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Women’s struggle to survive the Holocaust

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All Jewish people fought to survive and care for their families as their world was ripped asunder when the Nazis rose to power, but Jewish women stood out for the particular burdens they had to bear.

This was the premise of a talk given by Rabbi Moshe Cohn, the head of the Jewish World Section at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, on a webinar hosted by the Cape Town Holocaust Centre.

“The story of war is a story of rupture – ripping asunder everything we hold dear. From their role in society, to their jobs, to the minute-by-minute reality of their lives, Jews faced drastic change,” says Cohn. According to Warsaw ghetto diarist Emanuel Ringelblum, “It changed with the speed of a movie. Future historians will have to dedicate an appropriate page for women in the war for her courage and steadfastness. Thanks to her, thousands of families have managed to surmount the terror of the times,” he wrote in June 1942.

Cohn notes that there is a “great movement towards revisionist history. There are many who believe that we should change the way we understand history to fit today’s sensibilities.” He disagrees with this, emphasising that we need to understand history in its context. So, even though women are extremely liberated today, they weren’t then, and we need to accept this point if we are to understand the challenges they faced.

“Women’s roles were very well-defined. But from the 1930s onwards, many Jewish men lost their jobs, leading women to go out and find work. This led to role reversals, of women becoming breadwinners and men staying at home.” However, it wasn’t a simple switch, with many men being unable to accept the situation and often sinking into depression. They couldn’t partner equally with their wives, which meant women now had to play the role of breadwinner and mother.

“Women wanted to survive. Men tended to collapse. While this is a generalisation, there was a sense of men ‘folding onto themselves’, unable to accept their new position in the household. It was a foreign concept,” he says.

Then, after Kristallnacht on 10 November 1938, more than 30 000 Jewish men were arrested – almost 10% of the Jewish population in Germany. Many women were suddenly on their own, and had to try to rescue their husbands by protesting, writing letters, and so on, as well as working and taking care of the home and children.

When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, many Jews fled towards the Soviet Union. Two thirds of these were men, leaving even more women alone to assume the role of both parents. “They also had to make impossible decisions on their own,” says Cohn. He showed a clip of one survivor saying how her mother’s role in life changed on 1 September 1939. She went from an elegant woman who had never worked, to one who did, battling every day to put food on the table and keep her children safe.

As Jews were forced into ghettos, they faced hunger, overcrowding, disease, and the ever-present threat of deportation. It was women who often had to navigate the horrendous choices and dangerous reality of ghetto life in order to keep their families alive.

Cohn explained that the black market was a key aspect, and women used it as a strategy of survival. However, this differed in each ghetto. In Warsaw, the ghetto was surrounded by Poles, many of whom also saw the Germans as the enemy. This allowed a black market to thrive. However, in Łódź, those outside the walls were occupying Germans. There were no ‘friends’ outside, and no black market. This drastically changed the strategy women had to use to stay alive and keep their family alive.”

Delving into some devastating statistics of life in the ghetto, Cohn says that 30% of Warsaw’s population lived in 2.5% of city, with six to seven people per room. In Łódź, conditions were even worse, with up to ten people per room, no gas to cook with, and tiny calorie intakes. In both ghettos, there was no privacy, even when going to the toilet. Hunger was all-consuming, and it was women who waged war with it.

Cohn showed extracts from survivor testimonies and diaries, describing how mothers went out to try and find food while their children huddled home alone, and the devastation when they found nothing. One woman brought back some parsley, and told her children to suck it in their mouths for a long time. Another survivor described a 14-year-old teenager crying from hunger like a baby to his mother. A survivor discussed how his mother ensured their food lasted until the next rations were handed out, and others described how women tried to provide special or extra food for Shabbat.

Many testimonies discuss the choice women faced whether to allow their families to eat unkosher meat if this was all they could get. The testimony of Sara Selver-Urbach in the Łódź ghetto describes her mother choosing to give her ill brother the unkosher meat, and attempting to keep a kosher and unkosher section of her tiny kitchen. Eventually, the entire family consumed the meat to try to survive.

