Due to economic headwinds gusting in the face of the publishers of this newspaper, and the media sector overall, today’s column is the last in a series I’ve written for TimesLIVE Premium and its print predecessor stretching back more than a decade. My columns for Business Day continue through December.
I will miss my engagement with you, dear reader, and with the fine editors and subs who helm the finished product on your screen, or more rarely these days, in your hands.
It’s also worth pointing out, that since I don’t believe in writing things which represent the dull mediocre mean between controversial opinions, but rather take a line, justify it and stick with it, not once has an editor or sub-editor asked me to change an opinion or a viewpoint or even a contentious sentence (bar for grammatic inelegancies).
This is worth celebrating in itself given the recent and urgent challenges to free speech and the right to dissent, enshrined in the constitution, which has been under grievous assault here in Cape Town over the past weekend. More on that below …
Without cranking up the nostalgia machine, I often invoke a heuristic, or intellectual short cut, to several international thinkers and pundits whose fine penmanship, crisp opinions and liberal world view helps me to finesse my often half-thought out and vaguely formulated opinions which they, with pinpoint precision manage to articulate boldly and with stringent moral clarity.
In the case of Roger Cohen (New York Times) and Jonathan Freedland (The Guardian), I have also had the pleasure of conducting public conversations with each of them. In the case of Cohen this was during his visit to South Africa, his place of birth, some years back and with Freedland, earlier this year I interviewed him, virtually, at the 2023 Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Roger Cohen’s fine new book An Affirming Flame — Meditations on Life and Politics is crammed with insights, intelligence and rare eloquence.
But on the columnist’s lot of producing weekly on deadline, some compelling (or less than) thoughts to engage (or enrage) the reader, he provides a very useful primer and one which struck a knowing chord with me.
Cohen writes: “I can say, after more than a dozen years, that the best columns write themselves. They come, all of a piece, fully formed a gift from some deep place. They enfold the subject just so, like a halter on a horse’s face.
“Such inspiration is rare. Most columns resemble exquisite torture. Having an idea is not something you can order up, like breakfast. The battle between form and subject is ferocious.”
Recent events here allow today’s column to arrive “fully formed” because the circus of hatreds and stomping of the right to dissent and dangerous denial of free speech which blew across Cape Town last weekend with the intensity of a ferocious Southeaster. But this “Cape Doctor” was an ill wind which blew up a lot of cherished, and largely misplaced, ideas we have about the health of our constitution and its rights and entitlements. And about those meant to guard these.
The twin events in Cape Town on the weekend, the massive pro-Palestinian march — starring the ANC, PAC, Muslim Judicial Council and others, proceeded peacefully and without interruption, even if the rhetoric was — at times — hateful and incendiary. By contrast, the Sunday Sea Point prayer rally for Israel organised by Christian churches and groupings was violently disrupted hours before its scheduled commencement, by protesters carrying Palestinian — and Hamas and Isis — flags. And the SA Police Services, after battling protesters who destroyed the podium and attacked the organisers and the police themselves, cancelled the rally before it started, “in the interests of safety”.
Safe spaces, then, for some not for all.
The following wind from events in Israel and Gaza has hardly been confined to South Africa. But the difference, and it is huge, between authorities outside our country and the guardians, governmental and NGO, to deeply diverse responses held by citizens, has been stark.
In London over the weekend, there were huge marches and demonstrations and counter rallies, all permitted and rigorously policed. Despite some incendiary remarks on policing neutrality offered by the minister in charge of the police, home secretary Suella Braverman, who was promptly sacked on Monday.
But on the idea of importing a deep and desperate struggle or series of them into local jurisdictions to advance a political agenda or inflame resentments, Jonathan Freedland was at his enraged and eloquent best in last Friday’s Guardian.
He wrote: “There is a special place in hell reserved for people who exploit the pain of others, and it’s becoming very crowded. It’s filling up with those who look at the war between Israel and Hamas, and the grief and fear it prompts in the hearts of Jews and Muslims, especially, and see not tragedy but opportunity — a chance to advance their own interests.”
In the overcrowded field here, the crown for arch-opportunists must be worn by ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula.
What a relief the war in Gaza must be for him. He can shrug off his disastrous tenure as minister of police (27,000 murders per year on his watch) and his turn as minister of transport (the collapse of the national rail network and the devastation of our key export industries) and even the collapsing ANC poll numbers, which as secretary-general of the party is his current responsibility.
And he can, despite approving of Russia’s invasion of sovereign Ukraine, silence on massacres of Africans at the hands of Jihadists in the Sahel and approval for the rigged presidential election in Zimbabwe recently, claim the moral high ground. Even if the perch on which he stands is extremely rickety.
