Monday, December 10, 2012

Removing race-tinted spectacles

Guardian of the bridge in Yorkshire

I am an avid reader and have been for most of my life. I think I have read three fiction books and the rest have been non-fiction. For many years, my bed partners have been at least six books, all being cross-referenced with colour-coded stickers as I absorb the facts and sometimes the ways in which the media twists the truth to suit their own various agendas. It is because of the differences in the way history is written that I find myself starting on a subject that leads on to become an almost obsessional hobby to find out the truth by reading as many books on the same subject as I can, and cross-referencing so that I can find the “truth” somewhere there in the middle.

Social movements, politics, psychology, philosophy, religion and history have always been some of my favourite topics of study. I have spent thousands of hours reading about the politics of South Africa to try to understand why Eugene de Kock is still in prison, and from that there was a natural progression towards doing research on race and why we have racism in the world. One thought, one book leads to another and I find myself going around the world and back, still with the same questions but with a lot more knowledge (and hopefully wisdom). Knowledge without wisdom is like a donkey with a library on its back and I don’t want that label. I do try to put into practice what I learn and slowly am becoming wiser than I was a few years back. My learning curve has not even reached the top yet. I have so much more to learn and to understand about life, human nature and the soul.

This brings me to a book that has opened my eyes and changed my ideas of talent, as well as my ideas of the difference between races. It is called Bounce and is written by Matthew Syed, three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion. There are heaps of experiments described in his book that show that it is not talent that leads us to become world-class in any subject or sport, but opportunity and 10 000 hours practice. The great news is that it is not too late to begin on anything as long as you are prepared to put in the 10 000 hours practice needed to become world-class. Obviously, opportunity refers to having the opportunity to follow that “thing” you are interested in. In the case of Matthew Syed, his father bought a table- tennis table and put it into his garage when he was 8 years old. The fact that Matthew had an elder brother to play with daily led to his 10 000 hours practice and subsequently to the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. If for example you were born in the desert, it would be unlikely that you would become a world class swimmer due to the lack of swimming pools, but you could become a world class runner.

Matthew Syed also talks about the common idea that most people have…that ‘black’ people are superb runners. In fact, 494 athletes of the top 500 100-metre times and 98 per cent of top sprinting times are ‘black’ athletes. Many of the world-beating performances are limited to two population groups: African-Americans and Jamaicans who can trace their ancestry to West Africa. Does this mean that sprinting success is a West African ‘trait’? Absolutely not! Because virtually no West African nations share their success. Look at Guinea_Bissau, Sierra Leone, The Republic of Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Togo, Niger, Mali, Ghana, Gabon, Senegal, Congo and Angola – all West African states but whose combined inhabitants have never won a single medal in the 100 meters.

Just like the East African success in distance running, the West African success in sprinting is highly specific. Talking about a ‘racial’ superiority in athletics makes absolutely no sense at all. Is the notion of ‘race’ so deeply embedded within the psyche that there is a collective blind spot when it comes to its use and meaning?

Distance running is not a ‘black’ phenomenon, but an East African phenomenon, focused on the nation of Kenya. Not only that … the shocking fact is that all these world class runners live within sixty miles of the town Eldoret. DNA testing was done to see what has happened in the Nandi Hills of Eldoret to produce runners of this calibre. The DNA showed that there was no link whatsoever between the runners. The only common denominator was that all the world class runners had run an average of 20 km a day to school and back, clocking up more than 10 000 hours by the time they took part in world class events.

The only reason why racial scientists are able to get away with their statistically flawed generalizations is because they register with people’s natural inclination to regard ‘black’ as a biological type distinct from ‘white’ or ‘yellow’. We must make a concerted effort to move away from this powerful inclination of classifying people based on the colour of their skin. We need to free ourselves from this very powerful stereotyping. What I found quite astonishing is that some of the experiments show more similarity between two different skin colours (black and white) than between those of the same colour skin. Race is a non-word and a non-categorisation if we look at our biological and natural abilities to do things. If we have opportunity and we have the 10 000 hours to practice, we can be world class in anything we want to be, whether we are white, black, mixed race or any other ‘race’.

It is too easy for us to assume that racial patterns of failure or success are grounded in genetics. The tendency to see black and white as genetic types has been contradicted many times by the findings of population genetics.

If we ditch our race-tinted glasses, not only would the world look different, but it would soon become different too. We all have the potential to be world-class. It is not that we are born with talent, it is not because we are genetically pre-disposed to being great…we just have to practice long enough to be the best. Should we not just start by removing our pre-conceived ideas of race and view ourselves only as a member of the human race?

Friday, October 19, 2012

This was my life!

Jonathan leaves home for the last time

Renegade Angel – CARTE BLANCHE
Date : 20 February 2005
Producer : Kate Barry
Presenter : Devi Sankaree Govender
Genre : Children, Abuse, Social and Community

A drama workshop in the Eastern Cape town of Middelburg… These children may be dancing and singing, but each one has a painful history. To protect them, the law prohibits us from showing their faces
This is Mary. As a baby her prostitute mother locked her in a cupboard every day. She was placed with a foster mother, but when the childcare grant didn’t come, she was sold for R50.
This is Mary today: a happy toddler who lives in the Care House. The remarkable woman who rescued her and all the other children here is Dianne Lang.