Another survivor described his father saying that they must eat the unkosher meat to survive, fulfilling the commandment of pikuach nefesh (saving a life above all else). His mother disagreed, saying they would survive if they didn’t eat it. It was a “ferocious fight”. This attempt at continuity in the face of death is something many women took on. However, in this family, the husband forced his wife to prepare the meat, although she never ate it. The battle created a rift between the parents that they never recovered from.

Vladka Meed described how his mother chose to pay his brother’s Barmitzvah teacher with bread, even though it meant more hunger. This was her attempt at rising above her circumstances. “How much strength a woman needed! To be able to think in those days about my brother’s preparation for Barmitzvah!” he writes. “Women had a willingness to connect with the past in order to create a future, which helped many families survive,” says Cohn.

There are other instances like this, from making Shabbat special, to women leading a seder in the place of a man. Naomi Winkler Munkacsi described how a fellow Auschwitz prisoner told her, “‘I just lit the Sabbath candles – I saw two electric bulbs and said the blessing on them.’ Another time, on a Friday night in the factory, I saw a woman whose job was polishing small iron hoops and rings take some of the rings and arrange them into candles and candlesticks, as it were, and then cover her face with her hands and silently recite the blessing.”

Another survivor described an incident in which Nazis searched a house and removed the parchment from the mezuzah, threatening to burn it. “In her perfect German, my mother followed him, asking him not to burn the parchment, until he eventually threw it back at her. She risked her life for a piece of parchment. in my mind, it was Kiddush Hashem [sanctifying G-d’s name],” he said.

Cohn agrees. “It was an act of insane bravery and an exquisite statement of continuity and the battle against dehumanisation, saying, ‘I am a person and I demand you respect the symbols of who I am.’”

“From what magical stream does my mother draw strength for all of this? There must be some great hidden force, a force of love, a force of tremendous will to hold on and watch out for us,” wrote survivor Irene Liebman. Indeed, surmises Cohn, “Women worked to mend the rupture and maintain continuity, all to allow their families to be able to live as human beings and as Jews.”

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Malema’s ‘backhanded compliment’ singles out Jews

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When Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema recently praised the Jewish community for its vaccination rates, at first it seemed like a compliment. Yet many felt uncomfortable with it although they couldn’t always explain why, and one local media outlet described it as offensive. Was it harmless flattery, or something questionable?

Speaking to a crowd of students at the Cape Town University of Technology on 21 October, Malema said, “I vaccinated because I saw the Jews, the Jewish people vaccinated. The Jews don’t play with their lives. Those things of threatening life [sic], they take very serious.” His comments were greeted with laughter from the crowd.

Context is everything, and “immediately before Mr Malema speaks about Jews getting vaccinated, he speaks about ‘them’ controlling everything”, noted Dr Günther Jikeli, associate professor at the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.

“It’s unclear who Mr Malema means when he speaks about ‘them’, but it’s a conspiratorial way of thinking. The fact that this is immediately followed by him talking about Jews makes it likely that he had Jews in mind when he talked about ‘them’ controlling the world. In this context, his argument that people should get vaccinated because ‘the Jews’ get vaccinated clearly comes from an antisemitic mindset,” says Jikeli.

Malema said, “I don’t care about this conspiracy theory that we are going to die. They would have killed us a long time ago. They control everything. They control the bread you eat every morning, they control mielie meal, they control samp. They can poison all of you … they even control the air we breathe. They are the ones who are polluting it. They can just put something in this air and finish all of us.” He then goes on to say, “I vaccinated because I saw the Jews…”

Others agreed that the comment was dangerous. “In essence, Malema always tells his followers what they want to hear. In this instance, even when saying something positive, he took the opportunity to try and insult Jewish people,” says Michael Bagraim, a member of Parliament (MP) and the deputy shadow minister for employment and labour.

“One cannot fathom why Malema would single out one faith group as opposed to another,” said Bagraim. “It could possibly be more easily understood when you take into account his vitriolic attack on Israel and Jewish people generally. My feeling is that he’s trying to portray Jewish people as being selfish, self-centred, and only concerned about themselves. Comments like these appear to be almost innocuous, but clearly form a structure in the listener’s mind that ‘they, the Jewish people, are different’.

