South Africans in Australia battle flames, pollution, and despair
Surrounded by walls of flames and with his vehicle alight, volunteer firefighter Noel Kessel said the Shema as he was almost killed in one of Australia’s massive bushfires in Buxton, New South Wales three weeks ago. By some miracle, South African-born Kessel and his fellow firemen were rescued by another fire crew nearby, who waterbombed the encroaching blaze.
Kessel, who left South Africa as a child in the 1970s, has been volunteering as a firefighter since he was 16 years old. With unprecedented bushfires enveloping Australia since September, he has been all over the country to combat the inferno. From the frontlines, he says, “These fires are totally defying the rulebook on fire behaviour. They are far more erratic, aggressive, and more dangerous than anyone has seen before.”
He has seen walls of fire up to 80m high, and a fire tornado flipping a truck. In spite of his harrowing experience three weeks ago, he is already back on the frontlines.
The fires that have been blazing around Australia have killed at least 24 and gutted an area larger than Denmark [25.5 million acres], according to the New York Times. More than 2 000 homes have been destroyed, the newspaper reports. NBC News reports that Chris Dickman, a scientist and professor of ecology at the University of Sydney, estimates that one billion animals have been killed.
Vic Alhadeff, the chief executive of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, says that the Jewish community has been affected and involved on every level. A number of families have lost their homes, and Jewish community members have become volunteer firefighters. His organisation joined forces with the organisation Stand Up: Jewish Commitment to a Better World, and raised $570 000 (R5.6 million) in four weeks, which will support efforts on the ground and the families of young firefighters who have been killed.
“Collectively, the Jewish community has raised more than $5 million (R49.6 million) for bushfire relief,” he says. He describes Jewish vets taking in animals that have been evacuated, Jewish charities cooking food for firefighters, and people pitching up and pitching in wherever they can. For example, Joshua Todes went to the frontlines the day after finishing his matric at Moriah College in Sydney.
“To me, firefighting is infinitely more important than any holiday or post-school celebration,” Todes says. “It’s our responsibility as Jews to answer the call of others in their time of need. I always carry a small Siddur from my parents with me when I am fighting fires. In the darkest moments, I will say the Shema. My Jewish identity is a massive motivation, if not the core motivation.”
Todes says that volunteer firefighters work in shifts of at least 12 hours, and it’s not uncommon to stay awake for more than 24 hours. His most frightening moment was on 19 December, when he saw a fire move aggressively through the town of Buxton. “I heard at least five crews call, ‘Emergency!’ while being overrun by the fire. Many people lost their homes that day. Firefighters were injured, and only two hours after my shift, two firefighters died while working along the same street we had been protecting the whole day. While this was a serious day, it certainly didn’t deter me from going back out.”
Former South African Verne Dove is just one of many people who have lost their homes. A tin roof is all that is left of her historic house on her farm in Nana Glen, New South Wales, after the country’s catastrophic bushfires swept through their property in November.
Dove moved to Australia from Johannesburg in 1997, and the farm is where she and her husband, Troy Saville, invested much of their lives and livelihoods. It was a place where they grew fruit trees for their future grandchildren to enjoy – but now that’s all gone.
The property is near Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, in the centre of the bushfires. Dove recalls, “We had about a week’s warning that Tuesday [12 November 2019] would be bad, so we did several loads to evacuate our things.”
The family were renting out the house to another family, and currently reside at their other home and business in Coffs Harbour, called Butterfly House. “We were told to evacuate both our properties on the Monday. I left with our three kids in our caravan. My husband stayed to defend our business [from the fires].
“We heard late on Tuesday night that the fires were huge in Nana Glen, and had hit our property. There was a fire opposite Butterfly House too – six fire trucks turned up to put it out. It was a scary day in which we could have lost both our houses and our business.
“Our Nana Glen house was fully paid up in May last year. We have had tenants in it for the past two and a half years, so we have lost our house and the income from it. Because it wasn’t our primary residence, we don’t qualify for any government assistance. We got our first bit of help this week from Rabbi Rodal, which we are using to start cleaning up.”
Rabbi Yossi Rodal heads up Chabad RARA (Rural and Regional Australia), which brings yiddishkeit to the 5 000 to 6 000 Jews living in these remote areas. He says about “250 to 300 Jewish families” have been directly affected by the fires.
In Sydney, the smoke hangs so heavily over the city that when Edana Chilchik steps outside, she puts on a special mask so that she doesn’t inhale the toxic air. “Our air quality is worse than China right now, and the smell and taste of smoke is nauseating,” she says.
“Even a simple thing like taking dogs out for a walk [is difficult] – there are health warnings every day for us and our animals not to stay outside for long periods of time,” she says. “We see ghost towns on the south coast with no people at all. There is a real sense of devastation. We had a communal prayer for rain, but the heat waves keep coming. There is no end in sight.”
Hilary Coleman, who also lives in Sydney, says, “It has been an utterly horrendous, surreal experience here for the past few weeks. There is so much anger, so much blame. We still have some horrific times ahead. Firestorm conditions are picking up again. We need to make it through these next few months.”
Chabad of RARA has raised funds for victims of the fires, and are traversing the country to help anyone in need. It has also implemented a mitzvah (good deed) campaign to help Jews make a spiritual impact on the ongoing fire crisis.
“Bushfires are by nature volatile and unpredictable. They don’t always follow a rational pattern, and at times, defy the laws of nature. And so our response needs to be the same: beyond the rational, natural order of things. We can give of ourselves in the super-natural realm: by increasing prayer, good deeds and Torah learning,” says Rodal.
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.
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.”
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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