the muiz

Monday, 10 September 2012

reactions to a massacre

My last few blog posts have been discussing ‘what’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners’… and the bigger picture considerations when assessing what led to the massacre at a Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa a few weeks ago.

Previous posts in this mini series covered:
1. Democratic principles;
2. Human Rights;
3. Cultural violence; and
4. Structural violence.

In the final post in my short series, I will be exploring the reactions of South Africans a bit further – at least the aspects that have amazed and concerned me. I might be throwing the cat among the pigeons, but here goes...

5. ‘us’ and ‘them’- or ‘ubuntu’ vs ‘white guilt’
The term ‘Nation-building’ is frequently bandied about in political and intellectual circles in this country. I would prefer to speak of community-building, since national identity and patriotism are problematic, twentieth-century terms more likely to start wars than build a sunny shared future for us all. Disputed terminology aside, however, what we have instead in South Africa are the fat cats, the disempowered and the aliens (that’s what ‘mlungu’ – the term black people use when referring to us whities means, if you didn’t know). Again, ‘ubuntu’ is spoken of with misty eyes…yet all I see and hear is ‘white guilt’ – this notion that I am guilty and a part of the problem merely by being white.

Let me have a little rant for just a paragraph about my pet hate, ‘white guilt’. No matter what I do or say, I cannot change what my ancestors did, and yet it is openly asserted that I must just hand over my money, my possessions, and any claim to being an equal participant in this country’s future. I must pay, pay, pay. Or leave. I am not wanted here. The ‘true’ South Africans are black. I am not even entitled to any rage or angst of my own, as my skin is apparently too white to even know what those emotions really are. Only in a black skin can you rail against the injustices. In a white skin, all you should do is apologise for ever having been born, and for now continuing to take up much-needed space, jobs and resources… I disagree. Vehemently.

Having said that, back to my point about the divisions, the lack of community or even shared realities… It’s hard to imagine anyone could live in this country and not know how many millions are struggling and desperate. But some of us live in such privileged bubbles, still enjoying (dare I say it?) colonial lifestyles. The disgusting disparity between rich and poor in this country is so taken-for-granted that most don’t even seem to notice anymore. If only more people would take off the blinkers as they drive from security estate to private school to shopping mall or church (yes, ouch!) …they might notice afresh the huddled masses of shacks and state housing blocks – dismal, depressing, desperate places. Then again, for some in say, Rondebosch, home, work, school and shops may all be in the one suburb, with never a reason to leave their bubble of privilege – and they are perversely proud of this…

I know, it’s hard to know where to begin, and it’s easy to be weighed down by the desperation and seemingly insurmountable problems… I just want to be completely honest here and say I am doing very little to help anyone these days either – I am completely absorbed with caring for our 5 month old daughter, and it’s hard to think of ways to be ‘useful’ to the outside world at this time. But everyone has something in their hand that they can use to contribute in some way – big or small – and I have just this, for now: writing. So here I am writing my little heart out, hoping someone might be impacted by what I am saying, or at least it might encourage some healthy debate about the issues.

6. Complacent Christians
Most disturbing to me is that this country is a predominantly Christian country, yet Christians are either conspicuous by their absence, or are actually supportive of police shooting people (presumably under the assumption that the police actually know who ‘deserves’ to be shot, and that it will never be one of their own loved ones)! My fellow Christians, we of all people – as supposedly spiritually minded (as opposed to materially/ economically driven) - should have a different perspective on all of this. An eternal perspective, a heart perspective.

Christians, I am shocked at how many of you are completely ‘missing in action’ here. Sure, the ‘religious leaders’ have issued statements in the aftermath of the massacre asking for prayers and reconciliation, but for the most part, Christians appear to live with their heads in the sand, like all the other privileged whities in this country. We are supposed to the voices for the voiceless, working tirelessly to ‘free the oppressed’ in every shape and form.

If you think I am being a bit extreme or idealistic here, then what bible are you reading? Jesus spoke about poverty and helping others much more than about sex outside of marriage, for example - the top issue on most Christian’s agendas. I could list a few key passages here, but there are too many to choose from – just go and read the New Testament. Yes, the WHOLE THING. The Old Testament shows a similar concern for the oppressed – try Isaiah 58:6-7 for starters:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter…?”
Yes, prayer is important – we always say we should/will pray (but do we?)… but don’t stop there! This is one of many examples where God is telling us to get off our ‘blessed assurances’ and DO SOMETHING.

7. The role of witchcraft in Africa
I am probably more surprised than you are to see this as a heading here. It was not a part of my intended discussion at the start. I saw mention of ‘witchcraft’ being used by the men before they charged unflinchingly at the police, but I dismissed this as unimportant at first, or at least not unusual in an African context. I am also reluctant to jump on the bandwagon of the usual (white) Christian hysteria surrounding African customs and traditions. However, my eyes have unfortunately been opened to the pervasive and influential nature of witchcraft in African politics in researching these claims a bit further.

Political Anthropologists like Adam Ashford argue that the occult and politics have been ineluctably linked in the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Since I don’t want to go into too much detail here, let the following quote suffice for those who are perhaps not religious, but need to understand this is a real phenomenon, not to be lightly dismissed:

"No one can understand life in Africa without understanding witchcraft and the related aspects of spiritual insecurity… the ways in which the insecurity aroused by fears of witchcraft and the general condition of spiritual insecurity are handled by political authorities over the long run will have profound significance for the long-term legitimacy of the democratic state"
- Ashford, Adam, 2005: ‘Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa’, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press.

Christians, forgive me for picking on you, but we are family (spiritually speaking) and family are supposed to be able to ‘call each other out’ on areas that need improvement. What annoys me about the references to ‘witchcraft’ in Christian reactions to the massacre, is not that it is untrue or exaggerated (which it often is), but that the analysis stops there. I would have thought that the use of ‘witchcraft’ by people who are obviously not Christians, nor ‘Westerners’, is not that surprising.

Useful discussions about preventing a massacre like this from taking place again should rather center around what pushes people to turn to ‘witchcraft’ and other desperate measures in the first place…. Obviously people who feel powerless and in need of some form of ‘protection’ or ‘power’ other than the official powers of government, police or the legal system. People who are constantly being let down by these systems, and left to fend for themselves, to protect themselves in the often lawless ‘townships’ and informal settlements. 

