The State Theatre: Bullies in the wings

SAst with morfe people (2)

Is it racist to criticise a state funded theatre? The South African State Theatre opened in 1981. It is a government funded company originally intended to promote the development of the performing arts. Arts practitioners claim that it is in a very poor state today and its administration is sorely lacking. Critics have been attacked for saying this and accused of doing so for racist reasons

WHY would a professional who’s given a whole career to the arts industry suddenly be deemed racist? On Sunday I attended a performance by South African-born performance artist Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza, at Pretoria’s South African State Theatre (SAST), accompanied by arts journalist Robyn Sassen. Khoza is well-known throughout Europe and elsewhere, and collaborates frequently with South African-born choreographer Robyn Orlin.

We expected to watch the piece as we would in any theatre, based on criteria theatres worldwide honour. This includes making the audience safe, and feel safe, the production’s age limits, allowing for people with disabilities, not allowing dangerous aspects such as open flame to exist unattended.

When we arrived at SAST, however, we were confronted by a frightening array of experiences: we as white theatre-goers were treated with obvious hostility by certain people present; and SAST is mostly in a state of sad neglect. It exists on public funding. Sassen is a veteran journalist who has covered the arts extensively, for over 20 years, including productions at SAST. She has written about its condition previously.

The work, Red Femicycle, which focuses on South African femicide and bullying was hosted in an unusual space in the theatre complex. Ushers took us there via a convoluted route, which they clearly were not sure of themselves. Eventually we arrived at the venue’s appallingly shabby reception area.

It was clear that we as whites stood out like a sore thumb. When I picked up my cell phone to photograph the room’s state, I was aggressively confronted by a black man who told me he hadn’t granted me permission to do that. He did not identify himself.  I said we were from the media, this was a public place, and the pictures were not for publication, but a record of the room’s condition. Others had also been photographing. I asked why he had confronted me, not them. At that moment the work began. He said threateningly, “We will continue this afterwards!”

Sassen decided to write a story on her blog about the theatre itself and our experience there before she reviewed the work. It was published and immediately went viral. (the link to her story is given below)

The next morning a man who according to his Facebook page is associated with the regional secretariat of the ANC youth league, said in one of several rambling vitriolic Facebook posts: “…This Woman called Robyn Sassen is of no difference to a vulture of doom that is hovers over black lives… a scavenger that moves with great menace toward anything that represents black excellence!!! … we do not need an opinion of a bloody racist and bias agent …”[sic] A picture follows this text, of several angry-looking men, led by one holding a spear menacingly.

Clearly, this person is only one voice. But on Facebook, regardless of the credibility of the post or who it comes from, responses get exaggerated and polarised in the face of controversy: people publicly take a side or privately extend support by contacting one side or the other, as many did with Sassen. Khoza and his cast went out of their way to offer Sassen support.

We come from a ghastly racial history. The ANC has not yet learnt how to run a country, nor cherish the arts which it treats with disdain. It also hasn’t learnt to bring to book troublemakers and thugs who are embarrassing its good name or what is left of it.

The purpose of this article is not to make gross generalisations. It is to present a snapshot of an incident which left a deep, troubling impression.

Arts journalism is already beleaguered as an important critical field of art making. Sassen says she will not again review anything at SAST. It has to date, not reacted officially to her story other than “likes” from its artistic director Aubrey Sekhabi for some of the hostile Facebook comments.

Sassen story on State Theatre: State Theatre How Dare You

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

Homelessness: It’s never what you think

Street beggar

Street teacher: Moses Velaphi is a homeless man from Kwazulu-Natal who found a way of earning money from regular drivers at traffic lights by teaching them a new Zulu word each day on his board (CCTN AFRICA)

WHAT is the personal story of the black beggar in dirty rags who approaches your car window at a traffic light, pointing to his mouth, asking for food? You often hear complaints from residents of Johannesburg’s middle class neighbourhoods about being bothered by homeless beggars, making them scared to open their windows.