“It’s this type of statement that tries to sow a seed in the listener’s mind that the Jewish people are different to others, and even in this possibly positive sense, should be seen in a different light,” he says. “The statement is duplicitous and clearly identifies Jews as being ‘the other’. Although it’s not legally or politically actionable, it’s insidious by definition.”

Local political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the comment lines up with Malema’s political strategy, which has always been to polarise different groups. “This is stereotyping. People take individual and not group decisions regarding vaccination.”

MP and shadow minister of international relations, Darren Bergman, says, “I find the comment distasteful. We have a politician testing the waters a week before elections, trying to divide and conquer. I think he’s saying that ‘the Jews look after themselves first’ so it’s almost a connotation of being selfish. I don’t know if I’m being too sensitive, but maybe in this climate, it’s time that we do get a bit sensitive.”

Local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Milton Shain, says that while the comments at first seem respectful, “more problematic is the essentialising of Jews. He’s categorising them as inherently different. To appreciate this, swap the word ‘Jew’ with any other ethnic group. We start moving into the murky world of old ‘Nat’ thinking.”

But the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) didn’t see it as any reason for concern. “South African Jewry has, on the whole, been committed to being vaccinated, and our various organisations have been proactive and vocal in ensuring that our community gets the jab,” says SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn. “It would seem that Malema has observed our eagerness in this regard, and is trying to convince his own supporters to do the same.”

Meanwhile on Twitter, Malema’s comment about Jews getting vaccinated was posted on the EFF page, where it was retweeted 432 times and received 1 824 likes. Many Twitter users commented on it, with one saying, “Hitler was right about Jews – Malema needs cancelling” with lots of laughing emojis.

Another responded, “Fighters attack vaccination sites! Your commander in chief has spoken! Enough of your woke rubbish! Your commander has said if Jews vaccinate when they own the world, who are you to refuse vaccination when all you have is a SASSA card and an RDP house.”

A third person tweeted, “This thing of qualifying our decisions through other nations is concerning. So, South Africans aren’t trusted to make good decisions if not confirmed by Jewish people? We need to trust ourselves that we can make our own decisions without seeking validation from anyone.”

A fourth person tweeted, “This statement is self-defeating on the independence of Africans and their ability to make own choices. Why make Jews a beacon of decision-making [that] Africans have to follow. Some statements ought to not be said. Decision to vax or not cannot be informed by a particular nation.”

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Action stations: Jewish politicians dedicated to making things work in their wards

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A number of Jewish candidates are running in the upcoming local government elections. SA Jewish Report journalist Saul Kamionsky speaks to them in the second of a two-part series.

Colin Morris

ActionSA

Johannesburg: Ward 72 (includes Linksfield, Fairmount, Sydenham, Glenhazel, Sandringham, Silvermont, and Sunningdale Bridge)

Captain Colin Morris is a man who has given his life to protect and serve the people of South Africa.

Earlier this year, he retired from volunteering, something he has done for more than three decades. While having a full-time job, he served as a police reservist for 33 years and an emergency medical practitioner for more than a decade. On top of that, he spent 20 years in the Child Protection Unit.

About five years ago, Morris became interested in standing for the Democratic Alliance (DA). He approached some senior people in the party, and they were interested in talking to him.

“But at the time, I was still actively involved in the South African police, so I couldn’t do both,” recalls Morris on 15 October 2021, his birthday. “As a result, I abandoned the idea of going down the political path, and relooked at it again about eight months ago after I had retired from policing at the age of 60.”

With municipal elections on the horizon, he once again approached the DA. “It said it had already made a decision [about its candidates]. I looked for a party with the same ethics and morals that I have, and ActionSA popped up.”

After conducting a process of elimination to identify the best candidate, ActionSA called Morris into a meeting with its senior members, and he was approved as its candidate for ward 72.

Since then, Morris has been in several online meetings hosted by the party. “Everything we talk about at the moment is focused on 1 November,” he says.

Morris shares a story that he tells regularly to explain why people should vote for him.

“Through the elections I have seen growing up in South Africa, I have noticed that the middle class, sort of northern-suburbs people, would always vote for the party that would be the best strong opposition. They didn’t vote for the opposition – a party like the Progressive Federal Party in those days – because they thought they could be in power, they voted because they wanted a strong opposition.”

