Will this be the politicians’ year of the toxic tweet?


Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking of consequences before pressing the Twitter send button, causing embarrassment and outrage among allies and enemies

OF THE three state leaders most relevant to South Africans with Israeli links for this coming year, not one is particularly likeable or inspires confidence for a better world.

United States president-elect Donald Trump, with no political experience, is like a schoolboy constantly looking for what outrageous thing to say next, but who prides himself on straight-talking and how he will make the world’s global superpower, America, “great” again. South African President Jacob Zuma, and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are the opposite – veteran political street-fighters skilled in manipulative phraseology. They have both been in office a long time, are disliked by much of their populace, yet still wield enormous power.

After Trump has settled in at the White House, it’s anybody’s guess what the consequences for the world – and South Africa – will be. The checks and balances in US politics will prevent him acting only by whim, but he can set the tone. Last week he outraged the CIA by tweeting accusations that the US intelligence community was reminiscent of Nazi Germany because of leaks about compromising data Russia allegedly has against him. Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking before clicking the Twitter send button, and the CIA director made no bones about his contempt for the man, saying on Fox News: “Spontaneity is not something that protects national security interests”.


Jacob Zuma’s race-baiting is designed to boost ANC fortunes after its dismal performance in government

Zuma doesn’t shoot from the hip like Trump, but his vacuous utterances are laden with tired slogans as he looks towards the African National Congress’ December conference to choose a new president. His race-baiting and repeated accusations that the country’s ills derive from white monopoly capital are dangerous, as he plays victim against the “wit gevaar”. As if he and the ANC have done a sterling job – which they haven’t.

His expedient attacks on the political opposition aim to boost the ANC’s fortunes among the electorate, such as slamming Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane for visiting Israel last week and being photographed with Netanyahu against a South African flag. Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa tweeted the picture, labelling their Jerusalem meeting as “excellent”. Maimane fell naively into Zuma’s trap by not anticipating negative exploitation of his trip, which first went public through Twitter.


Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest scandals have predictably provoked a Twitter fire-storm

In Israel the country’s Twitter universe has gone into overdrive, threatening Netanyahu’s power because of his alleged deal-making with mass circulation daily Yedioth Achronot for favourable coverage in exchange for financial benefits. Netanyahu is a fighter and won’t resign easily, however, and the agendas of groups such as the West Bank settlers are heavily invested in him staying in office. But most Israelis are tired of him, not just for ideological hypocrisy, but his profligate lifestyle – police are investigating alleged bribery by wealthy friends.

Politics doesn’t progress in a straight line, and nothing is certain. An old Yiddish expression says: Men tracht un G-t lacht (English translation: “Man plans and G-d laughs”).

The way things turn out this year could hinge on a fascinating new phenomenon – how the ubiquitous 140-character Twitter messages which have assumed disruptive power that most politicians don’t yet appreciate, are being used with abandon by presidents and prime ministers themselves. Democracy is manipulated these days not only by potential fascists, but the “mobocracy” of social media. A tweet from a careless or mischievous source goes viral in seconds, influencing millions regardless of its veracity in this era of “post-truth” politics.

Trump’s tweets – many of them definitely post-truth – are taken seriously, bizarre as they are. As are those of Netanyahu and Zuma’s acolytes.

It is likely that a year from now, as we enter 2018, these three state leaders will have impacted heavily – either from their actions or how they exit the stage.

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


Poets and populists: Ring the bells that still can ring


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: geoffs@icon.co.za)

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: geoffs@icon.co.za)

South Africa’s solution is “Blowin’ in the Wind”


Bob Dylan.jpg

Does Bob Dylan resonate for turbulent South Africa? His poetry which won him a Nobel Prize matches apartheid liberation songs, and echoes the rage of today’s young generation. (Photo: Kevin Mazur)

A STIRRING consequence of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for literature is the reminder that turbulent times may produce great poets who express rage and dreams so lyrically that they lift the soul, as Dylan did with his words and music.

It was equally true during South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, when liberation songs with potent words and melodies gave people the strength to carry on. A collection of dozens of these freedom songs was beautifully captured in the 2002 documentary film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, winner of the Audience Award and the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. It features original recordings and new live performances by trumpeter Hugh Masakela, singer Miriam Makeba, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, guitarist Vusi Mahlasela, and others.

