Charlottesville and Joburg: The impact of a blunt instrument

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What does it take to talk? Is it possible for the Ku Klux Klan to re-emerge as a force to silence all in their way? Can South Africans get past their racial history?

IT has seemingly again become a trend to stifle arguments with blunt instruments. It might appear to be stretching a point to contrast recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States, with post-apartheid South African discourse. But as our world increasingly sinks into hatred and intolerance, driven by populist leaders who care only for themselves, trends stand out which are weakening the post-Second World War ideal that people of different cultures and creeds can respect one another, and talk together.

Last year’s election of the lying, tweeting Donald Trump as United States President, with his contempt for ‘the Other’ – Mexicans, refugees and so on – epitomises this. His reaction on Sunday to violent demonstrations by alt-right, anti-Semitic hooligans in Charlottesville, in which a woman demonstrating for peace was killed by a car driven headlong into the crowd by a militant racist – a blunt instrument – confirmed it; he refused to immediately condemn the alt-right, since they were part of the constituency which elected him.

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history and political travails, and the damage President Zuma inflicts, this country is doing relatively well in inter-group tolerance. Remnants of Mandela’s dream remain, even if somewhat sullied. But an illustrative incident occurred at a Jewish-organised Limmud conference session last week in Johannesburg when a young black woman on a panel declared to the audience of mainly white Jews that she was going to be “brave”, and then pronounced vociferously: “There is no rainbow nation!” All whites were inherently guilty, and blacks had to separately re-examine their attitudes towards whites. The session’s topic was “The Tarnished Rainbow: South Africa in 2017”.

Audience members were angered by her bluntly lumping all whites together. In the auditorium were white veteran political activists, participants in projects of cultural engagement, helping the marginalised and poor, and so on. One white person countered her by saying her generation of young blacks had scant personal experience or knowledge of the role some whites played in demolishing apartheid, and their sacrifices.

Then a youngish white man spoke up, saying he agreed the country had racial demons to overcome because of its history. He then said politely but pointedly: “I am white and doing my best. What else do you want me to do now? Will it help, or atone for white sins during colonialism and apartheid, if I give away all the money in my bank account, give up my job and car, and go and sweep the streets?”

The audience waited for some constructive response. Instead, she angrily retorted that his very question exposed his racism, because he seemed to believe black people just “sweep the streets.” A ripple of annoyance ran through the audience. One white woman muttered that the country’s black middle class numbered 6 million today, larger than the white one.

But the interaction showed something important. This young panellist’s ignorance and anger notwithstanding, many South Africans are trying to talk to each other. Indeed, she herself had come to the Limmud forum, to challenge a white audience and be challenged.

Turning back to the thugs in Charlottesville, Virginia, it seems incredible that after all the years since World War Two and the Holocaust, people still needed to protest against unmitigated Nazism from closed-minded people with no desire or willingness to talk. People who carried flags with large swastikas on them. At a Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville on July 8, a sign held by a white-hooded participant read: “Jews are Satan’s children… Talmud is a child molester’s bible.”

Despite how much anger there is in South African society, a sign like that would not be permitted.

It would be naive, of course, to think that all is perfect – far from it. There is as much to worry about in South Africa as anywhere else. But perhaps Donald Trump’s American South can learn something from this country about how people still manage to talk today, even across chasms.

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

 

The Golem still lurks in our Brave New World

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Will unrestrained gadgets save or kill mankind? Religious sources celebrate humans’ creative genius, but warn about the monster hiding in the shadows

WHAT do religions say about the technological tsunami flooding our lives today? Is the increasingly rapid ‘disruptive innovation’ an angel or devil? Leading Johannesburg techno-gadget expert Arthur Goldstuck raised some ancient but relevant Jewish perspectives at a conference in Johannesburg last weekend.

The Limmud conference is an annual weekend gathering held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban attended by hundreds of people, with speakers and facilitators addressing myriad themes ranging from theology to politics, music, spirituality, history, technology and other topics.  It is part of an international network of similar conferences taking place in Jewish communities worldwide.

