In South Africa, a victory for Jane Bwanya, the Constitution, and equality for all!

Jane Bwanya

South Africa’s Bill of Rights, Chapter 2 of its Constitution, begins its enumeration of rights with Equality: “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” Equality is followed immediately by Human Dignity: “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.” These are the first articulations of “everyone” in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. Last year, Jane Bwana, a domestic worker, a lifelong partner, a widow, challenged the meaning and substance of “everyone” … and on December 31, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled in her favor, and in favor of equality and Constitutional rights. This is the story of Jane Bwanya.

Jane Bwanya migrated from Zimbabwe to South Africa. In 2014, she was at a taxi rank in the posh Camps Bay neighborhood of Cape Town. She was on her way to send goods to her family in Zimbabwe. She was laden with various boxes and packages, when Anthony Ruch, a wealthy businessman, stopped and offered her a lift. She accepted the offer, and they never separated. Months later, at Ruch’s insistence, Jane Bwanya moved into his Camps Bay residence, although she continued to work as a domestic worker. Jane Bwanya and Anthony Ruch celebrated their relationship publicly, attending social functions together, identifying each in public as life partners. By October 2015, they said they were planning to get married. They were also planning to open a cleaning business together. In November 2015, Anthony Ruch proposed marriage to Jane Bwanya. Anthony Ruch sold property so as to pay for lobola and arranged for a trip to Zimbabwe, to meet the family and finalize arrangements. They planned to marry after the trip to Zimbabwe. That trip was planned for June 2016. On April 23, 2016, Anthony Ruch died. His will named his mother as his sole heir. His mother died in 2013.

Jane Bwanya filed two claims, one for maintenance the other for inheritance, as a permanent life partner. The executor of the estate rejected both claims, basically stating that the Maintenance of Surviving Spouses Act and the Intestate Succession Act did not allow for opposite-sex life partners, and so, with the help of the Women’s Legal Centre, Jane Bwanya sued, arguing that the exclusions were unconstitutional. And so, Jane Bwanya sued for, and in the name of, equality and dignity. Everyone.

Writing for the majority, Justice Mbuyiseli Russel Madlanga noted, the rights, equality and dignity of same-sex survivors had already been established. According to the court, according to the 2016 census, “3.2 million South African were cohabiting outside of marriage and that number was … increasing.” Throughout his opinion, Justice Madlanga insisted [a] that the Court had to look at the world as it is and [b] not accept arguments that “typify what is to be expected in a society that is dominated by men in virtually all areas of human endeavour.”  And with that, the Court ruled in favor of Jane Bwanya, declaring that the exclusion is “unfair discrimination” and ordering the Parliament to fix the language of the two acts within 18 months. That decision was delivered December 31, 2021. Happy new year!

In March 2021, the Constitutional Court rendered a landmark decision in favor of five women who had been excluded from inheritance on the basis of gender. In December 2021, the Constitutional Court rendered a landmark decision in favor of survivors, the majority of whom are women, excluded from inheritance on the basis of formal rituals. Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Times Live)

Boys will be boys, girls will be jailed, and then they will die at an early age

Detention harms children and youth, all children and youth. In fact, it leads to greater likelihood of early death, according to a recent study: “In this cohort study of 3645 previously incarcerated youths, the all-cause mortality rate was 5.9 times higher in previously incarcerated youths than the rate observed in general population, Medicaid-enrolled youths.” Given that on any given day, the United States holds more than 50,000 children and youth in juvenile detention center, that ratio should give pause. Of course, any ratio of childhood and youth mortality should give pause. Sadly, tragically, such is not the case. Further, “Of particular significance was the mortality rate in previously incarcerated females … The all-cause mortality rate among females was nearly 9 times that of the Medicaid comparison group …. Formerly incarcerated females were at a considerable higher risk of early mortality compared with female Medicaid-enrolled youths. Research shows complex histories of trauma contribute to females in the juvenile legal system to a much greater extent than males. Incarceration can exacerbate the adverse effects of these experiences.” Though shocking, none of this is new. Sixteen years ago, a study reported, “The mortality rate among female youth was nearly 8 times the general-population rate.” Sixteen years later, here we are, from eight times the general population to nine times.

