"We are not separate from spirit, we are in it" -Plotinus
Last Tuesday, March 5, at 8am, I was walking down my street on the way to get a ride to work with a colleague who lives nearby. On a quiet stretch of road that I always particularly enjoy in the morning sun, a man ran up behind me and grabbed my arm. I went with the momentum, spun around, and hit him in the face. I then kneed him in the groin and kicked him in the stomach. He fell to the pavement, cursing. I ran. I was okay, but had a healthy sense of annoyance that this kind of thing can happen anytime, even when I'm fresh out of the tub on a beautiful morning.
About three weeks ago, Susan, an American woman, was mugged around 2:30am on a Saturday night. Her bag was stolen at gunpoint less than one block from the corner of her house in Yeoville. The two men fired at her as they ran away. She was not hurt, but her address and keys were in the bag. She and her four housemates set up camp at my place until the locks could be changed. I found myself sharing a bed with various people on a rotating basis. Several days later, an SABC TV presenter was shot in his car at 6am at a stop sign in Yeoville. He was injured, but survived. Less than a week later, I was awoken by continuous gunfire at 3am. I fell back asleep half an hour later, to the repeating sound of blasts.
Police frequently raid Hillbrow, a notorious neighborhood near Yeoville. They flush entire buildings of drug dealers and criminals (not to mention non-drug-dealing immigrants living in poverty and fear). The ones who aren't caught flee to Yeoville, where the police have almost no presence. The guns come with them. Things have gotten worse in the last few months according to long-time residents, because families are leaving, abandoning large houses that get taken over as crack dens, illegal group housing for refugees from the Congo, and drug lord headquarters. The truly dangerous places are identifiable because there are professional looking white people coming and going - they usually have stakes in the more lucrative drug businesses. Everyone is a target.
I'm getting an invaluable education in inner city living. But in the interests of living to tell my tales, I am moving to Melville, a safer area on the other side of the city. This kind of violence is best left at work.
Yesterday I walked through the clean, quiet streets of Pretoria to the taxi rank around 2pm and got on one of the newer bus-like taxis to Johannesburg. As usual, I was the only white person in sight. I sat in the back. Dozing on the way into the city, I smelled the Nando's chicken that was being torn apart and gnawed on by the girls next to me. I was comfortable, encapsulated in the moving space with people I had determined wouldn't rob or hurt me for the next hour. I woke up at the Harrow Rd. exit, realizing too late that I wouldn't be able to get off at my usual stop to walk home. Instead, the bus careened onwards to the Hillbrow station. I could hear a little clock in my head ticking off the dwindling minutes until I would be tossed out of my safe bubble and back into the world. I was carrying copious amounts of money (about US$200) in my bag to pay the deposit on my new place later that night. I had never taken a taxi to Yeoville from Hillbrow.
I got off the bus and felt very aware of my two bags. I started moving, walking forward while looking for someone to ask for directions. The two women I approached couldn't help me. A driver finally waved me in vaguely the right direction. The smell of meat grilling, tomatoes rotting in the sun, and urine-soaked dirt pervaded the bright afternoon light. It was hot and I clutched my briefcase in one hand, my small bag over my shoulder. The other hand was free and ready to strike. I felt a strange calm. The money in my bag was like a weight on the periphery of my awareness. Money is security. I was marking the edge of a steep cliff with my steps; I could lose everything at any moment. Still, I was there for a reason. Like those around me, I don't have a car.
The people I ride in taxis with every day don't carry very much money with them, and they usually assume no one else does either. They find ways to rummage deep into their pockets for three rand (about 20 cents) on kombis that are so overcrowded my pelvic bone feels like it's being crushed from both sides as I try to sit. They are street cleaners, hairdressers, domestic workers. They drink beer at 10 in the morning in dimly lit venues as throngs of people flow by. They sell cigarettes, matches, chili peppers, cabbage, turnips, chargrilled beef flavored potato chips, baby bonnets, towels, sunglasses, cell phone chargers. They buy bananas, sodas, blankets, pants, unidentifiable animal parts, live chickens, hair extensions, and stuff themselves with their carefully budgeted purchases onto dangerously decaying minivans to get home. I was there against the chaotic backdrop of the city like a pale creature from another world accidentally beamed into Hillbrow on my way to a conference center.
Someone finally yelled, "Nando's!" in response to my "Yeoville?". Great. It's not as though a hole in the wall fast food chicken joint is a landmark on Wanderer's Street. But I took the cue and began to flow with the stream of people going in a similar direction. Old women carried huge bags on their heads. Children dodged and weaved through people's legs. I heard brief wisps of voices in Swahili, French, Zulu, Sotho, weaving together and then dispersing into the crowd. I walked three blocks, crossed the street, and walked back before I identified the cluster of taxis camouflaged in the mid-afternoon traffic congestion on the side of the road. I found one that soon filled up, and knew as soon as I could no longer move without encountering someone else's elbow or knee that I was on my way.