Just as Christians turn to God in prayer – for protections, for guidance, and so on… those whose worldview is based on a world of ‘spirits’ to be courted or placated, will turn to these ‘spirits’ for help in times of need. Instead, why aren’t we Christians trying to reach out to people before they reach that point - why aren’t we trying to LOVE them into ‘the Kingdom’ (instead of demonising them) – i.e. into God’s way of doing things? Perhaps we haven’t given a compelling enough picture of what that looks like, or they would have turned to prayer and peaceful means of protest and conflict resolution instead… There are many historic examples of Christians who led the way in fighting (through nonviolent means) to end slavery, or in the civil rights movement in the US - to name just a few examples.

For non-Christians, it is also easy to see the reliance on ‘witchcraft’ as indicative of the need for a functioning, well-trained police force, a healthy democracy with respect for human rights, and so on... (refer to my previous posts in this mini series).

In conclusion…
It is clear that peaceful protest and conflict resolution - or ‘conflict transformation’ as peace scholars would call it - are the only sustainable way forward - especially in a country with as much historic pain, fear and injustice as South Africa. Otherwise the cycle of violence and counter-violence will be never-ending.

But sadly, Christian or non-Christian, it seems everyone today embraces violence as the only way to bring about ‘justice’, order’ and ‘security’. That’s why few people bat an eyelash when the police mow down 34 striking miners. ‘They needed to re-establish order, didn’t they?’ and ‘the strike was illegal, anyway’…

As I wrote in a previous blog post, I am looking for a society and community I can be proud to introduce my daughter into. This is not it. 

Friday, 7 September 2012

Digging even deeper - Structural Violence

Continuing from my previous blog posts, this is the fourth installment in a short series discussing the massacre of a few weeks ago at a Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa. I have felt that the general discourse (if discussed at all) among average people has been ‘what’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners, when they had been violent and even apparently committed murder (two policemen were killed in the preceding week)?’ Well, a lot, actually.

In my previous posts I have discussed the most obvious levels first:
Then the previous post started digging a bit deeper into....
In this post, I will be digging even deeper… and this is where I start to really step on people’s toes…

4. Exploitation and ‘Structural Violence’:
Taking another look at my admonishment in the preceding post to ‘build peace’ rather than ‘increase security’ (i.e. arm yourself/ protect your property/ militarise the police further…): peace theorists have coined the term ‘structural violence’ for the systematic exploitation, repression, and inequality of certain groups of people within a society. In other words, discrimination and exploitation are forms of violence embedded within socio-political systems, because they harm people - they rob people of their rights to reach their full potential, or often even to live a healthy life.

As I am sure most of you know, life is seldom a ‘level playing field’ as we would like to think of it – hard work and a good education (even if these can be accessed by all) are not necessarily all you need to ‘make it’ in this world. Even more disheartening to those of us who believe all people are actually equal, is the fact that most societies throughout history have been intentionally structured in such a way that some people benefit from the exploitation and marginalisation of others (e.g. slaves, women ‘in their place’ etc.).

But how did we get here? Why are we discussing ‘structural violence’ and injustice in the so-called NEW South Africa? Wasn’t that ‘apartheid’, and didn’t we get rid of that unjust system? Thinking back to the start of it all, I remember the two doves on the shirt I wore while working for the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) in 1994: ‘Peace in our land, peace in our hearts’. I remember the heady idealism of those days… Oh, I was such a child, at 19, thinking the rainbow nation would just ‘happen’ the day after the first democratic elections announced the ‘winners’…

Instead, almost twenty years later, we are still living separate and unequal lives, for the most part… and all of us are the losers in this. Even the wealthy and elite – they/ we have lost the chance to live in community (refer to my previous discussions about ‘security’ and ‘community’). South African democracy is now 18 years old - and rebellious… Having finally figured out that ‘daddy’ isn’t going to provide, people are taking to the streets in droves in ‘service delivery protests’ …and ‘big brother’ doesn’t have their back… the police are more likely to shoot them than protect them from those who would prey upon them.

No hang on, the start of it all goes way, way, way back… to apartheid’s little spoken of roots: ENGLISH colonial legislation and policies – started by the first British Governor, Cecil John Rhodes (yep, the guy everyone lauds as a hero of sorts in our history) – to protect MINING interests. Did you know that ‘apartheid’, although passed by Afrikaner government just a few decades ago, in essence goes that far back? Seriously. Go read up on some South African history if you don’t believe me.

All the inequality and discrimination we have come to think of as the ‘baby’ of ‘apartheid’ actually stems from the need for cheap labour, and for forcing people to be and work where you want them to… mostly in the mines, after gold was discovered in such abundance in this country. Yes, IT ALL STARTED WITH THE MINES. At least the systematic (read: intentional, organised, set up) discriminatory policies. So the massacre at Lonmin mine a few weeks ago is actually not terribly surprising, when placed within its historical and socio-political context, now is it?

What many do not realise, is that the global economic system today is also intentionally ‘neo-colonialist’ and exploitative – designed (they didn’t just happen) to extract resources from so-called ‘third world’ countries, to benefit the rich, so-called ‘first world’ countries. It is ‘neo-colonialist’ because it is a ‘new colonialism’ - a legacy of the colonial days - with the imbalance of power remaining in the form of unfair trade relations and ‘neoliberal policies’ enforced by the World Bank and other International ‘powers that be’.

These ‘neoliberal’ policies take the form of stipulations attached to foreign aid or investment in so-called ‘third world’ countries, that governments do not invest in infrastructure or anything that would benefit their own people, in order to ‘attract foreign investment’ and service their ridiculously unjust (because they are based on the unfair trade relations just mentioned) debts to the ‘first world’.

In this way, the rich countries keep getting richer, while the poor countries have been set up to fail from the start, so surprise, surprise, they are failing – politically, economically and socially. And the more unstable and incapacitated they become, the more easily the ‘first world’ and its transnational corporations and mining interests can prey upon these resource rich countries.

