Friday, 15 August 2014

No to hate & 'othering' – Jewish voices in SA take a stand on Gaza atrocities

There have been interesting developments within the Jewish community in South Africa, sparked by the conflict in Gaza. There is a major cleavage in that community with a majority supporting the Israeli Defence Force and a smaller number voicing human rights concerns about Israel’s military actions in Gaza.

Initially it appeared that the Jewish community was one solid block behind the nature and ferocity of military action by Israel against Palestinians in Gaza. It seemed as if Jews in SA, with hardly any exceptions, supported the official Israeli strategy – in response to Hamas rockets – to rain bombs on Palestinians in Gaza, targeting homes, community centres and schools.  
But then, in the week leading up to 25 July, alternative voices appeared – those speaking out against the atrocities and asserting: “not in our name”. Newspapers carried the story of comedian Deep Fried Man who joined with others at a meeting in Johannesburg to take a stand. Recently Jewish Voices for a Just Peace was formed.
When the mainstream Jewish community called a demonstration in Huddle Park on 3 August, other Jews, despite threats and intimidation, mounted a counterdemonstration. Recently, more than 2000 people signed a petition in support of Josh Broomberg who expressed support for Palestinians and who – on human rights grounds – distanced himself from the actions of the IDF in Gaza.
There are interesting features of the response of mainstream South African Jews. What is astonishing is the level of support for a strategy that involves collateral damage as a central and desired outcome. It appears to be enthusiastic support rather than reluctant support for such annihilation. My sense of surprise is rooted in our own experience of armed struggle. The ANC, faced with a repressive regime, adopted a stance of reluctant use of violence in its struggle to end apartheid. In this regard, the ANC strategy of violence involved attacks on military installations, certain infrastructure such as power stations and military premises. They specifically did not sanction attacks on the broader population that, through voting and benefits, formed part of the dominant group.
How is it that people can be insensate to the killing and maiming – on such a scale – of children and other civilians? According to Leanne Stillerman, the roots of such attitudes lie in a process known as “othering”.  In a recent article in the South African media entitled Settlers, terrorists and the process of Othering, she wondered about the roots of empathy and asked: “Do some instances of human suffering evoke our sympathies while others are overlooked; do we engage in a kind of selective empathy on the basis of either our identification with or distance from the victims in question?”
Stillerman noted that “the Hebrew word for cruelty contains within it the word ‘strange’ ”

“It is the sense of estrangement from the other that allows our hearts to harden, and unspeakable cruelty becomes our reality,” she wrote.
It also worth reflecting on the demonstrations called in support of Israel such as the Huddle Park demonstration. Such a move, given the civilian deaths and destruction of basic community facilities, seems inappropriate. It seemed like encouraging the Israeli Defence Force to continue or exceed its past efforts that involved targeting homes, schools and community centres. Instead of calling for restraint, this segment of South African Jews appeared to be building a wall of blind solidarity behind the soldiers waging war on civilians.

The apartheid regime carried out horrific attacks, ones in which women and children were killed, in places such as Cassinga (1978), Maseru (1982) and Sharpeville. Even though many in the white community were fully behind these military actions of their leaders, I cannot recall groups from that community holding rallies in support of such violent action.
For the right wing, it is always different, but given our history, the question for South African Jews is this: What is an appropriate response if soldiers, even if acting in your interest, are operating on the borderline of self-defence and crimes against humanity, in the grey area between legality and illegality?
The other aspect I marvel at on the part of mainstream and conservative Jews in South Africa is the level of intolerance and suppression of alternative views within its own community. Deep Fried Man was called a self-hating Jew. Death threats and condemnation were heaped on Josh Broomburg, the school boy who expressed his human rights stand in social media. At the Huddle Park demonstrations, a man threatened to kill counter-demonstrators. Eventually, after police were called and spoke to the man, he drove off in a fit of pique. Such intolerance undermines the democratic culture we are trying to build in South Africa.
The conservative majority cannot reasonably insist that adherence to the Jewish faith is synonymous with support for any government in Israel, no matter how right wing or hawkish.
The fanatically pro-Israel group cannot be forced to give up its enthusiastic support for Israel and to ditch the view that a Zionist government should have the right to do whatever it wants as long as it frames its actions as self-defence. However, they should consider a number of issues. All religions seek to occupy the moral high ground, but members of such religions undermine their religions when they support terror. They should consider that whenever you dehumanise others, for whatever reasons, you dehumanise yourself.

