Ag in Africa

17 August, 2007

Ag out of africa

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg, south africa — Ag @ 7:32 pm

So this is the last post on this blog. I’m going back to the UK next week. I’ve spent 11 months here in Johannesburg. I’m all done and satisfied. Here are some photos of the excellent people I’ve been with and this beautiful-ugly city – the most exciting city I’ve ever spent time in.


I love Jozi









13 August, 2007

Stuff I’m taking home

Filed under: Development worker, south africa — Ag @ 10:07 pm

I’m going home soon. Back to Bristol, UK. I’ve learned more in eleven months than I can process. Also, I can only see the facade of what I’ve learned. I guess my head will wander through the experiences I’ve had when I’m back on my sofa in my little house on forthcoming long Autumn nights. But these are some of the things I’ve learned in just the last three weeks:

– the value of having respectful, informal ways of addressing people. There are scores of respectful terms that people use when they address each other, like Ma, Aussi, Sissi, Aunty, Chief, Baba, Bra, Ma’am, Sir, etc. You use these words in front of someone’s name or instead of their name. The purpose of using these words is to show respect to a person, whether they are strangers or family-familiar. I really like the fact that I can lean over the counter in a café and call ‘Sorry, Sissi’ when I want to get the waitress’ attention. (Because I’ve been waiting 20 minutes for coffee and when it finally came it was tea – surprisingly regular occurrence!). By speaking in that way I show respect for that waitress. In the UK, I would just call ‘Excuse me’ with no simple way of addressing that particular person. The lack of an appropriate word to address that person seems to enforce the sense that we are strangers, that there is no connection between us.
– dancing and singing is not only for the talented, attention-seeking, eccentric, drunk or shameless. Here it happens everywhere. This suits me fine as I dance when I hear music I love. Here, when I jig around in my car while waiting at traffic lights, the guy in the car next to me will smile and maybe jig a bit too. At home, the guy in the car next to me would pretend it just wasn’t happening.
– jazz does not have to be a class issue, as I had always previously suspected.
– living under almost non-stop sunshine is a liberation – temperate climates are overrated.
– living in a house with lots of other people can be a wonderful and loving experience, instead of a source of annoyance.
– English people are ace fun.
– cockney accents are very sexy.
– Quakers are incredible people. The list of “active witness” activities they are involved in, in Southern Africa, greatly outnumbers their headcount. This year has made me feel privileged to feel like a Beginner Quaker, with all its radicalism, love and active commitment.
– I have more in common with European people than I ever dreamed.
– kids do not have to have hundreds of toys. Two or three is plenty. In fact, kids are not a species apart. They don’t need special-over-educational-attention. They don’t need loads of paraphenalia. Amazingly, I’ve found out that kids can be quite nice things, when they’re not over-indulged, when they’ve not learned that whining can be productive.
– chihuahuas are also ace. Can’t wait til I get old and I can attach one to my arm.

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.

3 June, 2007


Filed under: johannesburg, south africa — Ag @ 5:19 pm

South Africa is in the middle of an ‘indefinite’ strike by public sector workers. Workers are striking for an increase in pay of more than 10% – they’ve been offered 6%. Inflation is running at 6%. On Friday there was a huge march through the centre of Joburg. They passed right by the building I work in, so I stood outside and watched the march pass by.

It was very different from my experience of UK marches. First off, it was incredibly well organised. Each union from each area had their own space and there was a gap between each group. It makes sense that South Africans know how to organise a good march – they’ve had enough experience. Secondly, nearly everyone was dressed similarly – red t-shirts and caps.

Thirdly, my god, they can sing a good song. Everyone was singing the same songs, with harmonies an’ all, and dancing in a beautiful united rythm. Swaying and bending low and fists-up-to-the-sky, right then left, then round again and again and again. Thousands of them. It was a Movement, in both the political and choreographical sense. Like all true manifestations of democracy, it was awesome and irresistible.

18 March, 2007

Celebrating SA’s reduction in crime

Filed under: south africa — Ag @ 9:48 pm


Zapiro is a spot-on comic stripper in the Sunday Independent in South Africa. SA’s government is keen to stress that violent crime is reducing here. Which would be ace if it wasn’t comparable to melting the tip off an iceberg with a Bunsen Burner.

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.

5 South African Police Service crime stats:

8 February, 2007

Walking as a priviledge

Filed under: south africa — Ag @ 7:25 pm

On Saturday I went for a long walk in Magaliesberg. Magaliesberg is a low mountain range North-West of Joburg. Lots of people from Joburg decant decamp there at the weekends. It’s quite nice. I know that sounds really lame. There are many disadvantages of coming from North Devon. A double-sided one is that North Devon is stupidly beautiful and, well, I can’t help comparing.

One of the things about Joburg is that it isn’t set up for walking. At home in Bristol I walk to work, I work to the shop, to the pub, to the fields, into town, home from the club, wherever. Joburg looks and feels unnervingly like LA. Like LA, it’s set up for cars. The car is king. And queen. The bus system is sparse, trains are slower than busses, bikes are only for the suicidal, legs are only for operating cars. And I really REALLY miss walking. (I’m going to get fat.) Yes, I can walk around my suburb, but pointless walking is, well, pointless. And, on top of that, most people tell you it’s dangerous to walk around anyway (they’re wrong), and I do get some weird looks when I’m walking around sometimes. Twats.

So on Saturday, when I went for a walk from the Gauteng flats up to the top of the Magaliesberg mountain range I felt like I’d been let out of prison. I’d forgotten how walking quite a long way, quite fast, makes some excellent-and-free drugs pump around your brain. By the end of the walk we were cracking jokes and giggling like kids. It was fantastic and exciting.

As we were walking I kept stopping to look at (and photograph) my feet on the natural ground. The contact felt similar to that gorgeous feeling of a cold, overpriced vodka-and-lemonade on a Friday after work (something they don’t do here). Here’s what it looked like. As it’s Thursday, I guess you’ll have to wait til tomorrow to taste what it felt like.

My feet on real soil

My feet on rock

View over Gauteng from the top of the Magaliesberg range
View over Gauteng from the top of the Magaliesberg range.

View of the Magaliesberg mountain range from below
View of the Magaliesberg mountain range from below. The corrugated iron thing on the right is the most stylish outside public toilet I’ve ever seen.

28 January, 2007

Animals, inevitably

Filed under: south africa — Ag @ 6:25 pm

Being surrounded by huge game reserves, it was only a matter of time before I blogged the inevitable safari photos. The ones where there’s a dot on the horizon with the excitable caption, ‘African elephant’.

Just 35 minutes north of my house (just 35 mins!) is a reserve with lots of big animals. I’ve never been particularly excited about big animals and stuff, but having seen a few close up, I’m much more excited. Having said that, my favourite animal by far was Mr Warthog, who’s actually quite little. What a fine fellow he is. He pulls off being prehistoric and cuddly, which I think is commendable. He’s also relatively friendly, so we could get within 4 metres of him, but he wasn’t up for having his tummy tickled.



Hartmann zebra
This is a Hartmann zebra

Roan antelope
Roan antelope

Um, lions.

Ostrich. A very amusing chap.

3 January, 2007

My take on why HIV is so prevalent in South Africa

Filed under: AIDS, Development worker, johannesburg, south africa — Ag @ 1:47 pm

While I’m here, I have to write 3 “letters” for the Quakers, who have very kindly given me this opportunity and who pay my wages. The first “letter” has been published. It’s about why HIV infection rates are increasing in South Africa while they are falling in other parts of Africa. You can read it online at

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