Recently, the famous Limmud conference took place in Johannesburg. There was a wonderful turnout from all walks of Jewish life, a testament to the inclusivity of the event. The sessions I attended on Sunday were engaging and fascinating. It was therefore rather alarming to have experienced the last session, entitled “Ways of Staying: Making Meaning of White People’s Lives in South Africa”.
Although uncomfortable about the name of this session, as I don’t believe anybody should need to get so creative to find a life has meaning, I expected it would cover all the topics currently concerning the white population and the Jewish community. I was expecting to hear about crime and the escalation in murders, the rise in Antisemitism, the possible outcomes of the land expropriation debate and perhaps a discussion about security and how to be involved in building better lives together with all South Africans opposed to crime and land expropriation without compensation.
This was not what we got.
On the panel was advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi – a controversial figure endorsed by the EFF and author of the famous book “The Land is Ours”. Others on the panel were Lael Bethlehem – deeply involved in inner city regeneration, Richard Poplak – senior contributor to the Daily Maverick and Marc Pozniak – chair of the SAJBD (South African Jewish Board of Deputies) Gauteng Council and executive Committee member of the WJC (World Jewish Congress).
The session began with a statement from Lael Bethlehem that we all benefitted from Apartheid and that we all must find a way to give back more.
The next speaker was Richard Poplak who said that we must find a way to be more African, as we have a very narrow self-identity. He went as far as to say that we must ‘bring ourselves further down’ indicating such with his hand, implying that this will lift others up. It must be stated that bringing down one group of people does not lift another group of people. Anyone familiar with the history of economics will know that Marxism doesn’t work.
He emphasized that we do not do enough in thanks for the act of forgiveness which happened in 1994 and that only after we understand that “…can we start to contribute”. Emphasising the word ‘start’, he implied that we have not given just yet. He said that the time for “soft-giving” (charity) is over. Charity does work, and we have started. Tikkun Olam is in our very DNA and the Jewish community is involved in philanthropy and nation building. Afrika Tikkun is just one example of an organisation deeply committed to the betterment of disadvantaged communities. Knowing that handouts alone are not a solution, they work on a grass roots level together with the communities, building and educating.
Mr Ngcukaitobi then began his sermon. “When we see you, we see white, privileged people. We don’t know who is who. We see De Klerk’s great grandchildren the same way we see De Klerk. You may not like it, but it’s true”. According to Mr Ngcukaotobi, we will always be seen as Dr Klerk’s grandchildren, however we can buy our way out of this perception. An audience member suggested that we should learn an African language in school and Ngcukaitobi immediately responded, saying that we should learn an African language instead of English. “Why should I come here to speak in English?”.
This was a bizarre statement for such an educated man to make. English is a universal language and one of the tools which can help alleviate poverty. His speech continued with a statement that he was concerned about the emotional connections between people, “let us transcend race!” but in the same breath he insisted that we can only do this if we “give up our whiteness”.
“Give Up Your Whiteness”
“GIVE UP YOUR WHITENESS!” was Mr. Ngcukaitobi’s impassioned declaration. Alarmingly the exclamation was later echoed by Mr Poplak. Ngcukaitobi described a talk he gave at a gathering of Afrikaans farmers, joking inappropriately that he was worried they would shoot him. He said that he asked one of the farmers how many farms he owned and why he doesn’t simply give one away to his workers. The answer was that they would not necessarily know how to run the farm. “Rubbish!” Mr Ngcukaitobi declared loudly to our auditorium. He reiterated that the time for soft-giving is over.
I shudder to think what would happen if a white person stated to a room full of black people “give up your blackness”. There are three ideas that Mr. Ngcukaitobi’s reveals here, all of which are seriously problematic. The first is that being white is implicitly immoral as it is the cause of suffering and failure in South Africa. The second follows that we should cut ties with our white identities because of this. The third is that the way to solve economic disparity in South Africa is for white people to forfeit their land to black people. These propositions are repugnant, divisive and have no place in a multicultural and democratic society. Racist ideas are still racist if they target white people.
He continued “We do need the money. We do need the land. It is a matter of dignity.” The message was clear.
Lack of dialectic
Most concerning about this session was the display of false consciousness and lack of dialectic. There were no opposing voices and relevant contributions from the audience were dismissed. People nodded politely and whole-heartedly while being told to give up their land, be more African and give more. The act of pandering to those who are a threat is dangerous. It felt like Germany 1938.
Limmud would do well to invite speakers who advocate dangerous ideas only if they have a real conversation with those who are opposed to these ideas. In this situation, Limmud gave a platform to a group of people who promoted the racist ideology of anti-whiteness while plastering over the serious problems in this country of poverty and land-ownership, leaving the audience without a balancing perspective.