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Dismissal of Verulam case a setback for fight against terror

In a defining moment that could give the “go ahead” for terrorism in South Africa, the case against 12 men accused of perpetrating terrorist activities in the name of Islamic State (ISIS) was thrown out of the Verulam Magistrate’s Court on Monday, 13 July.

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TALI FEINBERG

“The dismissal of the Verulam case, in spite of overwhelming evidence against the suspects, is a major setback that will embolden those who seek to use terrorism and violence to harm us and our way of life,” says Community Security Organisation (CSO) director of operations in Gauteng, Jevon Greenblatt.

He says that since 2016, there have been at least three ISIS-inspired attacks or foiled plots in South Africa. “The first was the members of the Thulsie twins’ terror cell, which were arrested in 2016 in what was believed to be the advanced stages of planning attacks against Jewish and Western targets in Johannesburg.

“The second was Fatima Patel and Sayfudeen Aslam Del Vecchio, who were arrested for the 2018 murders of Rachel and Rodney Saunders. Although the initial murder investigation pointed to theft, it was later established that the stolen money was to be used to fund an ISIS-inspired terror training camp. It’s important to note that Patel was originally arrested with the Thulsies, but then released.

“Later in 2018, an ISIS-affiliated cell was arrested after carrying out this attack on a Shia Mosque in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal, and planting incendiary devices around Durban. Radical Sunni groups view Shia Muslims in the same light as they view Jews, and see both as legitimate targets.

“All three of these are watershed cases that will set the precedent for countering terrorism and extremism in our country, and if not dealt with properly, will effectively give the green light to groups and individuals who wish to spread their extreme ideologies through violence,” Greenblatt says.

“Rising levels of hopelessness, lawlessness, and radicalisation in South Africa, together with the rapidly growing ISIS-linked insurgency in Mozambique, are a dangerous formula that deeply affects the safety and security of our region, our country, and our community. Although Patel and the Verulam attackers ended up choosing non-Jewish targets, they could just as easily have chosen differently.

“The South African Jewish community is the largest on the continent, and will at least be considered – if not specifically chosen – as a legitimate target by radical Islamists looking to carry out terror attacks in the country. This isn’t conjecture. The motivation to carry out such attacks is very real, and is something we have to work against every day to ensure our community is properly protected.”

The case in question goes back to May 2018, when attackers entered the Imam Hussain Mosque near Verulam (north of Durban), shouting that they were going to kill people.

Abbas Essop was murdered. His mouth was taped shut, and his throat slit. Two other men were stabbed, and the library of the mosque was petrol bombed. A few days later, a device resembling a bomb was found under the chair of the imam, and worshippers were evacuated.

In the aftermath, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Police Bheki Cele visited the mosque, promising justice.

The suspects were arrested in October 2018. Out on bail a month later, the 12 accused faced charges arising from the placing of pipe bombs in Woolworths stores, at the Durban July race, and at the mosque, as well as murder, attempted murder, arson, and extortion for the mosque attack.

They were also charged with furthering the aims of ISIS, violating the POCDATARA Act (The Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terrorist and Related Activities), and kidnapping, when a person was found chained in a dungeon at one of the houses where the arrests were made.

But on Monday, Magistrate Irfaan Khalil struck the case off the role. “I feel that this verdict was long coming because the state made some blunders along the way,” says Willem Els, senior training co-ordinator at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

“The biggest of them was to replace a very competent state prosecutor in the middle of the case. Advocate Adele Barnard is a senior state prosecutor who specialises in the prosecution of terror-related cases. She was replaced with a novice in this field, and no reason was given for this. Apparently, the state requested more time, but this was rejected. But all isn’t lost. Through the director of public prosecutions (DPP), the state can reinstate the case and appeal against the verdict.

“This case once again demonstrates that South Africa isn’t ready for terrorism. It also unravels the capacity of the criminal justice system to deal with such cases. It may also send the wrong message to radical elements that it’s safe to perpetrate these acts in South Africa. In order to restore faith, the authorities should demonstrate that they are able to fulfil their mandate to the South African public by pursuing this case and rendering a professional prosecution. ISIS would surely be laughing, and through this case, it can evaluate South Africa’s capacity,” Els says.

“With the Thulsie case still not resolved four years later, the Verulam case further illustrates how far we need to go to protect this country against terrorism. With Mozambique under fire, the authorities need to act now to put in place a viable system to defend our constitutional democracy against terrorist acts.”

Natasha Kara, the spokesperson for the DPP in KwaZulu-Natal, says, “The matter is being closely monitored and worked on together by the South African Police Service and the prosecutors of the organised crime office of the National Prosecuting Authority. Investigations will continue.”

