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Joburg mayor upsets Jews by giving in to EFF demands

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The Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, this week angered the Jewish community when he suspended a top official after she declared Israel a friend.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Jun 14, 2018

DA Member of the Mayoral Committee for Health and Social Development, Dr Mpho Phalatse, made a public declaration at a South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) conference on Sunday, calling herself and the City of Johannesburg a “friend” of Israel. The statement led to the ANC and EFF calling for her immediate dismissal.

The EFF and ANC threatened to derail the functioning of the City of Johannesburg and torpedo the budget process should Mashaba not listen to their demands, according to sources within the Johannesburg City Council.

The mayor was apparently caught between a rock and a hard place, and was coerced by members of the EFF, who demanded that she be fired in exchange for its approval of the budget. Phalatse’s comments came on the eve of the city’s crucial budget vote, which gave the EFF and ANC the ammunition to remove her from office.

Mashaba said that he had suspended Phalatse for “publicly” declaring that the city was a friend of Israel. “The issue of the conflict in Israel is complex, and requires a sensitive approach,” he said, pointing out that he was disappointed that Phalatse attributed her personal views to the city.

The furore may not have occurred had pro-Israel social media expert Ido Daniel not tweeted a video clip of Phalatse during the conclusion of her address. At 1:37 on Sunday, Daniel posted a tweet, attaching a video clip. In it, Phalatse proudly says: “I would like to declare that I am a friend of Israel and the City of Johannesburg is a friend of Israel. Shalom.”

This tweet remained dormant in the Twittersphere until it was randomly picked up by DA member Yusuf Cassim, who stumbled across it at 3:09 on Monday, 11 June, when he angrily tweeted in response: “On what mandate? These views do not represent the views of the DA nor that if (sic) the DA led Johannesburg. Charges will be laid accordingly.”

He seemed furious that Phalatse was “trying to pass it off as the view of the city”.

His tweet started the ball rolling, leading to a social media frenzy culminating in the ANC and then the EFF issuing derogatory statements and making demands. The EFF went so far as to call Phalatse “chronically incompetent”.

This is not the first time that the EFF and ANC has been hostile towards Phalatse.

They were not pleased when her department was tasked with awarding non-government organisation, the Field Band Foundation (FBF), a grant of several million over three years. Mashaba, a known supporter of the FBF, was accused by the ANC and the EFF of issuing payments of more than R11 million to the NGO, which is in charge of the city’s drug abuse-awareness campaigns. It is understood that the EFF expressed its dissatisfaction by means of angry threats directed at Phalatse under whose department the issuing of the grant fell.

Mashaba had no choice but to bend to the will of the EFF in this week’s debacle, according to the sources. Johannesburg has 135 wards. Under the proportional representation system, there are 270 seats on the council. Of these ,the DA has 104 seats, the ANC 121, and the EFF 30. With the help of the EFF and smaller parties, the DA’s Mashaba won the mayoral election by 144 votes to 125. The EFF continues to hold sway in the governance of the DA-led coalition.

After weeks of debate, multiple drafts, and the suspension of Phalatse, the EFF finally gave its thumbs up to the City of Johannesburg’s R59 billion budget for the 2018/19 financial year.

Meanwhile Phalatse, a medical doctor with vast experience in the health sector and a devout Christian, has been in touch with numerous members of the Jewish community this week following her suspension.

She has steadfastly stood by her attitude towards Israel, but clarified her remarks this week, saying, “I wish to stress that the remarks were an expression of my personal views, and I recognise that they do not represent the views of the City of Johannesburg or the DA, which I serve.” She apologised for the “confusion”.

At the SAFI conference on Sunday, Phalatse told the SA Jewish Report that Johannesburg is being afforded a unique opportunity to make use of Israeli innovation. “We work so well with the Jewish community here, which is at the very heart of Johannesburg,” she said. “Despite the political sentiments involved, we want to embrace this opportunity to learn from each other and grow as a people.

“Our approach to Israel must be based on its merit alone, not politics. The average person in South Africa has everyday problems and needs which co-operation with Israel can resolve. We must be above politics, and focus on the solutions it has to offer.”

The suspension was met with a wave of anger by the community. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) denounced the decision, saying that Phalatse was the target of “hysterical condemnation” as well as a “totalitarian strategy” to silence those with dissenting views.

It said Israel was being “demonised to a degree that bears no relationship to reality”. The Board further said that anyone who expressed an alternate opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict opened themselves up to vilification.

Ben Swartz, the Co-Chairman of the South African Friends of Israel, said the organisation was “appalled” and “devasted” by her suspension, saying that it was a “clear attack” on the Christian and Jewish communities of South Africa. “Anti-Israel bigotry does not merely threaten the rights of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of South Africans who are passionate supporters of Israel. It also poses a serious threat to democracy in our country,” he said.

On Wednesday, Marc Pozniak, the Chairman of the Board’s Gauteng Council, said that the Board had engaged with Mayor Mashaba’s office. “We note that Dr Phalatse has been suspended pending an investigation into her recent statements. We feel reassured that this process will be conducted with due sensitivity and fairness. As South Africans, however, we remain deeply concerned that certain parties seemingly chose to put their feelings of antipathy towards Israel before the best interests of their own city.”

Jewish communal leader Reeva Forman, said that she had been in contact with the mayor this week. In her capacity as a longstanding friend and colleague of Mashaba, both in business and social activism going back many years, she spoke to him “out of concern over the reactions of the Jewish community”.

“After speaking to him, I am convinced that Mayor Mashaba has the best interests of the city at heart. As head of the city, he has to deal with a very diverse community made up of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and I know that he has every respect for the Jewish community as well as all other communities. He does not wish to bring an international conflict into the Johannesburg arena.”

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