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Is our democracy unravelling?

When Zapiro caused an uproar last year with his now notorious cartoon depicting Jacob Zuma about to take the lead in gang-raping a woman representing Justice, it said two things about the state of South African democracy. On the positive side, where else but in a true democracy would a newspaper be allowed to get away with so savage an attack on arguably the country’s foremost political leader? Unfortunately, it was also representative of another, less healthy, phenomenon, namely the progressive brutalisation of political discourse in this country.

My view at the time was, and still is, that Zapiro’s cartoon (some will also remember how during his rape trial a few years ago, he depicted Zuma as a giant phallus) crossed the line to an unacceptable degree and that one did not have to be a fan of Jacob Zuma to feel insulted by it. Whatever clouds hang over Zuma’s personal and professional conduct, he deserves better than to be lampooned in so vicious and frankly dehumanising a manner.

Political debate in a democratic environment tends to be overly robust at times. Even allowing for this, however, there need to be limits to what is said (ideally, such limitations should be self-imposed based on the principles of common decency rather than on formal legal strictures). Many South Africans now have grave reservations about the direction political discourse is taking in this country, and fear for the future of their society if the rhetoric of threats, personal smears and racial resentment were to triumph over that of agreeing to differ in a spirit of respect and tolerance. (A certain youth occupying a position of no small importance within the ANC has been an especially egregious offender in this regard, but he has by no means been the only one).

Smearing individuals is bad enough, but denigrating entire sections of the population takes things to an altogether more menacing level. This is particularly true when the race card is played. Last month, the ANC in Mpumalanga was caught distributing a fake DA pamphlet portraying the DA as a racist party. The pamphlet claimed that the DA wanted to bring back the days of “permits” and concluded with the words “Warning: Do not show this pamphlet to your maids and garden boys … we need their votes”. This goes beyond mere cheating to obtain more votes; it is, in fact, a dangerous form of racist incitement.

The brutalisation of political discourse in South Africa has also been manifesting in a campaign against the mainstream Jewish community and its leadership that Cosatu is today waging. As described in more detail by myself previously in this forum, at a largely Cosatu-organised pro-Palestinian rally in Lenasia on January 14, one speaker after another went so far as to call for Jewish supporters of Israel to be expelled from the country (as one of them put it, “The government should ask the people, the Jews here, if they are supporting Israel and ask them to leave”). It was at this rally, of course, that Deputy Foreign Minister Fatimah Hajaig informed the cheering crowd that the United States and most other Western countries were in the grip of Jewish money power.

Cosatu’s international relations secretary, Bongani Masuku, has been especially egregious in the threatening and insulting statements he has made about Jews who do not adhere to his organisation’s radical anti-Israel line. Speaking at a Cosatu-led demonstration against the Jewish communal leadership outside the Sydenham Highlands North Synagogue on February 6, for example, he conveyed “a message to the Jews in South Africa” that any business owned by Israel supporters would be targeted by the country’s workers.

On blogs and in subsequent email correspondence, Masuku has expressed the view that Jewish supporters of Israel must not merely be encouraged but forced to leave South Africa “before they infect the country with any more racism”. In the course of this correspondence, he has variously referred to Jews as “arrogant”, the “world’s cry-babies” and as “inhumane” (aside from those who have “risen above the fascist parochial paranoia of Israel”).

Coming from anyone, such views are highly distasteful; coming from the spokesperson of an organisation representing some two million workers and which is an integral part of the “tripartite alliance” governing the country, they are downright scary. Regardless of what one’s views on the Middle East conflict might be, when an organisation of this stature threats with expulsion anyone who refuses to toe a particular political line, this represents a serious threat to all South Africans. It represents further disturbing evidence of how a spirit of intolerance and intimidation is being allowed to permeate this country’s democratic culture.


  • 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.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 5 March 2009


    They are totally ignorant of either the history of Israel or the history of Africa.

    Mbeki has deliberately fostered that ignorance, and even Mandela is not guiltless.

    They have been fed myths, not facts, for one purpose only – to keep the ANC in power.

