Avoiding the blame game
COVID-19 has done so much damage to our world, and not just to the numbers of people who have contracted or died from it.
Nothing can be worse than someone you love dying from this dreaded illness. Having it hovering over you with long-term effects that have an impact on your life is also horrible.
Unfortunately, this pandemic has got to a stage in South Africa and in our community where we all now know people who have died from it and others who have been badly scarred.
We also know people who have been totally asymptomatic.
The point is this super contagious life-threatening sickness is like playing Russian Roulette – you don’t know how it will affect you. And in this second mutation in South Africa, the young and fit aren’t protected from the worst of it. Some are getting very ill or even dying. We don’t know how our bodies will react to it or whether we will be susceptible to getting it twice. See Dr Carron Zinman’s opinion piece on this page.)
In fact, there seems to be a number of different experiences of this virus. (See pages 10 and 11.)
When you go into certain public places, they take your temperature because that was originally believed to be a sure sign of someone with the virus. However, I have spoken to a number of people who have had COVID-19 but didn’t have a temperature.
Even the tests don’t seem to be 100% fool proof. There are many who get false negatives, which can have obvious dire consequences in spreading the virus.
This virus has caused so much animosity and anger between people. It’s par for the course to play the blame game, either with people who underplay the virus or are sticklers about maintaining the protocols.
I have witnessed people looking down their noses at those of us who stick to the letter of the COVID-19 laws, believing we are overreacting. While others thumb their noses at those who underplay the virus and don’t follow the protocols.
I believe we all have the right to what we believe as long as we aren’t harming anyone else. However, if you get on a plane with COVID-19, you are likely to harm others. If you know you have symptoms or have a good chance of having contracted the virus, you are potentially going to harm people if you go shopping, visiting, or mixing with people (even those in your inner circle).
I imagine that nobody would purposely do that, right? Unfortunately, it appears as if there have been many such cases within and without our community.
There are people who, in spite of knowing there was a possibility that they might have had the virus, got on a plane home or even went to a party. In fact, they may well tell you that they have been super cautious…
That almost feels worse than those who underplay COVID-19 as a flu because you believe they are following protocols when they aren’t. In such cases, you might just let your guard down a little with horrible repercussions.
I’m guilty of getting upset with people who put other people’s lives at risk. That’s the problem with this virus: when you take risks, they not only hurt you, they hurt others. In fact, they may kill.
If people didn’t take such risks, surely we would be able to get a handle on this virus and stop it spreading so fast?
I resonated with Dr Anton Meyberg’s comment (on a podcast with Howard Feldman during the holidays) about people who underplay this virus as a flu. He suggested they go and work in the COVID-19 wards without personal protective equipment (PPE). Obviously, they wouldn’t need PPE if they don’t believe it was a dire illness, why would they?
You see, I’m casting blame. And such sentiments have caused conflict between people, even within the same family. Even between best friends and life partners.
These conflicts are just more collateral damage from this horrific pandemic. So unnecessary!
It reminds me a little of how many of us were back in the apartheid days, when some of us supported apartheid and others didn’t. There were families in which one person was a card-carrying African National Congress member and another would treat black people as lesser humans. I know this is an extreme example, but there is a similarity in the anger and fear expressed.
With this as the backdrop to this first edition of our newspaper in 2021, I was inspired by an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa written by Benjy Porter, a businessman, a community stalwart, and a board member of the SA Jewish Report. (See page 15.)
Instead of blaming or looking for fault in the government or anyone, he offered to help wherever he could.
Recognising the tough task the president and the government have in fighting this pandemic and keeping the country afloat, he suggested where he could be of service.
Meanwhile, there are so many of us who condemn or bad mouth the government for not doing enough, making terrible mistakes, or not doing things fast enough. Perhaps they are right, but running them down doesn’t help anything or anyone.
What Porter is doing is an example to us all of what we can do, and if every one of us offered to help in some way, perhaps we really could make a difference.
We are a community of go-getters. We are a community who make things happen. We can also be a community in which individuals play the blame game and take unnecessary risks.
But if you turn that nastiness around and into positive action, we won’t have time for the blame game, nor will we be interested in it.
I’m not saying it’s okay to risk people’s lives, I’m saying let’s focus on helping and doing the right thing so we can get rid of this pandemic and killer virus as soon as possible.
You with me?
Let’s make 2021 the year we made a difference in defeating the COVID-19 enemy!
2020 matriculants in a class of their own
The 2020 matric group will go down in history as being the most versatile and resilient year ever. True, these young people had no choice, it was a matter of sink or swim…
They went into matric, believing they knew exactly what they were in for, whether they were prepared for it or not. However, then the world turned upside down with the coronavirus pandemic, and so too did their year.
Nothing they expected happened when it was supposed to. Nothing they had longed for was available to them. And all the years of expectation they had built for their final year of school was set aside for a whole new reality.