Nothing was stolen. It was just another afternoon in Joburg.
I spend one or two days a week at POWA, People Opposing Women Abuse. I work as a counselor, and as a strategist building organizational capacity. I'm designing a volunteer program that will mobilize more people in different areas: not just counseling but also medical and legal advocacy, policy monitoring and government lobbying. Violence against women in South Africa is severe and widespread. Survivors have often been beaten with pipes or other blunt objects, burned, stabbed, or shot. Others are victims of economic abuse, trapped in relationships with men who control the household finances and use that power to threaten children and perpetuate abuse. Many are childhood survivors of violence and have been raped again as adults.
Before I moved here, I was warned that Johannesburg is the rape capital of the world. Statistically that may well be true. The way the media deals with the subject is proof of how much a part of life rape is here. In the States, some percentage of articles and TV segments about rape inevitably focus on how it should be defined, whether and how it is "violent," and whether the concept of rape is just another front in the political correctness battle to curtail personal freedom. While that reasoning may be frequently applied in closed courtrooms here, there is little time or space for it in the public discourse.
Here is an excerpt from an editorial in South Africa's Sunday Times from March 3. It was a welcome oasis among headlines of more child rapes and rapists free on bail.
"Many South Africans will blame [the scourge of rape] on a plethora of reasons such as ineffectiveness of the police and the courts, the legacy of the past, the government's supposed soft stance on crime and the absence of a death penalty. It is true that the police and the justice system have failed too many victims of rape, but only focusing on these institutions is too easy. It absolves us from our own culpability and the questions we have to ask as a society.
Why do men rape? Why are there so many men who believe women "ask" for their lives to be destroyed? A society is not made up of statutes and government departments, but is constituted by people--the men who rape and the rest of us who find this behaviour deplorable.
We must begin taking responsibility for the society we inhabit. There is no excuse for rape--not a poor background, not a neglected childhood, and certainly not an over-intake of alcohol. We have to instill in all South African men an ethic that says women have a right to live safely."
The rest of my time during the week has been spent doing research at IDASA, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. IDASA has always been a male-dominated institution. In 1996, however, something happened that could have put this well-respected organization on the map of progressive research institutions. The something was groundbreaking work on gender in local government. Unfortunately, IDASA's leadership was not ready.
In 1995 a unit within IDASA called LOGIC was started (Local Government Information Center) in anticipation of the first local government elections under the new constitution. A Canadian development agency funded the initial project, which created an information hotline for the general public to ask about voting, voter registration, and local government in general. The agency sent a Canadian man to co-manage the project with a South African. He saw an opportunity to expand LOGIC in a research capacity. It was his idea to begin looking at the gender breakdown of local elections; how many women were standing for election, how many from each party, and how many were taking office.
The results of the study, called Women at the Periphery of Power, formed the core of a huge conference that brought together hundreds of people in local government. At the start of the conference, IDASA's executive director announced that the Gender Unit at IDASA would no longer be in existence by the end of the week. All inquiries about the research and the area of gender and local government should be referred elsewhere. He later justified this decision by saying that he felt the whole thing was interfering with the agenda of the man he had hand picked to head the Local Government Center. Incidentally, the executive director is a white man and the head of the LGC is a black man. Race, gender, and politics had a head-on collision.
I heard this story for the first time after finally meeting the Executive Director at an IDASA function. It suddenly became clear why my research proposal, on a gendered approach to poverty alleviation at the local level, was considered probably unfundable. I am leaving IDASA this week. I have two offers, one from the Institute for Security Studies to research gender and conflict in the region, and another from the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation to do field research monitoring the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.
I sometimes ask people here, if they could solve one problem in South Africa in the next six months, what would be at the top of their list? White people often say crime, unemployment, or poverty. Black people often say unemployment, racism, and the distribution of wealth. Smart people say AIDS. There is a strong grassroots movement to provide pregnant women with Nevirapine, a drug that prevents mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The government of South Africa is vehemently opposed making this drug available, even banning its use in state hospitals. Yesterday the Pretoria High Court granted the Treatment Action Campaign's application for an execution order compelling the government to make Nevirapine available at all state facilities with the capacity to test for the virus and to counsel women before testing.
I find inspiration and hope wherever I can. It turns out that there is plenty to keep me going. I am deeply happy to be here. I have a resilience that can only come from travelling a road I know is the right one for me. I am thankful for the passion and conviction I bring to my work, and for the support of those who have helped me make this opportunity possible.
In peace and happiness,