It was probably inevitable that the Cape Town water crisis would give rise to antisemitic conspiracy theories in some quarters, particularly given the possible bringing in at some stage of Israeli-based experts to help address the problem. As anticipated, feverish allegations that the disaster has been orchestrated by the DA in cahoots with their Jewish/Zionist backers did indeed start doing the rounds in the Twittersphere (and, sadly, in a number of mosques as well). What surely could not have been anticipated, however, is that they would ultimately be baldly represented as fact in a public legislative forum, not by loony fringe groups as one would expect but by representatives of South Africa’s ruling party.
Speaking in the Cape Provincial Legislature last Friday, ANC MPL Sharon Davids pretty much endorsed the notion that DA policy in the Western Cape has been captured by Jewish special-interest lobbies, to the detriment of everyone else in the province. Despite subsequent attempts by the ANC to reformulate her comments so as to make them appear to be references to foreign business interests, the import of what she actually said could hardly have been clearer: “Helen Zille is in love with the Jewish mafia”. So there you have it.
According to Davids, the DA has fabricated the Day Zero water crisis in order to score desalination contract kickbacks once Israeli companies are brought on board. She further attributed the opposition to Mayor Patricia de Lille within the DA to the fact that she had opposed the sale of a Cape Town property for the purpose of being used as a Jewish day school. Pointed reference was made to the fact that Tony Leon, whose Jewish identity is well known, had been chosen to run the Cape Town’s water crisis communications campaign.
She referred to how Jewish community members had accompanied Mmusi Maimane on a visit to Israel, and observed that DA MP Michael Bagraim, a former leader of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, was on friendly terms with the DA leader. Had Davids confined her remarks to the level of innuendo, however obvious her underlining message, she probably would have gotten away with all of this. However, her “Jewish mafia” comment pretty much gave the game away.
Davids’ extraordinary rant elicited a storm of indignation from opposition MPLs, but the real question was what the official response of the Western Cape ANC would be. If anything, this turned out to be even more disquieting. Instead of condemning the remarks and distancing the ANC from them, Provincial Secretary Faiez Jacobs intimated that the alleged “illicit relationship between the DA and some Jewish-aligned formations” was indeed something that the party needed to take seriously, and intended investigating.
So far as the charge of antisemitism went, he suggested that it was being used as a “scare-mongering tool to whip others into line and to prevent them from interrogating the truth”. In a subsequent media statement, the ANC fell back on simple bald denialism, claiming that Davids had been referring only to a ‘foreign-based company’ and ‘Israel-based people’ and accusing the DA of “deceit, spin and lies” for claiming otherwise. The Hansard record, of course, shows a different story.
This was not the first instance of senior ANC representatives in the Western Cape charging the DA with unfairly favouring the Jewish community. Former party provincial leader Marius Fransman did so on several occasions in 2013, including alleging that contracts that should have gone to Muslims had been unfairly given to Jewish businessmen. (His response when taken to task for this by the representative Jewish leadership was to accuse them of being disloyal to South Africa and acting in the interests of a foreign country).
Over the years, there have been other conspiratorial rumblings purporting to show the DA as being beholden to Jewish/Zionist financial dictates. However, Davids’ outburst represents the first time that such clearly racist, not to say paranoid, notions have been unblushingly aired in an official legislative debating chamber.
That crude Jew-baiting tactics have been resorted to by the Western Cape ANC, presumably with a view to gaining political support in the more militant sections of the Muslim community, demonstrates a new moral low for the party in the province. Depicting Jews as being guilty of unscrupulously manipulating government policy for their own ignoble ends is one of the most persistent of antisemitic canards, and one of the most dangerous.
It has consistently been used to portray Jews as a scheming, dishonest, disloyal and ultimately destructive element of the societies to which they belong, people who are quite prepared to undermine the interests of the greater society for their own benefit. That elected members of the ANC, a movement that has always prided itself on its unequivocal repudiation of any form of racism and related bigotry, should today feel quite comfortable about propagating such vile ideas should be of concern to all of us.
One hopes that the Western Cape ANC will henceforth steer clear of smearing the Jewish community and instead try to make a constructive contribution to getting through the current water crisis. In view of the party’s belligerent denial that Davids had done anything wrong, unfortunately, we may not have heard the last of such racist scapegoating.
David Saks is Associate Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.