Dianne Lang (SA Care Trust): “I know every one of them, I really know them. I know what their favourite colours are, I know their strengths, their weaknesses, the things that they like, the things they’re afraid of - I really know these children.”

There are 67 children in Dianne’s care. Their ages range from 18 months to 17 years. Most are HIV positive, many have been assaulted, some have been raped or sodomised - all were neglected. These children have become Dianne’s passion and life’s work.

Devi Sankaree-Govender (Carte Blanche presenter): “But when she first came to Middelburg, Dianne Lang had no intention of taking care of children. She was here as an HIV/Aids educator working with adults in the townships.”

Dianne: “My children were big. I thought, ‘Oh, this is wonderful! My 18 years of life sentence is over! I can do as I please.’”

But life is what happens when you’re making other plans. One night she was asked to look after three children found in a chicken coop.

Dianne: “There was Sam, who was three years old and dying of Aids, and really he was dying. The angel wings were flapping around this little boy. And there was Betty and she had been gang-raped.”
Devi: “How old was Betty?”
Dianne: “Ten. And then there was Patricia, she was about 11.”
Dianne says the social workers weren’t interested in the children.
Dianne: “They said, ‘This is the way they are in the townships. Lots of children live like that. So what?’ And at the time I was so naïve - I actually thought it was only those three. I didn’t realise that we had more than 350 children living like that here in Middelburg.”

The children had nowhere else to go.
Dianne: “If you have a dog and you can’t get rid of it and the alternative is to get the vet to put it down, you’ll keep the dog even if you don’t want it.”

Reluctantly she decided to keep them until they died.

Dianne: “But I started loving them. I started loving them, they crawled in my heart and in my skin and in my soul and when Sam stopped breathing, I grabbed him in my arms and I held him and said, ‘Sam, you have to live, you have to live’, and then I realised how much he meant to me. And he went like this [indicating] and he started to breathe… it was like God had given him back to me, and then I knew that I couldn’t turn back, they were mine.”
Sam is now seven and started school for the first time this year. And Dianne has many more children that she now calls her own, like three-year-old Donovan whom she found on the rubbish dump as a baby. He is just one of many children discarded by a town that is struggling to survive.

Middelburg is in the middle of the Karoo, 100kms from anywhere. What little work there was is drying up. The factories have closed, the trains have stopped running and the railway station stands empty. Even the municipality has closed down and moved to Cradock. In the townships there is no escape from the grinding poverty. On a Saturday afternoon almost everyone seems to be drinking.

Dianne: “You know what’s happening here - people are so poor, they’re dying so fast, you know, that the fabric of society is breaking down so badly that there are no norms and values anymore for these children. So brushing teeth, going to the toilet, these things are abnormal. Eating with a knife and fork or even eating off a plate is abnormal. Eating from a rubbish dump is normal. It’s normal to tease one another about how old was your rapist as opposed to my rapist. It’s normal to say, ‘I was raped six times. How many times were you raped?’”

Dianne and her staff try to give these children something resembling a normal family life. They cook four meals a day and, at lunchtime, all the street children in Middelburg are fed as well. This means they cook for over 120 people daily. The house is run according to strict rules: all the children have to make their beds and do the dishes. No stealing, lying or violence is allowed. Family members may visit children on Sunday afternoons under close supervision. Every child goes to school in the township and on Sunday mornings they all go to church.

Dianne: “We’re not eating grapes now, we’re going to church now, I told you! Come on - out, out , out! I-keps, I-keps.”

Dianne: “I decided we would try out a number of churches. We went to one church and then I found out that I wasn’t welcome. And then we’d go to another church and find out the children weren’t welcome. So it ended up that we started going to a Catholic church because it was the only place that we were welcome… and we were welcomed there because we were the only members of the congregation!”

Devi: “Dianne is single-minded in her cause and uncompromising in her stance. She confronts every obstacle head on and never backs down from a challenge. Not surprisingly, this sleepy Karoo town is struggling to cope with her.”

Johan Fourie (neighbour): “I don’t have a problem if they live here, but then they make a hell of a noise on a drum. When I go and talk to them about it, he says that it’s his culture to do it. What about my culture?”

Dianne: “I have brought the black children into the white area, so that is another concept that is difficult to swallow because one of the things is [that you hear people saying], ‘Hardloop’, ‘Gaan huistoe’, ‘Wat maak jy in die dorp?” [‘Run’, ‘Go home’, ‘What are you doing in town?’]

But that doesn’t mean she’s welcome in the township either. Being fluent in Xhosa, she is able to argue the point when drunken parents accuse her of stealing their children.

The last death at the Care House was in November 2003. Luke had full-blown AIDS and was only 18 months old when he died. Dianne wanted to bury him in the nearby cemetery and went to buy a plot at the municipality.

Dianne: “They said, ‘That baby you’re burying is black, this is a white cemetery’. I wanted the baby buried there, not because it was the closest cemetery, but because they said I couldn’t do it. I jumped up and down and I phoned Bisho and they very grudgingly gave me a plot.”

The children helped dig Luke’s grave, and today they can walk down the road to visit him there. Dianne sold her own house in Port Elizabeth and has bought five houses in Middelburg to house the children. It costs R50 0000 a month to look after them.

Devi: “Are you receiving any child care grants?”

