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Wits protest an education in activism

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“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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1 Comment

  1. Neville Smith

    Mar 23, 2021 at 10:45 pm

    I am proud that our community continues the fight for eqaulity & the right of all to an education.
    I recall the 60’s when Wits students stood their ground outside the campus facing the SAP & hells angels.

    Keep up the pressure & the fight for all rights.

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Humanity’s best rises after violent unrest

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The KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community has begun emerging from the shock of last week’s chaos, remaining vigilant and expressing gratitude for assistance provided by the wider community. Moreover, they are paying it forward wherever they can to others in need.

Those working in relief operations in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng describe a spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) among ordinary South Africans that has sparked practical, powerful change.

”We not only helped ourselves, we helped others, and they in turn helped us. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, there was aid,” said Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council.

The Jewish community in the coastal city was hardest hit by last week’s violence and looting, in which businesses were destroyed, food and fuel supplies were disrupted, and communities felt under threat. Now, they say they are humbled by the chain of support that has encircled them.

Lieberthal said the community continued to “adopt an attitude of constant vigilance”, noting that threatening “fake news” still circulated and patrols in residential areas continued throughout the night.

Government security efforts simply haven’t been sufficient, she said. “In spite of the announcements from the government, the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] isn’t here to protect residential areas or citizens, it’s here to protect national key points. The national and metro police are under-resourced and outnumbered.” As such, while “the community certainly appreciates the efforts of the SAPS [South African Police Service] and Metro Police, the community has taken care of itself”.

Lieberthal said the community was still trying to come to terms with the reality of what had hit it. “It’s very difficult for those who weren’t directly impacted by this crisis to understand what it was like to be in the thick of it. Children and adults alike were terrified. We hope that this nightmare is over. It’s now time to pick up the pieces and try and start again.”

The national leadership of the SAJBD, as well as a number of other communal organisations, corporations, non-profits, small businesses, and private individuals has been fundamental to ensuring the delivery of essential items to the community through protected convoys.

“To date, we have received medication, non-perishable items such as flour, tinned foods, oil, pasta, toiletries and personal hygiene items including adult nappies, sanitary towels, formula, meal replacements, medication, and kosher meat – all of which has been delivered or handed out,” said Lieberthal.

Reverend Gilad Friedman of the Umhlanga Jewish Centre described the individual heroism that underpinned collective efforts. There were those who organised private flights to deliver goods; and a local doctor and a pharmacist, who opening up his pharmacy “mid riot”, worked together to help provide chronic medication. Volunteers brought bakkies and vans to take goods to distribution centres at shuls, and some acted as personal shoppers, moving from store to store to try and get the products needed by the elderly. Some are manning the phones, trying to make contact with every community member on record to check up on their welfare.

More than just providing for basic needs, there is also a sense of spiritual unity, according to Friedman. “Last week, people didn’t know if they were going to have food for Shabbat, and one of the rabbinical families at the shul got flour from all the people that they could find, and made challot for all the families.”

Last Thursday, the centre established a helpline with the tagline, “Do you need help, or do you want to help?”

“Since the message went out until today, I’ve had to charge my phone four times a day,” said Friedman. “There is just an endless stream [of calls], and credit goes to the people on the ground making a difference.”

Rabbi Shlomo Wainer of Chabad in Umhlanga echoes Friedman’s appreciation of support. Along with other Jewish community organisations, he is now helping to co-ordinate assistance to impoverished areas in Inanda and Phoenix, having been in long-term contact with a bishop and pastor in those vicinities.

“We have launched what we called ‘Operation Beyond Relief’ because I don’t believe that relationships are only for now because of the difficulties. This is for the continued relationship of goodness and kindness at all times.”

