On Strong Female Characters, a Cape Malay Family and Apartheid Tales

I have a new favourite book. I just read Nadia Davids book “An Imperfect Blessing” published by Umuzi Press in 2014 and it’s difficult to express how amazing this book is. This book is about a Cape Malay family in Cape Town in 1986 and 1993, and in the telling of the family’s story, so much of South Africa’s history is told as well. I love the incredible female characters, the window it offers readers into South Africa, and the way it challenges readers to go and read more about South Africa’s history. It is a stunning book, and I highly highly recommend the book. The information I had about South Africa was poor before I moved to Johannesburg, and in the telling of one family’s very specific story, this book shares so much about South Africa as a whole. This book is a gift.

My full video review is above. Please do share and comment with your thoughts!












Holding Multiple Colonial Histories in my Heart (Day 3 at the ASRI Future Leaders Programme)

The Struggle Continues (Constitutional Court, Johannesburg, April 2015)

The Struggle Continues (Constitutional Court, Johannesburg, April 2015)

Today was a heavy day. In the morning we visited the Constitutional Court and the Old Fort where prisoners were housed during apartheid and after lunch we visited Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City. Over the past couple of days we’ve been learning about how law can be an instrument that enables justice and how the Constitution protects different rights, and today was a stark reminder of a time in which the law was used to exclude, punish and oppress non-whites and when there were no protected rights for the majority of South Africa’s people.

Today was my second visit to the Constitutional Court (the first time was an incredible tour that a dear friend set up for us during our wedding week that is still one of my favourite things that I’ve done in Johannesburg thus far) and my first visit to the different jails in the Old Fort Complex. It was difficult to see the different sections of the Old Fort and  to see where and how black men were jailed in solitary and group confinement, to see where white prisoners were housed (admittedly, much nicer areas) and to see the Women’s Jail. Though there are some offices in the Women’s Jail for organizations that work for gender justice, by and large the structures of the Old Fort have remained intact.

What made the tour so powerful was that we had a passionate and knowledgeable tour guide who helped us understand a bit of what the Old Fort was like for its prisoners. Whether it was listening to him and to the audio testimonials in the exhibits, or seeing the buildings or reading the displays, all of it was hard, but it was important to learn how white prisoners were treated very differently from black prisoners and the ways in which this differential treatment manifested in the prison system. Some of these ways included floggings for black prisoners and the use of carefully designed tools used to physically punish prisoners, beyond appalling sanitary conditions (for example thirty minutes was allotted for 2000 black prisoners to shower once a week, which effectively meant people could only shower every three or four months despite doing hard labour all day), daily stripping and violation of prisoners, no toilets for those in solitary confinement, latrines located close to where food was served, poor food and no treats (though at Christmas time white prisoners received a pound of pudding each). The cells of the prisoners who were kept in solitary confinement are still there, and we walked inside the cells, closed the doors and thought about how prisoners were left in their cells for twenty-three hours a day, and how solitary confinement could last from fifteen days to up to a year, with prisoners considered dangerous forced to wear chains. On the back of the doors you can see graffiti done by prisoners at the time, and seeing the cells made the injustice of the place even more tangible.

In the Women’s Jail we saw awful conditions as well and were shocked by how tiny the cells were for black women prisoners. We read stories of sexual violence and of women who asked for solitary confinement as respite from assault, heard and read stories of women who miscarried, learnt about how women did not have access to sanitary products and heard stories/saw signs about children that were born in the prison. We learnt that thousands of children were breastfed in prison. By the time we left the prison, I felt as though I couldn’t hear another story, hear of another oppressive act.

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Our Current Economic Policies Lead to High Unemployment (Day 2 at the ASRI Future Leaders Programme)

I woke up today thinking of Shonda Rhimes.  I am reading her book “The Year of Yes” as a library ebook, and at some point today – 20 something hours from now to be exact, whether I am done or not, the book will delete itself from my tablet. I am determined to finish. I peek at my book during breakfast, and  as we all eat lunch in a circle in the ASRI garden during our lunch break I sit with my tablet and read out passages to my husband. After work I rush indoors and sit in bed with pen, paper and my tablet unable to eat or chat except to read passages aloud until I am done reading. Afterwards I am exhilarated and emotionally spent from the read (Shonda is amazing, the book is fantastic and there are lots of life lessons that I need to ponder over further) and fall asleep very early in order to let my soul process what has just happened. Because of that I didn’t manage to blog properly about Day 2, but Shonda’s whole book was about saying yes to things that are scary and things that make your soul sing, and writing falls into both those categories. So before Day 3 starts, here are some quick reflections on our second day of the ASRI Future Leaders Programme.  On the whole, Day 2 was a wonderful, educational day with four different guest lectures who all further developed our knowledge of the Constitution and the impact of the law, and below are some of my (not comprehensive) take-aways from the day.