Dianne: “No. I did apply to Social Development and they sent me a letter to tell me that they would not be funding me.”
Devi: “Why?”
Dianne: “They didn’t give a reason. Even the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund say[s] they have no money.”
Devi: “So how are you managing to do this financially?”
Dianne: “Well, I had a beautiful house in Blue Horizon Bay on the beach. I had to sell that home to keep these children alive.”

Friends in Scotland send private donations and second-hand clothing for the children. And every few months she goes to the UK on lecture tours to raise money.
Dianne: “It’s not just the money thing, it’s the lack of care. The Constitution and the Child Care Act is there to protect the child but the people that are supposed to be administering it are not doing their jobs.”
If social workers think a child is in danger, they sign a Form 4 to put the child in a place of safety for 48 hours. Thereafter the court orders an investigation of the child’s circumstances.
Dianne: “In three-and-a-half years the system has only placed five… five, children permanently with me.”
Devi: “And the rest?”
Dianne: “They’re also still on Form 4s legally, a Form 4 stands for 60 days.”

André van der Lingen (lawyer): “When children are removed from their home and placed in an infant home for safety, then within a certain time prescribed by law, Social Services has to file a report in order for the court to ascertain whether the child is a child in need of care and has to be permanently placed in a place of care, and some of these reports have taken years.”

André van der Lingen is Dianne’s lawyer and is taking the government to court.
André: “It’s a specific order, it’s called a Mandamus Order - that’s an order obliging government to actually do what they have to do.”

Last year social workers removed 24 children from Dianne’s care, including this baby, and returned them to their abusive parents. Some were beaten again, before the police brought them back to the Care House. Dianne has decided that if the State won’t protect these children, then she will have to.

Dianne(cradling baby in her arms): “I’ll go to the Supreme Court this time because this is a contravention of the Child Care Act. This is a contravention of human rights, isn’t it?”

André is now launching a class action against the State on behalf of these children.
André: “In those cases we’ll have to approach the court and ask for a curator to be appointed and bring a class action for the damages that the children suffered as a cause of the abuse.”

Last week, while Dianne was celebrating her Woman of the Year award, events took an unexpected and tragic turn. Included in the class action were Lionel and Jonathan aged 14. While Dianne was overseas last year, social workers removed the two boys from the Care House and sent them to House Erica, a correctional facility in Port Elizabeth.

Dianne: “I got lots of letters from Jonathan, and I also phoned him a lot and he phoned me. I did know that he was being bullied. I took photographs of the boys. When they went to Erica, they had no tattoos. The boys told me that they were being bullied by the older boys - they were being held down, they were being tattooed, sexual advances were being made on them. They were also being exposed to drugs and so on, and they were not happy there.”

In his first letter Jonathan told her that one of their roommates had hanged himself on the stairs. Dianne did everything she could to get them out of House Erica and back home to Middelburg.

Dianne: “I have a file this thick. I’ve written letters to the Social Workers, to the Case Manager, to the District Manager, to Bisho, right up to the Minister of Social Development, to the Commissioner of Child Welfare, to the Department of Justice, to the Head of the Magistrates… every person who could possibly help in the case of Jonathan and Lionel, I have asked.”

But she got no answer. Jonathan and Lionel remained in House Erica and couldn’t go home to the woman they called Mama D, despite her promises to get them out.

Dianne: “A little boy who listens to somebody who says, ‘I’m going to get you out, I’m going to get you out’, is like promising someone, ‘I’m going to get you an ice cream,’ and it never comes - tomorrow never comes. So, for Jonathan, tomorrow never came.”

Last week Dianne received the news that Jonathan Kaptein hanged himself on the stairs. She went to Port Elizabeth to find out what made Jonathan take his own life. A representative from the Department of Social Services agreed to speak to us.

Alfrieda Mathews (Department of Social Services): “There was an incident regarding substance abuse, dagga, which they found in the premises of Erica House. The management stepped in, they confiscated the dagga, they did some investigation, they called the police and whatever. And apparently Jonathan was part of the group that was involved in this dagga, and some of the boys apparently accused him that it was his dagga. And, well, I think the boy took it too much and he decided that it’s got too much for him.”

Dianne: “I’m sorry! Not a small thing like that…not an intelligent boy like Jonathan.”

Dianne then went to the police mortuary to identify his body, and make arrangements to take him back to Middelburg to bury him.

Dianne: “The social workers on that case - and not only the individual social workers but all the way up - every single person I contacted right from the beginning until now needs to be held accountable. Anybody who could have done something needs to be held accountable.”

Alfrieda: “I would say that we did not fail, but there might be other reasons, emotional reasons, whereby the system may have failed him.”

Dianne: “If any one of those people had stopped and thought, ‘If this was my relative, if this was my child…’ If any one of them had done that, he would still be alive.”

Jonathan was buried yesterday in the Middelburg town cemetery.

Dianne: “I’m sad because I loved Jonathan. I’m sad because of the loss of potential… that Jonathon could have done something for our country. And I’ve been saying for so long that if we look after our children, we’re looking after our future. Jonathan was our future and because we didn’t look after our children, there’s part of our future gone. I’m actually passionate. If people… if there aren’t people like me out there, who’s going to speak for our children? Because nobody’s listening to them.”

IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

To dig a grave with a jam tin ...

