Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where's the beef? Halal meat scandal rocks the community

THE three minute video on YouTube is often out of focus; it pixellates when there is lots of movement. But one thing is clear. Something fishy is afoot in a Cape Town refrigeration plant, where we are shown boxes on an assembly line.

When the cameraman zooms in on a label we can see that it reads “pork”. As the video moves on, workers are seen again – this time using a heat gun to remove labels. Generic halal signs are then pasted on to the boxes, and we see that they now say “veal hearts”.

Amazed, I’ve watched this video several times, and freeze-framed it to make sure what I’ve just seen. Whether this YouTube vignette is proof enough for criminal conviction is another question, but it has certainly caused a major furore.

This is because Orion Cold Storage, a Muizenberg-based refrigeration company, stands accused by two unidentified informants of relabeling imported meat products – including pork – as halal and passing them on to the unsuspecting consumer.

In an urgent High Court interdict it was alleged that Orion had also relabelled expired broiler turkeys from Shoprite Checkers; that it had relabelled animal feed milk powder as being fit for human consumption; that it had sold kangaroo meat as halal chuck-and-blade and that it had marketed water buffalo as beef.

The story was broken by Voice of the Cape and Eye Witness News, immediately raising temperatures in a community still reeling from the Hajj visa scandals.

Orion Cold Storage MD, Patrick Gaertner, replied that he’d been “set-up”, claiming that one of the “informants” (whom he did not name) was an unrehabilitated insolvent and former employee. The other, he claimed, worked for an opposition company (which he also did not name).

He said he valued his Muslim customers and that he intended to prove that he’d been subjected to “blackmail”. Gaertner also claimed that he had been threatened.

An interim interdict was lodged at the High Court against Orion by the South African National Halal Authority (SANHA), the Red Meat Industry Forum, the South African Meat Industry Company and other parties.

The application was supported by the Muslim Judicial Council and its Halal Trust (MJCHT), which had certified 18 containers of chickens imported by Orion. Gaertner had also claimed (before the hearing) that he’d enjoyed a “close” relationship with the MJCHT.

Shaikh Achmat Sedick, Deputy MJC president, had replied on Channel Islam that the MJCHT had not operated inside Orion’s plant. It was not a slaughtering facility, and the MJCHT had only checked the Halal credentials of poultry consignments from Denmark and Brazil.

He said the MJCHT had no responsibility for goods in Orion’s freezers, and had not certified any other Orion products. Maulana Ebrahim Adam, a spokesperson for the MJCHT, said on Voice of the Cape that Gaertner’s claims of a close relationship with the MJC were exaggerated and untrue.

In an affidavit Orion denied that it had altered any labels, claiming that the videotaped incidents were orchestrated without knowledge of management. A haggard-looking Gaertner said that the informants were untrustworthy and undertook to work closely with the MJC.

He told the judge he would welcome the MJCHT being at his premises to assure the public that his procedures were halal-compliant, and pledged that labels would not be changed on imported goods. The judge made this undertaking an order of the court, and that if the company did not comply, it would be in contempt.

Attorney for the applicants, Amish Kita, told the media outside court that the outcome of the interdict would not prevent his clients from ensuring that Orion be criminally investigated for fraud.

Spokesperson for the National Islamic Halal Trust (NIHT), Maulana Abdul Wahab Wookay, said that the Orion saga emphasised the need for uniform Halal standards between countries. He added that his organisation did not accept imports at face value, and that NIHT had been so “stern” that 85 butchers in the Gauteng region no longer imported meat.

He proposed a national Halal meat trader’s summit to iron out the problems, especially with butchers who imported dubious meat products.

However, as the dust begins to settle on the Orion saga, it becomes evident that there is much more to the court application than meets the eye. It has to be asked, for example, why Orion, a Cape Town company under the geographical domain of the MJCHT, had to be taken to court by SANHA, a Gauteng-based body, with no connections to Orion.

SANHA, reportedly the most reluctant of the parties of the National Halal Forum, could indeed claim “public interest” in this case which has certainly evoked much community ire, but it’s not enough to convince those in the know that the upstaging of the MJCHT might just have been on the cards.

Both organisations will vehemently deny this, but they are commercial rivals who’ve been locked in a longstanding multi-million rand turf war that has seen products such as bottled water, toothpicks, coffee, pasta, wet-wipes, sugar, lentils, mixed nuts, spices, breakfast cereal, canned fish and even sago being certified Halal.

The Orion case is also a neat distraction from the real issue, where God-given ibahah (initial permissibility) is turned on its head to prey on the fears of a Halal- ignorant public who don’t know any better.

The other point, made vociferously by the National Consumer Forum, is that the paying public sees no direct benefit whatsoever from the proceeds of the Halal certification, and that a regulation of the regulators is long overdue.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The blonde lady & surfing the other side of apartheid

This piece was written for the 35th anniversay edition of Zig-Zag Surfing Magazine

I can’t believe that Zig-Zag is 35 years old. That’s a lot of pages.