They should also consider that one of the dangers for anyone fighting an opponent accused of evil deeds is that you become the mirror image of the phenomenon, person or conduct you oppose. Instead of representing an alternative or the opposite, you become the same.
It is in this context that the conflict and tension over Gaza within the South African Jewish community is a positive development. It demonstrates diversity. It shows multiple storylines within that community. It encourages debate and reflection rather than unthinking reaction. It shows that South African Jews have been enriched by the struggle against apartheid. It paves the way for even stronger views to emerge from the South African Jewish community in favour of long-term solutions based on equality, justice and human  rights in the Middle East.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Growth in low-fee private schools undermines our system of rights

Privatisation of schooling in South Africa is on the up - and it’s a worrying trend. Private or independent schools were always part of the landscape; around 1994 there were just over 500 registered schools, but this number has ballooned to more than 5 times that number in 2012.
We are currently in a new phase of growth with the emergence of low-fee private schools in recent times. The new push to provide ‘private education for the poor’ is deeply troubling from a number of angles.
With regard to the policy aspect, the move towards ‘private schools for the poor’ actually threatens rather than strengthens the right to an education. Looking at the trend in developing countries, Keith Lewin of Sussex University has noted that markets cannot deliver rights, paying school fees is inappropriate for households below the poverty line, and that modern social democracies have a social contract with their citizens to promote public goods.
Clearly, once we go the route of private education, we undermine the notion of education as a right; we decrease the force or mass of citizens monitoring for improvement, quality and proper fulfilment of mandates by governments. Those left in the system constitute a smaller number and, in the case of rural areas and poor settlements, the voices that are marginalised by a combination of race and class realities.
There are the psychosocial impacts in the community. If the trend continues (and if this kind of stratification continues to deepen), those parents who cannot send their kids to these schools are left with feelings of guilt. This is an unfair guilt, especially given that education is a right. Monash Univerity’s Joel Windle says that socially disadvantaged families pay a moral price in the form of guilt for not sending their children to private schools, which the processes of marketization elevate to normative status. 
Learners will also be affected. Those who have stayed in public schools, unable to pay the fee, may be left with feelings of inferiority and lower self-esteem which in turn will undermine their sense of future. The further danger is that many learners will wind up being left in schools lacking a good social mix, a problem that plagues so many South African schools on the upper end, but will now effect schools in poor communities too.
There are also concerns around gender. Thirteen organisations, including some from South Africa, have made submissions to the United Nations alleging that school privatisation will have an adverse affect on girls. When cash-strapped parents must choose which child to send to school, they will generally opt to send boys because they believe boys will earn more in the labour market. Among the 13 were Section 27 and Equal Education. For now there are more girls in private schools than boys in South Africa, but the concerned organisations know that in many developing countries more boys are enrolled in schools than girls and are worried about how privatisation will worsen this.
Privatisation in education is a wider issue, but concerned experts locally have their eye firmly on the mushrooming of the low-fee schools on the SA scene. These schools are quickly changing the game.
In these schools, parents pay just over half of what one would normally pay per pupil in a Model C school.
Many parents are drawn to these low-fee private schools because of problems in public education. One of the attractions is the smaller classes and another, perhaps, is the lower teacher absenteeism. Although the quality of education in these schools is uneven and many government officials see them as fly-by-night, parents believe these schools deliver better results.
According to educationist Jane Hofmeyr, there were 70 000 learners in schools which charged fees below R12 000 a year in 2013 in Gauteng.
The Centre for Development and Education (CDE) has generated useful information about the fast rise of these schools. Zooming in to 6 areas – two in Gauteng (Braamfontein and Daveyton), two in Limpopo and two in rural Eastern Cape – its 2010 study found 117 schools in abandoned factories, shacks and former office buildings. In supplementary research, CDE also found some low-fee private primary schools in Diepsloot and Soweto, with private high schools also planned for these areas.
CDE reports that almost a quarter of the private schools are unregistered and therefore technically illegal. The teachers in these schools are generally less qualified than public sector teachers. Some are run by lone entrepreneurs but others are part of chains like the one started by Johannesburg-based MBA graduates who are chuffed about their “sustainable financial model for low-fee private schools in South Africa”.
Although CDE is positive about these developments, in South Africa we (along with educational experts) should worry about the latest phase of ‘buying out’ of the public education system. The issue should not be directed to parents, most of whom are trying to do their best for their children in a difficult situation. But we have to address ourselves to policymakers and to the community as a whole; to exhort them to actively work against this new trend and to instead agitate for improvement in the quality and appeal of public school education.
We should collectively strive for less privatisaton in education, not more. Privatisation cuts across the constitutional commitment to education as a basic right. It runs counter to the Freedom Charter’s notion of education for all. It flies in the face of the South African Schools Act which regards “equity” as a supreme value.

