A jewel on the edge

Nigerians leave SA

Nigerians queue at passport control at the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, September 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

SOUTH Africa has been forced by the mass xenophobic attacks on foreigners by its citizens to examine its identity and its image in the world. It is located at the bottom of Africa, far from the western world, but is it African or European? What are its values? Given what has happened, it can’t be business as usual, tomorrow.

South Africa is a puzzle. After being the admiration of the world 25 years ago for peacefully achieving democracy, led by the giant of reconciliation Nelson Mandela, today it desperately apologises to Africa for its citizens’ violent behaviour towards other Africans: Nigerians, Ethiopians, Somalis, and others. The destroying of their businesses and their homes, and personal attacks which has driven many to flee back to their countries of origin. It’s a disgrace, and a profound feeling of guilt runs among many enlightened South Africans.

It’s not enough for them to hang their heads in shame. More is needed, but the politicians are so busy arguing among themselves and wary of being stabbed in the back by others that they do not speak out strongly enough. And those who do speak out are not listened to, because a mass mentality has taken root against foreigners.

Business leaders are a good barometer of how a country is doing. Confidence in the country and its leadership has sunk to historic lows as reflected through the eyes of people in business. The SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s BCI (Business Confidence Index) fell from 92 in July to 89.1 index points in August. This is its lowest level since April 1985, when the UN Security Council called for more sanctions against SA following the army’s raid in Botswana and the failure of the Eminent Persons Group talks, who were attempting to influence events in a positive direction.

But for many South Africans nothing has changed. Walk into a mall in the neighbourhood of Rosebank, Johannesburg, and you could be in Europe, seeing the world’s favourite brand names. Cars on the roads are the same as Europe, restaurants are urbane and sophisticated. Anything you can dream of, you can buy. The construction of fancy new buildings is taking place everywhere.

Nigerian novelist and journalist Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani whose book was named by the Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009, says South Africa is a ‘genetically modified’ African country, set in Africa but unlike the rest of African countries. Many Africans attribute its difference to the prevailing influence of the ‘Caucasians’ in their midst, she says.

South Africa remains an important country in Africa. It hosted the recent World Economic Forum in Cape Town where the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed by 54 of Africa’s 55 countries, was discussed. Finance Minister Tito Mboweni says it’s the most important post-colonial development in Africa, the world’s largest trade group since formation of the World Trade Organisation. The agreement is expected to boost trade by African countries among themselves by 52% by 2022. Mboweni harshly condemns hostility towards foreigners and says they would vastly contribute to South’s Africa’s economy and society. Any African should be allowed to settle wherever they want in Africa. If Nigerians or Ethiopians want to live in South Africa it should be open to them.

But last week a privately owned Nigerian airline said it would repatriate around 600 Nigerian citizens fleeing xenophobic attacks in South Africa.

Parallel to the recent xenophobia which has dominated the headlines, is the upsurge of gender-based violence, which is rife in the country, highlighted in the wake of the rape and murder of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, who was killed by a 42-year-old post office employee two weeks ago. The ANC Women’s League wants the country to consider chemical castration against men found guilty of rape. Yet all studies show that rape is not about sex, but power and control and even the death sentence does not reduce it.

The anger, fear and frustration has created a movement called #AmINext to give women a platform to share their feelings with others. But the answer must be found within the inner corners of society, in families, schools, churches, homes and social venues. One could assume that the #AmINext movement is about young black women like Mrwetyana, only. But one would be wrong. Even the Jewish community which puts looking after its own as a high priority is not immune, and gender-based violence often occurs behind the proverbial closed doors.

The harsh reality is that while South Africans broadly are a generous, warm-hearted people, their country has become a violent society for many who live here. People who come back for a visit after living elsewhere, are shocked to find the tension in the society where everyone is constantly looking over their shoulders and people in the suburbs live behind high walls.

South Africa has been  a country on the edge for as long as most people can remember, through colonialism, apartheid and now the current situation, a long continuum with a few years’ break during which Mandela lifted the spirits. Yet through each crisis, it has survived, prospered and grown, and its sophisticated economy is one of the largest in Africa, which is why Nigerians and other Africans come here in droves to be associated with it.