As Morris describes it, “the beauty today” is that there could be a good party that not only stands as a suitable opposition to the African National Congress (ANC), but also stands a chance of being in power, certainly in Johannesburg.

“That party is ActionSA. It’s seen as a diverse party that’s able to produce results. Why should they vote for me, per se? I’ve brought to the community action that most other people standing in the area haven’t. I’ve got a strong community background and knowledge of what’s going on. And I’ve got a strong background in how to make things work. I’ve been involved with community matters for the past 30 odd years. I’ve also been an ambulance reservist, and I have worked for community-based organisations.”

Some of the highlights of his career include volunteering at the Holocaust & Genocide Centre and the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children.

“Is politics important? No, it’s about bringing results to members of the ward and members of the public. One of the mottos of ActionSA is ‘no politics’. We’re not politicians. We’re people who are committed to bringing action and change to Johannesburg, and certainly to ward 72.”

Gary Trappler

Freedom Front Plus

Cape Town: Ward 115 (includes Green Point, Zonnebloem, Vredehoek, and parts of Woodstock)

Lawyer Gary Trappler has become known as an outspoken activist in his area, ward 115.

In 2019, this martial-arts enthusiast acted as an amicus (friend of the court) against what he describes as the “broad and bold” applications that homeless people had brought against the City of Cape Town in the high court. Representing various ratepayers’ associations and other interest groups, he advanced arguments and won the case.

Trappler is currently involved in the second round of this matter but, this time, he aims to show that, according to the Constitution, homelessness is the city’s responsibility.

By being involved in these two cases, he gained significant insight into the success and failure of bylaws.

As a result, he became more interested in politics, and approached the DA a couple of years ago. “At that stage, it said I was too white for the party,” he recalls.

Trappler attended a few Freedom Front Plus (FFP) meetings with his friend, Paul Jacobson, who went on to be named as the party’s candidate for ward 54 in Cape Town.

In the first five minutes of one meeting, the questions Trappler asked resulted in one FFP member saying, “Gary, it sounds like you might want to be a ward councillor in your area.”

Trappler gave it 10 seconds of thought and said, “Ja, I’m interested.”

Dr Corné Mulder’s eyes went wide. The Western Cape FFP leader consulted with his second in command, and they looked through their papers to see who stood as their candidate in ward 115. Turning around, they told Trappler that he had got the position.

If Trappler is voted ward councillor in the upcoming municipal elections, the self-described “relentless fighter” is willing to fight for two causes in particular.

First, he wants to get the rates for electricity and water reduced.

“How the city determines these rates is shrouded in secrecy, murky water, bureaucracy, and closed-door administrative decisions.”

Second, he promises to address what he describes as an “egregious” sight only 300m off the shore of Camps Bay. “It’s a sewage pipe in which raw effluence goes directly into the sea, and it’s harmful to the marine environment and beachgoers.”

Although the pipe cannot be removed as it falls within territorial waters, Trappler envisions building sanitation plants inland to clean the effluence.

But Trappler’s main dream is for the Western Cape to become an independent country, and he says the FFP is dedicated to achieving that.

“I’ve been drooling about the idea of secession for years. It’s difficult to manage a country with so much diversity as we find in South Africa, and the wishes of the people of the Western Cape should be taken into account.”

Trappler believes that with sufficient pressure, the government will be forced to give Western Cape residents the opportunity to vote for secession in a referendum.

“The likes of me really want that to happen. I can no longer live with any degree of optimism in this country unless I feel free from the tyranny of the ANC, which I believe will soon form a coalition with the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters]. The future for myself and my children is bleak with that as a prospect.”

Daniel Schay

Democratic Alliance

Johannesburg: Ward 72 (includes Linksfield, Fairmount, Sydenham, Glenhazel, Sandringham, Silvermont, and Sunningdale Bridge)

Politics has always interested Daniel Schay, who matriculated from King David Linksfield in 2006.

With a professional background in structural engineering, he has worked in the private sector over the past decade, watching how fewer and fewer people were investing in South Africa as a result of its politics.