Standing around Luke's grave
I had never had to bury someone before so I was learning the steps as I was going along. There was much to organize to bury Luke. There was a coffin to buy, a plot to purchase, and a funeral to organize. Amore and I went off to the funeral parlor to discuss the cost of a funeral and realized that we could not afford it at all. When I told them that we would bury Luke ourselves we were promptly told that we would not be allowed to do that because we would not be given a death certificate. “Thank you very much”, I said as we sailed out of the funeral parlor. By this stage, I did not trust anything anyone in Middelburg told me and this smelled like a racket to me. Was this a way to get poor people locked into expensive funerals? Where were our constitutional rights? Now I needed to go back to my books and back to the telephone to find out how to go about getting a death certificate without going through funeral parlors.

After numerous telephone calls I discovered that the death certificate story that I had been given was a scam that all the funeral parlous were using to ensure that they got all the business. No wonder no one buried their own family. All I had to do was go to the police station and get a burial order. It was that simple. Next was the purchase of a coffin. We went to three funeral parlous to find the cheapest coffin. They were all out of our price range, although at that point, any coffin was out of our price range. We were struggling to keep food on the table and had not paid the school fees yet. The end of the month was coming up and staff salaries had to be paid. On top of that, it was only two months to Christmas. Eventually, I asked a funeral parlor if they did not have a damaged coffin or one lying around that could not be sold that we could repair. The lady obviously took pity on us and went out into the back yard to take a look. She came back with a little white coffin that was damaged and falling apart. It was dirty and weathered from lying outside, obviously exposed to the elements for a long time. “Perfect”, I said, “how much?” “What about R100?” The deal was made and we left with the coffin. Amore was still so afraid of death or anything connected to it that she would not even carry the coffin. With bravado, I picked it up and carried it across the street and put it into the 4 x 4. With a little bit of paint, nails and screws, the coffin looked much better. The children painted pictures on the coffin and it looked quite festive: a sarcophagus fit for a boy prince.

All the preparations for Luke’s funeral kept us busy and focused, and I had little time for grief. There was much consternation at the staff meeting as they were very unhappy about us having a funeral and not using a funeral parlor. “What will the community think of us? They will think we are poor and will look down on us. It is our culture to use funeral parlors. We must also provide food for everyone who attends the funeral and there will be lots who will come because they want to see what goes on in the Children’s Home. We must also have all the dishes outside so that after the service at the grave, everyone can wash their hands before coming inside”. These were the arguments that they were giving me. One of the many problems that have frustrated me over the years of working in the community has been the use of the word culture. Having grown up in the Transkei, I know the customs and culture of the Xhosa people. Using funeral parlors was definitely not part of the culture. My mind wandered back to a workshop that I had taught where I had used an example of the necessity of using a seat belt in a car. One of the delegates told me that he would not use a seat belt because it was not part of his culture. “And using a vehicle is not part of your culture either. You should be riding a horse”, I retorted. The delegates howled with laughter. I have found that many people use the word “culture” as an excuse for doing or not doing something. Culture is also often used as another word for racism. And the annoying thing is that those who use this word so indiscriminately are those who have never grown up in a tribal system, but have grown up in cities and in a western environment. What they knew about tribal culture was dangerous. It was time for a serious talk to the staff regarding more than just culture and funeral arrangements. I needed to impress on them once and for all the dire financial situation we were in. For some reason, they were under the impression that I was a never-ending source and supply of all things, because whenever we needed something, I always seemed to come up with what it was we needed, when we needed it. However, it was more due to providence and good fortune that we always seemed to just make it.

I brought out our bank statement and showed them that we had a total of R1800,19 in the bank. I showed them my private banking account with an overdraft of R50 000,00 which had been keeping us afloat. I showed them the total monthly expenses. Not all of them grasped the seriousness of the situation, but they took it that I was not a never-ending supply of money and that I did not have any money to spare. I also had to tell them that I had sold my own home in Port Elizabeth and that all the proceeds of the sale of the home had gone into keeping us afloat. I had no other means of getting more money into our project. “Funeral parlors are not part of the custom”, I said, while Nonqaba agreed by saying “Ewe, njalo”, “Yes, that is true”. She is the only staff member who had grown up in the Transkei and, being the oldest member of staff, everyone had to concede to her superior knowledge. I continued, “What we are going to do is bury Luke ourselves. The community did not care for him. They did not step in and offer any help. They have not assisted us in any way at all. In fact, no one did anything for the children before we came here and we are not here to put on any show for anyone. Apart from trying to locate Luke’s mother to get her to attend, we are not advertising this funeral. If we had money we would have been able to buy the drugs for Luke and he would not be dead. We do not have the money for a big funeral. We will do what we can with what we have. There will be no more talking about big funerals”.

After more discussions, it was decided to have a short service at the Catholic Church and then we would walk to the nearest cemetery where we would bury Luke. After that, we would come home and have lunch and then have a video afternoon for the rest of the children. Organizing the church service with Father John was just a phone call. Organizing the grave site was another matter altogether.

To purchase a burial plot, I had to go to the Municipal Health Department. Amore and Jackson came with me. Jackson was one of the first HIV and AIDS Trainers that I had trained, and he had been a volunteer for a long time before he joined me in caring for the children. I asked them for a burial plot for a baby. “That will cost R60,00”. “That’s fine. Is that in the town cemetery?”, I asked. “What color is the baby?” “What difference does that make?” I was shocked by the question. “The town cemetery is for whites only”. “What?” I was incredulous.