Wasn’t it only yesterday that the mag was pasted up in a garage, and we shot pics in Kodachrome 64? I can still remember those first muddy black and white “action” shots, and the ultimate luxury, a grainy double-page colour spread.

But it was an era in which it was a privilege to grow up surfing. The waters were less crowded, False Bay sharks were mellow and there was genuine camaraderie in the line-up.

In my part of the woods, Johnny Paarman had earned the moniker, “Iceman”. In the power zones he was fearless and unbeatable.

I also pioneered surf photography down south, swimming at giant Sunset for the first time and getting my sinuses flushed with kelp.

Those were the days when Pierre de Villiers and Peter Button had just ridden a spot called Dungeons near Hout Bay.

“It gets bigger than the Crayfish Factory,” I remember Pierre telling Davey Stolk with typical understatement. Pierre and Peter used to hike over the mountain and then paddle out. Thank God I never swam at Dungeons. My sinuses.

But I think some of my most cherished memories are of the mid 80’s when South Africa was living through turbulent times. Of course, we carried on surfing. That’s what surfers do.

Many of my surfing mates were on the other side of the apartheid fence. Catching waves came against the background of police harassment and prejudice. But, hell, it was still fun.

It all started when Davey Stolk and I befriended people such as Shani Nagia, Ahmed Collier, Mogamad Davids, Tahir Davids, Faeez Abrahams and Rafiq Bagus. Rafiq, who won the SASU title before Cass swept the boards, was a street-wise survivor like Stolk.

In fact, I challenge anybody – even today – to throw Stolk or Bagus from the top of a building. By the time you’ve caught the lift to the ground floor, they’ll both be wiping the butter off their feet.

Another indomitable character was Ahmed Collier, father of Cass Collier – a talented athlete and fearless big wave rider, who went on the ASP Tour without surfing a single heat in SA against a white competitor.

Cass definitely got his balls from his father. Ahmed never stood back for anyone, and it was he who first paddled out at Long Beach, breaking all the racial taboos and really getting in your face if you didn’t like it.

Shani had started Wynberg Surf Club, the backbone of non-racial surfing, and later SASU, which was aligned with the anti-apartheid body, SACOS. Shani – still an unheralded and unrecognised figure – would also be one of the leading forces in surfing unity.

By 1984 Wynberg made contact with surfers in J-Bay, Port Elizabeth and Durban. The Jappie family in PE, the Jeggels’ in J-Bay and Terence Naidoo in Durban were the stalwarts.

SASU held national champs in J-Bay, Cape Town and Durban, and I remember Cheron Kraak of Billabong being the first sponsor. It was at Kitchen Windows that Cass Collier and Steven Jeggels first showcased their talents.

Stolk and I joined Wynberg, much to the shock and chagrin of the establishment, but we both felt that we were right. Black surfing was on the rise, and black surfers weren’t allowed to surf on white beaches. We felt we could make a difference.

The Cape Flats, where most of the surfers came from, was burning. Stolk and I got caught in the middle. We realised the seriousness of the anti-apartheid uprisings when we saw people dying in the streets.

But there was a funny side too. This is because the Security Branch started to take a keen interest in Wynberg Surf Club and its members, some of whom were the sons of a famous UDF activist, Essa Moosa.

The Branch took to following us around. We got to recognise a certain officer Mostert, who sported a bristling Voortrekker beard. He was relentless. Late one night he managed to collar one of our members, Addie.

He took him to a police station, and started slapping him around, as was the usual custom.

“Where is the fokkin guns? We know you donnerse fokkers has buried them on the beach?” thundered Mostert, who was trying to catch Rafiq for public violence.

“What does you discuss at your secret meetings on the waves?” he asked.

“Uh, we talk about J-Bay,” answered Addie innocently.

In their paranoia the Security Branch had thought we were about to launch a military attack on the Western Cape. But even when it became obvious that Addie (and the club) were not part of an Umkhonto Isizwe unit, Mostert still didn’t give up.

“And who’s that blonde lady with you?” he asked. This time Addie was really perplexed. Blonde lady? But his interrogator was insistent. It was then that that Addie realised Mostert was referring to me. In the 1980’s I still had hair.

True to form, Mostert pitched up at my work early one morning, but I managed to escape. As usual I was late, and Mostert – his usual impatient self – was leaving as I arrived. Ah yes, those were the days.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Russell Tribunal: I think Israel is an apartheid state

LIKE so many interested in the course of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, I will be keenly watching the Cape Town leg, which is the third of its hearings on Palestine.

With its brief to examine the superiority of international law in solving the Palestinian conflict, those eminent personalities standing before the jurors will be more than well-versed in what they have to say about apartheid as crime against humanity in the Israeli context.

Initiated by Lord Bertrand Russell in 1966, the original Russell Tribunal was originally founded to look at war atrocities in Vietnam. The Tribunal was supported by a host of intellectuals and academics. Its first chairman was the French philosopher, Jean Paul-Sartre.

