The visit ‘home’: Do SA émigrés ever wish they’d stayed?  

OR Tambo statue at airport

Is this place mine? Political turmoil in South Africa has led many people to leave over the decades. Did they make the right choice? In the picture, a statue of ANC president OR Tambo at the international airport in Johannesburg

ANYONE who has attended a 40-year high school reunion knows the uncomfortable feeling when you meet classmates from several decades ago, who immigrated to other countries and have had vastly different lives. After five minutes of warm greetings – “Wow, it’s so nice to see you again! Do you remember when we played Sunday league soccer together?” – an uncomfortable silence falls over the gathering, amidst awkward attempts to joke about the passing of time and how everyone is getting older. The gap between their lives and yours is too great for easy conversation.

That often happens when people who left South Africa decades ago, come visiting family here, to attend a funeral or wedding. The relative who has built a life in America – or the UK, Israel, or elsewhere – and has American kids, and who is full of praise for his new country, has little appetite for understanding the complicated, worrying politics of South Africa. He might rage about how Americans could elect someone like Donald Trump as president, but the equally bizarre realities of South Africa are of little interest, serving mainly to validate his decision to leave long ago.

We are living through ‘exciting’ times, for those with the insight to see it that way. No less than a new liberation struggle is required against the degenerate regime the once-proud ANC has become – similar to liberation movements elsewhere after they gained victory over oppressors.

Journalist Jacques Pauw’s recent book, The President’s Keepers, and other publications by struggle heroes such as Ronnie Kasrils, all confirm South Africans’ worst fears about how the corrupt ANC leadership has damaged this country.

Superficially, white South Africans’ lives, and the Jewish community, Afrikaners and other minority communities, have changed little since the émigrés left. They drive the same kinds of cars, live in similar large houses, employ domestic maids at tiny salaries, run successful businesses, and send their kids to private schools. Of course, they are surrounded by high security walls and electrified fences, but they say they have gotten used to it.

There was a brief historical moment after Mandela emerged from jail and became president, during which South Africans would gloat and say the émigrés who had left had erred, and had missed out on the inspiring country South Africa had become. Showing a South African passport when travelling was a proud action, then. Today, however, there is shame, with the decline to junk status financially and politically. It evokes gloating from those who had the wisdom to leave after Sharpeville or similar events.

Current happenings in Zimbabwe add fuel. Jews remember the once-proud Zimbabwe Jewish community which has all but vanished after 37 years of Mugabe’s despotic rule, the liberator- turned-dictator, who is finally being thrown out after destroying the country. Is that our destiny here?

Last weekend Professor Njabulo Ndebele, an academic and fiction writer, and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, addressed an ANC struggle veterans’ meeting, bemoaning the bunch of thieves the government had become. The country’s spirit may “run dry,” he said, without a new “imaginative political project to give life and shape to it… [South Africans] require entirely fresh perspectives from which to view and understand themselves.”

What will it mean in ten, twenty years to be a Jewish South African? It is up to far-sighted leaders to articulate a new vision for a community half the size of what it was in the 1970s, and still shrinking. Sadly, such leaders are scarce.

Ten years from now, when émigrés come visiting for a reunion, will they find family and friends inspired again? It certainly could happen, the country’s spirit, today, has not yet been broken. We are again at a crossroads. But the jury is still out.

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

 

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Censorship: A double-edged sword

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THE clumsy attempt by the State Security Agency and SA Revenue Service to block printing and distribution of the book by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers, is nowhere near the censorship which prevailed during apartheid. But it eerily reminds us of how the slippery slope begins in that direction. A desperate President Jacob Zuma will go to any lengths to protect himself and his cronies from exposure for wrongdoing, as the book does, and possibly going to jail. He has turned the security establishment and SARS into his defensive tools.

Thankfully the country has constitutional safeguards against censorship, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary and a populace accustomed to freedom of expression earned by generations of struggle activists. For example, recent controversial artworks by Ayanda Mbuli depicting Zuma in lewd sexual poses with the Guptas, offended many, but it’s a tribute to the country that the works were never banned.

Predictably, Pauw’s book quickly gained a large global readership after government demanded its recall. It is now into a second printing. Local bookstores rejected the call to remove the book. Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk said: “I will censor a book that is blatantly racist, has hatred of Jews, hatred of black people or any other people. But a book like this, why should we refuse to sell it?”

Could the government have a case in demanding its recall? Do details about Zuma’s dodgy tax affairs violate his right to privacy? This is as much about politics as anything else. In a democracy, the government cannot suppress such facts about a public figure like the president, or censor someone’s opinion of him. It must take the matter to court, which would be a good thing, since then the beans about Zuma will definitely be publicly spilled.

Anyone who was politically aware during apartheid will remember the ideological absurdities of censorship. Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time which lauds kindness and respect, was apparently banned for using the word ‘black’ in the title, in conjunction with the word ‘beauty’. Burger’s Daughter by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, was banned for contradicting government’s racial policies by telling white anti-apartheid activists’ stories. In the sexual realm, the state’s defenders of ‘morality’ put Playboy magazine out of bounds, with its double-page spreads of naked women, but copies were smuggled into the country and passed from hand to hand.

Internationally, banning books with sinister ideological or religious themes sometimes has a more acceptable side. There have, for example, been many unsuccessful calls over the years for banning The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract which concocts a false Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, and was used as justification for Jewish persecution. And Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, was banned in Germany since the Second World War, but last year it became legal to publish and sell it as a commented edition.

South Africa’s political turmoil today, reflected in the many bizarre public statements and postures of its politicians, has an echo of the story in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, a parable extolling democracy while describing a workers’ revolution which goes horribly wrong. It’s about the successful overthrow of a harsh regime of human farmers by an animals’ liberation movement. The new order becomes corrupted, however, when leaders turn arrogant, and ‘alternative facts’ – the ‘fake news’ of today – are propagated to suit political ambitions. It sounds familiar, not unlike the tragic corruption of the once-admired ANC liberation movement.

Pauw’s book is not ideological in the traditional sense, except to the extent that law-breakers, whoever they are, should be exposed and punished, including the president if necessary. Zuma’s selfish motives in wanting the book recalled are so transparent, a child could see through them. But he doesn’t care; he knows he will probably never be called to account. Or could it be that the tide is finally turning against him?

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