a million civilians were besieged in Aleppo by President Bashir al-Assad’s regime, with the slaughter of hundreds every day.

What could little Israel be expected to do, aside from treating wounded Syrian victims in Israeli hospitals, which it is doing? Its army is strong, but it is a tiny country with many enemies in a chaotic region. Yet Rabbi Lau pleaded for action, and former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has said Israel could destroy Syrian aircraft used to drop barrel bombs, chlorine and sarin on civilians. Others have suggested establishing a humanitarian corridor for civilians, or a no-fly zone alongside Israel’s border, in alliance with America or other countries so it would not be solely an Israeli operation.

Israel would risk being sucked into the conflict, which is extremely complicated as Assad’s forces, the rebels, Al-Qaeda and ISIS battle it out, with major powers like Russia, Iran and the United States supporting or opposing different sides, amidst the Sunni-Shi’ite hatred which dates back to the founding of Islam. Many commentators believe Syria must ultimately be partitioned into a Shi’ite-controlled western area, a Sunni-controlled eastern area, and a Kurdish-controlled northern area.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes Israel getting involved, said in an interview: “…Let the world take responsibility and act instead of talking.”

The term ‘Never Again’ was intended to ensure that the world would not again allow people – not only Jews – to be slaughtered by mass murderers. It has failed, as shown by the Rwandan genocide and events in Bosnia and Darfur, among others. Now Syria. Former US President Barack Obama did not act in 2013 after Ghouta. Donald Trump will likely follow suit.

Lau has been criticized for his statements. But Holocaust centres worldwide attempt to make the Jewish experience a universal lesson. Johannesburg’s new Holocaust and Genocide Centre, pioneered by Tali Nates – whose father and uncle were on the famous ‘Schindler’s list’ and were thereby saved from the Nazis – stresses the importance of recognising and preventing genocide anywhere. Avner Shalev, the chairman of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – said the international community must “end the human suffering [in Syria] and provide humanitarian aid to the victims.”

There is no easy answer to Israel’s and the Jews’ role in a world which is again allowing genocide. But the phrase ‘Never Again’ would sound more authentic if it was applied to Syria.

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

Would the real journalist please stand up?

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Can newspapers meet today’s challenges? The media is criticised for sloppy journalism in an era when rampant racism and seething conflicts make every word important

CAN the media be trusted? The New York Times this week criticised its own editors for sloppy journalism regarding how they dealt with an op-ed on Sunday by a Palestinian leader jailed in Israel. It coincided with a well-known South African online paper, Huffington Post SA, being slammed for a racist blog post headlined “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?” written by someone who it was later shown did not exist.

It’s tough to hold up high standards in journalism today, when fake news is everywhere and the onslaught of mediocrity and mob rule through social media has so shaken the industry. A story in the Israeli online paper YNET reports that only 26 per cent of Jewish Israelis have faith in the press, according an Israel Democracy Institute survey. This probably reflects low regard for the media today in many other places.

Both of the above cases relate to highly charged political contexts – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racism in South Africa – which should make editors doubly concerned with journalistic credibility.

Sunday’s NYT op-ed by Palestinian Marwan Barghouti criticised Israel and justified a mass hunger strike which he had organised by Palestinians jailed for security-related offences. It is perfectly appropriate to publish such a piece, it is part of the debate on the issues, and Barghouti is an important figure in Palestinian politics – some people have described him as a Palestinian “Mandela”.

However, the op-ed’s tag line described Barghouti as a “parliamentarian and leader” without mentioning that he was in an Israeli jail after being sentenced by an Israeli court to five life terms for murder and terrorism.

After an outcry, the NYT’s public editor responsible for monitoring its journalistic integrity, on Tuesday criticised the op-ed department, saying “skimping” on key background information on opinion writers – Barghouti’s terror activities in this case – discredits it. Papers need to “fully identify the biography and credentials of authors, especially details that help people make judgements about the opinions they’re reading.” Failure to do so suggests an inappropriate agenda.

Outraged Israeli officials said the way the paper referred to Barghouti was akin to calling murderous Syrian President Bashar Assad an eye doctor, because he had studied medicine.

The NYT admitted its mistake. An online clarification on Tuesday said the article had “…neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted….”