Just prior to the pandemic, reports were that juvenile detention was dropping, but not as much for girls. Last year, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Prevention reported, “Male and female juvenile arrest rates have declined in the last 10 years; however, the relative declines have been greater for males than for females across many offenses. As a result, the female share of juvenile arrests has grown since 1980.” According to another recent report, during the pandemic, in urban areas, the number of boys in juvenile detention has dropped 41%; the number of girls dropped 37%. In rural areas, the number of boys dropped 30%, girls dropped 23%. What’s going on?

Two years ago, a study in Virginia found “that girls, especially girls with school conduct problems and no documentation of structured activities were treated more punitively at both intake and adjudication.”

Girls are criminalized for `misbehaving’, boys aren’t. Running away, skipping school, disobeying a parent sends girls, and not boys, to juvenile detention It’s been like that forever, and it continues, especially for girls and gender expansive youth of color. Year after year, for the last decade, reports have noted, and decried, the alarming rate at which girls are entering into the juvenile `justice’ system. The only problem is that, apart from the usual suspects, such as the Vera Institute, no alarm has been raised. Three years ago, the Vera Institute launched the Initiative to End Girls’ Incarceration. They do great work, both nationally and in respective states and municipalities, and yet, as the same time, girls `enter the criminal justice system’ in disproportionate numbers and, as a result, die at a young age in disproportionate number. The time for discovery is over. It’s time, it’s way past time, to stop the slaughter of girls and gender expansive youth.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Richard Ross)

In the Nova Institution for Women, Canada’s special hell for women, COVID runs rampant

In 1995, Canada opened the Nova Institution for Women, in Truro, Nova Scotia, and it’s been a hellhole for women ever since. In 2015, Veronica Park died of pneumonia, after begging for days for health care, to no avail. Three months later, Camille Strickland-Murphy, after a series of incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts, none of which were attended to, killed herself. Earlier, in 2006, Nova Institution was the first station in Ashley Smith’s journey into suicide. In 2019, Samantha Wallace-Parker died of pneumonia, after begging for days for health care, to no avail. In 2020, Lisa Adamsexperienced Nova’s dry cell, a cell without running water or toilet, for 16 days. These are just the best known stories, all of which end up in court. But that was all `prepandemic’. 2022 opens with COVID running rampant through the Nova Institution for Women, and the thing is, all of this was predictable, everyone in charge knew, and they did nothing, worse than and less than nothing.

Today, Martha Paynter, who is “a registered nurse who researches prisoner health, and as a community advocate for people in prisons for women”, wrote, “The news that 49 people (24 prisoners, at least 25 staff) have now tested positive for COVID-19 at the Nova Institution for Women, a federal prison in Truro, brings a nightmare we foresaw … into reality … Federal prison is a $2.4 billion/year operation. We need to stop throwing money at this system and redirect it to meaningfully address the trauma and poverty that drives criminalization. The horror of mass infection at the Truro prison must finally change our thinking.”

Again, all of this was foreseen. In 2020, Martha Paynter wrote, “Prisons are petri dishes. Hundreds of people are under one roof with poor ventilation, barriers to health services, substandard nutrition, limited participation in exercise and time outdoors and inadequate information provision.”

What else is there to say? The petri dish has done what it’s designed to do. Advocates, like Martha Paynter, are calling on the State to release the women. The State has responded with lockdown. In one day, the cases jumped from 8 to 38. There’s less testing in federal prisons than in the general population, to no one’s surprise. In 2020, a study found the following: “There were 59 cases of COVID-19 in women’s penitentiaries. These represented 31% of all cases in federal penitentiaries, suggesting that women, and women’s penitentiaries, are over-represented among COVID-19 cases inside federal prisons. COVID-19 prevalence was 8 times higher among women’s prisons (8% prevalence) than prisons for men (1% prevalence) and 80 times higher than in the general Canadian population (0.1%).”