Sketching technological changes from 100 years ago to the present and into the future, Goldstuck left his audience fascinated, but also unnerved. A century ago, individual innovations appeared occasionally which we take for granted today, such as the portable electric drill; colourful gift-wrap created by Hallmark, which replaced brown paper wrapping; Converse All Stars athletic shoes; and others.

In 2017, however, every device and industry is constantly being technologically disrupted – or re-innovated – at increasingly speedy rates, with everything being connected via the Internet and other means, and building on each other. We can hardly keep up. And technology is all very well, but can machines make moral choices?

Facebook, for example, connects almost the entire world, except China where it is not allowed; in this era of instant innovation, new products and information reach millions within seconds. Some 2 billion people – 1 in 5 of the world’s population – and 17 million South Africans are on Facebook.

The benefits are manifold, but the spreading of ‘fake news’ is also one of the dangerous outcomes; and the idiocy of people like US President Donald Trump carelessly using facebook and Twitter to spread his political rantings, could just as well start a war by accident.

The next major innovative platform will be Virtual Reality devices, allowing one to experience events taking place around the corner or a world away. Soon, unmanned robots will proliferate as waiters in restaurants, as bank clerks, teachers and so on; they will be caregivers in hospitals and homes which will sense minute amounts of germs and report them to medical staff – Japan, with its elderly population, already uses 20 000 robots as caregivers.

By 2019, artificial intelligence devices should be pervasive. These would include, for example, devices fixed to peoples’ brains doing routine ECGs and electronically sending results to each individual’s doctor. Autonomous, self-driving cars already exist. By 2022, farmers will insert chips into livestock – such as dairy cows – in the field, to monitor temperature and other aspects, transmitting them to the farmer’s house to inform him which cows are ready for milking.

These devices do not only perform jobs previously done by humans, but accumulate masses of information about people’s movements, likes, dislikes and behaviour. Despite the benefits, this is potentially dangerous and invasive: Where is it stored; how is it used? It could be employed for nefarious purposes. Someone could hold you to ransom with such information. Hospitals’ patient records could be captured and only released for a payoff – this already happened recently in UK hospitals.

Could such technologies become an existential threat to humankind, outsmarting people? What if ‘intelligent’ devices behave negatively rather than positively? Such a technological scenario was predicted decades ago in Aldous Huxley’s science fiction classic, ‘Brave New World’ in 1932. How do religious traditions view all this? What role for faith groups in restraining them?

Drawing on Jewish sources, Goldstuck referred to a legendary man-shaped creature made of mud created by the Talmudic scholar, mystic and philosopher the Maharal in the 1500s – the notorious Golem of Prague which has entered popular language as a saboteur of the foundations of a good society. Legend held that the Golem was given ‘life’ when a parchment containing holy words was placed under its tongue; if the creature became dangerously destructive, it could be ‘switched off’ by removing the parchment.

Could the Golem be an archetype for modern Artificial Intelligence? How would one switch it off?

Other Jewish sages approved of technology and innovation, seeing them as part of human creativity, but said the privacy of a person’s inner life is sacrosanct – meaning that Facebook’s collecting and using of such private information may cross a forbidden red line. With personal privacy being so crucial, including the ability to make moral and practical choices, trust in technology is lacking, even as people rely on their smartphones for more and more of what they do.

The sages foresaw the potential dangers of this techno-Golem centuries ago, as seductive as it is. How to control it may be one of the biggest challenges of our times.

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

 

Terror victims’ dignity: Should bloody pictures go viral?

 

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When to show blood on the floor? Israeli officials examine the murder scene of members of the Salomon family in Halamish by a knife-wielding Palestinian. Controversy abounds about whether publishing pictures of the edge-to-edge blood-soaked floor by the IDF violates victims’ dignity (photo: ZAKA)

WHAT’S in a picture? The violence at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the terrorist attack in the West Bank settlement Halamish on Friday raises questions about how much blood and gore should the general public see through photographs when civilians are killed.

