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

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OP-EDS

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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OP-EDS

A crisis not to waste

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South Africa has survived an insurrection, if President Cyril Ramaphosa is to be believed. This is no laughing matter. The extent and context of the violence unleashed within KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last week should leave many unsettled and insecure about the state’s ability to provide security in the short term and stability in the medium term.

There should be little real surprise at the turn of events. It was, indeed, a perfect storm across a number of indicators. Primarily, the looting and pillaging was a function of the confluence of both political instability and economic stress. They came together in a toxic cocktail that has left well in excess of 200 people dead, thousands without jobs, and an economic bill likely to run in excess of R100 billion with a possible 0.5% drop in gross domestic product just as a result of the violence of a fateful 72-hour period.

The protests began just hours after former President Jacob Zuma reported to prison on contempt of court charges. The effects of the Zuma presidency on the country are now well-documented. But, the ascent to power of Ramaphosa upset the existing patronage networks established under Zuma, some of which form part of the state capture enquiry while others represent a crony capitalism and clientelism which favoured connected elites and individuals with lucrative contracts and access to state tenders.

The switch to Ramaphosa was a signal that these murky relationships were likely to be investigated and upended. Ramaphosa, for all his detractors, has been a reformer within the African National Congress (ANC). And, reformers who disrupt cosy established networks run major personal risks themselves.

With the Zondo Commission breathing down the necks of Zuma as well as ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, amongst others, it was always going to be a risky period for the governing party.

Political factionalism and in-fighting occur in a variety of state quarters, with the mistrust and malfeasance involved stretching across a swathe of state-owned enterprises. This level of political decline has been evident for many years. And the ANC’s own debilitating moral decline has served to undermine authority and credibility. With the conflation of party and state in the country, the ANC’s problems have spilled over into South Africa’s problems – as witnessed last week.

The problem for Ramaphosa is that he himself is a fragile leader elected with a super-slender majority within his own party. Although he allowed the legal consequences of the Zondo Commission (ironically established by Zuma himself) to weaken his political enemies, his own insecurities resulted in a broader state apparatus bloated with former Zuma acolytes.

Similarly, Ramaphosa’s desire to balance the various ANC constituent forces resulted in the appointment of an executive (cabinet) that prioritised ANC unity over that of efficiency, expertise, and political reliability. From a leadership perspective, Ramaphosa’s choices in the security cluster have been particularly problematic and given the events of this last week, a failure.

While issues will still be clarified in ensuing months, the president has been sorely embarrassed by the lack of adequate intelligence as well as a police ministry clearly incapable of a semblance of public-order policing.

Of course, the catalyst for the unrest was Zuma. He was the fuse that lit the spark. And it was a spark that became a fire on the back of an economically deprived and stressed populace who, when faced with the prospects of looting without any consequences, resorted to a mass criminal event.

South Africa has a long history of political protest linked to the destabilisation of the country. And this was yet another chapter. Instigators used criminal elements to assist, and the sabotaging of schools, theft from blood banks and ammunition supplies, water plants, and cell phone masts showed an intent well beyond the criminal hysteria visible.

Ultimately, insurrection often occurs in a weak state – and for sure, this was the ticket that allowed the devastation to ensue.

Those participating in the free-for-all looting spree themselves have been victim of the broad failure of economic policy over the past decade to pursue growth-oriented policies.

The ANC has largely concentrated on redistributive policies seemingly unable to overcome ideological constraints to deregulate our economy and embrace the private sector in partnership with the state. Add COVID-19 to this mix, and the instigators keen to weaken the Ramaphosa presidency found a ready-made army even if many of those unwittingly just took advantage of the complete state of anarchy.

With unemployment at more than 40% for all adults and more than 65% for those under 25 years, economic policy hasn’t worked. Rising poverty levels and inequality have been a feature of the country for the past five years. There is, frankly, nothing new about the inadequacy of state policy. Analysts have warned about the consequences of failed strategies and non-existent implementation for years.

