The hilarious back-story of the “Saxonwold shebeen”


Whose house is this anyway? South African theatre people have created hilarious scenarios, portraying through humour and satire the intricacies of race, and how well-heeled white South Africans and others grapple with their ingrained attitudes.

WHAT would you do if you woke up one morning in the servants’ quarters of your wealthy house, put there by your maid while you were asleep? Meet Sheila Shler, the creation of veteran South African actor Robert Colman through a facebook channel. Sheila is a complex character who appears in post-apartheid South Africa, 22 years after democracy. She is a well-to-do white “madam” who owns a house in the elite Johannesburg neighbourhood of Saxonwold.

According to the plot, she was recently moved from the main house to live in the servants’ quarters by her black maid Tryfeena, who has established a shebeen (African pub) in the primary residence. Colman, dressed in drag and playing the part of a confused Sheila who stares directly into the camera and whose facial expressions speak volumes about the challenges of her new inverted life, has produced six short episodes thus far, with more promised.

The plot is sidesplitting yet deadly serious. It is a take-off on one of the major political dramas of 2016 surrounding the infamous billionaire Gupta family which lives in a veritable palace in Saxonwold. The family has been accused of state capture – the bribing and influencing of politicians and government officials, from President Jacob Zuma downwards, for their business interests.

The sub-plot is a public statement by former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe who was suspected of being implicated in the Guptas’ network, that he had not visited their house. When his visit to the area was proved by cellphone records and documented in an ominous public protector’s report on state capture, he admitted he had been in Saxonwold, but said he might have been visiting a local shebeen in the area. It was received with astonishment by the country.

Colman has converted the incident into political satire, digging into the pathologies of South African society with humour and irony. Sheila, talking in her upper-class Johannesburg northern-suburbs accent, bemoans her fate, but is trying hard to understand the social and political dynamics that brought her to this situation. She talks about doing a course with Racists Anonymous and how it feels to have to address her former maid as “madam”.

Previous great names in South African satire include Evita Bezuidenhout, a caricature during apartheid of an Afrikaans woman from a conservative background who embodies aspects of her racist origins but has a subtle understanding of its absurdity. She is the creation of theatre personality PieterDirk Uys, who during apartheid lampooned politicians such as former President PW Botha. Evita was so well-known by anti-apartheid movements – she was called the “most famous white woman in South Africa” – that she had an official meeting with Nelson Mandela after he came out of jail.

When future historians look back on 2017, they will say major parts of the world expected it to be a bumpy ride. The previous year had shaken up the establishment’s complacency, providing political shocks and placing people like US president-elect Donald Trump and his ilk in positions of power in America, the UK and other European countries, with their xenophobia, populism and disdain for the liberal democracies built since World War Two.

Apprehension about this year applies also to South Africa for its own reasons. A major characteristic of 2016 was re-emergence of overt racism – it had never disappeared, but under Mandela’s rainbow nation spell had been submerged and politically incorrect.

But last year, highly publicised incidents ranged from white Durban estate agent Penny Sparrow’s tweet about blacks being like monkeys; Afrikaans farmers placing a black man in a coffin, threatening to set it alight and publishing a video on social media boasting of their act; EFF leader Julius Malema’s consistent anti-white rhetoric; and students at university campuses displaying posters with the words “fuck the whites”. South Africans fear racist antagonism will accelerate, stoked by populist politicians and thoughtless people using social media for their diatribes.

One thing South Africans have in their favour, however, is a basic decency and sense of humour. Coleman’s character Sheila Shler taps into that.

The society has a long way to go before apartheid’s racial legacy is overcome. A character like Sheila cannot solve it, but can hold up a mirror making people laugh uproariously in recognition of themselves, while being thoughtful about it. We look forward to more episodes of Sheila.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:


Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring


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:

Is Malema South Africa’s Trump?