COVID-19 prevalence was 8 times higher among women’s prisons than prisons for men and 80 times higher than in the general Canadian population. That was two years ago. Today, the situation for women held in prison is worse. This is not failure, this is petri dish public policy, designed for incarcerated women. Don’t fix it, shut it down.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Saltwire / Chelsea Gould)

Mass tragedies involving migration have increasingly become normalized

Thousands of family members continue to search for a missing migrant.

This is how 2021 ends. A boat filled with 120 Rohingya Muslim women, children, men – 60 women, 51 children – was on its way from Myanmar to Malaysia. Those in the boat hoped that when they reached Malaysia, they would be given sanctuary. On Sunday, the boat engine failed and the boat started to leak, off the coast of Indonesia. At first, the Indonesian government wouldn’t let the refugees in. Finally, after days of international and local pressure, on Wednesday, the government relented and gave permission, but, they explained, only because the situation on the sinking, overcrowded boat was “severe”. Today, Friday, the boat was towed into harbor, and people began to disembark. The rescue, in heavy rain and high seas, took a grueling 18 hours. Why does a government have to explain rescuing people from a sinking boat? Because they are refugees, women, Muslim, Rohingya, and the list goes on. This is how 2021 ends, much as the previous ten and more years.

On December 25, in three separate incidents, three boats filled with refugees capsized. At least 31 people died, and, as of now, scores of people on those boats are still missing. It is the worst Aegean death toll since October 2015.

The next day, December 26, close to 30 people washed ashore in Libya, refugees who had tried to cross the Mediterranean, just so much flotsam from another shipwreck. These corpses capped a week in which at least 160 people, migrants, drowned in shipwrecks off the coast of Libya.

A month earlier, a boat filled with migrants sank somewhere in the English Channel. At least 27 people died. That is the single biggest recorded loss of life in the English Channel. One witness, a refugee who was in another boat that happened into the same waters soon after the first boat sank, recalled, “Our boat was surrounded by dead bodies. At that moment my entire body was shaking.”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees that from January to November more than 2,500 people have died in the Mediterranean or in the Atlantic, on their way to the Canary Islands. The International Organization for Migration reports that, as of early December, the 2021 death toll for migrants during migration journeys had surpassed 4,470. They assumed the final tally would be considerably higher, given the lag in time between deaths and the reports thereof. The death toll last year was 4,236. The death toll at the Mexico – U.S. border was already 651, higher than in any year since they started recording, 2014. More migrant deaths were recorded in South America than in any previous year. Europe saw historical highs in migrant deaths. The Atlantic route to the Canary Islands saw the highest death toll in over a decade. According to the IOM, “Mass tragedies involving migration have increasingly become normalized.”

 

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: IOM / Salam Shokor) (Photo Credit: Al Jazeera / Twitter)

The world is ruled by women who fight: The Sudanese women’s revolution continues

Yesterday, December 25, hundreds of thousands of protesters, led and impelled by women and youth, took to the streets of Khartoum, demanding freedom, full democracy, a revolution. This was the tenth major demonstrations in the past two months. These protests have gone on, lled and impelled by women and youth, for the past thirty years, demanding full democracy, freedom, a revolution. Women and youth, leading, demanding, grasping freedom and justice: this is what democracy looks like. The government cut communications, blocked roads, fired tear gas, arrested scores, injured who knows how many.

