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Arsonists destroy family’s Mpumalanga bush hotel

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When a group of marauding arsonists torched and destroyed a luxurious Mpumalanga game lodge recently, it not only devasted one Johannesburg family but affected the lives and livelihoods of many in neighbouring villages.

The Seligman family of Johannesburg won’t be spending Passover at their beloved Bongani Mountain Lodge in Mpumalanga this year like they often do, after a gang of thugs set fire to the hotel they share and partly own, razing it almost to the ground.

The beautiful, and tranquil lodge, situated in the 8 000ha Mthethomusha Game Reserve that borders the Kruger National Park, is a burnt-out shell. The hotel is now out of business. Loyal hotel employees risk losing their jobs and countless local community businesses have been affected, from fresh produce suppliers to locally-sourced building contractors to laundry and security vendors.

Members of a local gang went on a rampage on Sunday, 31 January, destroying the 40-room hotel. The lodge was one of the late Nelson Mandela’s favourite retreats. He even had a special suite named after him following one of his visits.

Manty Seligman, one of five partners of the lodge, told the SA Jewish Report he was at home that Sunday afternoon when he received a telephone call from his lodge manager, Johan Meintjies, telling him that the lodge was under attack.

Hundreds of kilometres away from the scene, a frantic Seligman instructed his staff to vacate the premises for their own safety while he attempted to call for help.

“Fortunately, a group of guests had departed earlier in the day. I then called everyone including the police, the riot squad, and local community members,” he said.

Sadly, reinforcements didn’t arrive in time to assist the police, and the gang was able to “do what it liked”.

The details are sketchy, but it’s rumoured that the incident was sparked by the shooting of a suspected poacher whose body was found in nearby Mpakeni Village.

Members of the community angrily pointed fingers at the local Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency anti-poaching unit, which resulted in an alleged act of retaliation. The gang first attacked the barracks just outside the lodge which housed the Mpumalanga security rangers. The following day, they returned around noon making their way to the lodge.

Police spokesman Brigadier Leonard Hlathi told the SA Jewish Report this week that three suspects aged between 28 and 37 had appeared before the Kanyamazane Magistrates Court in Mbombela on Tuesday on charges of arson, possession of stolen goods, and other crimes.

He said that before the attack, a group in a white SUV barricaded the road leading to the lodge using rubble including stones and branches of trees, so it was difficult to get there.

“While police were clearing the road, people among the group proceeded to the lodge where they are reported to have broken several doors and helped themselves to liquor as well as other items belonging to the lodge. They also damaged some property, torching some of the rooms and other infrastructure before fleeing the scene with the stolen items, leaving behind a trail of costly damage. Employees at the lodge reportedly had to run for safety as they witnessed the horrific event unfolding in front of their eyes.”

While investigations continue, the shareholders are picking up the pieces after this “senseless attack”.

“Everything that wasn’t destroyed was looted, there’s nothing left,” said Seligman, “Only 18 years of wonderful memories that we have shared with family and friends at the lodge. I feel sad and disappointed.

“It’s a sorrowful indictment of our society. Sadly, this incident will have a long-term impact on the local community. The jobs of 80 employees, all bread winners, are now in jeopardy.”

He said he hoped this “needless tragedy” would result in the government moving to protect national assets effectively and to help uplift communities who are integral to the growth and sustainability of these assets. “Communities need to benefit from our heritage. We need to ensure that this type of criminality doesn’t happen again elsewhere.” If that were to happen, at least something positive would come out of this.

He said the lodge has a rich cultural history, with 250 recorded San rock art paintings.

The surrounding local community has expanded in recent years, as has unemployment and poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked further economic havoc in the area.

In recent months, Seligman said there had been a “huge upswing” in poaching. He had on several occasions warned local authorities of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency about concerns about safety and security. Last Sunday, a week after the incident, police discovered nine carcasses of four different animal species on the reserve, believed to be the work of poachers, according to police.

The family and other shareholders were involved in numerous outreach projects aimed at the upliftment of surrounding communities.

Seligman said these included education drives, and sponsorship of the local annual sports tournament, an initiative by 702 Talk Radio host John Perlman called Dreamfields. During the lockdown, the lodge’s staff distributed food parcels and continued to distribute sanitary pads.