Sounds of populism: Julius Malema (right) is greeted by cheering supporters during launch of the EFF manifesto at Orlando Stadium, Soweto, in May 2016

BY the time this column is read by many people the American elections will be over and the next United States president will have been chosen – Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The contempt for Trump by many is epitomised by Israeli peace activist and politician Uri Avnery, who said even if Trump had not said all the reckless things he has uttered, there was one overriding reason to reject him: “A sound. A sound I carry in my ears since my early childhood in Germany. The sound of hysterical crowds screaming after every sentence of the Leader.”

Jewish history tells where populist leaders can take people. Ironically, this column appears on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when throughout Nazi Germany on November 9-10, 1938, paramilitary forces and German civilians, motivated by the charismatic Adolf Hitler, vandalized synagogues, Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed Jews.

In South African politics, the Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema evokes the sounds Avnery talks about when he addresses masses of his red-garbed followers, or when he and his party members behave like thugs in Parliament. On Monday he addressed EFF supporters after his appearance in the Newcastle Magistrate’s Court, charged with contravention of the 1956 Riotous Assemblies Act for calling on black people to illegally occupy vacant land around the country. In June this year he told supporters that white people can’t claim ownership of land because it belongs to the country’s black African majority.

He said: “We are not calling for the slaughter of white people‚ at least for now… The rightful owners of the land are black people. No white person is a rightful owner of the land here in South Africa and the whole of the African continent.”

Predictably, other political parties reacted angrily: The Democratic Alliance said Malema’s violent language had no place in South Africa’s constitutional democracy; Freedom Front Plus chairman Pieter Groenewald said Malema’s comments are “hate speech” and created the potential for civil war.

At this point in South African politics, when a wide spectrum of people are desperate to get rid of President Jacob Zuma, Malema’s conduct is tolerated for political expediency, because he is also demanding Zuma’s ouster in a dramatic way.

His aspirations reach sky-high. One hears wry comments about “President Malema” one day occupying the country’s highest office. A 2014 performance by celebrated satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys called “Adapt or Fly” featured a Malema–like doll receiving advice from Hitler on his path to power. The show traversed South African history, providing disturbing analogies between early 1930s Germany and South Africa today. 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 hands of the Jews.’ Hitler appealed to millions of Germans who had no jobs after the First World War. Malema appeals to millions of South Africans who don’t have a job after the apartheid era.”

Black anger against white domination and land theft is justified. One only needs to go back to the Natives Land Act of 1913 which allocated about 7 per cent of arable land to blacks, leaving the more fertile land for whites and introducing territorial segregation into legislation for the first time since Union in 1910. Or apartheid’s Group Areas Act which allowed blacks to live only in designated black areas. To rectify these immoral laws’ consequences requires a legal and fair land restoration process. Malema’s utterances, however, are racist and if followed up could indeed provoke civil war.

Donald Trump’s offensive comments in the American presidential race about Mexicans, Muslims, migrants, women, and others feeds into the resurgence of jingoism and bigotry worldwide. The sounds evoked by hysterical, cheering followers of populists like Malema and Trump ultimately threatens everyone.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:

Getting rude and dirty with politicians should be fine – or not?


Mabulu with Zuma Gupta painting 2

Should public figures be fair game for sexual portrayal by artists to argue politics? Ayanda Mabulu has touched a sensitive button with his new paintings of Jacob Zuma

ATTEMPTS by SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng to censor the public broadcaster show one face of the question of how far freedom of expression should stretch. Another is revealed by contentious incidents in South Africa and Israel of sexual political paintings which have raised hackles and evoked praise.

Can political art be compared to critical journalism? Israel is a society where robust debate is inherent in its makeup – but the head of the art department of Tel Aviv’s Shenkar College, Larry Abramson, resigned this week to protest censorship of a student’s painting. It shows a naked woman bearing a representation of right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face, against a background of colourful drapery. The student said the work, intended for exhibition with final projects by graduating seniors, was meant to induce “discomfort” conveying nihilism and an “absence of a coherent position.” College president Yuli Tamir ordered that it should be excluded from the exhibition, or else the face should be blacked out.

