Ag in Africa

23 April, 2007

I love banging things with sticks

Filed under: zimbabwe — Ag @ 10:07 pm

Back home I love playing a repenique or surdo drum, with Bristol Samba. They’re both played with sticks. Here I thought that I would enjoy playing a djembe using my hands. But I don’t. I like hitting things with sticks. I like the feeling of sticks.

When I was in Zimbabwe I was lucky enough to play a marimba with a master marimba player. Actually 7 master marimba players. At the beginning of the ‘lesson’, they played us a ‘tune’. I was very excited until they said they were going to play Phil Bloody Collins, “Another Day in Hell Paradise”. Moans and groans from the UK contingent (all both of us). But it turns out that Phil’s a bleedin’ genius in the hands of a bunch of Zim marimba gods. It was sooo good, I almost rushed out and bought the original. Turns out they weren’t selling records – or anything else – locally. What a wonderful thing that music was. Beautiful harmonies. The bass marimba was so, um, deeply woody sounding, it was edibly good. I nearly requested “You can’t hurry love”.

So then I got my sticks with the soft bits on the end and was transported into a harmonious-woody-bouncy musical heaven. And I was ok at it too, for a beginner. You have no idea how stupidly happy I felt when the main man gave me a full African handshake and told me, ‘You’re good, girl.” He said I was good! It was the same as the moment when my most admired DJ once told me, with an eloquence that only a UK DJ could muster, ‘Um, yeah, nice mix’. At moments like those I worry that life can only go downhill thereafter.

Here, showing nothing informative at all, is a pic I really like of me playing the marimba, taken by Anna. My hands are the boney ones in the middle.

Marimbas. Photo taken by Anna.


21 April, 2007

Like the grass is greener, but more red

Filed under: Development worker, johannesburg — Ag @ 7:11 pm

(Please ignore my massive overuse of the word ‘mostly’. It’s because I’m a Quaker, mostly.)

I wrote the text below some months ago, but I wanted to ‘publish’ it because I don’t feel so much like that anymore. What I’ve started noticing is how quickly I’ve adapted to this place. Humans are remarkably adaptable. I’ve got used to not walking anywhere, not getting any exercise, the non-stop sunshine – oh, I love African sun – and I’ve even got used to living in an apartheid city. I don’t want to pretend to be an angel-of-conscience when I’m feeling more like a hedonist than an activist.

I’m still aware of all the stuff below, but it isn’t arousing such fierce passion in me any more. (Although I still hate that rich look and everybody is still drinking and driving.) I think this is partly because I’m having a great time here; because I have made lots of friends (though only one white South African friend, and I have to tread gently around her); because I love my job, which is where I do my passionate-cause-thing, and because I love the city. So I’m wondering if this is why there is little activism amongst the rich here – they’re just too happy to be unhappy? Don’t take me too seriously on this – it’s just a quick bit of throwaway-cod-philosophy before I spend an excellent night out on the town this Saturday night with my friends. I’m just too happy to be unhappy.

 “I’m on intimate terms with a particular fidgety-frustrated-red-coloured feeling. It’s the feeling that there’s an ace party happening somewhere and I am missing it. I’ve had this feeling most weekends since I was about 14. It’s like the ‘grass is greener’, but it’s more red than green. It’s unfounded because most parties are crap. The problem in Joburg is that it’s true. The social apartheid infrastructure is still largely in place, which means that mostly white (mostly rich) people live mostly in the northern suburbs, black South African live in townships, mostly. There’s a bit of mixing and mis-matching but mostly the status quo has been maintained. This is compounded by the poor public transport, which makes it difficult for people to go home to the townships late at night. The ‘taxis’ (private mini busses) which ferry people to and from town don’t tend to operate at night. Taxis, as you and I know them, are scarce and very expensive, even by UK standards. So a trip from town to Soweto might clock up £25. Busses are mostly mythical.

 One of the implications of this twisted-but-effective apartheid social engineering is that people drink and drive. Unless you can get a lift from a sober person, there’s no other way to get around. According to Drive Alive, 40 people die every day on South Africa’s roads.