I can’t blame them for being disappointed. We all spend 12 years of school looking forward to that final year which includes being the elders of the school, prefects, the matric dance, and various other once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
These young guns had to make urgent plans to adapt and make the most of their year. While the schools did what they could, every matric scholar had to find a way of making this work for themself.
They had to dig deep to master their work under lockdown and, more often than not, the only contact they had with friends and teachers was online.
Yet their results were astounding, and they came through … with flying colours!
This is our annual matric results edition, which much like everything else to do with matric 2020, didn’t come out when it was expected to. We normally begin our year of newspapers in mid-January with the matric edition.
And although this special edition was delayed by the release of the results, our rock-star matriculants didn’t disappoint. I’m incredibly proud of them all. Kol hakavod!
In some schools, the 2020 results were better than ever – go figure!
I can’t help but wonder how their bizarre matric year will set the tone for the rest of their lives. Resilience and versatility are character traits that can only serve them well.
Would that we were all able to adapt quickly to any situation and make the most of it, with outstanding results. People who are capable of this can literally take on any task because they make it work for them. I have to say, I’m expecting great things from this year of matriculants.
Having said that, their challenges aren’t over yet.
Imagine having applied to three universities around the country and not knowing exactly which one was going to accept you and what degree you could do. Exactly! Instead of having two months or thereabouts to get ready for university, they had a matter of days.
So, they hung around for two months waiting for the moment they could make these life-changing, urgent decisions and act on them. Talking about living the phrase, “Hurry up and wait!”
And then there are those matriculants who planned to go on one of the Masa programmes to Israel. These include study programmes, internships, service learning, and Jewish studies. Many young people in our community take up these incredible subsidised opportunities. But this year, the 2020 matriculants who were anticipating leaving soon after the December holidays are still waiting…
These youngsters came home from their holidays all geared up to go. Then Israel closed the airport for 10 days. And it remained closed.
They are still waiting to hear when they are going to leave. They can do nothing but wait. They can’t start another course or get a job because they might be given 24 hours’ notice before they leave. So, they wait and wait, anxiously trying to fill their time. They were all looking forward to Purim in Israel, and now they may still be here for Pesach.
Thank goodness they are part of the versatile and adaptable 2020 group!
Talking about being given 24-hours’ notice to fly to Israel, our page one story is truly phenomenal. A group of South African olim had also been waiting for ages to make this massive move. Many had sold homes, packed up, and were ready to leave.
But when you are given 24 hours to leave your home permanently, it’s never enough time to say goodbye. Having said that, what a unique experience their journey to their new home has been!
International Women’s Day
As a newspaper, we don’t often commemorate international days like Women’s Day, not least of all because we have our own national Women’s Day.
But a highly intelligent male 15-year-old told me the other day that he’s so bored with modern-day feminists as they are all man-haters. I realised then that it was important to take every opportunity to dispel myths and strengthen the move towards equality and ridding ourselves of gender violence.
Feminists of any description aren’t man-haters, they are simply people fighting for women’s equality. Their struggle is around reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, and against sexual harassment and sexual violence.
I do understand that there may be some women who don’t like men, but that has nothing to do with them being feminists.
Men can also be feminists. It simply means being involved in progressing equal rights and opportunities for women, and it encompasses the social, political, and economic arenas. I would love to say that in South Africa we are past the need to campaign for change, but we aren’t.
While in our community women have far more power than in most, there is still disparity in pay, and mothers are more often than not left to look after their children (mostly on their own) while their husbands pursue their careers.
In society in general, women are the main breadwinners but also the ones who earn the least. They are estimated to earn between 15% and 17% less than men for the same jobs.
While these issues exist and need a concerted effort to sort out, because of our enormous problem of violence and abuse of women, that has to be our focus.
And this has an impact on our community too.
This year’s theme of International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. I’m asking every one of our readers to challenge themselves to stand up against the abuse of women. It’s often the smallest correction in what people say that has the biggest impact. Join me in choosing to challenge myself to fight for women’s rights.
Death and destiny during pandemics
I have lost friends, colleagues, and family members this year, people of all ages. How many of our legendary, most distinguished spiritual leaders have been taken from us around the world this year alone? How many wonderful young people have left behind grieving spouses and young children?
These are some of the troubling philosophical questions that arise from the COVID-19 pandemic. Others that we have thought about are:
• How are we to understand the deaths of young people in the prime of their lives from this pandemic? Was it their time? Was it part of G-d’s plan for them, or was it perhaps the fact that they broke the rules and interfered with the higher plan?
• Was the Holocaust part of G-d’s plan? Was it a punishment for something we did?
• Is there any spiritual insight to all of this?