“It’s heartbreaking. A lot of people have been displaced and have lost everything. No one is a winner here,” said Brenda Seligman.

The family spent many Shabbos meals at the lodge as well as special occasions like Manty’s 50th birthday party.

Police investigations continue.

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1 Comment

  1. Barbara Levin

    Feb 12, 2021 at 7:05 pm

    How absolutely awful. When we lived in SA, we used to spend the most wonderful family times in various game reserves although not in the above. A totally cruel act of vengeance. Many animals must have died too and I sympathise with the owners who appear to have made such an effort to help the surrounding communities.

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‘Wake up!’ say doctors, as third wave ramps up

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Communal experts this week issued a stern warning to “catch a wake up” as the community has been hard hit by death, severe illness, and an unprecedented number of infections which continue to rise daily during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is extremely severe,” warned Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare Group. “In Gauteng, we are in the eye of the storm, with things set to get a lot worse than they are.

“We should all be doing what we can to prevent a single death, to prevent people from having to be admitted to hospital,” he said.

The death rate has risen at hospitals, and hospital stays are about 20% longer, exacerbating the shortage of beds, especially in Gauteng, which is leading the uptick in infections.

“As I walk through our COVID-19 units, I see people struggling to breathe, fighting to survive this shocking pandemic. Every day, we are reminded of the pain, the suffering, and the enormous loss that it brings,” Friedland said.

Issuing a plea to the community to be hyper vigilant, he said, “I want to be abundantly clear that there can be no place for a lackadaisical approach.”

Several doctors this week told the SA Jewish Report that the situation was dire, with one doctor describing it as a “battlefield”.

“Patients, some quite young with no comorbidities, are really sick, with the vast majority on one form of ventilation or another,” said Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.

“Some severely ill patients are being temporarily managed in casualty because there are simply no intensive-care beds available at other hospitals,” she said.

“We are seeing a fairly young cohort, some with no underlying conditions, who are becoming seriously ill. The variants are more virulent and transmissible. We have had quite a lot of patients who have had COVID-19 before or who have received the vaccine, and got it.”

“We treat more aggressively, but there’s still no magic drug. We’re doing everything we can to turn the inflammatory response around. It takes some longer than others,” she said.

“Sadly, some people over 60 believe that once they have had the virus or the vaccine, they are safe. They aren’t. A lot of families including couples and their children are being infected,” she said.

At the time of going to print, Hatzolah had 501 active patients with 64 patients requiring oxygen at home. At least 11.7% of the active cases include children and young adults under the age of 20.

“There are a higher number of younger people including children than in the previous waves,” said Dr Anton Meyberg of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.

Sadly, the majority of patients are still the elderly over 60, but doctors have noticed a rise in the number of patients between the ages of 40 to 60, many requiring hospital admission.

There appears to be a disproportionately higher number of cases within the community, with doctors putting this down to complacency and carelessness about observing protocols.

“There is more testing, but people aren’t following the rules,” said Meyberg, “People who have been vaccinated are becoming lax, and there is a large asymptomatic spread of the virus.”

The country technically entered its third wave on Thursday, 10 June. According to the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, a new wave starts when the seven-day moving average of new infections surpasses 30% of the previous wave.

More than 70% of the new cases are now in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where there is evidence of a resurgence after a period of recovery, and there are daily increases in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

According to experts, the next two weeks will be particularly severe in Gauteng as the numbers steadily increase. Cape Town is a few weeks behind, they say.

Private-sector hospital admissions have increased four-fold since April. More than 500 patients are being admitted a day in the private sector in Gauteng, which is putting enormous strain on emergency departments fighting to open as many beds as possible to make space.

According to Hatzolah Chairperson Lance Abramson, there were 263 active cases at the peak of the first wave, 333 cases at the peak of the second wave, and now there are more than 500 active cases “with no peak in sight yet”.

“There are a staggering number of active cases in the Johannesburg Jewish community,” he said.