 Another is that, as always, the ‘nice’ parts of the city (ie the northern suburbs) are bloody dull. Sooo dull I can’t tell you. They’re actually offensively dull. For example, in a posh area near my house, they’ve opened a shebeen. Shebeens were (and often still are) illegal drinking places, often in people’s homes, in townships and rural areas. There’s a so-called shebeen in Greenside which is actually a pastiche of a genuine shebeen. The truly laughable thing is that you have to reserve a table and it’s full of posh white people, drinking wine and looking unashamedly rich. (You know that look: blond bobs, lots of beige-safe-inoffensive-labelled-clothes-that-look-shite, slightly pudgy, jewellery, the awful smell of expensive perfume. That’s the women. The men are even worse. They’re so remarkably dull that I can’t even get a picture of them in my head. They’re blobs.) And you know what? Even though the suburbs are so dull, I’m still really pleased to go there sometimes. It would be the equivalent of going to a wine bar in Clifton (Bristol) full of Sophies and Ruperts because I couldn’t get to a half-decent pub in St Werburghs.”

25 March, 2007

Tales from different worlds 2 – the police

Filed under: Development worker, Guns, johannesburg — Ag @ 12:18 pm

I’m going away for a couple of weeks. First for a holiday, then to a Quaker farm in Zimbabwe. Wish me luck! In the meantime, here are three stories from personal experiences about the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Last week the NGO I work for ran a workshop to teach community activists how they can use the Firearms Control Act to make their areas safer. (The upshot is basically that the law allows for individuals to be declared ‘unfit’ or ‘incompetent’ to carry a gun. I’ve never met anyone who’s fit to carry a gun.) The area we were covering is called East Rand – it’s on the east side of Joburg. The East Rand suffered 712 murders last year. The workshop was held in Brakpan police station (28 murders last year).

Being a moderately law-abiding citizen (at least in the areas where it makes sense to be law abiding), I’m not very familiar with the insides of a police station – UK or any other.  So it was with some false-confidence that I strode into Brakpan police station. The nice lady behind the desk told me she didn’t know where the workshop was but there was a big room in another building where it might be. I said, “How do I get there?” She said, “Go round the back through the gates, through the first door on the left and then round a bit more.” So I stepped out onto the street, went round the back, wandered through some open gates with three prisoners lounging against them, alone, and into another building. No-one stopped me. I walked through the corridors, past police officers leaning against walls, past the open doors of little offices. Most of them were empty but occasionally there were people in there. They didn’t seem very busy. No-one asked me who I was or why I was there. At one point, the sounds of Neil Diamond filled a corridor, coming out of another office. Police officers were smoking in the corridors and offices, which is illegal in SA. There just didn’t seem to be any work happening. Police stations are supposed to feel safe – the safest place you can be, but Brakpan felt no safer than any other public place in SA. In fact, the building I work in, which is stuffed with little NGOs, feels much safer than Brakpan police station.

The police here have a poor reputation. Low morale, low pay, badly trained, etc etc. As the day went on, I got more glimpses into this. During the workshop, a scene developed in the carpark outside the windows of our room. Three kids had been nicked for theft. All the stuff was on display in the carpark. It would have been an unremarkable scene except that at one point one of the guys I work with looked out the window and said, “They’re kicking one of the kids.” Until then I’d been encouraging people to concentrate on what we were doing, but Needs Must, so I got my camera and waited for more violence. Thank god there wasn’t any more. But the treatment of these kids was fairly dire. All the assembled onlookers, about 15 of them, stood in the shade. But the kids were kept out in the hot hot sun all handcuffed to each other. One of the kids kept sitting down, he was crying and he didn’t seem well. Every time he sat on the floor the police men shouted at him to get up. Now I know I’m soft, but he was just a kid.

There was also the massive irony that we were teaching gun law, yet we could see that many policemen around us were not carrying their guns in a legal way. (For men, they must be carried in a holster. Ladies, feel free to pop yours in your handbag). Thembani and Vincent, the two amazing guys I work with are experts in this subject, and decided to raise the issue with the police chief. First the Big Cheese said that the police were using internal holsters, but it was clear that the guns were actually just tucked into their belts (it’s so incredibly easy to swipe a gun out of a belt – I could have done it loads of times that day). When T & V pushed the point a bit more the Big Cheese got pissed off and started talking in Afrikaans. Wanker. And the second irony is that SAPS loves our NGO, cos the police are so often the victims of gun violence.

