the muiz

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

‘the answers’

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.” – George Lois

Who has all ‘the answers’? With New Year fast approaching, I have been looking back over the past year’s events – personal and worldwide – and thinking about the mess humanity is in, how we got here, what the year ahead holds in store for us (environmentally, socially and economically) …and of course where I fit into it all: how I could help in some way to improve the planet, or at least my little corner of it.

This is an ongoing ‘musing’, actually - and what most of my ‘blog’ posts are in some way attempting to discuss. But there is also a strong reflexive component to this ‘blog’ - so far unacknowledged, which I would like to briefly refer to and explain today (before continuing with the wider discussion). Basically, the very act of ‘blogging’ assumes a few things: that people would be interested in what I have to say; that I have something useful to say, or something unique to contribute to all that is being said and done in the world already; and that any of us/ all of us can actually change the course of humanity - ‘change the world’ (through our actions, or through our critique of the current status quo, including ‘blogging’).

Well, I do believe all three of those assumptions, or I wouldn’t bother (sharing my opinions, writing, researching or acting to change anything in the world). But my reasons for believing this may not be clear to all reading these ‘blogs’, and may even appear arrogant or naïve to many. I would hope that I don’t come across as if I think I have all ‘the answers’ – or even any idea what all the questions are… But I do have some thoughts around the process of finding these ‘answers’, and my research and reading has led me at least part of the way towards identifying where we often go astray when searching…

Firstly, I don’t write or share my opinions because of a belief in my own importance or ‘specialness’, nor a belief in the superior wisdom or insightfulness of what I have to say. In fact, thinking that only the wise or uniquely insightful have something worth saying and hearing would probably silence most of us – and who are these terribly ‘wise’ people we deem worthy of speaking into our lives anyway? The self-help ‘gurus’? The ‘intellectuals’? The pop psychologists? I distrust them all. As much as politicians. They are all selling something. Most are actually selling themselves: ‘brand’ Deepak Chopra/ Philip Pullman/ Rhonda Byrne... Erggg.

No. No. No. We all have ‘the answers’…and at the same time none of us do. What do I mean by that? Every single person has a unique voice, which is worth listening to because it’s another piece of the puzzle that makes up this nebulous group we call humanity. (You cannot say you love ‘humanity’ if you are not interested in individual human viewpoints…) Each person’s very existence is a ‘gift’ to the rest of us – if we can only learn to see and appreciate these many and varied ‘gifts’ – not only sharing the planet with us, but also enriching our lives by doing so. Every single person sees something we don’t, and is uniquely placed to change the world, or their particular corner of the world… Although each of us see only in part, or can only act in part, together we can see the whole picture, and accomplish everything - and not be overwhelmed!

So what I am saying is simply, don’t look to the ‘experts’ – look at your own experiences and what they have taught you, what your heart tells you… and draw from the experiences and perspectives of as many other people or fields of knowledge as possible… then you will start to see the full picture. What do we lose by listening only to the ‘experts’, the ‘elite’, the ‘educated’, the ‘wise’, or those in our ‘field’ of work or study? We lose the fullness of our humanity - the fullness of life, and community; we lose the depth and breadth of experience and learning that has been gathered already by the ‘elders’, the humble, the marginalised; we lose the fresh perspectives of the young or unindoctrinated; and we lose our own power – our belief in ourselves as able, as agents of change.

On our own, we may not understand it all, we may not have all ‘the answers’…but together, we can work it out. On our own, we may not have the resources needed…but together, we have more than enough. On our own, we may be powerless in the face of ‘the system’…but together, we can change the world.

When approaching peace or sustainability this is particularly true, as we need everyone to be involved and have a voice in discussing our preferred futures. If anyone is left out of the discussion, they will not only feel no ownership over the final outcomes – the less acknowledged fact is we will all have lost something in the process.

By this, of course, I do not mean that we should pander to every misguided, ignorant, selfish or bigoted opinion that is out there, sacrificing discernment and good values in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘political correctness’. But there is a delicate path to be walked here (and many people skilled and trained in walking it, e.g. mediators, community and spiritual leaders, conflict resolution practitioners and so on…) between community needs, community engagement, realistic expectations and goals, and creative conflict transformation.

