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Artists explore dance’s power in war and peace

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Dance is a powerful tool in the fight for social justice and healing those impacted by conflict.

These topics as well the ability of dance to traverse history and create meaning for new generations were explored in a recent webinar, “Stories of peace and resistance through dance”.

Presented by the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation and Austrian Embassy in Pretoria, the webinar formed part of a lecture series titled “Women’s agency during Nazism”.

The work and life of late Austrian dancer Hanna Berger, one of the most prolific representatives of modern dance in the 1930s and 1940s and a passionate anti-Nazi activist, is an example of the impact of dance as a form of resistance.

Berger became a proponent of what is known today as the free dance movement. Her move away from the classical ballet style to focus on feeling and expression through dance was innovative and revolutionary.

Arrested in 1942 on charges of communist affiliation and suspicion of committing high treason, Berger was sentenced to hard labour in a concentration camp. Yet she soon escaped during the Allied bombing of Berlin.

She returned to Vienna in 1945, and dedicated the rest of her life to the research and development of dance in all its diverse forms.

Speakers Dr Andrea Amort and Eva-Maria Schaller reflected on Berger’s enduring impact, examining dance as political art during the interwar period and World War II, as well as its practice today.

A professor at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna, dance historian Amort has revived Berger’s work through various media.

“One of the few dance artists of the period who demonstrated a clear and political commitment to her work, Berger’s solo choreographed works often included political elements such as the brandishing of a red flag,” said Amort. “She maintained connections to an anti-Nazi resistance network in Berlin known as The Red Orchestra.”

In her 2019/2020 exhibition, “Everybody dances. The Cosmos of Viennese Dance Modernism”, Amort looked at how lively the dance scene was before and during World War II.

The exhibition also dealt with the emigration and displacement of many – mostly female – artists. As part of the exhibition, artists reconstructed and reworked the dances of the time.

One such renowned dancer is Austrian Eva-Maria Schaller, who performed the Hanna Berger solo piece, L’Inconnue de la Seine about an art icon – a death mask of a beautiful woman who was found in the River Seine in Paris – a poetic myth that inspired many artists.

“This was the starting point for me to occupy myself further with Hanna Berger,” said Schaller. “I found the material inspiring particularly from a contemporary point of view.”

Amort also gave Schaller extensive archival material on Berger, including the dancer’s own writings. So fascinated was Schaller with the story and work of Berger, she spent almost three years developing her own showcase of three of Berger’s seminal dances, namely Krieger (Warrior), Aufruf (The worker’s cry), and the aforementioned L’Inconnue de la Seine, the core piece of the performance.

Merging these pieces into a contemporary approach to dancing, Schaller performed the resultant production, Recalling her Dance: A Choreographic Encounter with Hanna Berger in Vienna last month.

The first dance, Krieger subverts the idea of a warrior, portraying him not as a hero but as a victim of his circumstances, illustrating the devastation and senselessness of war. “I wanted to take Berger’s text which describes her circumstances as a young woman in 1937 as source material and enter into it as a dialogue with my own physicality,” said Schaller.

Aufruf was apparently formulated during Berger’s imprisonment, and is a worker’s call to his comrades to break out of their routine and follow him. It represents “the idealistic spirit of struggle”, as one of Berger’s students wrote.

Immersing herself in Berger’s work allowed Schaller to process her country’s problematic history in a different way. “To enter it through a woman that I can admire and take inspiration from is one way to look at history. Reading and dancing allows one to really empathise and know something in its complexity. When it comes to war, the physical digestion of it opens other dimensions to dealing with such things.”

The power of dance to process history and find healing and peace is inherent in the work of the evening’s final speaker, Rebecca Davis. Davis is the founding director of MindLeaps, an organisation that runs dance and education programmes for underserved youth in developing countries.

Working with youth in countries including Rwanda and Uganda, Davis has observed the feelings of safety, unity, and freedom that dance can foster. “There are many stories from post-genocide environments where we’ve seen these qualities change the way that peace can be built after conflict,” she said. “We work with youth whose lives were completely interrupted, not because they were alive during the genocide but because their parents are survivors who don’t have the full capacity to raise their children to become what they might have been if there hadn’t been this war.”

Davis shared the story of Gloria, who was raised by her mother who was HIV positive because she was raped during the genocide in Rwanda. When her mother died, Gloria started to slip into prostitution. “Joining a dance programme changed the trajectory of her life,” Davis said.

“When she came into this space and saw other kids dancing, supporting her, and telling her she was a worthwhile human being, Gloria started to feel safe for the first time. One of the biggest things we can do to decrease the likelihood of conflict is to feel safe. From that space of safety, Gloria found a community.

“If we can learn from all the stories of our history that tie dance to peace, and celebrate these stories of change, we can unite to build the tools that we have available to fight genocide, to build peace, and celebrate reconciliation,” Davis said.

