20 June 2007

Free Alan!

A few seconds ago, a global 2 minutes of silence in support of Alan Johnston ended. Alan is the BBC correspondent who was abducted 100 days ago in Gaza by an unknown group called "Army of Islam".

The abduction is cowardly, disgusting and does the Palestinian cause no good.

Journalists around the world are under threat in various kinds of ways and they pay a high price to bring the news to the global public. This is not a good time for journalists as the freedom of the media continually is eroded.

Hamas, now in control of Gaza, has promised to ensure the release of Alan. It needs to be a release that is tirelessly pursued and secured as soon as possible.

Please sign the petition for the release of Alan Johnston on bbcnews.com.

I join journalists and others around the world, including the protestors in Gaza today, who are calling: FREE ALAN!!

20 May 2007

Viva PSC-Wits Viva!

I just read the latest edition of the South African Jewish Report. (No, it's not my Sunday newspaper of choice; I just wanted to see whether the tabloid covered the Al-Nakba conference (see previous blog posting).) I was thrilled to see the following letter:

SAUJS ‘unprepared’ for Israel debate
I AM writing to you as a deeply concerned
member of the Christian Zionist community
who was present at the embarrassing debate
held between the South African Union of
Jewish Students (SAUJS) and the Palestinian
Solidarity Committee (PSC) at Wits on May 4,
on the very emotive topic of “Is Israel an
Apartheid State?”
First of all, the Jewish students handled
themselves in a manner that seemed extremely
unprepared, disorganised and, indeed, unintelligent,
while the speakers from the
Palestinian Solidarity Committee (while I do
not agree with their sentiment) were very
knowledgeable and managed to have a massive
impact on the crowd that sat before them.
More than that, I was also very concerned to
see how relatively few Jewish students attended
the debate, as it made Israel appear weak
and outgunned. Did the Jewish students just
not care, or were they simply not campaigned
I sincerely hope that the Jewish student
leadership of the future will come better prepared,
better supported, more able to connect
with the audience they appear in front of and
simply more captivating when it comes to the
use of a term that is so often abused by the
detractors of Israel to delegitimise the state.
Johan Pieter Coetzee
Well done, PSC-Wits. But before their heads become too swollen, let me remind the Wits PSC that they were only able to perform this well because they have truth on their side. I guess half the debate is won when your argument is actually true, verifiable and cold hard fact as opposed to spin and propaganda. So, the SAUJS students performed badly even though they were coached by members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (as another article in the SAJR attests).

14 May 2007

Ethical journalist, less than ethical editor

I felt a tad uncomfortable with the whole discussion. I was a speaker at the Al-Nakba Conference in Cape Town, commemorating the 59th anniversary of the Catastrophe visited on the Palestinian people in 1948.

I was to speak on the third and last day of the conference, on the “Founding myths of the State of Israel”. But, just after all the speakers had been introduced and just before we could start speaking, one of the organisers asked for the mike to raise an issue.

Apparently, a reporter of the South African Jewish Report was present in the audience and some conferees had complained to the organisers that they did not feel comfortable about this. The organiser who announced this asked the conference what their feeling was about what should be done.

Now before any accusations of “anti-Semitic” start flying around, let me just mention that there were a number of Jews that had been present at the conference from the first day. In fact, most also participated very strongly in the discussions and one Jewish person facilitated the crucial “Way Forward” session at the end (and did a damn good job of it too). So the complaint from some members of the audience had nothing to do with the fact that Moira Schneider was a Jew. Rather, they were concerned, as it emerged in the discussion, about what she would write and whether the organisers would have the right to reply if they felt that her report contained certain falsities.

I sat there somewhat bemused as I observed the debate. Being the Director of Operations of the Freedom of Expression Institute, I knew what my position was on the issue. But this was not my conference; I was just a speaker. So I watched and listened.

Fortunately, conference made the correct decision: it decided to allow Ms Schneider to stay in the conference and to do her report. This followed her assurance to the conference that she would not submit her report to the SAJR until she received a guarantee from the editor, Geoff Sifrin, that he would allow the conference organisers – the Friends of Al-Aqsa – the right to reply if they felt aggrieved by the report. Conferees accepted her “journalistic ethic”, believed she was sincere in her assurance, everyone seemed to relax and we were finally allowed to speak.