Peace, and its Siamese twin, sustainability, are not destinations or ‘answers’ as such, but rather ways of being and doing - processes and principles to follow on a path to a preferred future. For this reason, creativity and imagination are more important in the early phases than a detailed plan or ‘answer’ to our problems - which can too easily become bogged down in the details, and too often relapses towards the ‘status quo’… All too soon we find ourselves in yet another straightjacket - the opportunity for deep and lasting change lost in the morass of budgets and bureaucracy…

I found a poem some years ago that says this best – speaking of the potential of poetry (or any creative thinking/ imagining of the future) to set us free to dream beyond what is, and so feel our way into what could be, following our hearts…

Making Peace
By Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’

But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.

A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.

A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses…

A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
Stanza by stanza into the world,
Each act of living
One of its words, each word
A vibration of light-facets
Of the forming crystal.

Also, within ‘sustainability’ as a burgeoning field of endeavour, there is a tendency to see only the social justice issues, or only the ecological systems that are under threat – whereas of course we need to place equal value and emphasis on the social AND environmental spheres. None of the issues can be resolved in a lasting and sustainable manner without the complete health and balance of the overall system, which is a human/ social AND natural/ ecological system. We function from within the natural world, and are a part of it – it is absurd to imagine we can separate ourselves from our surroundings – our selfish actions impact the natural world, and the natural world’s crises impact us. Simple.

So also with the artificial dichotomy between the humanities/ ‘arts’ and science/ engineering as the most likely fields to generate the much-debated ‘answers’ and solutions to the problems we face today – which is more relevant, more effective, more ‘useful’? Which ‘side’ of the divide should you study or invest your efforts in, to equip you or your country best, to face today’s challenges and priorities? Of course, it’s BOTH AND, not EITHER OR…

Engineers and other technical professionals may have unparalleled and much-needed skills in bridge-building and other infrastructure or technology required to ‘future proof’ our societies and neighbourhoods - but we also need a contingent of metaphorical ‘bridge-builders’ from the humanities side of the knowledge spectrum, to ‘future proof’ our social interactions, political processes, educational approaches and economic systems.

As to the core debate that rages within the humanities subjects themselves – do we focus on the ‘big picture’ - on changing structures and systems, or on individual ‘agency’ and empowerment? Well, of course we need BOTH, simultaneously – we need social change AND personal transformation… revelation (individual) and revolution (social), although peaceful and nonviolent of course!

We need action AND ideas, theories, concepts, discourse and critique…
We need collaboration, teamwork, a willingness to learn from others AND individual contributions, unique perspectives, and initiative
We need to sacrifice - our time, money, effort, our own plans and ideas AND we need to enjoy life, pleasure, people, our personal goals, dreams and hopes…

Furthermore, we need as many ‘generalists’ as we need ‘specialists’ – we need those who have understanding across a broad range of fields and issues, who can envision the path ahead… and then the ‘specialists’ or ‘experts’ can come along and fill in the actual steps along that path. Without vision and a ‘bird’s eye-view’ of what we are doing, there is so much wasted effort - overlapping areas of responsibility, discordant voices all competing for attention (and funding) and a continual reinventing of the wheel.

This is why we can only do it together – the rate and scale of change required, as well as the need to focus on multi-layered, micro and macro level approaches simultaneously, is difficult to enact, maintain or even fully appreciate, as one, limited human being.

Which brings me to the spiritual dimension of this train of thought, and a quick aside for my fellow Christians… For most Christians, ‘the answer’ is simple: God is the answer, and has all the answers… We should turn to God for guidance… “Trust the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5). Well, nothing I have written here is intended to dispute that elementary truth of the Christian faith.

But, my fellow Christians, God expects us to run things – we have been entrusted with stewardship of this planet and all on it… We have been designed, equipped and empowered to meet all these challenges, not to sit around waiting for ‘the answers’ to fall from the skies… In fact, God is eagerly anticipating us rising up to the challenges, using our power and giftings for good and for a better world… God wants to hear our ideas, and see our initiatives too…

What do you think “on earth as it is in heaven” means…? God’s will for this planet is love, forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, peace, justice, health, abundance, sharing, giving, community, joy, hope, harmony… and we are the ones tasked with bringing all of that about. So best we get busy – there is much to be done, and our hands, feet, brains, mouths have been given for the doing!

But my challenge to all my fellow humans, whether you consider yourself spiritual, intellectual, a pragmatist or otherwise, is: Why are we leaving it all to the politicians, the engineers, the lawyers, the bankers and economists? (and if you are one of these professionals, then why are you only considering these issues from within your own field of expertise?)