When Nelson Mandela died, masses of people gathered outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, and rather than standing mournfully on the pavement, sang praise songs and danced in the street to celebrate his life, despite their feelings of loss. It was a natural expression.

The contemporary political chaos in South Africa has not produced its own “Dylan” yet, but interspersed among the people protesting the situation are poets and balladeers who we will hear more of in the future.

In Dylan’s heyday in the 1960s and 70s, students and hippies promoted free love, slammed the establishment, protested against the older generation’s wars and hypocrisy, smoked marijuana and used LSD to get high. And they saw themselves as the vanguard of a better world. South African students protesting countrywide today for free higher education and a better South Africa are not always clear in their goals, partly because they are young and unformed – like the American students of the 1960s were – but are acting on instincts echoing Dylan’s song: “The Times they are a-Changing”.

The naivety of some members of the “Fallist” student movement – a general term for those fighting for fees to fall and education to be “decolonised” –  is epitomised by a video clip posted on YouTube last week which by Monday had garnered 430 000 hits. In it, an impassioned black student tells the University of Cape Town science faculty that it should “decolonise” science by doing away with it entirely and “starting all over again”.

Science is a product of western modernity and should be scrapped, “especially in Africa” she said. She cited a place in KZN called Umhlab’uyalingana where they believe that through magic “…you are able to send lightning to strike someone.” Scientific explanations don’t work, she says, “because it’s something that happens.”

Laughs aside, what is happening among the youth has a very serious angle. Despite their often misdirected energies, violence, and attempts to force universities to suspend academic programmes, this born-free generation sees historical wrongs done to blacks through white supremacy and colonialism, and want to rectify them. They are challenging the status quo of blacks’ economic exclusion and cultural oppression by “western colonialists”. These are noble goals, even if understood too simplistically by many in this complicated country with its huge social challenges.

Dylan rose from the crucible of angry American students. Now 75, he was raised in a Jewish community in the state of Minnesota, attended Zionist camps in Wisconsin, became a born-again Christian in the 1970s, and returned to his Jewish roots in the ’80s. He held his eldest son Jesse’s barmitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 1983. In later decades he participated in holiday services at Chabad synagogues.

It is an understatement to say we live in crazy times worldwide, epitomized by the buffoon Donald Trump coming close to being the president of the world’s most powerful country, and South Africa reeling under its local version of Trump in President Jacob Zuma.

Many South African students have never even heard of Bob Dylan, and would instinctively regard him as a western colonial import. But his iconic songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” apply in this country as much as they did in his 1970s America.

Dylan’s young generation didn’t succeed in changing the world – the success of today’s Trumps and Zumas testify to that. But he held up a searing mirror to society. South African students, with their often-irrational fury, are now doing the same.

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

Heed South African universities’ desperate cry for help


Should a university education be free for all? Students protest university fee hikes at a rally in Cape Town, South Africa, Oct. 22, 2015.

WHEN University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price addressed a Limmud session recently titled “Quo Vadis? The future of higher education in South Africa”, his body language showed a very worried man. Since then, the threat facing the higher education sector has worsened, with violent protests about fees and “decolonisation” causing university campuses countrywide to close.

The demand for free education at universities simply cannot be met at present. Neither the universities nor the government can afford it. Fees are a crucial part of what keeps the universities going, and with all the other urgent demands facing it, the Treasury cannot afford to fill the gap beyond what it is already doing. But it is a matter of priorities, and one positive effect the protests are having is to force the country to re-examine where it is going.

The Freedom Charter which guided the liberation movements during the anti-apartheid struggle stipulated that “Education should be  free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”. But does this include university education? Says the Charter: “Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.”

The minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, has ruled that for poorer students there will be no hike in fees for the coming year, and that for richer students the hike should not exceed 8 per cent.

Two decades after the fall of apartheid, the way democratic South Africa is failing its youth shames us as a nation. Not just at university level, but also the abysmal standard of basic education in government schools, which are indeed free, but a huge percentage of which are dysfunctional – which means that many young people who do make it into a university are ill-equipped to meet the intellectual demands.

The Wits employee – a cleaner, not even a student – who died last week as a result of rampaging students releasing a fire extinguisher in a hall at a residence stands as a symbol of how this country is self-destructing.

