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Some light despite load shedding gloom

South Africa was plunged into darkness this week, literally and figuratively, as Eskom announced unprecedented stage 6 load shedding in an attempt to keep the lights on.





After a gruelling day of stage 4 load shedding (12 times over a four-day period for two hours at a time, or 12 times over an eight-day period for four hours at a time), the stage 6 announcement was a cruel blow to the businesses, households, and mindsets of South Africans. The fact that stage 6 quickly reverted back to stage 4 only added to the panic and confusion.

“How do we do this? How do I bake cakes and keep 27 people employed at my bakery?” asked Jacqui Biess. “It’s peak season for wedding cakes, and we need at least six hours of uninterrupted electricity to bake them. Stage 6 would have given us only 3.5 hours. We are losing products as the temperature of our cold room heats up, shelf life is shortened, and dairy spoils quickly. Most of our customers are tourists, and they don’t understand. A generator to meet our capacity would cost close to a million rand and take up half our parking lot, and that’s before paying for diesel. I think a lot of places are going to shut down, and we can’t afford any more job losses.”

Lindy Ann Hoffmann in Johannesburg describes how the power cuts have affected her mental state. “I have panic attacks in the dark. I’m on my own, looking after my father and his sister who are in their nineties. I just bought an inverter, but why should I have to spend R8 000 on that when I pay for electricity?” she asked.

“Besides the economic factors, increased load shedding over the holiday period is a deep psychological blow,” says stockbroker and economist David Shapiro. An eternal realist, he admits that the latest round of load shedding has definitely shaken him.

“In spite of the business community saying things will come right, there’s never been a foundation for that optimism. And now, everyone is silent. My fear is that this [Eskom crisis] has shattered whatever little confidence was left. It’s going to take a massive effort to turn things around. Power drives an economy,” he says.

“Many Jewish businesses have taken a severe pounding against the backdrop of low growth. This year, we contracted in the first quarter, grew slightly in the second, contracted in the third, and we really needed a strong fourth quarter, but this will probably take us into a recession. We can’t catch up with the growth of the rest of the world.”

Furthermore, Shapiro believes there will be severe consequences from mines halting operations because of Eskom’s woes. South African Airways going into business rescue has caused insecurity as the “ecosystem” around it suffers. Added to load shedding, this could only be detrimental to South Africa’s future.

“The government can’t go on like this. It has to change course, and rethink the whole model and economic future of this country. We need to make the best of what we can, but we’ve also got to be real. We have to be outspoken that this isn’t good enough for us.”

Even the optimistic Mike Abel, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Abel, says he’s not blind to how Eskom is failing all South Africans. “The most worrying thing is that we have no actual sense of where we stand. The president needs to level with the country in an honest way. If we do away with this uncertainty, then we can develop strategies and navigate the way forward,” he says.

“We need an independently-verified expert to explain where we are, so that we know if this is a temporary blip or something worse than we can imagine. Furthermore, we need the entire African National Congress to get behind the president. #ImStaying has 94 000 people who want to fix, build, and change South Africa. That’s not sugar-coating things. We want to be here because it’s home. We don’t want to give up on everything we know and love. We need to hold the government brutally accountable now.”

Jacques Weber, a former Democratic Alliance ward councillor in Cape Town, was flooded with concerned messages on social media after the stage 6 announcement. “We are not going the way of Zimbabwe,” he says. “We have a functional judicial system and active civil society to hold government to account. Three weeks ago, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe gave the Western Cape government the go-ahead to explore alternative energy sources.”

Electrical engineer Adam Pantanowitz says that Eskom’s crisis has deep roots. “The apartheid regime didn’t supply power to all South Africans, so when the ANC inherited this system and correctly began supplying power to all, the load was much greater. As government attempted to grow capacity, there were also delays, mismanagement, and corruption.

“There simply isn’t enough capacity, so we are on a knife edge at all times. If anything goes wrong, we feel the effects as consumers. We are under such severe strain, that one simple fault, like wet coal, causes catastrophe.”