Shaun Zagnoev, the chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says, “We reiterate our abhorrence of attacks on places of worship, and continue to express our condolences to the victims of the Verulam mosque attack. We acknowledge that the alleged perpetrators of the crime are entitled to a fair trial and the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ must be upheld. We are deeply concerned that there may have been tardiness by the investigators, resulting in the inappropriate dropping of the charges and the release of highly dangerous criminals with the resolve to attack places of worship.

“We would welcome investigators prioritising this matter, and obtaining the evidence required for it to be properly dealt with in court. Should they be proven guilty, we cannot allow for perpetrators of this type of crime to escape justice and sow fear among religious worshippers.”

Dr Taj Hargey, the founder of the Open Mosque in Cape Town says, “The decision to throw out the case sets a devastating precedent in South African law. A successful prosecution would have put on the brakes on embryonic violent extremism.

“While South Africa has so far been spared the worst excesses of Islamic fanaticism, the dismissal of this case will only foster greater sectarian intolerance and denominational bigotry. Minority groups will now be far more vulnerable to the jackboot mentality of foreign-inspired Sunni fanatics. Certainly, the Open Mosque, with its inclusive philosophy and interfaith outreach is also susceptible to this frightening new local Sunni militancy.”

Where to from here for the 12 accused? Says Greenblatt, “We have to accept the fact that in the eyes of the law, people must be treated as innocent until proven guilty, but if this group is indeed guilty of what they have been charged with, they will certainly be emboldened to commit more atrocities now that they have been shown there are no consequences for their actions.”

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Lifestyle

Joburg – city of architects and dreamers

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In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.

Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.

The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.

“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.

It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.

Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.

Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.

“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.

One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.

Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.

Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.

Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.

Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.

Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.

Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.

Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.

Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.

He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).

Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.

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Nominations open for a historic Jewish Achiever Awards

The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards 2020 is now open for nominations.

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JORDAN MOSHE

Just when you thought nothing familiar and fabulous was going to happen, the SA Jewish Report is calling you onboard to begin its journey to this year’s Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

COVID-19 may have brought live entertainment and events to a grinding halt, but this year’s awards will be held in a format that will make history and give ample recognition to those who have achieved great things.

This is the 22nd year of this unique awards ceremony in which Jewish individuals are acknowledged for the powerful, influential, and life-changing roles they play in South Africa. The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards acknowledges those who deserve recognition for their contributions to society, paying tribute to the men and women who have enhanced our community.

Scheduled to take place in mid-October, the annual extravaganza evening will go ahead in spite of a host of virus-related challenges.

“For the first time in the event’s history, we will be holding an online-offline event,” says Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. “While the actual event will be streamed live for people to watch without being present, guests will still be able to take part in this incredible event.”

Sackstein explains that while tables can be purchased as usual, the seating is virtual, as guests will experience a gourmet dining experience in the comfort of their own homes while watching the live event.

“Those who buy tables will have their meal delivered to their home, from cocktails to dessert,” says Sackstein. “We will also feature a virtual red carpet, with guests taking photos of themselves at home and sharing them online.”

While they tuck into their meal at home, guests will enjoy a livestream of the event, enjoying the evening’s entertainment and awards.

The awards are another area where exciting changes have been made.

“While guests are eating and watching the event, award winners will be announced live and have their awards handed over to them at home by a team waiting to ring their doorbell. This means that guests will actually see the handover of the award, and feel as though they are still part of the event without actually being there.”

Some of the award categories have also been transformed. In spite of the challenges posed by our trying circumstances, members of our community remain determined to stand out and make tangible contributions, and the awards need to reflect this, Sackstein says.

“Beyond being online, the event must be experiential in that it is relevant to the times in which we are living,” he says.

“COVID-19 has ensured that the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards has changed, and certain award categories have been adjusted to reflect our reality. Business leadership in the time of COVID will replace the usual Business Leadership Award, the Professional Excellence award will become the Professional Excellence in COVID award. Other categories will be similarly adjusted.”

Changes like these are essential, Sackstein says.

“Awards which ignore our circumstances would be meaningless,” he says. “We have moved to recognise those doing remarkable work and their efforts at this very moment which are most relevant to our community.

“We are celebrating our heroes. Heroes emerge in moments like these. Ordinary people have really grasped the mantle of leadership and provided such a remarkable example that we should all emulate.”

Every member of our community is encouraged to participate in acknowledging the tremendous efforts of those who have risen to the occasion of COVID-19 and beyond.

“While a lot of people are depressed and fatalistic about our reality, others have seen the opportunities it offers and striven to make our lives so much better,” says Sackstein. “We have to recognise and celebrate them, using them as an example of what we can do in these difficult times.”

