Paid-for racism: SA democracy shows its teeth


Sabotaging South Africa’s non-racial dream: Atul Gupta, a member of the family accused of looting state coffers and controlling President Zuma’s government for their own enrichment, has been helped by London PR firm Bell Pottinger to stoke racial tensions in the country

WHILE it seems incredible that in a racially charged society like ours someone would purposely stoke black-white tensions, for enough money some people will do anything. The London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger (BP) has done that for a fee of about $170,000 a month: it fashioned racially divisive slogans, speeches and activities for the mafia network of President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family, to divert South Africans’ attention so they could continue looting state coffers behind the smokescreen.

This perilous ethnic baiting is familiar to Jewish ears. For centuries, when they were on good terms with their gentile neighbours, they suddenly heard someone say: “Jews are vermin and Christ-killers.” The Holocaust is the most blatant example of the violence that followed, but there are others. It also happened in Rwanda in 1994 when Tutsis were called “cockroaches” as part of a campaign of delegitimisation, and some 800 000 were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbours.

It boggles the mind that so soon after Mandela’s rainbow-nation dream seemed within reach – South Africa’s black-white relations have improved, despite huge problems – someone should purposely undermine it by dredging up racist hatred from colonialism and apartheid.

Hired by the Gupta family in 2016, BP has advised them and their associates about how to protect their image. Attacks on their pervasive corruption were blamed on “white monopoly capital” and other populist slogans which resonated with the angry masses. White journalists who criticised them were called racists and threatened by groups such as Black First Land First, reportedly funded by the Guptas and tutored by BP.

In the past, BP has helped shine the images of dictators such as Augusto Pinochet of Chile and oppressive regimes in Belarus, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then it saw an opportunity in South Africa and grabbed it.

It may seem inappropriate in this gloomy atmosphere to drink a toast to ourselves. But we should. Because although the war to rescue the country from the Guptas and Zumas and their henchmen has not yet been fully won, there have been significant partial victories.

After being exposed, BP has crawled on its knees and publically apologised, admitting to unethical tactics and expressing “profound regret.” Its apology is clearly insufficient and reflects only the tip of the iceberg. The saga should be used to expose other saboteurs of South Africa’s vision and force them to make amends.

When foreigners come visiting, their local hosts tell them things look bleak. A corrupt president clings to power, a foreign family pulls government strings, the economy is plunging, violence is rising, whites feel like a threatened minority, and so on. The old question, “should I stay or go?” hangs in the air. Many have left the country; more would leave if they had the resources.

Yet if the foreign visitor was Canadian and had read last Friday’s Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto, he might have a more positive view. The paper described the “humbling” by the country of Bell Pottinger which had “met its match in the free-wheeling democracy of South Africa” with its “vibrant media and civil-society sector.”

The positive angle has lots of truth in it. Widespread public outrage and action in civil society and some parts of government are rising sharply as more evidence of the Zuma-Gupta contagion emerges. And although the scary spectre of the country sliding towards a Zimbabwe-style kleptocracy has seemed less outlandish recently than it once did, South Africans are not passive Zimbabweans and will not let it happen.

Hopefully, one day visitors from abroad will toast the success of this wonderful country with South Africans and celebrate the vanquishing of criminals such as the Zumas and Guptas and their enablers, BP.

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

But some of my best friends are black!


Are we friends? Mandela envisioned a South African ‘rainbow nation’ with deep interracial friendships, but young blacks today regard their dignity as more important than having a white friend

ONE of the ugliest racial incidents of 2016 occurred last month when two white Afrikaans farmers near Middelburg sadistically forced a young black man into a coffin, pushed the lid down and threatened him with setting the coffin alight, because he took a shortcut over their farm. They videoed their act and put it on YouTube, with the victim’s terrified cries clearly heard on the soundtrack.

Most South Africans were disgusted and wished the worst on the white men when they appeared in court. Indeed, the experience of most people in urban areas today – South Africa is a highly urbanised society – is the opposite: a remarkable degree of kindliness and warm-heartedness between blacks and whites.

Frans Cronje, CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations says within most South Africans there exists a “vast well of common decency and mutual respect across the colour line”, despite the country’s brutal racial history and politicians attempting to turn people against each other. He quotes a 2016 poll asking people whether “the different races need each other for progress and there should be full opportunity for people of all races”. Nearly 84 per cent of people in mainly black urban areas said yes. In informal areas and shack settlements almost 90 per cent agreed. Among white people just over 80 per cent agreed.