  2. Eligos Eligos 5 March 2009

    Enough Already!
    Why do pro-Zionists use every opportunity to jump on some or other bandwagon and seek to associate themselves with others who do have something to say?
    To seek to identify by association with the DA who suffered real racial attacks in the faux pamphlets, to seek to identify with Zuma’s embarrassment in the Zapiri cartoons seems a cheap shot.
    To regurgitate the pained response to the comment by Deputy Foreign Minister Fatimah Hajaig who “informed the cheering crowd that the United States and most other Western countries were in the grip of Jewish money power” is ludicrous.
    My response to that particular gripe is to make reference to this quote: “Every time we do something you tell me America will do this and will do that . . . I want to tell you something very clear: Don’t worry about American pressure on Israel. We, the Jewish people, control America, and the Americans know it.” – Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, October 3, 2001
    Get off your bandstand. There are many, many people in this country and worldwide who sincerely believe that Israel should be boycotted for its Nazi-like apartheid. Many South Africans too.

  3. Kick the mime Kick the mime 5 March 2009

    The biggest bigots and racists are those who have portrayed themselves as defenders of the downtrodden. The vitriol and racism heaped on SA Jews will remind history-conscious individuals of the pogroms which plague man(un)kind from time to time.
    Our intolerance in this country is just indicative of our unwillingness to share the space in which reasonable debate occurs. We can only keep this space unitary by heaping stupid and intransigently wicked views on others. All dissent is then counter-revolutionary, imperialist. I have nothing but contempt for the brown shirts who define contemporary political debate.

  4. Dave Harris Dave Harris 5 March 2009

    I’m glad you have the courage to speak out against these injustices.
    “vicious and frankly dehumanising a manner”
    Yes, I too fail to see the satire or humor in Zapiro’s cartoon. This kind of hate speech serves no purpose other than further polarizing our society. I think in the name of democracy, we are sometimes too tolerant of hate speech.

    The racist DA pamphlet unfortunately, is harder to control on a practical level, since theoretically, these pamphlets could emanate from unknown sources as well.

    “Masuku has expressed the view that Jewish supporters of Israel must not merely be encouraged but forced to leave South Africa”
    Masuku and his cohorts should be brought before a court of law and tried for inciting racial hatred. Remember how this pro-Palestinian lobby upset and hijacked the Durban UN World Conference Against Racism in 2001. This was a sad day for SA democracy and did a disservice to the millions across the world who suffer daily from the effects of racism. I wonder why Cosatu itself, which is supposed to be an organization of trade unions, doesn’t take a stronger stance in reigning in these hate mongers that have infiltrated their organization? Don’t they realize the damage it doing to the legitimacy and influence of their organization? Shouldn’t an ORGANIZATION OF TRADE UNIONS be serving the working people of SA instead of being a mouthpiece for the pro-Palestinian lobby!

  5. Reallisticallyspeaking Reallisticallyspeaking 5 March 2009

    @David: First things first…ANC has NEVER been caught distributing any DA pamphlet. Pls correct that or provide proof!

  6. Good Charlie Good Charlie 5 March 2009

    Mr Saks, I think you are mostly correct in what you assert here. Allow me to take exception to one thing, though. Our democracy is not unravelling!

    As you pointed out, it is only in an democratic society that Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) could have gotten away with what he drew. The same freedoms that protect Zapiro also protect the Cosatu and Masuku. His comments were unfortunate, but not tantamount to an unravelling democracy. There are legal ways of challenging his assertions and I would invite you to make full use of them if you feel that any liberties with democracy have been taken.


    “There has never been a time when some poor misguided soul has not attempted to show that the country was going to ruin.” Adam Smith

  7. Russell Gaddin Russell Gaddin 5 March 2009

    I’m rather stunned by Davis Sak’s bewilderment at the ANC’s “cheating” pamphlet demonising the DA. If you consider that their bretherem in the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbolla and all their ilk, have become pretty successful at deceiving the world through computerised photographic programs, lies and cheating for years. When it comes to corruption, Arafat was supreme and set a fine example for his buddies and supporters to emulate and support. The real question is – who are the pupils ad who are the teachers?