Here we were, almost 10 years into the new South Africa, and we were still talking about cemeteries for white people. Had Middelburg not heard that there had been a takeover by the ANC? And that apartheid was gone? “It is a white cemetery”, the lady behind the desk said again. I had wanted to bury Luke in the town cemetery because it was the nearest cemetery to where we lived. We only had one vehicle which could carry eight children at a push, and therefore everything we did outside the home had to be within walking distance. The other two cemeteries were too far away for the smaller children to walk to. During the previous government, one cemetery had been for blacks, one for whites, and the third for coloured people. The only reason I had chosen the “white” cemetery was because it was closest to where we lived. Now, the cemetery became an issue for me. It had to be that particular cemetery, not because it was the closest one anymore, but because I was told that it was a white cemetery and Luke was a black baby and he could not be buried there. Was this another one of the new South Africa’s sick jokes?

“That is bullshit, utter bullshit. This is the new South Africa. There is no such thing as a white cemetery. I want a plot in that cemetery and I don’t care what you have to do to get it for me. You had better pick up that phone and phone your superiors and clear it with them now because I am not walking out of here until you give me the receipt that I have paid for a plot in the white cemetery for my black baby”. My voice was raised and those waiting around to be served had stopped talking and were waiting to hear what would happen next. Amore was pulling me by the arm and telling me to calm down. Jackson was standing there with his chest stuck out a mile, looking pleased as punch and strutting around while bending his head in my direction every now and then when someone looked in my direction. Jackson is one of my biggest fans, and he loves it when I get mad and give the authorities hell on some human rights issue. This was just up his alley. The little lady behind the window at the desk was busy on the telephone. Comments started being made by those waiting to see various people in the department. “She will never get a plot in the white cemetery” “Yes, she will. You watch and see”, said Jackson. Other comments were made and Jackson was strutting his stuff, proud as punch to be the center of attention. I was shaking with anger. Amore kept rubbing my arm up and down and telling me “Calm down Mom”, but I was beyond being calmed down. The lady came back to the office window. “This has never been done before. I can’t get hold of anyone”. “If it has not been done before, it does not mean it cannot be done now. Either you sell me that plot in the town cemetery or you get hold of someone who will authorize you to do so. I have told you that I will not leave here until you do so”, I repeated. Back she went to the telephone, this time clearly flustered. The consternation that was going on in the Health Department had drawn other staff members into the office behind the glass window and they too were having their comments and opinions. In the meantime, I remembered that I had the telephone number of Mr Kelvin Claasen, Head of the Health Department in Cradock and called him. “Kelvin, this is Dianne. I have a problem here. One of my children has died and your department won’t let me bury him in the white cemetery. I thought this apartheid bullshit was over. Can you please tell them to cut their crap and give me a plot?” I banged on the window and handed my mobile through to the lady. “Here, take this call. It is Mr Claasen”. I watched her face. She said nothing. She nodded, and then nodded some more. Then she said “Yes, Mr Claasen”. And that was it. “The plot will cost you R285,00” she said. “Why
does it cost more than the original quote?” “Because you want a white cemetery”, she replied. “This too is utter bullshit. The white cemetery costs more than the black cemetery? Does the ground cost more?” I asked as I paid. “Will the Health Department dig the grave?”, I asked. “No”, she fumed. “OK, we will do it ourselves. Thank you for all your help”, I said sarcastically as we left. Jackson was in his element. As we went through the door, Jackson could not help himself. He had to put his head back in to say “I told you so” to the gathered audience.

We woke up to a perfectly brilliant sunshine day: a perfect day for digging a grave. Surely not such a big job for Jackson, Amore, the kids and I? We had a pick and two spades so it would be fairly easy. It had to be done today because the funeral was tomorrow. We would cover the grave overnight with plastic, just in case it rained. Just after noon, the three of us took the plastic, pick, spades and water bottles and went to the cemetery. We found the grave site fairly easily. The Department of Health had drawn an outline of the size of the grave into the hard earth. Starting with the two spades, we dug around the marked areas. This is where we encountered our first problem. The earth was so hard that the spades bounced back up from the ground when we thrust them into the ground. We tried jumping onto the spades so that the shock of the bouncing would be less on our arms. When this seemed like a losing battle, we resorted to the pick. Amore and I had tried the spades, so now it was Jackson’s turn with the pick. He would pick at the earth and we would use the spades to move the earth out of the hole. It was slow going. Even the pick was making very little difference in the earth. The sun was streaming down and in very little time, the sweat was pouring off of us and we were huffing and puffing.

An hour and a half had gone past and we had gone down 4 inches. We needed to get to five feet. The earth was hard, dry clay. We could not stop. We took it in turns with the pick and the spade and made slow progress. We stopped talking. It was too hot and we were too tired to talk. We just wanted to get the job done. The only sounds were the sounds of the pick and the spade on the hard baked earth and our panting. There was not a breath of wind. Three hours later, we were down to three feet, but now we could not use the pick. The area of the small grave was too small to stand in and swing the pick. It was spades only and we were getting nowhere. “Let’s go and get the big boys to come and help us”, I said. “What we need here are some metal tins to use to scrape the ground out and they will be small enough to get into the grave and do it”. By now the wind had started to pick up and there were dark clouds brewing in the south, a sure sign of a summer storm. We would have to move fast.

