Earlier this month, Ben Levitas waded into Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Marius Fransman for claiming that Jews were benefiting and Muslims being disadvantaged by the DA’s tender policies in Cape Town. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has also since issued a statement condemning those remarks. Far from backing down, however, Fransman, wearing his other hat of ANC Western Cape leader, seems to have lost it completely. Apart from continuing to single out Jewish businessmen when referring to the “white elite” allegedly to be benefiting at the expense of Cape Town Muslims (not to mention all its black and coloured residents as well), he has described the SAJBD as a disloyal fifth column working on behalf of a foreign power (Israel, of course) while supporting the DA in undermining transformation in the city.
As Business Day Cape Editor Andrew Marr asks, “Is there no limit to the depths ANC Western Cape Chairman Marius Fransman will plumb to make a cheap political point?” Fransman, he notes, “left a bad taste in many mouths” when he used his speech at the memorial service for gang-rape victim Anene Booysen to attack the DA.
Following his Jewish-Muslim remarks, in which he transparently sought to pit one religious community against another for vote-catching purposes, he laid the blame for last Thursday’s devastating shack fire at Kayamandi, Stellenbosch, on the Western Cape “government of white privilege”. Concludes Marr, “If such rabble-rousing is what passes for legitimate political campaigning in the ANC, the organisation is in more trouble than I thought”.
We all know democratic politics to be a feral, cut-throat affair. The more democratic the society, the more this seems to be the case. In jostling for the public’s favour, political leaders frequently resort to emotive bluster, ad hominem attacks, gross hyperbole, misdirection and baseless accusations. (In dictatorships, the throat-cutting tends to take place literally, but behind closed doors, after which elections can safely be held and everyone can have the opportunity of telling the regime how much they love it.)
Politics in South Africa has for the greater part of the last century been dominated by race. In the bad old days, political parties made full use of ”Swart Gevaar” rhetoric to scare white voters into their camp. Today, it can hardly be denied that ”Wit Gevaar” tactics are to no small extent resorted to by the ruling party to keep black supporters within the fold. Fransman has of late been particularly blatant in playing this card.
It would seem, whether defensibly or not, that broadly attacking “the whites” is regarded as acceptable in our political culture. Even so, it is understood that somewhere, a line has to be drawn. Among other things, freedom of expression does not constitute a licence to incite hostility against a particular community within the white population, whether defined along religious, linguistic, ethnic or other lines. Hence, having a go at “the Greeks” or “the Portuguese” would not be okay, at least for the time being.
It was this line that Fransman crossed last month when, during an interview with Voice of the Cape, he lambasted the DA for allegedly giving building contracts that historically had been held by Muslims to Jewish businessmen. Since the religious affiliations of those receiving the contracts should have been regarded as entirely irrelevant, why draw attention to them, and why in the context of telling a mainly Muslim audience that Muslims were being unfairly disadvantaged thereby? It would appear to be undeniable that his purpose was to solicit Muslim support by implying that the DA was promoting Jewish economic interests at Muslim expense.
These were among the points made by the SAJBD in its statement condemning Fransman’s remarks. Fransman’s response was to escalate matters. The Jewish Board, he said, was “driving an interest outside of the national interest”; it needed to “act South African”, to be “more patriotic” and to ask itself whether it represented South African Jews or the Israeli government.
In a subsequent press statement, Fransman denounces the SAJBD for its failure to condemn both what he calls “the DA government’s policy of privileged access for established mainly white business in the Western Cape” and “human rights violations perpetuated by Israel against the Palestinians”. Since neither of these issues has anything whatsoever to do with the SAJBD’s complaint, the inference is that the SAJBD is only justified in taking a stand on behalf of Jewish civil rights once it has taken the side of his party against its political opponents and endorsed the ANC’s standpoint on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In other words, the Jewish community’s constitutional right to protection against anti-Jewish prejudice would appear to be conditional on its leaders first endorsing the ANC’s political and foreign policy agenda.
Another question that arises is why Fransman made a point of so aggressively bringing up the Israel-Palestine issue when it obviously had nothing to do with the matter at hand? In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for those accused of fostering anti-Jewish prejudice to respond with blustering and irrelevant anti-Israel rhetoric. At the core of such responses is a clear element of blackmail. The implication is that Jews in the Diaspora can only expect to be shielded from anti-Semitism if they denounce their co-religionists in Israel.
It would be a mistake to simply dismiss Fransman’s extraordinary diatribes against SA Jewry and its leadership as mere political grandstanding ahead of next year’s national elections. If deliberately inciting anti-Jewish feeling is allowed to become an accepted political ploy, then it is only a matter of time before other minorities likewise find themselves in the firing line. The SAJBD has approached the SA Human Rights Commission to intervene in the matter, and whatever ruling it makes could have profound implications for how democracy functions in this country.