South Africa: Send me!

RamaphosaManuelZeidelRudolphdaughter (3)

From a catastrophe to a new dawn? New SA president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised to end corruption, fix government, give jobs to the youth and a host of other remedies, after the disastrous nine years of the Zuma presidency. In the picture, then deputy president Ramaphosa went jogging on the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town the dawn after Zuma resigned, with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and met some of  his citizens.

FROM the perspective of their new lives in London, New York and other places to which South African ex-pats have fled over the decades during apartheid and after it, will the revived spirit of hope brought to South Africa by new President Cyril Ramaphosa inspire any of them to consider coming back?

South Africans overseas have often felt smug looking at the country’s decline during the catastrophe of former president Jacob Zuma, when it hurtled towards becoming yet another failed African state. They, after all, had been smart enough to leave and were far from Africa’s problems.

The huge emigration of many whites and others started during apartheid, particularly after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, continuing until Nelson Mandela’s release from jail and his ascendancy to the presidency. Amidst the euphoria, emigration slowed as South Africa seemed again a place with a future. There was talk of expats coming back.

This country’s story is about cycles of betrayal and hope, betrayal and hope, again and again. Can it now return to the spirit of hope?

Today the newspaper headlines on the street poles proclaim “goodbye Zuma” and “a new dawn begins.” Addressing the nation from parliament, Ramaphosa quoted from a song by legendary musician Hugh Masekela – known as the father of SA jazz – about everyone lending a hand.

Masekela’s life is a metaphor for this country. He left after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, helped by anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and international friends such as Yehudi Menuhin and John Dankworth, going to the UK, then to the US.

He married another South African icon, jazz singer Miriam Makeba. Masekela wrote well-known anti-apartheid songs, such as Bring Him Back Home, about the movement to free Mandela. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s after Mandela’s release and continued to compose and perform locally and on the world stage. The muso, affectionately known as Bra Hugh, died last month. A line from one of his songs, Thuma Mina, goes: “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around.” Indeed, he was.

There are not many Masekelas, and it is unlikely many SA expats will return, no matter how rosy the South African dawn sounds. They have put down roots elsewhere; their children were raised as Canadians, Americans or with other identities. And the changes in South Africa are not yet solid enough. Can Ramaphosa pull off this gigantic task of renewing the country? It is not yet certain.

One consequence of this past decade is that the ANC – Mandela’s glorious liberation movement turned government – has tainted itself by supporting Zuma. Its hands are dirty. Can Ramaphosa cleanse it? Whether he succeeds or not, the manner in which Zuma was sent off into the wilderness according to strict constitutional principles, shows South African democracy’s solidity.

Many expat South Africans look down their noses at this new multiparty African democracy from the comfort of their mature European and American democracies. But maturity is a relative thing. The parliament building in Cape Town from where Ramaphosa spoke so elegantly to the nation this week, is the same place in which the apartheid rulers formulated the brutal racial policies of their time, and also the place where Zuma sat as president while his cronies looted the country’s coffers. Has betrayal turned to trust again? Can expats in London see it or not?

Ramaphosa, when he was still deputy president, was jogging recently along the Seapoint beachfront in Cape Town with former finance minister Trevor Manuel, and encountered some young Jewish women also jogging. A warm, happy selfie of all of them is circulating. Hopefully it will also reach the expats in London. He’s going to need that warmth and trust from everyone if he’s going to untangle the mess of this country.

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


Filth, filth everywhere: who can you trust?

netanyahu corruption

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided being found guilty on numerous corruption charges. Israel’s highest court has now given police the go-ahead to publicize indictment recommendations in two long-running corruption investigations which could lead to a new scenario for him (Photo: Amir Cohen)

HOW do corrupt politicians cling to power even after being fingered? In Israel, something which shields Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accused of corruption time and time again, is Israelis’ perception that he is tough on security, which is crucial in that neighbourhood. Although disliked and mistrusted by many, his security credentials win the day.