Pantanowitz says the ripple effects of substations exploding leads to a “very complex feedback system that cascades into difficulty”. Furthermore, there are too many conflicting variables and agendas at play. These complexities are superimposed over the challenges of just keeping the lights on.

“The only way forward is to unbundle this monopoly, find alternative sources of energy, and start distributing them. Everyone with the means to do so should be taken off the grid using natural resources like solar power, and supply energy back into the grid,” says Pantanowitz.

A punitive approach to citizens using alternative energy is madness, he believes. “Embracing free forms of renewable energy (wind and solar power coupled with batteries to use energy when needed) is the way the world is going. We don’t want coal. Renewables are by no means the panacea to all energy issues, but they should certainly be part of the energy mix and form part of the solution. The whole picture can change if we tap into this resource. South Africa has unbelievable natural resources that we are irresponsibly squandering.”

SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn was optimistic that Eskom could be improved following a statement at the SAJBD conference last month by Dr Reuel Khoza, a past chairperson of Eskom. “A good number of the people who ran Eskom in its heyday are working in the Pacific Basin, Australia, and New Zealand and they are keen to come home, provided you give them the requisite platform to perform and you stay out of it as a political force,” said Khoza.

“There seems to be recognition in past weeks that experience and bold action needs to be brought into all state-owned enterprises to address the current crises, and we hope that Dr Khoza’s wise words are heard,” Kahn said.

Seven tips for surviving load shedding

Here’s the Community Security Organisation checklist for keeping safe in the dark.

  • Make sure that your security system including electric fences, alarms, and panic buttons have battery backups. Check them often to ensure that they are operational, and that the backup batteries work optimally.
  • Ensure you have locks and chains to secure gates and doors that require electricity to work or lock.
  • Make sure that all of your electronics are fully charged including your cell phone and a portable battery pack of at least 10 000mAh capacity.
  • Keep your car’s fuel tank topped up as your local station might not be able to pump fuel during load shedding.
  • Emergency lighting, torches, lamps, and candles are essential for night-time load shedding. Make sure you have spare batteries and lighters on hand or be environmentally responsible and get some solar powered lights. Ensure that rechargeable emergency lights are always fully charged.
  • Invest in a generator to run basic necessities and security systems.
  • Keep a well-stocked first aid kit in the house for any accidents that might occur.

For any security or medical emergency, suspicious activity, or potential threats specifically related to the Jewish community or Jewish installations, contact the CSO 24-hour emergency control room on 086 18 000 18. For crime-related issues and emergencies, please contact CAP or your local security provider.

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Couple caught in crossfire of attempted mall robbery



A young couple attempted to flee the scene of a botched armed robbery at Melrose Arch on Easter Monday, only to get caught in a hail of bullets.

Today, Brandon Regenbaum, 27, lies in hospital in a serious but stable condition under heavy sedation following a five-hour long operation to reconstruct his jaw and repair his mouth. He was shot in the face after robbers hastily fled the upmarket lifestyle mall where they had tried unsuccessfully to rob Elegance Jewellers.

His girlfriend of three years, Lorian Blechman, 25, witnessed the whole scene and luckily escaped unharmed.

The couple, who were due to leave for a holiday in Umhlanga Rocks that day, met for breakfast at Tashas. They left the mall in separate vehicles and found themselves unwittingly in the middle of a gun battle between fleeing suspects and the mall’s security guards.

“The robbers were running towards the Virgin Active Gym. We quickly took a different exit to avoid them, it was scary,” said Blechman.

They beckoned to each other to take an alternative exit near the Daytona shop in a bid to dodge the fleeing suspects. To their horror, they were then confronted by the robbers – who had made it to their escape vehicles – further down the road on Athol/Oaklands Drive in the direction of the N1 highway.

The couple could see the suspects’ vehicles in their review mirrors, so they instinctively swerved out of the way to allow them to speed past. There were loud gunshots, after which Blechman noticed Regenbaum wasn’t driving. She frantically called him to ask why.

He told her, “Babe I love you, but I’ve been shot and I’m going to die.”