But what about personal friendships between black and white? Last Monday marked three years since Nelson Mandela died, and anyone who witnessed the scores of black and white people hugging, crying and dancing together in the road outside his house in Houghton, Johannesburg that day would have thought he had made it possible for skin colour not to matter anymore. In the beautiful nation he envisaged, blacks and whites would not just tolerate each other, but become friends in the deeper sense.

Sadly, it has not happened on a mass scale, despite many people’s best intentions. The power relationship between blacks and whites is too skewed, not a good foundation for genuine friendship. In the main, whites are still too wealthy and powerful compared to their black compatriots.

How many people in the minority white communities – whether Greek, Jewish, Afrikaans, or others – have personal black friends? Not just colleagues at work, or familiar waiters in restaurants with whom they exchange greetings, but actual friends with whom they socialise, share intimacies and spend lots of time. Very few. Superficial, contrived friendships are not enough to show that racism has gone.

Indeed, those sorts of light friendships referred to above ring alarm-bells for Jews who have often heard Jew-haters loudly proclaiming how many Jews they know, as if this proves their non-racial credentials: “You can’t say I’m anti-Semitic, because some of my best friends are Jews!”

Sisonke Msimang, a Ruth First Fellow in Journalism at Wits University posed a tough question in the book Ties that Bind: Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa. She asked whether, as Mandela’s rainbow nation myth recedes, reconciliation in South Africa still requires interracial friendships as a barometer of the nation’s health. From a black perspective, she says, black dignity may be more important than having white friends.

“The power imbalances [between blacks and whites] are too great, the possibilities for manipulation and domination… are simply too high…” Many young black people today, she says, are saying that friendship with whites is not a goal for them – we must instead be guided by the need for black people to live dignified, equal lives commensurate with whites.

They are only half right. Friendship cannot wait for the politics and economics to sort itself out. It is as urgent as equality. The foul coffin farmers and their ilk mentioned above cannot be allowed to derail it.

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


South African theatre points the way on this wild ride


What makes a South African? Can theatre help the people of this tortured country get past their history and look each other in the eye, as in the play Suddenly the Storm?

THE last few weeks’ Orwellian rollercoaster in South African politics shows how confused this country is about itself and where it’s going. Set against the smoke and noise on the national stage, Mandela’s Rainbow Nation seems like an old black-and-white movie we once saw in a bioscope where we ate popcorn and cheered, and which we remember as “the good old days”. The actors and plots about the freedom struggle are like a folk legend, as we question what it means to be South African nowadays.

Most countries, old or new, face this question in one way or another. Donald Trump’s astounding rise in the politics of the United States to where he stands a chance of becoming the next president, has caused millions of Americans to re-examine who they really are and what they share as a nation. Is that crude buffoon truly the face of America?

Israel’s creation 68 years ago was driven by radically different narratives of what Zionism meant. Would the new Israel be epitomised by a suntanned secular kibbutznik ploughing the fields at day and reading poetry at night? A religious Jew returning to his Holy Land? A haven against anti-Semitism after the Holocaust? Or something else? Vigorous contestation about what it is to be Israeli continues today.

South Africa is also a new country, post-apartheid and post-Mandela. Who are its people now, as they stumble from crisis to crisis? Will EFF leader Julius Malema’s anti-white demagoguery, the white estate agent Penny Sparrow in Durban referring to blacks on the beach as monkeys, and furious black students burning books as they demand decolonisation of universities, forever be the dominant tunes to which they sing? Is President Jacob Zuma in essence a tribal chief dispensing patronage to his subjects, as he seems to think, with a Divine right to rule the country?

Great art may often hold a mirror to society, warts and all. Three excellent recent plays in Johannesburg by local writers portray the challenge of South Africans in finding each other through their anger and conflicted histories. The first, called “I See You”, by Mongiwekhaya, portrays a young black law student named Ben at Wits University who was taken out of South Africa as a very young child, grew up in England and hardly speaks his parents’ Zulu language or knows their culture. He meets a flirtatious white woman, and while in the car they are stopped by the police. A black cop, a bitter man who calls himself a “comrade” of the Struggle who has not benefitted from it in any way, assaults Ben viciously and mocks him for not speaking Zulu and for his flimsy cultural identity, as if he is a traitor, while Ben rattles on about his “rights”.