In Sudan, on December 19, 2018, women took to the streets to protest a precipitous rise in bread prices. Those protests persisted and grew. As so often in food uprisings, the price of food was the visible spark that revealed an undergrowth of fire, and, as so often, women set and sustained the spark. Three years later, Sunday, December 19, 2021, women led protests of hundreds of thousands to commemorate the 2018 uprising, the spark they set, and to demand much more than a `return to civilian control’. Women in the streets of Khartoum and beyond demanded full rights, equality, freedom and justice for women, youth, everyone. They government responded with live bullets and sexual violence against women. According to numerous reports, security forces raped 13 women and girls that day. In the following days, women returned to the streets to demand justice. Actually, they had never left the streets.

Shaihinza Jamal explained, “We are here to put pressure so that this could stop happening. We will not allow such things ever to happen, and we can stop them.” Women protesters chanted, “They won’t break you! They won’t break us!” Jihan el-Tahrir, longtime Sudanese feminist activist, added, “Because women’s role in mobilising the Sudanese society is well-known, one approach long adopted by the regime has been breaking the society by breaking women.”

These are the daughters of a long line of Sudanese women demanding freedom and democracy. RememberJune 2012, when women students responded to astronomical increases in transportation and food prices? A few university women students took to the streets, shouting “Girifna!” “Enough is enough!” Within days, their small demonstration inspired a sandstorm, which was met with severe State repression. Remember the Sudanese women of June 2012? Remember September 2013, when, again in response to austerity measures this time involving gasoline prices, women took to the streets? Again, those protests turned into a national crisis, which, again, was met by severe repression. Remember the Sudanese women of September 2013, and the Sudanese Women’s Union of the 1950s and 1960s, and the Sudanese who have organized continually from the 1950s on, for women’s autonomy and national dignity? Well, they’re back, and they remember. They remember every detail of their history; they are the guardians of the revolution.

In a mass demonstration in late October, women carried signs reading, “Total civil disobedience. The decision of the people.” In a recent smaller, silent protest in Khartoum, Rayan Nour held a sign that declared, “The world is ruled by a woman who fights”. She explained, “My mom always taught me to not let anyone take my rights away from me and for me to get that by my hand if I had to and not wait for anyone to get it for me …. The first protest was called in the newspaper protest of the whores and the gays. And I was like, OK, whores, gays, let’s go.” Mothers, daughters, whores, gays, OK, let’s go. They’re back and they remember not only the past but the future. The world is ruled by women who fight.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1: BBC) Photo Credit 2: New York Times / AP  / Marwan Ali)

No end to the torture: Throw the children into solitary, lock the door, walk away

A seclusion room in a Cedar Rapids elementary school: padded walls, a window, a door that locks from outside

Another year ends with stories of children, young children, being thrown into `seclusion rooms’, solitary confinement chambers, in schools across the country. What exactly are children meant to learn, the ones thrown into solitary, the ones watching their classmates and friends go into solitary? What’s the lesson plan, the educational goal? Why are we so invested in seclusion and restraint of children, generally, and of children living with disabilities, particularly? What terrible crime have these children committed that entire systems invest so much in maintaining practices that clearly constitute torture?

In November, U.S. Department of Justice investigators conducted on-site inspections of schools in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They also demanded thousands of documents. This story begins in 2017, when a parent complained at the abuse her daughter suffered. Apparently, the girl wouldn’t stop crying, and so she was placed in a seclusion room. In the 2019-2020 school year, elementary school children were tossed into seclusion 237 times. In October, 2020, the Department of Justice notified the Cedar Rapids School District that they were opening an investigation.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Education released a report on school climate and safety for 2015 – 2016. It found that Iowa rates had doubled. For example, in 2013, 23 school districts in eastern Iowa had 2514 reported instances of seclusion or restraint. In 2015, that number rose to 4,904. A 2018 Iowa State report described Davenport as in “systemic non-compliance” of Federal laws concerning the education of students living with disabilities. According to the report, the situation for students of color in Davenport was particularly dire, systemically so. Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators called for a Federal investigation into the use of seclusion rooms. Davenport’s U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack called for a ban on seclusion rooms.

