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Surreal manipulation of truth by Wits concert disrupters

It doesn’t matter what ball you put in your opponent’s court so long as you spin it. Shane Warne would agree, and so would those behind the break-up of a concert by Israeli-born pianist Yossi Reshev at Wits last March. Ever since that incident, the latter and their apologists have presented a consistently changing set of responses aimed at justifying what happened and turning the tables on their critics. That much of what appeared later squarely contradicts what had previously been asserted is apparently regarded as irrelevant. The purpose has been to manipulate perceptions, not strive for truth and consistency.

On March 12 several dozen protestors, including nine members of the Wits SRC, invaded the venue where Reshev was performing and noisily disrupted the recital, forcing it premature closure. They were cockahoop at the “success” of their demonstration, and this was reflected in how it was initially portrayed. According to the media statement by the Wits Palestinian Solidarity Committee (issued in the name of Tasneem Essop, who is also Wits SRC Secretary General, and was one of those SRC members involved in the disruption): “Last night, 15 minutes into what was going to be a 90-minute scheduled concert by Israel’s Yossi Reshef, Wits University students stormed the concert venue, disrupted Reshef’s performance and as a result forced the organizers to cancel the event. The cancellation was celebrated by the protesting students as a ‘cultural boycott of Israel success’.”

From this, it can be seen that, far from denying that the concert was forcibly brought to a close, this first announcement by the perpetrators overtly brags about the fact. Sasco (Gauteng) went on to “hail the heroic students of Wits for blocking the performance of the pianist Yossi Reshef”.

What the disrupters genuinely seem to have not anticipated is being called to book for their actions. This is odd in itself, since they had not merely wrecked an official university function but openly defied the university’s unequivocal stance not to support a cultural and academic boycott against Israel (or any other country). The Wits leadership immediately condemned the disruption and announced its intention to investigate the incident and bring disciplinary proceedings against those responsible.

The substance of the next Wits SRC statement, issued nearly a month later, was very different from the triumphalist bragging of its first announcement. Now, as had been the case with previous disruptions of Israel-related events on campus, there was a shift into victim mode, with a predictable playing of the anti-white race card. The protestors, according to the SRC, had been violently assaulted, and in one case sexually assaulted. They had been subjected to racial abuse, including being called “monkeys” by a member of the audience (an assertion not supported by a video recording of the affair). There had been “racial profiling” in determining who could enter the venue. It was asserted that the subsequent use of expressions like “hooligans”, “thugs” and “a pack of baying hyenas frantic for blood” by members of the Zionist lobby in referring to the students was racist: “The use of such terms, all by White people, reminds us far too much of our racist past in which black students and people were reduced to barbarians, thugs, cockroaches etc.”

Thus did the SRC after the fact reformulate the whole incident as being a racial, white vs black confrontation, with the whites, as usual, cast in the role of villains and blacks as innocent victims. It did not matter that none of those condemning the students’ behaviour had made an issue of the race of the perpetrators, nor even mentioned it. Nor did it matter that terms like “thug” and “hooligan” have never been used specifically as racial epithets. The assumption would seem to be that any charge of racism against a white party will be effective as a smear tactic, regardless of how baseless it might be.

Introducing a racial dimension made an already ugly affair that much uglier, and things were soon to get uglier still. Just before the abortive concert, the Wits SRC issued a statement in support of Israel Apartheid Week that read in part, “We long to see the day where this University’s judgment is freed from the tentacles of Zionist money”. The willingness even then to throw into the mix the malignant legend of manipulative Jewish money power (no-one, surely, is fooled by the substitution of the word “Zionist” for “Jewish”) told its own story. Since then, the SRC and its various backers have repeatedly sought to depict the forthcoming Wits disciplinary hearing as being driven by Jewish financial pressure, not principle. Under the banner of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, the SRC recently called for “a thorough investigation into the financial threats being made by members of the Israeli lobby. We call on our university to expose these groups and individuals”. It was stated that “such pressures from the Israeli lobby are an interference with internal policies of the university and that the current disciplinary actions against the 11 Wits students undermine students right to protest”.

This in turn points to another big shift in the SRC’s campaign of self-exculpation, namely that now the demonstration against the Reshef concert had been orderly and non-disruptive and that the Israeli/Zionist/Jewish lobby was seeking to deny the students their democratic right to peaceful protest. That was the theme of a protest rally against the disciplinary hearings outside the Great Hall two weeks ago, in which participants included Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of Sadtu and representatives from Sasco, Nehawu and the Young Communist League. The latter next issued a statement that, inter alia, declared: “Our hard earned freedom and right to protest are under threat from a powerful lobby, acting with total impunity and disregard or South African law.”

“All students and peace loving people should join us in recognising the threat to our democracy that the charges against the 11 students represent. We call on Wits University, with its proud history of struggle against the oppressive South African regime, to reject the Israel lobbies efforts to eradicate all opposition and resistance to both South African and Israeli apartheid.”

Nehawu, for its part, called for the immediate withdrawal of all charges against the students: “We are deeply disturbed that the university management has decided to appease the Zionist lobby and the apologists of the apartheid state of Israel by instituting disciplinary action against the students that protested. All students and peace loving people should join us in recognising the threat to our democracy that the charges against the 11 students represent. We call on Wits University, with its proud history of struggle against the oppressive South African regime, to reject the Israel lobbies efforts to eradicate all opposition and resistance to both South African and Israeli apartheid.

All of this and much more inflammatory, racially-charged rhetoric has surfaced in the course of this affair. It has gone beyond Middle East politics — perhaps it was never about it in the first place — to expose the gaping black-white fault-lines in our society. The incendiary, increasingly threatening statements over the Reshef incident and its aftermath is providing an unwelcome, and chilling, glimpse into a festering culture of rage, suspicion and resentment that exists beneath our rapidly crumbling Rainbow Nation façade.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.