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the SAJBD, said it was involved in this project as well as numerous other operations to provide food aid across affected areas. “The past weeks have been devastating for our country, and the SAJBD, in addition to assisting and supporting our Jewish community in KwaZulu-Natal, has prioritised the alleviation of hunger that the past unrest has unleashed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”

In collaboration with other foundations in Gauteng, “in the past week, we have supported the distribution of hundreds of food parcels to areas in distress”. These include Eldorado Park, Orange Farm, Kliptown, Vanderbijlpark, as well as Alexandra, and more help is being planned for the East Rand.

On the ground, the Board took part in clean-up operations in Daveyton. “Although it was heart wrenching to see the destruction, it was also incredibly uplifting to be part of the solution. We were so moved by the community in Daveyton, that we intend to return with other ways of supporting the community,” said Kahn.

The SAJBD is also working with The Angel Network in KwaZulu-Natal as it organises truck and air deliveries of essential goods. Glynne Wolman, the founder of The Angel Network, said that within four days, they had managed to collect more than R500 000 in funding, and had already dispatched trucks loaded with 1 800 food parcels, 200kg of nutritionally fortified e’Pap, 14 000kg of mielie meal, and one ton of soya meal to help those left in the direst conditions after the unrest.

“We have seen the worst of people, and now we have the chance to see people at their best. More than anything [in the aftermath], it has been ubuntu in its truest form,” said Wolman.

Jewish humanitarian group Cadena’s director of international alliances, Miriam Kajomovitz, echoed Wolman’s observations. The organisation has been helping in Gauteng in various capacities, be it clean-up operations, organising psychological support, and now planning small-business relief for those whose livelihoods were destroyed: “We are all working together. Everyone is giving of their expertise and what they can for the good of all.

“Crisis is always an opportunity for change,” Kajomovitz observed.

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Days of wreckage and reckoning

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As South Africans face the largest outbreak of unrest and violence in the post-apartheid era, the community of KwaZulu-Natal reels from safety concerns, lost businesses, and looming food and fuel shortages.

In Gauteng, while central community areas haven’t been directly affected, the province remains on tenterhooks as it looks at the longer-term effects on the country as a whole.

“It’s like a war zone. I haven’t slept for two days,” said Michael Ditz, shortly before he began another patrol in his Durban North neighbourhood this week.

Ditz, the co-owner of retail chain Jam Clothing, said that last week, they owned 115 stores with a national footprint. This week, “we are now down to 99, we have lost 16 stores. Some have been burnt to the ground, others just had their goods looted.”

“We still have to assess the full damage, but the tragic irony is the long-term job losses – it will take years to rebuild.”

Ditz said it was too early to process fully the shock of the past few days. “I just feel gutted,” he said.

He said they also faced personal danger. “Our families and our houses are under threat. We are literally guarding our own neighbourhood.”

Yet, he said, unity had been forged in this regard. “We have been working with the Muslim community.” A similar collective effort is also happening in Jewish community member Darren Katzer’s neighbourhood in central Musgrave.

“With the Muslim community, it has been unbelievable. We are working closely together, just protecting each other and doing whatever we can.”

Especially as food shortages become a real possibility, “our neighbourhood block is literally having meals with all of us together, so that we can pool our food, because we don’t know if we are going to run out. That’s the reality.”

The looting has decimated businesses, shops, and factories in the area, and the violence is “on their doorstep”. The equivalent of their proximity to the unrest would be something like the looting of Norwood or Sandton in Johannesburg.

Shops are now shut in the vicinity, and where one might be found open, mass queues are forming. Janyce Bear, who along with her husband, Rod, are shop owners in a mall that was looted in Glenwood, said people were trying to source items like baby formula.

She said her family had looters strolling in their neighbourhood, “coming up our road with their trolleys filled with stolen goods. You feel like you are in another world.”

Both she and her husband were recovering at home from COVID-19 when their mall was attacked, and while they are grateful their store was spared, they are devasted for the other tenants.

It’s a sentiment that Jenny Kahn, who owns a store with her husband in the same mall, shares. She described their fellow tenants as “family”, who have even helped with donations to the Union of Jewish Women outreach activities in which she is involved.