In his clumsy and cack-handed way, he attempted at the pro-Palestinian rally on Saturday, to repeat the slogan “From the River to the Sea Palestine will be free”, coupled with a claim that the liberation of Palestine is the last, unfinished business of the struggle against colonialism.
There is a lot to unpack in this poisonous package and others have done so with clarity and precision (see for example “The war in Gaza and the stark test it demands of liberal democrats” by Frans Cronje Business Day, November 14 2023).
Having swiped at the right for cynicism and exploitation of the conflict to force it into a pre-existing ideological frame, such as the dethroned home secretary who used it to ferment her “war against the woke”, Freedland turns his gaze to the left.
I am not sure Mbalula stands for any particular ideology beyond the “politics of the stomach” as it’s termed here, but he would, based on his posturing and rhetoric, comfortably comport to the worst form of the unthinking ideological warrior.
Freedland points out that “from the river to the sea” is a slogan that literally allows no room for Israel, home to the world’s largest Jewish community, “and so is heard by many Jews as calling for elimination”.
Doubtless this thought was not top of mind for Mbalula, though to dive into the murky depths of his inner thought process would be to till barren soil. He saw, as a five-star opportunist, a chance to reclaim some lost, indeed disappearing, ground for his party’s advancement in the Western Cape — and scoring a point or two against his nemesis, the DA.
We have no data on how the average Muslim vote in Cape Town is stirred, or not, by such calls to the blood. But given that the Christian evangelical community, about five times larger than the Muslim community, which overall is even more pro-Zionist than Israeli Zionists, this might not yield the political outcome intended. But for Mbalula’s divide and rule strategy, it is the perfect opportunity.
But in the hate fest against both Israel and the DA (which despite Mbalula and others best efforts are hardly interchangeable) Mbalula ran a poor second to the unidentified but very visible PAC speaker at the event who, in his remarks, branded the children who attend the Cape Town Jewish School, Herzlia, “murderers”. Often “hate speech” is ambiguous and can be used as a club to suppress dissent. In this case, though, it lit up like a bilious and ugly neon sign.
As ever, the EFF, vulture-like in swooping down to pick up the carcass of political spoils, listed its demand that the Jewish schools in the Cape be forcibly closed.
Just how quickly a mindless anti-Israel sentiment morphed into blatant anti-Semitism was in plain sight in Cape Town on the weekend.
Beyond local Jewish community organisations, there has in the main been an eerie silence since Saturday’s calumny of lies and hatreds and Sunday’s violent prevention of a pro-Israel event, from those here who normally rush to protect free speech and call out or act against hate speech.
No NGO, not per example the Helen Suzman Foundation (despite Suzman’s impeccable civil rights stance and strong Zionist affiliation), Freedom Under Law, Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac), have to the best of my knowledge offered any word or actions in response.
Another entity, My Vote Counts, had though earlier entered the lists when it branded Israel’s actions in Gaza “genocide” though, as William Saunderson-Meyer wrote, “no word of mention was made of any contributory role which Hamas might have had in sparking the tinderbox”. On the weekend events, it kept its counsel.
And as for the constitutional body, The Human Rights Commission, funded by the taxpayer explicitly to advance the constitution (which, as a reminder, protects free speech, prescribes hate speech, promotes the right to dissent and the right to peaceful assembly and the bundle of freedoms necessary for an open society to operate), “nil per mouth” as they say in hospital.
And despite clear video evidence of Sunday’s violent protest and disruption, four people identified and arrested by the police for acts of public violence, mysteriously — courtesy of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) — had the charges against them withdrawn on Monday minutes before appearing in court.
Perhaps in current times, key organisations are too scared of being branded “pro-Israel”, too fearful of being caught offside, too woke or else think that the most controversial and contentious events are best addressed by someone else. What an intellectual abdication and moral hollowness at their core then.
There was one, almost sole, principled voice of authority and clarity after the weekend events. And since he presides over a city that contains many communities with sharply divided, but constitutionally protected, opinions and the right to protest (in theory at least) his unambiguous stance is worth reprising.
Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis wrote: “I specifically wish to commend the conduct of both those who agree and disagree with [Saturday’s] pro-Palestinian protests for their peaceful conduct.
“Unfortunately, we saw violent disruptions [on Sunday] against a planned peaceful prayer gathering in support of Israel. This violence deserves condemnation of all Capetonians who value free expression in an open democracy.”
Having then called out the PAC speaker for branding Jewish schoolchildren “murderers”, he concluded: “Cape Town is a city of diversity, inclusion and tolerance. Let us model those values and not be diverted by those peddling hate.”
Great to have those sentiments cogently expressed by a public official. Grim that he was almost the only one saying so.
Finally, farewell from this perch. You can engage with me on other platforms including X or Twitter (@TonyLeonSA) or my website (tonyleon.com) and in other media.