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Celebrating the loss of Madiba the South African Way

Now that the “father of our nation” is gone, asks Jewish Report editor GEOFF SIFRIN, the question peering at South Africans from every corner is: What comes next? Do they have the wherewithal to live by the principles and values he lived by, to do justice to his legacy? Do they have the “discipline” Madiba emphasised so often? Only time will tell.

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OP-EDS

GEOFF SIFRIN

ALL PICTURES BY BEN SWARTZ

One of the noticeable things characterising many tributes in South Africa to Nelson Mandela since he died last Friday is exuberant singing and dancing – to an outsider it would seem like a festival. What it shows is the ability of African culture to celebrate a life well lived rather than being dragged into a cauldron of despair. That energy was on display at the state memorial to Mandela on Tuesday at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, where tens of thousands participated despite pouring rain. 

For the western mindset, as for the Asian one, it is hard to imagine that when a great man has died, people will dress in colourful garments, beads and bangles, and everywhere you look there will be dancing and singing in his name. Africa has something to teach the world.

One didn’t have to be in the stadium to feel it. It was everywhere. Someone living in Johannesburg, for example, could drive to the neighbourhood of Houghton and join the crowds outside his house. You would find hundreds of people around a mountain of flowers, notes and candles. Black, white and brown people smiled, rubbed shoulders, hugged, sang and danced; a blond white girl laid down a bunch of flowers, then a black woman lit a candle, then an elderly white man asked a stranger to take a picture of him so he could show his grandchildren, then two friends, one white, the other black, wrote a message to Madiba on a big white board.

It reminded me of a message scrawled on a concrete pillar in Rosebank Mall’s entrance in June when the world thought he was about to die, saying: “Madiba, if it had not been for you, I would not be dating a white girl – Thabo.”

There were other kinds of tributes, like the Johannesburg Jewish community’s at Oxford shul on Sunday. When the 2 000 Jews packed in to hear former SA president Thabo Mbeki, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein and other dignitaries eulogising Mandela, among them was a frail, wheelchair-bound Rabbi Norman Bernhard, who hadn’t been seen publicly for years because of ill health. Mandela’s passing was so profound an event that whatever effort it took, one simply had to be there. Bernhard was one of the rabbis who, during apartheid, spoke out against it.

Ben Bord

Pictured are the SAJBD delegates Mary Kluk, chair & Wendy Khan, executive director; Israel’s deputy head of mission in Pretoria Michael Freeman; Pnina Tamano-Shata (Deputy Speaker of Knesset in foreground & board president Zev Krengel sitting next to the German Ambassador in the background

 
The central question Mbeki put to the audience was whether South Africa today had the leadership necessary to follow Mandela’s vision. The clear undertone of his message was that the current leadership didn’t match up.

The event at the stadium was important for South Africa’s sense as a nation. The world celebrities, representing over 90 countries, brought respect and admiration – not just for Mandela, but by extension for all South Africans. A leader can only go where his followers allow, and South Africans let him take them to places once unthinkable.

The African exuberance in the FNB stadium was boundless. The bleachers shook with song and dance. The master of ceremonies, ANC stalwart Cyril Ramaphosa, had to call on the crowd several times for “discipline”, pleading with them to quieten down so speakers could be heard. At one point a brass band at the far end of the stadium was playing loudly as the Indian president was about to speak, Ramaphosa bluntly ordered them to stop, saying their “beautiful music” could resume later. They put down their trumpets and cymbals.

Can you imagine a crowd of Americans behaving like that at a state memorial in Washington? Or a crowd of Chinese in Beijing? Here, it was not disrespectful, rather a display of togetherness which brought a smile to most peoples’ lips, even if it sometimes crossed the line.

On his way to the podium, US President Barack Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro, an extraordinary gesture for leaders of two nations which have long been enemies – another illustration of Mandela’s achievement. As one man remarked outside his house on Sunday night: “Even in his death he succeeds in bringing people together who otherwise would refuse to stand next to each other!”