A slogan during the anti-apartheid struggle used by student protestors proclaimed “No education before liberation”, as they threatened to make the country “ungovernable”. It destroyed the personal dreams of a generation of young people. Now others are screaming “Free education‚ or no education at all”, making universities ungovernable – and the country by implication – and putting another generation at risk.

The absence of a national leadership with real moral authority means the violent mobs – who are a small minority of the total student population – cannot be steered in a constructive direction. The pervasive ethos in today’s South Africa that there is no accountability for breaking the law fostered by President Jacob Zuma and his corrupt cronies, tells students and the hoodlums joining them that they can do anything – including burning libraries, buses and other property, and attacking people – without consequences.

Price’s announcement on Sunday of UCT’s suspension of its academic programme, essentially shutting down the university – similar to what Wits and other universities have done – to ensure students’ and staff’s safety while trying to negotiate with the protestors, was a disgraceful capitulation. A declaration by the government of an educational state of emergency would not be out of place.

The desperate letters to university authorities from students who are being prevented from studying by the protestors, pleading for order to be restored, are heartbreaking. Some have been made public, but without the writers’ names to protect them from reprisals. Which shows how much rage exists in our society and how incapable our leaders are of channelling the enormous energy of this crisis to achieve something worthwhile.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions for the failure to deliver on promises South Africa made to its youth two decades ago, but the ANC and its corrupt leadership must carry a lot of the blame. The billions that have gone into the pockets of sleazy politicians and have been wasted through incompetency could have been spent on education, helping the poor and reducing inequality.

Price began his Limmud talk by speaking drily and academically about the mini-revolution which began 18 months ago with UCT’s #RhodesMustFall movement, to remove the statue of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the campus, and questioned the university’s “colonial” architecture which conveys the message: “Only this is excellence”. As if our local cultures and achievements did not qualify.

The topic was thought-provoking, but avoided the real crisis. Then an angry man stood up from the floor, said he was a UCT graduate and expressed fury at the decline of his alma mater. Many readers of this column are also graduates of the South African universities which are drowning in chaos. Some of them run big corporations today, and should consider making their premises available to students who want to study rather than destroy.

If anything positive is to come out of this travesty, perhaps it is represented by the poll of students Wits has embarked on to gauge what percentage want to resume studying rather than destroying their university. It is believed most of them are desperate to have the campuses re-opened. Democracy – verified by the IEC – may be the thing that saves us, as long as the government will commit to enforcing the poll’s results. Democracy, after all, is what the struggle stalwarts fought for in defeating apartheid, not mob rule.

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

Shocking visuals – will the real editor please stand up?

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Too shocking to watch? A public bus torched in Tshwane during violent demonstrations against the ANC’s choice of a mayoral candidate in local elections in August. Five people were killed in the protests.

AN ENCOURAGING outcome from SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s crude attempt to censor visuals of “bad” news and give South Africans sunshine journalism portraying the ANC in a good light, is the massive outcry against him. Eminent journalists, communications regulator ICASA, the public protector Tuli Madonsela, former SABC board members and even members of the ANC have got involved in combatting his abuse of his powers at the public broadcaster.

Images can be highly provocative, of course, and the media should not be a free-for-all in which any visual, however grotesque, should be aired. Editors face tough decisions when reporting on violence and bloodshed – Motsoeneng, however, is not an editor and should not be making editorial policy.

Responsible media channels are – or should be – careful in how they show visuals which violate the dignity and privacy of people who have gone through terrorist bombings or other traumatic events tearing them apart. Where to draw the line is not a rule set in stone, however – different editors will make different judgments in different circumstances.

Should a bereaved Israeli mother sobbing over the coffin of her murdered teenage daughter be shown to millions of anonymous viewers worldwide? Should a body with its head blown off by a suicide bomber be shown? Most good editors would be careful about how they use such visual material. At the very least, responsible media should give adequate warning to viewers about the disturbing nature of material they publish.

Political agendas may play a role in the editor’s decision and sometimes override considerations of dignity. For example, the shocking images published in May 2008 of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave being set alight by a mob in Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand during a xenophobic rampage, served an important role in raising revulsion among citizens and authorities and stopping the attacks – although there have been subsequent similar attacks.

Likewise, the horrifying image – which immediately went viral on social media – of a Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach as thousands of refugees fled the Syrian civil war in rickety boats, played an important role in making people worldwide understand how desperate was the refugees’ plight.