Feel free to look into this further as I haven’t the time, energy or space - it would take a semester in ‘development studies’ - to explain this to you properly (and it makes for grim and terribly disempowering reading, I can assure you). Suffice to say, the world is not a ‘level playing field’ AT ALL. And certain powerful parties (read: transnational corporations and MINING/ OIL interests) are running the show to benefit them, not the rest of us pathetic little worker bees, and certainly not the marginalised and dispossessed...

Have you ever stopped to look at those words closely – marginalised and dispossessed? Yes, they are implying another party is involved – doing the marginalising and dispossessing. The poor or ‘underprivileged’ weren’t somehow designed that way, they didn’t choose to be that way, it was done to them. By whom, do you think?

Sadly, taking the preceding discussion further, to nauseating levels of honesty – by us – even though most of us are not running or profiting from these greedy transnational corporations, nor the extractive mining companies [extracting more than mineral resources – they extract immense social and environmental value from places too, then simply move on once the area is too devastated to yield anymore…like parasites… to go and feed upon the next unsuspecting community misguidedly looking for ‘development’].

However, we buy the products that these corporations and mining companies are supplying. We live the ‘high’ life, at the expense of the actual lives of people who often struggle to earn enough to eat, let alone buy the products they make (or slowly kill themselves mining for components for our cars, cell phones and computers). Like those miners. Who were striking for better salaries and living conditions. Who were SHOT.

No one should profit from the misery or exploitation of others. And certainly loss of life should never be looked upon as necessary or legitimate to protect economic interests, mining interests, political interests, selfish interests or ‘lifestyles’ … Good grief, how has it come to this – I find myself actually explaining this to people…?

Hopefully you, dear reader, do not need any convincing of this. Most of us don’t. But most of us also don’t inform ourselves of the injustices being committed in our name. Lives sacrificed to support our lifestyles. I started off writing this mini-series with a lot of self-righteous fury about ‘those mining companies’…but I have been left with a terribly bitter taste in my mouth, remembering again (like G.K. Chesterton) that the problem with the world is… me.

In my next posts, I will continue this discussion by exploring the reactions of my fellow South Africans a bit further – at least the aspects that have amazed and concerned me.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The Lonmin massacre – digging deeper

Continuing from my previous blog posts, this is the third installment in a short series discussing the massacre of a few weeks ago at a Lonmin mine in Marikana, South Africa. I have felt that the general discourse (if discussed at all) among average people has been ‘what’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners, when they had been violent and even apparently committed murder (two policemen were killed in the preceding week)?’ Well, a lot, actually.

In my previous posts I have discussed the most obvious levels first:
In this post I will start to dig a bit deeper....

3. A culture of violence
From the preceding post discussing ‘rights’, the ‘right to bear arms’ is an example of a controversial ‘right’ – it is seen by many as essential to ensuring your own protection, and is upheld in countries like the U.S. However others are vehemently against the idea because of its destabilising effect on a society (for more on this, refer to my earlier discussion of ‘the social contract’ in the first post in this series).

So we may (quite reasonably) ask ‘who wields pangas and machetes in a strike action?’ Well, people who don’t trust the official protectors (police, security, etc) to protect them, and feel the need to take matters into their own hands. I am not condoning this approach, or the ensuing violence – I have a Masters in Peace Studies, after all – but can we really judge these people when we haven’t been in their desperate situation?

If I am honest with myself, I must admit that my ‘peaceful principles’ would go out the window if anyone dared break into our home and threaten my daughter! I would attack them fiercely, without hesitation or mercy. However, we pay a security company to respond to the house alarm system, so the chances are I will not need to do this myself. Whenever the alarm goes off, scary looking men wearing bullet-proof vests and touting guns will race over, jump out of their car and patrol/secure our property, as I look on from a window – still safely locked inside (like a princess in my pink castle)… So if you think about it, I have basically ‘outsourced’ my violent response to potential threats to this security company.

Most people living in ‘townships’ or informal settlements have no such system, and the police are usually thin on the ground too (where exactly are they hanging out, I wonder, since they aren’t exactly helping us ‘whities’ in the ‘burbs either?). So people in informal settlements (like the one near the Lonmin mine in Marikana) have to be ready to defend themselves and their loved ones themselves - no one else is likely to come to their aid.

The social breakdown which occurs anywhere that has high unemployment, poverty and cultural trauma also means that domestic violence, rape, gang warfare and many other violent crimes are rife in these areas (and spill over into the more affluent suburbs too, of course). As you can imagine, growing up seeing so much violence both traumatises and desensitise people to violence, and so the cycle is self-perpetuating – and the amount and types of violence usually escalate over time.

Furthermore, many black South Africans fought for many years in ‘the struggle’ to end apartheid. This was not a non-violent struggle, as some lovely documentaries about the catchy music used during protest action would have you believe. It eventually involved bombs and limpet mines and all sorts of other violent tactics – escalating as the hard-hearted refused to give in and reassess the untenable situation the country was in by that point. So we now have a situation where many people believe violence is acceptable to get what you want, or to make your point. Meaning that the cycle of violence is unlikely to end for some time to come – since no society is ever without conflict.

As I mentioned in my previous post about human rights, ‘service delivery’ has been too slow in the ‘new’ South Africa, and people are tired of waiting. So violent clashes and riots have been breaking out all over – if people don’t feel empowered or listened to, they turn to violence to be ‘heard’. This is partly the natural frustrations and tensions ‘boiling over’, but it is also due to a mindset that has embraced violence as an acceptable ‘negotiating tool’ in a sense. This is why only nonviolent ‘revolutions’ can really result in a deep and lasting peace – where people have learned to use conflict creatively (to open up space for dialogue, resolution and reconciliation) not destructively (resulting in violent clashes).

Instead, South Africa is now an example of a ‘traumatised culture’ – many people have experienced generations of ‘trauma’ (separation from or death of loved ones, witnessing rapes and murders, police brutality, jail time and perhaps torture or solitary confinement) – much like China and Russia after decades of totalitarianism, or the Jewish people after the holocaust.