I began my presentation by informing the audience of my position in the FXI and telling them that if they had decided to ask the journalist to leave the conference, I would have issued a media statement the next morning condemning the conference for its stance. Fortunately, the right decision was made and I was spared the tediousness of writing yet another media release.

Everyone seemed happy, so this story should end here. I cannot allow it to, however. Accepting Ms Schneider’s assurance was the right thing to do. However, the conference was also implicitly accepting another assurance – that of the SAJR editor, who wasn’t even there to give it. If recent events are anything to go by, Mr Sifrin does not have the best reputation for giving people the right of reply.

At the end of last year, the SAJR ran an article which was a direct challenge to Minister Ronnie Kasrils, asking him to answer a number of questions. Sifrin had assured Kasrils that the paper would publish Kasrils response. However, when Kasrils submitted his reply, Sifrin refused to publish. Not only did Sifrin deny Kasrils the right of reply, he also went back on his word. Not a very trustworthy editor, in my opinion. I’m sure the Friends of Al-Aqsa are waiting to see what Schneider’s article will say. And then they will probably wait to see whether the editor will make good on his promise. People do change, sometimes.

For some background on the SAJR-Kasrils issue, see "On Jewish Report's censoring of Ronnie Kasrils"

26 April 2007

Human Rights Day irony in Cape Town

What an irony! On Human Rights Day, demostrators in Cape Town were denied their right to proceed with a march in the city, a right guaranteed by the South African Constitution and given legislative effect through the Regulation of Gatherings Act (RGA).

It is not an unusual occurrence for arrogant local authorities to "refuse to give permission" to marchers based on no reason in particular. Of course, according to the law, they do not have the right to "give permission"; "permission" is not even mentioned in the RGA.

But on the streets, it is not the constitution and the law that triumph, it is raw force. When I, representing the Freedom of Expression, spoke to the policeperson in charge and attempted to explain the constitution and the RGA to her, her response was, simply: "Let them just try me! I will arrest them all."

Just another day in South Africa...

Human Rights Day

"My mother was a kitchen girl;
And my father was a garden boy;
That's why, I'm a socialist, I'm a socialist, I'm a socialist!"

The song blared from loudspeakers on a truck as protestors started a march through the streets of Johannesburg. More than a thousand protestors toyi-toyied through the city today to celebrate / commemmorate Human Rights Day. The march was organised by the Social Movements Indaba (SMI), which also organised actions in Durban and Cape Town.

It was an emotional and heartwarming demonstration of people's being able to take over the streets. It was also a sad reflection of the fact that, 13 years after democracy finally came to South Africa, millions of people still suffer under the yoke of poverty, lack basic services like water and electricity and fall as victims to Aids.

Speeches at the end of the march included those from various social movements dealing with privatisation, access to water, fighting evictions, landlessness, etc. There were also speakers from the Anti-War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Committee and the Save Zimbabwe Campaign.

Motley bunch confronts the SABC

Today, a strange mixture of people assembled, at the behest of the Freedom of Expression Institute, in front of the headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Corporation to protest the SABC's lack of movement towards becoming a true public broadcaster.

In an amazing show of covergence of forces on the issue, members of the Socialist Party of Azania, Pan Africanist Congress, Anti-Privatisation Forum, a hawkers' organisation, the Traditional Healers' Organisation, Muslim Youth Movement, Palestine Solidarity Committee, a Gauteng Council member of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (who was also billed to speak but left early for another appointment) and various other groups took over the streets, ululated and toyi-toyied in their opposition to the SABC.

"We are going to kick Snuki out of here," demonstrators chanted, referring to the SABC's head of news, who has been implicated in the recent blacklisting scandal that confronted the Corporation.

For more information about the campaign to transform the SABC, visit the website of the Freedom of Expression Institute.

19 March 2007

Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun

Professor Tanya Reinhardt breathed her last in New York on Saturday, 17th March 2007. Numerous obituaries have already been written for her and, no doubt, numerous others will follow. This is just meant to be a brief remembrance.