“Ambulances are transporting multiple COVID-19-positive patients to hospitals daily, where it is sometimes difficult to find a hospital bed. Patients are sometimes having to wait in ambulances in the parking lots of hospitals. This is very challenging for teams on the ground,” he said.

The organisation is also looking after 64 patients on home oxygen where they are closely monitored, Abramson said.

The organisation’s nurses are seeing between 80 to 100 patients a day.

Interestingly, Hatzolah has had 238 patients on the programme who have had a vaccine. Of those, 171 had received the first Pfizer vaccine, and 83 had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two the AstraZeneca, and one Moderna. Thirty eight patients have been fully vaccinated and of those, only one required hospitalisation and has since recovered, he said.

According to Dr Ryan Noach, the chief executive of Discovery Health, globally, vaccinations have materially slowed the progression of new cases and deaths. There are early signs of reduced COVID-19 infection rates among the vaccinated pollution in South Africa post 15 days after vaccination.

“There are signs that the first dose is working, with early data showing that there are less admissions post vaccination and fewer deaths,” he said.

Worryingly, he said, “The data points to the potential for a very severe third wave, and we’re seeing the beginning of it only now.”

He said more than 50% of adults 70 years and older require admission to hospital.

“Hospital admissions in wave three have reached the level of admissions at the peak in wave one. There are currently 2 012 Discovery members admitted to hospital, of which 526 are in intensive-care, and 275 require ventilation.

“A large number of people are showing evidence of reinfections. Discovery members who contracted COVID-19 in the first wave have again contracted COVID-19 in the second wave. Three members have now tested positive three times,” Noach said.

On 13 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that two million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses would have to be destroyed because the United States regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, found that the main ingredient with which they were made wasn’t safe for consumption.

As a result, South Africa has no J&J doses to administer at present, setting the country back in its vaccine roll-out in the midst of a third wave. The good news is that, according to the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, J&J will replace all the doses within the next two weeks, with 300 000 due to land within a few days and another million to be released by Aspen’s Eastern Cape plant next week.

In the meantime, doctors have appealed to people to be hyper vigilant and maintain all non-pharmaceutical measures.

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Archbishop’s anti-Israel stance “endangering Anglican Church”

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They have had a longstanding friendship and worked closely together, but when Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein saw Anglican Church Archbishop Dr Thabo Makgoba describe the situation in the Middle East as “evil” and place all the blame on Israel, he refused to stay silent.

In a hard-hitting open letter in the Sunday edition of City Press (6 June 2021), Goldstein told the archbishop that he was “making a terrible mistake that endangers your own church”. He explained that by supporting Hamas, “you are not only perpetuating the suffering of Palestinians and working against peace in this painful conflict, you are on the wrong side of history and in neglect of your most basic moral duty to protect the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, which is your parish.

“For while you castigate Israel for defending itself against violent extremists, know that the very same violent religious ideology drives extremists right here on our borders, and their intended victims are your Christian congregations.”

This isn’t the first time the chief rabbi has commented on the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s (ACSA) sharp turn away from Israel. In 2019, he condemned its resolution to support “well-directed Boycott, Divestment, Sanction actions” against the Jewish state.

The letter to which the chief rabbi was referring was written by the archbishop to his constituents on 1 June 2021, titled “A pastoral letter on the tragic situation in Palestine and Israel”. Makgoba compared Israel’s policies to apartheid, and wrote among other points, “The current state of affairs is unjust and evil. We therefore call for an arms embargo to be placed on all fighting forces in the region, just as there was a United Nations arms embargo on South Africa. We also call for other pressure, including sanctions, to be imposed to bring all the parties around a conference table to negotiate a just peace. The current imbalance of power means that the Palestinians are suffering disproportionately.”

But the chief rabbi methodically explained why the accusation of apartheid was “a defamation of the Jewish state, disrespectful to the victims of apartheid, and a dangerous lie, which brings to mind the Christian blood libels against Jews in medieval Europe”. He explained how attempts to establish a Palestinian state have repeatedly been turned down by Palestinian leadership, and emphasised the genocidal essence of Hamas’s ideology.

