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NELSON MANDELA: ONCE IN A CENTURY

It is unfair to deify Mandela; he was flesh and blood like the rest of us, capable of suffering and erring. Imagine the loneliness and fear he must have endured for so long even while continuing to hold fast to his political principles.

But the phrase “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” could not have been truer than in South Africa. In a world filled with hatred and cynicism, we desperately need again the dignity and integrity of a Mandela, a man who lived in full his own ideal: “In a situation where resentment, anger and revenge would be expected of you, do the surprising thing: forgive, go beyond yourself and find a better option.”

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GEOFF SIFRIN

This piece originally appeared in the SA Jewish Report 20 June 2013

The most cherished photographs many people possess, displayed on mantlepieces or in special albums with family and friends, are those showing them next to Nelson Mandela, shaking his hand or receiving that broad smile of his. You find them hanging on the boardroom walls of giant corporations and in classrooms of township schools where he came to speak to children. What a joy to be able to point to a picture and say: “That’s me with Madiba!” – brushing shoulders with greatness.

Even this newspaper can claim a connection: the first edition, published on May 15, 1998, carried a message from (then) President Mandela: “Whenever and wherever freedom of expression is upheld, the advent of a newspaper adds to the desirable diversity of voices and enriches the market of ideas.

“I welcome the addition of the South African Jewish Report to the beautiful tapestry of the South African media… in playing a critical role in shaping a new South African policy and culture. I wish your publication success and rapid growth.”

What is this magic that made almost all individuals and groups with whom he came into contact feel special? It is hard to define, but it was there in bucketfuls.

Among the many minority groups he got to know well were South African Jews. One of his earliest encounters was in 1941 when, as a young man, he came to Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape seeking work, and was given his first job by Jewish attorney Lazar Sidelsky in his law firm. This act – both unusual and brave – made a lasting impression on Mandela. Later, many white comrades with whom he formed close bonds in the Struggle were leftist Jews. Of the 156 accused in the Treason Trial of 1956, 23 were whites – more than half of them Jews. The 17 activists arrested at Liliesleaf, Rivonia in July 1963, included five whites – all of whom were Jews.

Then at Wits University where he studied law, student friends were Jewish. Some of them later defended him in the high-profile trials mentioned above. The defence team in the Treason Trial was headed by advocate Isie Maisels, a respected member of the Johannesburg Bar. Another Jewish advocate, Sydney Kentridge, dealt particularly with Mandela as his counsel. Kentridge said years later: “I could somehow tell from the many talks I had with him that this man was a leader – of course I couldn’t have guessed he would become the leader he, in fact, became.”

By the trial’s end in 1961, all the defendants had been acquitted. Later, at the 1964 Rivonia Trial, he received a life sentence.

Mandela in Cape TownMandela with, from left, Rabbi Jack Steinhorn, Israeli Ambassador Alon LIel (behind), the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and senior Cape Jewish leader Mervyn Smith

 

But those early impressions were not consistent. His Jewish connections then were primarily with individuals – as friends, activists, lawyers and newspapermen. With the Jewish majority, he had little contact. Similar to other white groups, only a small percentage of SA Jews fought apartheid; Jewish radicals were on the margins of the community and often regarded with mistrust and hostility by it. The resentment this caused among Jewish activists still resonates in the community today.

Although most Jews went along with apartheid and benefited from it, they felt an awkward tension with it. They didn’t actively support it, voted consistently for liberal opposition parties in elections, and repeatedly backed Parliamentarians like Helen Suzman, who argued against its laws. Jewish women’s groups and others worked to alleviate the effects of apartheid on blacks. But still today Jews are ill at ease with the topic. The Struggle posed moral questions without simple answers: what was Judaism’s duty to the oppressed who lived around and among them? What had Jews learnt from their own history of persecution? And did they have the courage to stand up against apartheid when, in this virtual police state, it might damage their community by inviting retribution from the Afrikaans nationalist regime, which was in any case not well disposed towards them and had anti-Semitic tendencies?

After President FW de Klerk announced on February 2, 1990 that the ban on the ANC was being lifted and Mandela would be released after 27 years in prison, a new period began in which he engaged vigorously with mainstream Jewish organisations, philanthropists and businessmen.