“By the grace of G-d and my prayers to Hashem, for some unknown reason, our shop was spared,” she said. The sole reason they can think of for the sparing of their shop is that while they are a jewellery store, they also sell “fancy goods”. These include menorahs, which were on prominent display in their window.

“The majority of the people that buy the menorahs are Christian church goers.” Perhaps, she muses, this acted as some kind of deterrent.

Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council, said that while they were “aware that there has been loss of business and livelihoods within the community”, exact numbers couldn’t be given at this time.

“At present, there are extremely long queues for petrol and food. Supermarkets that are able to open are limiting the items being bought. The SAJBD KwaZulu-Natal and Community Security Organisation (CSO) are hard at work to resolve these two matters.”

“Although tension is running high here, we have an incredible community that has always come together and once again, this is no exception,” Lieberthal said.

The Johannesburg CSO’s director of operations, Jevon Greenblatt, said that while the picture in that province was different to that on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal, people should be careful while also curbing panic and hysteria. Inaccurate posts on social media, for example, could lead to police and security companies being called out unnecessarily, preventing them from attending scenes where they are truly needed.

“Remain cautious and close to home,” he urged.

Amidst the turmoil and horror of the past week, stories also began to emerge of communities fighting back against looters. Property developer Steven Herring, under whose company Tembisa’s Birch Acres was built, witnessed this when his mall was threatened and people from the neighbourhood stood up to the looters.

“It’s amazing to see. When we’re on the edge, it’s unique that people are standing up, stepping up, and showing support. It’s heartwarming to see that at the end of the day, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Yet, he said, this kind of community support was forged right from the start. “When we built the mall 10 years ago, we were hands on with the community every step of the way. On the property, not only is there the mall, there’s a taxi rank, a vicinity for hawkers, a centre-managers office, a car wash, and even shops that are especially allocated to elevate people from being hawkers to shop owners. It’s an all-inclusive process that has been going on for a very long time, and we keep those relationships going.”

On the flipside, Jewish community member Reuben (whose name has been changed), who was involved in security operations on the frontline in Johannesburg, witnessed some truly dark moments.

“We went to a store in Jeppe that had been looted, and where the owners had asked for help to access their store – a small corner spaza shop. As the owners were driving up, you could already see in their faces that their lives were shattered. They started to cry. They were shaking and as they walked into the store, there was nothing. They just broke down.

“I have seen enough carnage and damage, [but I was moved by this]. That was the worst part, you saw the real cost of the violence wasn’t destruction of roads, it was lives.”

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Light at the end of the tunnel after heavy COVID-19 losses

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The Johannesburg Jewish community is reeling from unprecedented COVID-19 deaths during the third wave of the pandemic. But in spite of these tragic fatalities, the vaccine is clearly having a positive effect.

“We are dealing with many sad losses at the moment. We’ve just had the 200th Jewish death from COVID-19 in the Johannesburg region since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson. “We’ve had a 35% increase in deaths over normal levels year on year. June this year was extremely high, and we expect that July will be just as harrowing. The winter waves are definitely worse.

“The third wave has put a huge strain on our operational team. It’s working through the night, six days a week, and running up to eight funerals a day,” Tomson says. “That’s a funeral every hour. The load is intense.”

While some burial staff have contracted COVID-19, “There hasn’t been a moment when they’ve said it’s too risky. It’s a small team that’s completely committed. In spite of the pressure and volume, it continues to operate with efficiency and compassion.”

Tomson says the Chev also relies on volunteers, and there is a huge amount of logistics and paperwork behind the scenes when a COVID-19-positive community member passes away. This is in the context of hospitals and the department of home affairs being overwhelmed with deaths.

Some of the toughest moments have been funerals for young people. “We have seen some young deaths, but it’s not the norm. The average age of COVID-19 deaths is 77 years old. One of the worst days was when we buried a husband and wife at the same time. We’ve done funerals for couples a week or two apart, but never both at the same time. We had to ask a whole set of halachic questions – it was totally unprecedented. It’s also very difficult when families can’t attend if they are COVID-19-positive,” he says.