Obama hailed Mandela as a “giant of justice”. However, he said, too many leaders in the world claimed solidarity with his struggle for freedom “but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” He spoke in front of an audience that included the leaders of decidedly autocratic countries like China and Zimbabwe.

 Other speakers were UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, the Cuban president, and the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India. There were tributes from Mandela’s grandchildren. Finally, South African President Jacob Zuma gave the keynote address.

Ben - Lenk EdelsteinWho could have guessed in the 1960s and 1970s at the height of apartheid that this is how the farewell to then-prisoner Nelson Mandela would look?

Pic: Foreground – Ambassador Lenk, MK Nitzan Horowitz, Yuli Edelstein (Speaker of the Knesset, Likud), Background, Avrom Krengel, SAZF chair

SA Jews were as caught up in the memorial’s passions as anyone. Many Jewish leaders were at the stadium. Behind the scenes, however, there was a note of disappointment among some, who had assumed that when the world dignitaries came, Israel’s leaders would be among them. But on Monday Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu announced he wouldn’t be coming, citing the trip’s high cost.

Many see the underlying reason for his absence as more political than financial. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, as is the troubled relationship between Israel and South Africa.

By saying the trip was too costly, Netanyahu touched a sensitive spot in SA Jews, who have been among Israel’s most dedicated financial supporters. Many felt that after all the aid SA Jews have given Israel, surely it could spend the cash to send its Prime Minister to honour South Africa’s greatest leader, as the whole world was doing?

Fundraising for Israel has been a cornerstone of SA Jewry’s Zionism. Prior to 1948, it was second only to the United States in absolute figures. In the first decade of Israel’s existence, it led the major world communities in per capita contributions, coming close to equalling the amounts raised in larger Jewish communities like Britain and Canada. It held a per capita record on fundraising until the end of the 1980s. This is aside from the other ways in which it has supported Israel.

As things turned out, the situation was alleviated through efforts of members of the Jewish community and the Israeli ambassador, who arranged for a delegation of Israeli MKs from different parties to represent Israel, including Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein, Hilik Bar of the Labour Party, Gila Gamliel of Likud, Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz, and Dov Lipman and Penina Tamanu-Shata of Yesh Atid. Tamanu-Shata is the first Ethiopian woman in the Knesset.

On Sunday, Mandela’s funeral will take place at Qunu in the Eastern Cape. For a brief moment in history, the world is looking at South Africa in admiration for the great man it produced. The Empire State building lit up its top floors in the South African flag’s colours; the Eiffel Tower made a comparable gesture; similar things are being done worldwide. South African supermarket chains such as Woolworths and Shoprite have announced that all their stores countrywide will be closed on Sunday as a mark of respect. 

Now that the “father of our nation” is gone, the question peering at South Africans from every corner is: What comes next? Do they have the wherewithal to live by the principles and values he lived by, to do justice to his legacy? Do they have the “discipline” Madiba emphasised so often? Only time will tell.

Ben IMG_0014 hi

Pictured at the “Calabash” stadium are members of the Israeli delegation, from left: M.K. Pnina Tamano-Shata (Deputy Speaker of the Knesset) (Yesh Atid), MK Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), MK Hilik Bar (Labour), MK Gila Gamliel (Likud) & Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz)

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Is the US losing interest in the Middle East?

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The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship is a really interesting case study for those who watch Middle Eastern geopolitics closely. Some background to current events is necessary to set the context.

On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally. Its human-rights record is suspect, to say the least. It was clearly responsible for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which caused a worldwide outcry. It has also been involved in a war in Yemen that has created a humanitarian disaster, with high civilian casualties and hunger, malnutrition, and illness in that country.

On the other hand, it’s a strategic US ally, and a stable, pro-Western country. It entered the war in Yemen for good reason – to prevent the Iranian-aligned Houthi forces from taking over the country. It was also the second biggest oil producer in the world in 2020.