In the South African case, the HuffPost ran the anti-white racist blog from one “Shelley Garland” without being rigorous about determining who she was. It later turned out she didn’t exist; it was a race hoax performed by a self-described white man in Johannesburg which HuffPost had fallen for. The story went viral internationally when American right-wing papers spread it on social media to illustrate their view that people of colour posed a threat to white people.

The HuffPost editor initially defended the posting of the piece, but later removed it and admitted she didn’t know who Shelley Garland was and had not done sufficient checks to determine this.

It might be some consolation to the HuffPost’s editors that they are at least in good company with the NYT, when that illustrious paper also neglects journalistic obligations for which it is criticised. An editor’s job is a hard one and all papers sometimes make mistakes.

But that should not comfort them. Freedom of speech is essential and they can defend it in those terms, but in the current volatile environment, allowing a racist post onto a news and opinion website which proposes denying white men the franchise detracts from the seriousness of their platform, and suggests a political agenda. Would they have run the story if the headline had suggested that blacks, for instance, should be denied the vote for 20 years?

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

Deafened by the dark laughter of our times

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South Africa in chaos: tragic or hilarious? Satirical performer Pieter-Dirk Uys and cartoonist Zapiro confront the identities and sensitivities of South Africa and its political turmoil, provoking outrage and praise

AS anxious South Africans take sides for or against President Jacob Zuma and his clinging to power, it is often artists who show the true nature of the dilemmas. Ever since the worst days of apartheid one of the best has been Pieter-Dirk Uys, who lampooned and enraged apartheid leaders such as PW Botha. His latest show at Montecasino last week, Echo of a Noise, shines a light on the torment of having to choose who you are and what you believe in as an individual or society.

Illustrious cartoonist Zapiro – Jonathan Shapiro – in his latest work this week, shows how Zuma has ‘raped’ the country and handed it to his patron the Gupta family. The cartoon has evoked outrage as well as high praise for its use of violent sex against a black woman as a metaphor for the plight of this country. It follows a previous cartoon in 2008 about the president ‘raping’ the justice system, which resulted in serious threats by Zuma to sue him.

The racial monster is rising again – the truth is, it never left, but was hidden for a while under the spell of Mandela – exploited by Zuma’s rants against whites and ‘white monopoly capital’ to hide his government’s corruption and ineptitude. South Africans are questioning their identity and how to relate to fellow South Africans who may be different. Sadly, many know only to shout at each other rather than listen.

Uys, who developed a stage persona as an Afrikaans woman, Evita Bezuidenhout, needs no introduction here. In his current show he tells the story of his own life, on a set containing a single black plastic chair in which he sits for an hour and a half facing the audience, as a 71-year-old man, stripped of make-up and wigs, in the intimate way one talks to a friend.

He didn’t know when he was a child growing up in Pinelands near Cape Town that his mother, a gifted pianist, had come from Germany in the 1930s to escape the anti-Jewish tide before the war. She brought her piano with her. She married an Afrikaner, Hannes Uys, who believed in church, discipline and racial separation. Hannes was the church organist and a piano teacher. Pieter’s sister Tessa later became a world-renowned concert pianist, returning the piano to its origins in Berlin in subsequent years. Mozart’s spirit filled their house.

Their coloured domestic maid, Sannie, was a central character in his life, adding to the rich mix of identities he grew up with.

One day a visitor arrived for his mother, a childhood friend from Europe. He hears them speaking German as they drink tea. He asks the woman what the tattooed numbers on her wrist are – perhaps a telephone number? She smiles wryly and says yes, and perhaps he should call that number? She couldn’t begin to explain to such a young boy what had happened in Germany.

Uys recounts how his mother confided to a German friend who had helped her immigrate to South Africa, about how to make sense of the laws forbidding blacks to sit on park benches, work in certain jobs and live in certain areas, when similar laws against Jews were what she had fled Germany to escape. She suffered from depression and later committed suicide by jumping off a cliff at Chapman’s Peak.

Uys found apartheid South Africa both tragic and ironic and even made us laugh at its absurdity. Zapiro has similarly portrayed the multiple identities of the country with all their ironies and sensitivities, but very few people are laughing.