Traumatised and still in shock, Blechman told the SA Jewish Report that she jumped out of her car and ran to him.

Speaking from hospital, she said, “There was blood and glass everywhere, and he was in a lot of pain. He told me he was dying. I remember pulling up his hand brake,” she said.

A young Jewish couple walking their baby immediately called Hatzolah, which arrived a few minutes later. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, another witness helped Blechman to make several calls to family. She told Blechman to keep talking to Regenbaum.

“I told Brandon that help was on the way. I told him his mother and brother were coming. I asked him where I could find his Discovery medical card. I told him general things like he was going to be okay, to stay with me, to stay awake. I told him to count how long it would take me in seconds to run to my car 10m away to get my keys,” she said.

Blechman called her father, who was already in Harrismith en route to Umhlanga Rocks where they were supposed to meet later.

Regenbaum’s father, Clifford, was in Plettenberg Bay on holiday when he received the call telling him his son had been shot.

“I was shocked,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

He believes his son was shot by the robbers who may have mistaken him for a security guard in hot pursuit.

“He drives a bakkie with our company name on the side which looks like a security vehicle and even has hazard lights. The robbers had already seen him leaving Melrose Arch, and I think believed him to be a security guard. I honestly believe they tried to kill him,” he said.

“It has been a stressful, worrying time. He will recover, but it will take time. I’m angry at this senseless shooting of innocent people. My son could have died. These robbers have no respect for human life. I don’t know what there is to learn from this.”

Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubele told the SA Jewish Report, “Police are investigating a case of attempted business robbery and attempted murder which occurred at Melrose Arch.

“It is alleged that an unknown number of suspects driving in two cars, an Audi Q7 and a Ford Ranger, were in a shootout with security guards after they were intercepted before the business robbery,” Makhubele said. “A man who was driving his car [Regenbaum] was shot and injured during the incident. Nothing was taken from the shop.”

While doctors have told the family the operation was successful, Regenbaum will have his jaw wired for seven weeks, and won’t be able to talk or eat solid food.

“It will be a long road to recovery,” said Blechman.

“It’s a miracle Brandon survived. It’s also freaky that we were in separate cars. If I had been with him on the passenger side of the car, I might not be here today. I was running late. Brandon needed to fetch his siddur and tefillin to assist my father with a minyan on holiday, as he is saying kaddish for my zaida who passed away last year. I believe my zaida was watching over us,” she said.

Police ask that anyone with information contact 0860 010 111.

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Israeli company turns SA water from toxic to drinkable



An Israeli company is assisting local government authorities to transform toxic water to healthy drinking water in what could be a game-changer for South Africa as a water-scarce country.

The company, BlueGreen Water Technologies, is a world leader in eradicating toxic algae from water sources, and has offered its expertise to South Africa.

With a branch in South Africa, the company started working at Setumo Dam on the Molopo River in North West province earlier this month. The project is in collaboration with Sedibeng Water, the company overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Germany where he is currently based, BlueGreen Water Technologies Chief Executive Eyal Harel said, “Toxic algae blooms are like a ‘global pandemic’ of bacteria. They infest bodies of water, and when that population of bacteria explodes, it makes the water toxic. You can’t use that water for drinking or recreation, it depreciates property, it makes that body of water too hostile for other life forms, and it creates health and economic problems.”

The company believes in the value of all people having access to quality drinking water, Harel said, and it’s doing the work in South Africa on humanitarian grounds. “At the Setumo Dam, it’s more like lots of bacteria with a bit of water in between. But half a million people rely on it for drinking water. We came to help get good quality drinking water to these communities.” Local government departments and officials had been “extremely helpful … everyone is working together”, Harel said. “Even in this time of pandemic and reduced budgets, they are doing an excellent job.”

He said the condition of the dam meant it was impossible to treat it from the ground, so they have had to deploy helicopters to distribute product from the air. “This is the first operation of its kind in the world. It’s new for us too, and requires lots of co-ordination with government officials, water boards, and locals.”

