By Nicola Miltz — Originally published in SA Jewish Report
Freedom Park in Pretoria received a bomb threat on Wednesday afternoon, around the time the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) were meant to be holding a mass Christian prayer rally in support of Israel.
However, at the last minute the government-owned and run Freedom Park management cancelled the event and refused to allow the highly publicised rally at their venue because it was a pro-Israel event.
SAFI was left scrambling to make alternative plans so the mass rally, arranged weeks ago, could take place as planned.
“Someone obviously did not get the memo on the venue change,” says Mark Hyman, SAFI co-chairperson. “I don’t know who called in the threat, or if we knew anything about this. It was news to us. The reality is that Freedom Park did refuse us the venue.”
He added: “Given what’s going on in South Africa with the mosque attacks, any threat against a religious or state facility is totally unacceptable and is taken seriously.”
Freedom Park events co-ordinator Pamela Singh confirmed the bomb scare on Wednesday afternoon, saying that staff had been evacuated and some of them were left traumatised.
Freedom Park CEO Jane Mufamadi told IOL news that they had received calls from a person who said they had planted several bombs inside the premises.
“We cannot take chances with people’s lives,” Mufamadi said. “When we get a bomb scare, we react. We can’t just take it lightly.”
Following Freedom Park’s refusal to host the rally – after initially granting permission and accepting a deposit – SAFI called an urgent press conference on Monday.
The emailed retraction from Freedom Park’s management was received a week before the scheduled event. In it, event co-ordinator Singh wrote that the venue was “an agency of government, and government has taken a formal decision regarding Israel, hence we have to abide by government’s decision”.
Freedom Park, the 52-hectare park overlooking Pretoria, was originally established as the South African government’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to honour those who sacrificed their lives to win freedom. Its website describes it as a place that “celebrates the ideals of liberty, diversity and human rights… and celebrates and explores the country’s diverse peoples, and our common humanity”.
SAFI is currently considering its legal options in light of Freedom Park’s refusal to host the prayer gathering in solidarity with Israel, said SAFI board member Benji Shulman. “The reasons stated for this about-face are questionable, and point to political meddling and interference in the management of a national monument and public facility,” he said.
In a statement this week, SAFI said that Freedom Park was not only directly contradicting its own mandate but also the provisions of our Constitution. “This amounts to a political assault on Christian rights in South Africa,” the statement said.
Shulman said the interfaith prayer event was intended to be a peaceful and civil event, supported by various Christian and other faith groups to pray and pledge solidarity to Israel – it was not a political gathering.
Freedom Park management told the SA Jewish Report this week that in light of the fact that SAFI was considering legal options, it would not comment on its reasons for cancelling the event. Public relations officer Naomi Madima said: “Freedom Park received a formal notice through their [SAFI’s] attorneys of record, Werksmans Incorporated, that they are preparing court papers for an urgent court application. We deem it proper that we allow the court process to follow a natural course so that we give the process the respect it deserves. To this end, we will address substantive matters at the appropriate time and forum.”
However, management told SAFI that it reserved the right to refuse an event which “contradicts its fundamental principles of nation-building, social cohesion, reconciliation and environmental integrity”.
According to SAFI’s co-chairman, Ben Swartz, the decision to cancel the rally is “unconstitutional, irrational and arbitrary”.
Terence Corrigan, project manager at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said: “It seems thoroughly bizarre to me that a forum supposedly existing to enhance and extend the ideals of liberty, diversity and human rights seems to regard it as appropriate to abridge their exercise.”
He added that Freedom Park management’s refusal seems to indicate that it cannot allow a pro-Israel event because of a decision taken by the government. “It seems to me that a central part of freedom is precisely the right to oppose decisions of government. Take this away and you’ve gutted the very idea of democracy.
“The situation in Israel and Palestine is one that evokes great passions around the world. It is surely the essence of democratic diversity that these be aired. Personally, I find it difficult to attribute the refusal of Freedom Park to make its facilities available to supporters of Israel to much beyond political preference.”
Meanwhile, at the urgent press conference held on Monday, several Christian representatives said they would consider changing their vote if the government was not prepared to listen to them.
Masindi Mmbengwa, leader of the Unity Fellowship Church, said: “Christians are prepared for continuous mass action and will pray until the government collapses. “They [politicians] all flock to our churches when they want our vote. Now they want to terminate our livelihood – Israel is our livelihood.”
He said those who were against Israel had been “captured” by an alternative agenda, adding that South Africa must not terminate relations with Israel: “Not in our name. As proud Christians, we say enough is enough.”
He described the South African government’s negative stance towards Israel as “a demon-possessed mentality”.
An impassioned Apostle Linda Gobodo said proudly: “We are friends of Israel, we support Israel. We are against the downgrading of the embassy, which will negatively impact the lives of all South African Christians.”
She said the sooner Christians put pressure on the South African government, the better.