Hard choices face South Africans today about who they are, as they did when Uys was growing up. Will those who still believe in a great country eject Zuma and his evil and heal what he has damaged?

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

  • For a review of Echo of a Noise click here

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.

 

Zuma

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 )

Struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada: a man of balance

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Anti-apartheid struggle hero Ahmed Kathrada holds a sign from the apartheid era saying only white people may use a lift in a building. Blacks had to use a separate lift allocated for “Tradesmen, non-Europeans, prams and dogs”. Kathrada died Tuesday morning

STRUGGLE veteran and South African hero Ahmed Kathrada’s death on Tuesday came just a few days after the furore about Western Cape premier Helen Zille’s controversial tweets saying that colonialism had not only brought oppression to Africa, but had also brought some good things, such as the principle of an independent judiciary and other pillars of a functioning state.

The two events are vastly different, but throw light on each other.

Kathrada, one of the accused in the Rivonia Treason Trial in 1964 who was jailed by the apartheid regime for anti-apartheid activities, and who spent many years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, brought some sanity to today’s climate of political correctness, a censorious atmosphere in which many things cannot be mentioned or debated because of the emotional reaction they provoke.

Apartheid is over, but what legitimacy do whites have here now? What are they allowed to say amidst the increasingly strident anti-colonial, anti-white rhetoric? The rageful reaction to Zille – a white politician who led the Democratic Alliance to becoming the official opposition in Parliament – illustrates the problem.

The argument over colonialism draws in other minority groups. South African Jews, for example, who came as immigrants mainly from Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s to escape Jew-hatred and poverty, at a time when the British Commonwealth was thriving. Are they also colonisers or do they belong here as Africans? The silencing of white voices and the refusal to allow rational public discourse on these issues is cause for serious concern.

Kathrada was a gentle man who dismissed hateful rhetoric against whites or others. In June 2012, he attended the funeral of world-famous Jewish palaeoanthropologist Phillip Tobias, with former president Thabo Mbeki and struggle veterans Tokyo Sexwale and advocate George Bizos. He saluted Tobias as a true son of Africa.

Consistent with his belief in human dignity and his love of Africa, Tobias had been a leader in the campaign to bring the Khoisan woman Saartjie Baartman’s remains home from Europe. Born in 1789, she had been taken there by colonisers and her naked body displayed for decades in the UK and France as a freak for people to gawk at. After she died in 1816, parts of her body were preserved in bottles and remained on display in a museum in France. After a request by President Nelson Mandela to the French government, these remains were brought back to South Africa in a box draped with a South African flag in 2002, and buried on Women’s Day in her birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Kathrada also confronted issues unpleasant for South African Jews, including those who blindly supported Israel no matter the topic. He participated in Israel Apartheid Week organised by BDS, alongside trade union federation Cosatu and individuals such as SA Communist Party Secretary-General Blade Nzimande and ANC National Chairperson Baleka Mbete. The event riles Jews who believe applying the apartheid label to Israel is false and anti-Semitic, which Kathrada certainly was not.

Another Jewish struggle veteran, Denis Goldberg‚ a Rivonia trialist who was sentenced alongside Kathrada, said emotionally after his passing: “We went through facing the gallows together‚ absolutely certain we were going to be hanged.” Goldberg went to prison in Pretoria; Kathrada went to Robben Island.

Kathrada had the balance to see through false rhetoric from whatever source, but with a humanity that made people listen. Last year he called on President Jacob Zuma to resign because of his violation of the Constitution‚ the theft of state assets and negation of “the values we stood for.” Sadly, Zuma is still in office.

What would Kathrada say about the meaning of freedom in South Africa today? One aspect is knowing you are welcome, no matter your race, ethnicity or religion.

This country has not yet come to terms with its multi-cultural identity and the role of minorities in it – whites, Jews or others. You can’t undo centuries of colonialism and apartheid in one generation. It is legitimate that black South Africans are seeking their African identity, as Jews seek their Jewish identity after their own centuries of persecution. Inevitably, ‘outsiders’ sometimes get offended.

If the new post-apartheid South Africa is to succeed, all sides need to aim at everyone being considered part of this diverse nation, despite the history. The silencing of figures such as Zille doesn’t help this cause. Kathrada and people of principle like him who had much to say about building this new country, will be sorely missed.

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