Three weeks ago at the Kingsmead Book Fair, hosted at Kingsmead College – an elite girls-only school in upmarket Rosebank, Johannesburg – one of the most moving panel discussions focused on a critically acclaimed film called Vaya, whose team included Anthony Mafela, a once-homeless man. Vaya enjoyed a limited screening at local cinemas last year and gave rise to a book, Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg. The film tells true stories of rural people from Kwazulu-Natal coming to the city, who land up in desperate situations. After the speakers’ presentations a sincere question came from an obviously privileged white woman in the audience: “What is it like to be homeless?” None of the panelists answered satisfactorily; they skirted the question. How to describe having nothing, to someone with everything?

Vaya, directed by Akin Amotoso, portrays real-life stories of three homeless people – the kind drivers might glimpse from car windows. A taste of the underbelly of Johannesburg – one of the world’s most unequal cities – existing alongside mainly white middle class suburbs like Glenhazel, Sandton or elsewhere. The script is crafted from the Homeless Writers’ Project, which started in 2009.

It opens with three hopeful people on a train from rural KZN en route to Johannesburg – each expecting help from family, but finding themselves alone and in danger. The first, Nhlanhla, has no money for lobola to marry Sihle in KZN, so he is going to Joburg to make money after a cousin offers him a job, but is quickly trapped into the world of gangsters, becoming a killer dependent on gang bosses. The second, the beautiful young woman Zanele, comes to the city with her friend’s child, wanting to be a dancer and finds herself – and the child – on the point of being sold into the illegal trade in women. The third, Nkulu, has come to fetch his migrant-worker father’s dead body from the mines, to take home to his KZN family for the ancestors’ sake, only to discover that his father had built a second family in the city and only visited his original wife and family in KZN every six months, leaving Nkulu in limbo in Johannesburg.

In streets leading up to Kingsmead College on the day of the fair were parked rows of gleaming 4x4s and other expensive fair-goers’ cars; across the road at Rosebank Mall were shops selling international brands of clothes and food. And as if to push the searing disparities in your face, barefooted beggars in dirty rags hung around the avenue of jacaranda trees at the school entrance.

The exploration into ‘underground’ Johannesburg includes an intriguing book series by Tanya Zack and photographer Mark Lewis called ‘Wake up, this is Joburg’, published by Fourthwall Books. It tells stories of ten inhabitants in the city’s ‘alternative economy’. One depicts ‘survivors’ carving out a precarious living chopping up S’kop – cows’ heads rejected by traditional butcheries whose meat is eaten amongst poorer sections of the society – under the highways and in abandoned buildings, invisible to ordinary Johannesburg residents. They fly by the seat of their pants, amongst xenophobia and a changing city.

What do the visitors to the Kingsmead Fair – and the readers of this column – with roofs over their heads and cars in their garages, make of this other, invisible world? At least the sense that the ragged people at their car windows have stories as interesting and relevant to the city as theirs.

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


Ways of seeing: you, me and them

hector 1.jpg

Does the camera lie? One of the pictures taken by a photojournalist during the 1976 Soweto riots helped bring down apartheid. Today, with cameras in every cellphone, social media can send images, not always accurate, across the world instantly

SAM NZIMA died two days before last week’s killings along the Israel-Gaza border. He was the South African photojournalist for The World newspaper who took the picture during the 1976 Soweto riots of the bloody schoolchild Hector Peterson being carried in the arms of a frantic young boy after being shot by apartheid police. Most people don’t know Sam’s name. But by the next day the photo was splashed across the front pages of newspapers from New York to Moscow and is held worldwide as a symbol of the reality that was black peoples’ lives. It marked a turning point in the struggle.

Israel is not apartheid, nor are Palestinians black South Africans. But the pictures flashing around the world from the Gaza killings are seared into peoples’ minds as symbols of what happened. Israel looks as bad as apartheid – how many Hector Petersons were there that day?

After thousands of words have been written about historical events, it is often the photographs that most define their meaning. For example, the naked 9-year old Vietnamese girl running down a road in 1972 away from a napalm attack – known later as Napalm girl – which made Americans see the Vietnam War differently; the lone man – later called Tank Man – who stood in front of a column of Chinese army tanks in 1989, after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests; an unidentified man falling headfirst after jumping from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center – later nicknamed Falling Man – in 2001 after Al Qaeda terrorists crashed aircraft into the building and destroyed it; the picture of the Jewish boy with a yellow star of David on his lapel, walking out of a building in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, hands in the air, surrounded by German soldiers with rifles, which became emblematic of the Holocaust.