How did Jacob Zuma stay for so long as South Africa’s president when he was clearly destroying the country? Future historians will puzzle over it, but it has something to do with the ANC’s belief that it owns the country after leading the liberation struggle, and couldn’t allow itself to be seen as installing a crook as president.


President Jacob Zuma

It was social critic Mark Twain who said: “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”

While South Africans fume at Zuma’s shenanigans, political corruption was not invented here. It is endemic in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere. It includes countries like Israel, to many Jews’ dismay. In the United States, law enforcement authorities are trying to nail President Donald Trump for the same thing.

Transparency International monitors sleaze in 176 countries. Its 2016 corruption perceptions index lists Denmark and New Zealand as the most squeaky-clean, least corrupt, both at number 1. At the list’s bottom, at 174-176, are the most corrupt – North Korea, South Sudan and Somalia. The United States is 18, Israel 28, and South Africa 64.

In Israel, several prime ministers in the last two decades have been criminally investigated, including Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, whose period in office is second only to Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, has been investigated for a range of things, including receiving expensive gifts from businessmen, a newspaper collusion scandal, a submarine procurement affair, a problematic natural gas deal, a Bezeq (Israel’s telephone company) probe, a case involving furniture in the two Netanyahu residences, and others.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has likened Netanyahu to a mafia boss. In July last year he listed on Facebook criminal investigations linked to Netanyahu, and he posed the question to Israelis: “Hasn’t the time come to put an end to all of this? Have we all gone crazy?”

Netanyahu was initially investigated for fraud and breach of trust in 1997 during his first term as prime minister, and was accused of appointing an attorney general who would deal favourably with a political ally. Two years later, he was investigated for fraud regarding accusations about a government contractor.

Other prime ministers have been no less suspect. In the late 1990s, Sharon was believed to have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes in the “Greek Island Affair.” The accusation involved Israeli businessman David Appel bribing Sharon, who was then Foreign Minister, to help Appel win approval for a development in Greece.

Olmert was given a prison sentence in 2014 for fraud and breach of trust in the “Holyland Affair”, a housing project in Jerusalem where he was mayor before becoming prime minister. He was also convicted in 2016 of taking bribes in the “Talansky Affair” where American businessman Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with cash.

Do South Africa and Israel share anything on this topic? Both countries have the sense of a grand mission. The former soared to euphoric heights through Mandela’s vision, and although things have since gone wobbly, it still resonates, although not as potently. Israel was seen by its founders as the glorious redemption of a Jewish state after the Holocaust, an inspiration and a haven for the Jewish people.

But politics is politics, and Mark Twain rings true regardless of grand ideals.

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

Censorship: A double-edged sword


THE clumsy attempt by the State Security Agency and SA Revenue Service to block printing and distribution of the book by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers, is nowhere near the censorship which prevailed during apartheid. But it eerily reminds us of how the slippery slope begins in that direction. A desperate President Jacob Zuma will go to any lengths to protect himself and his cronies from exposure for wrongdoing, as the book does, and possibly going to jail. He has turned the security establishment and SARS into his defensive tools.

Thankfully the country has constitutional safeguards against censorship, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary and a populace accustomed to freedom of expression earned by generations of struggle activists. For example, recent controversial artworks by Ayanda Mbuli depicting Zuma in lewd sexual poses with the Guptas, offended many, but it’s a tribute to the country that the works were never banned.

Predictably, Pauw’s book quickly gained a large global readership after government demanded its recall. It is now into a second printing. Local bookstores rejected the call to remove the book. Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk said: “I will censor a book that is blatantly racist, has hatred of Jews, hatred of black people or any other people. But a book like this, why should we refuse to sell it?”

Could the government have a case in demanding its recall? Do details about Zuma’s dodgy tax affairs violate his right to privacy? This is as much about politics as anything else. In a democracy, the government cannot suppress such facts about a public figure like the president, or censor someone’s opinion of him. It must take the matter to court, which would be a good thing, since then the beans about Zuma will definitely be publicly spilled.