Pessimists say it can’t go on like this and must eventually stop working and go down the tubes. Optimists, however, see huge opportunities here for brave people with the initiative to reinvent this gem.

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




Nights of broken glass, again

Xenophobia (2)

A man kicks a burning piece of furniture during a riot in the Johannesburg suburb of Turffontein on September 2, 2019 as angry protesters loot alleged foreign-owned shops in a wave of violence targeting foreign nationals

THE attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg this week look chillingly like the historical pogroms perpetrated by Russians and Lithuanians against Jews in Russia, where they were beaten up and their shops looted. Or more sinister in later years, like Kristallnacht, the ‘night of broken glass’, the rampage through Jewish areas in Germany in 1938 perpetrated by Nazi thugs encouraged by Hitler, preceding the Holocaust. In Kristallnacht, 91 Jews were killed, 177 synagogues were burnt or damaged, and 7000 Jewish businesses were destroyed.

This time the broken glass is the looting of the shops of foreign nationals by crowds of local people in Johannesburg. Cars were set alight in similar rampages in the Pretoria CBD and elsewhere, where foreigners were attacked and their shops looted. Office workers in surrounding buildings locked their doors and watched anxiously. Motorists were warned on radio stations to stay away from the area.

Memory is a fluid thing and changes over time; nothing is clear-cut or cast in stone. In years to come, the grandchildren of these looters, and the foreigners, might come to regard them positively, as people who fought to defend their society, to make ends meet in a corrupt society and to put food on the table for their families. Eventually, it becomes part of the people’s folk history. But for now, all that is visible to outsiders is the hysteria of mobs attacking shops and their owners.

This sight becomes part of the landscape of memory of Johannesburg which visitors will take with them when they leave, reflecting the anger of people who are starving and jobless, and have been so for years, whilst the politicians argue amongst themselves for power and privilege. The incidents, involving attacks against Nigerians, Ethiopians, Somalis and others, are unlikely to be the last. Amidst a general xenophobia in South Africa, which in a flare-up in 2008 resulted in 60 people being killed and thousands forced from their homes, looters claim that foreigners are taking their jobs and bringing drugs which get sold to children. Some decent South Africans who wouldn’t go as far as violence, say they want the foreigners to leave.

Foreigners claim that , on the contrary, through their enterprise they are creating jobs, and that they bring with them many other, positive aspects of a cosmopolitan society. A Nigerian who was interviewed amidst the ruins of his car repair shop, said: “I employ ten South Africans. How can you say I am taking jobs?!”

Former white South Africans living in Australia, the UK, the USA, Israel or elsewhere  read about the events with concern. What do they tell their new friends and family about their South African heritage? They won’t talk about the looting, which was always mostly out of sight for the majority of whites and remains so today. Jewish kids growing up in Canada can look back simplistically on the former lives of their parents in South Africa. The big political issue then was apartheid. South Africans who believed they were against apartheid – even if it was in the safest way by voting for Helen Suzman – feel morally good about themselves today. If they are more honest, their memory might include embarrassment about how they and their parents went along with apartheid because it provided them with a high standard of living.

Folk memory has many sides, depending on who is doing the remembering. Poverty and anti-Semitism in Europe, symbolised by the pogrom, and the chance of opportunities in gold-rich South Africa, pushed Jews to leave for the New World. A folk image for South African Jews is how poor European Jews arrived in the late 1800s with nothing, and through determination and acumen became, by the second generation, a middle class people able to send their kids to good schools and universities.

Meanwhile, new memories continue to be made in Johannesburg by attacks on Nigerians, as looting and xenophobia carries on, office workers cower in their buildings and the no-go areas for ordinary residents of the city grow. The ominous words that one outraged Nigerian shop owner put to a newsman, as he tried to salvage goods from the scarred remains of his shop in Turffontein, ring alarmingly: “South Africa is sitting on a time bomb!” Meanwhile the politicians continue squabbling among themselves.



Terror victims’ dignity: Should bloody pictures go viral?


Halamish 3

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


Shocking visuals – will the real editor please stand up?

Tshwane violence 1

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)