The morning after the Halamish attack, in which Yosef Salomon and his two adult children were stabbed to death by a Palestinian with a knife during Shabbat dinner, the IDF released photographs of their kitchen floor, drenched edge to edge in thick blood. Another picture showed the attacker lying face down on the bloody floor.

An Israeli official posted it on Twitter, captioned, “This is the terrorist lying on the floor… full of the blood of three innocent family members…”

Arguments for and against such pictures’ release are many-sided. In this case, there was some discomfort in official circles and among ordinary Israelis.

A major humanitarian consideration is preserving the dignity and privacy of victims and family. From a policy viewpoint, Israel also wants to avoid creating an image of Israelis and Jews as “victims.” An Israeli official quoted this week in a national paper referred to the famous Holocaust-era Warsaw Ghetto photograph of a Jewish boy with his hands up, watched by a German soldier: “[Pictures of Jews being humiliated] makes our enemies happy, and demoralises us.”

People arguing that such pictures evoke sympathy for Israel and discredit the terrorists’ cause are only partially correct, since a myriad pictures are also published by Palestinians of their victims of Israeli attacks; it depends who is seeing them, and from what perspective. For some, the attackers are terrorists; for others, heroic martyrs.

Dramatic war photographs have sometimes had major effects on public perception of a conflict. Think of the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running naked and screaming down a road in June 1972 after being burned by a South Vietnamese napalm attack during the Vietnam War. The war’s moral imperative was never the same after that. Or the picture in September 2015 of a three year-old Syrian boy’s miserable body washed up on a Turkish beach, becoming a symbol of the refugee crisis and the world’s ignoring of Syrian atrocities in which 400 000 have died in the six-year war, many of them civilians. The photograph went viral, shifting some attitudes towards migrants.

In South Africa, the image during the 1976 Soweto uprising by photojournalist Sam Nzima of the dying, bloodied 13-year-old Hector Pieterson shot by apartheid security forces, was published worldwide and became an emblem of the anti-apartheid struggle. Later, South Africa’s social problems shot to the headlines in May 2008 through the image of 35-year-old Mozambican Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave being set on fire in a village street during xenophobic attacks on foreigners by locals, causing an uproar about the society’s moral values.

After a terrorist attack in Israel, the IDF is often in charge of the site, with a say on what images are released. But it cannot control photojournalists working for global media, or civilians’ pictures taken on smartphones and tweeted out to the world.

Newspaper editors are themselves caught in a dilemma. They cannot publish only sanitised images giving no sense of the horror. Yet they cannot fill their pages with gory pictures which will make readers recoil. The balance is difficult to find.

In the Halamish case, the IDF had control of the scene, which was in a fenced-off West Bank settlement. Arguably, the violation of the family’s dignity with images of the Salomons’ bloody kitchen floor, could have outweighed any positive result of their publication. Yet, in the emotions of the moment, one can also understand the rage which led to the opposite decision.

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

  • Read a review of the photo-exhibition Refuge  by Muslim photographers Hasan and Husain Essop, from arts critic Robyn Sassen

 

SA led to the cliff-edge: Whose fault?

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Presidential motorcades friendly and fierce: Major segments of SA society want to remove President Zuma for undermining the state, some even willing to pay him R2bn to step down. Nelson Mandela was a more beloved president – the ‘big man’ who would solve all problems

EVEN with so many South Africans desperate to rescue this country from President Jacob Zuma’s train of destruction, last week’s report of a R2bn amnesty package offered to him from frantic private sources to leave office – including amnesty for 783 corruption charges and other misdemeanours – is wishful thinking. He apparently rejected the deal, said to have been proposed by a faction backing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who aspires to be president. But maybe behind the scenes he is bargaining for more? Yet even if he accepted it, would it be worth it for the country?

The deal has a precedent in a similar settlement in Ireland in the 1990s that ended the civil war. And in the United States in 1974, President Richard Nixon, facing impeachment and removal from office, resigned and was pardoned for crimes committed while in office by his successor Gerald Ford, making it feasible for the country to rid itself of Nixon.

Apartheid leaders got away scot free with an amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Nelson Mandela led the process, believing it was preferable to civil war.