It is exactly this culture of violence and trauma in South Africa that has left the dream of a ‘rainbow nation’ in tatters. The more crime escalates, the more ordinary citizens arm themselves in defense… and police are so armed that I feel nervous even being near one… Of course, the criminals keep ‘upping the ante’ too – in response to the citizens and police who are armed for war-like conditions! This is like the cold war ‘arms race’ within one country!

Actually the best way of ensuring security is to focus on building peace – in other words, strive to eliminate inequality, discrimination and poverty… Yes, social justice is the best, and the only form of true ‘security’ – since it is far-reaching, self-perpetuating, long-lasting… and therefore sustainable. An ‘arms race’ (like war) isn’t – especially since it ends up killing more people than it supposedly ‘protects’.

What does ‘building peace’ or ‘building community’ look like? Communities reaching out to each other across the firmly entrenched lines of race and class in this country. Each one of us making it our business to help, give, serve or simply connect with any struggling human being who crosses our path. If hungry, feed. If cold, clothe and/or shelter (or help them access one of many homeless shelters – there are even vouchers you can buy to give to beggars which they redeem at shelters for food!). If underpaid, campaign for fair wages with them. Boycott companies or products if staff or workers are treated unfairly. And so on…

Yes, it’s exhausting even talking about it, and you can’t do everything for everyone. But small acts of kindness go a surprisingly long way, and consistency builds a lifestyle of generosity that can impact whole neighbourhoods – it’s contagious. Furthermore, there are so many people and organisations doing wonderful things – find out about them and donate to them, support them, and then at times draw upon their resources to assist people you have no idea how to…

These are just some of the obvious, beginners’ steps in building true community. Although a long and multi-layered process, it is really the only way to build lasting security in any city or country. As long as there is such a huge gap between rich and poor, the rich cannot sleep easy in their beds at night… Even with (and many ‘security’ theorists would say because of) higher and higher fences; smarter and smarter alarm/ security systems; and private security companies who are armed to the teeth!

Instead, many of us are hiding in our private ‘fort knox’, while others are running around with pangas and machetes… And we have a police force who issued threats and ultimatums about “ending the violence today” – and then went out and used excessive violence themselves - shooting the so-called perpetrators, and anyone else who might just have been there exercising their democratic rights to strike or protest. Reports surfacing now that some of these people were “shot in the back” are hardly surprising.

In my next post, I will dig even deeper… looking into ‘structural violence’ locally and globally - as the context within which the violent clashes at Marikana, and the eventual massacre, took place. Clashes between workers and mining or oil companies around the world have been happening frequently, and often with tragic consequences. Why?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Human Rights or Mining Rights?

Continuing from my previous blog post, ‘Today I am crying for Africa’, this is the second installment in a short series discussing the Lonmin massacre of a few weeks ago, and ‘what’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners, when they had been violent and even apparently committed murder (two policemen were killed in the preceding week)?’ So many levels of wrong...
I discussed the most obvious level first: 1. DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES.
In this post I will look at another rather obvious level…

2. Human Rights – incl. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR)
Most people would agree that everyone is born equal and free – theoretically at least. This is what all our ‘human rights’ and international agreements are based on. Our modern world, for the most part, at least pays lip service to the concept of all human life being equally valued and human beings having certain ‘inalienable’ rights.

Exactly what ‘rights’ these are, is often hotly debated between cultures and even within countries though. There is also much scholarly and political debate around cultural differences between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ (or ‘First world’ vs. ‘Third World’) countries, and how ‘human rights’ are perceived or applied. For example, there are widely differing views regarding the treatment of women in different countries and cultures.

Furthermore, the more traditional ‘political and civil’ or ‘first generation’ rights (emphasised more in so-called ‘Western’ countries) have now been extended by a second tier, or ‘second generation’ of rights, referred to as ‘economic, social and cultural rights’ (ESCR). These ESCR are seen as ‘collective rights’ - more highly valued in so-called ‘Eastern’ or ‘Third World’ countries than the ‘political and civil’ rights, which are viewed as ‘individual’ rights. (There is also a ‘third generation’ of rights which refer to the right to a clean and healthy environment - or ‘green’ rights)

In South Africa, ‘human rights’ feature prominently in political and legal discourse -South Africa has a Constitution, with a ‘Bill of Rights’, and is a signatory to many International Conventions relating to the protection of ‘human rights’, including the ‘Civil and Political Rights’ (CPR) and ‘Economic Social and Cultural Rights’ (ESCR) - both signed in 1994.

Here is a brief snapshot of some of the rights contained within the International Covenants which are relevant to the striking mineworkers.

The CPR include:
- Article 6: ‘the right to life’;
- Article 9: ‘the right to liberty and security of person’ and basic rights regarding arrest;
- Article 14: continues with the principles of a fair trial;
- Article 22 ‘the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests’;
- Article 25: ‘every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity…(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country; and
- Article 26: ‘All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law’.

The full text of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights can be viewed at:

The ESCR include:
- Article 7: ‘the right of everyone to the enjoyment of just and favourable conditions of work’: ‘fair wages’; ‘a decent living for themselves and their families’; ‘safe and healthy working conditions’; ‘rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays’;
- Article 8: ‘the right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice, subject only to the rules of the organization concerned, for the promotion and protection of his economic and social interests. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public order or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others’; and
‘the right to strike, provided that it is exercised in conformity with the laws of the particular country’; and
- Article 11: ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right’.

The full text of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights can be viewed at:

The South African Constitution’s Preamble introduces this key document as being foundational to ‘a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights’. The first chapter refers to the importance of ‘human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms’. These ‘rights’ are then listed in detail in 35 sections. This is the South African Bill of Rights, which is the cornerstone of our so-called democracy, and brings the International Human Rights treaties into effect in our local legal and political system.

Among these, the rights most relevant to the striking miners at Marikana are:
- ‘the right to life’;
- ‘freedom and security of the person’;
- ‘labour relations’ (joining a union and striking);
- ‘housing’ (the government must ensure access to proper housing);
- ‘health care, food, water and social security’;
- ‘Just administrative action’ (actions by the government must be fair); and
- the rights of ‘arrested, detained and accused persons’ (to not forfeit any of their human rights).

