Ag in Africa

9 November, 2009

Godfrey Motsepe’s evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 15 August 1996

Filed under: Peace — Tags: — Ag @ 6:38 pm

Manase’s late father, Godfrey Motsepe, gave testimony to the TRC about several attempts to assassinate him while he was working on behalf of the ANC in Brussels in the mid-late 1980s. I found his testimony moving and shocking. Moving, in that Mr Motsepe showed such dignity and compassion. Shocking, in that the Belgian authorities did little or nothing to protect his security and may even have colluded with the Apartheid security forces. It’s a very short and readable account. Godfrey Motsepe’s testimony to the TRC.

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.’

26 February, 2007

Fear and Loathing in South Africa

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, Peace, south africa — Ag @ 9:57 pm

(This post is best read whilst listening to ‘In the Ghetto’ by Candi Statton ((or Elvis if you must)). It gives the right context.)

I know that the most recent posts below have been light-and-fluffy. However, last weekend was a bored-and-lonely weekend. Before I came here, I scheduled several of these into my year, but have been fortunate enough to miss most of them. The (only) good thing about a bored-and-lonely weekend is that it gives me time to think and write.

I’ve wanted to have a stab at crime in SA for a long time, so this is going to be a long-and-serious post. In SA, any discussion about crime is a discussion about violence. This is a violent society. A couple of weeks ago I did a training course on facilitating workshops in women’s prisons. As well as hearing some first-hand nauseating stories of life in the slammer, I was told two interesting things about crime:

1. People who commit crimes – don’t we all? – ok, proper crimes, usually have common risk factors. These include: being victims of abuse, poverty, family breakdown, lack of economic opportunities (ie, decent jobs), low self-esteem, lack of education, isolation, etc … well, it doesn’t take a bleedin’ genius to work that out. One surprising factor is that coming from a highly patriarchal society (ie, where men are men and don’t do the dusting) is another indicator. South Africa has all of these risk factors in abundance.

2. Whereas yer average female crim in the UK or USA is most likely to be in prison for an economic (eg, non-violent theft, fraud) or narcotics related crime, yer average female crim in SA is likely to be in prison for a violent crime. Given that women are significantly less violent than men, this gives an indicator of how violent SA is.

The BBC has reported that South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world – only Iraq and Colombia are more dangerous. (It would be wonderfully satisfying to blame the USA for all three, but South Africa has to sit on our British / Dutch consciences.) But the really weird thing about crime here is that people seem to be almost wedded to it, like a bad marriage; like the British seem to revel in crap weather. It’s not good, no-one likes it, but there’s something almost definitively-nationally-symbolic about it. Just like I can talk to my neighbour over the fence back home about the weather, I can always get small-talk over the electrified-razor-wire here about crime.

So, after that lengthy introduction, here’s my take on why crime is a national past-time: apartheid, Fear and wealth disparity. You can stop reading here if you’re not interested in the arguments.

Firstly, sorry, but I’ll shoot myself next time someone tells me that this is the New South Africa – democracy and all that. For me, apartheid is a major element when looking at causes of crime. The system that institutionally made the vast majority (85%) of the population believe they just weren’t good enough. It engendered distrust. It’s still in the infrastructure, and in the psyche of the nation. There’s still very little voluntary interaction between differently coloured people. Recent stats from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation suggest that informal interaction between South Africans of different colours is actually reducing(1). (Damn, I’ve resorted to attributing. I don’t like the coldness of the academic approach, as if this is all about intellectual argument and not about humanity, love and speaking-my-truth. I seem to be stuck between academia and Quakerism. A sop and a vague place.) Yes, this is a resurgent nation – incredible economic growth, the most radical and liberal constitution in the world. Fantastic and exciting. But black people are still relatively poor (often very poor) and live mostly in townships. White people are still rich and live in the best bits of town. Here’s a quote from the Institute for Security Studies(2):

“Culture of violence

Some explanations for the high rate of violent crime refer to South Africa’s political history, suggesting that families suffered from ‘institutional violence’ for decades through the disruption of their lives by mass removals and migrant labour policies of apartheid. Political violence compounded this disruption of family life. The resultant weakening of the family unit and thus parental control over children may prompt criminal behaviour among the youth.