Yes, we still need all these worthy professions and roles to be fulfilled (well, maybe not the bankers and financial ‘experts’!?) – only with integrity, passion and vision!! But we also need the dreamers and visionaries, the artists and musicians, the poets and sculptors, the storytellers and historians, the peace builders and community workers, the teachers and mothers… and all those who can see how things could be different, better…

I will leave you with another poem, encountered a few years ago, which for me sums it all up quite well:

The End and the Beginning
By Wislawa Szymborska (translated from Polish by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh)

After every war someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick themselves up, after all.

Someone’s got to shove the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses can get by.

Someone’s got to trudge through sludge and ashes,
through sofa springs, the shards of glass, the bloody rags.

Someone’s got to lug the post to prop the wall,
someone’s got to glaze the window, set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt, the railroad stations too.
Shirt sleeves will be rolled to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand, still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding his unshattered head.

But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who’ll find all that a little boring?

From time to time someone still must dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew what this was all about
make way for those who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less
than nothing.

Someone’s got to lie there
in the grass that covers up the causes
and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gazing at clouds.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

domestic workers

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others" - Nelson Mandela.

Domestic workers are such an assumed part of life in South Africa, that my refusal to have one seems strange and even selfish to some people. After all, how else will the millions of uneducated, even illiterate, especially among the older generation of black women in this country, find employment? Being a domestic worker, or ‘maid’ as old school South Africans still call them, is a good job, highly desired…so they say.

But I have never felt comfortable with the idea. Firstly, I don’t see this as meaningful, rewarding or empowering employment – which is what we need more of in this country (and the world in general). But even putting aside this idealistic objection, the fact is that while people still have black women cleaning their houses, nothing has changed in this country. The domestic, social and economic spaces remain, as under apartheid, framed by unequal power structures, or what peace studies thinking would refer to as ‘structural violence’.

In other words, a more insidious form of violence, which is not limited to physical harm, but limits access to resources and opportunities to certain groups only – resulting in the poverty, disempowerment and oppression of minority groups, or women, or people of other religions or races. Sounds a lot like apartheid, you might think, and isn’t that over now? Well, no. A lot has changed in this beautiful but troubled country – but equal opportunities, equal access and a ‘level playing field’ as such, are probably still decades away.

So I feel that hiring someone to clean my house would automatically put me on the wrong team, on the exploitative side of the dividing line that unfortunately still exists between those of us who grew up with all the privileges – like good education, and a choice of careers - and those for whom there is simply no other choice than to accept a really crappy wage to clean houses… that is, if they want to put food on the table (usually for multiple extended family members they are supporting, as unemployment is so high).

Many stories could be written about the courageous perseverance of African women in supporting their families, usually without any support from the fathers of their children… Many fatherless generations have resulted from our political history, and the social breakdown that is now the key feature of life from the poverty-stricken informal settlements to the ‘emerging middle classes’ of the big city suburbs.

These all deserve a mention, although they are separate subjects deserving whole essays of their own (maybe later): the beautiful strength in black South African women, and how much they are capable of, how they keep going (with such beautiful smiles) despite being abused, taken for granted and still remaining mostly sidelined in the ‘new’ South Africa; the broken hearts that are at the core of our country’s many issues – because families and the very social fabric have been torn apart – as Mother Theresa said, ‘in the home begins the disruption of peace of the world’; and the damaged masculinity of the black South African male – which continues to hamper gender relations in this country, fuels the massive crime rate, and spawns the likes of Malema and other muppets, who appeal to the disempowered masses with their extreme rhetoric.

So that’s the background, the context within which this continued exploitation of black South African women is taking place. It should receive more attention – from social justice and gender activists, especially. The government, in its turn, should be discussing solutions and alternatives- finding creative ways to generate employment and investing in mature age education and skills training (for all)… Instead, the focus is on men, strutting around making grandiose statements about nationalising mines and farmland and so on…none of which would be beneficial to this country or its people (only to those in power).

On a more simple, pragmatic level, I also believe strongly in everyone cleaning their own toilets, making their own beds, washing their own dirty laundry- what makes any one person too ‘special’ or ‘important’ to do this? The only way to remain humble and ‘real’ is to ensure you never think you have ‘arrived’ and now ‘need’ someone else to do all your menial chores for you. This same attitude is evidenced in offices, when ‘important’ people, who have PAs, make them do everything for them- buy their muffins, make their tea…grow up, man- you should be doing these things yourself, still, no matter who you are. In this country they even employ people in the office for the sole purpose of making tea for everyone and washing the cups… What? When did people suddenly become too important to do that for themselves? This is colonialism, still, here, today – people are living and behaving like colonialists.