When Matthew, Mark, William and John arrived with their mbozo’s (tins), they got into the grave and started working on clearing the ground. It was hard work for them as well. We tried to stack all the ground that we were taking out up on the one side of the grave so that it would be easier to fill in after the burial. This would also make it easier for us to get the coffin into the grave. While they were working and we were encouraging them, the rain started coming down, so I rushed over to the van and got the plastic sheet. We all huddled under the plastic sheet, the boys in the grave and the three adults sitting around it while the storm got worse and worse. The wind buffeted the plastic sheet and it took all the adult strength to keep it from flying away. As fast as the storm had arrived, it stopped. Off came the plastic sheet and back to work we went.

The cemetery is bordered by a well-used road that runs parallel with the fence and leads to the predominantly coloured area called Midros. Seeing this group of blacks and only one white woman sparked something in the people who were driving past and they started shouting obscenities at us. Some told us to get out of the white cemetery. Whites drove past and shouted “Wat maak julle daar? Kom daar uit!” (What are you doing there? Get out of there!) At three and a half feet, the rain came down in buckets again. Again we sheltered under our plastic cover, but we were wet and cold.

When the rain stopped, we would dig again. And so the afternoon continued. Digging, raining, sheltering, people shouting at us, digging, sheltering: it seemed never to stop. “Will they know if we don’t dig all the way to five feet?” asked Amore. “No, but I think we should continue”, I said, having visions of a flood and this coffin floating out of the ground. This was the first grave I was digging and I did not want to get it wrong. Looking back on this now, I wonder why I never doubted myself, what made me just go ahead as though nothing was impossible? It was dark and still we had not reached five feet. This called for torches, and so we continued to dig with tins while using torches to light our way. Eventually we finished at about nine that night. “I hope no one else dies because I am not digging any more graves”, said Matthew as we got home. I hugged him and thought, “Yes boy, I hope we never have to dig another grave”.

The next day, I went to fetch Luke from the mortuary and Amore and I dressed him in “our” favorite clothes. We wrapped him in his favorite blanket and put him in his specially designed coffin. We all left for church at the same time, with Jackson carrying his coffin at the front of the line. The children were all walking behind the coffin, walking slowly behind, two by two, holding hands. After the service, we walked to the cemetery. There were no other guests who attended. It was only Luke’s family, us, we who loved him.

Luke’s funeral that day was simple, beautiful and a celebration of his life. It was also a time to remember how grateful and honored we were to have loved Luke and to have been with him for those many months. The funeral service at the Catholic Church was sad, with the children singing hymns. I sobbed when they sang “Goodbye goodbye” to Luke. I sat there remembering how Luke got one tooth at the bottom first, then one at the top. Then he got another at the bottom and then another at the top. He only ever had four front teeth. He loved his milk biscuits and Vienna sausages. He loved to be pushed around fast in his pram by the other children and squealed with delight when tickled. We never did get to find his mother before he died, but heard later that she too was so ill that she would not have been able to come to Luke even had she wanted to.

Luke’s mother died four months after Luke. There was no money to bury her. She lay in the municipal mortuary for five months before she was given a pauper’s funeral.

The smaller children still ask me when we go past the cemetery, “Mama D, can’t we wake Luke up now? He has been sleeping long enough”. They do not understand the concept of death.

The ‘white’ cemetery is no longer ‘white’. Everyone can be buried under the beautiful trees in the most beautiful cemetery in Middelburg. Many people of colour are buried there today. I doubt if they spare a thought for the little black boy who was the first to lie amongst the fancy marble headstones of the apartheid whites only area: or a thought for the woman who fought so hard for that plot: or the rag tag band who dug the grave with jam tins.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