Naturally, these are all very thought-provoking questions, and each one is deserving of a full essay – or an entire book – on its own. But this isn’t a scholarly dissertation. I shall rather share some general principles of Jewish philosophy and theology on how Judaism views the world, how G-d runs the world, and the interface of our own actions with providence, or G-d’s higher plan for the world.
First, it’s a principle of our faith that G-d not only created the universe, but that He continues to manage its affairs, even on the most micro level. He hasn’t retired, or semi-retired. He hasn’t gone on holiday to Mauritius and handed over the management of the world to a corporate hierarchy of gods and goddesses, demi-gods, or any celestial powers.
If G-d is running the world, then there can be no “accidents” and no “mistakes”, not even mere coincidences. Everything happens for a reason. Do we know why bad things happen, often to good people? Definitely not. We certainly cannot see the whole reason with all the hidden meaning behind every event. Our eyes of flesh behold only the external, the superficial, the tip of the iceberg. And even when we think we ‘get it’, there are still layers and layers beneath the surface that we are completely oblivious to. Indeed, there is, in the immortal words of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, a “vast eternal plan”, and every single event that occurs is part of that higher plan.
When it comes to the mysteries of life, we should try to understand that we cannot understand. Maimonides and other sages of old that said “the ultimate knowledge is to know that we don’t know”. Even Albert Einstein once famously said, “The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.” And Einstein’s most famous line on the subject was that, “G-d doesn’t play dice with the universe.”
We mustn’t just take the proverbial “shtum powder”, shrug our shoulders, and resign ourselves to not asking questions. No, we may ask. But we should also be wise and humble enough to understand that finite mortals cannot reasonably expect to grasp the workings of an infinite supreme being who is, by definition, impenetrable.
My late father, obm, once told me a story of two great spiritual leaders of old who had the following conversation. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was a renowned defender of his people. He poured his heart out to his friend and colleague, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya.
“Why do so many of our people have to suffer the oppression of the czar? Why are so many poverty-stricken? If I were G-d, I would see to it that every Jew has the necessary livelihood and good health to enjoy a better life.”
Zalman, more the philosopher, replied, “If I were G-d, I would do exactly as G-d does.”
“What?” cried the Berditchever. “How can you say that? Have you no compassion for your people?”
Zalman answered, “Don’t you realise? If I was G-d, then I would see the world with G-d’s eyes. I would know exactly why He does things. And I would obviously understand that what He does is, in fact, correct.”
When it comes to the Holocaust, there are simply no explanations and certainly no rationalisations for such a horrific tragedy – quantitatively the worst in our entire history. An event of such enormity is inexplicable and unfathomable to finite men and women.
My saintly teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was extremely critical, even angered, by those who gave explanations for the Holocaust, when they argued that it was because of certain “sins” of that generation. No sins could ever justify such a punishment! When I hear people say such things, I cringe. To rationalise the Holocaust is an insult to the memory of the six million! Who can dare to justify more than a million innocent children being butchered? Or thousands of rabbis, roshei Yeshiva, chassidim, Yeshiva students, and millions of fine, innocent, Jewish men and women? My father was the sole survivor of his entire family in Poland. Were all those holy martyrs sinners? G-d forbid six million times! In our lifetimes it will, no doubt, remain one of the deepest secrets and mysteries of life.
Of course, we believe that G-d has His own reasons and a higher plan for everything. But this one is clearly beyond human comprehension. We will never understand it until we reach the world to come.
Now, although each one of us does indeed have a destined number of years to live, it’s possible for one to forfeit years of one’s life through irresponsible behaviour. A person can cause his own premature death if he behaves recklessly. If a fellow decides to jump out of the window of the 17th floor wearing a Superman cape, arguing that, “If it’s not my time, G-d will find a way to save me”, he is pretty much committing suicide. Yes, he did have an allotted number of years which may not have been up yet. But the problem is that he has now gone and put G-d on the line, forcing Him to perform a miracle for him. But that individual may not be worthy of a miracle. Sadly, he will have then forfeited his life.
I have heard a doctor say that, generally speaking, COVID-19 is taking people whose time had come. That’s easier to accept when it comes to 90 year olds. But what about young people?
Concerning the great flood in the generation of Noah, Rashi, quoting the Midrash, says that there are extraordinary times when pandemic, chaos, and calamity come to the world and may sweep away good people with others. Is the COVID-19 pandemic such an event? I don’t know, but perhaps it may be.
Does anyone know the deeper reason for this pandemic? In the days of Noah, the people of his generation had become completely degenerate and lost all moral perspective. I cannot bring myself to say that this is a punishment for our sins today.
Clearly, there is a bigger picture behind a universal pandemic. No doubt, we should all be doing some serious soul searching as individuals and as a society. While we may not find the reason, we should certainly try to find the message. We should listen carefully, and if we hear a message that resonates with us and inspires us to do good, to improve our behaviour, to reach out to others in need, then let’s do so, and help make the world a better place.