Anyway what about the example you then set for your children, who will grow up lazy, irresponsible and spoilt. I well remember encountering the products of these households on my travels in London- where young boys in their twenties had never had to clean up after themselves, and assumed others in the house would simply continue to fill the space in their lives where their mothers and maids had been. These are the same boys who later marry in order to have someone to cook and clean for them. No man, this is the twenty-first century – Mothers, stop raising your sons to be useless and to view women as ‘domestic workers’!

In answer to all those who ask ‘but what would the older, uneducated black women do if everyone stopped employing domestic workers', I have one simple response: it’s not just the older black women who are faced with no other choices, still today – I have met young girls in their twenties in this position, many with tertiary level education, but unable to find other work (due to lack of positions, or continuing discrimination?) - this surely proves we are still doing something wrong in this country!  

The more complex response would involve coming up with long-term alternatives and lobbying for them, or creating them ourselves along the way (those of us who are more privileged and well-resourced, as well as those in local communities whose social-entrepreneurial skills, compassion for their community, and ‘oomph’ make up for a lack of resources initially). While these changes are growing organically, and being lobbied and fought for, however, the least people could do is treat their domestic workers with massive doses of respect and compassion – becoming involved in their lives in much the way the modern day corporation is expected to meet its workers demands for a greater ‘work-life balance’ and run programs to cover their ‘corporate social responsibility’.

What would this look like at the level of an ordinary home and family?

Well, start with a liveable wage – what do taxis cost to and from your home, what does food cost, what do her children’s school fees, books or uniforms cost? Have you ever asked, or bothered to calculate how on earth she could be surviving on what is today considered such a generous improvement on the scandalous wages of earlier days?

What about sick pay and other benefits you take for granted in your place of employment? Why shouldn’t domestic workers be granted these very human needs as well? Do you actually think your work, is more ‘important’ than theirs? Stop and think how much you rely on these ladies- especially if they look after your children as well… Nothing is more important than that!

Now, are you starting to see this salary and the level of benefits and understanding regarding unforeseen life events (sickness, death in the family etc.) she receives from you in a slightly different light?

How about asking her about her children – how do they get to school or crèche each day, who picks them up, who looks after them until she gets home much later, who does their homework with them? Before we moved, we used to encounter a lady and her small child on our way to work each day, trying in vain to flag down the full taxis between Llandudno (where she worked) and Hout Bay (where her adorable little girl went to crèche). It’s a good 45 minute walk each way, if taxis aren’t stopping – so we stopped and gave her a lift the few times we saw her. Now where were her employers in all this? Why couldn’t the child be given a lift in one of their expensive cars, or even allowed to remain with her mother for parts of the day, or a few times a week? Did they even know or care that she had to struggle like this each day? Did they complain and threaten to ‘dock’ her pay if she was late after managing this saga each morning?

This lady and her child still haunt me. She represents many women, many children, many unnecessarily difficult and frustrating situations… so much disempowerment… and so much heartless disrespect.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

uncomfortable questions...

He was running next to our car as if his life depended on it – and maybe it did! I felt a whirlpool of emotions, ranging from sadness and pity to fear and anger: fearful that he would be hurt or run over by our car, or another; angry that my husband didn’t just stop (he couldn’t - we were crossing a busy city intersection!); sad that his situation (and that of many in this country) could be so desperate that he would do this just to sell one magazine!

It was Saturday, and we were on our way to a movie. We had stopped at a traffic light, and started to call over one of the ‘Big Issue’ magazine vendors that are always there, when the lights changed, and we had to move on. The man eagerly ran over to catch us before we passed, but just then I realised we only had a R50 – the magazine costs R18 (of which half goes to the vendor) and we often just give a R20 as there is very little time to scramble for change…but R50?

While I continued to scrounge through the wallet for something else, he kept saying eagerly, “take it, take it, R10” – but I didn’t have that either. And I didn’t have a chance to explain this to him, or my husband, when suddenly we were crossing the intersection, with the man running alongside my open window, the magazine being offered partly through the window between us, and my head and heart in absolute turmoil.

The ‘Big Issue’ makes a point of asking people not to give the magazine vendors extra money, as this is meant to be a legitimate transaction, not ‘begging’ – which is so demeaning, destroys a person’s self-image and does nothing to encourage a strong work ethic. They are doing amazing work with homeless and unemployed people, from providing them with a legitimate way to earn a bit of money, to long-term skills training, help with drug addictions and counselling. I didn’t want to invalidate the whole process by just handing him the R50.