Leadership is a complex concept with multiple meanings about where power lies. One of the world’s great Talmudists, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, on a 1999 South African visit, commented to a Jewish gathering: If a man is walking a dog on a leash, with the dog in front, the dog appears to be the leader. But he can only go where his master lets him.

Countries get the leaders they deserve, says the old adage. South Africa, including its political parties and civil groups, agreed to Mandela reconciling with apartheid villains. But, bizarrely, it has also allowed Zuma to lead it to the cliff-edge, threatening to destroy the country. It must seriously examine why. All are to blame – not just the ANC, as popular opinion claims in many quarters.

The marking earlier this week of Mandela’s birthday is a reminder of the weakness in looking for solutions in one man. Some gym devotees will recall an unforgettable sunny afternoon in 2002 at Old Eds gym in Houghton, Johannesburg. People in shorts and sneakers bustled through the doors, overlooking the cricket field, as a military helicopter arrived and landed on the field. A police car, a brown car containing three black security men, and a silver Mercedes drove to the ‘copter.

A familiar face appeared from inside, instantly recognisable. Madiba. He stepped down to the grass, waving and smiling to all. People shouted from the gym: “We love you, Madiba!”

A blonde-haired white woman in a red track-suit dashed across the field towards him. The guards intercepted, then let her through. She threw her arms around Madiba, kissed him, then ran back across the field, beaming. The cars pulled off, driving to Madiba’s house a few blocks away. South Africa’s saviour embodied in one man.

Now it is 2017. Imagine a helicopter landing on that cricket field with Zuma, on his way to the Gupta family – the ‘mafia-chiefs’ – mansion in Saxonwold, also a few blocks away. Hordes of security would have searched the gym before his arrival, and surrounded him as he stepped down.

No gymmers would applaud, or young girls run to hug him. His blue-light convoy of at least ten very-expensive cars and motorbikes with sirens blaring, would convey him to the Guptas, freezing other traffic. He would not wave – nobody would wave back. The country’s problems embodied in one man.

Will R2bn go-away money for Zuma start fixing things, or be yet another pot of money down the drain? SA society needs to make sure the next ‘dog on the leash’ will go where it is best for the country, not just where it suits him.

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

Paid-for racism: SA democracy shows its teeth

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

Is Jacob Zuma the new King Kong?

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Does SA politics dominated by Jacob Zuma play to the same tune as the best of African jazz theatre, King Kong, with its poignant ending? In this scene from the musical in 1959, Nathan Mdlele, playing King Kong, dances with his girlfriend played by Miriam Makeba

THE theatricality of politics in South Africa today rivals a Shakespearean tragedy, with characters so colourful that The Bard himself would have reveled in its richness. Every morning one wakes to the news of something else to boggle the mind.

The leaked Gupta emails incriminating scores of political players with the stain of corruption, will provide years of fertile material for stage theatre. Characters range from the highest in the land, to the person in the street: fired former SABC head Hlaudi Motsoaneng, scandal-ridden former Eskom CEO Brian Molefe, the sinister Gupta family plotting from their Saxonwold palace how to steal more money from the country, President Jacob Zuma’s former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who wants to become president, former DA leader Helen Zille with her damning colonialism tweets, and on and on. And Zuma himself, with more than 700 corruption charges hanging over his head.

Given all this, there is irony in the upcoming re-staging of a famous play that caused waves in 1959 and became an international hit – King Kong. Produced by Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre, it will start touring in a few weeks.

It tells the story of a rural Zulu man, Ezekiel Dhlamini from Vryheid district in Kwazulu-Natal. Like many of his kin, he goes to Johannesburg – the fabled Egoli, City of Gold – to seek his fortune. He becomes a star boxer, known and revered by his nick-name ‘King Kong’.

His successes go to his head; he turns into a bully and braggart. When, one day, he is matched against middleweight ‘Greb’ Mthimkulu, he prances around the ring like a Zulu war dancer. His opponent lands a left on his jaw and King Kong is floored. His decline follows; he receives scorn rather than adulation. He stabs his girlfriend to death, is sentenced to twelve years hard labour for murder, and drowns in a river near Leeuwkop prison farm.

