Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

Mogoeng and Zuma 3

Building legal walls: In some places the outer image of politics is physical walls, in others it is the law. South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is increasingly called upon to rein in errant politicians such as President Zuma (above), while US President Donald Trump poses similar challenges to the law in his country

TWO presidents who excel in shamelessness loom over South Africans’ minds today: the United States’ Donald Trump and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Both are unpredictable, of questionable ethics, arrogant and cannot admit they are wrong; neither are very intelligent and both are damaging their countries.

When Trump arrives in Israel on Monday after visiting Saudi Arabia and before going to the Vatican – his trip encompasses key centres of Islam, Judaism and Christianity – he enters a minefield that has stymied the dreams of previous US presidents who wanted to go down historically as having ended the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump touts himself as the ultimate deal-maker. Does he have a policy or is he winging it? Does he favour a two state solution, or will he give West Bank settlers the carte blanche he implied during his campaign which led far-right Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who opposes a Palestinian state – to proclaim “The Palestinian flag has been lowered from the flagpole” and Culture Minister Miri Regev to declare jubilantly, “Obama is history, now we have Trump!”

They may be disappointed. Last week a senior member of the US delegation making preparations for Trump’s visit outraged Israelis by saying Jerusalem’s western wall – the kotel – is “not your territory, it’s part of the West Bank.” Although the White House said it was unauthorised, tempers ran high. Trump after all believes in walls: he wants to build them around America to keep Mexicans and other “undesirables” – such as Muslims – out.

His arrival coincides with the 50-year anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War victory over invading Arab armies and dismantling of the wall which split Jerusalem for 19 years. The war’s consequences have divided Jews worldwide ever since. Many on the right believe the victory was God-inspired; others on the left, while celebrating Israel’s survival, see it as the beginning of the bitter Palestinian occupation, which has even resulted in Israel building a long wall separating it from the West Bank to prevent terrorism. Israel won the war but has yet to win the peace, in contrast to the Berlin wall’s falling in 1989 which re-united Germany.

Trump seems an unlikely person to bring resolution. But with such a maverick, no-one knows what may emerge.

At home, South Africans are trying to build a different kind of wall – a legal one – to hold off Zuma’s bizarre behaviour and prevent the country’s decline into another African kleptocracy like Zimbabwe. Clearly the president has gone rogue and no longer cares what citizens or ANC members think of him. Meanwhile, a South African equivalent of the Arab Spring threatens to erupt as extreme poverty and inequality become too much for the masses to bear while political leaders luxuriate in expensive mansions at state expense.

There are spots of hope. Such as Monday’s fascinating constitutional court debate over whether the coming no-confidence motion against Zuma in Parliament should be conducted by secret ballot, as opposition parties are demanding. This would allow ANC members who oppose him to vote freely without fear of recrimination.

The concourt remains a fiercely independent bastion of democracy – a legal wall against Zuma’s abuse of his position. Will it hold? Last year the court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution when he ignored a report of the public protector that he should pay back public money spent upgrading his private homestead, Nkandla. When Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng delivered the judgement, loud cheers permeated the nation which is sick and tired of the president’s thievery.

Zuma was eventually forced to repay some of the money. Yet shamelessly, he did not resign, nor did his party, the ANC, force him to do so. He continued on his path, thinking the fallout from the affair would blow over. Since then the courts have been increasingly inundated with petitions from political parties and NGOs such as the Helen Suzman Foundation aimed at curbing the corruption and maladministration of Zuma’s regime.

Both Trump and Zuma see their countries’ constitutions as an inconvenience rather than a jewel to be cherished. Both recently fired – literally overnight – very senior public figures for what seems like selfish reasons. Trump fired FBI head James Comey apparently for pursuing an investigation of Trump’s links to the Russians; Zuma fired respected South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who was holding the fort against the economy’s collapse but was blocking Zuma’s personal ambitions. Opposition to both men is rising and may eventually bring them down.

What comes after them, of course, is anyone’s guess.

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

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Can Israel-Palestine beat half century peace deadline, as SA did?