  8. david saks david saks 6 March 2009


    Sharon’s supposed statement that Jews control America was exposed as a hoax originating with a pro-Hamas Islamic Association for Palestine as long ago as May 2002. See
    Predictably, exposure hasn’t prevented the lie from being repeated ad nauseum.

    Can I further assume from your comment that you endorse Bongani Masuku’s belief that those who don’t share your anti-Zionist views should be thrown out of the country?


    The fake DA election pamphlet, which falsely attributes offensive statements to those one doesn’t like, is a similar kind of scandal to the above Sharon fabrication (Russell Gaddin’s comment is interesting in this regard). You aver that the ANC has done no such thing. However, according to press reports the Mpumalanga DA has officially complained to the IEC and the DA has laid a criminal against the ANC (case number MAS536/02/2009) at the Middelburg Police Station after learning that a fake DA pamphlet was being distributed by the ANC in the Steve Tshwete Municipality. As reported, “According to the DA’s information a Ms Jeanette Mahlangu, an ANC candidate in a coming by-election, distributed the pamphlet to learners at the Middelburg Mine Combined School”

  9. Eligos Eligos 6 March 2009

    Well, if South Africans are racists for wanting to boycott Israel, how about this:

    Durban 2 draft: Israel’s Palestinian policy is crime against humanity
    By Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz Correspondent

    A draft of the closing statement prepared for the upcoming United Nations-sponsored conference against racism, dubbed Durban 2, states that Israel’s policy in the Palestinian territories constitutes a “violation of international human rights, a crime against humanity and a contemporary form of apartheid.”

    The conference, to be held in Geneva next month, is a follow-up to the contentious 2001 conference in the South African city of Durban which was dominated by clashes over the Middle East and the legacy of slavery. The U.S. and Israel walked out midway through that eight-day meeting over a draft resolution that singled out Israel for criticism and likened Zionism – the movement to establish and maintain a Jewish state – to racism.

    Israel, Canada and the U.S. have already announced that they will boycott the upcoming summit.

    The draft statement, obtained by Haaretz, goes on to say that Israel’s policy poses “a serious threat to international peace and security and violates the basic principles of international human rights law.”

    In the draft, the organizers of the UN summit express “deep concern” over Israel’s practices of “racial discrimination against the Palestinian people as well as Syrian nationals of the occupied Syrian Golan and other inhabitants of the Arab occupied territories.”

  10. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 7 March 2009


    You have just proved David Saks’ point.

    The reason that Durban 2 is being boycotted, is that Durban 1 was almost close to an Al Quada support group.

  11. Dave Harris Dave Harris 7 March 2009

    I’m glad you brought this to our attention. I for one, will be contacting the organization or influential governments to get them to understand how this draft attempts to once again holds this conference hostage to jihadists and self-serving politicians.

    The Obama administration, unlike the inept Bush administration are sincerely trying to tackle issues of race, should be made aware of this impending fiasco. Having the conference in Geneva is comforting since at least the safety and order can be maintained unlike the disgraceful Durban conference. SA should be ashamed of itself for allowing the conference to be hijacked by the pro-Palestinian lobby!

    Whatever sympathy I harbor for the suffering Palestinians slowly dissipates with the disgraceful behavior of the selfish pro-Palestinian lobby. I wonder what the working people of South Africa would say if they knew their union dues were used by corrupted Cosatu leaders to promote the pro-Palestinian/jihadists agenda?

  12. Ric Ric 9 March 2009

    Lyndall – Stop doing your “research” on the stormfront,KKK & DA websites.

  13. Eligos Eligos 9 March 2009

    @ Lyndall Beddy
    You have just proved David Saks’ point.
    The reason that Durban 2 is being boycotted, is that Durban 1 was almost close to an Al Quada support group.

    Wrong. Only the USA and Canada so far have resolved to boycott Durban 2. Both are known for their blind and unwavering support of Zionism. Why is it that they are the only ones considered to be “in-step”? Is the rest of the civilised world racist because the resolution is being sought? I think you read into the article only what you wanted to see and did not appreciate the full significance. Apart from that, you seem quaintly naïve in the belief that there is in fact such an organisation as “Al Qaeda”. Do some reading and disabuse yourself of this myth.