In the end, South Africa faces some major hurdles should we begin to move away from the highly dangerous atmosphere prevailing. The violence at hand is a direct consequence of ANC politics and policies. While we can – and should – rebuild the physical and social damage caused, it’s the ANC that needs an internal flush-out.

The only way to pressurise the ANC is via enhancing a competitive democracy that begins to threaten the governing party at the polls. In mature democracies, it’s only the fear of being booted out of office that gets governments to act. It’s a pity in South Africa’s case that the opposition continues to be fragmented and perhaps requires an “alliance for change” umbrella to reduce intra-party sniping.

Secondly, South Africans have appeased this decline for too long. Pressure has to be brought to bear from our powerful business community who have often sought to cosy-up to government in exchange for contracts rather than speak their mind. There is little room for mealy-mouthed expressions of concern in the current environment, which threatens physical infrastructure as well as lives and livelihoods.

Thirdly, South Africa needs an economic re-boot. It’s clear that the damning statistical decline of our indicators requires new thinking. And for that to happen, political pressure has to be brought to bear to end the ideological myopia that has held us back. We need a modern, market friendly, and socially responsible environment without the dictates of an interfering state.

While we can join hands around an “ubuntu” renewal and a basic income grant, it’s a deeper structural problem in our political make-up that requires a shift. If this shocking week of violence assists with that in any way, maybe then it will be a crisis we won’t waste.

  • Daniel Silke is a political-economy analyst and keynote speaker based in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter @DanielSilke and view his website at www.danielsilkeglobal.com

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OP-EDS

What if this IS us?

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I’m cursed with optimism. But as the smouldering cinders of last week burned themselves to charcoal and our president flanked by his podgy unkempt generals wailed war talk of an insurrection, and social media was overrun with stirring renditions of the national anthem and images of people sweeping the broken shards of debris from a week of shame, I felt short changed.

I cannot allow my optimism to blind me like cataracts to reality.

In a slight elevation from his usual monotone, the president informed us that an unnamed Zuma and a dirty dozen of saboteurs wrought havoc on our nation. In an attack on our democracy, they targeted road arteries, ports, oil refineries, and strategic key-points, but their attempted resurrection had come to naught.

The woke coterie of TV commentators berated us with stories of how what we are witnessing is the poor, destitute, and unvaccinated taking food to which they were entitled given long COVID-19 shutdowns, gross income inequality, and insufficient government support.

My fellow squad of optimists tell us how the country has come together, how people of all races have manned the barricades, protected the malls, how taxi associations have sought out the fugitives, and how, with brooms in hand, by sweeping the destruction of supermarket aisles, we will rebuild South Africa.

Channelling a national therapist, our president assured us that this past week wasn’t us, “This isn’t who we are as a people,” he said. But what happens if he’s wrong? Isn’t it time to take a really good look at ourselves in the mirror and realise that this is exactly “us”, this is exactly who we have become as a nation.

What concerns me isn’t that a kleptocratic former president and his criminal cohort attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government. What doesn’t worry me is that sadly, Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers were robbed of bread, milk, and eggs. What concerns me most is the image of long lines of orderly, disciplined luxury and semi luxury vehicles waiting peacefully in line for their chance to loot the Makro distribution centre in KwaZulu-Natal.

These cars and their jubilant occupants weren’t the poor, the hungry, the destitute. These were middle class and upper-middle-class fat cats, willing to steal because order and society had simply broken down.

After the 1994 first democratic elections, while executive director of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), I employed the services of a private detective to track down the assets of the IEC which had been stolen, looted, and plundered during our first democratic vote.

The detective taught me a valuable lesson. Twenty percent of the population will always steal, he explained, 20% of the population will never steal, but the remaining 60% of people will steal, rob, and loot if they are presented with an opportunity where they are likely to get away with it, when law and order has broken down, and where criminality has become an acceptable norm.

And very sadly, that’s the environment we have created in South Africa. We have watched the Zumas, the Guptas, the Magashules, and most of our last few governments loot the state. Pravin Gordhan, our minister of public enterprise, estimates that R500 billion was stolen from the people of South Africa during the Zuma era.