For more discussion/ detail of South Africa’s Constitutional Bill of Rights, see:

Of course I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this, since so many South Africans still do not have even the most basic of these ‘rights’ in reality. This is why there has been a groundswell of violent protests in this country recently – from ‘service delivery’ to strike actions… People are tired of waiting for the ‘rainbow nation’ to throw some crumbs their way. They fought long and hard for ‘the liberation’ – many sacrificing more than the elite who are now the fat cats that have forgotten the masses that helped get them into power.

Yet, just as the hardhearted in apartheid South Africa refused to listen to the protests of the oppressed, the current government appears to prefer further oppression over real dialogue and DELIVERY. It's easy to see why rhetoric around nationalising the mines is so popular. However, this path would only ensure more money going into the greedy hands of those in power of course, not to 'the people' of South Africa.

Implementation of these much-touted human rights, and the democratic principles discussed in my previous post, may be a huge challenge for this country, and there will always be many excuses (especially by the rich and comfortable) not to make the efforts and sacrifices needed. However, we are not talking about ‘optional extras’ here – we are talking basic living conditions required for people to live healthy, stable lives.

It’s time that human rights were favoured over mining rights. It's time for more action and less talk – time for seriously prioritising development of housing, healthcare, education and infrastructure (not just lip service while feathering their own nests). In other words, it’s time the South African government grew up and took its responsibilities seriously. 

Mining interests need to be constrained within the bigger picture considerations of social and environmental protection. The absurd amounts of money these corporations make means it would be easy to require them to channel more of this towards local development and social upliftment. The resources are certainly there - the question is whether the political will is there.

In my next post, I will start to dig a bit deeper into the culture and circumstances within which the Lonmin massacre took place: South Africa’s culture of violence and exploitation, and ‘structural violence’ locally and globally…

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Today I am crying for Africa

Today I am crying for Africa…crying for a love lost.
Crying for the rainbow nation I once believed in.
Crying for the shared future I no longer want to be a part of.

I wrote these words well before the tragic events of a few weeks ago – the police killing of 34 striking miners at Marikana (and injuring of another 78). I am appalled, although not at all surprised by the events that played out there last week. What I am far more surprised about is the reactions of many of my fellow South Africans – or in fact the LACK of reaction by most.

I am embarrassed to be a South African sometimes… and never more so than to have heard more discussion in the past weeks about the return of that ridiculous melodrama, ‘Dallas’ (ironically about the so-called glamour of people in the mining industry – yes, those very high up in the food chain)… than about the tragic events (and the terrible conditions that have pushed workers into embracing such violence) in our own local mining industry.

‘What’s so wrong about the police opening fire on a bunch of violent hooligans?’ People seem to be saying, or implying by their complete lack of outrage over the tragic incident. Conversely, it is assumed that expressing outrage over the massacre (yes, I am calling it that, as that is what it was - despite most politicians and local media balking at the word) is a sort of soft-headed support of violent people getting away with murder, literally.

So before I go any further, let me state explicitly that this is NOT what I am saying. But in a so-called democracy, there are many other ways for a government and police force to deal with violence and law-breaking, without resorting to killing the very people they are there to supposedly protect.

What’s wrong with shooting a bunch of protesting miners, when they had been violent and even apparently committed murder (two policemen were killed in the preceding week)? SO MUCH. So many levels of wrong... I will list and explain as briefly as I can – in this post, I will discuss the most obvious level first: DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES.

[In my next few posts I will dig a bit deeper… looking at human rights discourse, exploitation and structural violence, our violent culture, and the complacency of those of us who should be speaking up for others whose voices are too often ignored (politically and economically)]

1. Trigger happy policemen make for a very scary country to live in.
People seem only too happy to overlook the fact that all 34 victims were surely not responsible for the murder of the 2 policemen in the preceding violent clashes. AND even though many of the strikers brandished weapons and chanted threatening slogans, this does not decisively prove that they intended commit murder. Anyway ‘intention’ is not generally thought of as good enough reason to be convicted for a crime (over-the-top terrorism legislation aside –  but that’s another conversation entirely).

Now, I suspect the lack of outrage or concern expressed over trigger-happy policemen may be due to the assumption that this would never be a problem for ‘decent’, law-abiding citizens like ‘us’. Think again. Imagine living in a country where a policeman felt entitled to shoot you, simply because he didn’t like the look of you, or suspected you had been involved in something illegal, or you looked particularly angry and dangerous that day… or you where even just in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught in the cross-fire between police and ‘suspects’? Oh, oops, I think we already live in that country!

Here two fundamental concepts are fighting for space in my next paragraph – ‘the right to a fair trial’, and the ‘social contract’. Where to begin, oh where to begin – centuries of political and philosophical thought have led to some basic building blocks for ‘civilised’ societies – and this horrible abuse of authority and power by police (and the government which is ultimately responsible for them) violates quite a few of these foundational principles.

The ‘social contract’ is the theoretical starting point for any government: we citizens relinquish our individual rights to protect ourselves to the ‘state’ - which promises to act on our behalf and protect us. In this manner we are supposed to ensure a ‘civilised’ society, where people do not run around shooting each other in anger or endless revenge cycles.

Furthermore, most legal systems the world over are based on the simple principle of presuming that people are ‘innocent until proven guilty’. I shouldn’t need to point out how ‘the right to a fair trial’ or ‘presumed innocence’ is trampled on when police think they can simply shoot the ‘suspects’ instead of handing them over to the legal system to run its course.

Shooting people on the spot means police also take on the roles of judge, jury and executioner, which flies in the face of the basic democratic principle of ‘the separation of powers’. The legislative, judicial and executive powers in a democratic country are intentionally separated, to ensure that none of them become too powerful. This is one of the many ‘checks and balances’ of so-called democracies, which are aimed at avoiding all the power being concentrated in one person or group (like a tyranny or oligarchy).