Three Israeli pictures from May 14, when seen together, capture the crudeness of what happened that day: The first is a beaming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the new American embassy building in Jerusalem, with a Barbie-doll-like Ivanka Trump unveiling a plaque with her father’s name – US President Donald Trump – followed by the singing of “Hallelujah” by the right-wing politicians from both countries.

The second smiling image was when 50,000 Israelis congregated in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to celebrate Israeli singer Netta Barzilai’s win at the Eurovision Song Contest, and hear her sing her song ‘Toy’ twice over.

The third, as if on another planet yet just an hour away, was the bloody confrontation between IDF soldiers and 40,000 Gaza Palestinians who were storming the border fence, resulting in 60 Palestinians killed and thousands injured. To viewers around the world, particularly South Africans, the melee looked like Soweto, June 1976 – stolid security forces facing frantic rioters. It wasn’t, but that’s the way it looked.

“What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history,” Netanyahu told the inauguration ceremony at the US embassy. The mixture of the three scenes will be viewed by future historians as so bizarre as to wonder if the facts are correct. Why was he smiling so cheerfully when the Gaza border was burning?

Images can be spread instantly worldwide these days via social media. But life is not made up only of images. Beneath, lies a reality. Gaza is a desperate place. Israel is not fully responsible for what is happening there. Hamas rules cruelly, and wanted the world to see Israelis killing Palestinians. It succeeded wildly.

Sam Nzima’s picture of Hector Peterson influenced millions. Last week’s pictures of Israel, looked at together, swayed millions against it. Can this negative tide be turned, for now and for history?

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

Is there any solid ground in this quicksand of rage?



The rage and the response: Palestinian protesters on Israel’s border with Gaza face teargas and other harsh means as Israel tries to keep them away from the border fence. Some 60 Palestinians were killed by live fire from Israel in the protests

SOUTH AFRICAN Jews can be forgiven for being confused about Israel and South Africa, both of which concern them immensely. The abiding feeling is a conflict of loyalties.

This week’s conflagration in Israel looms large, with Monday’s lethal clash with some 40,000 Palestinians protesting along the Gaza border, and reports saying 60 were killed and 1200 wounded, with more expected in coming days.

SA Jews generally believe the United Nations is biased against Israel. Thus, when two-thirds of the Security Council expressed “profound concern” Monday night, complaining that a 2016 resolution demanding that Israel must stop building settlements on Palestinian land was being ignored, they were not surprised. Nor that Ireland – also considered anti-Israel – demanded an independent investigation into the killings.

But when, to many Jews’ dismay, the SA government, in crude and one-sided, inflammatory language, immediately recalled its ambassador to Israel and called on Israel to “withdraw from the Gaza Strip and bring to an end the violent and destructive incursions into Palestinian territories”, it was too much: South Africa didn’t seem to know that Israel withdrew in 2005.

All of this came just after Israel’s Independence Day celebration and opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, which most SA Jews praised. So whose side to take?

The official response of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and SA Zionist Federation said the government’s decision was “outrageous and displays gross double standards… against the Jewish state.” But many will criticise it harshly for entertaining no questions about any conceivable failures on both sides in the situation, even if they were unintentional – an “Israel is completely right, the Palestinians are completely wrong” attitude. They will see it as a blind closing of ranks with no grey areas, and not as a call for all South Africans to understand that there are many sides to the conflict.

The SAJBD’s long-standing mandate is looking after Jewish community welfare, not national politics. But where does the line lie? It will argue that SA policy towards Israel directly affects the welfare of the Jewish community and that SA criticism of Israel provokes anti-Semitism. Many Jews will agree. Some may not.

Numerous questions beg answers from Israel and South Africa. Israel had put in place measures to avoid loss of Palestinian lives, particularly because of criticisms after unarmed Palestinians were killed in previous weeks. What happened?

Who controls SA foreign policy? Is it President Cyril Ramaphosa, admired as the man who will repair the country? SA politics is as complex as Israel’s; no one knows what’s going on in the struggle between him and the old Zuma network of patronage. Until recently there was a feeling of ‘ramaphoria’ about him – the messiah coming to save the country.