What seems like a generous act on the surface can also often be just the quick and easy way to assuage one’s feelings of guilt and helplessness in the face of such seemingly unsolvable problems as mass poverty. Such acts of ‘charity’ usually feel immensely patronising to me, placing an instant barrier between me and the other person. These unequal power relations are not only disempowering to the recipient in the long-term, but prevent real interactions between people from vastly different socio-economic backgrounds, and thus perpetuate the ‘status quo’ and the ‘us and them’ mentality which keeps us distanced from each other's lives and problems.

But my heart was not happy with this ‘justification’ for not giving. I don’t see giving R50 away as such a hugely generous act anyway – I mean what is R50 to us really – less than the cost of a movie ticket nowadays, or a bit more than two coffees. To this man it could mean not going to sleep hungry, and not having to face another day at the traffic lights tomorrow on an empty stomach.

All of these conflicting thoughts raging inside me, and the sound and blur of traffic just outside my window had an immobilising effect on me. I froze, wallet in hands – unable to stop the man running next to us, unable to buy the magazine, and expecting some tragic accident any second.

A moment later, my husband had stepped on the accelerator to clear the intersection, and the man dropped back, unable to keep up. Inside the car for the next few minutes, we argued over the safety of various stopping places - in the middle of the intersection had of course been out of the question, but what about there (crossing various lanes of traffic to make a sudden stop in the far left, still a traffic lane)?…or there (just before a traffic circle)?… but there was nowhere, and we were soon too far along anyway. But we were both so upset by this time that we had to turn back – it wasn’t even a decision really - we could not enjoy our evening until we had given that story a different ending.

So we eventually found a place to turn, and headed back through the traffic circle and intersection, then turned around again so that we would be on the same side of the road – all quite frantic in the Saturday traffic…all the while scanning the many people hanging about at the intersections selling one thing or another, to find the man again. And then there he was - we waved and called, and suddenly he was next to our window again, breathless and smiling widely. He had a really strikingly handsome face, and his smile lit up his whole being, so that he practically shone as he stood there, thanking us profusely, and explaining his joy that his 13 day old baby would have milk tonight!

I couldn’t even answer him with more than a smile – I was speechless: uncomfortable at being cast yet again into the inflated role of some sort of ‘saviour’; overwhelmed with relief that we had turned back; and yet immeasurably sad that so many people are struggling to meet such basic needs, right here on our doorsteps. Meanwhile our cupboards and fridges overflow, and a ‘lean’ month for us would mean not going out to expensive dinners, or not buying another pair of jeans. But what do we do about it?

I tried to process the mixture of emotions I was still experiencing - the whole encounter had rattled me. Especially since we were on our way to watch a movie at the Waterfront - a shiny, sprawling monument to hyper-consumerism and tourism – boutique shops selling overseas ‘must haves’, or equally overpriced African crafts and curios (to the mostly German tourists who flock to Africa each year, only to surround themselves with everything luxurious and European?). The many pricey haute cuisine Restaurants are safely ensconced in an ‘urban regeneration’ area of sterile security apartment blocks and of course, the picturesque harbour and iconic Table Mountain.

It’s a world away from the grimy sleepiness of the city centre, or the crowded desperation and squalor of the townships the majority of Capetonians live in…the significant, but powerless majority, who are all but forgotten when your actual social space is still so privileged, sheltered and mostly white - even 17 years after ‘full democracy’ arrived in this country.

So as ordinary as this encounter may seem to most South Africans, this man running beside our car, and his beaming face when we came back, his eyes that were just overflowing with joy and relief…caused my heart to burst wide open.

I am still now trying to have a good look inside to see what I can draw out, while it is still wide open like this. After all, this has happened before, in other ways, for other reasons, but all too soon our hearts tend to close up again, if only to enable us to live our daily lives without a constantly bleeding heart, which can be completely debilitating. We can’t stay in this place of intense feeling for too long – not only because most of us are so horribly uncomfortable there, but also because solving the world’s (or our own) problems requires doing something about it, not just sitting in a heap feeling sad about it. But no doubt if our actions were birthed from a place of deep feeling, earnest contemplation and soul searching beforehand, they would be more helpful. So I feel that spending a bit of time in this place is a worthwhile exercise.