What the SABC has done, however, has nothing to with editorial sensitivity or respect for human dignity. In banning images of mobs burning government and other buildings and property, and claiming that this is to prevent viewers being influenced to do the same, the aim is to prevent people understanding how catastrophic ANC rule has been for this country, and how angry South Africans are about not receiving what the party promised them year after year. When mobs burn down tens of schools in Vuwani, torch public buses in Tshwane, and engage in similar acts, they are expressing their rage.

Sadly, these kinds of violent actions have almost become a norm in South Africa today, where people feel they will only be listened to if they become violent, burn things or kill people. This poses grave dangers to the country. South Africans are in the main extremely generous and warm-hearted, but a poison has taken root in the society. Strong leadership is needed to turn the ship of violence around – or else we will see more scenes like the burning Mozambican.

Motsoeneng is said to be close to President Jacob Zuma and has an interest in protecting him. But it’s incredible that the people running the public broadcaster from whom 7 million people receive their news, still think they can get away with censorship and sunshine journalism in the era of the internet. What kind of bubble do they live in? Hopefully the saga will end with him being fired together with his board of lackeys. Perhaps this saga might even be the tipping point when South Africans say “Enough!” to Zuma and his cronies and their contempt for the law?

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

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: geoffs@icon.co.za)

SA’s politics of rage – please don’t burn our books!


Is apartheid still to blame for South Africa’s dysfunctional schools? A child walks to school in 2013 in the Eastern Cape. Photo: AFP/Jennifer Bruce

AMIDST thousands of tweets responding to the mayhem overtaking the city of Tshwane (Pretoria), with buses and municipal vehicles torched‚ businesses ransacked and roads blocked with mobs and burning tyres, one of the most poignant came from a young man, presumably a student, named Theodore Sebolai: “Please don’t burn the library. Police go protect the library… we have assignments and we’re heavily relying on it, Pleaase!!!”

The current violence exposes the ANC’s vicious internal struggles. The decision from its Luthuli House headquarters to appoint outsider Thoko Didiza as a Tshwane mayoral candidate in the coming municipal elections, overriding local voices, has provoked fury.

But Sebolai’s plea symbolises more than party squabbles. It is about the betrayal of the country’s youth over the past two decades, and how the casualties of government incompetence have been young people’s most precious things, such as education. Last month, 50 schools in the Vuwani area in Limpopo province were burnt down or vandalized in protests following an unpopular government decision to incorporate Vuwani into a new municipality.

Meanwhile, more fortunate South Africans continue going about their lives while anxiously following reports of the instability. The “lucky” ones who possess foreign passports hold them preciously as an insurance policy, and everyone stashes as much money as they can into foreign bank accounts, in case things get so bad that the anarchy comes to their doorsteps.

As far as education is concerned, most who can afford it – middle class people, whether white, black, coloured or Asian – send their children to private or independent schools because of the appalling state of government schools. For example, over 85 per cent of Jewish kids go to Jewish day schools.

In 2013, basic education minister Angie Motshekga admitted to a parliamentary media briefing that “[t]he diagnostic test of the [National Development Plan] said 80 per cent of [South African] schools were dysfunctional”.

Who should we blame for South Africa’s travails? Is it still a result of apartheid, white racism and privilege, and white monopoly capitalism, as radical black politicians claim? Or the ANC’s inept governance, corruption and its lack of vision since 1994? Whatever the answer, we are sliding downwards.

In times of crisis, angry young people often help change things which seem intractable. So it was with the Soweto student uprising of June 1976, the watershed event which initiated the eventual demise of the apartheid regime. Perhaps they will do it this time too with the political leadership.

What about the human right to an education? A 1976 student leader Dan Montsitsi who is deputy chairperson of the June 16, 1976 Foundation, last week warned today’s youth: “[In 1976] we were dodging bullets and teargas… We burnt most of the beer halls throughout Soweto, and all administration board offices. [But] no single school was burnt… Each and every student was hell bent on defending their classrooms.”

Student movements cross red lines and make mistakes, but their militancy and energy tends to focus minds. The controversial “Rhodes must fall” movement at the University of Cape Town, for example, has initiated a crucial national debate about university policies and fees, despite several thuggish episodes such as burning artworks on the campus, the throwing of faeces onto the statue of Cecil John Rhodes and other violent incidents.

