A jewel on the edge

Nigerians leave SA

Nigerians queue at passport control at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, September 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

SOUTH Africa has been forced by the mass xenophobic attacks on foreigners by its citizens to examine its identity and its image in the world. It is located at the bottom of Africa, far from the western world, but is it African or European? What are its values? Given what has happened, it can’t be business as usual, tomorrow.

South Africa is a puzzle. After being the admiration of the world 25 years ago for peacefully achieving democracy, led by the giant of reconciliation Nelson Mandela, today it desperately apologises to Africa for its citizens’ violent behaviour towards other Africans: Nigerians, Ethiopians, Somalis, and others. The destroying of their businesses and their homes, and personal attacks which has driven many to flee back to their countries of origin. It’s a disgrace, and a profound feeling of guilt runs among many enlightened South Africans.

It’s not enough for them to hang their heads in shame. More is needed, but the politicians are so busy arguing among themselves and wary of being stabbed in the back by others that they do not speak out strongly enough. And those who do speak out are not listened to, because a mass mentality has taken root against foreigners.

Business leaders are a good barometer of how a country is doing. Confidence in the country and its leadership has sunk to historic lows as reflected through the eyes of people in business. The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s BCI (Business Confidence Index) fell from 92 in July to 89.1 index points in August. This is its lowest level since April 1985, when the UN Security Council called for more sanctions against SA following the army’s raid in Botswana and the failure of the Eminent Persons Group talks, who were attempting to influence events in a positive direction.

But for many South Africans nothing has changed. Walk into a mall in the neighbourhood of Rosebank, Johannesburg, and you could be in Europe, seeing the world’s favourite brand names. Cars on the roads are the same as Europe, restaurants are urbane and sophisticated. Anything you can dream of, you can buy. The construction of fancy new buildings is taking place everywhere.

Nigerian novelist and journalist Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani whose book was named by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009, says South Africa is a ‘genetically modified’ African country, set in Africa but unlike the rest of African countries. Many Africans attribute its difference to the prevailing influence of the ‘Caucasians’ in their midst, she says.

South Africa remains an important country in Africa. It hosted the recent World Economic Forum in Cape Town where the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed by 54 of Africa’s 55 countries, was discussed. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni says it’s the most important post-colonial development in Africa, the world’s largest trade group since formation of the World Trade Organisation. The agreement is expected to boost trade by African countries among themselves by 52% by 2022. Mboweni harshly condemns hostility towards foreigners and says they would vastly contribute to South’s Africa’s economy and society. Any African should be allowed to settle wherever they want in Africa. If Nigerians or Ethiopians want to live in South Africa it should be open to them.

But last week a privately owned Nigerian airline said it would repatriate around 600 Nigerian citizens fleeing xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

Parallel to the recent xenophobia which has dominated the headlines, is the upsurge of gender-based violence, which is rife in the country, highlighted in the wake of the rape and murder of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, who was killed by a 42-year-old post office employee two weeks ago. The ANC Women’s League wants the country to consider chemical castration against men found guilty of rape. Yet all studies show that rape is not about sex, but power and control and even the death sentence does not reduce it.

The anger, fear and frustration has created a movement called #AmINext to give women a platform to share their feelings with others. But the answer must be found within the inner corners of society, in families, schools, churches, homes and social venues. One could assume that the #AmINext movement is about young black women like Mrwetyana, only. But one would be wrong. Even the Jewish community which puts looking after its own as a high priority is not immune, and gender-based violence often occurs behind the proverbial closed doors.

The harsh reality is that while South Africans broadly are a generous, warm-hearted people, their country has become a violent society for many who live here. People who come back for a visit after living elsewhere, are shocked to find the tension in the society where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders and people in the suburbs live behind high walls.

South Africa has been  a country on the edge for as long as most people can remember, through colonialism, apartheid and now the current situation, a long continuum with a few years’ break during which Mandela lifted the spirits. Yet through each crisis, it has survived, prospered and grown, and its sophisticated economy is one of the largest in Africa, which is why Nigerians and other Africans come here in droves to be associated with it.

Pessimists say it can’t go on like this and must eventually stop working and go down the tubes. Optimists, however, see huge opportunities here for brave people with the initiative to reinvent this gem.

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




Incendiary stories that turn the world

martin luther king

Follow me to the skies! Martin Luther King Jr, with his potent oratory, led an entire movement to fight for their rights. He is shown here in Brown’s chapel, Selma, Alabama, 1965. Charismatic politicians are immensely powerful shapers of history

WHAT is it about a politician’s speech that you remember afterwards? His catchy phrases? His body language? The urgency in his voice? These are often more memorable than the content. Mostly, he is a storyteller on a stage.