Abramson told Haaretz that without freedom of expression “we don’t have an art school”. If, out of self-censorship, images are silenced or hidden, then “[how] can we advance critical, open and provocative debate, all the things for which art exists?”

Should it make a difference if the work portrays a man or woman? Tamir – a woman who was previously minister of culture and also of education – said censoring the painting was motivated not by Shaked’s politics but the judgment that the work was hurtful toward women generally in leadership roles in Israel. “As a woman who has [repeatedly] suffered from sexist attacks… I will not let it happen.”

Which takes us to some controversial paintings showing President Jacob Zuma in sexual poses. “The Spear”, by Brett Murray which was on exhibition in 2012 showed Zuma with genitals exposed, part of a solo show entitled “Hail to the Thief II”. The ANC threatened to sue for defamation and force Johannesburg’s Goodman gallery to remove the piece. It was later vandalised by visitors in the gallery.

This month, political paintings by artist Ayanda Mabulu were shown in an exhibition at Constitution Hill, one showing Zuma licking the naked posterior of billionaire businessman Atul Gupta, who has been accused of state capture. An ANC flag appears in the scene, which is a plane’s cockpit – a clear metaphor for capital flight from the country.

Mabulu defended his work saying he was “lashing the hands of the oppressor until they let loose.” He was opposed to “the hierarchical system where if you climb up, you can be looked at as a demigod, and we, the people on the ground, are looked at as nothing.”

In racially charged South Africa, the fact that Mabulu is black averted racism accusations. If he was white the outcome would probably have been more serious. Despite howls of protest on social media and elsewhere, the works remain untouched.

The incident reminds one of a work by cartoonist Zapiro in 2008 showing Zuma undoing his belt lasciviously while “Lady Justice” is being held down by his political cronies, apparently about to be raped. After its appearance Zuma started proceedings to sue Zapiro for infringing his dignity, but later withdrew.

What is the role of such lewd political artworks? Should they be banned out of respect for the person’s dignity? Or are they legitimate commentary which, if expressed in another medium – say words or film – would not raise such hackles? It comes with the territory of being a high-profile public figure that political adversaries can portray you in almost any manner.

In art as in journalism, the right to offend is inherent to freedom of expression. Once censorship begins, it is a dangerous slippery slope – epitomized by Motsoeneng forbidding SABC staff at a recent editorial workshop to question Zuma in coverage for next month’s elections, instructing them to “respect” him, because he is the president.

Does this mean he should be “untouchable”. The disrespect he has shown towards the people of this country has lost him the right to get respect in return. The portrayals of him by Mabulu, Zapiro and Murray – and others – are right on target.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:

Can arts pioneers outpace cultural barbarism in South Africa?


Waiting for the barbarians? Angus Taylor’s large work which has been permanently installed at Nirox sculpture park in the Cradle of Humankind. (Photo: Geoff Sifrin)

South Africans’ rage at President Jacob Zuma’s looting of the country for his own benefit, and the battle since December to protect the constitution, symbolised by Zuptagate and Nkandla, echoes another struggle for the country’s soul in art, music and other forms. The country’s citizens must ensure that the tide of anger and frustration does not obliterate precious things in its path. The burning of 23 artworks at the University of Cape Town during a student protest in February is an ominous portent.

In contrast to this cultural barbarism, South Africa also has visionaries cultivating South African art, such as entrepreneur Benji Liebmann, who established a huge sculpture garden in the Cradle of Humankind, north-west of Johannesburg, called Nirox. It is open to the public a few months each year, featuring works by celebrated sculptors such as Nandipha Mntambo, Hannelie Coetzee, Willem Boshoff and others, and offers residencies for selected artists to live there to produce works. In May, the festive opening for 2016 takes place. Equally bold, Liebmann’s son Jonathan is the developer of Maboneng arts precinct in Johannesburg’s CBD, where well-known and rising artists have studios.