Anyone who was politically aware during apartheid will remember the ideological absurdities of censorship. Black Beauty, one of the best-selling books of all time which lauds kindness and respect, was apparently banned for using the word ‘black’ in the title, in conjunction with the word ‘beauty’. Burger’s Daughter by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer, was banned for contradicting government’s racial policies by telling white anti-apartheid activists’ stories. In the sexual realm, the state’s defenders of ‘morality’ put Playboy magazine out of bounds, with its double-page spreads of naked women, but copies were smuggled into the country and passed from hand to hand.

Internationally, banning books with sinister ideological or religious themes sometimes has a more acceptable side. There have, for example, been many unsuccessful calls over the years for banning The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a tract which concocts a false Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, and was used as justification for Jewish persecution. And Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, was banned in Germany since the Second World War, but last year it became legal to publish and sell it as a commented edition.

South Africa’s political turmoil today, reflected in the many bizarre public statements and postures of its politicians, has an echo of the story in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, a parable extolling democracy while describing a workers’ revolution which goes horribly wrong. It’s about the successful overthrow of a harsh regime of human farmers by an animals’ liberation movement. The new order becomes corrupted, however, when leaders turn arrogant, and ‘alternative facts’ – the ‘fake news’ of today – are propagated to suit political ambitions. It sounds familiar, not unlike the tragic corruption of the once-admired ANC liberation movement.

Pauw’s book is not ideological in the traditional sense, except to the extent that law-breakers, whoever they are, should be exposed and punished, including the president if necessary. Zuma’s selfish motives in wanting the book recalled are so transparent, a child could see through them. But he doesn’t care; he knows he will probably never be called to account. Or could it be that the tide is finally turning against him?

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


What happens when sins of the past come out of the closet?

Timol brother

Reaching closure: Nearly five decades after anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol plunged to his death from the tenth floor of police headquarters, an inquest has determined he was pushed by police rather than jumped. His brother Mohamed Timol (above) praised the judgment (photo: Gulshan Khan)

A LONG, dirty thread links the sadistic killers of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol and South African President Jacob Zuma to sex offenders who thought they would get away with it as time passed. But people cannot control how they will be remembered in history.

In 1971, Timol died in police custody after jumping or being pushed through the tenth-floor window of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. It was so long ago that many young South Africans today don’t even know his name. The policemen who tortured him have since died or are too old to recall the facts, and were never brought to book. Yet his family, believing he was pushed through the window rather than jumped, pursued the issue tirelessly, demanding a new investigation. It determined last week that Timol was pushed. His tormentors will be remembered as murderers, not policemen.

Zuma is widely considered a criminal using his position to steal from state coffers, today and in the past. He avoids prosecution by manipulating the judiciary with endless stalling tactics, hoping the incidents will fade in the public memory. But the Supreme Court of Appeal this week leapt back time-wise, declaring he should be charged on 783 fraud and corruption counts for his actions during the arms deal in 2002. Charges were dropped in 2009 during his presidential election campaign, after he asserted that the timing of the charges aimed to damage his election prospects – the so-called “spy-tapes” saga.

A similar dirty thread links him to villains of another type – sex pests. His alleged rape of a 31-year-old family friend came to court in 2005. He claimed the act was “consensual,” and rallied his supporters to back him. He thought it had faded in peoples’ memory and continued with his political ambitions, but it has been resurrected in broadcaster Redi Tlhabi’s new book ‘Khwezi’ about his rape accuser Fezekile Kuzwayo. Chances are, Zuma will go down in history not only as a corrupt thief, but also a sexual criminal.

Other villains on that sexual thread include Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and South African billionaire Sidney Frankel. They also thought the passing of time would make the grisly events fade, and they would get away free.