The company describes its products as “floating, slow-release formulations of market-approved algaecides designed to prevent the intensification of cyanobacterial toxic blooms in freshwater bodies [also known as ‘blue green algae’]”.

Harel said he was motivated to work with water as “water touches all people, no matter their differences.” With 22 March being ‘World Water Day’, he emphasises that “two billion people around the world only have access to poor quality water. About 99.9% is left untreated, and people think there is nothing they can do. We want to educate decision-makers that this isn’t the case anymore. Lakes can be treated, even much bigger lakes than Setumo Dam. In addition, algae blooms can actually be prevented.”

Harel got married in Cape Town, and was there during the height of the drought in 2018.

“I remember the term ‘Day Zero’, and how frightening it was,” he said, pointing out that drought also contributes to algae blooms because with less water, “pollution concentrates and bacteria grows. It becomes even more toxic, less liquid, and makes the existing problem much worse. That could be the reason Setumo Dam was in such appalling condition.”

The company also assisted Roodepoort Dam, reducing toxic levels of algae in the water two weeks before a rowing competition in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. However, Harel said Setumo Dam was in much worse shape. “It’s first and foremost a drinking water source,” he said. “It’s in a rural area that borders Botswana, and the communities are about as poor as it gets. So it’s our small way of helping.”

He emphasises that the company is “completely non-political” and is simply trying to reach out to areas where it knows there is an acute problem. It has even reached out to other Middle Eastern countries that aren’t friendly to Israel. “We aren’t here to make a political stand but a humanitarian one, and any human-rights organisation should understand that.

“Part of our agenda is to empower local communities to take responsibility for their local water source. We come as guests,” he says. “In all likelihood, if the dam isn’t maintained, it will go back to the way it was. So, our ultimate goal is to train local communities to be able to assess water conditions. They will be the ‘boots on the ground’ and raise the flag that there is a problem. We work with real-time remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery to assess conditions in the lake, so they will be part of that process.

“We have established good relationships with the government. It sees the problem for what it is, and is taking a long-term approach. We are totally committed to improving water quality in South Africa, and we see the same from government.”

The company’s director of operations in South Africa, Jurgens van Loggerenberg, told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked in water-treatment processes throughout South Africa for the past 20 years.

“Over the past two decades, I’ve seen a decline in the management of infrastructure and water quality. It’s a big problem as it affects people’s lives. So, when I saw BlueGreen’s technology and what it could mean for the improvement of water quality, I was fascinated.” He joined the company soon afterwards.

He believes the technology could “be a game-changer for South Africa. Toxic bacteria means that humans suffer. And it’s never been looked at this way before. Water has been treated only at the treatment facility. I don’t think the team has ever treated water of this poor quality before, but it has a strong strategy. We have the support of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and the Department of Water and Sanitation. They are standing behind it. They believe in the technology and what it can do for the environment. They know it can help them achieve their goals.

“One thing we observed is that there are so many shops in the area that sell bottled water,” he said. “The day the community can open the tap and have safe drinking water will be a big day for the country.”

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Wits protest an education in activism



“When I look back to my youth in years to come, I don’t want to have to tell my children I was one of the people who kept to the side and stayed silent. I want to tell them that as a white, Jewish woman in a democratic South Africa, I led.”

So says Gabi Farber, a student activist who, together with other Jewish youth, has committed herself to the fight against financial and academic exclusion at South African universities.

They join a growing movement of university students who in recent weeks embarked on a nationwide protest over tuition fees with demands including the allocation of funding for excluded students and a zero fee increase for the 2021 academic year.

Farber, the legal and policy officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), has been integrally involved in the protest.

“We have been on the ground every day,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “Walking through the streets of Braamfontein creating mass awareness about the students’ financial-exclusion crisis.”

Following the shutdown of various campuses, violence has escalated in the past few days, with police responding to demonstrations with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, and arresting protesting students in Braamfontein. A bystander, Mthokozisi Nthumba, was tragically shot and killed by police last week.

