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Cohen takes on new marathon at the NPC

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It’s not every day that you get a phone call from the office of the minister in the presidency informing you that you have been appointed as a member of the third National Planning Commission (NPC).

It’s also not every day that this call is followed soon after by a formal, signed letter from President Cyril Ramaphosa congratulating you.

This is how December played out for business leader Tanya Cohen. She is now one of 28 highly placed commissioners, external experts tasked with prioritising economic and social recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

It’s a hefty task and pretty vital work, not something to take lightly, agrees the mother of two, who resigned as head of the Business Unity South Africa (Busa) in 2019. This follows what was a highly challenging, all-consuming, complex, and diverse role at Busa, which led to Cohen taking early departure ahead of pursuing new opportunities.

When she received the call in early December, it came up as an unknown number so at first she declined to answer. “Then I saw the same number come up again, and I thought I’d better answer it this time,” she said with some amusement.

It’s a good thing she did.

“This is an exciting opportunity. It’s a privilege to be able to participate in a group of people with a wealth of expertise and experience in diverse fields from urban planning to food security,” she said.

Being action-driven, Cohen was especially heartened by the group’s induction in mid-December, which, she says, showed commitment towards implementation and execution.

“It was exciting to meet fellow commissioners, some of whom I have worked with in the past and, of course, a number of others whom I look forward to engaging with, all of whom share a commitment to South Africa’s prosperity and future,” she said.

The NPC is a government agency established in 2010 responsible for strategic planning. It’s an independent advisory body and think tank.

This commission’s mandate is to develop strategy for a post COVID-19 economy and society to deal with the country’s triple challenge of poverty, unemployment, and inequality by 2030.

“The challenges are complex and there are many, but there’s hope. We’re moving beyond a think tank into a ‘do-tank’,” said Cohen, who is hoping to prioritise a few key areas like youth unemployment, for example.

Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said the NPC was mandated also to support the strong leadership required to mobilise society to promote the acceleration of the National Development Plan (NDP) towards 2030.

The commissioners will assist in forging a conversation among key stakeholders, which it is hoped will lead to effective and impactful social compacts on a number of key issues. Issues such as food and water security, energy, education, the fourth industrial revolution, transport, and climate change to name a few, will be rigorously addressed.

All very ambitious, but Cohen believes the commissioners show real commitment. They will serve on a part-time basis for five years.

“I want to see the country succeed. This is what motivates me,” she said. “It’s a deep feeling of wanting to give back. I come across a lot of like-minded people. When you get involved in creating something better, it helps considerably.”

So, how did Cohen get involved in the NPC?

After her surprise resignation from Busa, Cohen took a short break before being approached by former politician and businessman Roelf Meyer, the director of the In Transformation Initiative. He brought her on board as a co-ordinator for the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI).

The PPGI is spearheaded by Meyer and Dr Johan van Zyl to promote sector-based growth strategies and projects by unlocking constraints and opportunities for economic growth and investment together with government, said Cohen.

Insiders say Cohen brings a clear sense of direction and delivery by being able to untangle myriad complexities – something desperately needed to kickstart the engine of the economy.

This role, and her time at Busa, position her as a sought after public-private impact advisor who comes with a healthy dose of humility.

So, when nominations for the NPC were called for early last year, Meyer put her name forward, believing her to be well placed.

In positioning Busa as the country’s apex business organisation and a critical partner to government at the National Economic Development and Labour Council, Cohen dealt with all sorts of sectors, and the work involved a lot of engagement with government, trade unions, business, and the community.

Also, as the former chairperson of the governing body of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and having held the role of employee-relations executive at Woolworths, Cohen is looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

Clearly, she’s up for any challenge. Soon after leaving Busa, she took up running, and it wasn’t long afterwards that she started to train for her first marathon, which she completed in February 2020.

“I’m hooked, it’s like meditation,” she said.

With four marathons under her belt, she has set her sights on the Comrades Marathon later this year having “sneaked a Comrades qualifying time” insisting that she’s “hopelessly slow”.