It’s easy to imagine how without these democratic principles in place, there would be much more corruption and nepotism, persecution of minority groups and so on… Of course we know there is so much corruption in the world today, that these ‘checks and balances’ are about as powerful as we citizens who seem to have no real say in the actual running of our countries, beyond casting our votes – choosing between a bunch of people we don’t trust anyway…

But the principles of a healthy, functioning democracy are more important now than ever – they are the closest thing to a ‘moral compass’ our culture has left (in a secular world where people no longer share the same spiritual or religious beliefs to guide society).

So I am amazed at the apparent lack of understanding shown in recent weeks by South Africans – the very grounds of our so-called ‘democracy’ are being threatened, people!! I studied Political Science, so I may be slightly ‘ahead of the pack’ here, but really, these are the very basics of democracy and politics, and should be known to all. These are OUR rights and freedoms being trampled on!! As Martin Luther King Jnr so rightly said: ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

Yes, the police were defending themselves, and needed to take action in the first place against the violent and perhaps unlawful actions of the miners (though I wonder what is unlawful about a strike action – I don’t have all the facts, so can’t comment for sure). However, there are other very effective strategies and tools for doing so – for example, water cannon and teargas. These methods, although quite horrible, at least sufficiently incapacitate people to then place them under arrest – which is a far more tolerable approach for police in a so-called democracy (if used only in these extreme circumstances of course, not against unarmed people as is often the case).

It’s all very well to say the police are ill-equipped and poorly trained (although this is true), and try to paint the whole event as some completely unforeseen/ unintended tragedy… But you have to be a complete idiot not to have foreseen this. Anyway, the government is still ultimately responsible and accountable for the police and their actions - whether through gross incompetence, or ever-scarier levels of corruption (clearly there is now some degree to which they are carrying out the wishes of the transnational mining interests).

I mean, no matter what anyone says happened on that day, all I keep thinking is: who in their right mind sends a police force into a highly volatile situation like this with live ammo in the first place? Unless intentionally of course, wanting people killed… ahh, the plot thickens…

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Compassion under pressure

The entire goal of the spiritual life is compassion – as Meister Eckhart emphasised, “if you were in an ecstasy as deep as that of St. Paul and there was a sick man who needed a cup of soup, it were better for you that you returned from the ecstasy and brought the cup of soup for love’s sake.”

I fail this test frequently. And not because I am in ‘an ecstasy’ too great to tear myself away from and serve my fellow human beings…no, nothing as wonderfully spiritual-sounding as that… Most often it’s because I am too busy, ‘not in the mood’, distracted, irritated or self-absorbed…

Compassion takes time, energy and the willingness to become involved in something that might snowball into something much bigger than you at first anticipated. Sometimes I just don’t feel I have the energy to ‘go there’ with a particular person or situation I am confronted with, usually at an inopportune moment (like when you are on your way to work, or already late for an appointment…)

Is it even ‘reasonable’ to expect that anyone would always react with compassion, patience and self-sacrifice though? Aren’t we all ‘entitled’ to have ‘off’ days, or to avoid certain situations because they just aren’t ‘our thing’? I often ask myself this, when I am judging others for not seeming responsive enough… as well as when I am feeling guilty myself for turning away from someone clearly in need and right in front of me…

As I write this, I am still feeling very bad about turning a young man away from our house, who approached me as I was getting out of the car, and asked if he could wash the car in exchange for food. To my shame, I responded dismissively that our car was already clean and sent him on his way – because I was totally absorbed by my own concerns (I am 9 months pregnant and had some alarming symptoms that had sent us scurrying to the hospital, to check our baby’s heartbeat and ensure she is okay – we were just returning from there).

Many times in the past, a similar situation would have caused my heart to melt, and I would have found a way to make this a dignified transaction, to enable me to give him food, a shopping bag or two full, and send him on his way with smiles and blessings. A bit of gardening, or something for him to do… In a previous neighbourhood we had actually gone from an encounter like this, to babysitting the man’s grandchild, and frequently giving him lifts to the other side of Cape Town afterwards - always with bags of food (and money for the work he did in our garden – work we usually do ourselves as I don’t believe in having ‘servants’). But not this time. This time I was hard-hearted and dismissive.

By the time we were inside our house, I was already feeling ashamed of myself - he wasn’t even asking for money, which I don’t like to give to people as it may support a drug or alcohol habit… He wasn’t even asking for something for nothing- he wanted to work for it… He was so young, maybe 17, and I had just added to the bruises on his young soul that poverty and discrimination have no doubt already left there… I thought of how much food we have in our house, and how easy it would have been to give him some… I realised again how blessed we really are in comparison with most people living in this city…

Sure, my concerns are real and valid too, but in the context of so much love, so many blessings, and so many resources at our disposal to deal with our problems (like access to private medical care when we needed it that morning, and a car to drive there!)… Not to mention my spiritual, social, intellectual and emotional resources – when I don’t know what to do, I can pray, call friends or family, research possible causes and solutions on the internet, or at times just lean on my lovely man for comfort and support… While many people trapped in poverty, and usually with deeply dysfunctional, ‘broken’ families and communities, have none of these avenues of assistance or support open to them.

How could I just turn away from him like that, without even pausing to think of the options available to me to help him? As I already explained, I was self-absorbed, concerned about our baby girl, and her imminent arrival in our world - hopefully in an untraumatic manner… But there was more to it than that: I also felt impatient with being ‘accosted’ as I was getting out of the car in our usually quiet little cul-de-sac – like, “oh just leave me alone, what are you doing here anyway, you shouldn’t be here… probably looking for a chance to break in or steal something like all the usual druggies down the road in the park…” 

This was my jaded self talking – the one that has been living in this country again perhaps just a tad too long now, with calluses growing over my heart in places – probably in a futile attempt at self-preservation… There is just so much suffering here, right in your face, all the time… And you don’t often know what to do to help, or feel like you can even make a dent in the problems… I am not sure if you can go on indefinitely, being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too idealistic’ (as I am often accused of being) and not crack up because you can’t help or ‘solve’ it all… I think most people eventually just start turning a blind eye so that we can carry on with our daily lives without cracking up all the time….

