Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle

Watching the images of violence happening near my home in Johannesburg city centre, I think about my uncle. A mine worker who brought us endless stories of this and that workmate from Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe…somewhere in our region. We knew the names of these places from him before we learnt them at school. His stories about how things are in Russia, in Cuba, Bangladesh, Taiwan. He said, in Russia or Cuba, you could go into any shop and get sweets and no one would say you are stealing. There is no one shop owner; everyone owns everything. You see a bicycle in the street and you ride it where you want and leave it there, no one will arrest you. How I wished this version of socialism had been true when I grew older.

A few times he brought one or so of these Bhutis who spoke fanigalo with a tinge of Portuguese or Chichewa or such home. I could listen to them the whole time, we were little and found the smallest things interesting then. When I grew older I got to understand how much of the South African mining sector had been built on the shoulders of the black man, the social reproductive labour of black women in many parts of South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Zambia, etc. These black bodies who dug up the shiny stuff for, at the time white monopoly extractive capital to ship off to Europe, Israel for polishing or some such, making people who’ll never know their names or care about them, who just get richer, while they take away their old age, battered bodies, suspended dreams, often disease or some sort or the other and the strange tone in their accent from speaking too much fanigalore.

And the black African woman from some village in Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana, sometimes Tanzania, etc, got nothing for her productive labour which subsidised big extractive capital.

Then when we grew up, how we learnt about Samora Machel, Joshua Nkomo, Julius Nyerere, next to our Mandelas and Bikos and Cyril Ramaphosas (that one Cyril who had my favourite face, plumpy cheeks and lots of life in his eyes then, and that killer Afro! Well, don’t ask me what I see in those eyes now, I try not to look at them). Fast forward to mid high school, where we learn about the destruction the Apartheid regime wrought on the people of Mozambique, Angola, other parts of our region, how those Africans hopping on one leg or missing some limb in Angola or Mozambique paid for shielding South African Liberation fighters, among other things. I cannot imagine life was like Hollywood then, so I cannot dispute it with facts when Lindiwe Zulu says it wasn’t as romantic as we whom she claims overplay this Africa housed us, fed us, shielded us, gave us an identity to claim for ourselves when South Africanness was denied us by the repressive regime line.

All I can say is that our liberation fighters were on our soil. The Limbless people of Angola, Mozambique, and others who carry different kinds of the scars of the backlash the apartheid regime meted out count for much more than we today give them credit. Forward to some time in the early 2000s, when I start to travel for work in our continent and I see all these South African shops in Botswana and as far as Ghana. I start to read more about South Africa’s economic footprint in our continent. In Lesotho a few years ago I hear how one major retail shop single-handedly destroyed Lesotho’s poultry farming sector by insisting on certain procurement arrangements with a government in a weak and desperate position for “investment”. There are many stories.

Fast forward to late 2000’s. At Human Rights Watch, there is this very smart, knowledgeable researcher who knows lots of what she knows about the Congo. She does this thing with a bunch of us newbies being trained on advocacy in some room in some New York skyscraper. She makes us lift up our phones, then she goes on to explain how all of us are carrying a piece of the Congo in our hands. How the Congo is in our bathrooms. Coltan powers so much of today’s electronics, technological gadgets and utensils. That is just one piece of the Congo, do not get me started.

We grew up on the rich, Africanist literature of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Ba, Ousmane Sembene, Wole Soyinka, who gave us permission and the gift of the decolonising process of telling, consuming our own stories as Africans. With the African Feminist movement, well, you towering witches and wizards, where do I begin? Suffice to say you gave me a language to live by, a higher universe to inhabit, and that is everything. The point I wanted to remind myself of is just how much this continent and its peoples have made us, fed us, gifted us, shielded us, how it defines so much of who we are, how indisputable it is that as South Africa, we stand firmly, always have, on the shoulders of the giant that is this continent and its peoples. That’s all for now. Thank you Africa!