1) Our first speaker of the day was Mluleki Maronga from Section 27, “a public interest law centre that seeks to influence, develop and use the law to protect, promote and advance human rights.” Their name comes from Section 27 of the “South African Constitution which enshrines everyone’s right to health care, food, water and social security.” (Source: Section 27 Website) He was an engaging and interesting speaker, and one of the things he talked about was whether there is a difference between equality and substantive equality. There is, and we discussed how substantive equality is about bringing equality in tangible ways recognising that different groups have different levels of privilege and disadvantage. He quoted Mandela who said “We do not want bread without freedom, nor freedom without bread.” He also spoke about how it is important to know where we come from because only by understanding the location of pain can we focus our efforts on healing. Toward that end, he reminded us that South Africa comes from a history of “brutality and oppression” and that this oppression was manifest in at least three ways:

a) The Education System

  • South African had an act in 1953 called the Bantu Education Act that segregated schooling for black children, deemed the teaching of certain subjects unnecessary (for instance the teaching of math as a core subject) because the education system was designed for black students to simply take up what was seen as “their place in society”, and not designed to prepare them positions in the economy beyond what they were intended to take up.

b) Anti-black Urbanization

  • At the time of South Africa’s urbanization between 1904-1960, 80% of white people lived in cities versus only 32% of black people. It was a system of apartheid geography, and Mluleki read us a quote from the apartheid government saying “Cities are the white man’s creation. Black men may enter as long as he ministers to the white man’s needs, so long as he departs once he ceases to minster to those needs.” Aside from how that quote view black men, women are not mentioned at all and so you can see an erasure of women in the apartheid regime.

c) Land Dispossession

  • 87% of the population was on 13% of land during apartheid.

Other ways that this oppression manifested that came up in our discussion is through the economy (black people were unable to own means of production) and the health care system.

Hearing about these issues and our robust discussion of apartheid was a re-reminder that the impacts of apartheid can still be felt today and that in our own way, with the skills that we entered ASRI with and the skills we develop over the course of ASRI, it is so important that we contribute and do good work in society.

2) Our second speaker was Stuart Wilson, the Executive Director of SERI, or the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa. SERI is an non profit organization providing professional and dedicated socioeconomic rights and  assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa. If it is possible to have a crush on an organization I have one on SERI, and before the lecture when I looked up the organization I was amazed to see the range of work that they do. They do work on themes like housing and eviction, access to basic service, and political space and have a range of wonderful guides on their site on topics that range from resisting eviction to community organizing, to informal trading, rental housing and more. Stuart Wilson spoke about the contemporary moment in South Africa being characterized by fracture, and spoke about five or six of these fractures that exist in our societies today. The fracture I found the most interesting was the economic fracture, and he spoke about how since apartheid, poverty in the country has reduced only very slightly. Grants have expanded, but actual poverty has reduced very very little. We were vying for Brazil for the most unequal society in the nineties, but since then Brazil has invested a great deal in social programs and inequality in Brazil has been steadily reducing.

To learn more about fracture he gave us a book reference to look up: South Africa’s Insurgent Citizens: On Dissent and the Possibility of Politics by Julian Brown.

What was most interesting to talk about was that our economic framework is not designed to create jobs. South Africa has adopted the economic orthodoxy of Reagan and Thatcher, and despite public officials talking about high unemployment (in South Africa total unemployment is about 40%) the actual economic policies are meant to keep inflation down so that money retains its value. This is important for the very rich who have a great deal of money invested, but it does not create jobs. In fact, Margaret Thatcher was known to say that structural unmployment is a price worth paying to keep currency values up. Economists say that if inflation is below 20% (in South Africa it is well, well below that) the impact of inflation on the poor is very little, but it has a significant impact on the very rich because the value of their money decreases. When inflation is low interest is high, which makes it harder to borrow money. It makes it harder to spend money, it makes it harder to entrepreneurs to take risks, and the overall result is that high interest makes it difficult to generate economic growth. It hurts entrepeneurship and it has an effect on employment. (We also talked about low tariffs make it difficult to develop new industries, and South Africa has very very low tariffs, but that’s a conversation for another day)

This is all perhaps familiar if you took macroeconomics in school. What struck me afresh yesterday (perhaps it was the way he was explaining it because he really was a fantastic lecturer) though is that I’ve spent lots of time this year looking at immigration policies and South African visas, and the basis of  work restrictions of non South Africans (and especially spouses of South Africans) is based on the premise that there is high unemployment in the country, and so before any employer can hire a non South African, there is elaborate paperwork and steps required to prove that no other South African can do that job. And once that happens visas need to be applied for from one’s home country. To realize that the entire economic policies of the country are stifling employment is surprising, and makes these work restrictions and visa rules make even less sense than they did before. It also made me really want to strengthen my policy making skills as the public policy courses I took in my Masters and undergrad were a while ago, and knowing how to make evidence based policies seems like a good skill.

Our last two speakers were Michael Power from the African Legal Centre who spoke about working with communities and starting an NGO, and Jacob van Garderer from Lawyers from Human Rights who spoke about the work of LHR and the work of lawyers during the apartheid regime and how the law was used creatively as a tool of resistance.