In 2017, a complaint was filed against the Iowa City school district, charging that the district’s use of seclusion rooms violated Federal law, primarily because parents don’t know that the seclusions rooms existed and were being used and because the use of seclusion rooms is broader and more `ordinary’ than the law allows. During the 2013-14 school year, most of the students dumped into solitary confinement were students with diagnosed disabilities and individualized education plans. Half of the students with education plans who were sent to seclusion rooms were Black. Other than students with education plans, ALL of the students dumped into seclusion rooms in the 2013 – 2014 were Black. Black students comprised about 19% of the school population.

Cedar Rapids is no outlier, not in Iowa, not in the United States. December 31, 2020, the Department of Justice settled with North Gibson School Corporation in Princeton, Indiana, where “students as young as five years old were secluded and restrained improperly and repeatedly, resulting in days, and sometimes weeks, of lost instructional time.”

On October 24, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education and the Saco School District, in Saco, Maine, reached agreement to resolve restraint and seclusion compliance. Saco’s not a big school district, but it boasts big seclusion numbers. From 2017 to 2020, Saco schools engaged in 392 incidents of seclusion. Of that number, 324 involved children in K-2. 83% of those thrown into solitary were children 5 to 7 years old. After extensive investigation and negotiation, they `reached agreement.’

On November 24, 2021, Fairfax County Public Schools, in northern Virginia, reached a settlement with parents of children living with disabilities and advocacy groups to ban all seclusion in all its schools by the beginning of school year 2022 – 2023. This ends a suit that was filed in 2019, after a local news station reported that the county routinely put children with disabilities in seclusion rooms and routinely failed to report the incidents.

A week later, on December 1, the U.S. Department of Justice reached a settlement with the Frederick County Public School District “to address the discriminatory use of seclusion and restraint against students with disabilities …. The investigation, opened in October 2020, revealed thousands of incidents of seclusion and restraint in just two and a half school years. Although students with disabilities make up only 10.8% of students enrolled in the district, every single student the district secluded was a student with disabilities.” When the settlement was reported, many expressed shock, demanded answers, called for responsibility. The county’s school superintendent resigned quickly, and was given $800,000 in compensation. In 2017, that county superintendent was named Superintendent of the Year by the state association of school superintendents.

Every report, every agreement and settlement, evokes shock. How can people be shocked when there are thousands of incidents, as many as ten a day, in small towns and big counties? That the government has returned to some sort of vigilance concerning the systematic abuse and torture of children is welcome, inasmuch as it’s better than inaction. But the real need here is a soul searching, no holds barred transformation. We torture children. We cannot be shocked by that. We send children into days, weeks, of solitary confinement because … they can’t stop crying. And we call that education.

A seclusion room in another Cedar Rapids elementary school

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1:  KCCI / Liz Martin/The Gazette)) (Photo Credit 2: KCRG / (Josh Scheinblum)

 

 

FCI Waseca did not fail to assure the safety of incarcerated women; it refused to do so

This week, Utah’s Legislative Auditor General submitted a performance of health care in Utah’s state prisons. The Auditor found “systemic deficiencies”: “The lack of follow-up and patient monitoring is a systemic concern that extends beyond the Covid pandemic.” Reading this report, it’s a wonder that anyone survives Utah’s prisons. In fact, they don’t. According to a report earlier this year, “people in Utah’s prisons were five times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the average Utahn.” While five times more likely is high, it’s not much higher than prisons across the United States, boasting four times the infection rate of the country’s general population. And then there’s FCI Waseca, a low-security Federal prison for women, located in Waseca, Minnesota. FCI Waseca houses 756 women, of whom, according to the latest number from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 132 are currently infected with Covid. That’s the most of any Federal prison. The next in line is a Federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana, with 30 incarcerated people infected. FCI Pollock houses 1,556 incarcerated people. Less than 2% of FCI Pollock is infected with Covid; 17% of those in Waseca are Covid-infected.  Waseca accounts for 47% of all infected incarcerated people in the U.S. Federal prison system. These numbers provide the profile for “low security”.