But I don’t want to be hard-hearted. The irony is that I have often, in sheer frustration at not knowing where to begin, asked God to “send people across my path that need help” so that I can at least do small things along the way to share the resources I have been blessed with – financial and/or spiritual… And yet there he was, this young man, obviously in need…and I sent him away with nothing. You might think I am really carrying on too much about this, but I don’t think I will forget my callousness in that moment (and many others) for the rest of my life. One of the many moments in my life I will always wish I could have over, to redo, and do it with compassion this time.

I will try to use these regrets as a learning experience though, rather than staying in a place of shame and guilt (at being such an obvious part of ‘the problem’ rather than ‘the solution’) – which is disempowering, soul-destroying and counter-productive. I would rather see these moments as reminders of my own fickle, self-absorbed humanity, so that I will not be so quick to judge others and rail at them for their failure to ‘do something’ – to care, to share, to respond… I do spend a lot of time thinking “why don’t they do/see/think/care…??? When I should include myself in the analysis, asking “why don’t I… ???” It’s a sobering, humbling, challenging question.

The next question is something like, “how can we freely (but gently) acknowledge our own lack of compassion, empathy or love; accept that many others are stuck in the same sort of inertia – also often brought about by feelings of helplessness in the face of the huge issues to be addressed; and still press on – humbly, bravely, even if inconsistently, to try and do some good, together…?” Perhaps pretending to be more loving and patient than most of us really feel at times, is part of the problem.

I am not saying it’s okay not to care, or it’s fine to do nothing, because we are all ‘just human’. No. I hope you are not reading that. It’s about being honest enough about who we all are, and this hopefully freeing us, to be and do more than we could if we were still sitting around feeling bad for not being Mother Theresa. I don’t think we will get far if we think it’s all up to us, or that we should be a certain way, always respond in certain ways… Every person that crosses my path is not my responsibility to help, or ’fix’ - but I have a hard time letting go of the idea that maybe they are…and I will never be able to live up to that unrealistic (self-imposed) mandate! 

So perhaps I need to let go of ‘the one that got away’ and instead focus on being more open, attentive and responsive for the next one that crosses my path.

OR maybe I really did mess up big time and no one else helped the poor guy either, and I am just trying to self-justify here… What do you think?

I would really like to read some other people’s opinions and perspectives on this… both from within South Africa, and from other countries, where there are of course also inequalities and social injustices - although the dynamics may be very different...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Community and courage

I am looking for a community and society I can introduce our daughter into with pride. This isn’t it.

These recent words of mine on facebook elicited many responses from friends and family - mostly those in South Africa – either saying I should move to their neighbourhood as it has good schools and churches, or that the perfect community does not exist...

I found these responses most unsatisfactory, and here‘s why:

A ‘good’ community or society is more than its schools and churches – these are only ‘good’ for those that are a part of the particular group or subculture – I want to be part of something bigger than that: multi-layered and inclusive, with a good mix of people of various races/ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, age groups and religious/worldviews.

Anything lacking this diversity is a subculture, an ‘us and them’ space, and often an elite or exclusive group which ‘allows’ membership based on certain restrictive criteria or traditions. Conversely, true community is open to all: no exceptions, no exclusions, and no ‘expulsions’ when we don’t agree, don’t understand each other, or simply don’t like each other...  

In other words, community is like family – you don’t get to pick who is in it, and you aren’t necessarily alike or going to always like each other! But healthy families love and celebrate difference and individuality; communicate respectfully; resolve conflicts constructively; forgive and grow in their understanding of each other; and remain connected and supportive of each other throughout their lives...

Whereas dysfunctional families criticise, judge and condemn; can’t seem to communicate or resolve conflicts, preferring to nurse old wounds and grudges for decades; drift apart over time, heading in their various different directions; and are disinterested in each other’s lives, disaffected by each other’s pains and struggles.

While I agree that no ‘perfect’ community or society exists, or ever has, for that matter – there are certainly healthy, functional and multi-dimensional communities of people throughout the world, and historically. Peace scholars refer to these as ‘peaceful societies’, and have spent a lot of time researching and analysing what makes for peaceful human systems, in the hope of sharing certain principles and values more widely.

Some key principles of a ‘healthy’ society or community, from my limited studies, experience and point of view, would be the following:
  1. Conflict is not absent, but proactively transformed (through constructive, constant, loving and humble communication and dispute resolution processes) into a learning experience, an opportunity to grow and make a better way forward together.
  2. Difference is not feared and criticised, not even merely ‘tolerated’, but embraced and viewed as a gift to the community. This creates a ‘safe space’ for people to be themselves, and therefore not feel threatened by others being themselves. There is a healthy balance of personal freedom (to ‘be’) and mutual respect (to allow to ‘be’).
As someone once said, “between the alleged opposites lie the colours of the rainbow”... Instead of drawing lines, we could be painting in watercolours...

Unfortunately, it does seem that most communities and societies today are not of the ‘peaceful’ or ‘healthy’ sort, but more like the dysfunctional families described above. However, this does not mean we should sit back and accept this state of affairs, or remove ourselves and form subgroups or subcultures to avoid dealing with our neighbours.

In fact, since dysfunctional families are a major contributing factor to our dysfunctional communities and societies (Mother Theresa famously observed that “in the home begins the disruption of peace of the world”)... we can all also play a direct, observable role in turning this around for the better, beginning in our own homes and families, as well as in our immediate neighbourhoods. But this does take time – and massive daily doses of patience, dedication, forgiveness, humility and courage!!

‘Community-building’, a much-bandied-about phrase, and a field I studied as it touches the very core of what I passionately want to see in the world, and in my not for the faint-hearted. What I concluded from my studies (and quite contrary to the message they intended to give) was that it’s also not for outsiders – project-based experts who flit in and out of an area with good intentions but no lasting links to the people or area.

It’s not easy to ‘build’ community, or family for that matter - it needs to be invested in: deeply, proactively, and constantly... and is therefore best done by those who are personally, deeply and indefinitely invested in the community - because they live there, and eventually need to entrust their children to it.

Community-building is an ongoing journey, not a destination - like peace or sustainability (concepts very much interlinked with each other, and with ‘healthy’ communities) – we can never rest on our laurels, thinking we have ‘arrived’... We will need to nurture and attend to it daily in some form or other, for all of our lives.

