Do racial slurs lance SA’s boil or poison the wound more?

Helen of Troyeville

Can a country with South Africa’s history ever get over its mixed emotions about how races relate to one another? Whites and blacks, Indians and Coloureds all have their own cauldrons of paranoia and anger to do with other races. Art and theatre can be a good way of articulating this (Photo: Suzy Bernstein)

THE wild mixture of feelings people of different races experience in today’s South Africa was eloquently portrayed in a play last week at Wits Theatre, called Helen of Troyeville, written by Mike van Graan and performed by skilled Jewish actress Gina Shmukler. It expressed some things we can’t talk about openly, but which are roiling under the surface. Such as the confusion of whites who want to support this new country, but feel silenced in the face of black anger for their privilege, and who cannot openly complain about corruption, violence and misrule for fear of being called racist.

Shmukler plays a middle-aged white woman who grew up during apartheid, immersed in the opportunities and empowerment her skin colour conferred. She accumulated the benefits of education and possessions, but finds herself at this moment locked in the guest toilet of her fancy house in which black robbers are plundering her possessions, including her dogs that she is distraught about. Totally disempowered, she is forced to reflect on her own life.

She regards herself as having been a do-gooder white who treated her maid well and made a point of buying trinkets from black beggars at the roadside. Now she is a terrified woman filled with guilt, despair and anger, disempowered in a country where the blacks who run things have little empathy for the feelings of people like her. Poverty still remains the lot of most blacks, as it was during apartheid.

She considers: what if they kill her? That might be the only thing which can enable her to retain some dignity, since she cannot undo the history in which her children were cared for by her black domestic while her own children lived elsewhere in a poor black area.

What is the role of racial rage? Is it a necessary component of lancing the boil created by years of white oppression during colonialism and apartheid? A catharsis? Paradoxically, according to surveys of the Institute of Race Relations, attitudes between different races are better today than ever; most blacks, for example, rank poverty and unemployment as bigger problems than racism. It is often politicians who aggravate racial issues for their own ends.

Did the odious Penny Sparrow incident in January 2016 – when an estate agent posted on facebook that blacks filling Durban beach on New Year’s Day were like “monkeys” – have a positive outcome, because the national outrage it provoked from both blacks and whites made such expressions no longer acceptable? Or add more dirt to an infected wound?

Political leader Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters party made controversial public comments about Indians in KwaZulu-Natal in Durban on Saturday, saying they treated Africans as sub-humans, and their business success derived from exploitation: “They are ill-treating our people. They are worse than Afrikaners were. This is not an anti-Indian statement‚ it’s the truth.”

Was Malema’s straight-talking doing South Africa a service by bringing murky race obsessions to the surface, to be argued about openly rather than festering below? Or was it playing with fire in a country where racial tension could still be ignited and ravage the country? He also said: “If we can tell whites the truth we must also tell them.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s great-grandson Satish Dhupelia criticised Malema: “[You labelled] all Indians as being people who are ill-treating others and that is so blatantly wrong on so many levels.”

Racial paranoia is as potent a force as racism. The ‘Helen of Troyeville’ Gina Shmukler portrays could as well have been ‘Helen of Glenhazel’ hiding behind the high walls of her smart house, while the country is being plundered.

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

Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring

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Songwriters and demagogues: Leonard Cohen sang of what it is to be human. Populist politicians Julius Malema and Donald Trump speak in inflammatory rhetoric to seek power.

THE death of musician-poet Leonard Cohen and the ascent to power in the United States of billionaire-politician Donald Trump reflect the confusion of our era. Millions mourn Cohen, with his songs that touch the core of what it is to be human; it is hard imagining iconic pieces such as his “Hallelujah” ever being surpassed.

We don’t know what legacy President-elect Trump will leave. His attitudes echo rising right wing, fascist figures in other countries. Ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism and other social ills that were unacceptable in the last few decades, become respectable again.

Shocked Americans dismayed at his election win, look for a “silver lining”. Perhaps one aspect is that radical change is sometimes inherently good, as it moves people out of stale comfort zones and creates new energy. In the lyrics of his song “Anthem”, Cohen wrote: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”

It is hard imagining Trump as a bringer of light, but perhaps the crack in the political order was the left’s complacency and arrogance. In its enthusiasm for globalisation and multiculturalism, it neglected masses of ordinary local people worldwide who became poorer and jobless, while wealthy international elites were creaming it. Trump became the voice in America of those angry masses.

In times of social upheaval, minority ethnic groups always look around nervously for how they will be treated by the majority. Jews instinctively ask: “Is it good or bad for us?” Muslims in Western countries ask the same. Black people ask similar questions in white-dominated countries.