Schay would regularly say to himself, “We’ve got to have better leadership, we’ve got to get more involved and capable people involved in running as politicians, because if capable people aren’t willing to put their hands up and be willing to change this country, we’re not going to see the change we need.”

Unable to bear the sight of South Africa on its current trajectory, Schay decided to enter politics to make the country better.

Having done a lot of research, as always, he chose to join the DA in 2016.

“I have a very capitalist view on life, and the DA’s values align with my values pretty well,” Schay says. “Also, it’s a party with an effective and proven track record in government. On a policy and implementation level, I completely agree with it.”

In 2017, Schay was elected deputy chairperson of the DA’s Youth Johannesburg Committee. Within a year, he was asked to be campaign manager for Johannesburg East in the 2019 election.

“I have stood on the branches since then, and ahead of the upcoming municipal elections, I put up my hand for the first time to be a public representative.”

Schay says people should vote for him as, in addition to his engineering background, he lives in ward 72.

“I understand the infrastructure issues that currently plague our ward. That’s my area of expertise. I can contribute to solutions for the area.”

He believes the ward will improve only if capable people stand up and commit to making it flourish.

“Literally, we need to drive the growth and renewal of this ward, otherwise there’s nothing left, and we’ve got nowhere to go. But I’m passionate about seeing the ward succeed, and I’ve got a vested interest in making sure it happens.”

One of the highlights of his career is “a very small thing” – hosting members of the DA youth from every constituency in Johannesburg for Shabbat lunch as part of a cultural-exchange event.

“To sit around the table and discuss our backgrounds, our religion, and learn from each other was such an amazing experience.”

Other moments that stand out for him are general day to day activities.

“Even now during this campaign, meeting people from all over the ward, learning about their background, seeing what we have in common, and having resident meetings in which residents put up their hand and ask, ‘How can we make this ward better?’, we have people taking ownership and wanting to grow and develop the area. They are being positive, and making sure that we succeed. These are huge moments. I mean, they can seem almost insignificant, but the fact that residents want to get involved in making things better is a massive moment in this ward.”

Joshua Apfel

Democratic Alliance

Johannesburg: Ward 64 (Berea)

Joshua Apfel is a man of action, not words, which explains why his responses to our questions are so short.

To encourage people to vote for him in the upcoming municipal elections, he would gladly take them on a tour of Berea, ward 64, where he is running for ward councillor.

“We could also go past the old shuls in the area,” he says.

The director of Joshua Apfel Attorneys worked for the DA as a volunteer before a friend of his convinced him to run for councillor. “I chose the DA because it’s the only party that represents the diversity of South Africa, and it’s the only party that I believe is capable of delivering services to the city.”

Apfel says people should vote for him “because, at the end of the day, that’s the only way they will receive a voice in council, and I’m busy doing the basic services which the municipality is supposed to do. I’m also the only one to care enough for residents to get what they want – a voice in council.”

He believes in representing all residents, including foreigners, and focusing on issues like safety, accommodation, employment, and litter.

For Apfel, helping his community is frustrating as he has to bear the brunt of the lack of service delivery and history of neglect in Johannesburg but, at the same time, it’s rewarding as there’s a lot of groundwork he can do to uplift others in his area. From a Jewish perspective, he has been able to encourage the Union of Jewish Women to contribute to events in Berea.

Moments that stand out for Apfel are when he tries to get things done for residents with service delivery complaints. “If I’m the effective cause of getting those services delivered, then that’s a highlight.”

Justin Kruger

The Civic Movement of South Africa

Johannesburg: Ward 72

Justin Kruger has never been involved in politics, yet he’s standing as a candidate for the Civic Movement of South Africa (CMOSA) in the upcoming municipal elections.

Established in 2018, CMOSA isn’t a political party. Its candidates have volunteered their services out of goodwill.

However, they can potentially have some sway in the council thanks to one of the organisation’s founding members registering it with the Electoral Commission of South Africa.

Kruger, a dog-lover, joined the CMOSA in 2019. “My reason wasn’t political,” he says. “It was purely out of goodwill.”

He started off by helping the organisation to assist the community. “We were mainly involved in townships and black communities, helping people who had neither received service delivery nor the houses the state had allocated to them.”

Ahead of this year’s by-election in Eldorado Park, where they were crying out for efficient services, Kruger used his own money to run an election campaign there.