He has begun fixing things and ejecting corrupt individuals. But his support is fragile; he treads carefully around powerful people. If he proposed a different Israel stance, would he anger ANC members? How important is his Jewish constituency? ANC policy supports the two-state solution – Israel living alongside Palestine. But ANC heavyweights strongly favour the Palestinians.

In the SA media, Israel was a front page story for some, but it won’t last. The truth is, most people are tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it’s more of the same, year after year, with no solution in sight.

Most ordinary people watch the news and shrug. Some take an emotional position after watching a certain item, but change it soon after; there are too many variables, it’s too complex. Ultimately, many withdraw and go on with their lives. The danger is that at times like this, people get sucked into a mob mentality, separating everyone into ‘friend’ or ‘foe’ as if those on the other side are not human.

There are people on all sides with dreams and hopes for a better life.

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



Is this the moment when everything changes?


Hidden threat under cups of coffee: The liveliness and enjoyment of crowds in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighbourhood covers a sinister challenge for Israel – will it be irrevocably stained as Israeli soldiers are instructed to fire at unarmed protesters on the Gaza border?

IN EVERY nation, certain events are identified by historians looking back as tipping points which defined its character and soul. Israel’s wars are markers – the War of Independence, Six Day War and Yom Kippur War, which gave Israelis and Jews the feeling they weren’t doomed to forever be “strangers” in other peoples’ countries. Crucial moments in the Jewish soul.

It doesn’t have to be war in the conventional sense; it could reside under the surface of everyday reality, as it does on this seventieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

Anyone visiting Neve Tzedek, the artsy area in South Tel Aviv last Friday night would have seen the incredible buzz of people, young and old of all cultures and languages confidently enjoying themselves at cafes and strolling the streets, and might have been inspired at how far Israel has come and the confidence of its citizens. Israeli flags hung on almost every street pole, from every window, and on cars’ aerials. At the crowded shuk’s’ entrance, a man sang popular 1960s songs amidst the flags.

But if you went into a café and listened to conversations, you would hear sprinkled among them, the ‘war’ going on just across the border a few kilometres away over the Green Line, in the West Bank and Gaza, beyond the privileged Tel Aviv ‘bubble’. There is also talk of a new force in politics, not just to do with the shaky coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding together amidst scandals, but about a potent recent incident: The morality of Israeli soldiers shooting and killing unarmed protesters on March 30, at the Gaza border during protests there, which started a train of events Israel seems unable to stop.

That event may be what historians will identify as the point when even ardent believers in the justice of the Jews’ statehood could not excuse its actions – where in some respects, Israel lost something in its soul.

Such markers in a nation’s character don’t have to be bloody. In the United States, the Rosa Parks incident, where a black woman refused to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955, triggered a wave of protests that reverberated throughout the United States. The flurry which the incident generated became a symbol of the indignities black people were constantly subjected to, affecting the soul of the nation and its sense of morality. She is internationally recognised as the “mother of the modern day civil rights movement” in America. Everyone knows the name Rosa Parks.

Other tipping points affecting inner, personal feelings in the United States include the terrorist attacks of September 11 in 2001, which future historians might one day interpret as the beginning of the third world war.

For the new South Africa, the 2012 killings at Marikana will probably qualify as the tipping point for negative perceptions about the ANC, as the 1960 Sharpeville massacre was for the apartheid government.

Sometimes tipping points are contradictory. South Africa’s difficult situation today regarding rising racial tensions, inequality and poverty, suggests that rather than being the dawn of a new, bright era, the much heralded 1994 democratic elections might be seen by future historians as the beginning of a new decline of SA into a corrupt, bankrupt country. What a tragedy, after the bitter struggle that was waged here.

Another glance at the buzz in Neve Tzedek reveals that behind the façade of joy and laughter, lies the uncomfortable knowledge that something much more difficult and complex is playing out. How to recapture the moral high ground after incidents such as the shooting of unarmed civilians is no less of a struggle for Israel than winning a war.

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


Is this the Wild West or the Middle East?

march of return

What to do about Gaza? Thousands of Palestinians joined in a March of Return at the border with Israel on March 30. Israeli soldiers set up positions facing them across the border. Snipers picked off individual demonstrators. The world watches as the casualties mount, and no-one knows how it will end. In the picture, Israeli soldiers face demonstrators.