Weinstein was publically accused in the last two weeks by women in the Hollywood film world of sexual molestation over many years, exploiting his powerful position. He had such sway that giving him sex could make or break an actress’s career. His accusers include famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow and others. Weinstein, who has resigned from the company he founded, is learning that despite time passing, old skeletons may come back to haunt.

SA Jewish billionaire Sidney Frankel sexually abused children at the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home and other places in the 1970s and 1980s. In the many years afterwards, he thought life had moved on and he wouldn’t be fingered. But last year, eight accusers claiming he assaulted them as children brought a civil claim against him. He endured public disgrace, but died earlier this year before being sentenced. His name will go down as a paedophile. His case caused Johannesburg’s High Court to declare Section 18 of the Criminal Procedure Act unconstitutional, effectively removing the 20-year prescription bar on sexual offences. Other well-known sexual predators who have been exposed include tennis star Bob Hewitt, and television’s man of clean “family values”, Bill Cosby.

Politics moves on after time with new leaders. But sexual abuse is not repairable: The abuser moves on, but victims remain traumatised.

“What goes around, comes around,” says the cliché. Sometimes the wheel does turn, and old skeletons come back to haunt. Will Zuma, in time, pay for his crimes too?

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




Skin deep: Is conflict still inevitable between colours and races?

SA rugby team

Who cares about race when the team is winning? Black and white players in South Africa’s Springboks celebrate their win over Argentina in Port Elizabeth last month in the Rugby Championship opener  (Photo: EPA)

THE past week’s events in the United States and Germany add fuel to a perennial question: What is a nation’s true nature, behind its outward veneer. What demons hide there, racial or otherwise? The relevance for South Africa is clear.

The US constitution posits a society with everyone equal before the law. Yet to President Donald Trump’s outrage, black American footballers refused to stand for the national anthem before a game, kneeling in front of thousands of spectators to protest police brutality towards blacks. For them, America is not what the anthem’s stirring words profess. Predictably, Trump roared publically in speeches and tweets that they must stand, or be “fired”. But they won’t.

Germany’s demons are emerging from the closet too, shown by dramatically increased support in last week’s federal elections for the far right, ultra-nationalistic party, Alternative for Germany, making it the Bundestag’s third largest party. It calls for Germans to stop feeling guilty for Nazi crimes, to honour Wehrmacht soldiers who served in World War Two, and to examine crimes of the Russian Revolution’s “Jewish murderers”. It has likened Muslim refugees and asylum seekers to “invaders” and expressed understanding for a right-wing nationalist’s mass murder in Norway.

Since the War and the Holocaust, Germany has resolutely presented itself as an enlightened democracy. Does this shift to the right signal reversion to previous identities – anti-Islam, anti-black, anti-Jewish?

Turning to South Africa: Despite its history, it is doing relatively well on such issues. Last Sunday marked Heritage Day, when people across the spectrum of hues, languages, religions and ethnicities celebrated their diversity, with different groups donning traditional clothing, hairdos and other items. While politically the country is under assault by corrupt shenanigans of President Zuma and the Guptas, assisted by enablers such as auditing firm KPMG and PR agency Bell Pottinger, who stoke racial tensions, as a society it shows a remarkable degree of tolerance, even friendliness, among different groups. It is by no means perfect; racism and xenophobia are often expressed by individuals and politicians, but in the public domain they are generally slapped down as anti-South African.

Beneath the surface, racial tensions will take generations to solve – if ever. And the dynamics of race relations are more complicated than just black and white.

An excellent film in Afrikaans (with English subtitles) currently on circuit called Vaselinetjie, unpacks some of the fine nuances of what skin colour means, beyond the black-white labels. It portrays a young white-skinned girl’s anguish growing up in a poor Coloured village, reared by her Coloured ‘grandparents’, who is maliciously derided by school peers for being “too white.” At the school principal’s prodding, she is sent to a Johannesburg orphanage containing white kids. They regard her as white, but she never feels safe enough to reveal that her grandparents are Coloured, or how this situation came about. The veneer collapses when her grandparents attend a social event at the orphanage, leading friends she had trusted and loved to label her, contemptuously, as a “half-breed” – not white enough, nor black enough to fit in. She is shattered, but clings to the memory of her grandmother’s words: “G-d doesn’t make mistakes.”