An Israeli, Tanya was a strong, outspoken critic of successive Israeli governments and a strong defender of Palestinian rights. Despite the euphoria from many quarters at the time, she opposed the Oslo Accords, arguing that it would perpetuate and strengthen the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

One of her important contributions to international solidarity with the Palestinian struggle was her contribution to the debate on the academic boycott of Israeli academics and academic institutions. Favouring a boycott, she nevertheless differentiated between institutions and individual academics, offering a nuanced perspective on the boycott question. (See, for example, http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article6700.shtml)

Tanya Reinhardt is among those who, being part of a privileged oppressor class by accident of birth, is able to transcend that and fearlessly articulate themselves in favour of justice and in opposition to their privilege. Like a number of other Israeli Jews and a number of White South Africans under Apartheid, she chose the difficult path of spaking truth to power, despite the uncomfortable and, often, frightening personal consequences, isolation, etc.

Long live your spirit, Tanya!

And, in the Muslim tradition, when one hears of a death, I conclude with: "Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji'un - To God we belong and to Him is our return."

16 March 2007

Gilder's comments can lead to Islamophobia

Barry Gilder, the Coordinator of South Africa's National Intelligence Coordinating Committee (NICOC) recently made certain comments about Muslim "terrorists" in South Africa that have been widely reoprted in the media (see, for example, an article on iol). Gilder was making the comments in a briefing to senior government officials.

He said that a number of foreign Muslim "terrorists" were using South Africa to hide out in. The attractiveness of South Africa, according to Gilder, is mainly because of this country's well-developed banking and communications infrastructure.

The most concerning aspect of Gilder's comments is the focus on South African Muslims as potential terrorists and the implication - whether intended or not - that the notion of "global terrorism" is an Islamic phenomenon. If, as Mr Gilder says, there have been foreign "terrorists" (of whatever hue or religion) that have been using South Africa either as a transit point, to "lie low" or "to settle" and if, as he adds, South African intelligence agents have had such people under surveillance for years, why is it that they have not been arrested or otherwise acted against?

South Africa is a constitutinal democracy and the rule of law must be applied. If there are known criminals present in our society, they must be dealt with according to the law. Why then, if the allegations about the presence of terrorists on South African soil is correct, would such people be only monitored by our intelligence services but not dealt with through the legal system?

Further, despite Gilder's comments that South African Muslims are by-and-large "not susceptible" to being recruited by terrorists, it is very discomforting the manner in which South
African Muslims are being referred to - by Gilder and sections of the media - as if we are objects that need simply to be analysed for whether we will participate in terrorism. Such injudicious references assist in stigmatising the Muslim community, sowing the seeds of Islamophobia and in pushing the Muslim community into a defensive corner. None of these is
healthy for us as a South African society.

Comments such as these serve slowly to create a fearful climate within South Africa where citizens begin to become suspicious of each other and begin to speculate about who is or is not a terrorist. Such suspicion has destroyed the fabric of many communities in Western countries; we do not want to follow suit. Finally, the statement about "terror training camps" in South Africa is highly problematic. Again, if such camps exist, they should be closed down and those involved with them should be subjected to the criminal justice system. But throwing out such accusations as media soundbites can add to the climate of suspicion and the concern for terrorism among South African citizens, a concern which has no basis in reality.

13 March 2007

Quietly now...

Zimbabwe has been on slow boil for years. But, this past weekend, the lid just blew off the pot!

Numerous reports tell of the assaults and torture of opposition members - including the head of the Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, the raiding of trade union offices, the breaking up of a prayer meeting, the killing of Gift Tandare...

A hastily-called demonstration outside the Zimbabwean consulate in Johannesburg today drew more than 100 protestors - mostly Zimbabwean. If people are not angry at what is happening under the brutal dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, at least there should be some concern. And I am pretty sure that many South Africans are very concerned.

I'm not sure, however, how much concern there is in South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs. Spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa insists: "We have constantly maintained that the solutions to the problems of Zimbabwe will be resolved by the people of Zimbabwe."

Excuse me!! If that was the attitude that the world had taken in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we would have still been languishing under apartheid - while the rest of Africa and the world waited for "the problems of South Africa" to be "resolved by the people of South Africa."