Moreover, while the liberation movements’ strategy of ungovernability was theoretically directed against the apartheid state, it had other destructive effects. In the process of destabilising black local government, leading violent campaigns against black policemen, and urging a people’s war which involved the youth in particular, massive violence was unleashed in black communities which bred a culture of violent lawlessness and a distrust of authority[…] Since 1994, little has been done to reverse these tendencies and to draw young South Africans in particular back into a society governed by the rule of law.

‘Culture of violence’ theories similarly argue that the effects of apartheid coupled with years of political violence and the continued exposure to violence in the home and in the neighbourhood have produced a destructive culture which manifests itself in what the Nedcor Project on Crime, Violence and Investment called ‘murderous intolerance’[…] It also means that South Africans quickly resort to violence as a means of solving conflicts — whether in the domestic, social or work environment.”

Fear was a very effective instrument of apartheid. (I’m continually surprised at how effective apartheid was. It wasn’t just in the infrastructure of the country, it was very effectively bred in the national psychology. If only they’d spent their energies on something constructive…) There’s a perception that this intense Fear is a recent phenomenon. However, I’ve recently read, “Cry, the Beloved Country” and it’s clear that white people accepted as early as the 1940s that Fear was the price they had to pay for their extreme wealth. The importance of Fear in feeding crime can’t be underestimated in my opinion. The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation explains this much better than I can(3):

“The impact of South Africa’s high crime levels and the brutal nature thereof goes beyond the material loss or physical scars of victims. The fact that virtually everybody knows somebody that has had a harrowing experience, creates the fear of being next in line, and consequently also an inherent cautiousness towards interaction with fellow human beings. Given our historical division and the fact that the unknown is often the biggest source of fear, distrust frequently manifests itself in the way that we perceive racial groups other than our own. This is an impediment to the openness that is required for the meaningful engagement that is required in a divided society such as ours. An IJR manual entitled Learning to Live Together, elaborates on this point and identifies at least five ways in which crime can obstruct national reconciliation efforts. According to the manual, it “undermines public trust in nation-building; it creates more victims and more trauma; it reinforces apartheid segregation and socio-economic inequality; it entrenches racial prejudice and it undermines social stability and tolerance”. Simpson elaborates on this and suggests that violent crime in South Africa has become a “new vehicle for re-racialising and physically and emotionally re-dividing the ‘new’ South Africa”.”

An example of how Fear perpetuates violence is in civilian gun-ownership, which is very popular in SA. There are approximately 4 million legally owned guns, and a similar number of illegal guns is estimated. The theory is that people keep guns in order to protect themselves and their households, as a response to their Fear. However, huge numbers (thousands) of guns go missing every year, and many of these are subsequently used in illegal, violent crimes. Also, legal and illegal South African guns are frequently used in fatal domestic violence (yes, innocent women and kids), and householders are more likely to have their guns turned against them during a break-in than use them in self-defence.

So, it’s a very very vicious circle: Fear perpetuates Violence perpetuates Fear. It’s been quite difficult not to get caught up in the Fear thing as people incessantly insist that I shouldn’t walk outside the gate of my house after dark; I shouldn’t drive into central Joburg. Doing so at night is asking for trouble. I shouldn’t drive into the townships at all unless I know exactly where I’m going. These warnings are given by both black and white South Africans. I have seen English people who are out here get caught up in this Fear, within just a few days of being here, and let it restrict them, even though they, like me, have not experienced a single incident. If we get sucked into it, we will contribute to it, and I came here to contribute in a positive way to this society, not to entrench mistrust.

As well as apartheid and Fear, the other factor that I believe is fundamental to explaining violent crime in SA is the huge disparity between rich and poor. Measured since 2000, just Bolivia, Haiti, Colombia and Brazil have wider gaps between the rich and poor. Only a very rich person with a stubbornly dormant conscience would argue that it’s a coincidence that most (all? I don’t know much about Bolivia) of these are violent societies.