There is cause for concern: The rise of the new right brings racist stirrings, which goes hand in hand with anti-Semitism and hatred of other minorities. In countries where speaking publically against Jews has been taboo, open expressions of Jew-hatred have now become common. In France, Jews are emigrating in droves because of attacks on them.

Even in South Africa, which still clings to the memory of Mandela’s rainbow nation, the signs are worrying. Earlier this month, for example, graffiti at Wits university said “Kill a Jew!” and “Fuck the Jews!”; last month, a kippah-wearing student was called a “Motherfucking Jew!” by fellow students.

Despite such incidents, South Africa by and large has good inter-group relations. Anti-Semitism remains low compared to many other countries, and interactions between ordinary blacks and whites in the cities are generally friendly.

But racist talk from populist politicians such as Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to speak for millions of angry, jobless blacks, could change things. His tactics are similar to Trump’s, but from a leftwing perspective.

Demagogues like Malema use any means to gain power. He has not publically expressed anti-Semitism, but his insistence that “white monopoly capital” is the root of the problem could easily be tweaked to “Jewish (or another group) monopoly capital”.

Trump may turn out to be less catastrophic than the doomsayers predict. In politics, yelling recklessly from the sidelines is easy, but once a person gets his hands on the steering wheel, things look different. And the many checks and balances in US politics make it hard for any leader to go completely off track.

But for Malema, the political safeguards in South Africa are less robust, giving him freer rein. Just look at how President Jacob Zuma has got away with his rampant corruption and other shenanigans.

There are no prophets to tell us the future. One thing for sure is that we’re in for an interesting few years ahead – like Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future”, which ends with the words: “Things are going to slide in all directions…”

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

Beware the seductiveness of crafty leaders

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Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s threats of violence to unseat President Jacob Zuma has some South Africans warning about a civil war (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denzil Maregele)

ECONOMIC Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema’s threat in an Al Jazeera interview on Sunday to remove President Jacob Zuma’s government through the “barrel of a gun”, should sound an alarm as South Africa marks Freedom Day this week and Jews mark Holocaust Day next Thursday. The kneejerk resort to violence that has overtaken South African politics among students, trade unionists, taxi operators, shack dwellers and others – many of whom are actually campaigning for worthy causes – is taking this country down a dangerous road which will be hard to reverse.

Malema said the ANC used violence to suppress dissent, such as ejecting his party from parliament after they heckled Zuma: “Part of the revolutionary duty is to fight and we are not ashamed if the need arises for us to take up arms and fight.”

Dangerous words. An ANC statement said it would pursue legal action against Malema’s “inflammatory, treasonable and seditious” words.

Alarm bells are ringing in some quarters, such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) which called on political parties to avoid statements that could incite civil war. Bishop Abel Gabuza‚ the SACBC Justice and Peace Commission chair‚ responded to Malema’s “war rhetoric… We have seen the evil consequences of civil war in other African countries‚ including massive loss of lives‚ a refugee crisis and irreparable damage to the economy.”

South Africa has today a robust constitution, a judiciary which has repeatedly proved its independence, a free press and other institutions which, although under attack from some quarters, still function as they should. The ANC and Zuma certainly deserve to be removed from power as soon as possible after so crassly betraying the country’s dreams, but in a manner that strengthens its democratic institutions rather than weakening them – through the courts, the press, the public protector, and non-violent civilian protests.

Words lead to actions. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi thugs were energised by the charismatic Fuhrer’s use of words – such as the iconic “sieg heil!” which means “hail victory!” – calling for action against Jews and others in his path to absolute power. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’, and went on to rule Europe.

During the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 the Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches”, words which were translated into the killing of 800 000 Tutsis in 100 days.

In the absence of inspiring leaders, one hears wry comments these days about “President Julius Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office, which rightly scares many South Africans. A chilling performance  in 2014 by satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” already predicted the scenario in its opening scene by displaying a Malema–like doll being given advice to assist him on his rise to power by Hitler, impersonated by Uys. The show was a walk through South African history since 1945, drawing a disturbing analogy between Germany in the early 1930s and South Africa today.

When the ANC was contemplating throwing Malema out of the party in 2011 for bringing it into disrepute – before he founded the EFF – Uys commented: “Julius Malema says: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hands of the whites.’ Hitler said: ‘We must control the economy – it’s in the hand of the Jews.’”

