Our ‘spoilt brat’ heroes

numsa strike

Who caused South African Airways to crash? The workers unions Numsa and Sacca reject claims that their strike crippled SAA financially. They say the board of SAA already knew the dire straits of the company.  In the picture, SAA workers bring the operations at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg to a standstill

THOSE of us who were adults at universities in the 1970s and 1980s had a socialist bent, and the goal of keeping workers content was deeply felt. It overrode many other things. Many trade-union members and anti-apartheid activists came from idealistic Jewish youth movements such as Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair. Before that, Jewish activists historically played roles helping build unions throughout the 20th century. Anti-apartheid activist Solly Sachs, for example, was a Communist Party member in 1919, and secretary of the Garment Workers’ Union in 1928.

Now, what do we think of trade unions who have dominated the headlines for striking against South African Airways (SAA)? Are they there to ensure that national organisations like the airline run smoothly for the country’s good? Or are they there only for members to squeeze out as much as possible for themselves without concern for the consequences? The desired answer seems obvious. But it’s not so simple. Their members’ demands are often justified, but meeting them all in this country today is impossible.

The media is full of stories covering the fight between SAA and the trade unions NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa) and SACCA (South African Cabin Crew Association). It’s bizarre for an airline that analysts say is in terminal collapse to be engaged in a fight like this. Professor Jonathan Jansen reportedly described the strike as akin to the Titanic’s crew striking. They wanted higher wages just after the ship hit the iceberg. Unfortunately, in South Africa’s hectic politics, striking has become almost the default position for voicing a grievance.

Negative perceptions of unions may be unfair since they continue to ensure fair working conditions for thousands of members. But union leaders are perceived by many as behaving like children. They are seemingly oblivious to the dire state of the country, and unwilling to see further than their members’ immediate demands. South Africa has a 29% unemployment rate, and a sinking economy. It seems unions would blithely bring the country – and its airline – crashing down around them rather than act responsibly.

Their dealings with SAA are typical, insisting on wage increases far beyond what the airline or country can afford. They forced SAA to cancel scores of flights as a way of confronting it. This cost SAA hugely in terms of reputation and finances. It’s come to a sad pass. Commentators see unions today not as heroic fighters for fair working conditions, but as “spoilt brats”, as Sikonathi Mantshantsha wrote in Business Maverick last week. The reality is that in sane government circles today, there is talk of a general wage freeze in the public sector to curb costs, rather than giving salary increases.

What would the old idealistic Habonim activists think about the South African trade unions they were passionate about in their youth? Would they be disappointed to see them reduced from the heroes they were during apartheid to naughty children throwing their toys out of the cot? Would they even recognise them?

Many of the old activists would certainly have changed with time both in their worldview and lifestyle. Similarly, the unionists and the rationality of their demands have changed. But there is debate about whether it’s been for the good.

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

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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Wit and vision at the grave of Mandela’s lawyer

JULES BROWDE

Who will replace people like this? Advocate and friend of Mandela, Jules Browde, was of a breed of men shaped by the major events of the twentieth century

IN South Africa’s current political climate, dominated by corrupt politicians’ bluster, unseemly scuffles in Parliament and mobs burning schools and artworks, among other things, it is refreshing to find spots of quietness and integrity behind the public din.

A funeral of a 98-year old man might seem an unlikely place, but such was last Sunday’s event at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg of advocate, activist and Jewish leader Jules Browde, infused with his optimistic wordview and enduring sense of humour. Sad as a good man’s passing is, the feeling was of a life well lived.

The warm friendship during apartheid’s early years between Browde and Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela was the start of a long, meaningful relationship. This took place before Tambo’s exile from the country to lead the ANC, and Mandela’s imprisonment for 27 years which interrupted the friendship – it resumed after his release in 1990.

Browde and Mandela had studied law together, and in the 1950s he was the legal counsel for Tambo in his application for admission as an attorney, despite the racial laws. Later, he acted for the legal practice of Mandela and Tambo – successfully – when the apartheid government attempted to evict them from their offices because they were in “white” Johannesburg.

“Today everyone likes to say they knew Mandela, but at that time, to be a friend of Mandela was not popular in white society,” said the rabbi to the mourners who included constitutional court judges, legal figures, artists, activists, and leaders of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim – he was its national president for 25 years.

The brutal application of racial laws by the apartheid regime, including imprisonment without trial, torture, evictions and other means, led Browde and other jurists to establish Lawyers for Human Rights in 1980, which publicised human rights abuses and confronted them through litigation. He was its chairman during the State of Emergency in the mid-80s. After democracy, President Mandela appointed him to investigate irregularities in the appointment of public officials.

A notable figure at the funeral was Johannesburg’s mayor Parks Tau – a member of the ANC ruling party – with an honour guard of black men and women in city uniforms to accompany the coffin to the grave. The rabbi noted with a smile that officially, Browde was still a city employee, evoking a warm nod from Tau. He did not believe in retirement, and still had several months to complete his contract.

Touching obliquely on the corruption issue – the hottest topic in public discourse today – Tau stressed the importance he placed on probity among city officials and Browde’s role in its integrity committee, in which he engaged with over 200 councillors to ensure their financial affairs complied with transparency regulations.

The city had offered him his first five-year contract when he was in his late 80s, despite his wry, humorous warning that because of his age he might not be there to complete it. But he saw it through, and was offered additional five-year contracts.

In a moving scene after completion of the formal Jewish ceremony, the city guard took up shovels and filled the grave with earth – a rare glimpse into a potential South Africa where colour didn’t matter.

The serenity of a worthy life completed, with no need of fanfare. There were no political speeches, cries of “Amandla!” or earnest political party representatives with the red overalls of the  EFF, the blue T-shirts of the DA, the red, green and black symbols of the ANC, or others. No jostling for prominence.

Several women participated in shovelling earth onto his coffin during the ceremony. Although contrary to the Orthodox Jewish community’s custom of calling only on men to do this, it seemed entirely natural – and the rabbis did not stir. And when it came to the family saying kaddish at the end, his wife of 68 years, Selma, also participated with her sons. Again, this seemed entirely natural, though it was not the usual custom for women to do it. But for Browde, no-one would be excluded.

The generation of Jewish men who were born in the early part of the twentieth century – like Browde – were moulded by major events such as the Second World War against Hitler in which he fought for five and a half years in the South African artillery; the flourishing and expansion of South African Jewry; life under apartheid and the choice of whether and how to resist it; and the idealism for building a new, humane state of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Some of them, like Browde, became allies of giants like Mandela and Tambo.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was intended to heal wounds of apartheid by giving victims and perpetrators of atrocities the chance to face each other and tell their stories.

But reconciliation has fallen far short of its goal. The country stands at a dangerous crossroad – will it continue descending into violence, corruption and cynicism, or regain the idealism of Mandela’s rainbow nation?

Most of Browde’s peers – the visionaries and activists – have passed on. Who will replace them to help this confused, increasingly cynical country find its way?

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