So, I left Brakpan police station feeling disheartened. How is SA going to enforce gun law if the police can’t be arsed?

Second story: After a recent Quaker Meeting, a woman we’ll call Pam told us a horrific story. On Friday night, she and another Quaker had been driving home when they came upon a body in the road next to a car. (I’ve seen more revolting RTAs in Joburg in six months than I’ve seen in my life, so it’s not a huge shock that she came upon this scene.) There was no police or ambulance at the scene, so she drove to the nearest police station in Booysens (404 carjackings last year) to get help.

Her friend ran into the police station, then came out again 10 minutes later distressed. All of the on-duty policemen were round the back of the station having a party. Both women then went round and insisted that someone attended the accident, but the policemen told them to go away. Pam demanded to speak to the officer in charge and the Big Cheese came out of the station. She asked him to attend the accident, or send someone else to. He said he wouldn’t. She kept insisting until he said that he would charge Pam with the murder of the victim if she didn’t go away.

Unfortunately for him, Pam is an attorney, so promptly started taking down his name, rank, number, etc, at which point he hit her in the face. She is a feisty lady, so they ended up having a bit of a fight, and her clothes got ripped.

At that point she got in her car and drove to another police station (Parkview – 27 carjackings last year) where the officers were very helpful. Now an investigation has started and important people are phoning her, including the chief-police-type-person in the state of Gauteng (where Joburg is situated).

So there’s the awfulness of what happened to her, and the fact that she still doesn’t know when the original victim was attended to. Also shocking is that even when she went to the second police station, and even when the chief-police-person called her, they assumed that her car had hit the victim. Why else would a white lady come to the police station to report the crime? Civic duty / compassion / human instinct are apparently not plausible. But, for me, there’s the fact that some justice may be seen because of who she is, and the fact she has clout. For less distinguished people, there would be no such justice.

Third (nice) SAPS story. Two nights ago I was lying in my gorgeous bed, feeling gorgeous cool breeze as I fell asleep, then BANG BANG – POLICE, OPEN THE DOOR. Shit! My bedroom window is right over the door. This house has never been burgled. It’s the only house that anyone knows of in Joburg that’s never been broken into. I sneak a look out the window and I see men with long guns. Then I hear Monique, whose house this is, call out, “You are not police.” (It would never cross my privileged mind to question this.) And I’m thinking, “So the time has come…” Then I hear quieter words and, thank god (sort of) that it is indeed the police. I can’t hear what’s being said but the policemen start searching our garden with their huge guns. And there are loads of them – 11 apparently. So then they leave. Monique told me that the police thought that there might have been a break-in in progress because our front gate was open. Such is life in Joburg.

19 March, 2007

I love Lesotho

Filed under: Lesotho — Ag @ 10:39 pm

The highest country in the world, land-locked by South Africa. So beautiful. I’m profoundly thankful every time I’m lucky enough to be there.

Playing footie in Lesotho

Squeezable, Lesotho

Kids in Malealea, Lesotho

Malealea, Lesotho

Malealea's Chief, Lesotho

Anna and kids in Malealea, Lesotho

Lesotho, seen from the Drakensberg, South Africa

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:

22 February, 2007

One for the ladeeeez

Filed under: johannesburg, Soweto — Ag @ 9:57 pm

…especially Clarkie and V. Me and Gary hooked up to watch a theatre performance in a Soweto school yesterday. No-one recognised him. Or me ; )

Me and Gary

16 February, 2007

I miss the rain :( 

Filed under: johannesburg — Ag @ 10:20 pm

There’s not been a thunder storm in Joburg for weeks. I love the summer weather here. Sun all day then the thunder storms in late afternoon with fantastic lightning shows. From my bedroom window I can see down over the city and I can watch the storms flow from west to east. The storms are like nothing I’ve ever experienced. The sound of thunder can often be continuous, with a constant low rumble that breaks out into war-sounds every minute or so. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve timed it. But there have been no storms for weeks and I feel increasingly bereft. Here’s a fantastic photo by petervj of a storm over Joburg.

The hill on the left with a thing on top of it is Northcliff “mountain”. The alarming thing about this pic is that I live pretty much where the lightning is striking. Petervj has got loads of gorgeous pix of Joburg on Flickr. Kind of gritty and warm at the same time, which kind of sums up how I think of the city.

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.

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