Occasionally a story crosses your path which sets you alight with hope, a tale of a hero and victory. The oratory of gravel-voiced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill contained such magic. His ability to tell the British during the Second World War the kind of stories they needed to hear about themselves and their struggle, inspired them to confront the bitterest odds and win. One of his most famous quotes from a rousing 1940 speech is, “…we shall fight them on the beaches…” after large tracts of Europe fell to the Nazis.

South Africa’s story during the last century was pitched to incredible heights by Nelson Mandela, a rural youngster from the Eastern Cape who rose to the summit, changed the world, and died an elderly man surrounded by loved ones. His heroic journey inspired South Africans to believe they could achieve great things – the triumph of good over evil.

It’s not just the story, but how it is told. One of the western world’s most stirring phrases came from the immensely charismatic Martin Luther King Jr who in 1963 inspired the Black Civil Rights Movement in America, just before being assassinated, with his “I have a dream…” speech during the March on Washington for an end to racism.

There’s always a flip side, however. Hitler was an equally charismatic storyteller, who inspired a culture of hate amongst millions of Europeans which poisoned the world and continues doing so. His noxious populism and calls for “lebensraum” tapped into the fears and resentment of vast swathes of German society, instigating attacks on his ‘enemies’, whether Jews, Marxists, foreign powers, or whatever he decided.

South Africa’s positive story had all the charisma and heroism of the others. It inspired the world. But has it been irredeemably poisoned through corruption, factionalism and racism? The sight of former President Jacob Zuma dancing with President Cyril Ramaphosa before 85,000 people in Durban last week at the ANC’s election manifesto launch, brought a collective groan to many who had hoped our positive narrative was still secure. If Zuma, despite the poison he has injected into the country’s life and politics, could still be lauded by so many thousands, we are seriously off track.

Yet, just as Churchill rallied the British at their darkest hour, so we wait for the South African ‘Churchill’. Time will tell if it is Ramaphosa. So far, signs are not good. His speech at the launch was so loaded with tired clichés that the response from many – not just whites – was cynicism. We’ve heard it all before from president after president.

It’s not that the country is falling apart. Its people are still friendly. Unlike the proverbial man on the street in many other countries, our people still have a smile for a stranger, even if their lives are tough and disappointing.

We are familiar with the more personal stories that play themselves out regularly at ground level. “Have a good life!” was the catchy farewell which one youngster called out cheerfully to a relative passing by last week as he walked out of a Glenhazel pharmacy on his way to a life in Australia. He can, because he has the youth and wherewithal to do so.

Should we try to make him want to stay? A lot more than catchy phrases in a storyline are required to reboot the country for that.

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

South Africa, be cautious when you romanticise the liberator


Heroes who liberate a country: Will they always do the right thing? Nelson Mandela allowed serious errors in SA’s new democratic constitution, says Madonsela

GIVEN former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s hero-status for exposing state capture under President Jacob Zuma’s government, and her determination to get South Africa back on track – to “re-anchor” it – it was interesting to hear her criticise the visionary who contributed more than anyone else in bringing about non-racial democracy – Nelson Mandela. Not for malice, but naiveté.

Addressing a conference in Sandton on Sunday, she said Mandela had erred by not sufficiently empowering the people in the new constitution adopted in 1996. Its framers gave excessive power to public officials and too little directly to the people. For this, the country had paid dearly as officials from the president down, ran amok with their power, with little regard for the law and the people.

South Africa is admired for adopting, after the first democratic election in 1994, one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. But, said Madonsela, the country believed naively at the time that because of this, and the fact that illustrious struggle heroes – such as Mandela – would occupy major power positions, the spirit and letter of the constitution would be rigorously implemented, creating a better country.

For example, economic growth and redistribution would be actively pursued – crucial to reducing inequality. But instead, misguided government policies with devious agendas and mismanagement, and state capture by powerful private interests, created almost no growth. Overall unemployment was around 30 per cent and youth unemployment 50 per cent, while billions of rands was illicitly laundered through Dubai by officials and private families – the Guptas, although she avoided naming them – with government connections. Some R240m of public funds was used to upgrade President Zuma’s private home.

Contrary to the constitution’s intentions, Zuma and his cronies have abused their powers, rather than being guardians of the people’s interests. Self-enriching guzzlers feeding at the public trough. In many cases, people have watched helplessly as the country slides downwards, while officials appointed by party bosses perform abysmally, yet can only be removed by voting the governing party out at the next election, which takes place every five years.

It is an oft-repeated historical theme that when liberation fighters defeat former despots, they often become as bad as them, while ordinary people remain poor and powerless. Apartheid itself was created by Afrikaners fighting for liberation from English dominance; they then went on to become harsh rulers in their own repressive regime. The rise and rise of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is another case.

During the decades of apartheid rule, vibrant civil society organisations and individuals rose up to defeat the racial system. After 1996, however, in the euphoria of the new democracy, it was believed the constitution would ensure protection of people’s rights. In many cases the opposite has happened, because of despotic officials and the people’s insufficient say in how institutions and officials operate.

