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The near-fatal accident that fuelled a Paralympic champion

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Shireen Sapiro was water-skiing with her family shortly before representing South Africa in swimming at the junior nationals at the age of 13, when she fell and another speedboat went over her, its propeller cutting her almost completely in half.

In a miraculous turn of events, she survived and thrived, becoming a Paralympic backstroke swimmer and breaking the world record at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, where she also won the gold medal.

Sapiro told her story to the SA Jewish Report webinar titled “From ordinary to extraordinary” on Saturday, 29 August, along with English Channel swimmer Dr Karon ‘Kiki’ Marx, and peace negotiator Liat Amar Arran.

She said her original dream was to become an Olympic gymnast, as her mother had represented South Africa in gymnastics, and she assumed this was the path she would follow. But this changed when she began swimming with a friend after school. Gymnastics began to lessen in importance as she fell in love with the water. Clearly a talented all-rounder athlete from a young age, Sapiro soon overtook her friend as their school’s top swimmer.

“Swimming became my entire life. I knew I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. I was doing double sessions every day from the age of nine or 10 years old. At 13, I was chosen to represent South Africa at the junior nationals, but then I had my accident, so I couldn’t go.”

Sapiro related how she fell while water-skiing on the Vaal Dam on that fateful day. Her parents put up a red flag to warn other boats she was in the water, but “another speedboat drove straight over me. The propeller came in at my naval, basically ripping my body in two. The only thing keeping my legs attached to my body was the inner skin in my groin. My pelvic girdle was separated into nine pieces and my hip joint was completely detached. When my parents pulled me out the water, my mom had to ‘catch’ my left side and push it up into the speedboat,” said Sapiro.

She was airlifted to Union Hospital in Alberton, where she spent the next eight months flat on her back in traction. Doctors told her parents that it was unlikely she would survive, and if she did, she would never be able to walk again. But the teen had other ideas, and always knew she would walk one day – and hopefully swim too. “The first time I stood up was for only 10 seconds before I fainted. I used crutches for a long time. The one half of my body [from the abdominals downwards] was completely paralyzed.”

She had to re-learn how to walk, and then swim. In spite of the shock and loss she had to endure at just 13, Sapiro said she never felt angry or despondent.

She spent two years at Netcare Rehabilitation Hospital in Auckland Park, and it was here that the physiotherapist suggested disability swimming. At first, she was against it. “But eventually my mom convinced me. There were disability galas once a month. I swam the 50-metre freestyle, and broke the South African record.

“That’s when I started training hard. My accident was in 2004, and by 2008, I had managed to make it all the way to the Paralympics in Beijing.” She broke the 100-metre backstroke world record and came away with a gold medal. She was also South Africa’s youngest ever Paralympian.

Reflecting on that race, Sapiro said that just before it started, the only thing she could hear was her own heart beating. “When I finished the race and looked at the board to see gold medal and ‘new world record’ next to my name …” Her voice became emotional as she struggled to finish the sentence, but she felt a huge sense of relief, as the pressure she was under was immense.

“You can’t put into words what that moment is like. It changes you for the rest of your life. It was so surreal. You’re working on it for four years, with blood, sweat, and tears. Then after three weeks, it’s over.”

After Beijing, “My career just took off. I trained in the early morning for a few hours, then I would do school, then by midday, I would be in the gym lifting weights, then more school, then in the evening, I would be back in the pool for a few hours.” She is grateful that her coach insisted that she get her matric as well as train.

In spite of painful shoulder injuries, Sapiro won a bronze medal at the Paralympics in London in 2012. “To walk away with bronze was one of my proudest moments because I had to work so much harder for it.” She even went on to compete at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, and then retired. She said most athletes retire after one Olympic Games, so she is proud to have competed in three.

“Sometimes I can’t believe this is what my life became,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the accident, I don’t know if it would have materialised, and I’m so humbled by it. I couldn’t be more grateful for the journey.”

How did she do it? “I’m a ‘100% person’. If I take on a task, I’m 100% committed. It’s like I have tunnel vision – the whole world outside my goal becomes irrelevant.” She now teaches swimming and gets much joy in seeing youngsters progress in the sport. She hopes to start her own swimming academy one day. “I want to teach people what it means to fall in love with water.”

As a role model for the able-bodied and disabled, “I have so much responsibility to show what it means to endure hardship and accept our bodies,” she says. “I have the biggest scars all my over my body, but I want to show that no matter what your body looks like and what it can do, that’s okay.”