Analysts believe that corruption has lost the country R1.5 trillion since the advent of democracy. That’s about R50 000 per adult South African stolen by a government which swept to power in order to liberate and transform South Africa.

That’s been the price for each individual South African, stolen from pensions never paid, houses never built, jobs never created, and grants never paid.

When you live in a society with no consequence, when theft is all around you, when those in power are never brought to justice, then the fertile ground is ploughed for anarchy.

Permission is granted to everyone to say, “If he can, why can’t I?”

If the police stand back and watch the looting, swearing helplessly at the criminals, but allowing the chaos to engulf the nation, then you are guaranteed crime with no consequence.

In Rwanda, ordinary citizens turned on their neighbours and became murderers for a month. They weren’t murderers before, and they weren’t murderers afterwards.

Similarly, in Nazi Germany, in places like Lithuania, where most of us herald from, Jews were killed by their neighbours who didn’t kill before and didn’t kill again. But the climate was created in which there was no consequence for the crime, where criminality was the norm, where everyone was given permission to be part of the mob rather than the one to stand against the tide.

In these circumstances, ordinary, law-abiding, tummy-filled South Africans took to the streets to steal R67 000 couches that don’t fit into their homes, to loot 75-inch TVs that can’t fit into their cars, and to line up orderly and peacefully waiting to loot and plunder their local mall and store.

So, Mr President, this wasn’t an aberration, this was “us”. This was the real South Africa that we have created, a country with no consequence, a country that the apartheid apologists warned us about.

It’s time we looked in the mirror and realised that the real South Africa just punched us all directly in the face.

  • Howard Sackstein is chairperson of the SA Jewish Report.

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OP-EDS

Cyber addicts slip under COVID-19 radar

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Psycho-social media and literature have long highlighted the negative effects that the cyber age is having on our youth.

The computer screen, cell phone, internet, game console or tablet, when abused and/or used to replace human teaching and live interaction rather than as an educational tool, aren’t helpful. More often than not, they lead to the sacrifice of basic skills of analysis, synthesis, and application of knowledge. Add to this the decay in gross motor development and even interpersonal skills, and you have the real issues at play.

But what about the other dangers of unmonitored use of these devices by our youth?

The use of media devices and platforms increased with the advent of home or lockdown learning in the COVID-19 environment. But, due to the focus of our collective psyche shifting to safety from COVID-19 and fear of contraction of the virus, pre-COVID-19 awareness of the danger of unmonitored teenage (and even younger) access and behaviour in cyberspace has ironically slipped off the radar.

“I’m on my Google Classroom/WhatsApp group researching assignments,” is the prevalent reply to parents when asking their children or young adults what they are doing on the devices.

While this may be true to varying degrees, a device in the hands of a child or young adult with the knowledge that mum or dad doesn’t really ever check his/her phone, is a potentially precarious situation.

Here are some tips for parents, children, and young adults to better maximise cyber-safety in general:

  • Be extremely selective when posting or re-posting images, conversations, videos, articles, and so on. Check with adults. Adults need to do their best to be constantly aware of what their children/young adults are posting out there;
  • If you become aware of any online cyberbullying on groups, posting of inappropriate messages or images, leave the group after reporting the event/s to a responsible adult in your home or school. Even though you may not have been the person who originally posted the negative post or image, once you forward it, you are held accountable for perpetuating the chain of publication of that post/image;
  • Be aware of games that can have a negative impact and dull sensitivities towards others when played too frequently;
  • Certain things should always remain in the private domain. Don’t overshare, but be mindful of what’s posted. Ask yourself prior to posting, “Am I happy for this post to appear on the front page of the news tomorrow morning?”;
  • Digital profiles should have privacy settings in place;
  • Create specific times that you cut out screen time such as meal times, family gatherings, bed time, or homework and study time; and
  • In most cases, parents are paying for the phone and contract. Audit your child/young adult’s phone at random intervals and ban inappropriate sites, games, activities, or platforms.

Stay alert – stay safe!

  • Antony Radomsky is the principal of Eden College in Lyndhurst, Johannesburg.

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