At 199 Covid infections per 100,000, Waseca County has the highest rate of Covid infection of any county in the United States. Minnesota state prisons house 7,323 incarcerated people. Of that population, 95 are currently Covid infected, far less than 1%, although one prison, MCF Lino Lakes, 70 of its 911 incarcerated residents are Covid infected, a little under 8%.

Since the start of the pandemic, around 450 incarcerated women have tested positive for Covid. On Wednesday, December 8, the ACLU sued both FCI Waseca’s warden and the Director of the U.S. Bureau of Federal Prisons, claiming that the prison failed to take measures to contain Covid. FCI Waseca failed to release women with medical conditions to home confinement and failed to reduce the prison population sufficient for any kind of social distancing. That was no failure, that was refusal.

FCI Waseca is organized as dormitories with bunk beds kept close together. Everything is done in fairly tight common, social spaces. None of that was changed in any way in response to Covid. In August, a group of around 40 women was transferred from a facility in Oklahoma, a facility which was reporting Covid infections. The women from Oklahoma were placed in bunk beds in a unit with other bunk bedded women right next to them. Within weeks, most of the women in that unit tested positive for Covid.

What is there to say? FCI Waseca refused to address Covid, refused to respect women’s Constitutional rights to safety, refused to imagine an alternative to packing them in until it’s time to go. “Low security” should not be a death sentence nor should it mean being endangered. In fact, nothing should be a death sentence, but there we are. Two years into a pandemic, and we continue to cling desperately to the charnel house as the only way. If nothing else, by this point, perhaps people will stop saying, “The prison failed” to do this or that. There was no failure, there was only refusal, in broad daylight for all to see and without any remorse whatsoever.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Kayla Salisbury / The Marshall Project)

Today’s prison fire in Burundi was a preordained massacre

Gitega prison

In 1963, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was published. At that time, Baldwin wrote, “There is a limit to the number of people any government can put in prison, and a rigid limit indeed to the practicality of such a course. A bill is coming in that I fear America is not prepared to pay.” A bill is coming in. A year earlier, in 1962, Burundi declared its independence from Belgium as well as its separation from Rwanda. This morning, at 4 o’clock, the Central Prison of Gitega, located in Burundi’s political capital, Gitega, `experienced’ an electrical short circuit which started a fire which, as of now, killed at least 38 and injured at least 69. That was no accident; that was a massacre, preordained and inevitable.

The Gitega prison, built by Belgians in 1926, is supposed to house a maximum of 400 people. At the time of the fire, according to the most recent count, there were 1539 `residents’. A building crowded to that extent, pandemic or no, is a death sentence. None of this is new or unexpected

Here are the numbers for the Burundian prison system, all from October 31. The prison system consists of 11 prisons and two juvenile facilities. The prison population was 12,749. The prison system’s official capacity was 4,194. At 297.5% of capacity, the entire system is a catastrophe, a fire, waiting, destined, to happen. Of that population, 50%, 6,245, were remand prisoners, people awaiting trial.

Since 2002, the number of women prisoners has risen every year. In 2002, 216 women were incarcerated. That made up 2.5% of the total prison population. In 2002, for every 100,000 Burundians, three women were behind bars. In 2021, 836 women were incarcerated, and they were lodged at the Gitega prison. This year, women comprised 6.7% of the Burundian prison population. This year, for every 100,000 Burundians, six women were incarcerated. Where are the women? Increasingly in prison.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Burundi did not have confinement as a form of punishment or justice. The Germans brought prisons in the late 19th century, and the Belgians expanded on that, increasing the number of detained individuals by essentially criminalizing the native populations. Every year, more and more people were incarcerated, some having been convicted, others for administrative purposes. All were `native’ and therefore guilty. This was the system that built Gitega in 1926. Gitega was `the new prison’. Prisoners were separated by race, gender and social status: four dormitories were reserved for indigènes, including one for women; one dormitory for chiefs; four cells for European or Asian prisoners. The prison immediately exceeded capacity, and so was enlarged. It exceeded capacity again, and so was enlarged again. Finally, in 1947, it was expanded to its current size, capacity 400. Gitega has been fatally overcrowded ever since.