While this African jazz musical accurately captures intriguing aspects of racial South Africa, its most important achievement at the time was its staging in Wits University’s Great Hall in Johannesburg with black performers to a mainly white audience – a radical step, as apartheid’s architects were honing the system to prevent such a thing.

The play was written by Harry Bloom, promoted by businessman Clive Menell, sets designed by architect Arthur Goldreich, and music by Todd Matshikiza. Leon Gluckman, a champion of South Africa’s developing theatre, was producer, with director Stanley Glasser. The play’s jazz musicians, the Manhattan Brothers, went on later to an international career, never returning to South Africa.

Jacob Zuma should attend a King Kong performance. He might recognise himself. He too comes from humble rural origins in KZN, with minimal schooling. In the anti-apartheid struggle he played in the big league alongside icons such as Nelson Mandela. In post-apartheid South Africa, he rose to become citizen number one, with so much power that it went to his head. Seeking self-enrichment rather than serving the people, he did things that shamed his office and the once-illustrious ANC.

Intoxicated with power, he ignored the people’s angry voices, becoming despised by leaders such as Ahmed Kathrada who had been his allies against apartheid. The SA Council of Churches, Helen Suzman Foundation, Nelson Mandela Foundation, trade unions and others told him to leave the stage. He was booed in Parliament and public meetings and transformed into an object of derision. Yet he clung to his accumulated riches and the dark areas of influence he still controlled. In which river will he find his end?

King Kong and Jacob Zuma. One day a play will be written about Zuma’s rise and fall, the Guptas and their corrupt cabal. In the meantime, South Africans ride the roller coaster, trying to make sense of it.

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

Arms deals, peace deals: Trump treads holy ground

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Can deal-maker Trump clinch Mideast peace? In his foray to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity he brought massive arms deals in one hand and slogans about peace in the other. In the picture he listens to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch (C) while visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22, 2017

PRESIDENT Donald Trump does not delve much into religion in his speeches in the United States, except to slam adherents of Islam. But during his past week’s jaunt to the Middle East and Europe to holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, there was much to do with religion that needed attention.

The political adage was apt: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Shouting reckless words to rally supporters while campaigning last year was one thing; it’s different now he’s in the power seat.

His speech in Saudi Arabia – the site of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest places – was significantly more moderate than his campaign references to that country, when he said it wants “women as slaves and to kill gays” and was behind the terror attacks of 9/11. Even though it has indeed been a major terrorism sponsor, his speech’s thrust was clearly about deal-making, with scant reference to human rights.

Islam is the world’s second largest religion, with 1,6 billion adherents, or 23 per cent of the planet’s 6,9 billion people. Christianity is the largest, with 2,2 billion adherents, nearly a third of the global population.

Trump was careful not to insult Islam. During his aggressive campaign he repeatedly and pointedly used the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ – which his predecessor Barack Obama refused to use – to describe Middle Eastern extremist groups, but while in Saudi Arabia he replaced it with ‘Islamist extremism’ and ‘Islamists’, terms which are more ‘politically correct’.

The Saudis were receptive. Even his wife Melania, who stood out prominently at his side with uncovered hair in starkly ‘western’ dress that Saudi women are forbidden to wear, seemed naturally part of the proceedings.

The Saudi royal family’s red-carpet reception for him with parades and horses, elevated him to a dignity he entirely lacks in Washington. When he very publically signed the gigantic $110 billion arms deal with the Arab state, his stature rose even higher.

Then on Monday, when he jetted into tiny Israel, predictably intense political arguments raged among his hosts, unlike in Riyadh which presented a totally united front. Israel is, after all, a noisy democracy with divisions vociferously expressed, contrary to Saudi Arabia.

It seemed out of character when this narcissistic man known for his crude, abusive comments donned a kippa on Monday and visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the kotel – a holy site for the relatively minuscule 14-million Jewish global population, who constitute only 0,2 per cent of the world’s people. Yet his Israel visit carried as much significance – in some ways more – as his other stops.