What is it to be South African? White minorities – Afrikaners, English, Jews and others –  fear for their long-term future among the country’s huge black majority, still struggling with the racial legacy of its history. So do minorities like the Coloureds.

Racial demons lurk everywhere despite grand proclamations of liberal constitutions, including Trump’s America’s or Merkel’s Germany. Is South African society far enough down the road of multiracial tolerance to stay on track?

There are good and bad signs. But mischievous politicians scratching the wound for expedient ends could easily sabotage the idealistic “rainbow nation” project once again.

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

  • Read a review of the film Vaselinetjie by arts critic Robyn Sassen 



Master stories and their multiple virginities

ZumaRamaphosaHomelessMan 3

Stories are slippery things: Who tells the real story of South Africa? Is it politicians like President Zuma, whose people spread smears about contenders like Cyril Ramaphosa? Or a homeless man in Johannesburg, one of 30 million South Africans living in poverty?

NIGERIAN poet and novelist Ben Okri wasn’t referring specifically to South Africa when he wrote: “To poison a country, poison its stories… A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves.” But he might as well have been, if measured by the toxicity pervading our body politic today.

As the ANC’s December conference to elect a new president approaches, rumours are heard that powerful politicians fearful of losing control might create such chaos, it would be aborted. The “poisoners” of this nation propagate carefully-timed smears such as the supposed extra-marital affairs of presidential contender Cyril Ramaphosa, with objectives so obvious that a child could see through them: Can you trust a politician who has an affair (even if Ramaphosa has admitted to one several years ago)? Previous ominous smears have said opposition to the ANC is a western plot for “regime change” rather than democracy at work. Or that former public protector Thuli Madonsela who revealed the curse of state capture, was a CIA agent.

But politicians will be politicians. Okri also said: “The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.” The next few months will be a roller-coaster of magician-like, dirty tricks as President Jacob Zuma fights Ramaphosa’s rising popularity.

Not only South Africa lives in almost surreal times; it is everywhere. No-one knows what to believe, as fake news goes viral through Twitter and Facebook. Historians fifty years down the line will try, with the benefit of hindsight, to penetrate the fog. But even historians always differ on the “real” story.

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. A moving memorial and museum containing names of the 3000 people killed was created at Ground Zero. But that story is far from finished or understood. Will future historians call it the beginning of the Third World War? Or the West’s wakening to the scourge of terrorism from which even America was not immune, and the beginning of the fightback? Or the grossness of powerful politicians whose reactions created more hatred and chaos rather than less.

Stories are told differently as events recede. Barney Simon, icon of South African theatre and co-founder of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, whose craft was story-telling, remarked: “A story has a thousand virginities.”

What does this mean? On the street, for example, immigrants to this country from Eastern Europe or elsewhere – such as Jews, Italians, Greeks and other communities, some of them refugees – often arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with nothing but a suitcase and a story. Many were unable to even speak the language. Forced to reinvent themselves, their families now tell stories of resourcefulness and success – within a generation many children of these people were educated professionals. The same can be said for many later immigrants from the Congo, Somalia, Nigeria and other African countries, many of whom have established businesses and enterprises small and large.

So, are the master stories South Africans are telling about themselves, healthy or poisoned? Is it still triumph over apartheid and inspirational attempts by blacks and whites on the ground to overcome racism? Or the epic of great reconciler Nelson Mandela which made us the darlings of the world – though some young people call him a “sellout” for negotiating with the apartheid government to avert a civil war? Or a tale of intense disappointment at the country’s decline to junk status economically, socially and politically so soon after the Mandela euphoria? Stats SA says one in two South Africans – about 30 million people – live under the poverty line, more than ever before. Is this fixable, and who can do it?