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Tears for the enemy? Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas seems to be holding back tears at the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, September 30, 2016. Photo i24news

WHEN a senior Johannesburg rabbi this week eulogised the late former Israeli president Shimon Peres for successfully mediating in his lifetime between the opposite poles of political realism involving military force, and resolute belief in the possibility of Israeli-Palestinian peace, he remarked that it is now 40 years since the 1976 Entebbe raid where Israeli commandos flew 4000 km to rescue Israeli hostages at Uganda’s airport.

They were being held there by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which had hijacked an airliner bound for Paris and diverted it to Entebbe. Peres played an important role behind the scenes in approving the commando raid, which some army people thought was so risky that it was doomed to end catastrophically.

But this only gives a tiny glimpse into the anguished history of that region. Indeed, Israel and Palestine – just like historical South Africa – have been in a desperate quest for peace for many decades.

Numerous religious leaders from different faiths in South Africa have taken sides over the years on the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, for example, has been harshly critical of Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians. Other Christian leaders such as Rev Kenneth Meshoe, leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, defend Israel vigorously, saying its security needs have left it no choice but to maintain control over the Palestinian territories. Muslim clerics for the most part support the Palestinian viewpoint.

The rabbi’s comments came during his sermon at a large Johannesburg synagogue for the Jewish New Year, which is traditionally seen as a time of taking stock and making new beginnings.

It is an astonishing fact that in nine months’ time it will be 50 years – half a century! – that Israelis and Palestinians have existed in an occupier/occupied relationship in the West Bank and Gaza. Several generations of Palestinians and Israelis have lived their entire lives in this reality, for which both sides are blameable, each pointing the finger at the other. Ending this deadlock with an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel is a dream Peres – who died last month – did not see fulfilled, despite tireless engagement with leaders in the conflict including Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Arabs and others. One notable person at his funeral was Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, who was criticised by other Palestinian leaders for being there.

In the 1967 Six Day War Jewish volunteers from all over the world – including South Africa – flocked to Israel to help defeat the combined Arab countries’ attempt to destroy it. The war, which Israel won in six days, resulted in Israel taking over the West Bank and Gaza from Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively, and holding onto them for its security needs. Later, Jewish settlements proliferated there, making a complicated situation even more complicated.

What Israel and these idealistic Diaspora Jewish volunteers never envisaged is that 50 years after that war, there would still be no genuine peace with the Palestinians and Arab world. Even Egypt, after nearly four decades of formal peace, still harbours in its society a deep hatred for Israel.

In 2003 Peres told a Jewish audience at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium that when he was younger, he used to believe Israel would end its problems with the Palestinians and Arab world long before South Africa solved its problems – that the South African situation under apartheid was so intractable, it could only result in an extended racial bloodbath into the foreseeable future.

Contrary to his view, South Africa is now a stable democracy, notwithstanding rumblings making it wobble ominously from time to time. Despite the ineptitude and corruption characterising its first two decades of democracy, basic democratic institutions are intact, such as an independent judiciary and free press. Student protests currently taking place at universities for fee-free higher education are expressions of these democratic liberties, even if disturbing, violent excesses sometimes occur from both sides, including students and law enforcement agencies.

Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on, with peace-dreamers seeming like Sisyphus rolling a boulder up a hill which always falls down again. Most countries and people, including the majority of Israelis and Jews worldwide, accept that the only viable answer is the two-state solution. This includes South Africa, which maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel and cooperation with its ambassador, as well as welcoming a Palestinian ambassador.

Going back to the rabbi’s New Year message of hope: Is it possible that before reaching a full half-century of deadlock over control of the Palestinian territories there can be a turn towards a new reality? That rabbis will be able to celebrate not only “miraculous” events like the Six Day War victory and the Entebbe rescue, but also an end to the corrosive yoke both sides carry by being occupier and occupied?

Given current world events, it is clear progress does not depend only on Israelis and Palestinians. The Syrian mayhem, rise of ISIS-inspired terrorism, the buffoon Donald Trump potentially becoming leader of the world’s most powerful nation, and other bizarre developments are just some.

But if religious leaders can influence the goals their followers strive for, Israeli-Palestinian peace before the half-century is reached would be a worthy one.

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