One Of The Happiest Places I Have Lived

One of the happiest places I have lived 

I love writing, so whether I am writing to friends, busy with a book or just putting my thoughts down on paper … I am in my element.  I have always wanted to be able to be just a writer when I am wealthy enough to only write, since it is seldom that anyone makes money with writing. Thousands and thousands of books are written every month all over the world and perhaps one or two may get into the top 100 books and begin to make some money.  As yet, I am just one of the hundreds of thousands of people just writing for the love of it.
Over the past two weeks I have had enormous health challenges, some of the days which are just a blur in my memory, and some of the days are just gone.  But what I have missed is writing.  I have wondered why the world seems to be conspiring against me in my absolute desire to write.  First my computer is stolen with the external hard drive that had saved a book in its final edit (I could have cried but decided there must be some reason I am yet to understand why it has gone).  Then I had a borrowed computer until the insurance eventually paid out but instead of a laptop, I now have a desktop (cheaper and less likely to be stolen).  After the myriad things one has to do to get back up and running on internet as well as locating all the necessary software, I was ready to go.  Still I could not get to my keyboard.
My human serum transplants which I have every two weeks in Cape Town takes up a lot of time and since my last blog/letter/article I have been in hospital three times with various complications.   I am certainly giving a new meaning to the words “as sick as a dog”.  There was one point during this time that I actually asked God to please take me because I could no longer cope with feeling so ill.  Well, needless to say, He said, “NAF, I don’t want you here trying to tell me how to do my job”, so here I am, still breathing, dreaming and being.   AND best of all, actually writing again.
Oh, of course there have been the usual things that we also have to deal with as a community.  No water for a few days because the water pipes from the dams broke due to too much rain and then the sub-station blew up so we had no electricity either for a few days.  A lot of people were complaining about it, but since I felt so awful I had absolutely no sympathy for them.  All I could say was “Well, you live in Africa.  Build a bridge and get over it”.  There are many things one can do.  Candles can give you light; a primus stove with paraffin is cheap so you can make a meal.  You can go collect water or use buckets outside (it is raining enough) and fill your bath to use to flush the loo when it is brown.  When it is yellow, you just let it mellow.  I cannot understand why people get so hit up about such small issues.  Even the burglary did not upset me that much since I figured that given the crime statistics … I had been quite lucky not to have been burgled more often.  What I am rather mad about is that they stole my computer – if I had been here I would have helped them put the two televisions in their vehicle and helped them load everything they wanted, but I would have asked them to leave my fucking computer alone.  
And of course, the thief having my gun (with the bloody safe) also makes me mad.  I received a phone call from the police a few days after the burglary that went very much like this:
“How many magazines were there in the safe when your gun was stolen?”
“How?  Thees cannot be”
“There were no magazines with the gun”
“Why not?”
“Because it was a revolver”
“Ow, zen how many bullets?”
“About 25 in the box and 5 in the chamber”
“Where is the sixth bullet then?”
“The chamber only takes 5 bullets” …. And so it is with the weapons crime unit.   Agh, this is Africa!!  You got to love it and have patience or you end up with high blood pressure and a stroke.  A sense of humour is a prerogative if you live in Africa.
I have been up since two this morning.   I was so nauseous which is one of the nastier sides of being ill.  I took some anti-nausea meds, some pain killers, and came to do something productive instead of lying there in that bed feeling sorry for myself.  I can always choose how I want to react (well, almost always) to not feeling well.  And … I have seen the most amazing sunrise this morning.  The nausea has abated, whether due to the meds or due to the fact that I am occupied with doing something I love to do … who cares?  Had I not woken with that nausea, I would not have had the privilege of seeing this beautiful sunrise this morning.  I wish I had the ability to convey to you in words the brilliance of this rising sun – the radiance of this enormous round disc floating in the sky, just under a dark blue patch of sky with fluffy white clouds scurrying across the front of the sun every now and again.  But alas, my ability to describe scenery is quite dismal.  People I can describe, but nature has me buggered.
Having spent so much time in bed lately, I have been doing my other favourite thing … reading.  My reading has some kind of link to it because I go from doing research on Eugene de Kock, to the apartheid era and the politics and dramas of that time, those people who had the power to those who tried to get freedom, from there to communism and the rise and fall of it in Russia … from there to comparing what is going on here politically with what went and still continues to happen in post-communist countries … the similarities are striking.  One day I think I may just do a thesis on what huge social movements can achieve and how they can also destroy the individuals who live within these states.  That should keep me busy for a long time so I won’t be able to die before I have completed that task.
I have very few things on my bucket list … one of them is that I wanted to have dreadlocks. Yesterday I sat for hours in a very comfortable recliner in my own bedroom while I was transformed into a Raggedy Ann – African style.   I absolutely love it but I know that there will be many people who will think I am crazy.  They will be right of course.  And again, I don’t care what they think.
If I did not lift your spirits with this communication, I hope I at least made you smile.   Life is so short, let us live each moment and become more aware of the very breath we breathe.  Thank you for letting me talk to you today.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Only Thing I Am Certain Of...Is my Ignorance

I think that I am thinking that I know nothing!!!
The value of philosophy should never be underestimated.  Philosophers are involved in discovering every avenue of thought.   It should therefore not be surprising that I write about so many different subjects or why I cannot be labelled and put into any one particular category of person.   It should also not surprise anyone that some of our/my conclusions should be found unacceptable in some way or another.    There are often questions that come up where none of the suggested answers are acceptable to most.
The reason that most philosophers (thinkers) have problems with agreeing not only with one another, but with the public in general,  is because of the nature of the subject (all thought), and also because they constantly challenge traditions and ideas in order to generate  new perspectives on things.  

In science, most people agree not only on the assumptions, but also on the questions based on those assumptions as well as on the use of certain concepts within that discipline.    But even with wide-spread agreement on the subject, the philosopher is still of extreme importance.  How would we know what to do with scientific discoveries without first thinking about what kind of society we want to live in and what responsibilities we owe each other, our children and the environment?
Another merit of the work/thinking of philosophers is the logical way in which they argue their stance, at least showing us what NOT to believe or accept as truth.   (Yes, there are rules that must be applied when using thought to reach a conclusion).   For example, we cannot say that all swans are white because only one black swan will negate that statement.  However, we can say that all men who have been unmarried are bachelors.  This is an undisputed truth. Logic is the most important concept in philosophy.  If something is stated that is not logical, then the philosopher is nothing but a fool. 

The history of social, political, scientific, religious and technological change is bound up in the history of thought.   Various philosophers have made these changes possible.   Without the logician Frege, the information age would not have been possible.  Female suffrage was taken seriously after Wollstonecraft.   Newton relied on Aristotle and Einstein on Newton for their great discoveries. 
While most people associate the USSR on Karl Marx’s philosophy on communism, many do not know that the superpower of the USA was born of the philosophical writings of Tom Paine.  