Key among them was the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, at whose National Conference in 1993 he was the keynote speaker. Of course, hanging in the background like a dark shadow was the uncomfortable recollection that during apartheid, the SAJBD had adhered to a formal “non-political” policy, saying its mandate was primarily to look after Jewish interests. In the brutal racial system, this had weighty moral connotations. Today, the mainstream takes pride in the Jewish activists who fought with Mandela, many of whom were banned, jailed or forced into exile, provoking a retort that it is unfairly claiming the activists’ reflected glory. Mandela’s broader contacts with the Jewish community included community upliftment organisation MaAfrika Tikkun, of which he became patron-in-chief. It was – and remains – a proud example of the Jewish community’s work among the underprivileged.

Greatness often attracts greatness, and Mandela found a skilled and enthusiastic supporter in Glasgow-born Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris. He chided and charmed SA Jewry through the complicated process and helped allay their anxieties about what was to come. He arrived in the country in 1988 from London when apartheid’s grip was already loosening.

His friendship with Mandela threw into relief the question: why had so few rabbis – the purported conveyors of Jewish values – been active in resisting apartheid? That matter, too, does not have a simple answer and bothers SA Jews until today.

On sighting Harris during his trip to Israel with Jewish leaders, Mandela affectionately proclaimed: “My rabbi has come!” The visit was a major step politically and few aside from Mandela possessed the gravitas to undertake such a thing; hostility to Israel in many political quarters was intense. Harris was equally warm to Mandela, declaring – when he was being treated by a Jewish doctor for eye problems derived from working in lime quarries of Robben Island during his imprisonment: “We’re sorry you are having trouble with your eyes, but we want you to know that there is nothing wrong with your vision.”

Ironically Harris, who had not lived in South Africa during apartheid, testified on behalf of SA Jewry at the Faith Communities Hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 about its role. Several white religious leaders apologised for their communities’ acquiescence during apartheid. Harris, too, expressed regret for the Jewish community. Other white groups had done no better, but his words caused some Jewish soul-searching.

In 1985 a movement called Jews for Social Justice was started for social action against apartheid, supported by Rabbis Norman Bernhard and Ady Assabi. Again, as the essential reconciler, Mandela attended shortly after his release from prison a Shabbat service at Temple Shalom in Johannesburg, at Assabi’s invitation. It provoked some enraged members of Assabi’s congregation to protest the invitation, since just prior to it Mandela had appeared on television warmly embracing PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at Namibia’s Independence Day celebrations. But Mandela’s magic quickly overcame any opposition amongst SA Jews; they fell in love with him, as all South Africans did.

Mandela possessed profound loyalty to friends and comrades, such as with feisty Helen Suzman. When she was the sole member of the Progressive Party in Parliament, she was the first Parliamentarian to visit the prisoner Mandela on Robben Island and look into the plight of political convicts.

After apartheid he remained close to her, even after she was thoroughly marginalised by the country’s new political climate. Suzman commented: “I have been airbrushed out of history by the new regime – but my friend Mandela still comes to see me.”

MANDELA & MARLENEWith South African Jews so passionately Zionist, the Israeli-Palestinian question inevitably came up with Mandela. Instinctively, he was more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis, given the close links during apartheid between the ANC and the PLO. However, he again showed his magnanimity by attending a ceremony at Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg in 1995 to honour assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
 

Mandela in Israel in 1999 with Marlene Bethlehem – a senior member of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies as well as a director os the SA Jewish Report

His trip to Israel in October 1999 with Jewish community leaders was a bold step politically, aimed at repairing political damage caused by Israeli links with apartheid South Africa. Israel had co-operated in military matters with the government, leaving a bitter taste in the ANC and other black movements.

Mandela proposed a plan for Mideast peace, calling on the Arabs to recognise Israel within the 1967 borders, and Israel to give up territory for peace. His proposals were regarded by Israelis and Palestinians as naive. In Gaza, he met with Arafat and, while in Israel, he visited Rabin’s grave and Yad Vashem.

His reconciling ethos stands as a stark contrast to what is happening today, where government officials and diplomats behave like loose cannons, making anti-Israel statements, while the leadership says nothing.

A South Africa without Mandela will rightfully pose the question: What is his legacy for the country and world? Certainly in South Africa there is no-one in the current leadership even remotely approaching his visionary stature. And in the Middle East? If only a Mandela could emerge from the Israeli or Palestinian side to do there what Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did for South Africa.

