“When you carry a gun, you feel like you are a human being.” -one of the Zimiseleni Boys, a group of youth between 12 and 16 years old in Kathorus, South Africa. Over 35 people a day die from firearm-related violence in this area.
In August, about four days after returning home to Johannesburg from my adventures in East Africa, I had to ask my friend Dave to pull over to the side of the road in Melville, a few blocks from my house. The well-dressed couple walking past clearly thought I was a pathetic drunk as I hunched over the curb, painfully ejecting dinner. Dave waited patiently and then drove me the rest of the way home.
The week got worse, complete with high fevers and continued digestion problems. My doctors tossed around notions of malaria, typhoid -- even dengue fever. When I passed out in another friend’s car after having blood drawn for tests, he promptly took me to his house and put me on the fold out couch, where I drifted in and out of consciousness for two days. My blood test results showed that I had a dangerously low white blood cell count, but the best conclusion as to why was one doctor’s diagnosis (and this is the technical term for it): a “mystery tropical disease.”
You don’t really know a place until you’ve been so sick there that you become acquainted with the inside of an emergency room—or at least a doctor’s office. The medical facilities in South Africa, for those who can afford private care, are high quality by “first world” standards. Nonetheless, losing control of my health made me so vulnerable that I was forced to rely on a support system of friends and co-workers despite my tendency for martyrdom. I was well taken care of, but the insight I gained into other people’s feelings of vulnerability surpassed what I learned about my own.
When I had a severe relapse exactly 30 days after my first symptoms, I was convinced that whatever “tropical” East African bug had been nesting in my body was back for Round Two. Discussions about my health became a map of people’s opinions and fears about larger matters. My South African friends said, “See? The rest of Africa is dangerous. This is what happens when you go north.” Some suggested that I could have caught it in Soweto, which was basically like the rest of Africa. Some of my American friends said, “See? This is what happens when you live in Africa. The whole continent is disease-ridden.”
After writhing in pain and being unable to eat anything at all for four days in a row, I was finally successfully diagnosed and treated for a bad case of campylobacter bacteria. Checking the Center for Disease Control web site, I found that this little creature lives in uncooked or improperly handled poultry. It is most commonly found in North America.
On August 23rd, in between bouts of horrible illness, I walked up the back stairs of the Time Square complex in Yeoville. When I reached the second floor, I headed for the Milky Way internet café, home of the R10 (one dollar) per hour connection, the cheap coffee, the inner city neo-Beatnik vibe, the outdoor balcony overlooking the grungy park. A sign on the door said, “The Milky Way has moved. Our new location is Shop 60, The Zone, at the Rosebank Mall.” I ran back down the graffiti-covered stairwell, jumped into my car with the urgency of a superhero on call, and headed north to the swanky suburbs.
The new Milky Way has framed pictures of galaxies on stark white walls. Clusters of all-new Pentium 4 computers with color monitors are scattered across a room at least twice the size of the old location There is a bright red, brand spanking new espresso machine behind the counter. Prices have more than tripled, presumably to cover the higher overhead costs of renting space in one of the most exclusive shopping centers in the province. It’s nothing short of internet a la Starbucks.
Kids from Hillbrow and Yeoville don’t have many options on a Friday night. The Milky Way was started in 1994 as a tiny grassroots operation to engage local youth in learning about technology, with special activities like Sunday outings for under-15’s and free Friday night internet access with live DJ’s spinning tunes for youth 15-21. "We want to continue with the service, but the problem is to get the kids to Rosebank," says owner Bruce Gillespie.
Getting the youth to the computers is not a minor detail—it is the whole point. The Milky Way is no longer serving its core constituency. Gillespie says the move was “a blow to the kids,” but says the business was no longer viable in Yeoville. The real message is that as the inner city implodes economically, demographically, and criminally, its young inhabitants will be abandoned for relative security to the north.
Mobility is power, something those who have it tend to forget. The kids may know where Rosebank is, and they may have the five or six rand to take two taxis to get to the mall. But they won’t make the journey, because when they step into a world of four-star hotels and designer shops, they will feel immediately that they don’t belong there. Without the kind of education and outreach that the Milky Way used to provide to inner city communities, another tenuous bridge across the growing socio-economic gorge has gone up in flames.
That is the problem.
The huge, internationally attended World Summit on Sustainable Development rode into town at the beginning of September for a week of high-level conferencing about the environment and lowbrow sideshows festooned with recycled plastic-bag art. Delegates were housed in hotels in heavily gated Sandton, where the proceedings were essentially isolated from the outside world.
As expected, Greenpeace howled that the Fat Cats of government were “dining on the backs of the poor they were meant to represent.” Government officials retorted that demonstrators were disrupting well-intentioned events, thereby also treading on the backs of the poor to further their own agenda. The poor were busy collecting firewood and trying to make a buck, and were unavailable for comment.
While the main talks were held in the safety of the northern suburbs, some delegates were seen as far south as Johannesburg itself, wandering around like live bait with colourful nametags and ID badges flapping around their necks. Many, mostly Americans, were spotted at various malls, attempting to boost the local economy by purchasing overpriced wooden giraffes. Police were bussed in from all over the country for the two-week event calendar, giving Sandton residents (and Sandton residents only) a brief taste of what it would be like to live in a community where there was more than one police officer for every thousand civilians.
On a Sunday night at ten, with the Summit in full swing, I pulled up to a red light in my 1994 Opel Kadett. The Melville intersection was deserted when another car pulled up in the lane next to mine. As I turned my head slowly, I saw the barrel of a gun and a man getting out of the car, which happened to be a very nice Audi sedan. Without thinking, I shifted into gear and stepped on the gas, aiming for the on ramp to the well-patrolled highway north. The would-be hijackers’ chase was brief and unsuccessful, and I got away safely.