    @ Dave Harris
    SA should be ashamed of itself for allowing the conference to be hijacked by the pro-Palestinian lobby!
    Whatever sympathy I harbor for the suffering Palestinians slowly dissipates with the disgraceful behavior of the selfish pro-Palestinian lobby.

    Why should South Africa be ashamed of being so strongly opposed to Zionism? Strong words like “hijack” lend naught to any argument devoid of substance and amount to weak rhetoric. Ashamed? Never, I say.
    And I suppose that you are proud of and feel justified in supporting the use of phosphorous weapons, the slaughter of school children and the denial of food and medical aid now that hostilities are supposed to have ceased?

    Tot homines, tot sententies

  14. Dave Harris Dave Harris 9 March 2009

    Nobody condones the suffering of Palestinians. However the impasse created by Hamas ensures the continued violence.

    The anti-racism conference has a much bigger agenda than just the Israeli-Palestinian issue. By disrupting (equivalent to hijacking) the conference does a dis-service to the world where hundreds of millions suffer from the bigger problem of racism.



    In your introduction, you write of the publication of Zapiro’s “rape” cartoon… “Unfortunately, it was also representative of another, less healthy, phenomenon, namely the progressive brutalisation of political discourse in this country.”

    And you conclude with regard to Masuku’s recent antisemitic statements..”It represents further disturbing evidence of how a spirit of intolerance and intimidation is being allowed to permeate this country’s democratic culture.”

    For what it is worth, I think that you are totally wrong to connect Zapiro’s “rape” cartoon to Masuku’s antisemitic statements. I think, moreover, that The SAJBD is using this comparison to try and keep in with the new Zuma govt. ” Look Jacob, we were both being maligned. Isn’t it just is so unfair!”

    To conclude,I believe that The SAJBD should follow a rational analytical strategy and should not try and make analogies that have little or no merit in order to gain temporary popularity with our new political masters. Your thesis is based, in my view, on an underlying weak dhimmi strategy which will inevitably backfire in the faces of SA Jewry.



    On a very simplistic level The SAJBD has to understand the following….

    Jacob Zuma and The ANC are Heavyweights

    The SAJBD, and SA Jewry although “punching above its weight” (I can’t believe that Zev Krengel actually wrote such nonsense!) are Lightweights.

    It is quite legitimate for Heavyweights to have some tough punches thrown at them. The only relevant question is whether it was Hate Speech. Of course, Zuma can sue for defamation.

    Of course, you fail to address the demos outside the courts which were intimidation and the release of Shabbir Shaik etc etc.

    I can promise you this… any attempt by The SAJBD to confuse important issues will, in the end, backfire.



    In this week’s SAJR, Zev Krengel writes:

    “the Jewish community is today able to box far above its numerical weight on the national stage precisely because of the effective channels of communication that have been establishes. enabling its representatives to meet with government at all levels.”

    Firstly, the Jewish community is not boxing above its numerical weight. If it was Fatima Hajaig would have had to have resigned following her antisemitic comments. In any normal democracy she would no longer be in government.

    Secondly, if the Jewish community was boxing above its weight, what is the benefit of publicly mentioning it? To give credence to unfair Jewish influence??


    Now that the dust has started to settle, I wonder whether The SAJBD was wise to issue a statement about Gaza.

    The SAJBD’s logic is that their statement was reflective of mainstream SA Jewry. It was also supportive of Israel at a time when her actions was receiving negative publicity in SA and throughout the world. As a result, the statement showed solidarity with Israel.

    However, the SAJBD’s statement inevitably led to The Geffen/ Isaacs Gaza letter and also encouraged Cosatu to demonstrate in Raedene. Bongani Masuku has also since issued various threats against SA Jewry if they don’t concur with Cosatu’s views.

    In the circumstances, the question arises whether The SAJBD was wise to issue their statement on Gaza. Was it really beneficial or did it really just inflame people who did not agree with its contents?

    I conclude that The SAJBD’s Gaza statement has been unnecessarily divisive and has pushed SA Jewry into a corner. And it is an increasingly uncomfortable narrow corner. And it is a corner that in extremely difficult times, they don’t need to be in.

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