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Israel

Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome

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In spite of being crowned Second Princess in the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel, last month, Miss South Africa admits to having felt nervous about returning home to South Africa afterwards.

Lalela Mswane flew to Dubai and then Israel without the support – or knowledge – of the South African government, which had been pressurising her not to go for weeks beforehand.

“I didn’t know what was awaiting me [in South Africa]. I was anxious but optimistic at the same time. I had a warrior-princess attitude. I had been to hell and back. I felt like, ‘Bring it on!’,” she says.

But the 24-year-old need not have worried. A hero’s welcome awaited her as ordinary South Africans showered her with pride.

During a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, she expressed disappointment and anger at the government’s decision, and the mass criticism she had received in the lead-up to the contest.

“I felt abandoned,” she said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice.”

The starlet recognised the situation for what it was. It reminded her of the years of bullying she’d endured while growing up.

“I’m tenacity personified,” she quips. “I believe in standing for something. Even if you have to stand alone, or stand with very few people, be strong in your convictions.”

Born in Richards Bay and raised in Pretoria, the beauty queen discovered her love for ballet in the Jacaranda City, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for humanitarianism and creating positive change is what ultimately steered her towards competing in Miss South Africa.

“The dream [of being Miss South Africa] was planted in my heart when I was about seven,” she says. “I saw my predecessors do so many amazing things and the impact they could have.”

As a devout Christian, the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem was a dream come true.

“It was emotional. We went to the Western Wall and heard a prayer. I literally felt a sense of renewal and rebirth, and said to G-d, ‘Let your will be done.’ I was at peace from that moment on. For me, spiritually, that trip was everything and more.”

Mswane describes Israelis as “extremely friendly, very welcoming”, and even picked up a little Hebrew. “Todah”, she says perfectly. “The first thing I asked when I arrived was how to say thank you because I say thank you a lot!”

No trip abroad would be complete without sampling the country’s cuisine, and this journey was no exception. “Oh, the food! I think I gained weight. No, I know I gained weight,” she laughs. “I’m not a bread girl, but I couldn’t get enough of the bread there. It was so fresh! You could just get the sense that it was made with love.”

She’s even become a fan of Israel’s most famous dish – hummus.

“I’ve been converted. I had it the other day at a restaurant [in South Africa] but it didn’t hit the spot.”

Now that she’s back on home soil, Mswane is serious about placing the entire ordeal behind her and focusing on how she can help South Africa overcome unemployment.

“I don’t regret my decision one bit. I’m so happy I went. Israel was everything and more and I’ve often said that I would have gone regardless of the location. My stance was never political; it was me going to pursue a dream that I have always had.”

The battle has now turned to the courtroom where last month, nongovernmental organisation Citizens for Integrity (CFI) brought a case over the government’s withdrawal of its support to the high court as a matter of public interest. Although it failed to get the urgent hearing it anticipated, “no merits of the application were discussed. The only aspect discussed was urgency. The case continues,” says CFI founder Mark Hyman.

The application by Africa4Palestine (formerly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group) to be amicus curae (a friend of the court) wasn’t even heard by the judge, who asked it to leave.

The department of sport, arts and culture falsely claims on its website that the case was struck from the roll. Minister Nathi Mthethwa argues online that, “Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name.” He has yet to respond to an open letter by CFI saying it isn’t too late for him and the government to apologise to Mswane.

Says Hyman, “We remain steadfast in the belief that only when the government is held accountable for its unacceptable conduct toward its own citizens, and the courts make such orders, can we say that we are making South Africa a better democratic society. This is what we seek to do by fighting for the rights of South Africans in this case.

“CFI remains convinced that the government has avoided its obligations and has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and needs to be taken to task because of it. We believe that the government had no constitutional right to interfere in legitimate private business affairs in the first place or to bully such a party into submitting to the government position and to publicly sanction her for refusing to comply with its demand. We also believe that the government has unconstitutionally impaired Miss South Africa’s dignity by detailing to the public, in emotive terms, the nature of private discussions simply in order to justify a decision which it imposed on her.”

Mswane, though, has already put it behind her.

“I definitely cannot say I’m the same person. Before, I was searching for validation and support from everybody. Post everything, I feel like if something resonates with me deeply, I don’t need validation. Resonating with me should be enough.”

It’s often said that a person’s name has the ability to shape them. Mswane’s parents must have known this when they named her “Lalela” which means “listen” in isiZulu.

The greatest lesson she’s taken from the experience is to listen to her heart.

“If you know that you have found peace in a decision, do it, because you need to stand for something in life. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine, but you need to back yourself all the damn time.”

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‘Kosher’ prawns and mussels spark packaging alert

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For some Jews, kosher prawns and mussels would be a dream come true. So, when it emerged in December 2021 that two local treif seafood products had a United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) Beth Din kosher hechsher on their packaging, many laughed it off as a humorous error.