His lack of bitterness after his release from imprisonment reassured very nervous whites, Jews among them, that after living with “packed suitcases under the bed” during apartheid, they had a future here after all. Most people always knew, even if they tried to deny it, that apartheid couldn’t last forever, no matter how brutal the regime and pervasive the security police in every corner of the society. It seemed likely it would end in a racial bloodbath.

Under Mandela, there would be no bloodbath. He created an atmosphere where minorities felt safe. He encouraged all South Africans to join in building a “rainbow nation”. He even invited one of his warders from Robben Island to his presidential inauguration and had lunch with Percy Yutar, a state prosecutor in the Rivonia Trial. He lived the Constitution: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

Worldwide he is revered; even the United Nations proclaimed July 18 – his birthday – a special day in his name. His decision to retire after one term as president set an example in a world where in many countries this is unthinkable – witness events in Syria and our neighbour, Zimbabwe, where leaders ruthlessly cling to power, turning their armies against their own people.

Many politicians and groups will try to appropriate him for their own agendas. Even when he was desperately ill, this was cynically done, as with the ANC’s embarrassing display of an obviously ailing Mandela for the TV cameras a few months ago.

The void will only be truly felt after he is no longer with us; as a wise writer once observed: “Nobody is more intensely present than the moment of their departure.” Even in retirement, away from the public eye, he was still there as a guardian for everything we strive for in this country.

It is gratifying that he received his accolades while still alive and saw his dream of a democratic South Africa come true. Sadly, the standard of our politics has deteriorated since his departure from public life. The ANC has declined so much that even Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has declared that he will not be voting for it in the 2014 elections.

It is unfair to deify Mandela; he was flesh and blood like the rest of us, capable of suffering and erring. Imagine the loneliness and fear he must have endured for so long even while continuing to hold fast to his political principles.

But the phrase “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” could not have been truer than in South Africa. In a world filled with hatred and cynicism, we desperately need again the dignity and integrity of a Mandela, a man who lived in full his own ideal: “In a situation where resentment, anger and revenge would be expected of you, do the surprising thing: forgive, go beyond yourself and find a better option.”

We will sorely miss his magic when he’s gone. Regretfully, a man like that comes along once in a century

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1 Comment

  1. Barney Harris

    Dec 10, 2013 at 3:06 am

    As fine a piece of journalism as one can find. Balanced, nuanced and transparently honest it portrays the Jewish community’s situation in SA during the Mandela years with compassion and understanding. It does so though without conceding for a moment that the community as a community could have done better.

    Kol Hakavod!

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‘Wake up!’ say doctors, as third wave ramps up

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Communal experts this week issued a stern warning to “catch a wake up” as the community has been hard hit by death, severe illness, and an unprecedented number of infections which continue to rise daily during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is extremely severe,” warned Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare Group. “In Gauteng, we are in the eye of the storm, with things set to get a lot worse than they are.

“We should all be doing what we can to prevent a single death, to prevent people from having to be admitted to hospital,” he said.

The death rate has risen at hospitals, and hospital stays are about 20% longer, exacerbating the shortage of beds, especially in Gauteng, which is leading the uptick in infections.

“As I walk through our COVID-19 units, I see people struggling to breathe, fighting to survive this shocking pandemic. Every day, we are reminded of the pain, the suffering, and the enormous loss that it brings,” Friedland said.

Issuing a plea to the community to be hyper vigilant, he said, “I want to be abundantly clear that there can be no place for a lackadaisical approach.”

Several doctors this week told the SA Jewish Report that the situation was dire, with one doctor describing it as a “battlefield”.

“Patients, some quite young with no comorbidities, are really sick, with the vast majority on one form of ventilation or another,” said Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.

“Some severely ill patients are being temporarily managed in casualty because there are simply no intensive-care beds available at other hospitals,” she said.

“We are seeing a fairly young cohort, some with no underlying conditions, who are becoming seriously ill. The variants are more virulent and transmissible. We have had quite a lot of patients who have had COVID-19 before or who have received the vaccine, and got it.”

“We treat more aggressively, but there’s still no magic drug. We’re doing everything we can to turn the inflammatory response around. It takes some longer than others,” she said.