For many South Africans, their chances of moving out of poverty are made virtually impossible by the high unemployment rate (around 28%) and the crap education they received under apartheid – while 65% of whites have a high-school or higher qualification, the figure for black people is only 14%. It’s still the case that only around 40% of schools are “fee-free”.(4)

The irony about the current high-profile of violent crime in South Africa is that the biggest noise seems to be coming from the white communities. But the white communities are by far the safest areas to live. Looking at South African Police Service stats (5), murders in nice white areas of Joburg (Linden – where I live, Parkview, Rosebank) ranged from 2 to 11 last year. Whereas, if you take even a fancy part of Soweto like Diepkloof, you find that there were 38 murders last year. Gauteng (the province which includes Joburg, Pretoria and Soweto) clocked up a total of 3,434. There’s some interesting writing about perceptions of crime in SA on the excellent Gautango blog, which is written by a couple of Americans who are currently living in Joburg.

There are other factors that are massively important, but I don’t want to make this post any longer than it already is. Briefly the ones that I would like to have said more about are

  • South Africa is a magnet for immigration from all over Africa.
  • the particular apartheid process of separating black men from their families in order to get them to work in industry and the long term consequences of this.
  • dissatisfaction with the slow rate of wealth redistribution.
  • domestic violence is rampant.
  • the police are not effective enough, particularly in the most vulnerable areas where they are most needed.
  • the prison service is only spending approx R110 on each prisoner a day, which doesn’t bode well for rehabilitation.
  • SA has a culture where a violent response to conflict is not considered unacceptable.

1. http://www.ijr.org.za/politicalanalysis/reconcbar/copy_of_sixthroundreportfinal/view
2 http://www.iss.co.za/Pubs/Papers/49/Paper49.html
3 http://www.ijr.org.za/politicalanalysis/reconcbar/copy_of_sixthroundreportfinal/view
4 http://www.southafrica.info/ess_info/sa_glance/education/education.htm
5 South African Police Service crime stats: http://www.saps.gov.za/statistics/reports/crimestats/2006/crime_stats.htm

23 October, 2006

More guns than giggles

Filed under: Guns, johannesburg, Peace — Ag @ 11:03 pm

The idea of this blog was to mix the funny and less funny stuff up. Sorry but giggles have been a bit thin on the ground recently, so here’s another shocker.

Tonight I went to a screening of a film called American Gun (with free food and wine and all nice stuff like that). The screening was organised by an NGO called Gun Free South Africa – you do have to admire the ambition. The film was ok, but more potent was one of the people who spoke briefly before the film. She was blond, slim, say 40ish, middle class looking – you wouldn’t remark on her in a Joburg shopping mall. She told, very briefly, in just maybe two minutes, how she had lost three members of her family to guns. All of the circumstances were innocuous, but the one I remember best was her son. He was out in one of the beauty areas around Joburg with a friend. They went out messing around in the countryside, so his friend’s father gave them his gun “in case”. (I guess it’s worth remembering this is Africa, not Wiltshire, and I suppose it’s possible you could happen upon a dangerous beast.) Being teenage boys, they messed around with the gun, and her son accidentally got shot and killed. She made a point of how tiny the bullet was, and I could envisage holding this tiny little metal tube-shaped-thing between my finger and thumb and marvelling at how such a tiny thing could kill her child.

The thing about peace is that it’s such a simple and powerful concept. Or emotion or truism or Thing. And when I got it (which was only about 6 months ago) it was as strong and undeniable as my experience of love. It is everything, in the same way love is (maybe they’re the same thing), and it transcends all the arguments in global wars and domestic disputes. It works whether you’re religious or an atheist, and I say this as someone who’s a bit of both. And it works whether you’re a hippy or a cynic. Ditto.

Here I could add a nice line just to wrap it up in a well-written way. But I don’t want to because these things are unresolved.

—————-

P.S. Not sure what the blogging protocol is on fiddling with posts, but am I bovered? Ann has added a most excellent comment to this post, so please do read and then add your names to the global petition against guns at: http://www.controlarms.org/index.htm. I’m not entirely convinced such petitions are taken seriously, but, even if you’re as cynical as me, it’s worth doing cos there’s a fantastic doodling pad where you get to draw a picture of yourself with the cursor. Hours of fun.

P.P.S. Three gory gun stats from South Africa: 1) More people are killed by firearms than die in road accidents; 2) 10,854 people were murdered by firearms in 2000; 3) For people age over 15, firearms are the most common cause of death.

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