ONE thing which puzzles Diaspora Jews seeing images of Israeli soldiers facing masses of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators in the March of Return at the Gaza border, and hearing reports of killings by Israeli snipers, is: Why is Israel not using non-lethal means of riot control? Live fire is not the only way.

For South African eyes and ears, pictures of demonstrators being shot evokes memories of one of South Africa’s greatest traumas – the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when some 6,000 unarmed black people protesting the pass laws converged on police; many were shot, some in the back as they fled, resulting in 69 dead and 180 wounded.

The contexts of these two events are so fundamentally different that comparison is absurd – unless one considers the mere existence of Israel to be equivalent to apartheid. South African black people were never aiming to destroy the South African state, but destroy the apartheid system; the Palestinian goal, expressed clearly by Hamas, is destruction of Israel.

While that is true, Sharpeville’s effect on South Africa’s political landscape was profound; if the Palestinians’ March of Return gathers momentum and more are killed, it could reignite severe focus on Gaza and Israel’s role.

It seems that under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s response to ‘trouble’ from the Palestinians is to quickly resort to massive force rather than a non-violent approach. Diaspora Jewry is repelled by this, even if seen from their situation of relative privilege; an American Jew in the safety of his California home cannot imagine American soldiers firing on a crowd of unarmed demonstrators. Why, they ask, should Israel do it? The answer is that Israel shouldn’t be doing it, there are other means.

Diaspora Jews’ existential dangers are nothing like Israel’s. But from where they sit, Israel seems to be unnecessarily choosing lethal means over non-lethal ones. It seems the hawkish Netanyahu is not interested in how the Diaspora sees him. But even high-profile, respected right-wingers in the Diaspora, such as Ronald Lauder, are beginning to speak against him.

Some people on the right claim Israel’s record is clean as a whistle compared to the sickening Syrian violence – the latest outrage being a gas attack by dictator Assad on his opponents. And that the world should stop complaining about little Israel.

But Syria is not the standard by which to judge the Jewish state. The value of human life is a Jewish precept, including a Palestinian demonstrator’s life. How to control riots without killing demonstrators?

The March of Return, which Hamas has exploited for its own agenda, is expected to continue for weeks. Thus far there have been close to 30 fatalities and hundreds wounded. Some Hamas members have tried to plant rudimentary explosive devices across the border fence.

Israel’s failure to develop nonlethal methods to disperse demonstrators at relatively long distances has been discussed in security circles for many years; the State Comptroller explicitly commented on it in 2003 and 2017. The historical background was that, at the height of the second intifada in 2002, IDF soldiers under the Gaza Division operated under flexible rules of engagement which allowed them to shoot at anyone approaching the border fence from Gaza.

Even then, this was not accepted by all officers. For example, the current IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, who was a young division commander at the time, objected to these open-fire directives and instructed his soldiers in armoured battalions to ignore them, and not routinely approve shooting at a person approaching the fence before their intentions were known.

Netanyahu should not be allowed to become the face of Israel today. A trigger-happy Israel loses not only the soul of the Zionist project, but also the support of Diaspora Jewry.

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

Is South Africa a society that throws its children down the toilet?

pit latrines (2)

Is a toilet too much to ask? In numerous schools in South Africa, toilet facilities for the children are either missing or dangerous. It is a priority that has been neglected in the basic school system for decades, both under the ANC and previous governments. Accidents are inevitable. The picture shows a rudimentary pit toilet at a rural school.

THE horrendous death of a five year old schoolgirl, Lumka Mketwa, who fell into a pit latrine at an Eastern Cape school last week and drowned in human faeces, and whose body lay there overnight before being found, highlights a stark reality of South African society. This is the chasm between the high quality first-world bubble in which the South African elite – including middle class blacks, whites and most Jews – live, compared to the millions of desperately poor, who don’t even have a proper toilet. It is not the first such incident: In 2014, five year old schoolboy Michael Komape fell into a dilapidated pit latrine at his Limpopo school and died.

It will likely happen again. Thousands of children attend schools with filthy, dangerous toilets. A reliable report in January said 37 Eastern Cape schools had no toilets at all, 1945 had plain pit latrines and 2585 had ventilated pit latrines. How can children and their parents function with optimism under such circumstances?