Speaking of her own office when she was public protector – one of several “Chapter Nine” institutions created by the constitution to protect democracy – her initial vision was to be the “voice of the people” to protect them from abuse by officials. But during her tenure, the concept changed to the public protector being more of an “enabler” for helping people speak with each other when necessary – ordinary people and officials.

One case where this had succeeded, she described, was where residents in a rural area who performed work for the government weren’t paid; instead of confronting the usual bureaucratic channels, she brought these people together in a room with officials familiar with the place the complainants came from, so they could explain the situation; the matter was settled.

The lesson of the crisis of South Africa today is to beware of romanticising liberation struggle heroes. Not to believe they are saints, incapable of erring. The chaos and corruption in the ANC – the once revered liberation movement – is enough proof. But even icons like Mandela should be treated with a healthy dollop of caution.

(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


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)

Brave books tell about crossing political lines in South Africa, Israel

Mandela and Le Grange kiss 2

Former SA President Nelson Mandela kisses Zelda La Grange, his long-time assistant who came from a conservative Afrikaans background. She wrote a bestseller about it.

THE racial furore in South African social media over recent weeks evoked hideous comments, starting with one Penny Sparrow calling black revellers on Durban beach on New Year’s Day “monkeys” – a posting which quickly went viral. One of the worst responses was from a black Gauteng Province employee calling for blacks to do to whites what “Hitler did to the Jews”.

The ethos of a liberal South African society where all are treated as individual human beings regardless of race is weakening, despite proposals to criminalise racist comments. Increasingly in public discourse, people are described according to the group they are perceived to belong to, whether they feel part of it or not – whites and blacks can’t escape that identity.

South African Jews are caught in a double bind. On one hand they belong to the white minority in a country where the black majority is increasingly outspoken about white privilege from apartheid.

On the other hand, SA Jews have their own strong group identity, marry and socialise mostly with other Jews, send some 85 per cent of their children to Jewish schools, and have their own welfare institutions. This essential aspect of Jewish culture, always present wherever they live, is one reason Jews have survived for centuries. They have no desire to relinquish it.

Thus far there have been few major anti-Jewish incidents in South Africa – except from marginal individuals – and authorities have denounced those that have occurred. The vitriol has concentrated on whites and blacks as groups. But history shows that once extreme identity politics starts boiling, it usually ends up targeting Jews as well.

There is a resurgence of identity politics worldwide based on race, religion and nationalism. In Europe, the rising nationalist backlash against Middle Eastern immigrants is ominous. In Germany, rightwing anti-immigrant movement Pegida has called for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ouster for her liberal policy towards Muslim immigrants. In the United States, Donald Trump, a hopeful GOP presidential candidate, unashamedly spouts racist jargon against Muslims and immigrants. He claims he is articulating what many Americans think but won’t say because of political correctness. In the Middle East, radical Islam is marching; ISIS aims to dismantle existing states, create an Islamic Caliphate, and subvert the Western world and turn it into an Islamic realm.

Last month in Israel, identity politics took a leap rightwards in the realm of literature with the disqualification from the high school curriculum of the novel Borderlife by Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan, despite respected literary educationists recommending it. It is about a love affair in New York between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. A senior Education Ministry official deemed it inappropriate for Israeli high schoolers, declaring: “Young people of adolescent age tend to romanticise and don’t, in many cases, have the systemic vision that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation”. An uproar ensued, with some seeing this as promoting racial separation.

In literature, as in other arts, seminal works tell the stories of people who crossed the lines of their given identities and befriended and fell in love with people from the “other” group. They make us think about what it is to be human. During apartheid, books about whites and blacks crossing those boundaries were actually banned, as was sex and marriage across colour lines.

A book published in 2014, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, describes the transformation of a white, conservative Afrikaans woman, Zelda La Grange. She was was initially skeptical of the new post-apartheid South Africa which was once ruled by her people, the white Afrikaners. Then she became personal secretary for 17 years to the first black president, Nelson Mandela. The fact of the radically different identities of the protagonists is intriguing. It became a bestseller.

Journalist Mark Gevisser’s review of it for The Guardian says: “She understands Mandela, quite simply, as her saviour, and the book feels truest at the beginning, as we witness the awakening of a dull, unconscious racist into a passionate New South African. She wins Mandela over, it seems, with her tears when he addresses her in Afrikaans on their first meeting: they are the tears of shame, and more white South Africans should shed them.”

How to prevent extreme identity politics destroying liberal society, as it is already doing in some parts of the world today? People need a group identity, essential to their sense of who they are relative to others. But they also need the right to be treated as individuals, and cross lines when they want to. Sadly, the wise leadership necessary to balance those competing forces is in short supply today, in South Africa and elsewhere. The cacophony of bigots fuelling the social media circus will not provide that leadership.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. A shorter version of this article was published in the SAJR on January 13, 2016)

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


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)