We should take serious note of the uneven quality of privatised schools at grassroots level, as well as the impacts on poor households and poor communities, including the fuelling of intra-community inequality around what should be an equal right for all children. Most of all we should be wary of any undermining of basic rights – of parental actions that  are well meant but have perilous outcomes and that chip away at a key part of South Africa’s rights framework.

 Frank Meintjies

Saturday, 2 August 2014

TRC: follow-up action needed to advance accountability and justice

The debate and charged discussion around reconciliation will not go away. As South Africans we are celebrated worldwide for our attempts at reconciliation using the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other measures, but we have left so many key aspects hanging.

The process is incomplete from a number of angles. The first is that the government has failed to implement most of the recommendations of the TRC, as the organisation, Khulumani, continues to point out.

The government has paid reparations to victims, it has undertaken some memorialisation work, but many recommendations have been relegated to file 13. One of these was a proposal for a once-off wealth tax levied against business and industry. Sampie Terreblanche has argued that group relations in South Africa would have been more harmonious if the government had adopted such a wealth tax.

The second reason is that the government has so far failed to prosecute those perpetrators of gross violations who did not apply for amnesty or were refused amnesty. Such prosecutions will surface further details about what really happened in the darkest corners of the apartheid system.

The third reason is that the TRC process did not allow for examination of structural aspects of apartheid. At the time of its sitting, the late Neville Alexander called on the commission – without success – to hold hearings on issues such as land and education.

All the signs are that we will benefit, even today, from hearings into the migrant labour systems or if we had held hearings to forge a deeper understanding of the devastation caused by bantu education.

A fourth area of incompleteness relates to the problem of victims, including those who testified at the commission. Khulumani argues that the government has paid the reparations amount – R30000 – to less than a quarter of those who should receive them.

“The victims’ suffering remains unalleviated as they continue to lobby the government to open the list and to broaden community reparations. Tragically, many families are obliged to pay for their own investigations to uncover the truth of the fate and whereabouts of loved ones,” says Yasmin Sooka of the Foundation for Human Rights.

A woefully understaffed missing persons task force has only scratched the surface in following up on missing persons reported to the TRC. Through locating burial sites, forensic work and exhumations, less than one fifth out of 600 cases have been resolved.

With these concerns as a backdrop there have been calls to revisit the TRC.

At a panel discussion at the Durban Film Festival, the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation called for the TRC to be “reopened” and Abba Omar, writing in The New Age in July last year, called for a second phase of the TRC.

“The reality is that there is much of our past which still needs to be confronted, so much suspicion of people who may have been part of the apartheid system which remains unresolved, so many families and communities still carrying so many wounds,” Omar wrote.

“I believe that the core result of such a process would be a better healed nation, where we don’t walk around with the feeling that those who served apartheid have not only got away with it but continue to thrive in the new South Africa.”

While I am sympathetic to such calls – a reopening of TRC would certainly lead to better lever of healing and closure – I don’t have much hope that such calls will succeed. There is no political will. As Alex Boraine implied at the Durban panel discussion this Monday, the government has over the years shown little interest in the kinds of issues raised here – it does not want to proceed with a process of “accountability” for the past and surfacing the truth. In the nineties it took the view that it was dealing with all these issues in the main through the redress contained in the RDP programme.

However, we need to continue to create spaces to discuss “reconciliation” in South Africa, including gaps and what has been achieved.

Institutions that promote dialogue, universities and public bodies should create platforms for open and informed discussion of reconciliation.

The government, donors and other institutions should provide sufficient funding for programmes that promote analysis and dialogue on racism and how it continues to operate in South Africa today. This should be accompanied by incentives for major institutions such as universities, schools, professional bodies and media institutions to run awareness or change programmes to address racism.

Interest groups should continue to lobby the government to seriously review the TRC recommendations with a view to implementing more of the TRC’s recommendations.

The government should be encouraged to appoint a joint committee made up of senior officials of the Department of Justice and, for example, specialists like Yasmin Sooka and Dumisa Ntsebeza to advise on the way forward.

There have been several initiatives by individuals or small groups in the white community to set up special funds to assist with redress. Recently these initiatives have sought to mobilise contributions from beneficiaries of apartheid as well as what Sooka calls “beneficiaries of the transition”. The government has usually ignored such moves.

The government should engage with and formally support such initiatives, especially if they could address relevant priorities such as the need to combat gender violence or critical developmental needs such as, for example, support for communities benefitting from land restitution.

For now, lack of political will or wider institutional support means there is no critical mass at an institutional level in favour of a big bang such as the TRC Phase II. But there is wide enough agreement that there is unfinished business to explore a range ways to continue discussions and positive action about accountability, truth and reconciliation.

Frank Meintjies. This article was first published in the press on 25 July 2014.