In an interview with Heslop Sports, she said, “I grew up in a Jewish home, and I believe that G-d presents everyone in the world with opportunities. We just need to be brave enough to take them. G-d has given me the strength to become the person and athlete I am today.” On the webinar, she said she might settle in Israel one day.

To anyone overcoming obstacles she says, “Everything you need exists inside you. No matter what life throws at you, you’re going to be okay.”

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Mogoeng comes out swinging against apology ruling

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Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng came out swinging in his appeal against Judge Phineas Mojapelo’s judgment ordering him to apologise for comments made about Israel.

Mogoeng criticised Mojapelo at every turn, describing his reasoning as “flawed and disturbingly superficial”. He said “the learned judge failed to deal with the constitutional right to freedom of expression and freedom of belief, thought, and opinion”.

In his 38-page appeal submitted to the Judicial Service Commission on 2 April 2021, Mogoeng reiterated why he had the right to express his support for both Israel and the Palestinians during a webinar hosted by the Jerusalem Post last year.

His appeal was in response to the Judicial Conduct Committee’s ruling on 4 March 2021 that he had 10 days to apologise for comments he made about Israel in the webinar. At the time, he said South Africa had a role to play in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he supported both peoples, and as a Christian, he had an obligation to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Africa4Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa (BDS SA) coalition, and the Women’s Cultural Group laid complaints against Mogoeng, saying he had flouted rules regarding judicial ethics. The matter was adjudicated by Mojapelo.

One of Mogoeng’s most pertinent points was that “several precautions need to be sounded to avoid the trap that His Lordship Mr Justice Mojapelo unreflectingly allowed himself to fall into”. According to the chief justice, this includes the fact that “it’s necessary to distinguish between official government policy and the policies of lobby groups and non-government organisations. And it’s necessary for decision-maker[s] to tell the difference between politics and policy, which his lordship failed to do.”

He also insisted that the judge’s “insinuation that I was possibly involved in some conspiracy with the Israeli government and ‘timed’ the webinar in such a way to undermine international law or United Nations conventions/resolutions … is a material misdirection”.

Mogoeng said there was no difference between what he said and the South African government’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. “After a thorough search, I vouch for the fact that there is no official policy of the South African government that contradicts any part of what I actually said. Even the two agreements signed by President Mandela and President Mbeki with Israel don’t contradict anything I have said. I was therefore found guilty of five complaints or counts of misconduct that turn on a non-existent official policy of the South African government towards Israel.”

He emphasised that “the supremacy of the constitution and the entitlement of all citizens, including judges and magistrates, to enjoy fundamental rights cannot be wished away. Where these rights are limited by legislation or the code, a proper explanation is called for. Judges have the constitutional right to freedom of expression, association, and religion, belief, thought, and opinion. As is the case with other citizens, these rights may be limited. But the limitations must, broadly speaking, be reasonable and justifiable. They cannot be arbitrary or whimsical.”

He went on to describe how other judges had waded into political waters, including Mojapelo himself. He also described how “my brother Dennis Davis hosted speakers, including politicians, on his then Judge for Yourself eNCA television programme about the Israeli-Palestinian political situation and a range of political controversies to which leaders of political parties were invited and participated. He was exercising his constitutional right to free expression although different views might be expressed about being a regular anchor or host of a TV programme.”

Mogoeng described how other judges had involved themselves in political controversies in Fiji, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, “And my dear brother Cameron J [Justice Edwin Cameron] essentially said what I said on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the real difference being, unlike me, he didn’t rely on the Bible.” Yet, none of these men were hauled over the coals for their comments or actions.

A senior member of the legal profession, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “The grounds of appeal make some sharp points against a senior retired and respected judge. It’s most unfortunate for judges to have such a public and divisive difference – both judges firing heavy ammunition at each other as to how the other has misconstrued the law. It doesn’t do much for confidence in the law and judiciary by the public generally.” He pointed out, however, that the chief justice “makes some powerful points, which need to be taken seriously”.

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Tony Leon shrugs off attack from anti-Israel lobby

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It has been a busy time for Tony Leon, the erstwhile leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), but one he takes in his stride.

Leon has faced a barrage of criticism from numerous quarters for his recent pro-Israel comments, and for saying in a News24 interview that former DA leader Mmusi Maimane was “an experiment that went wrong”.

The two aren’t related but coincide with the release of his fifth book, Future Tense: Reflections on My Troubled Land.

The outspoken and bold politician-turned-diplomat-turned-communications specialist caused waves among the anti-Israel lobby with his recent controversial views on South Africa’s foreign policy – or lack thereof – and its anti-Israel fixation.