President Joe Biden was left with a difficult choice. Heading up a Democratic administration, which supposedly prides itself on its support for human rights, he couldn’t leave things as they were. On the other hand, he couldn’t damage the US’s vital strategic and national interests. To this end, he seems to have attempted to walk a fine line by taking the following actions:

He released a redacted intelligence report that blamed the crown prince for being behind the murder of the journalist, but took no further action. He has made it clear that the US no longer supports the operations of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and has temporarily paused the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, but has allowed the continued sale of defensive arms.

More importantly, he didn’t act when Saudi oilfields were once again attacked by Houthi missiles and drones on 7 March, which led to a spike in oil prices briefly above $70 (R1 021) a barrel.

The US said on the Monday that its commitment to defend Saudi Arabia was “unwavering”, and in a Twitter post, the US mission in Riyadh condemned the attacks, which it said demonstrated a “lack of respect for human life” and a “lack of interest in the pursuit of peace”. However, the US took no further action.

The main issue, however, which is being brought to the fore by the awkward US-Saudi dance, is that the US is losing interest in the Middle East. The area is much less of a priority than it used to be.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the US no longer relies on imports of oil from the region. Last year, according to The Economist, the US was in fact a net exporter of oil and natural gas.

Second, the US has been involved in long and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost trillions of dollars and achieved very little.

Finally – and this has been the policy across three US presidents now – the US wants to pivot to Asia and focus much more on countering a rapidly growing and influential China. It wants to lighten its burdens in the Middle East, and instead focus its energies on what everyone believes will be the world’s leading growth region of the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean the US will withdraw totally. It still has troops all over the area, and has vital interests in preventing a nuclear arms race there and not allowing terrorist groups to grow and find sanctuary. However, given recent events, it seems clear that it will scale down its activities and no longer expend the time and energy it has in the past. Its military activities will be curtailed.

The effect of this clear signal from the US has been dramatic, and it no doubt played a major role in the Abraham Accords and signing of peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If and when the Saudis join the emerging Israel-Sunni reproachment, it will no doubt also be due to the fear of less US involvement in the region and of therefore having to face their enemies alone.

While this development has been positive for Israel in that it now has new strategic allies in the region, bringing much more diplomatic strength and regional influence, in the long term, there must be concern.

The US moves towards Saudi Arabia are a portent for it becoming much less involved in the region, and clearly show its intention not to be dragged into any more wars there.

While Israel now has a lot of new allies as a result, and it seems the friendships will be warm, none of the new allies are major military powers. Local regional alliances, useful as they are, cannot replace the world’s main superpower, and an unstable region will surely become still more unstable without the US’s active presence.

Israeli leaders have long suspected this, but the fact that the US hasn’t responded militarily to the two recent attacks on the Saudi oilfields when in the past, under any president, there would have been a robust and strong response, shows how dramatically things have changed. The US can no longer be relied on as a military ally. Israel will be left to fend pretty much for itself if and when the next war breaks out in the Middle East.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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Pretoria’s Old Synagogue: from simcha to shande

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On a recent visit to Tshwane, I was horrified to see the dilapidated state of the Old Synagogue on Paul Kruger Street in the city centre, which is a heritage icon for Jews and South Africans.

So many happy recollections of weddings, Bnei mitzvah, and Brit Milahs flooded my memory, and my eyes filled with tears. I thought of the significance of this majestic building that witnessed the start of the Rivonia Treason Trial of 1960 and 1964, as well as the inquest into the death of Steve Biko.

Today, the building lies in ruins, designated to the ash heap of a bygone era. The pain in my chest was acute as I looked at this wonderful monument that has been vandalised and abused instead of being cherished and preserved for generations to come.

As part of my oversight visits to buildings owned by the department of public works and infrastructure, I was asked by Councillor Wayne Helfrich and Candidate Councillor Leanne de Jager to come to Tshwane to investigate a number of heritage buildings. The belief was that while they had all been abandoned, they could be repurposed and reused.