So a ‘healthy’ community (or a ‘peaceful society’) is not in a state of stasis, or standing still in some ideal and perfect state, but on the contrary, requires a constant forward movement – constant learning, negotiating, growing, changing and developing... Otherwise things go backwards very quickly – losing ground occurs through simple inaction and indifference, more often than not.

Scientists might recognise this line of thinking as resembling natural processes such as ‘entropy’, expressed in the second law of thermodynamics, and the basis of chaos theory: anything left to itself decays or descends into a state of disorder, randomness and even chaos. It takes energy to prevent or reverse these inevitable natural processes.

Now, our daughter is not even born yet and I am already thinking about this. Any day now she will make her appearance into the world, and hopefully eventually become a shining member of human society – loving and being loved, contributing and learning, sharing her giftings and blessings with those around her... At any rate, this is how we will be raising her, and the values with which we will be sending her out into the world - when the time comes for her to leave our home and make her own way in life.

But what sort of world will she find out there? And what influences will shape her early years even before that – encountered at schools, in other people’s homes, and in public places like shops, beaches, parks and sporting events? 

Can we afford to be blasé about these influences, and hope that she is strong enough to make a value-driven, spiritually anchored path for herself through life- merging the values we instil in her, with those that come from her own heart and experiences? Or should we invest more time and effort in finding (or building) a community and society that more closely resembles what we believe in, in order to further support our child-rearing efforts?

This line of thought has of course in the past led many people to go off into the mountains and build their own ‘ideal’ community there, abandoning the society that has ‘failed’ them – excluded or persecuted them due to their religious beliefs, or not provided a safe and welcoming space for them to express their concerns and values as part of the communal debate and law-making processes... or simply because they fear ‘contamination’ by the society they see as corrupt and morally degenerate.

This removal of oneself from the rest of the community (whether completely, or by focusing one’s efforts on subgroups instead of attempting to interact with the ‘others’, the whole community) is a sad loss for all, and counter-productive - there can never be full health of any body or system, in this case the community, when there is fragmentation and disconnection between the parts. Health requires wholeness.

Having said all of this, there are valid reasons for carefully considering one’s membership of any given community, and feeling free to leave if one does not feel a deep resonance with the core values and beliefs encountered on a daily basis...

By this I don’t mean to imply that one would always agree with everything, or always feel understood and included... As I already pointed out, there is no ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ community - all communities have flawed assumptions and prejudices that individuals and subgroups within them may not agree with. But are you still able to live as you in that imperfect, flawed and fragile (read: human..) space?

Or do you feel suffocated, stifled, squashed, ignored, dismissed, disregarded, misunderstood, judged and ridiculed most of the time...? Because that’s not a healthy space for you to live in, then. And if you feel sufficiently outside of the collective space and conversations, then it will be very difficult, perhaps even impossible to change or build the culture and community.

So my recent ponderings on community, belonging and community-building come down to this: the courage required to commit to the long-term journey of community-building, and moving forward together to a preferred future, comes from some deep place within that can only be described as passionate commitment and unconditional love. One will only undertake this journey if one firstly feels a part of the community (at least enough to want to stick around and try to improve things) and secondly can visualise a ‘better’ future.

Many South Africans appear to be in denial about the second half of that – the ‘better’ future our communities could be building together - they claim to be very happy with their neighbourhoods or lifestyles, despite hard-to-ignore facts like crime and social injustices all around them.  For the most part, their statements show a lack of awareness of the issues, and complete denial of their responsibility to engage with the rest of the community and society, and contribute towards change.

Of course in the previous paragraph I am referring mostly to the white or affluent minority in this country (my friends and family...and me!). But those who have had less privileged lives in the past are now also mostly focused on serving their own narrow interests, and buying into the material-wealth-is-happiness myth, with very few pursuing selfless goals like community-building, reconciliation and empowerment of others. 

And of course the remainder, those millions struggling to just survive, can hardly be expected to pursue lofty goals like ‘community-building’ when those of us with ample resources find it hard to ‘make time’ to do this...

As for me, I am struggling with the first half of the motivation to be a part of changing and building this community – feeling a part of this community, at least enough to want to stick around for the loooooooooong journey of turning this culture around. Right now everything I see and hear around me makes me deeply unhappy and uncomfortable, yet I don’t feel I have a ‘platform’ from which to address any of these issues, or be a part of the change I want to see (to intentionally misquote Gandhi).

I don’t feel sufficiently connected, understood or even listened to, in this alien land (once my homeland) be a part of the conversation about what needs to change, let alone how to go about implementing that change. Why throw my 5 cents into the virtual arena then, you might ask? Because I still feel a small flicker of courage and hope – that there may be others out there who feel similar inklings, and a similar alienation from the national conversation, or lack of...

The many thousands (or millions, by now) who have emigrated to other parts of the world in recent decades, must attest to the fact that many South Africans have felt sufficiently ‘left out’ of the national conversations or direction the country was moving in, to not stick around and be a part of the much-needed changes, but to pursue their destinies more successfully elsewhere. I find this completely understandable (and I am so sick of people here attacking those who have left!!!) - although as I already said, I see this as counter-productive to our society, and a sad loss for all.

At least while I am here, I can keep trying to ‘stir the pot’, trying to start conversations about all of this, trying to prod people to think about it... until one day soon, when I suspect I might give up and go away. Sadly, or happily for me at least, I have actually had the experience of living in a reasonably healthy, functional society... and I freely admit, I long to go back there one day, even while at the same time feeling such a deep longing to contribute here (which is why we moved back to South Africa in the first place).

Although flawed, completely imperfect, fragile, with barely concealed conflicts and its own share of denial of these... Bondi, in Sydney, Australia... my neighbourhood, community and home from 2001 to 2009, was a more welcoming and ‘safe’ space for me as a complete foreigner, and for my particular personality, beliefs, interests and passions, than my so-called home country has felt over the last few years. So I keep asking myself, why stay where you are not wanted and will possibly never ‘belong’?

Any thoughts? I would love to hear them... (Not abusing me for my comments about South Africa please, but about your own feelings regarding belonging and community, or thoughts on community-building and whether you see yourself as having a role in this in your local area?)