It is not clear whether this country will drown in its poisonous stories, or negotiate the current mess and thrive heroically in its healthy ones. Okri never gave us a crystal ball.

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


South Africa, be cautious when you romanticise the liberator


Heroes who liberate a country: Will they always do the right thing? Nelson Mandela allowed serious errors in SA’s new democratic constitution, says Madonsela

GIVEN former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s hero-status for exposing state capture under President Jacob Zuma’s government, and her determination to get South Africa back on track – to “re-anchor” it – it was interesting to hear her criticise the visionary who contributed more than anyone else in bringing about non-racial democracy – Nelson Mandela. Not for malice, but naiveté.

Addressing a conference in Sandton on Sunday, she said Mandela had erred by not sufficiently empowering the people in the new constitution adopted in 1996. Its framers gave excessive power to public officials and too little directly to the people. For this, the country had paid dearly as officials from the president down, ran amok with their power, with little regard for the law and the people.

South Africa is admired for adopting, after the first democratic election in 1994, one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. But, said Madonsela, the country believed naively at the time that because of this, and the fact that illustrious struggle heroes – such as Mandela – would occupy major power positions, the spirit and letter of the constitution would be rigorously implemented, creating a better country.

For example, economic growth and redistribution would be actively pursued – crucial to reducing inequality. But instead, misguided government policies with devious agendas and mismanagement, and state capture by powerful private interests, created almost no growth. Overall unemployment was around 30 per cent and youth unemployment 50 per cent, while billions of rands was illicitly laundered through Dubai by officials and private families – the Guptas, although she avoided naming them – with government connections. Some R240m of public funds was used to upgrade President Zuma’s private home.

Contrary to the constitution’s intentions, Zuma and his cronies have abused their powers, rather than being guardians of the people’s interests. Self-enriching guzzlers feeding at the public trough. In many cases, people have watched helplessly as the country slides downwards, while officials appointed by party bosses perform abysmally, yet can only be removed by voting the governing party out at the next election, which takes place every five years.

It is an oft-repeated historical theme that when liberation fighters defeat former despots, they often become as bad as them, while ordinary people remain poor and powerless. Apartheid itself was created by Afrikaners fighting for liberation from English dominance; they then went on to become harsh rulers in their own repressive regime. The rise and rise of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is another case.

During the decades of apartheid rule, vibrant civil society organisations and individuals rose up to defeat the racial system. After 1996, however, in the euphoria of the new democracy, it was believed the constitution would ensure protection of people’s rights. In many cases the opposite has happened, because of despotic officials and the people’s insufficient say in how institutions and officials operate.

Speaking of her own office when she was public protector – one of several “Chapter Nine” institutions created by the constitution to protect democracy – her initial vision was to be the “voice of the people” to protect them from abuse by officials. But during her tenure, the concept changed to the public protector being more of an “enabler” for helping people speak with each other when necessary – ordinary people and officials.

One case where this had succeeded, she described, was where residents in a rural area who performed work for the government weren’t paid; instead of confronting the usual bureaucratic channels, she brought these people together in a room with officials familiar with the place the complainants came from, so they could explain the situation; the matter was settled.

The lesson of the crisis of South Africa today is to beware of romanticising liberation struggle heroes. Not to believe they are saints, incapable of erring. The chaos and corruption in the ANC – the once revered liberation movement – is enough proof. But even icons like Mandela should be treated with a healthy dollop of caution.

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


Sex abuse – no expiry date for the monsters


Rhodes U protest RU Reference list

Is your body yours or mine? Sexual abuse of women and children in South Africa is among the highest in the world.  In the picture, women students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown protest against what they call the culture of silence by university authorities towards rapists who remain on campus

THIS week’s welcome ruling by Johannesburg high court judge Claire Hartford in the sexual abuse case against Sidney Frankel, in which she removed the “expiration date” of 20 years for laying criminal charges for sexual offences, is a step forward in dealing with the scourge of children and women abuse. Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Frankel was accused by eight alleged victims of abusing them as children at a Jewish orphanage. He died in March this year, but the case continues against his estate.