So, where does her drive come from?

“My late mom always pushed my siblings and me to do more and do better,” she said. The long distance running comes from her late father, John, who completed 22 Comrades, winning 13 silver and nine bronze medals.

Though South Africa is a long way off the ambitious goals set by the NDP for a sustainable life for all with full employment, greater equality, and the elimination of poverty by 2030, it’s good to know that people like Cohen have the country’s best interests at heart. No doubt, her work for the NPC will be a marathon of an altogether different kind.

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“We could do much more together,” Israeli ambassador tells Ramaphosa

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Israel’s new ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, rubbed elbows with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented his credentials to him on Tuesday, 25 January, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Tshwane.

Ramaphosa was courteous and smiling as Belotsercovsky told him about how the relationship between their countries could improve and how Israel could help South Africa.

“We believe there’s tremendous potential in us working together,” the Israeli ambassador told Ramaphosa. “Together, we can share dreams and together, we can fulfil them.”

Belotsercovsky said that South Africa was a shining example of a peaceful and dignified transition under the enlightened and courageous leadership of Nelson Mandela. He said the country’s democratic transformation took place with an independent judicial system and a free press.

But most importantly, he said, it was achieved through dialogue and “Israel is looking forward to upgrading our bilateral dialogue. There’s so much we can do together in the future in science and technology, education and training, food security, and climate change.”

He used the example of South African and Israeli scientists working together to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as an example of successful co-operation.

Israel’s government is based on “a rainbow coalition” Belotsercovsky said, which represents an excellent example of partnership between religious and secular Jews and Arabs, people of European and African origins, politicians and technocrats, all united in the task of fulfilling the dreams of the next generation.

He went on to tell the president about the phenomenal ways Israel is already using its technology and knowhow to work successfully in South Africa, and said he hoped there was much more they could do together.

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Legal amendment puts Lithuanian citizenship in reach

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Thousands of Litvak Jews around the world stand a much better chance at getting Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry since the law was amended last week.

A bill to amend Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship was unanimously passed in Lithuania’s Seimas (parliament) last Thursday, 20 January. It will have far-reaching positive implications for future applicants, many of whom had unsuccessfully tried and lost hope of obtaining citizenship.

This follows a year of extensive lobbying efforts from many quarters. It involved various iterations of a draft bill which was revised and redrafted several times, according to those involved, leading to last week’s vote, in which 110 members of parliament from across Lithuania’s political spectrum supported the bill.

Lithuanian Ambassador to South Africa Dainius Junevičius said the bill clarified that anyone who was a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania before 15 June 1940 was eligible for reinstatement of their citizenship on condition that there were no decisions adopted on their loss of citizenship.

This is a huge relief to many whose applications were rejected by the Lithuanian migration department, some pending indefinitely with others being placed on hold.

The application jam stemmed from a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision a few years ago which opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher, and which dramatically slowed down applications, causing enormous frustration.

In addition to what was always accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants were also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940.

This was a dramatic departure from the original position, which never required proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This was a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It also had far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutienė from Next Steps. Her company assists South Africans and others to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report many of her clients’ applications had been declined by the migration department because of this.

In some cases where families had applied at different times using the same source documents, some had been granted citizenship, while others had been rejected.

However, this will soon change, said an elated Degutienė, who believes last week’s vote will pave the way forward for many South African Jews to successfully apply for citizenship.

“Less than a year ago, I was telling a story of a ridiculous court ruling which was applied to an unlucky Litvak family whose application for Lithuanian citizenship was rejected. Now I’m so happy to announce that the law has been amended, and this particular family, as many more, will be free to receive their passports.”

Degutienė and many others including politicians and lawyers in Lithuania and members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies campaigned tirelessly for the amendment.

