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.”
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.”
Mogoeng ruling a moment of reckoning
When news broke on 4 March 2021 that the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC) had directed Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng to apologise unconditionally for statements he made about Israel, it felt for many like a moment of truth, whether they were supporters or detractors of the chief justice.
Mogoeng was taken to task for comments he made during a webinar in June 2020, and later at a prayer meeting when he doubled down and refused to apologise for what he had said.
Africa4Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa (BDS SA) coalition and the Women’s Cultural Group laid complaints against him, saying he had flouted rules regarding judicial ethics. The matter was adjudicated by Judge Phineas Mojapelo.
Amongst other points, the chief justice said in the webinar that, “We are denying ourselves the opportunity of being a game changer in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The forgiveness that was displayed by President Mandela is an asset that we must use around the world.”
Mogoeng expressed support for Israel and the Palestinians, and said, “I’m under an obligation as a Christian to love Israel, to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” He stressed that he was bound by the policy of the South African government, and didn’t reject it.
But in his judgement, Mojapelo said that Mogoeng had gone too far. “Whether we like it or not, the chief justice isn’t like any other citizen of South Africa. He is the head of the judiciary and is subject to the restraints of that office, including the ethical rules which govern the conduct of each and every single judge. He is subject to those restraints of his office in his official and private capacity,” he wrote.
“Members of the judiciary have a duty individually and collectively to publicly accept their own peer-review process and to strengthen its credibility. Instead, he showed his disregard for the process by flaunting the fact that he would never apologise for his conduct, even [in Mogoeng’s words] ‘if 50 million people marched for ten years’.”
Mojapelo provided the exact words of an apology and retraction that the chief justice must make by 14 March 2021. At the time of going to print, Mogoeng has remained silent.
A senior member of the legal profession in South Africa, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mojapelo is a respected judge who wouldn’t make a biased ruling. The ruling, he said, was more about Mogoeng “straying into territory he shouldn’t” rather than what he said about Israel. However, he noted that another judge had strongly condemned Israel in the past and was never reprimanded, and “he should have been”.
But writing for Business Day, Milton Shain, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, noted among other points, “What seems to be drowned out is the vehemence with which his [the chief justice] words were greeted at the outset, as opposed to the relative silence around his comments on the COVID-19 vaccine, not to mention the unusual alacrity with which the JCC has acted on the matter. Should we be surprised? The chief justice deviated from the national script.
“While antagonism towards Israel cannot axiomatically be equated with antisemitism, it’s apparent that the discourse of anti-Zionism often goes beyond the bounds of normal political rhetoric and frequently betrays vulgar Jew-hatred. Israel alone is signalled out for obloquy, while the human-rights abuses of many other states are ignored. Mogoeng made this clear. In so doing, he crossed a red line.”
Meanwhile, Sara Gon, the head of strategic engagement at the Institute of Race Relations, said, “What Mogoeng said about Israel wasn’t particularly inflammatory, even though it seemingly contradicted government policy. He has said far worse in the past, and no complaints have been made.
“The moniker of Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state applied by the ANC [African National Congress] is at risk with Mogoeng’s utterances. This causes a problem because it questions the ANC’s position, yet the ANC supposedly holds that it’s available to act as an ‘honest’ broker in reaching peace. The ANC should have ignored it instead of bringing it up in parliament. Its failure to take action on previous misconduct means it’s an anti-Israel knee-jerk reaction.”
Gon doesn’t think the ruling breaches Mogoeng’s religious rights, and said his right to free speech is limited to the code of conduct. “Judges are required to be careful about their public statements. I suspect if he’d worded it more judicially, he could have got away with it. But he’s operating in a milieu where his words will be watched.
“It is, however, a question of seriousness and, other than offending certain groups, it hasn’t been a crisis anywhere near the crisis that has beset the judicial system by the failure of the JCC to get to grips with the matters against Judge [John] Hlope over more than a decade. The contrast is disgraceful.”
Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, said the organisation was concerned by the ruling for three reasons. “First, the original comments of the chief justice were legitimate, fair, and impartial. They gave full credence to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His comments were in line with South African foreign policy, and he took care to note that he is bound by South African government policy on the issue.
“Second, the effect of this ruling is to make balanced – let alone pro-Israel – positions politically controversial in this country. If the chief justice had expressed an anti-Israel position, he would have been applauded by those who instead seek to damage him. This falls in stark contrast to judges who have taken political positions or expressed an opinion on controversial matters but have never been questioned or sanctioned.
“Third, this leads to a form of ‘cancel culture’ in our country. If one is not blatantly anti-Israel, then one’s comments aren’t accepted in the political discourse. It leads to a chilling effect, where pro-Israel or even balanced opinions are silenced. The JCC in this matter may have handed the government a blank cheque to silence those with whom it disagrees through this ruling.”
Others saw the fight as just beginning, and boldly expressed their support. “The chief justice must never and will never apologise for praying for the peace of Jerusalem,” said South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) spokesperson and radio personality Bafana Modise. “If you expect an apology, forget about it. We serve the G-d of Israel. Israel is the homeland of Christianity. We will not be silenced by you. Chief Justice must not ever and will never, ever, apologise for praying for Israel. We will never apologise for praying for the G-d of Israel.”
SAFI and other Christian organisations have created a petition calling for “President Cyril Ramaphosa to publicly support [Mogoeng] and his right to speak out and express his Christian views to bless Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” At the time of writing, 114 600 people had signed it. One supporter wrote, “I’m signing because we still live in a country with free speech. Why can those opposing Israel speak out, but Christians that support Israel must be muted?”
African Christian Democratic Party leader Kenneth Meshoe, who founded the non-profit organisation Defend Embrace Invest (In) Support Israel (DEISI), said in response to the ruling, “The JCC’s finding … is very disturbing and unsettling. DEISI views this finding as a threat to the religious freedom of all South Africans, particularly members of the Judeo-Christian faith.”
Vivienne Myburgh, the national director of the South African Branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said, “We fully support the right of [Mogoeng] to express his Christian convictions and support for peace in the holy land, and we denounce those who are mischievously misinterpreting his message towards their hateful agenda.
“His message has been one of love for all people caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He should be applauded for his impartial and unprejudiced stance. This kind of calumny actually exacerbates divisions and increases religious and social tensions at home and in Israel. Any attempt to abrogate [his] constitutional freedom should cause all peace and freedom-loving South Africans to be most wary and alarmed.”
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