 

(Photo Credit: Ainhoa Goma / Oxfam)

In Zimbabwe and South Africa, girls say NO! to coercion and exploitation

In November last year, Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed a suit in Zimbabwe in which they charged that the situation of “child brides” violated girls’ constitutional rights. They named Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community and the Attorney General’s Office as respondents responsible for implementation of the Customary Marriages Act, which allows for girls to be married at 16.

Age prohibitions are like speed limits. There’s the letter of the law and then there’s the car on the road. Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, now 18, was married off at 15: “I’ve faced so many challenges. My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible. I want to take this action to make a difference. There are a lot of children getting married.” Tsopodzi is the mother of one child.

Loveness Mudzuru, now 19, was married off at 16. By the time she was 18, she had given birth to two children: “Young girls who marry early and often in poor families are then forced to produce young children in a sea of poverty and the cycle begins again. My life is really tough. Raising a child when you are a child yourself is hard. I should be going to school.”

Across the border, in South Africa, the Western Cape High Court this week upheld the conviction of a 32-year-old man on various charges related to the trafficking and rape of a 14-year-old Eastern Cape girl. He tried to argue that the girl was not kidnapped and that there was no rape, but rather they were husband and wife, by a customary practice known as ukuthwala.

The Court rejected the man’s appeal and, more broadly, the argument that customary or traditional law allows for violence against girls and women: “The practice of ukuthwala has in recent years received considerable public attention… inasmuch as its current practice is regarded as an abuse of traditional custom and a cloak for the commission of violent acts of assault, abduction and rape of not only women but children as young as eleven years old by older men.”

Speaking of so-called child marriages, African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, commented: “We cannot downplay or neglect the harmful practice of child marriage, as it has long-term and devastating effects on these girls whose health is at risk.”

While these stories describe girls living in poverty and struggling against physical and structural violence, they also speak of the courage and determination of precisely those girls, who speak for themselves. They say they deserve education, health, well being, safety, and peace. They say as well that individual and collective dignity and justice begin and end with informed consent. They say NO! to all forms of coercion and exploitation of girls, and boys, and they mean it.

 

(Photo Credit: Lipco.co.za)

In South Africa, women say “My body, my rights, my womb, my choices!”

 

In South Africa this week, 48 women living with HIV and AIDS responded to the indignity and abuse of forced sterilization. Represented by Her Rights Initiative, Oxfam, and the Women’s Legal Centre, 48 women who had suffered forced sterilization in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal came forward and lodged a formal complaint. These 48 `cases’ were from 1986 to 2014. These 48 women are the tip of a rumbling volcano. They are the faces and bodies of gendered inequality in South Africa and beyond. They represent the untold numbers of women living with HIV and AIDS who have been forced to suffer one indignity after another. They represent all women in national and regional economies where women’s bodies are viewed as consumables with ever declining values.

The women tell their own stories, for example, Zanele, who was 19 years old and 38 weeks pregnant: “As I was thinking about it, [the doctor] turned to this lady who was with her, I think she was an intern, and said we [referring to HIV-positive women] were a problem to the hospitals, we give birth all the time … at that time I felt guilty as a patient. Then [the doctor] came back and asked me if I wanted to be sterilised and I said yes.”

There is another, connected story, as told by Dr Ann Strode from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2012, Dr. Strode published a study published that examined the situation of forced sterilization of women living with HIV and AIDS. At the time, the research team believed that the practice had more or less ended by 2006, with the national rollout of antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs. In the present group of 48, more than half of the violations took place after 2006. Dr. Strode and her colleagues were surprised by the findings.

Consider the story of surprise. When those who are the most informed and the most engaged, when the advocates and the organizers, think the story is over, it takes the subjects, the women themselves, to step forward and `surprise’ the public consciousness out of its slumber. Two of the cases were from last year, and one has already resulted in a civil suit in Gauteng.

Some talk about the double stigma women living with HIV and AIDS suffer: being HIV positive, being unable to have children. But there’s a third stigma: having failed the nation-State. Women who are HIV positive are viewed as failed citizens. That’s why they can be treated this way, despite Constitutional and legal protections to the contrary. The Department of Health says forced sterilization is not department policy, but it is practiced, in the open, regularly.

