Ag in Africa

28 July, 2007

Play time at the Constitutional Court

Filed under: johannesburg, Peace, south africa — Ag @ 5:06 pm

One of the unexpected things about my being here is that it gives me some deep insights into the stupid way some things are done back home. In development circles this is called ‘reverse development’. This is where the first world recognises that just maybe it has something to learn from developing countries. This draws a blank expression from most Westerners I’ve met. An expression that says, ‘What can we possibly learn from these natives?’ Most days I find something that UK society could usefully learn from SA. Today, I learned that justice must be seen to be inclusive, open and participatory. I can imagine some bland politician espousing just my point, but today I got proof that this isn’t just a collection of on-message words; this nation is actively pursuing that ideal.

I went on a tour of Constitution Hill. Constitution Hill was originally a horrendous prison in the middle of Joburg, which did unspeakable things to many political and common criminals in SA, including Ghandi. It closed in 1983. Over the past 10 or so years, the new constitutional court has been built on the site of the prison, and many of the old prison buildings have been incorporated into it.

So it was grim beyond belief to tour around the old prison. But then, the bit which I found almost shocking, you get to wander into the newly built Constitutional Court. In you go, through the doors, and there it is – the highest court in the land. And you just wander in and round the court. I went up to where the 11 constitutional judges sit and swung around on their swivel seats – the guide didn’t bat an eyelid. It’s a light and airy place, with low windows so that people can look in at the proceedings from outside. No pomp. No wigs. No nervy security guys. No class bollocks. The court wishes to be a place of the people. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine being allowed to frolic around our High Court at home. Apart from the fact that I may of course be a dreaded terrorist, everybody would be worried that some 300 year old artifact might break (like maybe one of the judges). Heritage feels like a burden. Here’s a picture of the court and of my sitting in the judge’s chair.

The Constitutional Court

Me as constitutional court judge

The foyer is called ‘Justice Under the Tree’. It emulates the tradition of people meeting under a tree to solve their disputes. There are pillars rising up to mimic shoots, the chandeliers are made like branches with leaves, and there are huge windows and lots of light to make the space open, like it would be under a tree. Here’s a pic:

Justice Under the Tree

Having frolicked in that court, it seems so obvious that the citizens of a country should be allowed and encouraged to wander in, run up and down the steps and swivel on the chairs. A court belongs to its people, and that court was so much richer for its humanity. And I won’t indulge that stoooopid terrorist argument. Anyone who doesn’t realize that the terrorist card is just a means of mass control needs to go on an urgent voyage of life-discovery or otherwise lead a life imprisoned by false fears. One of my favourite tit-bits: ‘A life lived in fear is a life lived by half.’


8 July, 2007

A luta continua

Filed under: south africa — Ag @ 10:42 pm

I’ve just recently got back from the Grahamstown Festival. It’s the largest arts festival in southern Africa, apparently. Although I was working, I managed to see quite a few “shows” – some fantastic contemporary dance, lots of plays, some jazz and hip hop, and lots of art.

But forgetting all that stuff, for me it was the like a crash course in 1) how white and black South Africans interact and 2) the huge gap between rich and poor here. First I found myself hopping around in a running conflict within a specific group of people. There was this whole thing where the White Authority was treating the black folk like kids, and the black guys acted like kids. I know this seems like a grotesque and neat exercise in stereotyping, but I was there, and it was exactly like that. The black guys complained they were being treated like kids, to which the White Authority reacted, ‘Well, you act like kids.’ And they were both right. And, I don’t know, I can only make my own sense of it, but I think that it was a manifestation of everything they were indoctrinated with in their early life. The black guys were rebelling against the White Authority. Unfortunately, the black guys were the main losers as their rebellions were stopping them from benefiting from being at the Festival. It was teenagerish. The White Authority meanwhile tried to dictate to the guys what they should do, where they should go and what they should want, without trying to understand how they were feeling.

This was expressed in patronising language and weird parenting-type behaviour, which was ridiculous as the black guys are all adults. The White Authority got increasingly frustrated at the rebellion. It was a vicious circle of behaviour. Inevitably of course, the shit eventually hit the fan and there were tears at bedtime with all sorts of culturally-different toys being thrown out of the pram. I realise that I have a cold streak because while I was trying to mediate (with some surprising success – I never thought of myself as having any tact or negotiating skills, but turns out I do have a modicum) I was also almost relieved to experience this manifestation of shite apartheid indoctrination. I can sense it everywhere here, but I’ve rarely experienced it being played out.

Kids at the Grahamstown Festival

Grahamstown is in the Eastern Cape province, one of the poorest provinces in SA. And you can’t miss the poverty. Gangs of very young kids wandering around trying to make a few bucks during the one week festival, mostly by covering themselves in white powder and acting like statues – kind of gruesome. Street kids, wearing worn-out, thin clothes that don’t keep them warm in the middle of winter (as it is now). So many of them. Then I went to a restaurant one night. Quite fancy with someone tinkling on the piano. Everyone in the restaurant was white and oh-so-well-heeled. All happy and enjoying the art binge. And outside the door were little skinny cold kids asking for a Rand. Inside I felt like I was in a scene pre-French Revolution, with the masses looking in at the obliviously rich. As Desmond Tutu said last week, it’s surprising that there isn’t a revolution here. This immoral and inhumane divide between the rich elite and the poor masses will surely not be tolerated indefinitely. It pisses me off so much I’ll happily wrench open the till in that restaurant come the day.

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