The energy of the youth needs to be affirmed and steered by elders into constructive directions. Ultimately, responsibility for the country’s sorry state lies with politicians – in this case the ANC – for failing to provide hope to young people. In particular, failing to educate them. The catastrophic education system has been described by respected South African commentators such as Judge Dennis Davis as a “crime against humanity”.

Indeed it is, no less than apartheid was. A burnt bus can be replaced tomorrow, but young South Africans whose fresh minds have been squandered by not being educated, will be handicapped for the rest of their lives.

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

Is Zapiro a racist or victim of doublespeak?

Zapiro cartoon monkey organ grinder

Last week’s cartoon by Zapiro (above) sparked a racial furore in South Africa about depictions of black people and censorship


WHEN South Africa’s best-known cartoonist, Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) was accused last week of racism for depicting a black man as a monkey in a cartoon in The Times, it showed how this troubled society has lost its compass and is eating its own best people.

The accusation’s trigger was Zapiro using the universal, comic metaphor of the organ grinder and his monkey. The cartoon commented on National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams (the monkey), seeming to be dancing to its master, President Jacob Zuma’s tune (the human organ grinder) by resisting reinstatement of over 700 corruption charges against Zuma, which were mysteriously dropped by his predecessor at the NPA before he became President.

During his decades-long career, Zapiro – arguably the Western world’s most respected political cartoonist today – has incurred the wrath of many powerful people, which is the lot of anyone speaking truth to power. He satirised apartheid’s political leaders, and lampoons the antics of post-apartheid figures, particularly the blunders and corruption of Zuma and his lackeys.

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa responded angrily last week that “Zapiro’s cartoons are now being used by racists in our country to glamourise their prejudice”.

Jews and black people have something in common – a hypersensitivity to how they are portrayed by others. Long histories of discrimination and dehumanisation, leading to violence and killings, have developed psychological buttons. For Jews, pogroms and the Holocaust are emblematic of this. For blacks, the sore points are colonialism, slavery and apartheid.

A caricature which enrages Jews is the “Shylock” image, portraying a Jew with hooked nose, cunning eyes and pockets stuffed with dollar bills, controlling the world with money and secret deals – an image used by Jew-haters to demonise them before killing them.

Not everyone who comments negatively about Jews or blacks is anti-Semitic or racist, however. Sometimes these subjects over-react. Some Jews tend to respond to any non-Jew’s criticism of Israel by labelling the critic an anti-Semite. The danger of genuine anti-Semitism is real and, sadly, is growing worldwide. But the term must be used carefully, or it loses its significance.

Zooming in on the local South African context: it is far too easy today to throw the word “racist” at anyone, regardless of appropriateness or the hurt caused. Nobody, black or white, Jew or non-Jew, is totally without prejudices – it is part of the human condition. But if everyone can be labelled a racist for the slightest hint of criticism, the term is drained of all meaning.

The sensitivity of the monkey image for black people is clear, particularly after the recent infamous incident where Durban estate agent and DA member Penny Sparrow caused a national social-media storm by referring to black beachgoers as “monkeys”. But where does the line lie between a sane perspective and the madness of today’s angry South African society?

Zapiro has previously portrayed all sorts of people as monkeys. One well-known cartoon shows white apartheid leaders Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster, PW Botha and FW de Klerk as neanderthals in various stages of development, with Nelson Mandela towering over them as the dignified, fully evolved human being. He has also enraged Jews with negative depictions of right-wing Israelis and SA Jewry, resulting in some calling him a self-hating Jew.

With public discourse so dominated by social media, the crudest verbiage spewed by idiots quickly reaches thousands, making racist slurs more dangerous. When words lose meaning, it leads to the kind of bizarre doublespeak portrayed in George Orwell’s iconic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a society where nothing means what it says.

The current furore surrounding Zapiro indicates rising paranoia among South Africans, exacerbated by an increasingly prescriptive, legislation-obsessed government. The underlying causes – basic insecurity when leadership is almost non-existent and the future uncertain – must be addressed to avoid the kind of outcome Orwell envisaged.

Undoubtedly, South African society is filled with racists of all colours. But they need to be confronted wisely, not like a sledgehammer to a spider.

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