I have to agree with Cosatu's Patrick Craven: this response by the DFA is "shamefully weak" and "disgraceful"! Add "pathetic" and "disgusting" to the list.

Now, more than ever, Zimbabweans need South African support so that they can "resolve the problems of Zimbabwe". We, as a people, and our government, must come out strongly in support of the democratic rights of the Zimbabwean people and against the tyranny of Mugabe. With the fault lines showing within his own party, such support from their southern neighbour might be all that is necessary to tip the scale and force Mugabe out - once and for all! Away with quiet diplomacy! Action now!

08 March 2007

South African Muslim organisations on Bush’s war of terror

At the end of last year, the Bush administration attempted to include the names of two South Africans on the UN list of terror suspects that is maintained by the “1267 Committee”. The two – cousins Junaid and Farhad Dockrat – were spared by the intervention of the South African government which objected to the inclusion and demanded evidence before accepting such charges against its citizens.

The US claimed that it had “three trolley loads of evidence” but that revealing these trolley loads would compromise its intelligence-gathering techniques. With no evidence forthcoming, the 1267 Committee – which can only make decisions on consensus – placed the names on its list of “holds”.

The US, nevertheless, went ahead and included the Dockrats’ names on its own terror list. The result is that any assets of the two in the US would, by now, be frozen, they would not be able to travel to the US (why anyone would want to, these days, is beyond me) and their assets in South African banks linked to the Swift network could also be in jeopardy.

In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, only one South African organization issued a condemnation of the US actions. After much discussion and negotiation, a group of 15 organisations last week held a media conference where they issued the following statement (the organisations’ names are at the bottom of the statement).

Statement by Muslims of South Africa
27th February 2007
JISS Centre, Mayfair, Johannesburg

We, South African organisations representing the Muslims of this country, declare that:

• We believe that no single country has the unilateral right to define terrorism or to coerce other countries to support their viewpoint;

• We condemn the Bush administration for listing some South Africans as “terrorists” and for threatening to list more South Africans without due process and without any consideration for the need to provide substantial and credible evidence;

• We support the stance of the South African government in its insistence on securing credible evidence for such listings and for subscribing to the principle of administrative justice before acting against any of its citizens;

• We further reject with contempt the decision by the Bush administration and some of its allies for imposing travel restrictions on South African religious and community leaders, academics, activists and their families;

• We condemn the Bush administration for detaining prisoners of war indefinitely and without fair trial in violation of the Geneva Conventions, such as those in Guantanamo Bay, and call for their immediate and unconditional release;

• We are strongly opposed to unlawful acts of rendition of so-called suspected “terrorists”;

• We proclaim that, as believing Muslims, we are opposed to all acts of injustice and acts of indiscriminate violence against innocent civilians perpetrated either by individuals, organisations or states;

• We advocate that any effort aimed at curbing unconstitutional or criminal activities by individuals or organisations should not undermine our hard-won fundamental human rights and infringe on our civil liberties;

• We reserve the right to express solidarity with all peoples living under the yoke of colonialism, national oppression and foreign occupation and to assist such peoples both materially and financially in their struggles for national liberation and freedom.

• We urge all countries, including our own, to respect the rule of law when dealing with the rights of their citizens and others.

Muslims, as South African patriots, have contributed actively to the struggle for national liberation and against apartheid. We commit ourselves to continue with this tradition and to work with our fellow compatriots in order to:
+ struggle for the socio-economic development of our nation;
+ fight poverty, crime and HIV/AIDS ;
+ intensify the campaign for the moral regeneration of all our people; and
+ to promote respect, tolerance and peace among all South Africans.

This statement is supported by:
• Association of Muslim Schools
• Call of Islam
• Eastern Cape Islamic Congress
• Eastern Cape Ulama Council
• Islamic Council of South Africa
• Islamic Forum – KZN
• Islamic Medical Association
• Jamiatul Ulama / Council of Muslim Theologians (formerly Jamiatul Ulama Transvaal)
• Murabitun South Africa
• Muslim Judicial Council
• Muslim Vision 2020
• Muslim Youth Movement
• Sunni Jamiyat-e-ulama
• Sunni Ulama Council
• Union of Muslim Students’ Associations