“Over the past year alone, about 4 000 Christians in Africa have been killed by Islamist extremists – Islamists who share Hamas’s ideology. More than 4 000 churches have been burnt to the ground. Archbishop, these people were murdered because they are Christian. Where is your voice in defence of your own parishioners? Not only are you silent on this issue, you publicly support the allies of the perpetrators of these horrors,” Goldstein wrote.

The chief rabbi told the SA Jewish Report he felt it was urgent to speak out because “the militant extremism of Hamas is the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and it’s a threat to people around the world, including Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims. Hamas wants the genocide of all Jews, just as other extremist groups want the conversion and murder of all Christians. This is a struggle for human dignity, decency, and moderation. Religious leaders have a crucial role to play in this fight for freedom.”

He says it’s even more urgent now because “violent extremists are wreaking havoc in Africa and globally. This includes those on our doorstep in Mozambique. I wanted to appeal to him, to other Christian and Muslim leaders to stand together in unity against the violent extremism that is encroaching, which is a threat to us all.

“It’s important to speak the truth and say it as I see it,” Goldstein says. “To accuse Israel of being ‘evil’ demands a response. Silence is acquiescence. How can we be silent in the face of these accusations, when we know they are false? It’s about speaking up in the name of truth and justice. It’s not about personalities or emotions. It’s the moral responsibility of any human being, especially a religious leader.”

Goldstein doesn’t think this debate will have an impact on his relationship with the archbishop.

“We have been friends and colleagues for many years. He was appointed the head of the Anglican Church in South Africa a year or so before I became chief rabbi. We had a lot in common, both being relatively young appointees at the time. We’ve worked together, marched together against state capture and corruption, and interacted on many forums. South Africa is blessed to have a very strong culture of interfaith co-operation. We meet and discuss, and I don’t see this as a breach of that. I see this as having a public debate. It was the same with my letter to the president [Cyril Ramaphosa], much of this has been discussed in private meetings, but I’m putting it out there because we are debating for the good of the country.”

It’s the same reason Goldstein called on the Muslim Judicial Council and Jamiatul Ulama South Africa “to join me in imploring our communities to be tolerant of each other’s vastly differing political and religious views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. This call, made at the end of May, was rejected by those organisations.

“We can have a different view, and we can all agree to disagree, but religious leaders need to show respect, peace, and tolerance,” Goldstein said. “If religious leaders don’t stand together, then these negative forces will divide us.”

The chief rabbi feels that by condemning Israel, “the archbishop is hurting the very people he is trying to help. Israel is a bastion of freedom and dignity in the Middle East for Christians, Muslims, and Jews to worship in freedom. By supporting Hamas, the archbishop is leaving the Palestinian people to suffer under the jackboot of violence and dictatorship. Hamas doesn’t believe in negotiation, so by supporting extremism, he is pushing the option of peace further away.”

Goldstein hopes that his letter “will provoke real debate within the Anglican Church. I have heard from Anglican rank and file members that they aren’t aligned with the views of the archbishop. In addition, millions of Christians who support Israel should be able to do so without being intimidated or threatened.”

He also hopes that this debate “will lead to a time for reflection for all religious leaders” and that they will continue to meet and keep the channels of communication open, as has been the case for many years.

“What I hope will be on the agenda for the interfaith movement is commitment across the board for religious leaders to preach tolerance, peace, human dignity, and to support forces in the world to do the same,” he says. “I hope all religious leaders will oppose in every way the violent extremism that is gaining ascendency, particularly in Africa. We can agree to disagree without denigrating each other. We must call out violent extremism with one voice. This is a wake-up call that we need to take a stand.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 9 June, the archbishop said, “Nothing in my letter suggests that I support violent attacks by one community on another or that I question the right of Israel to live in peace and security and that of the Palestinians to self-determination.”

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Biden’s daughter-in-law in SA for mom’s funeral

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The daughter-in-law of United States President Joe Biden was on route to South Africa on Wednesday to attend her beloved mother’s funeral in Johannesburg.

Melissa Cohen-Biden, 34, who is married to the president’s son, Hunter Biden, was due to arrive in South Africa on Thursday morning, just hours before her mother, Zoe Cohen, was to be laid to rest.

Zoe, 72, passed away on Monday after a short illness.