Hitler, said Uys, appealed with his populist rhetoric to the millions of Germans who had no jobs, after the First World War. Malema appeals in a similar way “to the millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Of all the politicians in South Africa today, Malema is by far the most charismatic, evoking smiles and even some fondness for his boisterous campaigns pointing at issues of serious concern to the country, including his attacks against Zuma and the ANC. Tolerance for his extreme rhetoric comes even from people who would be the first to suffer under a government run by him.

Beware of the craftiness of seductive politicians who woo people with their charisma into overlooking their thuggishness, and then move into the power centre. Hitler came to power through exploiting German democracy, combined with thuggery.

Malema demands loudly today that Zuma must adhere strictly to the constitution, and most South Africans applaud him for this. But will he also insist on strict adherence to the constitution when he is in power and others oppose him?

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

Look at me – I’m not what you think!

'I See You' Play by Mongiwekhaya performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, UK

The play “I See You” exposes the awkwardness between South Africans, as a black university student befriends an Afrikaans woman, and confronts a hero of the Struggle. Photo: Alastair Muir

One of the most complex slices of South Africa’s population which is calling for the ouster of President Jacob Zuma is the middle class black ‘born-frees’ who grew up after apartheid and for whom the pass laws, Verwoerd, Mandela and uMkhonto weSizwe are in the realm of folk history rather than personal experience. For many, Zuma’s heroism – and that of the ANC – during the Struggle is far less important than his anti-democratic, corrupt behaviour today, which they see threatening their futures.

Theatre is a perfect arena to express the quest of these born-frees for their own individuality. It is inspiring how a new generation of playwrights and performers is creating sophisticated works, showing up the politicians’ bravado and posturing, and exploring what it means to be South African in post-apartheid society, with its many demons.

Two superb recent plays – one written by Steven and Kate Sidley, the other by playwright Mongiwekhaya and directed by Swaziland-born actress Noma Dumezweni who grew up in the UK – illustrate the born-frees’ efforts to establish their own distinctiveness relative to the Struggle generation, in the milieu of whites amongst whom they live and work. These whites face their own questions about their South Africanness, amidst accusations from angry young blacks that they are still privileged racists.

The first play, “Shape”, ran at Daphne Kuhn’s Theatre on the Square in Sandton last month. It is set in an up-market gym with three protagonists: a black gym instructor with a privileged education; a white fitness fanatic who battles nagging questions about his sexuality; and a white do-gooder woman who works for the Human Rights Commission, recently got divorced and has joined the gym – she is clearly out of shape – in an attempt to regain her sense of self.

When the black man approaches the woman to take him on as a gym instructor, she declines. He immediately retorts: “Is it because I’m black?” She, of course, instantly denies it so vehemently that it exposes her complicated feelings towards the topic. What follows is a fascinating exploration, told through the medium of gym equipment, change-rooms and tanning rooms, of each of their attempts to relate to the other as people, and ultimately, fellow citizens of the same country, while the familiar political correctness and gym jargon plays itself out.

The second play is currently on at the Market Theatre, called “I See You”. The main protagonist is a young black Wits student studying law who cannot speak Xhosa – the language of his parents – because he was taken overseas at age three when his family went into exile, and he grew up there. After a white Afrikaans woman befriends him in a Johannesburg club, they are driving in a car when they are stopped by a black cop, a former ANC paramilitary fighter turned policeman, who has a simmering resentment at the fact that his role in South Africa’s armed struggle, at great personal cost, is being ignored by young black South Africans who are educated, speak English rather than their mother tongue and have friends who are white.

During the night of abuse which follows, the cop and the Wits student confront each other heatedly, each from their own places in their lives, while the Afrikaans woman tries frantically to rescue the student from the clutches of the bitter policeman.

The Market Theatre was established by theatre legend Barney Simon in 1976 with the explicit goal of facilitating such penetrating, relevant drama. This is Noma Dumezweni’s directorial debut interrogating such issues – which are as important for the born-frees today as the anti-apartheid struggle was for Barney Simon several decades ago.

The play’s name, I See You, is a common Zulu greeting implying bearing witness to the other. In this confused society, how people acknowledge their fellow citizens is riddled with tension and awkwardness. The crass slogans being hurled around with abandon on social media that “all whites are racists”, blacks are “corrupt and inept” – and some are “monkeys” – and so on, must ultimately give way to “I see you”, if this society is to overcome its history and release itself from the grip of manipulative leaders.

The successful staging of these two plays to full houses consisting of all races shows that the process is indeed underway between ordinary people – if only sleazy politicians like Jacob Zuma and populists like Julius Malema will stop trying to sabotage it with convenient racial slurs.

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

  • For critical reviews of the above plays, visit  Shape and I See You

Is it racist for white South Africans to criticise their black president?