Of course it wasn’t the first time I had an encounter that made me think about all of this – I have had many, and after living overseas for over ten years, returning to this country has been fraught with a confusing mix of emotions. Sadness, compassion and ‘charity’ are sometimes displaced by irritation or anger when you get so tired of being harassed by the hordes selling crap at every traffic light, and simply walking down the street with a white face makes you the target of every high-as-a-kite beggar (they never ask any black people for money - I haven’t had a stable job or money most of the time since moving here two years ago - ask some of those guyz in their BBBBBBBEE suits and Mercedes, man…).

But I have always been a far too sensitive soul – since childhood I have questioned the way things are in this country - I remember at about age 6 being told “that’s just way the world is”, and saying to myself “well when I am big I will change the world!!” Of course I also had no understanding of the depth and complexity of the issues, or the amount of money, effort and co-operation needed to resolve them entirely. In my naivety, I also dreamed of one day having a house big enough for all the unwanted children and elderly in the world…on a farm that could accommodate all the unwanted animals in the world! As my father pointed out, that would be some house/ farm – and where will you get all this money and space, and who will look after them all? And so I grew up, realised there were ‘practicalities’ and it wouldn’t be that easy…

Still, I chose to study politics and peace studies with the express purpose of ‘changing the world’ – I must have believed this was possible at the time. Now, when I feel challenged, almost daily, to respond meaningfully to a broken and bleeding world, even one person at a time… I often feel quite inadequate, and helpless to do so. I am not talking about just giving away a few unwanted clothes or blankets, either – I mean contributing to real and lasting change in a person’s life – or even a whole community, the whole nation. How to do this is always where I fall down…and often stay there, feeling miserable and completely useless.

I think many people feel this way when confronted by the scale of the issues we face nationally (poverty, homelessness, HIV, lack of good healthcare or education) and globally (wars, human trafficking, climate change). Where do we begin? What do we do? How do we do it, and with whom? Of course the issues are complex, but what holds me back from doing more is usually the complexity of racial relations in this country – for example, I feel that a ‘whitey’ going into the townships and trying to tell people what to do is immensely patronising or arrogant, and that what they really need is their own role models, rising up from within their own communities, who have had similar experiences, who can speak their language and encourage them.

But these are the questions I suddenly found myself faced with:

Would returning to Australia (because I miss my friends and the wonderful life I had there, miss my funky little bubble called ‘Bondi beach’, with all its amazing Restaurants and great coffee, miss the particular culture and sense of humour, and the many great local musicians that inspired me….) mean turning my back on people like this, turning my back on the chance to really contribute to this country, and to ‘changing the world’?

But where, when and how can I help or contribute - how can I make a real and lasting difference? I have been here almost two years now, and aside from some short-term research work, there have not been many opportunities to become involved. I have not been able to see a clear path to follow to becoming a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It has been immensely disappointing to witness the modus operandi of  consultants, who I now see as ‘tender vultures’ - feeding off the carcass of a decaying (corrupt and incompetent) system and profiting massively - joining the government in squandering our tax money, which could have been better allocated to improving the lives of those in need.

If only I could figure all of this out, figure out what core issues need to be addressed, and how, to turn all of this around! If only I could contribute towards systemic and cultural change - rather than ‘band aid’ solutions which are not lasting or sustainable, relieving the symptoms without addressing the root causes. If only there was a group of people I could join in eradicating poverty – by ensuring it is no longer the logical product of our structurally unjust systems and culture… then I feel my time here would really be worth it – even worth ‘sacrificing’ friends, my preferred ‘lifestyle’, and the place I considered to be ‘home’…

The above thoughts have often been a part of my musings on life, meaning, personal contribution and social change…but then, like a slap in the face, came the key question:

Do you think sacrificing your ‘life’ (friends, ‘home’, interests, desires and pursuits) is not worth doing for the impact you could have in the life of just one human being? i.e. would you only consider making this ‘sacrifice’ if you were guaranteed that your actions would have a huge and lasting impact - on many people? Is the possibility of turning around the life of even just one person not enough for you to try, to stick around? If not, then aren’t you really saying that your ‘life’ is worth more than theirs? Do you really think you are more important than another human being – that ‘sacrificing’ your own comfort is only worthwhile in exchange for, let’s say, a few thousand or even a few million people?