Contrast this with white schools in the city – whether Christian, Jewish or other properly organised, comparable schools, where the absence of good toilets is unimaginable, let alone other essentials such as adequate school buildings, desks and so on.

Which of the two examples above adequately describes the country South Africa – the abysmal poverty of Lumka’s world, or the relative wealth of the Jewish or Catholic child’s world?

How would other countries answer a similar question? In an attempt to get a handle on this, a report released on March 14 compares the ‘happiness level’ of various countries, evaluated by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations. It takes data from 156 countries, ranking them in terms of six variables that support a person’s well-being. These are: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity.

It found that the top countries included Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and Finland. The most unhappy countries were Burundi, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen.

South Africa is not regarded as a particularly happy society. It ranks two thirds down the list, at 105. Obviously, within the SA elite’s first-world bubble which has access to health care, resources, community, charities and so on, the ranking would be far higher, probably closer to Germany. But the poverty of the masses brings it down. The pathetic beggars motorists encounter at city street lights are the tip of the iceberg.

How much credibility do such studies have? Mark Twain popularised a term in the United States: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Undoubtedly, some indicators cannot be precisely measured for a report like this, but it nevertheless gives a broad overview.

The notion of comparing different countries’ well-being came from the prime minister of Bhutan in 2011. In 2012 the UN General Assembly declared March 20 as World Happiness Day, recognising “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations… and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.” The idea may seem a little woolly to some, but it has taken root in government policy in certain places.

Israel was ranked a respectable eleventh in well-being, one notch below Australia, and firmly above Germany and the United States, at 15 and 18 respectively – an interesting finding, given Israel’s stress because of threats against it. Clearly, Israelis are relatively happy.

The Palestinian territories, in contrast, rank much lower than Israel, at 104, which should worry those concerned about relations between them.

Can South Africa’s ranking rise in the foreseeable future, so another Lumka Mketwa will not die? It is now 24 years since apartheid ended, and SA President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed shock at her death and ordered urgent action to give all schools proper toilets. But heads must roll in this country, quickly and totally, and not just about toilets.

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

Messy business of Jews, their roots and land

hilbrow 2

Hillbrow: Crime spot or wellspring of creative energy? This cosmopolitan, black Johannesburg neighbourhood is a no-go land for many whites, who fear it, although they once owned it. Now, white land ownership is coming under political scrutiny, as blacks demand the return of what colonialists ‘stole’ from them centuries ago

JOHANNESBURG northern suburbs Jews and other whites generally fear going to Hillbrow, believing they’ll be mugged. But anyone attending the Hillbrow Theatre – previously the historic Andre Huguenot theatre – last weekend to see the show Hillbrowification staged as part of the Dance Umbrella Festival, might have been impressed by a neighbourhood abuzz with pulsating street life amid Art Deco buildings, and the cosmopolitan mix of black immigrants and local black people. Undoubtedly problems of poverty and crime exist, but the energy is infectious.

Adult Jews remember a largely white Hillbrow in the 1960-70s which hummed elegantly with shops and cafes like the popular Fontana, and buildings such as Highpoint in which the first Exclusive Books was born. For residents, Hillbrow was a first step up for many poor Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who had started off in the humble Doornfontein neighbourhood to the south.

Few, if any, Jews remain in Hillbrow today. They sold up and moved north to the more suburban areas of Orange Grove, Sydenham and Highlands North.

That move was organic, driven by personal decisions and aspirations to own better properties. But this may change with the radical possibility threatening white property owners today, as the black EFF party wants government to seize white-owned property without payment, claiming it was stolen from South Africa’s original black inhabitants by white colonialists. An EFF motion in Parliament last month to review the Constitution to allow ‘expropriation without compensation’ (EWC) was supported by the ANC.

Rural land in Jewish hands today is small, compared to the 1960s when there were a multitude of Jewish farms; for example, the 30-mile strip between Ogies and Leslie in Mpumalanga was almost entirely Jewish farmland. Today, the effects of Jews losing properties would be felt mainly in cities.

The argument is often made that Jewish South Africans’ success in this country, whether in property ownership, business or elsewhere is not because they lived in a country that legally discriminated against blacks and favoured whites. Rather, they worked extremely hard throughout their lives and deserve what they achieved – including property they own – and they shouldn’t have to pay for what colonialists did centuries ago. Many will say Jews are inherently industrious and creative, and succeeded in whichever country they emigrated to from Eastern Europe, whatever the circumstances.