“Sadly, some people over 60 believe that once they have had the virus or the vaccine, they are safe. They aren’t. A lot of families including couples and their children are being infected,” she said.

At the time of going to print, Hatzolah had 501 active patients with 64 patients requiring oxygen at home. At least 11.7% of the active cases include children and young adults under the age of 20.

“There are a higher number of younger people including children than in the previous waves,” said Dr Anton Meyberg of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.

Sadly, the majority of patients are still the elderly over 60, but doctors have noticed a rise in the number of patients between the ages of 40 to 60, many requiring hospital admission.

There appears to be a disproportionately higher number of cases within the community, with doctors putting this down to complacency and carelessness about observing protocols.

“There is more testing, but people aren’t following the rules,” said Meyberg, “People who have been vaccinated are becoming lax, and there is a large asymptomatic spread of the virus.”

The country technically entered its third wave on Thursday, 10 June. According to the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, a new wave starts when the seven-day moving average of new infections surpasses 30% of the previous wave.

More than 70% of the new cases are now in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where there is evidence of a resurgence after a period of recovery, and there are daily increases in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

According to experts, the next two weeks will be particularly severe in Gauteng as the numbers steadily increase. Cape Town is a few weeks behind, they say.

Private-sector hospital admissions have increased four-fold since April. More than 500 patients are being admitted a day in the private sector in Gauteng, which is putting enormous strain on emergency departments fighting to open as many beds as possible to make space.

According to Hatzolah Chairperson Lance Abramson, there were 263 active cases at the peak of the first wave, 333 cases at the peak of the second wave, and now there are more than 500 active cases “with no peak in sight yet”.

“There are a staggering number of active cases in the Johannesburg Jewish community,” he said.

“Ambulances are transporting multiple COVID-19-positive patients to hospitals daily, where it is sometimes difficult to find a hospital bed. Patients are sometimes having to wait in ambulances in the parking lots of hospitals. This is very challenging for teams on the ground,” he said.

The organisation is also looking after 64 patients on home oxygen where they are closely monitored, Abramson said.

The organisation’s nurses are seeing between 80 to 100 patients a day.

Interestingly, Hatzolah has had 238 patients on the programme who have had a vaccine. Of those, 171 had received the first Pfizer vaccine, and 83 had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two the AstraZeneca, and one Moderna. Thirty eight patients have been fully vaccinated and of those, only one required hospitalisation and has since recovered, he said.

According to Dr Ryan Noach, the chief executive of Discovery Health, globally, vaccinations have materially slowed the progression of new cases and deaths. There are early signs of reduced COVID-19 infection rates among the vaccinated pollution in South Africa post 15 days after vaccination.

“There are signs that the first dose is working, with early data showing that there are less admissions post vaccination and fewer deaths,” he said.

Worryingly, he said, “The data points to the potential for a very severe third wave, and we’re seeing the beginning of it only now.”

He said more than 50% of adults 70 years and older require admission to hospital.

“Hospital admissions in wave three have reached the level of admissions at the peak in wave one. There are currently 2 012 Discovery members admitted to hospital, of which 526 are in intensive-care, and 275 require ventilation.

“A large number of people are showing evidence of reinfections. Discovery members who contracted COVID-19 in the first wave have again contracted COVID-19 in the second wave. Three members have now tested positive three times,” Noach said.

On 13 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that two million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses would have to be destroyed because the United States regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, found that the main ingredient with which they were made wasn’t safe for consumption.

As a result, South Africa has no J&J doses to administer at present, setting the country back in its vaccine roll-out in the midst of a third wave. The good news is that, according to the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, J&J will replace all the doses within the next two weeks, with 300 000 due to land within a few days and another million to be released by Aspen’s Eastern Cape plant next week.

In the meantime, doctors have appealed to people to be hyper vigilant and maintain all non-pharmaceutical measures.

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BDS boycott ‘creating divisions among ordinary South Africans’

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“I felt targeted because I’m Jewish. It’s antisemitic,” said a businessman affected by an alleged boycott of companies purported to support Israel.

A group of 300 South African hardware stores supposedly cancelled contracts with “SA-based suppliers and companies that have relations with or who have shown support for Israel”. The executive director of Africa4Palestine (formerly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa), Muhammed Desai, last week described the boycott as “heartwarming”.