After the adrenaline wore off, I felt almost no lasting fear. My most tangible emotion was annoyance, that a bunch of well-dressed guys in a new car thought it would be fun to dismantle my lifeline of transportation for spare parts.
For better or for worse, I chuckled at the Americans with their soapstone carvings and bead necklaces, pitied the residents of Cape Town and Port Elizabeth who spent two weeks without any police force at all, and ignored the bullhorn rhetoric from both sides of the development parade.
Instead of joining one of the various protest marches the following weekend, I went to the opening of a new community center in Riverlea (a poor mining neighborhood with gang problems) and taught a group of girls how to deliver a solid knee to the groin. Now that’s sustainable development.
The research I’m engaged in through the Institute for Security Studies has led me in some interesting and unforeseen directions. As an affiliate of the Arms Management Programme, I am writing about demand factors that influence the availability and use of small arms and light weapons in conflict and post-conflict communities. As part of a practical exercise in understanding the impact of guns, I was sent with some of my colleagues (mostly late-20s to early 30s black men) to a weapons training with the South African commandos at Pelindaba, where the old nuclear weapons program was once based.
As we pulled up in convoy to the dirt road entrance marked “Defence Facility,” everyone seemed to switch into a different mindset. Guys who speak to each other in Zulu or Xhosa when they’re not speaking English started yapping away in Afrikaans. There was a sense that we were all about to enter a forbidden space, the lair of the slain enemy. Some of the men in my group had actively participated in armed struggle, just as some of the officers there to train us had been involved on the other side. When we got out of our cars in an open field with targets lined up in the distance, there was a nervous moment of silence.
Moments later, some of the researchers broke into a dance, yipping sound effects and yelling about how the bones of their comrades were probably fertilizing the grass (unlikely, but the image was disturbing). The mood was oddly cheerful as a few of the guys pointed out the way the surrounding hills would prevent the screams of apartheid-era torture victims from being heard outside the valley. Possible acoustics were discussed in a very matter of fact way, with the white officers chiming in occasionally. The only awkwardness was for those who didn’t catch the banter in Afrikaans, still the de facto language of the military.
I watched as crusty old defence veterans helped former MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation) sympathizers with the finer points of dismantling an AK-47. We shot the AK-47s, AK-Ms, R5 assault rifles, Skorpion automatic pistols, light machine guns, and a variety of handguns. There was a sense of power about the whole exercise, but also a jubilant, if unspoken, celebration at the blatant crossing of boundaries that were once inviolable. At the end of the day, almost all of the cardboard targets had been reduced to a few shreds.
When there was nothing left to aim at, we retired to the commando headquarters where a braai (BBQ) was being prepared. For several hours, policy researchers on the ethical management of small arms and human rights violations made small talk over beers with a division of the military populated largely by serious gun enthusiasts and former enforcers of apartheid. Cigarettes were lit, laughs were shared, grilled meat was scarfed down without the hassle of utensils. It was dusk as our convoy rumbled back to the highway, a strange silhouette against the new South African sky.
A few weeks ago, I was contracted as a dedicated independent researcher to put together a five-day training course for police on Violence Against Women and Children. Given that there are twelve countries in the SARPCCO region (Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organization), all of which will be using my course outline, training and instructor manuals, and audiovisual materials, it was hard to pin down exactly what the target audience would be. Urban Johannesburg investigators? Rural Mozambican officers? To be safe, representatives from all countries agreed to aim for the lowest common denominator of knowledge.
In a conference held for five days in Pretoria, delegates from each country’s police force sat through demonstration modules and discussed course content. For the most part they were an enlightened group, accepting without argument that marital rape is possible and that wife beating isn’t justified by the payment of lobola (bride-price). Controversies flared over whether spanking children could be a crime, whether a woman’s consent could be withdrawn once an act of intercourse was in progress, and whether clothes or the lack thereof could be responsible for sexual harassment.
Luckily, none of the participants had the time or energy to demand final approval of the course content. I’m wielding about as much power as one woman can over regional police education, which means I haven’t gotten much sleep lately.
My recent work on gender-related issues has spanned from workshops for academic researchers to conversations with young guys in Soweto. All along the spectrums of education, race, and income, I’ve noticed that people hit the same kind of wall when it comes to talking about everything from men hurting women to men shooting each other.
Yesterday, Sunday, I spent the afternoon in a planning session with a new Gender Equality Group in Kliptown (a poverty-stricken “informal settlement” in the South Western Township). An almost equal number of young men as women showed up to talk about (or disagree with) the group’s mandate and objectives. Initially, the room was very quiet as I asked people to tell me what they thought of when I said “gender.” By the end of an hour, I could barely get in a word edgewise to facilitate.
One young man asked, very candidly, what gender-related problems had to do with him. He had never had much of a problem with things like virginity testing or sexual harassment, so how could he have a role in engaging the issues? When people hit this wall, I try to replace the term “gender” with another identity word such as race, class, or location.
I said: “I’m white, and I’ve never had a problem with race, so why should your problems as a black person be my concern?” He immediately exclaimed, “Well, how can we have equality if only the blacks sit around talking about it? Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you can ignore race.” I nodded. The connection dawned. “Okay,” he said, “I’m already sitting at the table, so let’s work together.”
The work that I’ve engaged in won’t be finished at the end of the year. But, it can wait for a visit home. On December 12th I’m getting on a plane to London, then another plane to Boston. I’ll be arriving in Boston Friday, December 13th, and staying in the US until January 12th. From December 30th to January 10th I’ll be on the west coast. After that, it’s back to Joburg for at least six months. I would like to see as many friends as I can while I’m stateside. There’s nothing like sharing experiences and catching up in person.