People working in the field are delighted at the judge’s ruling.  The director of the organisation Women and Men against Abuse, Miranda Jordan-Friedmann‚ thanked the eight people who had lodged the case against Frankel for their courage and for exposing their most “intimate secrets” publicly.

It begs the question of how many other “Sidney Frankels” are at large. Sadly, this case hasn’t provoked the vigorous community-wide response and outrage it ought to have done. And regularly, there are rumours about similar kinds of incidents which get summarily quashed in a culture of silence and complicity.

South Africa is a sick society, known as the world’s rape capital. Researchers estimate that a woman born in this country has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read. A 1996 survey of reported rape cases in 120 Interpol-member countries ranked South Africa as the worst, with 119,5 cases per 100 000 population, compared to the United States’ 36,1 and England’s 8,8. Other sources showed 40 per cent of reported rapes were children under age 18. Current surveys show similar stats.

The trauma of rape goes further, into what happens afterwards. When they report a rape, women victims are often told that they provoked the man by dressing “provocatively” or are to blame because they “led him on”. At South African police stations they often have difficulty even laying charges or opening a docket.

Policemen are generally not properly trained to deal with rape victims, or are sometimes outright hostile towards a woman who has been raped, subjecting her to mocking and intimate questions. Organisations like the Union of Jewish Women have attempted to help victims in their moment of such immense distress by installing “rape kits” in police stations, containing medical and other items.

Abuse of women and children exists in communities everywhere in the world – Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and others. There is a tendency among close-knit communities to hush up such crimes for their good name. Brave “whistle-blowers” have often been the ones to expose the events – usually adults who were abused when young.

In 2013 the Jewish paper The Forward in New York, investigated reports of sexual abuse against young boys by two respected rabbis in the 1970s at Yeshiva University’s (YU) High School for Boys in Manhattan, a prestigious Orthodox Jewish establishment. The notion that this had happened at so venerable an institution was breathtaking; the instinct was to say “Keep it quiet. It can’t be true!” The paper was pressurised to keep it quiet.

It raised memories of scandals about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, when Catholic papers were similarly pressurised.

When word got out about The Forward’s investigation, numerous men in their 50s and 60s called to report abuse they had suffered as students at YU, eventually filing a $380 million lawsuit against it for covering up the saga. The university has since instituted policies with multiple avenues for reporting and acting on abuse and equipping teachers and parents to immediately recognise any signs.

Exposing abusers is the best deterrent, but it has to be done properly or it can cause more harm than good. Last year, Rhodes University female students in Grahamstown, frustrated with feeble university policies that allowed men accused of rape to remain on campus, compiled and distributed a list of alleged rapists called the #RUReferenceList. They marched on the campus and went to the residences of alleged rapists to demand accountability, and delivered a memorandum to the university demanding changes in policy.

But was this action done in an irresponsible way? The obvious danger is that false accusations may be made against a man for nefarious or spiteful reasons, which could cause irreparable damage to someone who is accused but may be innocent. The process of identifying abusers must be more rigorous if it is to avoid the danger of becoming a witch-hunt.

After a pregnant woman was gang-raped a few weeks ago by eleven men elsewhere in South Africa, a new campaign took off country-wide to protest women and child abuse under the hashtag #MenAreTrash.

Does the law apply equally to all? In 2011, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to seven years in jail.

But in South Africa, in an unforgettable incident in August last year, four brave young women rose to stand silently with handwritten posters decrying rape in front of President Jacob Zuma as he addressed a gathering of dignitaries in Pretoria. Zuma had been accused of the rape in 2005 of a woman called Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo known as “Khwezi”. He was found not guilty, but the case remains shrouded in suspicion and many people question his innocence.