The Russell Tribunal on Palestine, employing the same principles as similar tribunals in Vietnam and South America, had already sat in Barcelona and London on the question of European Union and corporate complicity with Israel.

The Russell Tribunal enjoys no legal status, and has been described by its officers as a “tribunal of the people,” one which examines instances of injustice and violations of international law that are not dealt with by the international community.

For pro-Israeli lobbyists the Russell Tribunal is seen as an annoyance, a pesky distraction capable of making a noise, but incapable of executive decisions.

As a journalist, Palestine and the Middle East has been one my beats, and I’ve been there on assignment on numerous occasions covering a variety of issues over the past 15 years. My conclusion – after having interviewed hundreds of people from all sides of the conflict – is that Israel, basically an ethnic island in a sea of Arabs, is an apartheid state.

Having made that bald statement, let me qualify my view. This is because Russell Tribunal naysayers will immediately assume that I’m drawing cosy parallels and vehemently deny that comparisons can be made between apartheid South Africa and contemporary Israel.

The point is hardly the comparison, but that as South Africans we are better positioned than most to understand the layered nuances and emotions of institutionalised racism. And whilst Israel is a different place to South Africa, the similarity is in the naked intent of political power – to subjugate another people in the name of an ideological, ethnic agenda.

It is our empathy and understanding – as well as our practical experience of a hard fought for peace process – that we bring to the table as South Africans.

There is, of course, the fact that apartheid has gone on to enjoy a generic definition via the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court. The South African model no longer applies. Today apartheid is regarded as an inhumane act in the context of it being a crime against humanity.

The Rome Statutes are confined to violations of international law committed after 2002. And so for the purpose here, without venturing into the complexities of Middle Eastern history, I’ll confine myself to a small sample of what I’ve witnessed since 2002 – things that I would consider worth examination by those who argue so passionately that Israel is not guilty of apartheid.

But, to a brief comparison: when I first landed in Tel Aviv in 1997, fresh from years of covering the anti-apartheid struggle and the TRC, I was shocked.

For a brief moment Israel was like a post-traumatic stress flashback to South Africa. Communities surrounded by guns, pimply teenage conscripts with power beyond their wisdom, prickly attitudes – and the mind-numbing bureaucracy – reminded me of home in the 1980’s.

However, there was a vital difference to South African apartheid. This was a point repeated to me to me by Ribbon Mosholi, International Relations Manager for the ANC, who visited Palestine late last year.

She was initaially shocked too, saying she had never thought she would come across another system like South Africa. During South African apartheid people had been banned and put under house arrest. In Palestine people were not banned, but a whole nation.

And that is the most critical divergence between South African and Israeli apartheid. Rather than confining those of other races into group areas, Israeli apartheid has essentially focused on denying the existence of a people.

To put it bluntly, it’s Erez Israel – a greater racially defined Israel – or bust. Israeli political scientist, Professor Ilan Pappe, has gone so far as to call Zionism a policy of Palestinian “ethnic cleansing”.

That is why Gaza is such a huge issue. If confining a population the size of Mitchell’s Plain (or Soweto) into an area equivalent to the Cape Point Nature Reserve, and then completely sealing it off to starve, is not a form of institutionalised racism, then what is?

The pro-Israeli lobby also has to ask itself questions about operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. I was shown pictures in a medical report of flechettes (limb-cutting devices) found in explosives that had killed and maimed civilians.

What about the phosphorous bomb, banned by international convention, which landed in the courtyard of a Gaza school? I’m in no way justifying Israeli civilians being targeted, but asymmetric response with internationally sanctioned weaponry is obscenely beyond the law.

What needs to be answered too are the concerns of municipal officials I spoke to from Nablus and Gaza about over a million people having their water periodically cut off during the summer months; this done against the background of Palestinian West Bankers not being allowed to dig wells.

They wanted to know why the illegal settlements, which consist of about 40% of the current West Bank population, used 80% of Palestinian water resources.

Then there has to be investigation into the “unrecognised” towns and villages deliberately denied water, electricity and municipal status. There are plenty of these in the Galilee and Negev regions if anybody wants to look for them.

People such as the esteemed Judge Richard Goldstone have argued that Israel is not an apartheid state. And yes, there may not be “Jews only” signs on Haifa’s park benches, but what about Palestinians who have to travel on separate roads to settlers, and West Bankers (carrying ID documents not dissimilar to the dompas) who cannot enter Jerusalem?

After 2002 I saw the construction of the West Bank Wall, or “Apartheid Wall”, which has completely destroyed the fabric of Palestinian life.

Five metres higher than the old Berlin Wall, the “Apartheid Wall” was declared an unlawful construction by the International Court of Justice in 2004, and has stripped away swathes of Palestinian territory. I defy anyone to argue that the West Bank Wall is not an instrument of forceful racial separation.

At the end of the day, the issue is not whether the Russell Tribunal enjoys executive powers or not. The issue is that the Russell Tribunal is an opportunity for civil society to see things in Israel for what they really are without the camp Zion-isms, the political absolutisms and the crude distortions that currently bedevil its fretful landscape.