According to historian Christine Deslaurier, Burundian prison history has moved from “a mode of punishment to … trivialisation.” At the beginning of this century, the Burundian prison system celebrated its centenary “with the greatest indifference.” Today, that trivialization, that indifference, exploded in flames, and left scores of dead and maimed behind. A bill is coming in, is anyone prepared to pay?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: DW / AP)

From eSwatini to Sudan to Belarus to the United States and beyond, artists turn swords into …

“Yearning is the word that best describes a common psychological state shared by many of us, cutting across boundaries of race, class, gender, and sexual practice. Specifically, in relation to the post-modernist deconstruction of ‘master’ narratives, the yearning that wells in the hearts and minds of those whom such narratives have silenced is the longing for critical voice”.
bell hooks. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990)

On December 6, 2021, the 32nd anniversary of the massacre of women students at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, as every day, artists around the world struggle against State violence to seek, find, create freedom, justice, peace, documentation, voice, reflection, memory, mourning, meaning and more. In eSwatini, artists struggle with erasure, locally and globally. In Sudan, both during and after the coup, if this is indeed after the coup, artists struggle with threats to freedom as well as to their own lives. In Belarus, artists struggle with imprisonment and persecution. In the United States, artists struggle with racist and racialized violence. In all four locations, and beyond and between, artists struggle to create democratic spaces that will themselves generate networks of democratic practice and shared yearning.

June and July 2021 saw mass protests across eSwatini and saw as well … very little. That is, while the State responded with intense police brutality, in some cases hitherto unknown forms of torture, the world looked elsewhere. Artists refused to accept the violence, the silencing by the national government, and the lack of concern of the global polity. As the protests and State violence erupted, local activists pulled out their phones and began filming. Then they consolidated their energies and resources into the eSwatini Solidarity Fund, and ultimately produced the documentary film, The Unthinkable. As university student and Fund volunteer Tibusiso Mdluli noted, “Our struggles have been sort of erased. I get the sense that people in the international community do not know so much about Swaziland.” With showings already held in the United States, Norway, Taiwan and South Africa, plus a broadcast on South African television, and more in the works, hopefully the erasure is beginning to dissipate.

In October, the military of Sudan conducted a coup, removing the Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, and installing themselves, of course, in his stead. About a month later, after intense, daily, mass protests, Prime Minister Hamdok was `released’ and `reinstated’ … sort of … maybe. Artists refused to stand down after the coup and during the military regime and have refused to accept anything but a full removal of the military from the Executive branch of government and a clear and verifiable movement forward towards democracy. As Aamira explained, “We artists will be the first to be targeted if the military government continues in power. We are demonstrating in the streets, facing guns, unarmed. There is nothing to fear any more.”

During the reign of Alexander Lukashenko, life for artists and pretty much everyone in Belarus has been difficult and always under threat. In that environment, Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin founded the Belarus Free Theatre, sixteen years ago. For that act of courage, Kaliada and Khalezin were forced into exile ten years ago. This year, the rest of the company has decided, or been forced to decide, to follow suit. Nevertheless, they persist in creating dramatic and existential spaces, which they stream into their native country, in which Belarussians can dream of and aspire to democracy and freedom.  As Natalia Kaliada explained, “We know we are stronger than the regime. The authorities are more scared of artists than of political statements. Everyone believes that things will change in Belarus, but for now the company needs to be safe. We ask the UK public to stand in solidarity with us at this most critical time in our history. Solidarity is crucial for our survival.” The struggle for democracy and freedom needs solidarity more than martyrs.