Local virology expert Professor Barry Schoub explains why the Jewish community has been considerably more seriously affected by COVID-19 than the general community. “First, the majority of the country’s Jewish population resides in Gauteng, the province which has been by far the most severely affected in the country. As at 6 July, Gauteng accounted for about 62% of the total number of cases in the country. Second, the median age of the Jewish population is 45 years, against a national average of 26 years. Age has been well documented to be the major determinant of severity of disease and hospital admission. Third, the penchant for functions and get-togethers, often discarding COVID-19 precautions, is an important yet preventable contributor.”

Says Tomson, “The funeral streaming that we started in December has made an impact. The professionals who used to video Barmitzvahs and weddings are now at the cemetery all day, streaming funerals. While that’s an upsetting thought, it has created much-needed income for them. And it’s a gift to the families by allowing members who can’t be there to be part of the service. Virtually every funeral is streaming now, and can be found on the Chev website.”

In spite of all the negative news, there’s a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. “Our staff was vaccinated nearly two months ago with the Johnson & Johnson [J&J] vaccine, and it has been a game changer,” Tomson says. “Very few have got COVID-19, and we’ve had zero staff hospitalised. It’s effective against the current variants. The same goes for our cemetery staff and volunteers, who were also vaccinated with J&J. They have a lot of public contact, but they’ve been only mildly symptomatic or completely asymptomatic.”

Says Schoub, “Vaccine rollout in countries with high coverage has drastically reduced the extent of severe infection, hospitalisation, and death. For example, in the United Kingdom (UK), which has now reached 59% population coverage, the tally of daily cases per million population was 423 as against 202 for South Africa [on 6 April]. However, the daily death rate per million population was only 0.5 per million population for the UK as against 5.5 per million for South Africa.”

Johannesburg general practitioner Dr Daniel Israel says, “The vaccine is an absolute ray of hope. Studies show that in spite of the fact that some people have had only one dose of Pfizer, and have still caught COVID-19, the incidence of people becoming very unwell after having been vaccinated is little to nothing. If one looks at the countries where vaccinations have taken place, vaccination has really made the rates of COVID-19 drop to almost nothing. Vaccination is the way to go. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of this.”

Meanwhile, all Chevrah Kadisha residents over the age of 60 got their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week. “With the massive increase in community deaths in June, only one Chevrah Kadisha resident has died from COVID-19. That’s staggering, given their age and frailty. With our staff being vaccinated and all our protocols in place, it shows the power of the vaccine in preventing spread and severe illness,” Tomson says.

He says they were scheduled to get the second dose only in mid-July, “but our team phoned the health department every day and were relentless. We got our entire allocation 42 days after the first dose [the minimum time in terms of government policy], and our team immediately got to work. They went room to room, vaccinating virtually every resident. We were at the top of their list for the second jab. It shows the tenacity and commitment of our care team. My message is that vaccines work. I’ve seen it first-hand. We’re so grateful.”

Tomson says the Chev has been extended on all three fronts. “The Chev is unique in that it not only cares for the aged, vulnerable, and frail, who have been severely impacted by COVID-19, it also offers financial relief to indigent families, who have been severely affected by the economic fallout of the pandemic. I don’t know any other organisation that does this. It’s also a burial society. We have been extended beyond imagination.

“Financial relief is ongoing,” he says. “It isn’t changed by the different waves [of COVID-19]. We’ve experienced a significant influx of families needing financial assistance – a 15% increase over the past year. Younger families are also needing additional financial help.

“I keep thinking that without the support of the Jewish community, nothing we’ve done in this pandemic would have been possible,” Tomson says. “There are ongoing challenges, and it’s an ongoing partnership with the community. It has been so since 1888, and we are blessed.”

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