Says Farber, “The first few days were scary. The police were out of control, and you could see they didn’t know what they were doing, shooting rubber bullets directly at people without giving time to disperse. A grenade landed on my foot and burst my eardrums. It was dangerous.

“The media suggests there are hundreds of us and that the protestors are violent. In reality, it’s very calm on the ground, and there aren’t too many of us.”

The police have calmed down in recent days, Farber says, and those responsible for Nthumba’s death were due to attend a hearing on Wednesday, 17 March.

“I couldn’t let [the police brutality] turn me away though,” she says. “There are risks when you’re fighting for change. What’s scarier to me would be doing nothing at a time like this.”

Natanya Porter and Benjamin Atie have also been actively involved.

“On Monday, there were about 50 protestors, and we were chanting and singing peacefully in the street,” recounts Porter, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) officer at Wits’ education campus. “Suddenly, the police arrived in hippos [armed vehicles] and water-cannon trucks as if there were thousands of us burning down Braamfontein. They used a disproportionate amount of force.”

Beyond active involvement in the protest, Porter and Atie have also been involved in assisting students arrested by police, providing them with snacks and support while they awaited trial last week.

“There was no reason for their arrest,” Porter says. “We believe that the police just grabbed whoever was in a protest t-shirt and who was slowest at running away. In the end, the magistrate dismissed the case.

“As an education student, I believe that it’s a right not a privilege. I don’t think it’s fair for education to be available only to the few who can afford it. I’m heartbroken and shocked at the way the police responded.

“A total of 8 142 Wits University students are financially excluded,” says Atie, SAUJS Wits chairperson. “This means that these students passed last year in spite of all its challenges, but aren’t being allowed to return because they are in debt to the university.

“As Jews, this issue speaks to us because we have always placed a major focus on education and supporting the impoverished. It’s our responsibility to assist these students in whatever way we can.”

Indeed, the role played by the young Jewish activists has raised the profile of the fees issue within the broader Jewish community, says political analyst and former SRC activist Jamie Mighti.

“We have to be cognisant living in South Africa that there are challenges to upward social mobility, including historic poverty and exclusion,” he says. “One of the recognised ways to lift oneself up is through education. The Jewish community is world renowned for prioritising the value of education.

“To see young people like this stand in the gap with other students and use their voices reminds one of the roles played by Jews in fighting apartheid. The Jewish community will look back at this moment and say this was the birth of South African leaders and the re-emergence of Jewish activism within the broader South African conversation.”

Former SAUJS Wits chairperson, Yanir Grindler, stresses that more Jewish students need to get involved. “I’m left with a sense of anger towards the broader Jewish student population,” he says. “It has been so difficult to get them involved. A minority of Jewish students have been there on a consistent basis alongside Gabi protesting with the students. The rest are quite disconnected because they feel it doesn’t really affect them. That’s naïve, because it does.”

Farber, Porter, and Atie agree that more Jewish students need to play their part.

Says Atie, “One of the biggest criticisms we receive at SAUJS is that we come across as a union which cares only about Israel and Jews and not the larger South African community. It’s this perception of Jews that enables anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric to enter the halls of parliament and academic circles of South Africa. Only by involving ourselves in the struggle of the larger South Africa can we begin to change this perspective.”

Many academics agree that the plight of financially excluded students must be addressed.

“There are multiple stories in and around the protests,” says Bonita Meyersfeld, a professor at Wits Law School. “Do I think they’re legitimate? Absolutely. The commercial reality demands a creative and imaginative rethinking, but that’s true of the country as a whole. My experience with the first Fees Must Fall movement showed me that students are desperate.

“Ignoring that pain or painting all protestors with the same brush of judgement and intolerance will never solve the problem.”

Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor of engineering at Wits, attests that the contribution each graduate makes far exceeds the cost of educating them. “The debate isn’t between students and university management,” he says. “It’s one between all of us and our government.

“Universities don’t have the resources to solve the problem in the long run. All they can do is apply a band aid here and there in the hope of managing the short-term situation. The future of South Africa depends on how well we support education.”

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