In the United States, over the past century, American artists have struggled with anti-Black violence, by the State directly or informally but firmly authorized by the State. Next month, in Chicago, an exhibition entitled “A Site of Struggle: American Art Against Anti-Black Violence” will open. The exhibition will begin with works from the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1890s and conclude with the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. The organizers of this exhibition began working on it in 2016, in the aftermath of national protests, including those involving the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, in 2014; Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, in 2015, as well as the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, to name but a few; and in the midst of ongoing demonstrations that year involving the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Korryn Gaines, again to name but a few. Five years later, the exhibition is ready. According to its curator, Janet Dees, “‘A Site of Struggle’ employs art history to help inform our understanding of the deep roots of racial violence. From realism to abstraction, from direct to more subtle approaches, American artists have developed a century of tools and creative strategies to stand against enduring images of African American suffering and death. Contemporary artists taking on this subject are doing so within a long and rich history of American art and visual culture that has sought to contend with the realities of anti-Black violence.”

These four examples – artists from and of eSwatini, Sudan, Belarus, and the United States – were all reported on today. They all swim in long histories of local and global artistic refusal and resistance as well as confirmation and yearning. They all make the river by swimming and, in so doing, sustain our longing for critical voice.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit 1: New Frame) (Photo Credit 2: Darryl Cowherd / Museum of Contemporary Photography / Northwestern Now)

In a victory for human dignity and hope, Botswana decriminalizes same-sex relationships

On Monday, November 29, Botswana’s Court of Appeal unanimously upheld an earlier 2019 ruling which had decriminalized same-sex relationships. In so doing, the court upheld judiciary independence, democracy, the centrality of Constitutionally protected and established rights, as it hammered another nail into the coffin of colonial and neocolonial law and culture. Within a 24-hour span, Barbados declared itself a full republic, with no need of an English Queen; Honduras elected its first woman president, and a democratic socialist at that; and Botswana rejected homophobia and the persecution of LGBTQI+ persons and communities. Talk about conjunctural moments, sing about decolonization.

Botswana gained formal independence from Britain on September 30, 1966. The new republic adopted the penal code written, largely by British hands, in 1964, a Penal Code in force to this day. Botswana’s Constitution was written in 1966. In the 1964 Penal Code, Article 164 addresses “Unnatural offences”. In particular Article 164, Sections a and c declare: “Any person who has carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature; … or permits any other person to have carnal knowledge of him or her against the order of nature is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding seven years.” This law and language formed part of the grand British imperial obsession with rooting out `carnal’ corruption in the colonies, an obsession that dated back to 1860. A prison term of no more than seven years is but one of the gifts the British left behind.

In 2016, Letsweletse Motshidiemang, a young gay man, applied to the High Court to have the laws repealed. He described growing up as a gay boy and then young gay man in Botswana, and argued, essentially, that the Constitution protected his right to be who he was and that Botswana itself had changed in the intervening decades. He relied on the Court to respect the Constitution, and he was not disappointed. On June 11, 2019, the High Court agreed and declared that the articles under discussion violated the Constitution, in substance and spirit. The Government appealed. This Monday, the Appeal Court, the highest court in the land, declared, “Those sections have outlived their usefulness, and serve only to incentivise law enforcement agents to become key-hole peepers and intruders into the private space of citizens.”

In previous cases, the Court of Appeal has consistently declared the Constitution a living document central to the democratic project. In 1994, in the Unity Dow case, the Court of Appeal declared, “The Constitution … cannot be allowed to be a lifeless museum piece … the courts must continue to breathe growth and development of the state through it … The primary duty of judges is to make the Constitution grow and develop in order to meet the just demands and aspirations of an ever developing society, which is part of the wider and larger human society governed by some acceptable concept of human dignity.” From Honduras to Barbados to Botswana, and beyond, this week has brought a victory for human dignity.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Jurist)