In an opinion piece in the Sunday Times on 28 March titled: “Israel a handy alibi for SA’s poor foreign policy”, Leon berates the government’s numerous dubious foreign policy decisions, notably its silence on serious global issues compared to its vocal condemnation and criticism of the state of Israel.

This “fervour” of anti-Israel sentiment, he said, was “infectious” noting the “swift condemnation” by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng for his pro-Israel comments in a webinar held in June last year.

Leon said the speed it took for the Judicial Conduct Committee (of the JSC) to find Mogoeng guilty of contravening articles of the code of judicial conduct and ordering him to apologise was “breathtaking”, pointing out how other judges’ cases have taken years. He accused the JSC of being “hypocritical, lax, and dilatory in its core tasks”.

Leon lauded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vaccination programme, which has resulted in 70% of the country being vaccinated, leading the world in this regard.

In his piece he said, “To the extent that South Africa has a foreign policy at all, beyond a series of outdated impulses and struggle-retro gestures, Israel is the one place where President Cyril Ramaphosa, International Relations Minister Naledi Pandor, and Pretoria’s paladins can shine their human-rights credentials.”

He cited examples of some of the government’s regretful decisions, including “Silence on the slaughter in Syria; assent to concentration camps for China’s Uighurs; no entry here for His Highness the Dalai Lama; no censure for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea; and heralding stolen elections across the continent from Congo to Uganda,” and added that “at least Israel and its violations of the rights of Palestinians provides a handy alibi and a lonely exception to our generous support everywhere else in the world for ‘tyrannical leaders hated by their own populations’”.

Leon’s comments have elicited a seething-mad reaction from the anti-Israel chamber, which responded a week later in a burst of opinion pieces and letters in the Sunday paper.

One opined that Leon’s criticism of the country’s foreign policy and judiciary was “an attempt to defend Israel and its supporters in South Africa”. The writer said Leon used the “well-worn pro-Israeli tactic of ‘whataboutery’, deflecting attention from Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Another accused him of resorting to a “misleading narrative of virtue and victimhood”.

Leon this week shrugged off the attacks, telling the SA Jewish Report, “My view on the selectivity and myopia of current South African foreign policy is well founded and impeccably documented, as is the success of Israel vaccine rollout, whatever Netanyahu’s motives for it might have been. I hardly expected my view to go unchallenged, and I have no problem at all with the voluble and inevitable expression of a contrary view as contained in Sunday Times last week”.

Leon is executive chair of Resolve Communications, an advocacy company for reputational management and strategic communication. He is married to an Israeli woman, Michal.

The attacks on Leon come as no surprise to political commentator Daniel Silke, who said the African National Congress (ANC) and members of the anti-Israel lobby weren’t ready to take a giant leap into a more balanced environment regarding Israel.

“Israel is a useful rallying cry for the ruling party, which continues to beat Israel instead of having to confront tough foreign policy and global issues. This is a comfortable foreign policy angle for the ANC to employ, and plays into the old anger of Israel co-operating with the apartheid regime.”

Silke said it showed how the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement) had largely influenced and infiltrated the higher echelons of foreign policy in South Africa.

“South Africa is increasingly out of touch with the changing dynamics vis a vis Israel’s relationship with not only Gulf states but also a number of African countries. South Africa is becoming an outlier in terms of its blanket condemnation of Israel. She is isolated on the continent as far as Israel is concerned, and she will have to live with the consequences.”

He said the anti-Israel lobby faced “a crisis of credibility” by continuing to propagate a particular message that was no longer the consensus in the Middle East.

“The broader macro issues of how to deal with the Abraham Accords has made life difficult for an organisation like BDS. It’s undermined by the broader diplomatic events taking place. These developments are making it difficult for the anti-Israel lobby to continue to lambast Israel when any number of Arab nations have decided to take a more co-operative stance with Jerusalem. In future, it will either have to take a more radical line which will totally exclude it from the changes, or [engage in] a more pragmatic, constructive engagement with Israel.”

Meanwhile One South Africa Movement leader Maimane hit back at Leon for telling News24 at the weekend that he was “an experiment that went wrong”, calling the statement dehumanising.

In an interview with Newzroom Afrika, Leon said the statement was made in an interview with News24 about his book, where he said “Mmusi was an experiment that went wrong as he had never committed to the party’s ideals before he joined it.”

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Albie Sachs on the handshake that shook him

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Justice Albie Sachs felt a real sense of liberation after encountering the man who orchestrated the car bombing in which he lost an arm and the sight in one eye.