South Africans should be highly sensitive to artworks’ desecration. As German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote prophetically in 1821: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

UCT’s vice chancellor Max Price faces an unenviable task in trying to hold the fort against destructive rampages born out of the students’ #RhodesMustFall movement. But it seems he has already surrendered a significant point of principle.

The university has reacted to student violence by taking down or covering dozens of its artworks that might be considered “offensive”. Its large collection includes 1,100 pieces displayed in 50 buildings on five campuses by 520 South African artists. The important Porer collection includes works by noted artists such as Steven Cohen, Cecil Skotnes, Pippa Skotnes,  Marion Arnold, Guy Tillim, Malcolm Payne, Mark Hipper and Paul Stopforth. Others include Diane Victor, who has expressed dismay at the covering of her work.

A UCT Task Team is assessing the collection through the prism of the “transformation” of the new South Africa, particularly seeking pieces which might offend for how they depict black people, and looking – according to its brief – for artworks that “may be seen to recognise or celebrate colonial oppressors”.

According to whose artistic viewpoint are these decisions being made? In recent weeks more than 70 works, some by the country’s best artists, have been taken down or covered. Among them, Willie Bester’s Saartjie Baartman and anti-apartheid playwright Breyten Breytenbach’s painting Hovering Dog. Others whose works have taken the chop include William Kentridge, Stanley Pinker and Zwelethu Mthethwa.

These dangerous trends have echoes from tragic history. During the Second World War in areas under Nazi control, Hitler sought to rid Europe of what he considered ‘degenerate art’. Hundreds of paintings were removed from museums, many eventually going up in flames in symbolic burnings. The Nazis also looted many of the best works of European art – the ones Hitler considered not degenerate.

European museum officials acted assertively. The Allied armies assembled a team of museum directors, curators, and art historians known as the “Monuments Men” who accompanied the forces, attempting to minimise damage to European monuments, architecture, and artworks. They also tracked down art stolen and hidden by the Nazis in hundreds of repositories in mines, castles and other places.

With South Africa’s history of white domination and contempt for black people, one can understand black students’ ire at pieces they find offensive. Some of UCT’s halls are adorned with portraits of dead white men in colonial mode, evoking discomfort. To add to this is the dominant colonial-era architecture, influencing the students’ experiences.

However, great art can come from anywhere, notwithstanding the artist’s politics. JH Pierneef’s landscape paintings, for example, are exceptional despite his racism and role in the Broederbond. His racial views on society might be offensive to many, but his art is highly acknowledged. Johannesburg’s Standard Bank Gallery recently hosted a major exhibition of his works.

For many Jews, Wagner’s music has been shunned because of his anti-Semitism and status as Hitler’s favourite composer. For years, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra did not play Wagner. Yet classical music without him would be infinitely poorer. And looking from the other side, some of the world’s greatest, provocative artists have been Jews, such as the Abstract Expressionists in New York in the 1940s – Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and others.

In South Africa, performance artist Steven Cohen has rocked many boats with his wildly provocative depictions of Jewish and South African themes. However, he has become a celebrated artist in France – where he now lives – and elsewhere, although still reviled by some.

South Africa’s cultural battle, like the political one, will be fought for many years to come. Its post-apartheid identity is in flux. The best art provokes questioning. If we only allow sanitised, politically correct works which toe the “party line”, society will be the worse for it. Art which disturbs must be countered not by destroying it, but producing other art.

Populist politicians pursuing their agendas through narrow racial prisms are rampant in South Africa. This is as dangerous in politics as it is in the arts.

At Nirox, there are magnificent works by sculptors such as Angus Taylor, which viewed through the narrow lens of racial rage, might be interpreted as “offensive” to some. With any luck, the burning mobs will not get there; or if they do, hopefully the lovers of great art will be there to protect them and the society’s cultural future.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email

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)

Whiteness and Jewishness smoulder in South Africa and France

haffajee book cover

The cover of Ferial Haffajee’s provocative new book on race and whiteness in South Africa asks penetrating questions about the country’s future

Raw nerves for Jewish South Africans will be touched by two new books published in France and South Africa, highlighting their uneasy identities as both Jews and whites. They are indicative of the confusing, scary times in which we live.

