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Joburg mayor resolute in face of ANC insults

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Nothing was going to stop the executive mayor of Johannesburg, Dr Mpho Phalatse, last week from delivering her acceptance speech as the city’s first woman in the position.

Not even a rowdy group of chanting African National Congress (ANC) councillors hell bent on intimidating and harassing her by demanding that she withdraw pro-Israel comments she made more than three years ago.

Phalatse braced herself for attacks by the ANC when she entered the Constance Connie Bapela Council Chamber in Braamfontein on 2 December and saw ANC councillors brandishing placards clad in keffiyehs (traditional Palestinian scarves).

She remained calm in the face of taunting chants of “Free Palestine!” and posters saying “Away with a mayor pro-apartheid.”

“I folded my arms, maintained my composure, and allowed them to finish,” Phalatse said this week.

Council Speaker Vasco da Gama attempted to bring the formal proceedings to order as insults were hurled at the newly elected mayor who stood on the podium and waited.

“They were expecting a reaction but when they didn’t get one, they tired quickly,” Phalatse said.

A committed Christian and a single mother of three, Phalatse (44) was in 2018 suspended from her post as MMC for health and social development in Herman Mashaba’s Democratic Alliance (DA)-led government in the City of Johannesburg. This after comments she made expressing support for Israel during a South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) conference were taken out of context, causing outrage amongst the anti-Israel lobby. She was reinstated to her position after an investigation found no wrongdoing on her part, and after she made a public apology to the people of Johannesburg.

At the conference, Phalatse called herself and the City of Johannesburg a “friend” of Israel.

“I’ve responded so many times, and I’ve said everything publicly that I needed to say on the issue. Last week, the ANC needed something to use on the day to try to discredit me and feel relevant, and I didn’t want to entertain it,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

Instead, Phalatse, a medical doctor turned politician remained poised, steady, and calm and waited for the ANC to finish while the majority of councillors watched remotely as scenes of disorderly and unruly behaviour played out in the chamber.

“The behaviour didn’t shock me because every time they come with their scarves I know they have planned something.

“I had a speech to deliver which I hoped would unify the council behind the common vision of building the city. I needed to stay focused to get this message across,” she said.

DA Councillor Daniel Schay said the mayor stood firm and was undeterred.

“This was a deliberate attempt to try knock her off her game and disrupt the council. She remained calm and carried on with the business of the day, putting the residents of the city first.”

He was utterly amazed when the mayor came up to him afterwards and apologised for the ANC’s disrespectful behaviour. “She said sorry to me! I said it wasn’t about me, and was more concerned about her,” he said.

Later Schay posted on Facebook, “Today was my first proper council meeting. Today, we were meant to be doing business that put the residents of Johannesburg first. The ANC had different ideas and tried to make today about a conflict 9 000km away while ignoring the pain and suffering it has caused in our own city.

“To our wonderful Executive Mayor Dr Mpho Phalatse, whose religious beliefs and personal character were under attack today by vicious peddlers of falsehoods, I must bestow the greatest gratitude, for in that moment, you also showed great sensitivity to me and my well-being. Today, your leadership and humanity shined above the vile hatred and lies that emerged within the council chamber.”

SAFI said the ANC should prioritise service delivery over anti-Israel theatrics, and last week’s display by the ANC was an “obvious attempt at overt political intimidation”.

“It was a cheap political PR stunt, and yet another missed opportunity to promote peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while indulging in hateful anti-Israel propaganda. Meanwhile, the City of Johannesburg suffers from water shortages, power outages, refuse collection issues, sewerage-management problems, and decaying infrastructure. The ANC would do better to demonstrate its commitment to fix these serious service delivery problems instead of obsessing over its anti-Israeli agenda,” the organisation said.

In her speech, Phalatse said the challenge that lay ahead for the 18 parties represented in the Johannesburg council was to bring hope to the city.

Born in Pretoria, Phalatse has hit the ground running since she took up office. She was handed the keys to the country’s largest metro after beating the ANC’s Mpho Moerane by 144 votes to 121, and became the first woman mayor of Johannesburg.

She has consistently said that her aim is to make Johannesburg a better place knowing full well the myriad problems facing the city from potholes; disrupted water supply; inadequate and failing infrastructure; shocking service delivery in poor areas; a complex, seemingly impossible electricity crisis; and the highly nuanced and controversial issue of undocumented foreigners.

Her days and nights are jampacked, from trawling night clubs last week with metro police in search of establishments flouting COVID-19 protocols to meeting disgruntled Soweto residents and Eskom officials to sort out the city’s electricity crisis.

Former Johannesburg Mayor Mpho Moerane this week criticised Phalatse for “running a leaderless city” for not appointing the 10-member mayoral committee by now, the result of ongoing coalition discussions between the DA and other parties. Phalatse said the wait was necessary to form a stable government for Johannesburg “so that we can get down to the real business of effectively building a city we can eventually be proud of”.

“The ANC is trying to build a narrative that the DA is incapable and failing in its duties. This criticism is politically motivated, and we need to remain focused,” she said.

“The two-week odd delay in appointing the mayco won’t be harmful as the issues we face are historical.” She said they were winding down coalition talks and hoped to conclude discussions soon.

Phalatse said the very people who continued to hurl insults and criticism at her were the same people who, over the years, had taught her how to face them.

“The ANC has used lies, fabrications, has even made a song about me and called me names. They have given me training in resilience, and I’m grateful because I have grown a thick skin.”

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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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