Sachs told the Temple Israel Passover Freedom online event last week that his “heart [was] beating very, very fast” when apartheid soldier Henry van der Westhuizen asked to see him for the first time.

At the time, in 1996, Sachs was serving as a judge at the Constitutional Court, and the man called at reception, Sachs told the audience of the Hillbrow-based shul’s talk.

“I open the security gate, and there is this man, tall and thin like me, although younger. He is looking at me, and I’m looking at him. In his eyes, I can see [reflecting] this is the man I tried to kill and, in my eyes, you can see [reflecting] this is the man who tried to kill me. We didn’t know each other; we hadn’t fought [personally]. He was just on that side, I was on this side, and he tried to kill me.”

The men spoke extensively during a meeting in his chambers, with Van der Westhuizen boasting about his own educational success and then rise in the ranks of the army “as if he wanted a pat on the back for that”.

At the end of the meeting, Sachs told Van der Westhuizen, “Henry, normally, when I say goodbye to somebody. I shake that person’s hand, but I can’t shake your hand. Go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and tell them what you know. Maybe we’ll meet one day.”

Although Van der Westhuizen jauntily strode in, he “shuffled” out.

Sachs said he forgot about the incident until sometime later when he was attending a party in Johannesburg. He heard someone calling his name, and it was Van der Westhuizen. Again, he asked to speak to Sachs.

“We went into a corner so I could hear him over the music, and he said, ‘I spoke to the TRC and I told them everything I know’. I put out my hand, and I shook his. I almost fainted. He went away beaming.

“I heard afterwards that he suddenly left the party and he went home and cried for two weeks. I don’t know if it’s true. I want to leave it as a possibility.

“For me it was more important that this former killer … can now cry because of what he did. It was liberating.

“I wanted him to enter into the new South Africa and accept [new] norms and standards. The door would be open for him now to tell the truth and become a more dignified human being, and he walked through that door.”

Sachs went on to speak about the plight of refugees, speaking of his own experience in exile in England. He described how he was first “a psychological wreck” when he went there after being tortured in prison, and then after the car bombing, he was there as a “physical wreck”.

From the British nurses who cared for him, literally picking the shrapnel out his chest, he learnt that refugees need more help than just safety and survival. “The nurses, washing my body, that laying on of hands, gave me a sense of connection with England I never had before. It was a kind of organised love.”

Sachs said this is what we as South Africans need to offer those seeking solace in fleeing their homes.

He told the audience that he had been reflecting recently on his Jewish identity and what it meant to be “a good Jew”.

Two events made him contemplate the topic.

First, he always remembered how the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris had spoken at former anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo’s funeral. “At the funeral, he said Joe was a good Jew. Now that surprised me: the head of the Orthodox rabbinate is calling Joe a good Jew. It was on ethical grounds.”

The second incident was when he was visiting England at a time when there was a legal challenge to a Jewish school that had excluded the child of a converted woman. The court was asked to establish if this was in contravention of race-discrimination laws.

Then chief justice of England, Nick Phillips, asserted that he suddenly found himself in the position of having to “decide who is a Jew”.

Sachs remembers a member of the country’s Jewish Board of Deputies being called as a witness, and asserting that there were three criteria to being Jewish: to have a mezuzah; to contribute to Jewish charities; and to go to shul for at least the high holy days.

“Joe didn’t do these things – and I’ll be exactly the same. So I don’t know.”

Sachs said what was very pronounced for him was a “horror of antisemitism”.

He recalled visiting Bulgaria on holiday in 1968, and coming across two synagogues which had been hoarded by Nazis with looted memorabilia from other synagogues all over Europe as part of Hitler’s plans to build a monument to an extinct race.

“I went back to the apartment, and wept,” he said.

Others questioned why he was overwrought, saying, everyone found it horrific. “I wept and said it was a decimation of my family, my aunties and uncles whom I had never known. It’s something, in that sense, visceral for me, and very profound.”

He said his connection was in terms of Jewish experience, rather than doctrine. “It might be something to do with our grandparents living in the shtetls. The only book they would have had would be the Torah; the only school would be the cheder. [It showed] that ideas mattered.

“For those of us who were activists, ideas mattered, not just compassion, but ideas and a kind of rationality connected with justice. If that’s part of the Jewish experience, then I’m imbued with that aspect.

“I’m a proud Jew and I’m proudly secular. I don’t know what the connection is. It’s between opposites.”

He has always been certain about one thing: “My auntie Rosie’s taiglach that she made every Rosh Hashanah in a big round tin. She made the best taiglach in Cape Town!”

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