The Jewish Report Editorial

To speak or not to speak

  • Vanessa
Two high profile figures have got themselves into hot water recently for publicly praising controversial leaders for their smarts.
by Vanessa Valkin | May 13, 2015

Veteran journalist Allister Sparks’ choice of Hendrik Verwoerd - the architect of apartheid - as an example of an effective and intelligent politician, in his speech at the weekend’s DA federal congress in Port Elizabeth, has drawn the ire of many.

So did Wits Student Representative Council President Mcebo Dlamini’s expression of admiration for Adolf Hitler’s charisma and his capabilities to organise people, cause a furore last month. Dlamini was then dismissed as SRC president for an earlier altercation with a Wits staff member but the Hitler comment hastened up the process.

It is not difficult to see why these careless comments would have those consequences. The president of an SRC shouldn’t post on his Facebook page that Hitler was charismatic when he wiped out millions of people and a journalist extolling the virtues of former DA leader Helen Zille, shouldn’t tell South Africans that Verword was to be admired for his brains when he devised a plan that dehumanised and oppressed most of them.

Within the Jewish community, leaders have also been criticised for being outspoken even when their views were carefully considered. Last week the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation publicly criticised Israel’s decision to refuse a visa for Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and were condemned by many for it.

It is not de rigueur for Diaspora Jewish organisations or its leaders to speak out against Israel. This was also the experience of former South African mining mogul and chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council in Britain, Mick Davis, when he spoke out against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government (see article page 7).

Investec chief executive Stephen Koseff told Jewish Report last week that in 2012 he was accused of being an old, white racist when he said that although Investec had helped entrepreneurs like Brian Joffe of Bidvest to build their businesses, he was disappointed that South Africa was not producing more young black entrepreneurs of Joffe’s calibre who built companies from the ground up.

"What we have not yet seen is a young, black Brian Joffe," Koseff said at the time, sparking the negative reaction.

But this does not mean that communal and business leaders should be silent on policies or systems they admire or oppose for fear of offending others or of being misconstrued; or even worse-because they feel it won’t make a difference anyway.

And although criticism does not necessarily bring about the desired change, there is something therapeutic in expressing one’s standpoint. It is as important for the speaker as it is for the systems he or she lives within. In the sphere of interpersonal relationships, individuals need to know they can express their feelings to each other, within reason, without fear of repercussions. We should be able to do that in society as well but with clear awareness of the context in which one is speaking and what one’s intention is - considerations that both Allister Sparks and Mcebo Dlamini fell dismally short on.

Mark Cutifani, CEO of AngloGold Ashanti, said in the press a few years ago: “When you lead a substantial business, the business has an effect on the country’s economy and this brings with it responsibility.

“You have to accept that the organisation you lead is part of society… Your aim should be to help in directing the country towards a better South Africa and, ultimately, a better world. Your opinions should be carefully formulated and have a basis in fact, not whim.”

Permission to express a viewpoint is a very precious privilege of democracy and a right that we have to protect closely. If we do not, we become silent bystanders and face the danger that when systems malfunction and situations become intolerable, we will be powerless to stand up to them.



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