Others took it more seriously, saying that if prawns can be labelled kosher, there may be mistakes where the distinction isn’t so clear cut.

The prawns were a Woolworths product, while the mussels were from Shoprite.

“The erroneous use of the Beth Din logo on products is nothing new,” says a member of the local Kosher Consumers Organisation (KCO), speaking on condition of anonymity. “It happens from time to time and occurs throughout the world. It’s acceptable, and mistakes do happen, but only up to a point. We’re concerned about the frequency with which this is happening in South Africa. Almost every alert which goes out is about products which contain the logo when they shouldn’t, or products which contain the incorrect designation of parev or dairy. As consumers, it’s impossible to keep track. It also makes one question the reliability of the logo when it does appear on a product.

“Chocolate, cold drinks and the like is one thing, but prawns and mussels is another completely,” the consumer says. “This is unacceptable. It speaks to a breakdown in controls and systems of monitoring and approval. In an age of fake meat and fake cheese, the damage that can be done by the Beth Din logo on non-kosher seafood can be immeasurable. The response from the UOS has been tepid – one email sent to the community. One email only. What about people who have no email? Where’s the urgency?”

The KCO points out that “the treif seafood which bears the Beth Din logo is made in Cape Town. The latest extremely confusing alert which went out about wine which has the Beth Din logo on it, but also the Hebrew words ‘not kosher’ is also a product made in Cape Town. Following the passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels a year ago, the UOS of Johannesburg has taken over the kashrus operations of Cape Town.”

The group says it remains anonymous because it’s fearful. “We wish we could be open, but one cannot tackle the establishment these days without repercussions. We understand that our anonymity may prevent us from being taken seriously, and that’s a price we need to pay. But we’re concerned for our livelihoods. The Kosher Consumer Organisation of the 70s to the 90s was a powerful force in the community. Times have changed, the community has changed. But it had a great history and was well-received by the community.”

Commenting on the treif seafood labelling saga, UOS Kosher Department Managing Director Rabbi Dovi Goldstein says the error lies with the companies concerned. “Woolworths and Shoprite are longstanding and major clients of the Kosher Department, with thousands of kosher-certified products on their shelves. Both companies have been committed to the Jewish community for years and were most apologetic and co-operative in rectifying the problem when this printing error was brought to their attention,” he says.

“In both instances, the mislabelled products were brought to our attention by members of the community. Unfortunately, errors like these occur from time to time all around the world. When we were made aware of them, we remedied it by notifying the community via email and our various social-media channels, and we contacted the companies and had the products removed from their stores or the logo covered, to which they agreed.

“Where issues of mislabelling occur, we work with manufacturers to address the issue to ensure it doesn’t happen again and notify our community immediately,” Goldstein says. “In addition, over the holiday period, Villa Cape wine was also seen on shelves bearing an unauthorised logo, together with the Hebrew lettering stating ‘not kosher’. This was an unauthorised use of our logo, and the company in question has also been contacted and the products recalled from the shelves.

“The reality is that we have tens of thousands of products with our logo on the shelf, which is positive for the kosher consumer. The community is our eyes and ears on the ground, and may very well spot a labelling error on packaging on the shelf before we do as the kosher department. We have recently established a dedicated email for community members to send this kind of information through to our team. If you come across any product that bears our logo and seems unauthorised, please email notkosher@uos.co.za with a photograph and the details of the packaging, and we will investigate.”

Woolworths spokesperson Kirsten Hewett said, “We apologise for this labelling error. Accurate, transparent, and helpful product labelling is very important for our customers. The kosher authority notified us of the packaging error on 20 December 2021.

“We immediately removed all the incorrectly labelled products from our store shelves on 20 December. As an interim measure, a sticker will cover the kosher logo on the packaging while the label is being corrected. While we do have procedures in place to prevent mistakes, we are reviewing these procedures and will implement further controls to prevent errors in future.”

One community member complained directly to Woolworths, and shared extracts of the response he received. “Our technical team was extremely concerned to hear about the matter. All factories producing products for Woolworths are audited independently by various inspection services to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

“Following your complaint, we have conducted a full investigation with the manufacturer which involves a detailed investigation of the label printing and approval process. We have identified the error, and have corrected it immediately. We have addressed this with our supplier and reinforced the importance of following the correct labelling procedure. We take pride in adhering to the correct kosher practices when manufacturing and packing our kosher products,” the company wrote.

The Shoprite media team said, “The supermarket chain would like to apologise to its loyal customers for oversight of this labelling error. It has already agreed with the UOS of South Africa and Kosher SA to ensure that the packaging is updated and correctly labelled in its next packaging print run. A kosher alert was subsequently issued detailing the particulars.”