“I was really frustrated about the grey zone in the citizenship legislation which was used by Lithuanian institutions to create rules and obstacles that made many South African Litvaks ineligible for a Lithuanian passport,” said Degutienė. “The only way to solve this impossible situation was to change the law as any other solution would have been too temporary, and we would have had to depend on court procedures which are lengthy and costly.”

She said it had been a tough road.

“Not many colleagues or competitors believed I would succeed, but now as you see, if you put all your heart and effort into something, sooner or later it results in positive developments.”

Said Junevičius, “As we welcome this move by the Republic of Lithuania, removing many barriers to apply for the reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship, we anticipate deepening connection with ancestral land and fully expect an exponential growth in economic relations and tourism.”

The director of AccessEU, Nicole Marcus, said this week, “AccessEU looks forward to overturning the negative decisions and restoring our 100% success record. Over the years, we’ve experienced changes to the requirements and process, at times becoming very difficult if not near impossible, and at other times easing somewhat. We urge everyone who is eligible to use this opportunity to apply for Lithuanian citizenship before any new interpretations might close the doors once again.”

Before the bill becomes law, Lithuania’s president will need to sign the bill into effect, and this is expected to happen soon.

Once enacted into law, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement that one’s Lithuanian ancestor must have actively maintained their Lithuanian citizenship until 14 June 1940. That requirement was strictly enforced by the migration department since December 2020 following the Supreme Court decision in November 2020, when an application for citizenship with no supporting Lithuanian documentation was brought, causing serious ramifications for many other applicants.

Many applicants were refused citizenship on the basis that their Lithuanian ancestor had naturalised prior to 15 June 1940. Now the prospects of success for those applicants have been revived.

According to insiders, many hundreds of applications are believed to have been waiting for years for a decision following various procedural and then interpretative changes. Hundreds of applications which are currently held in suspense pending queries from Lithuania’s migration department which had been almost impossible to satisfy will now need to be reconsidered.

The migration department will probably take some time to work through the backlog, and applicants shouldn’t expect immediate results. They should keep in mind that the change in the law doesn’t mean that every applicant will be successful as each application will depend on its own supporting documentation which varies from one family to the next, insiders say.

Applicants are still required to prove that their Lithuanian ancestor left Lithuania after 16 February 1918 (the Republic of Lithuania’s initial date of independence) and must still prove with Lithuanian documentation that they held Lithuanian citizenship and departed from Lithuania.

One of the questions still being asked is whether those whose ancestors arrived in South Africa prior to 1918 will be able to apply for a passport.

“The answer is no,” said Degutienė. “This law does not extend the right of applying to those who emigrated earlier than the State of Lithuania was established, and it’s unlikely this will ever change.”

Degutienė said the amendment wouldn’t have been made possible without the help of Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dalia Asanavičiūtė. “Without her persistence and resilience against huge pressure from the migration department and opposition, and her deep understanding and respect for Jews, this change would never have been possible.”

Junevičius said the amendment was a very positive development, and would probably ensure the success of many pending and future applications.

He encouraged prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania, saying that amongst other things, the country offered a broad range of international study programmes taught in English in its 19 universities and 22 colleges at a highly competitive price.

Nearly 8 000 students from 127 countries in the world including South Africa and Israel studied in Lithuania in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Junevičius said. “The reasons to choose Lithuania as your study destination are multiple, but the main ones are high quality world-class education for an affordable price in an attractive European country.”

As for business opportunities, Junevičius said that for the past 20 years, Lithuania had been the fastest growing economy in the European Union in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a “highly favourable business environment” with top rankings and ratings.

“Things here get done quicker and better because the doers – from students and engineers to the go-to advisors at Invest Lithuania – are agile, ambitious, and driven by big ideas. And when it comes to big ideas, we don’t dabble, we explore, from gene and cell therapy to the latest in machine learning.”

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Terror accused in court

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Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 26 January 2022, where live broadcasting of proceedings and the setting of a court date were discussed. The twins are accused of terrorist activity targeting Jewish institutions in South Africa, amongst other targets. They have been in custody since their arrest in July 2016.

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