In France, popular Jewish author Eliette Abecassis’ novel “Alyah” probes the struggle of her wounded country still reeling from terrorist attacks, to protect her as a Jew. She asks: In the light of the growing anti-Semitism in France, can one still be both French and Jewish?

In the story, based on the author’s experiences, a Jewish teacher of French literature enters her classroom in a secular Paris school where most students are second- and third-generation North African immigrants. Abecassis’ parents also emigrated from Morocco in the late 1950s. A 15-year-old student immediately confronts her: “Teacher, are you a Jew-girl?… If you are a Jew-girl, does that mean you are a Zionist?”

She is shocked, as other students chime in aggressively: “She’s a Zionist! We will eliminate her!”; “And the Jews”; “There’s no difference!”; “It’s true, they are killing our brothers the Palestinians!”; “We’ll get rid of them all!”

French Jews have long viewed France as home. But the second intifada in Israel in 2000 caused a rift between the Muslim and Jewish communities of migrants from North Africa, who once had a cordial relationship. The former sided with the Palestinians, the latter with Israel. Ethnic antagonism multiplied and Jews were attacked.


Eliette Abecassis’ book asks whether it is still possible to be both French and Jewish

Through fear, Abecassis removed all external signs of her Jewishness in public places. She felt France betrayed her: “Until a few years ago, I did not understand that I was actually an exile in my country. France was my country, my culture, the definition of who I am and how I think. I thought our leaders would insure our security… The phrase ‘Jew and French’ was still possible. It almost exuded pride.”

Anti-Semitism is pushing Jews to leave France. Abecassis would like to continue writing in French and teaching French literature, and consider France her homeland. But she tells an intimate friend: “In 10 years, I will not be in France”.

He replies: “Then in 10 years, it will no longer be France.”

In South Africa, a book by Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, probes the sensitive race issue and “whiteness” in the country today, particularly white privilege, through stories from mostly black, middle class contributors. It is titled provocatively: “What If There Were No Whites in South Africa?”

One contributor, Milisuthando Bongela, a Rhodes alumnus who runs a feminist stokvel, tells of eavesdropping on a meeting in a Johannesburg cafe of “Jewish business people” who were discussing the production of teacups.

“Pure green jealousy settled inside me at the thought that these grown white men had the luxury of convening a business action about crockery,” he said. “And that they were probably going to make a lot of money from it. I tried to check the jealousy in me to understand why it was so buoyant, so relentless… The difference between them and me is that they inherited the peace of mind to craft and contemplate teacups on a Wednesday afternoon. I inherited the responsibility of discovering, addressing and solving a race, gender and class disparity I did not create.”

Non-racialism is a complicated, elusive South African ideal. Haffajee said in an interview: “When I grew up, that was what we staked our identity on, a non-racial future, which meant that… the eventual outcome of where I see you goes beyond the amount of melanin that you have in you. I see you for what you are as a human being.”

But things are in many ways going in the opposite direction. Negative racial stereotyping is growing. Recognising the racial problems of South Africa, the inequality and staggering unemployment among blacks, she notes ominously: “There is a substantial narrative, and it is largely but not only white, that is waiting for South Africa to fail.”

The subtext, obviously, is the notion some whites hold that blacks cannot run a country. The next five years, she says, “will separate out those with a pessimistic take and those of us who want our country to succeed.”

As we approach 2016, the bogeymen of racial and ethnic animosity are taking on more openly expressed forms than they have for a long time. For this country, the question begs itself: If there were no whites, would South Africa still be South Africa? The road ahead differs depending on one’s answer.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. This article was first published in the SAJR on December 9, 2015)