This was the question that brought so much new revelation to me…and if you ask yourself these same questions as you read this, you might be unpleasantly surprised at the answers you find lurking in your own heart. It really is scary to realise how inflated our sense of self-importance really is deep inside there, when we are being totally honest with ourselves…

Of course there is nothing wrong with being an idealist – and wanting to see all of Cape Town (and South Africa, Africa, the world…) fed, housed, healthy, educated, employed in fulfilling jobs, living in wonderful communities, and coming to know the love of God as I have. This is far from a selfish picture…but if everyone was waiting for the guarantee of effectiveness before putting their hand to the plough, nothing would get done, we would never get anywhere! And many, many people would continue to struggle without a helping hand…

This realisation I am grappling with is not even starfish theory (the story about saving one starfish at a time, even though the beach is so full of them you can’t get to them all before it’s too late) – it’s lamb theory. The humble, selfless ‘lamb’ who came to save all of humanity, and sacrificed himself completely and utterly – with no guarantees that anyone would take up the offer of grace… He would have done this just to save one person! Since he held nothing back, as a Christian following in His footsteps, neither can I. He loved and gave unconditionally, and so must I. He pursued people, not comfort, and this is the challenge ever before me.

This is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ – am I a Christian, or just another person pursuing my own dreams and desires for my life? Christians, in the decades and centuries that followed Christ’s crucifixion, have sacrificed their lives – many literally – to share unconditional love with people all over the world. They stood up for the oppressed, fed the starving, housed the homeless, campaigned to abolish slavery, assisted alcoholics, opened orphanages, and in many other ways softened the heartless edges of Industrial society. The early Moravian church even sold themselves into slavery in order to reach out to slaves, and share their struggles (literally) in love and compassion.

So I realised a long time ago that if I could be even a faceless, nameless one of these brave and compassionate people in my time on this planet, then my life will have been worthwhile – visit a prisoner, help a township child with their homework, baby-sit for a single mother, give a ‘domestic worker’ a lift to crèche to drop off her child, rescue a few stray animals, volunteer at an old age home….even adopt an unwanted child one day? The possibilities are endless…and exciting!

But as for that question – would I give up my own pursuits, my own comforts, my own sense of ‘place’ and belonging…to reach out to even just one other person, who hasn’t had a fraction of the blessings I take for granted, and probably has no feeling of ‘belonging’ either… hmm, I won’t pretend that I have fully answered that one yet. My heart and my faith are still works in progress…but for now I will stay - taking one step at a time, and looking expectantly upwards (to hear/ learn from God), outwards (to connect with others), and forwards (not backwards, to places and people I have left, for now), to see what unfolds…

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

burning the book

ID books - Fascist relics of the apartheid era: ever stopped to wonder why we still tolerate them?

Without a “green bar-coded ID book” in South Africa today, you can’t open a bank account, have a “cell” phone account, or any other sort of account, you can’t sign a rental agreement or buy a car, you can’t even register to VOTE (as I recently discovered)!! This infuriates me, makes me feel like a dodgy illegal immigrant in the country of my birth, and has often resulted in me saying “I just can’t wait to move back to Australia”.

Now hang on a minute, you might say- isn’t it essential to avoid voter fraud by identifying people when they register to vote – ensuring they are actually South African citizens? Well, I would answer that a passport should be good enough – and South African passports still have the fascist tracking (ID) number in it anyway, along with a photo – it’s valid for official identification all around the world. I should not have been disqualified from voting, as a born and bred South African, simply because I do not have an ID book.

In fact, living in Australia and the UK for many years, this was my only form of identification. I opened bank accounts and carried on as a productive, responsible resident of these countries without any need for a meta-tracking number of this sort.  On my return to South Africa two years ago, I did not apply for an ID book – I didn’t think it necessary as I had lived so happily without one for ten years, and anyway I wasn’t sure how long I might want to stay – finding jobs and making friends after a long absence is not easy, especially in ‘cliquey’ Cape Town.

As it turns out, here I still am, and every time I want to update my address with the bank, or request the services of DSTV, or most importantly, register to VOTE, I am confronted with this annoying, droned mantra: “we need your green bar-coded ID before we can do that”. I explain and show my passport, but it seems that there is simply nowhere in their brainwashed heads to fit this, an equivalent option…

So the other day, the bank would again not accept my passport as sufficient proof of my existence - to gain a second card on an account already held with them, and my account with them was opened using my passport! But this time, I was informed I could obtain an ‘affidavit’ at the police station, explaining why I only have a passport as ID. After storming out of the bank in a huff, I decided perhaps I should at least try this. At the police station, I was given a blank piece of paper and told I could write whatever I want. When I was finished, they signed and stamped it into an ‘officially approved’ document, without even reading it. They didn’t look at my passport either, although I offered it!