Trump brags he will make the ultimate deal to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is unlikely he understands the complexities. While symbolism such as visiting the kotel is important, he is short on substance.

Jerusalem, for example, with 883,000 residents – 37 per cent of them Arabs – is a key emotive element for all sides which has stymied previous agreements. Jews and Palestinians – and the Arab world – both want to control major parts and will not yield. Its Jewish population is becoming increasingly religious and their political clout grows rapidly towards the right, less disposed to concessions for peace. Disputes about sovereignty over the Western Wall precinct is one example.

Among Jerusalem’s Jewish residents over age 20, some 35 per cent are ultra-Orthodox, and rising. About 66 per cent of Jewish students in the city attend ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. The ultra-Orthodox birth rate is more than double the national average.

These complexities are matched by the Palestinian Muslim population.

Trump’s foray into Islam’s and Judaism’s heartlands is powerful public relations, shifting attention from his political problems in Washington. But the Mideast is a minefield which his bragging cannot paper over. Can he stay the long course?

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

Walls, walls, walls: the spirit of the day

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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 )

Macron’s French win: Viva la dance!

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From Soweto hostel to international dancer: Gregory Maqoma was knighted this month by France, together with Georgina Thomson, director of the Dance Umbrella festival. Political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory on Sunday makes it more likely French backing for international arts will continue

AMONG the people who are relieved at political centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election on Sunday, are arguably South African artists who have benefited over the years from French support. Macron won 66 per cent of the vote, against far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent, which is nevertheless a significant percentage and also revealed the uglier, chauvinistic side of French society.

Their contrasting world views is not just political, but about values – Macron’s belief in creative, positive engagement with the world, versus Le Pen’s emphasis on a French machismo and rejection of ‘the other’ – such as immigrants and refugees – entwined with grandiose patriotic posturing. Her supporters have compared her immoderately to French historical heroine Joan of Arc.

Last week a moving ceremony at the French Embassy in Pretoria showcased French openness when South African dance guru Georgina Thomson, long-time artistic director of Johannesburg’s annual Dance Umbrella, was knighted by the French ambassador, along with Soweto-born dancer Gregory Maqoma, artistic director and founder of Vuyani Dance Theatre. The latter is a protégé of contemporary dance pioneer Sylvia Glasser, who started the mixed-race company Moving into Dance Mophatong in the garage of her Johannesburg home in 1978, seeking out talented young black and white dancers and turning them into skilled professionals – a brave act at a time when the apartheid regime frowned on such inter-racial activities.

Other protégés of Glasser have thrived in France, including Vincent Mantsoe whose company Association Noa is based in Saint Pont. Glasser was knighted by the Netherlands in 2014 for her achievements.

Backing for South African arts has brought French artists to South Africa and promoted local artists internationally. In 1991 the iconic ‘white Zulu’ singer Johnny Clegg was knighted by France for his courageous voice against apartheid in its darkest years, and legendary South African choreographer Robyn Orlin received the French Order of Merit in 2009 for her “spirited and dedicated work in the sphere of arts and culture.” A similar honour was given in 2013 to Johannesburg-based artist William Kentridge.

Provocative performance artist Steven Cohen, who broke new ground for his genre locally, was headhunted by Paris-based Ballet Atlantique’s Régine Chopinot in 2002 and now lives in Lille, France. His seminal work Golgotha, which debuted at the prestigious Fest d’Automne at Paris’ Pompidou Centre, was billed by critics as the definitive 9/11 artwork in its engagement with loss. Cohen’s confrontational work later offended some Frenchmen in 2013 when he tied a rooster – the ‘Gallic rooster’ is a French symbol of nationhood – to his genitals at the Place de Trocadéro, known as the Human Rights Square near the Eiffel Tower, and subsequently was fined after a trial for indecent exposure.

As today’s politically tense South Africa attempts to clarify its own distinctiveness, and as militant ‘anti-colonialism’ among certain political activists wants to cut off European influence in all spheres, engagement with the French and other countries is doubly important. While nurturing indigenous, local arts is crucial to South Africa’s quest for a new identity, so is openness to the best of world culture, of which the French are a great example.