It’s of the utmost importance that buildings such as this magnificent shul should be preserved at all costs to tell the stories of a bygone era. It needs to serve as a reminder of the tremendous impact it played as a catalyst to the birth of democracy in South Africa.

The first stone of the Old Synagogue was laid in 1897, and the shul was consecrated on 20 August 1898, making it the first permanent shul in Pretoria.

As a result of the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the community had financial constraints. In 1906, legendary philanthropist and businessman Sammy Marks settled the mortgage of the shul, and donated it back to the community. He had three strict instructions:

  • The property couldn’t be sold, ceded, or assigned to anyone, but was to be used exclusively for a shul in perpetuity;
  • No mortgages, charges, or encumbrances could be applied or laid on the property; and
  • The house on the property could be used only as the residence of the minister of the congregation (rabbi) or some official of the shul.

What would Sammy Marks be thinking today? He and his descendants would be horrified if they stood where I stood and saw – and smelled – the destruction that greeted us when we entered the building.

I can still feel the heaviness in my heart as I gazed up at the once ornate, beautiful ceiling and the galleries that had held so many faces smiling down on the simchas that marked this building’s history.

But the building wasn’t just a source of joy and miracles. In 1952, the growing Jewish community moved to another building in Pretorius Street, taking its Aron Kodesh, menorah, cornerstone, and stained-glass windows with them to their new home that could accommodate increasing numbers.

The site was then expropriated and transferred to the state with the intention of redeveloping the entire block on which the shul stood into a new Supreme Court.

In 1958, it was modelled as an annex of the Supreme Court for security-related cases. The striking sandstone façade of the building was neutralised by painting it cream. Two utility buildings for police accommodation, holding cells, and witness waiting rooms were added.

This further dehumanised this once magnificent vestige of Jewish life in Pretoria. These utility buildings were created with strict racial segregation, another painful reminder of our tragic past.

The area of the Aron Kodesh and bimah were converted into judicial benches, windows, were bricked up, the Magen David replaced by the South African coat of arms, and the seating converted to that of a conventional court.

The neshomah of the shul was removed in its entirety, but it started to have importance in our democratic life. The first treason trial was transferred to this holy building on 1 August 1958, and lasted until 29 March 1961.

Those who made their appearance in this building in the two treason trials (of 1958 and 1962) included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and my late uncle, Denis Goldberg. Their sentencing in the infamous Rivonia Trial, however, took place in the Palace of Justice.

During the trial, one of the witnesses, M Mkalipe, brought his Bible into the witness box. To the surprise of the judges seated where the rabbi used to stand, Mkalipe read a few verses from the book of Daniel to his “assembled congregation”. He said he did it deliberately to invoke the rich history of the Old Synagogue – a religious space distinct from the Calvinist Dutch Reformed roots of the apartheid regime.

“We cannot allow such a magnificent, significant, and authentic piece of our history as Jews and as South Africans to disappear,” says Helfrich. “We have to come together as a community to restore this once great symbol to its former glory. The Jewish community in Tshwane has expressed a deep sense of sadness at the demise of the building, and would love to see it restored as a Jewish and major South African heritage site.

“So many promises have been made to the community that this beautiful home will once again be able to teach and inspire our youth that they have given up hope of them ever seeing the light of day.”

As Jews and South Africans, we need to change this. We need to restore hope that history has a place in our lives, that we can continue to celebrate the rich heritage that is housed in this building, and that we can free the voices that once rang out in this shul so that they can speak to us again.

Perhaps the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in conjunction with the Tshwane Jewish community can breathe life into this Grand Old Dame of Jewish heritage. Let’s mobilise and make a difference. Let’s revive this legacy, and let it be a historic museum, a testimony to the past, and an inspirational teaching space for generations to come.

  • Madeleine Hicklin is the Democratic Alliance shadow deputy minister: department of public works and infrastructure.