I have often stated that thinking is the real business of life.   It is not the province of specialists in philosophy, but it is intrinsically part of how a person navigates thought life.   If we all argued, using the rules of the philosopher, we would have a far more mature society to live in.  The first rule is to play the ball and not the man.   By playing the game of life in this way, nothing would be taken personally and we would have to think before we open our mouths to cause hurt and harm to another.   Real thinking should add value to society.
Anyway, this is just my opinion.  It is the reason behind why I try to put myself in another man’s shoes, why I do so much reading and research, and why I shut my mouth until I am sure that I am not talking shit.  It is a constant struggle for the only thing that I really know, is that I know very little about anything. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Forgiveness, me and Eugene de Kock

Every activity first starts with a thought. This blog started with a thought that was provoked by a few comments about forgiveness on the Free Eugene de Kock Group on Facebook. 

I have struggled with the concept of forgiveness for years. From philosophers to psychologists, from religious leaders to scientists … I have spoken to them all and discussed the concept of forgiving and forgetting and moving on from the past. 

I adamantly believed that it was impossible to forgive without the abuser apologising for his or her behaviour. How can you forgive someone for doing a bad deed to you if they think they were justified in what they did? That was my dilemma. And I fought all these people about it. I just would not listen to their reasoning. I suppose, it is a case of “Die wat wil nie hoor nie, moet voel”. I ’voeled’ and I learned. 

Of course, I always knew that we cannot forget the hurts done to us, no matter how saintly we are, no matter how many times we turn the other cheek, no matter how forgiving we are … only a fool will forget what has hurt him. Surely you will not pet the dog that bit you a second and a third time, just to be bitten again. Surely you would remember not to go near him again? 

Now that I have spent the good part of 30 years thinking about forgiveness, I change my mind about the concept. While I thought that forgiveness could only happen when the trespasser asked forgiveness, I now know differently. I have learned this through having to deal with the issue of forgiving others, over and over again, ’voeling’ the lesson time and time again. 

I have learned that it is possible to forgive another even if they continue to believe that their behaviour was right and justified. 

Without going into personal details, this is how I have learned to forgive. Forgiving someone else is very difficult, especially if you have been deeply betrayed, abandoned and hurt (and no, I am not talking just about a partner doing this to you). We find that we are shocked by the other person’s or people’s behaviour because you think to yourself, “How could you do that to me? I would never do that to you”. Most of us live by the rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. So we are shocked when someone treats us badly. And that shock forms part of the negative emotion that you carry with you … part of the anger at the person/people who have wronged or betrayed you. 

I have learned that a negative emotion is far stronger than a positive one. A negative emotion about a person ties you to that person more strongly than love. Far better to have no feeling at all about a person than to have a negative emotion. Having no emotional attachment to someone frees you of that person. 

If we feel nothing, that person has absolutely no power over us. But if we carry negative emotions, then we lose our power and give it all away to the one who hurt us. 

The resentment that we hold over another binds us to them with ties far stronger than steel ropes. Not only are we caught in the web of negativity but the other person is free! They will most likely not even realize what they have done and if they do, they will find ways of justifying their bad behaviour towards us. So, while we feel resentful, angry and hurt, we are the only ones who are being affected, because the abuser/trespasser is not affected at all. He has moved on with his life and we are stuck to him in the past. 

Whether the situation happened 6 years ago or 6 million years ago, or six months ago, that event is no further away from you today, than yesterday. We live our emotions in the moment. That includes all the accumulated hurt and anger from long ago. We remain prisoners of the very people who have hurt us because we can’t let go of the negative emotion. 

Forgiveness has never been about the other person or persons. It has been all about me. I am the one who is freed by forgiving those people. 

The fastest way I have found to forgive someone is to realize that they do not know that they are doing wrong, (they know not what they do). If someone does not know that they are doing something wrong, then how can we be angry with them. They are merely fools. And since we are all at different levels of spiritual awareness, we need to see that others are behind us and there will always be others that are ahead of us. So why be bogged down by those people who are not as spiritually advanced as you? My grandmother used to tell never to lower myself to someone else’s level, but to lift them up to mine. That is kind of what this is about … looking at those who are spiritually more advanced than us and trying to emulate them and not lowering ourselves to the level of revenge, anger, resentment, bitterness, and negativity. 

Now I know this is frivolous, but this helps me to move past hurtful people. I have a few sayings that I repeat quietly to myself when confronted with a fool who knows no better. These are a few of them: 

You can expect nothing from a pig but a grunt.

A baboon cannot see it’s own backside.

If you mix with dogs you will pick up fleas.

Your spirit will soar like an eagle only if you don’t try to fly with turkeys. 

You are a prisoner when you do not forgive. You are locked by the chains of the past. Forgiveness is the most important gift you can give yourself. Forgiveness dissolves the links of the chain that bind you and sets you free. There is no future in the past. 

Forgiveness is a creative act. It changes us. It is a commitment to a process of change and growth for ourselves. To have the courage to forgive (for it takes courage) is to expand your life, to open it up to endless possibilities which are only possible if you are freed from the past. Ghandi said that “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attitude of the strong.” 

Forgiveness is the recognition of the humanness in your enemy, even while understanding that we may be poles apart on a spiritual and emotional level. 

No walls can imprison a spirit - our bodies can be imprisoned in jails, or imprisoned by ill health, but our spirits can soar on the wings of freedom. Forgiveness is the single most important process that brings peace and harmony to your own heart and soul. It forces you to grow beyond that which you were. 

I am free at last. I am free of my past because I have forgiven them all. My enemies have no power over me.