Although Zoe was the machatenesta of the most powerful man in the Western world, she was a formidable woman of strength and inspiration in her own right.

The mother of four was a well-known and highly respected social worker for the Chevrah Kadisha for many years and had her own private practice where she specialised in adoptions and surrogacies.

Messages of support have continued to stream in on social media since her sudden passing. According to her legion of friends, Zoe touched the lives of countless people in her bid to marry babies and children with their forever homes, and helped hundreds of couples become parents.

According to her son, Garyn, a special place has been reserved for his mother at Westpark Cemetery to honour her lifetime achievements and contribution to the community.

Her friends this week said she was “a little woman with a big heart” who never had a bad word to say about anyone.

“My mother was a special angel who always put other people’s needs before her own. Even though she was small in stature, she was larger than life,” said Garyn.

He said Zoe insisted on fostering children at the family home every weekend. “We had children from Arcadia and the Princess Alice Adoption Home stay with us every weekend. We used to joke that my friends got confused between them and my real siblings. My mom felt it was important for these children to experience what it was like to be part of a family.”

She also adored animals, taking in strays and abandoned animals as well as the family’s own pets. ”Our house was sometimes called ‘Zoe’s Zoo’. This is where my sister Melissa got her love for animals,” said Garyn.

The Cohens adopted Melissa when she was three years old. “My parents had three boys and all of a sudden, there was a little sister. Melissa changed the dynamics and completed our home. We adored her from the minute she came into our lives,” he said.

Zoe was diagnosed with a brain tumour on 22 April. She had surgery 10 days later, and passed away within weeks from a host of complications.

A devastated Melissa visited her mother in Johannesburg while she recovered in hospital after surgery, and stayed for a week in the country with her father, Lee. She was accompanied by security guards wherever she went, and the visit was kept under wraps. She left South Africa with no idea that her mother would take a sudden turn for the worst.

“When Melissa was here, our mother was doing well. She couldn’t believe it when we called her to say that our mom was gone. They were very close. She is heartbroken.”

At the time of going to press, Melissa was on her way back to South Africa. The family waited for her to arrive before the funeral could take place on Thursday.

She left her baby, Beau, with Hunter in Los Angeles where the couple live.

Said Garyn, “Hunter would have loved to have joined her, but he stayed behind with Beau. He adored my mother. They got on very well from the moment they met. My parents visited Melissa and Hunter in America, and spent time with them there. Unfortunately, they didn’t get to meet Joe and Jill Biden at the time.”

Melissa’s brother, Dalan, and his wife, Amy, who live in Atlanta, joined the couple at the presidential inauguration. Their other brother, Joshua, lives in Canada and has yet to meet the Biden clan.

This will be the first time the four siblings will be together in a long time.

“It’s wonderful for us, but our mom will be missing,” said Garyn.

As tributes continue to pour in, clinical psychologist Mandy Rodrigues said Zoe was a “legend in the field of fertility”.

“Zoe has been a constant in all our lives in the field [of fertility]. How do you say goodbye to someone who has always been a wise, humble, and dedicated worker in the field you were passionate about? Someone who contributed so much time not only to making us more aware of adoption, but mentoring many of us. You always taught me to act within the confines of the law, no matter how many hearts were broken, and we shared so many cases over the years.

“I remember you as someone with integrity and so much wisdom and kindness. You always made the needs of babies and children in your care your number-one priority. Your name will always be linked to those of us you have blessed families with.”

The Cohen siblings and their father will sit shiva together at Garyn’s Johannesburg house, where, no doubt, they will reminisce about their colourful childhood.

According to the family, Zoe studied social work at the University of the Witwatersrand and worked at the Princess Alice Adoption Home for many years. She was in private practice for many years where apart from adoptions, she also did grief and trauma counselling. She often opened her home to women who had nowhere to turn, and placed thousands of abandoned children. She also worked with fertility clinics, and helped countless couples on the road to parenthood.

Due to COVID-19, the funeral will be restricted to 100 people, but it’s expected many will be turned away as her popularity knew no bounds, say her children.

She is survived by her loving husband of 50 years, Lee, children Dalan, Garyn, Joshua, and Melissa, and eight grandchildren.

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