Will the Frankel case inspire communities to institute strong mechanisms for detecting sexual abuse and acting on it? What has happened in previous years and how it was dealt with under prevailing attitudes at the time – such as keeping it quiet and moving the perpetrator to another job or institution rather than exposing and punishing him – cannot be undone. But too often people who report abuse in South Africa even today are told they are making trouble, or that their claims cannot be taken seriously.

Public exposure of perpetrators is painful but imperative. The Frankel judgement this week makes that more possible in Johannesburg.

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



Is Jacob Zuma the new King Kong?


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: )


Fierce journalism takes on the mafia state

Lansky and Zuma

Where do gangsters go when the law comes after them and they run out of options? American mobster Meyer Lansky tried to flee to Israel. President Jacob Zuma, after turning South Africa into a mafia state, may look northwards to Dubai

IS ESCAPE possible for President Jacob Zuma from the mafia state he has created with the Guptas in South Africa? If he flees to the Dubai mansion he reportedly owns to evade prosecution for corruption – as some people predict – he will probably be allowed in. But high-profile crooks don’t always find refuge. A famous case is American Mafia kingpin Meyer Lansky who tried immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return.

Lansky and ‘Bugsy’ Siegel were central 20th century Jewish mobsters, involved in bootlegging, extortion, murder and gambling. They helped build the National Crime Syndicate in the 1930s and ‘40s, a partnership between Italian and Jewish organised crime. Founding members included Al Capone, Frank Costello and Dutch Schultz. As a Jew, Lansky couldn’t be part of the Italian-American Mafia, but worked with members such as Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. Police and government officials were routinely bribed.

During World War Two, in 1941, Luciano was imprisoned for racketeering. Lansky helped free him through a deal with the government: The New York Mafia, which controlled docks and shipyards, would report and thwart suspected Nazi sabotage.

In 1970 the government charged Lansky for tax evasion. In 1972, he sought to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return, but his application was denied because of his criminal past. Israel said the Law of Return doesn’t apply to Jews with criminal histories.

It might seem extreme to compare Zuma and the Guptas to American mobsters. But excellent investigative journalism by amaBhungane and Daily Maverick’s new unit Scorpio, which has exposed South Africa’s mafia state through 100 000 to 200 000 leaked emails, shows the Guptas run the country at the highest level. The harm done to the population and economy by their looting is just as criminal, even if blood is not spilt in quite the same way.

The journalists say they have carefully protected whistle-blowers, stressing: “This information is both too dangerous and too important not to share.”

This South African mafia may yet act against journalists through intimidation and violence. They have attempted control of media. In January 2016 the Guptas considered buying the Mail & Guardian, an avid critic, to add to their puppet outlets, television channel ANN7 and The New Age paper. Former chief executive of Gupta company Oakbay, Nazeem Howa, said in an email to one of the Guptas, “[The M&G claims that Zuma] is corrupt and should be relieved of his responsibility” and that the family has become “pawns in their strategy to unseat the President.”

South Africa’s strong civil society is increasingly opposing state capture, but is fragmented. The Zuma-Gupta mafia state, however – just like Lansky’s erstwhile American mobster network – is sharply focused. Zuma is like a wounded animal and his fightback will be dirty. “You don’t want to see the real Jacob Zuma” he reportedly said during an outburst at the recent NEC meeting of the ANC, threatening members not to “push me too far”.

Real journalism – the hard slog of uncovering and checking facts, and balanced reporting – is a craft, not a science. Skillful as its practitioners may be, crooks will exploit rough edges to protect themselves. Zuma already claims to be victim to a media campaign.

We are justified in being despondent about South Africa’s situation. But we must celebrate its independent, aggressive media.

Veteran Italian journalist Vittorio Zucconi of the Italian newspaper La Republica wrote about how Italy’s government tried in vain to sanitise the media for its nefarious ends after World War Two. But information is like water, he said: “You can try and channel and contain it as much as you want, but unless you find a way to dry it up entirely, it will find its way through the cracks.”

The South African mafia can’t plug those cracks. Dubai may be their only escape.

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