The rise of ultra-nationalists globally such as Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK, with their inward-looking ethos, will endure for the foreseeable future. A Le Pen win would have given another boost to this phenomenon and conceivably raised questions about continuing international support for the arts. For now, for Jews, growing anti-Semitism in France is causing extreme unease, which has led many Jews to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. Some 94 per cent of French citizens who cast their ballots in Israel, voted for Macron. Negative sentiment against other minority communities, particularly Muslims, is running high.

Macron’s win, however, seems to be an encouraging sign from the liberal centrists that they are still a force to be reckoned with.

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

  • Read about the Pretoria knighthood ceremony here

The ultra-nationalists and John Lennon’s broken dreams

LE PEN AND LENNON

‘The other’ is not welcome here! Rabid nationalism epitomised by French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen (above) comes half a century after The Beatles celebrated individualism and sharing of the world

A PIECE of popular history which throws light on today’s confusing world is the release 50 years ago in 1967 in England of The Beatles’ album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – soon to be re-released. It was followed in 1971 by John Lennon’s iconic song ‘Imagine’ with its key line “Imagine there’s no countries…”, positing a globalised world based on individualism, self-expression, feminism, gay liberation and similar values. Countries’ borders were less important.

Things have changed. Last year’s statement by British Prime Minister Theresa May at her Conservative party conference epitomised the resurgence of identities defined by nationhood and rejection of ‘the other’: “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Other countries such as France are following. Its national election next Sunday will determine if ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen will become president. Her National Front party is accused of Holocaust denial; last month she caused outrage by suggesting France was not responsible for the round-up of Jews – perceived as ‘the other’, despite being citizens – who were sent to Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. Will France embrace hard right populism with its anti-immigrant, super-nationalism?

Human identities are a balancing act between competing sentiments. For South African Jews, Israel is a key part of their identity, epitomised by moving ceremonies this week for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzamut. The former mourns 23,544 men and women who died defending Israel and its pre-State Jewish population, and 3,117 terror victims. The latter celebrates Israel’s independence. This year also marks 50 years since the Six Day War in which Arab countries tried to obliterate the nation of Israel.

But there are other forces vying for SA Jewry’s attention in rivalry with Israel, such as dramatic local events crucial to South Africa’s future. These include what happened on Monday in Workers Day ceremonies around the country. Some descended into chaos. In Bloemfontein, President Jacob Zuma was booed out of a Cosatu trade union federation rally and departed in his twelve-car motorcade surrounded by bodyguards without delivering his keynote speech. People ask how long the ANC will survive before it implodes, and what happens afterwards? Will African nationalism and anti-colonialist rage dominate, and what will be the place of whites and Jews?

Zuma never cherished South Africa’s democracy and nationhood, and the country should celebrate the shaming of a man who has robbed it for personal enrichment. Hopefully, its citizens will regain their optimism individually and collectively.

Israel’s nationhood, in contrast, seems solid, despite vulgar arguments in its body-politic. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University shows both its Arab and Jewish populations are optimistic and have a sense of national identity. It found 71 per cent of Israelis (73 per cent of Jewish respondents and 61 per cent of Arabs) were either “very” or “quite” optimistic about the country’s future, and over 80 per cent said they were “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israelis. Not surprisingly, Jewish respondents took greater pride in Israeli identity (86 per cent), but even 51 per cent of Arab respondents described themselves as “quite proud” or “very proud” to be Israeli.

The clash between aggressive nationalism and those individuals attempting to cross boundaries is ugly, however. Ultra-right protesters heckled a 4000-strong alternative Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony in Tel Aviv on Sunday – held for the 12th consecutive year – featuring bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families. They called Israeli participants “traitors.”

Wherever it is in the world, the cosmopolitan counterculture of The Beatles and the ultra-nationalism epitomised by Theresa May and Marine Le Pen cannot ever happily exist together. South Africa’s and Israel’s place in this universal tussle will never be simple, but the ride is certainly interesting.

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