There may be some truth in that, but land is an emotive issue and the argument won’t satisfy black people who believe it was stolen from them. What’s to be done? President Cyril Ramaphosa says it needs careful consideration and there will be no ‘smash and grab’ – such as the Zimbabwean catastrophe, with rampant seizure of white farms.

The issue is complex, whether you support EWC or reject it. From whom should land be taken, and to whom it should it be given? For example, there are whites whose forebears arrived here in the 19th century and who are fifth generation South Africans. Must they still pay for what the colonialists did, as if they are not South African?

Furthermore, to whom should land be given? Which people qualify as ‘original’ South Africans from whom the colonialists stole land? South African history is replete with events where one group took land from another. Perhaps the only genuinely original inhabitants were the San – the so-called ‘Bushmen’ who are virtually extinct today?

What no-one can dispute is the need for major land reform. In a country with a majority black population, ownership of most land by whites is both immoral and a recipe for disaster. What does this have to do with Hillbrow? It is still a metaphor for the country, a reservoir of pulsating energy bordered by land largely owned or controlled by the privileged. Imagine if the pent-up energy crammed into those few blocks was released into bringing life to new places.

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


The leadership quandary: Trust me, I’ll make your nightmares real


What kind of leaders does the world and South Africa need? As the international scenario heats up with bellicose posturing by powerful politicians, the morality of leadership takes a knock. In post-apartheid South Africa, racial tensions still fume as politicians use them for their gain. In the picture, the anti-white leader of the EFF party Julius Malema explodes in an outburst

WHAT makes a leader? Morality, humility, wisdom? The question becomes increasingly relevant as the planet seems to be hurtling towards potential self-destruction. Ordinary people watch fearfully as international leaders threaten stability in ways not seen since the Cold War. For us in South Africa, the country seems rudderless, lacking any true national leader.

Authentic leadership goes deeper than having a clean record. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been under police investigation for corruption, yet most Israelis still regard him as best choice for prime minister and vote for him, because no-one else in the political landscape seems able to ensure Israel’s security.

Israelis are anyway cynical about political leaders’ morality: President Moshe Katsav was jailed for rape in 2011; Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was jailed for corruption a few years later; and Shas leader and cabinet minister Aryeh Deri was jailed in 1999 for bribery and breach of trust.

Ironically, one of Israel’s most outstanding leaders was an ardent right-winger, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who led the Likud to electoral victory in 1977 after three decades of Labour Party dominance. He was initially reviled by the left, but today is admired as a role model by people across the spectrum for common sense and propriety. He is the leader who made peace between Israel and Egypt with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, with whom he received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Peace.

In America, President Donald Trump’s chaotic tenure in the White House and irrational tendency to change positions on major local and international issues, continues eroding confidence among Americans who believe he is unfit for the job, and creates disdain elsewhere. But he sits in the power seat and could lead the world into a hell from which it would take forever to recover.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin belligerently brags about the ability of his country’s nuclear weaponry to reach targets anywhere, particularly the United States, terrifying people who fear another nuclear arms race.

What about South African leaders? Obviously the historical giant amongst them was struggle icon and former President Nelson Mandela. He is history now, although the memory of his vision lives on, disappointed as the citizens may be at his country’s decline.

And the others? President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to prove himself; many people believe the task of reconstructing South Africa is too big for him. He succeeded in removing the poisonous President Jacob Zuma from office, but not yet the rot Zuma created.

On a much smaller, charismatic scale, we have Julius Malema. It may seem ludicrous to include him in a descriptive list containing the likes of Putin and Trump, but we are talking qualities not scale. One may not like his politics, but he makes enough noise on the national and even international stage to be noticed by people interested in South Africa. Whether his leadership brand will produce anything positive is unlikely because of his toxic anti-white racism, epitomised by his latest statement, “We are cutting the throat of whiteness,” referring to plans to remove Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip because he is white.

Sounds familiar? It is little different from apartheid leaders HF Verwoerd and PW Botha, whose target was blacks not whites.