“We didn’t win, but we did beat the ANC. So, I got a bit of a feel for the whole election vibe and the great work a councillor can do. And then, two other blokes told me, ‘Well, you know, you’ve done a bit of work in your area. Why don’t you run your area?’ So, we can give it a bash.”

Kruger says people should vote for him as he’s done a lot of voluntary work over the years. “The most voluntary work I ever did was to be a police reservist for more than 12 years. For most of that time, I’ve been working in Sandringham, where my ward is. I know Zulu quite well. I can speak the language, and understand it, so it’s a communication tool I have.”

Moreover, his time in the police has taught him to be strong, brave, and a leader. “I know how to navigate within state departments, and I understand the red tape involved – I’ve dealt with it for years and years.”

By nature, he’s an entrepreneur. “So, I’m quite a versatile fellow and I’m not married either, meaning I’ve got the time to serve the community.”

Asked about where he stands next to the other candidates vying for ward 72, he says, “When a community works together, you can solve any problem. I believe if I can organise other people who live in the ward to assist the area, then I’m doing a good job.”

To Kruger’s mind, “the winning formula” is to utilise the knowledge of cleverer people to solve various issues.

“I’m willing to use the brains within the community to get problems sorted out,” he says.

Kruger receives no funding. In fact, he’s using his own savings to pay for his campaign posters. “Not many people put their money where their mouth is,” he says.

One of his highlights as an entrepreneur was Builders Warehouse selling a kitchen product he invented at home in 2011. “It ran with it at their stores around the country for a couple of years.”

His proudest feat in the police is having managed to stick it out and still be an active member.

“When the new regime came in, a lot of guys fell away and couldn’t cope. Having Zulu as a tool gave me a lot of success. I’ve received a few awards.”

Joanne Horwitz

Democratic Alliance

Johannesburg: Ward 81 (includes Lyndhurst, Bramley View, Corlett Gardens, Rembrandt Park)

Joanne Horwitz was seated on a couch when the results of the 2016 municipal elections were announced.

“As the DA had come so close and I’ve always voted DA, I decided that instead of sitting on my backside, I wanted to be involved in helping out.”

Wanting to use her skills and work experience to assist, the attorney joined the party as a member. During one of its annual general meetings, the DA was looking for a branch secretary. “I put up my hand, and I was elected uncontested. I hadn’t been attending DA meetings with any thought about becoming a politician, but every time something needed to be done, I would put up my hand just to help.”

Horwitz went on to become the DA’s secretary of the constituency and poster champion for the 2019 general elections.

About six months later, the constituency asked her if she was interested in becoming more involved and outspoken as a representative of the DA.

“I had joined the party to become active in helping the DA and suddenly, I was being asked to give more of myself, and it rang true for me that this was something I could do. Now I’m a candidate for ward councillor.”

Horwitz believes her qualifications and work experience are reasons why people should vote for her. “I studied law, majoring in fundamental human rights. So, I’ve always had an interest in upgrading people’s quality of life and providing better services to people across the spectrum.”

She uses the non-profit organisation she ran for about 18 years as an example. Based in Alexandra township, it gave people an opportunity to earn an income and deal with everyday life problems. It helped a few to buy fridges, roof their houses, and pay for their kids’ school fees.

“I see being a politician as that kind of help in a more concentrated way, taking much more of my attention.”

If elected, her priority will be to get residents to confide in her about what they need and want. “I will push their agenda in council. I’m looking forward to being the connection and link between the council and everyday people on the street in our ward.”

Horwitz has already started developing relationships with DA candidates who share a boundary with her – Daniel Schay of ward 72, and Belinda Echeozonjoku of ward 74. “It makes sense to leverage the resources that are made available to us across boundaries. We will get better coverage of service delivery that way.”

One of Horwitz’s highlights was when she was asked to take herself from the background to the forefront of the party. “Becoming a representative and face of the DA was absolutely huge. Shortly afterwards, I was asked to be constituency chair.”

In that role, she helped every ward in the constituency to campaign, host events, and be efficient on the ground.