Thankfully, much good has already come out of this pandemic as well. Many innovative ways of teaching and working have emerged. So much kindness and outreach is happening, which is nothing short of inspirational.
Please G-d may the pandemic soon be behind us, and may our world be completely healed.
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul and the president of the SA Rabbinical Association.
Six myths about land reform
Parliament’s plans to change the property clause in our Constitution to allow the state to expropriate land without compensation (EWC) have stalled. However, a freshly drafted Expropriation Bill has recently been distributed for public comment.
One of the more alarming features of the Bill is a section that would allow the government to confiscate land without compensation “where the land is not being used and the owner’s main purpose isn’t to develop the land or use it to generate income, but to benefit from appreciation of its market value”.
Government alleges that EWC is necessary to restore land that was stolen during apartheid; to redistribute land so that home ownership matches racial demographics; and to appease an electorate that’s crying out for land.
President Cyril Ramaphosa not only claims that EWC won’t hurt the economy, but that it will bring more people into the fold by helping beneficiaries to become farmers. Before adopting such a radical policy at a time when our economy has been devasted by the pandemic and lockdowns, we should do some much-needed myth busting.
Myth one: land hasn’t been given back to its rightful owners
South Africa has a dark history of land theft. Justice requires that the wrongs of the past are addressed by awarding compensation to the victims of land dispossession. Over the past 25 years, the Land Claims Court has resolved more than 95% of the claims that have arisen. More than 1.8 million individuals have received compensation either in the form of land or money, and fewer than 3 500 claims remain unresolved.
Myth two: home ownership is skewed along racial lines
Amidst the cry for land reform is the claim that we need to have a more equitable distribution of land based on the country’s racial demographics. We should be suspicious of racial-demographic thinking because it’s exactly what the apartheid government specialised in. However, for those who are sympathetic to it, home-ownership data demonstrates that racial groups own homes in almost perfect proportion to their numbers.
Myth three: people are crying out for land
When South Africans are asked about the country’s most serious unresolved problems, almost 40% identify unemployment, 33% raise lack of service delivery, while less than 1% are concerned about land distribution.
When people win their land-claim cases, they are given the choice of receiving land or financial compensation. In 92% of cases, people choose money over land. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because money translates into freedom. Beneficiaries can use that money to start businesses, pay off debts, or invest in the market. The facts show that land isn’t a burning issue for ordinary citizens. It’s an issue being capitalised on by a few radicals with big loudhailers.
Myth four: anyone can be a farmer
The government spent more than R1.4 billion buying farms in the Eastern Cape to redistribute to aspirant farmers. Of the 265 farms purchased, only 26 remain viable. In 90% of those cases, once thriving farms that produced food and employment are now in ruin. Being a farmer isn’t easy. It’s a technical job that requires an enormous amount of time, expertise, and money.
Myth five: the Constitution impedes land reform
Section 25 of the Constitution provides a roadmap for land reform while ensuring that no one is arbitrarily deprived of property. It empowers the state to expropriate property in the public interest, which includes land reform. A classic case would be the construction of the Gautrain project, which needed to run through privately owned land; or the acquisition of land to build RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) homes. The Constitution recognises that in such cases, private owners deserve compensation and the following test is used:
The amount of the compensation and the time and manner of payment must be just and equitable, reflecting an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected, having regard to all relevant circumstances, including:
(a) current use of the property;
(b) the history of the acquisition and use of the property;
(c) the market value of the property;
(d) the extent of direct state investment and subsidy in the acquisition and beneficial capital improvement of the property; and
(e) the purpose of the expropriation.
Myth six: EWC won’t damage the economy
This is akin to saying that a vow of celibacy won’t affect your sex life. Unfortunately, life involves trade-offs. You can’t remove property rights and have a flourishing economy. Foreign investors won’t risk having their land confiscated in South Africa when they can pick any number of other nations that will protect their investments.
One doesn’t have to look at Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the horrors of Joseph Stalin’s regime to know how bad this idea is. When Robert Mugabe implemented EWC in Zimbabwe, it led to the world’s worst case of hyperinflation. It wasn’t just the original land owners that were hurt, the average man on the street was left destitute after the economy was annihilated.
What this means
Once the above myths about land reform have been revealed, the following becomes apparent. Almost all victims of land dispossession have been compensated. Home ownership matches racial demographics. Barring a few opportunistic politicians, almost no one views land reform as a burning issue. The transfer of functioning farms to ill equipped beneficiaries has been a spectacular failure. EWC has been tried in communist regimes around the world, and it has wrought riches for a few elites and devastation for everyone else.
- Mark Oppenheimer is a practising advocate and member of the Johannesburg Bar.
*All statistics have been sourced from the Institute of Race Relations.
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