Does a leader have to want the best for his people? Not necessarily. Hitler, as repulsive as he was, inspired Germans to move mountains, even if they were in the most depraved direction and eventually brought catastrophe down on them.

South Africa’s record on leaders is not a good one. Are there any potential Mandelas or Hitlers waiting in the wings? This country has a tendency towards great drama, and must beware of the likes of Malema, whose anti-white slogans could easily morph into anti-Indian, anti-Muslim or anti-Jew.

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


The BDS knee jerk: Almost a witch hunt?

Liel and rally in Jer 2012

Is a Palestinian state alongside Israel possible? Dr Alon Liel (right), former Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to South Africa and Turkey, and Dr. Sufian Abu Zaida, a former Palestinian Authority Minister, say yes. The picture shows them at a peace rally in Jerusalem in 2012, where Israeli and Palestinian flags were waved. Liel was in South Africa in February to promote his views.

SOUTH AFRICA’S Jewish leaders have work to do concerning ANC members’ negative perceptions of Israel, exemplified in Parliament last week during a speech by then minister of science and technology Naledi Pandor. Her speech formed part of the debate following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address and was meant to respond to the international co-operation objectives he’d announced. However, Pandor’s comments in this regard had nothing to do with foreign affairs and was instead used as an opportunity to slam Israel. Pandor was confirmed on Monday as  minister of higher education in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But how should Jewish leaders relate to Jews criticising Israel? For example, a group recently formed in South Africa calling for Israel to end the “occupation” of the West Bank. The group is called SISO (Save Israel Stop the Occupation). An unfortunate response in the Jewish community is a hunkering down whereby anyone, Jewish or not, who criticises Israel is labelled a BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) messenger.

Some Jews label anti-Israel activity as anti-Semitism, and might justifiably point to the distasteful comments by ANC MPL Sharon Davids in the Cape Legislature last Friday, who said Premier Helen Zille is “too much in love with the Jewish mafia.” She added that the Democratic Alliance “fabricated” Cape Town’s water crisis deadline so desalination contract kickbacks could occur. A sub-text can be easily inferred, that such contracts would come from the world’s expert in water affairs – the Jewish homeland, Israel.

There may be some truth in parts of that. But how should Jews debate amongst themselves about Israel? Such as when the abovementioned South African group made up of born and bred Israelis, Jews who have lived there, and Jews who simply love Israel, says current Israeli government policy is wrong and it should withdraw from the West Bank – the most contentious Israeli issue.

Amongst the Israelis, the group includes the former Israeli ambassador to South Africa at the time of Nelson Mandela’s ascendancy to power, Alon Liel, who was also previously director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and who had a close relationship with the South African freedom icon. In a 2013 article in YNet he said: “I met [Mandela] just five days after assuming the position of Israel’s ambassador to South Africa. Even before I submitted my credentials, Mandela himself telephoned me at 6 am… and said, ‘I’ve heard Israel is changing its policy. Let’s talk.’”

When this group, which includes several South African notaries such as a judge of the high court, asked recently to engage with Jewish institutions, many Jewish community leaders – although not all – said no, and certain individuals were summarily labelled “BDS”. However, the Cape Board of Deputies hosted him, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies – which supports a two state solution to the conflict, thus implying an end to the occupation – met with him and his wife and issued a statement afterwards.

Liel and his cohorts are hated by the political right in Israel, amongst other things for alleged ties to the leftist organisation Breaking the Silence, and promoting boycotts of goods from the “occupied territories” to make it clear the settlements endanger Israel’s future.

Are they too far left for most SA Jews? Organisations who shunned them included the SA Zionist Federation, Johannesburg’s main Jewish community centre, and the youth movement Habonim – which was warned not to host him. Although his group repeatedly asserted its opposition to BDS – which advocates total boycott of Israel and supports its destruction – some Jewish leaders still accused him of representing BDS.

Shunning people like this group is misguided. SA Jews miss the opportunity to strengthen their views by debating contesting perspectives even if they disagree, and they push to the margins Jews reluctant to express themselves in the mainstream for fear of being ostracised.

Other, larger Jewish communities successfully incorporate wide-ranging debate on Israel. But SA Jewry is small. It is essential not to provoke people to leave because of their Israel perspectives. The last thing we need is an echo chamber of identical views.

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