Another, called “Suddenly The Storm”, by Paul Slabolepszy, exposes the tortured feelings of a white former apartheid policeman who, during those dark days, did the unthinkable by falling in love with a black woman, who was also in love with him and with whom he conceived a child. She left him precipitously one day in a desperate attempt to protect him, telling her family he had raped her, and went into exile with a new husband, where she died after many years. During the performance set in post-apartheid South Africa, a dignified, beautiful woman arrives one day at the old policeman’s dingy house and reveals that she is his daughter. A torrent of feelings emerges in them both, transcending the tortuous categories of white and black.

The third play called “Dop” by Retief Scholtz, is set in a bar where the barman is a young Afrikaner who was taken as a child to Australia when his parents emigrated to escape South Africa’s political chaos, and has come back to find himself. An old, lonely Afrikaner enters the bar, and as he consumes dop after dop of brandy, getting completely drunk, a heartfelt connection develops between them concerning love and identity.

After all that has happened in the country, it will take far more than a generation to tie together the threads of humanity between South Africans, so they can actually see each other. Hopefully, Mandela’s vision will not remain just an old black and white movie.

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

Brexit’s true devil resonates in South Africa

(2) Participants in a Johannesburg march protesting xenophobic attacks in Soweto, April 2015 - Image MOELETSI MABE

Can we stop hating the “other”? Participants in a Johannesburg march protesting xenophobic attacks in Soweto, April 2015 – Image by Moeletsi Mabe

MANY people are suffering Brexit fatigue under the deluge of commentary following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Economists reassure us the financial consequences for South Africa might be harsh, but are manageable given our financial institutions’ strength.

The true devil, however, is the spirit of populist nationalism and hatred of the “other” growing worldwide – not just in Europe, but also South Africa where Mandela’s rainbow nation dream seems to be giving way to the opposite – racism and rage.

Europe still has sinister historical connotations in the Jewish psyche – including among SA Jews whose forebears derive mainly from Lithuania. Murky memories of pogroms, ghettos, blood libels and the Holocaust, intermingle with Europe’s brighter face – its cultural brilliance and achievements. With the rise of right wing nationalism, is Europe swinging back to its dark side?

One target of the British who voted for Brexit is the wave of Muslim immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, aside from Polish and other workers from the EU. The Twitterverse is booming with racist 140-character narratives telling people labelled as the “other” to “go back to your own country”. It is matched across the Atlantic by the bizarre phenomenon of loony US presidential hopeful Donald Trump with his “Take back America” sloganeering.

The sensitive Jewish hate-antennae developed over centuries have begun to quiver. History shows that once loathing of the “other” takes over a society, Jew-hatred invariably becomes part of the tide. For the European haters of today, the hijab and the kippah are not that different. The French example is indicative: The Jerusalem Post reported this month that according to a 2015 survey, over 40 per cent of French Jews are contemplating immigration to Israel because of anti-Semitism in France.

Is there a South African parallel here? Racial antagonism is obviously writ large in our apartheid and colonial history, but it is also no secret that xenophobia is prevalent in the South Africa of today, two decades after apartheid. Regularly during outbreaks of violence – as in Tshwane (Pretoria) two weeks ago – foreign nationals from other African countries, or people from other tribal origins have been targeted and sometimes killed and their shops and homes looted. Deputy President Cyril Ramophosa warned after Tshwane about the dangerous rise of tribal tensions.

In political life, different ethnic groups – including Jews and other minorities – feel increasingly insecure in the face of verbal and sometimes physical attacks. Calls to “kill the whites”, “decolonise” everything, and similar expressions are matched by racist remarks from whites like Penny Sparrow who calls blacks monkeys, adding to the poisonous mix. Populist EFF leader Julius Malema’s anti-white rhetoric is chilling. One of the cries of protestors against the ANC’s mayoral candidates list in Tshwane was that they didn’t want a Zulu mayor – the ANC candidate, Thoko Didiza, is Zulu.

Who will stop South Africa exploding into the racial and ethnic war Mandela’s generation tried so hard to avoid? Leadership determines much of the course of history. The vacuum of leadership in South Africa cannot last, but President Jacob Zuma is not the man to lead the way. Contrast his behavior with British PM David Cameron who resigned immediately after the Brexit vote, saying the country needed “fresh leadership”.

Zuma, despite the High Court ruling that he must face close to 800 counts of corruption, and the Constitutional Court’s finding that he seriously violated the Constitution, simply carries on, lacking credibility or vision aside from seeking power and personal gain.

South Africa – the “miracle nation” – has bucked the trend before and defied negative expectations. Brexit is a victory of demagoguery, not democracy. Let’s hope we can defy that option as well.

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