ANTI ZUMA MARCH 16 DECEMBER 2015 (18)

Angry blacks and whites join in a protest outside Wits University, Johannesburg, calling for Pres Zuma to resign for corruption and mismanagement

In the 1970s, white students protesting with anti-apartheid placards in the road outside Wits University were called “Communists and kaffir-boeties” by angry white motorists for threatening white supremacy. It’s an ironical twist of history that last week, in post-apartheid South Africa, some of those former students – now 45 years older – demonstrated with placards at the same spot against a corrupt black president, Jacob Zuma, and were called “white racists” by angry black motorists, who saw them as unwilling to accept black rule and forgo their white privileges.

In the demonstration, some 3 000 people of all races marched across Nelson Mandela Bridge in Newtown, Johannesburg with posters saying “Zuma Must Fall”. They were addressed by irate speakers such as former Cosatu head Zwelinzima Vavi, who said he was “gatvol” (fed up!) of government corruption. Similar protests occurred in Pretoria and Cape Town.

But the presence of so many whites made some blacks question their motives. Was their protest actually against Zuma, or black government per se? A nostalgia for white rule? Sadly, although apartheid is gone, race is still a highly volatile issue which intrudes into every corner.

Often, if a white person criticises a black politician’s performance – or a black coworker in a company – he will be accused of racism, as if he is accusing all blacks of incompetence. Many whites stay resentfully silent. But the Zuma disaster has prompted some to declare their anger more publicly.

A recent article in The Economist described how Zuma has damaged South Africa since 2009, asking if he has created a “Kremlinesque subversion” of democracy. Corruption and black poverty has increased nationwide, and the gap between haves and have-nots is among the largest worldwide.

But the debate on government performance is made immensely complicated by apartheid’s legacy. For example, young middle-class blacks who have ‘made it’ in the new South Africa with professions and good salaries, still feel excluded from what they perceive as a massive network of “white privilege”. Ferial Haffajee, author of a new book, What if there were no Whites in South Africa? says their bitterness is increasing. But they risk falling into a disempowering “victimhood” mentality which will serve them badly.

In reality, whites are a declining minority constituting only 8.4% of the population. The black middle class is larger than the white middle class, showing how in some respects post-apartheid South Africa has succeeded. In upmarket shopping malls like Rosebank in Johannesburg, for example, there is a friendly, warm mixing of races. Superficially, it is sometimes hard to believe apartheid ever existed.

Under the surface, however, black-white reconciliation has made little progress since democracy in 1994. The 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission was expected to pave the way. But the latest survey of the SA Reconciliation Barometer found that two out of three South Africans do not trust each other across racial lines.

Lack of social contact due to the physical separation of races is one reason. The apartheid government was hugely successful in forcing blacks and whites by law to live in completely separate areas. This is still largely intact, though without the laws. There is scant inter-racial socialising. Most whites still do not have a black friend.

The deepening racial narrative threatens Mandela’s “rainbow nation” dream. Populist black politician Julius Malema, leader of the thuggish EFF party, now calls Mandela a sell-out who compromised black liberation with his willingness to reconcile with “white capitalists”.

A visionary leader is desperately needed to counter this trend, or once again racism will dominate everything in South Africa, despite its liberal Constitution. Not through laws, but dangerous, racially charged public discourse. After the TRC tried to heal apartheid’s wounds, many naively believed the country could move on. But it will take a lot longer, probably generations.

At the TRC, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris apologised for the SA Jewish community’s immoral lack of protest during apartheid, with similar apologies from other faith leaders. But the multitude of personal stories of suffering are yet to be heard.

Aside from black pain, for example, there are also the little-known stories of young white conscripts forced – regardless of their politics – into military service, deployed in black townships to defend apartheid, ending up routinely humiliating or even killing black people. Or being sent to Angola to fight a war they didn’t understand. Some had terrible experiences and still suffer the consequences of PTSD.

In 1996, a Jewish organisation called Gesher, aiming to help blacks and whites get to know each other, brought Jews and black members of a Soweto Methodist church together for a workshop. A feisty black woman in the group said sternly to the white participants: “I’ve been waiting for 40 years for you people to want to talk to me. What took you so long?”

Blacks rightly get incensed by whites’ tendency to say glibly: “Apartheid is over now, and we must all move on.” Like Germans saying to Jews: “Get over the Holocaust already!” Until peoples’ stories have been listened to sincerely, there will not be trust and white motives at protests like last week’s will be regarded with suspicion.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He was Editor of the SA Jewish Report for 16 years, from 1999-2014)