“Many people have been pressured by their community to be part of a boycott and cause harm,” said this businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This affects ordinary South Africans because it destroys long-term business relationships.”

Although there has been an impact on his company, it seems not many businesses have felt the impact of the boycott. Other suppliers listed by Desai told the SA Jewish Report that no contracts had been cancelled. “None of our relationships or sales into any of the hardware stores in South Africa have been compromised,” said one supplier, who asked not to be named.

“I can state categorically that this has had no impact on our business,” said another supplier who wanted to remain anonymous. “Our order book is full.”

“As the ‘rainbow nation’, this is just aggressively encouraging divisions that were never there before,” said the first businessman. “People are making business decisions based on religion rather than good business principles. These enforced divisions are what worry me more than anything. What happened to the South Africa that we know? This radical stance is completely nonsensical,” he said.

Desai went on to declare, “Today, standing with Israel, having ties with Israel, or serving in the Israeli military have all, correctly, become similar to, in the past, having stood with apartheid South Africa or with Nazi Germany. To stand with Israel today is now synonymous with saying, ‘I stand with Germany’ during the Holocaust or declaring, ‘I stand with South Africa’ during apartheid.”

He said Africa4Palestine welcomed “this ethical position as a morally sound example to other stores in South Africa and the African continent to emulate so that we can truly create apartheid-Israeli-free zones. Your efforts have served as another great blow to those who believe they can support the Israeli regime on the one hand, and take money and profits from principled and moral South African people.”

If the language of boycotting Jewish businesses and creating “Israeli-free zones” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn said, “In his congratulatory letter to the boycotters, Desai compares Israel to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The irony of his use of Holocaust terminology is also not lost on us Jews. Nazi Germany also came to our minds when we read this letter. We remember that the Holocaust began with the boycotting of Jewish businesses.

“We aren’t fooled by his couching of words or references to those who ‘have relations with or who have shown support for Israel’ and those ‘standing with Israel, having ties with Israel’. What he actually means is Jews. According to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre study in 2019, 90% of South African Jews support Israel, so invariably, what Desai is calling for is the boycott of Jewish businesses.

“The delight that he takes in potentially destroying these Jewish businesses is gut-wrenching, not least because of the fragile and precarious economic climate in South Africa. Will Desai and the BDS organisations rejoice in the jobs lost by these businesses?

“His so-called victory of boycotts of Jewish business won’t have an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All these threats achieve is attempted intimidation of local South African Jews who hold an opinion different to BDS. The South African Jewish community won’t be intimidated. It’s effect will be only to harm South African businesses trying desperately to survive and retain jobs,” Kahn said.

“Our Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion. There’s no rider that excludes Jews and people who have a connection to Israel. Nor does it call for the destruction of livelihoods of people for daring to believe differently.”

Desai issued a statement saying that the accusation of antisemitism was “a deliberate misrepresentation”, but then reiterated that “we welcome South Africans shunning, boycotting, and ending relations with suppliers and companies that are trading with, have links to, or are supportive of Israel”.

In response to the SAJBD’s statement on the matter, published on Facebook, Africa4Palestine’s Bram Hanekom wrote, “The 300 hardware stores can buy the things they need from other South African owned and ethical businesses.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public diplomacy at the South African Zionist Federation, noted that “the boycott of Jewish businesses has a long history in the BDS movement going back more than a decade, with Jewish businesses or those with Jewish management frequently targeted. What’s more, commercial boycotts against Israel have been a complete failure internationally. Since the boycott movement started, trade between Israel and South Africa has actually increased on average.

“BDS has many other failed boycott attempts,” he said. “One that comes to mind is the failed Woolworths ‘tomato’ boycott, which also produced zero results, other than a pig’s head placed in the kosher section of a supermarket. BDS may be trying to intimidate smaller Jewish businesses, but as yet, it hasn’t shown any signs that it has the capability of undertaking a full-fledged boycott campaign.”

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SAZF takes on Judge Desai for his conduct

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The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has predictably come in for some heavy criticism by the anti-Israel lobby for lodging a complaint against retired Judge Siraj Desai with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC).