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If I am only for myself, then who am I?

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In Pirkei Avot, it says, “If I am not for myself then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then who am I? And if not now, then when?”

This is a verse that has rung true for me over the years. Growing up in South Africa, I was always confused about why we were all still living here when the country has so many problems.

About three months ago, students started coming to the Student Representative Council (SRC) offices in their numbers desperately asking for help. These were students who had passed one of the most challenging academic years, but weren’t allowed to continue their studies because they had been excluded financially.

Last year, these students passed against great odds. Many were sent home to rural areas to study a university degree while living in a one-bedroom shack. They had to set aside an hour during their exam to walk up a hill just so that they would have signal to submit their work. Many have parents who lost jobs and lost lives.

These same students aren’t being allowed to return to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), not on merit, but on the basis of an unfair disadvantage.

Since the beginning of time, Judaism has highlighted the importance of education. During the time of Rabbi Akiva, Jews were killed for learning Torah. From here on, it was made very clear to us as a nation that without education, one cannot survive. As a persecuted people, we were made to understand that education is something that can never be taken away from us.

But what if you were never given an opportunity to get that education in the first place?

During the apartheid era, the doors of higher education were closed to black people. Twenty-seven years down the line in a post-apartheid democracy, this reality still exists for many in our country.

While I have been privileged enough to be able to access tertiary education, many aren’t in that place of privilege.

For much of my life, I didn’t agree with protests. I thought that they were the easy way out, futile, and that a much better way of getting what you want was negotiation.

We have had two months of hour-long meetings, negotiating with the Wits administration and putting forward proposals, many interviews, and even the launch of a national fundraising campaign #21MillionIn2021. After this, I realised I was living in utopia thinking that sitting across a table would bring back these students.

We tried everything and exhausted all our options before beginning to protest. After much deliberation, we had no other option but to go to ground. It’s sad to see that our requests fell on deaf ears until the entrances of the university were peacefully blocked.

It’s frustrating that when I called the police to help a student who had been raped, they never arrived. However, when we protest, within minutes, there more police on the ground than there are students.

But the hardest thing of all is to know that there are many who don’t understand what we are doing here, and will probably never ask.

These protests aren’t about politics or trying to cause chaos. These protests are about lives. Many of these students are the first ones out of many generations in their family to be getting a tertiary education. So, when they come to the SRC offices for help, it’s because they don’t have anyone to show them what to do. They are alone, and they come to us as the SRC for help in desperate need of solutions.

Every day, I walk into the SRC office as one person and come out as another. I have heard the stories and seen the faces of these students. Each degree is a bridge for a student from a life of despair to a future of opportunity. This is a truth that I can’t unlearn, a truth that I can’t not act upon.

As Jews, we are no longer a persecuted people, but that doesn’t mean that we mustn’t fight for those persecuted around us.

As I write this article, I’m a student at Wits, but that doesn’t mean that I must stop fighting for the 6 000 students who aren’t.

I have learnt that my identity as a Jew is directly tied to my ability to protest, to demonstrate, to stand firmly for what I believe in. I have learnt that to protest, I don’t need to be violent or undignified, but rather I can protest in the way in which I feel is right.

I have learnt that my Judaism isn’t confined to shul and the parameters of my community. It’s about my feet. It’s about movement and movement building. It’s about applying my abilities as a Jew to practice tikkun olam (to repair the world) fervently in all the spaces I exist in.

We have all chosen to stay in this country, with all its problems and its opportunities. It’s time we stopped complaining about the things that are wrong, and started being the ones to change them to things that are right.

If we are going to stay in South Africa, let’s do it for a reason. I have found my reason. I’m going to do my part in bringing back these 6 000 students, and make sure that they aren’t the last ones from their families, schools, or townships to open the doors of education.

“If I’m not for myself then, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself then who am I? And if not now, then when?”

  • Gabi Farber is studying a Bachelor of Arts Law and International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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