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COVID-19 – a Kilimanjaro for KDVP alumnus honoured in Canada

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South African-born doctor Graham Sher was surprised, speechless, and deeply moved to be appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honours, on 29 December last year.

This King David Victory Park (KDVP) matriculant, who has been chief executive of Canadian Blood Services (CBS) since 2001 and an executive from its founding in 1998, was honoured for his contribution to public health and for being instrumental in the development of Canada’s largest blood system operator.

During Sher’s time leading CBS, a national organisation with 4 000 employees, he has navigated the challenges posed by the West Nile virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome. Having also summited Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013 to raise funds for his organisation’s national public cord blood bank, his latest obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although I’ve managed many crises in the past, nothing has been as big, complex, sustained, and challenging as COVID-19,” Sher told the SA Jewish Report.

“In the many challenges I have had to lead the organisation through over time, I have had to be agile and responsive to understand what the nature of the emerging challenges are. I have had to protect the blood supply. I have made sure that safety is the single most important factor in every decision we make. I literally have been very close to the notion that a safe and secure blood supply is non-negotiable.”

When Sher emigrated to Canada after matriculating from KDVP in 1980 and completing his medical and doctoral degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, he could never have dreamed of being tasked with conquering such hurdles.

“I had an outstanding and phenomenal education at Victory Park,” says Sher, who was at the school from Grade one to matric. “I remember very well some of my outstanding teachers. A lot of people were highly influential in my life – Joseph Sherman, Jeffrey Wolf, and a number of maths and science teachers.”

His time at KDVP was important for him in many ways. “I came out of there certainly prizing the values of education and striving to do one’s best. I grew up in a household that was probably substantially below the economic norm within King David, so I was very grateful for the financial support from the community, the board, and others to help me get through my time there.”

It taught him, he says, that there are always people in the world less fortunate than oneself. “It has certainly influenced who I am and the type of work I do. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to spend my career working in the public rather than the private sector.”

After becoming the first person in his extended family to obtain a university degree of any kind, he initially undertook a post-doctoral research programme at the University of Toronto. While there, he was accepted to pursue speciality training in haematology, the study of blood and blood disorders.

“One of the reasons I chose to come to Canada as opposed to the United States is that I’m a big believer in publicly-insured and publicly-administered healthcare systems,” says Sher. “Those systems, which we have in Canada, are better health systems than those in which access to healthcare is dependent on one’s economic ability.”

In the spring of 1998, when Sher was comfortably settled in Toronto with a flourishing academic medical career at the University of Toronto and the Toronto Hospital, he was approached to become the vice-president of medical affairs of a new organisation that would be replacing the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Before he knew it, he had his first executive position with the organisation that became CBS. Less than three years later, at just 38, he became its second chief executive.

“My role as CEO is to lead the organisation, set strategy, ensure operational success, and make sure we can deliver against our mission and mandate. What that entails is delivering a large number of products and services to the healthcare system to support every hospital in Canada.”

Sher says CBS is unique because it’s a national organisation, meaning that it has a responsibility for delivering products and services to the entire healthcare system across the country.

“Although our name stresses the word ‘blood’, we’re involved in many other business lines,” he says “We’re responsible for collecting blood from blood donors in Canada, manufacturing it, and testing it, making sure it’s safe, and sending it to all the hospitals. But we’re also responsible for the collection and manufacture of many human-plasma derived pharmaceuticals. We run a diagnostic laboratory division. We’re also responsible for all of the work involved in stem cell bone marrow transplantation and organ transplantation for the country.”

Some of the organisation’s achievements during Sher’s time at the helm are developing new products and services, commencing work with the organ and tissue donation and transplantation community, and opening a national public cord blood bank to collect and provide lifesaving cord blood stem cells for transplant.

Sher hired Tusker, a guide company in America, to lead him and the 24 other members of the group up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest single free-standing mountain in the world, in 2013.

“Tusker’s owner turned out to be a Jewish ex-South African named Eddie Frank, who was a very good friend of one of my first cousins. He had a photograph of me at the Barmitzvah of my cousin, Paul Sher, 50 years earlier. To make a long story short, in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for personal and professional reasons, I landed up connecting with an excellent African Jewish guy who lives in the United States and is world famous for leading clients up Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Frank successfully led Sher, who was in the best shape of his life at the time, and the other members of the group to the summit and back. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life by far,” says Sher. “It was a complete life-changing event. It taught me that I could push myself to physical and emotional extremes in a way I had never really understood before.”

The previous year, the youngest of Sher’s three sons had his Barmitzvah at the Johannesburg-based Greenside Shul. “It was the same shul where I had my Barmitzvah,” says Sher. “Interestingly, the rabbi, Mendel Rabinowitz, was a good friend of mine at school at King David.”

Going forward, Sher wants to continue preparing CBS for the post-COVID-19 world.

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