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Neighbour snatches family from fire

A fast-acting neighbour has been hailed as a hero for rescuing a young family whose flat was moments away from being engulfed in smoke and flames.

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NICOLA MILTZ

Last Thursday night, Jonathan Penn and his heavily pregnant wife Simone put their children and themselves to bed early due to unscheduled load-shedding, which plunged their flat on the third floor of Glen Manor in Glenhazel into darkness.

The couple ate an early dinner while it was still light enough to see, and were tucked up in bed by 18:30 with their two children, Judah, 5, and Ayden, 3, in the main bedroom with them.

Simone had lit candles to provide some soft ambient lighting, including a vanilla scented Yankee Candle on the mantle.

Sometime later, the family was shaken awake by frantic, loud banging on their front door and screams to get out.

The Penns were oblivious to the fire which had broken out in their kitchen just a few doors away.

Neighbours Marlon Nathan and his daughter, Tali, were arriving home after fetching takeaways when they saw rising flames in the kitchen of the flat next door to theirs. Had they been a few minutes earlier, they wouldn’t have seen the fire.

“As we rounded the stairs and turned left, we saw flames and thick black smoke coming from Jonathan and Simone’s kitchen. We dumped our bags and takeaways, and rushed to try get them out of there,” said Tali, 23.

Working together, the father and daughter team sprang into action and began screaming and knocking at the door to the flat. Pandemonium ensued as the family jumped out of bed and were greeted by a wall of smoke.

Simone, who writes a blog titled Mothers’ Nature, related her experience the next day. “In the glass windowpane above the front door we could see burning orange reflections. We all started to cough. We couldn’t breathe. The children were screaming. Jonny was trying to pull us away from the flames and the smoke into the lounge. He was scared the blaze was in the passage. He knew not to touch the handles. He knew not to open any doors. He thought we were trapped.

“I fumbled with the keys, one arm over my mouth. I couldn’t remember how keys worked. I couldn’t remember how the door worked.”

She told the SA Jewish Report that at that moment, she feared for their lives.

As Marlon was about to kick down the front door, it opened, and frantically, he pulled Simone, Judah, and Ayden out. The little girl, disorientated, ran back inside when she couldn’t see her father through the smoke. Marlon ran headlong into the smoke to retrieve her.

Tali, a student nurse currently working the COVID-19 wards at Milpark Hospital, said, “I’ve seen my share of trauma, but it’s entirely different when you see your father dash into a fire.”

Once the family was safe, Marlon said his focus turned to extinguishing the fire which was getting out of control.

“My priority was first to get the family out of the flat, and then to contain the spread of the fire. There are 88 flats with many elderly residents. I had no time to think about anything other than putting out that fire,” he said.

Jonathan and Marlon ran through the building collecting fire extinguishers to battle the flames.

Security guard Prince Elliot used large buckets of water to put out the last of the fire.

A distraught Judah was worried about his two birds, Tweety and Koko, whom he had left behind in all the commotion. He was calmed when a firefighter much later appeared clutching a perfectly intact bird cage containing two finches.

“That was when I broke down. Every single Penn was safe and accounted for,” said Simone.

The family believe a surge caused by the power outage caused a spark which ignited the fire. “We suspect a spark landed on a large tablecloth I had folded in the kitchen,” said Simone.

Relieved and grateful, she said, “I think Hashem sent angels in the form of Marlon and Tali, and then Prince. But of course we owe everything to Marlon. We owe him our life. He and Tali appeared at the exact right moment. I shudder to think what five minutes either way would have meant.”

Marlon, 56, who has been treated for smoke inhalation said, “I’m not a hero. I just did what anybody in that situation would’ve done.”

He was meant to be in Israel for his daughter’s wedding, but cancelled his trip the day before the fire. His daughter says she now knows why. “He was meant to be here to save lives,” she said.

“I believe the family was minutes away from dying. The smoke was so heavy and thick, they would have died in their beds. They wouldn’t have got to the front door. You could hardly see them when they came out. It was scary,” said Marlon.

A firefighter told the SA Jewish Report it could have ended very differently. “This was a potentially deadly fire. One flat can take out the building. There are many different people living there with different needs, including elderly in wheelchairs. There is a petrol station next to it and restaurants. It was potentially very dangerous.”

The Penns say their experience has taught them a lot about fire prevention. They recommend keeping a fire extinguisher, installing smoke alarms, turning off the mains when the power is cut, and installing surge plugs for appliances.

Both the Penns and the Nathans are living with family members while their homes are cleaned and repaired.

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