Graduating with a South African law degree was a memorable moment for her. “I studied law in the United Kingdom before returning to South Africa and basically had to redo the entire degree. The graduation ceremony was a crowning achievement, especially since I had missed two previous ceremonies in my studying journey.”

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Major parties undermined by “angrier, poorer” electorate

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South Africans go to the polls on 1 November in “elections that no parties really want”, according to political journalist Stephen Grootes. In the midst of a pandemic, established parties are losing support “and people have become angrier and poorer” since the last local government elections in 2016.

Grootes was moderating a webinar on Tuesday, 12 October, titled “Navigate the local government elections 2021”, organised by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. The webinar is part of the Board’s mandate to encourage voter registration in the Jewish community, formally observe the elections, and promote political debate.

Are these municipal elections about service delivery or about elements of identity in the context of South Africa’s racialised inequality? According to Nompumelelo Runji, the founder and chief executive of Critical ThinkAR – a research and stakeholder management consultancy – it’s a little bit of both in this highly polarised society.

“Good governance isn’t just about clean audits, sewage infrastructure, and tarred roads,” she said. For many, the yardstick is whether their quality of life is improving or not. They are asking if the African National Congress (ANC) can really deliver for all rather than the elite few.

Political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga also senses popular anger, but no consolidation of support by any political party to capitalise on the ANC’s failures. “The ANC is held back by its own history,” he said, and hopes to get by on mea culpas [acknowledgement of wrongdoing] and faith. “It’s the devil people know,” Mathekga said. He judged that talk of renewal in the ANC was illusory, describing it as “a party in great difficulty”. “Corruption has been democratised in local government, with mammoth irregularities in public procurement,” Mathekga said, pointing out that criminal elements like protection rackets have filled the vacuum where the state has retreated.

Runji said local elections were “a vehicle for employment, a jobs pipeline for parties. Capacity and skills are trumped by factional allegiances. There is a failure to adhere to financial governance practices like the PFMA [Public Finance Management Act] and the MFMA [Municipal Finance Management Act].” She characterised the problem as a toxic mix of lack of responsibility, no accountability, deficient oversight, and a dearth of consequences for maladministration. “Party loyalty and dynamics become more important than delivering services,” she said.

Wayne Sussman, elections analyst for Daily Maverick, views it as a unique election in which the two major parties have little momentum 20 days before the vote.

“There are only 400 members of parliament, but there are far more council positions up for grabs,” said Sussman. In an environment of high unemployment, the prospect of a middle-class job for five years in a municipal council has proved enticing for many. Independent candidates have mushroomed, and he expects them to do marginally better because of their sheer volume. “They will find it hard to influence politics in the metros, but they will play a role in this election,” Sussman said.

Looking at opposition parties, will the Democratic Alliance (DA) be punished at the polls? A lot depends on differential turnout, according to Sussman. If the suburbs come out in numbers and disillusioned ANC voters stay at home, “the DA may not do that badly. It was the first out of the starting blocks with its posters. But to use a rugby analogy, with the try-line in front of them, they have had knock-on after knock-on in the past week.” He predicts that the party will retain Cape Town and be the biggest or second biggest party in all the country’s metropolitan councils.

“The DA seems to want to attract controversy and get into trouble, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has no plans to co-operate with anyone,” Mathekga said. “It would be shocked if it actually won a council.” He agreed that the DA often failed to read the public mood, and didn’t appear to have a real strategy for the Gauteng metros. The EFF is growing in South Africa’s neglected small towns, and the party may emerge as kingmaker in several councils, like it did in 2016. But its refusal to commit to coalitions makes for unstable politics. There is the real chance that some councils will be deadlocked and unable to agree on the election of a speaker, a mayor, and to pass the council budget. If they fail to do the latter, they will come under national administration. The speakers predicted there may be chaos like this in Tshwane, the nation’s capital.

Sussman is also carefully watching the performance of former Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, which has taken a gamble by contesting only in Gauteng’s three metros (Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni) and in three municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. It has run a slick social-media campaign. “He has to do well on election night,” Sussman said. “If he does badly, it’s probably the end.”

Finally, the panellists agreed there was merit in retaining separate municipal elections, as it promoted local-level democracy. This particular election will certainly make for interesting analysis in the weeks to come.

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