I walked out in a daze…who knew it was this easy to have anything you like ‘approved’ or ‘verified’ on a bit of paper? And should I see this as a wonderful convenience, or “a bit of a worry” (as Aussies might say)? I am clearly an incurably logical person, and this must be beaten out of me if I am to continue living in Africa: or how can this possibly make more sense and be more acceptable as proof of ID than my passport – which was referred to scornfully as a “temporary document” by the bank supervisor?

Now, you might be thinking I could have avoided this constant hassle, given in some time ago, and marched off to stand in the long queues at home affairs, or whatever it might be called these days…but I am a stubborn wench. Deeper than all this protest about common sense and logic, or efficiency and convenience, lies a very good reason for my continuing refusal to get an ID book. I have a deep-seated disdain for this whole ID document business, and passionately believe it is an offense to our human dignity, and flies in the face of our hard-fought-for human rights and freedoms.

The public holiday we are about to celebrate is “Youth Day” – I mean, people died to stand up for freedom in this country! How could everyone have already forgotten about the burning of the pass books in many of these protests - as symbols and tools of oppression and discrimination in this country?

Yet whenever I try to explain this to people, they seem to think it is a joke, or ill-informed hyperbole – actually, most people have no idea what I am referring to at all. Of course today’s system is not at all like the system South Africa used at the time – to differentiate between races in order to dictate where they lived, worked and traveled…or is it? Our ID numbers still contain information about our racial status, amongst other things...

And while I am on this topic - when you apply for a job in this country, you still have to specify which racial group you are a part of – ostensibly for BBBEE/ affirmative action reasons. But is this really the South Africa people died to see birthed? Is everyone okay with this? A country where divisions, labeling and discrimination continue to define our interactions in official or public spheres?

When I lived in the UK there was an outcry at the time about bringing in a form of national identity document. I remember thinking that it wasn’t worth all the fuss – if you have nothing to hide, why would you fear this? But I realise now it’s not about that, it’s about the simple and core freedom to just ‘be’ – it’s as fundamental as that. It’s not about what information they have, or even about what they could do with it anymore, but about my freedom to choose not to be ‘tracked’ on multiple databases, even if I have nothing to hide (most of us certainly have less to hide than these corrupt politicians or the bureaucrats that administer their systems)!

My anger is futile, I know - we already have numerous numbers tracking us through life – including account numbers, drivers’ licenses, student numbers, employee numbers, health or car insurance numbers…and yes, passport numbers. This amounts to our country, and most of the world, being run like a ‘police state’ – their prying fingers touching on, and tracking, every aspect of our lives. My ‘file’ probably looks something like this: “lyn x, white, female, 35, married, dual nationality, postgrad education, currently unemployed, earned us Rx in taxes last year”. If I believed they were interested or efficient enough, they could include such cctv observations as “storms out of banks…”; and even track my facebook, gmail, blogger and twitter accounts too, adding “prone to ranting and railing about politics”. But I doubt they have the time or funding for this, yet…

If all of this fills me, a privileged ‘whitey’ with indignation, then where are the public displays of outrage by those who where there – in those protests, burning pass books, seeing their family and friends ripped apart by bullets (after experiencing traumatic family breakdown: fathers forced to leave families and work on the mines, children in the ‘homelands’ or raised by their grandparents, while their mothers became domestic workers and raised white brats like me)? And is it not perfectly reasonable to expect that our governments spend less money on all this inane bureaucracy (which extends far beyond the ID book of course), more on doing something to improve the lives of the long-neglected masses of this country – rather than merely officially numbering them, and making them wait in ever-lengthening queues?

I think I should go back to that police station – I have a few more things I would like signed and stamped with ‘official approval’ on an ‘affidavit’, starting with:

“I, lyn x (see your own security files for further details), hereby declare my refusal to obtain a ‘green bar-coded ID book’ for the duration of my stay in South Africa - although, and especially because it is the much-beloved country of my birth. And don’t tell me I can’t vote – I tell you I don’t want to anyway: you are all a bunch of Muppets! You have shown yourselves to be untrustworthy and incapable of delivering on our dreams for the New South Africa. I hereby revoke all claims that this political system represents me, but reserve the right to continue to voice my comments and complaints freely and publicly if I so wish (without registering first with a ‘green bar-coded ID book’). Moreover, far from ‘opting out’ of the future of this country, I shall still find ways to contribute, and be politically active – without said ‘green bar-coded ID book’! In fact, if I finally decide to apply for one now, it will only be to burn it in front of parliament, while singing ‘passop Zuma, passop!”