Last week, the SAZF lodged a complaint with the JCC against the judge, who recently took up the position of the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The SAZF said Desai’s actions and conduct over many years was plainly in breach of the code of judicial conduct and “entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer”.

This was a bombshell complaint against Desai, who is a well-known social activist and respected jurist described by many as the “people’s judge”.

The detailed complaint against him spans many years from 2009 till the present, highlighting Desai’s actions and conduct connecting him to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the pro-Palestinian movement.

The SAZF said that Desai’s alleged misconduct included his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his judicial office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his judicial office to promote a partisan political cause.

Desai, who served the legal profession for 43 years, retired as a Western Cape High Court judge last year, and almost immediately accepted the ombud position having been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The objective of the ombud is to advance and safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa But more importantly, it’s to ensure fair, efficient, and effective investigation of complaints of alleged misconduct by legal practitioners.

Former Judge Rex van Schalkwyk of the Rule of Law Project told the SA Jewish Report, “This isn’t about whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Did Judge Desai conform with the ethics that constrain him as a judge? Having looked at the complaint, there is at least a case that needs to be answered. Judge Desai must give an explanation about his conduct. It’s legitimate for this issue to have been brought to the professional body of the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] and to be dealt with specifically in accordance with the principle of law not in accordance with the political issues which will cloud the complaint.”

The SAZF has been lambasted for the complaint, which it lodged on 10 June, by members of Africa4Palestine and the South African BDS Coalition. They have set up a Facebook page called “Hands off Judge Desai”.

The anti-Israel lobbyists described the complaint as “spurious” and “baseless”, and called it a “vengeful attack”. Africa4Palestine criticised the “questionable” timing of the complaint, saying that it was an attempt to distract from its complaint lodged against the country’s outgoing Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Last Friday, 11 June, the JCC appeal panel said it was continuing its deliberations on Mogoeng Mogoeng’s appeal against a misconduct finding for his remarks about Israel brought by Africa4Palestine.

Earlier this year, the JCC found that Mogoeng had contravened the code of judicial conduct with comments made during a webinar in June last year and subsequently at a prayer meeting where he declared that he would never apologise for the views he expressed. In the webinar, hosted by the Jerusalem Post, he said he believed South Africa would do well to consider adopting a more objective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said “hatred” of the Jewish state could “attract unprecedented curses upon our nation”.

In his March ruling, Judge Phineas Mojapelo stressed that “judges are to stay out of politics”.

The South African BDS Coalition said the SAZF’s complaint against Desai was in “retaliation for the failure to secure a seat at the Constitutional Court by Judge Unterhalter” accusing him of being an “apologist for Zionism”. Earlier this year, the SA BDS Coalition demanded that Unterhalter not be selected to the Constitutional Court for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rolene Marks, SAZF’s legal forum spokesperson said, “At issue here, is the role that judges play in our society. The reason that there is a judicial code of conduct is that judges need to be seen not to be promoting political causes since they may have to rule on them at some stage. However, it’s clear through his comments that although Judge Desai is entitled to his views in terms of freedom of speech, he is bound by the judicial code of conduct, and his actions fall outside of that.”

According to the SAZF, last year, Desai while being interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, made “inappropriate comments” likening Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

It added that Desai also made “several other shocking remarks” during the interview regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States – an important trading and diplomatic partner of South Africa – as the “great Satan” which demonstrated that Desai had “engaged in conduct incompatible with his status as a judge of the high court.”

According to the SAZF, Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby.

In 2009, Desai was part of a South African delegation of pro-Palestinian activists that was to take part in a protest known as “the Gaza Freedom March” organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. It was during this time that the Cairo Declaration was signed which was a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel. The SAZF said Desai “lent his stature as a judge to the drafting and issuing of the declaration”.

In 2015, he gave an order in a review application brought by pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisations and activists against the City of Cape Town. There is allegedly no record in the judgment of him having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case, according to the complaint.

In 2018, Desai welcomed Hamas during its visit to South Africa and said, “We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you, you are the leadership on the ground.”

“This, despite the fact that the Hamas charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the state of Israel. Using the prestige of the judicial office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the judicial code of conduct,” said the complaint.

“Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the judicial code,” said the SAZF. “It’s therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.”

Desai told News24 through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, that he was “unapologetic in his stance in condemnation of apartheid Israel”.

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