Each of those 48 women represents tens and hundreds of other women living with AIDS, and each of those 48 women represents thousands and tens of thousands of women who struggle and organize in the unequal and violent spaces between policy and practice.

End this violation on women’s bodies! My body, my rights, my womb, my choices.”

 

(Photo Credit: The Star / Chris Collingridge)

I miss the One in Nine Campaign

I miss the One in Nine Campaign that occupied the streets in 2006/7 to say violence against women and the silencing is not permissible and the powerful man can’t get away with no challenge.

I miss the One in Nine that disrupted the reduction of the struggle for autonomy to sexual and gender identity self-definition that birthed the Jhb People’s Pride.

I miss the One in Nine that would have been planning direct action against Zuma’s criminalisation of young women and girls tonight, and we’d be talking a different language tomorrow.

I miss I miss I miss I miss the Purple Courage… Long live One in Nine Campaign!

I hope out of this a movement of young women and girls will be born to say the criminals are not us! Criminal is a State, which presides over a corrosive, oppressive, exclusionary, elite oriented socio-economic and political order. That protects elites interests, institutionalises violence against women, fails young women and girls. Flouts and bends the constitution when that suits.

Criminal are sexist, unconstitutional statements like these from a Head of State, criminal is a society that scapegoats young women and girls for its own flaws, criminal are our parents who won’t stand up and defend us against this onslaught…!

 

(Photo Credit: Lee Woolf / The South African Civil Society Information Service)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: drum.co.za) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images) ( Photo Credit: Plan – International)

 

African Women Stand their Ground Against Big Coal

Every day Sonto Mabina walks past the dam to get to work. The dam is close to her house. No fence or wall prevents children from playing in the potentially toxic water, or stops the water from overflowing and flooding her house and the community.

For the past week, women from mining communities in South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been meeting in Johannesburg to share their experiences, strengthen their networks, map and take the way forward. They have been brought together by WoMin, African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction. They have had enough of environmental devastation, corporate predation, and State violence. They are sick and tired of living and dying in communities and households where everyone is tired, sick, and dying. And they have had enough of being ignored or silenced. They come together to say, Now is the time! They come together to make NOW the time.

In an hour long interview this week, Samantha Hargreaves, Regional Coordinator of WoMin; Nhlanhla Mgomezulu, Coordinator of the Highveld Environment Justice Network; and Susan Chilala, Secretary of the Rural Women’s Assembly, in Zambia, laid out the program. Generally, the women are calling on the State to divert its massive investments in the infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction into alternatives, particularly solar, wind, tidal, and thermal, all plentiful in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, region. All of the countries are already investing great sums of money to make mines happen. The women say: Make something else happen; something sustainable and renewable that will meet the challenge of growing consumption in growing economies.

This diversion would mean that the State would have to reconsider its comfortable relationship with those few who make huge profits at the expense of the many. This would also mean, the women said pointedly, that politicians, such as Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa, would have to address their complicity as shareholders and leaders in the mineral extractives sector.

The majority of the interview describes the impact of coal mining on local communities. Susan Chilala explained that coal mining attacks women small scale farmers most viciously. She described the impact of coal mining on farming and food security. She talked about the impact on women when their space is taken over by an industry that is so deeply male dominated, from top to bottom.

Nhlanhla Mgomezulu described the impact on women in the South African Highveld: “We women are the ones who suffer most.” Women suffer as individuals, in that their own health is endangered by poisoned water, air, and land, but they suffer even more as principal caregivers of the community. When the children are sick, women work more intensively. When the men return from the mines with asthma, kidney failure, tuberculosis, injuries and more, women are work more intensively. And this labor is `free’ and it’s 30 hours a day, 8 days a week, for life. If that’s not slavery … what is?

Last year, Greeenpeace published a report, which looked at Witbank, in Mpumulanga, in which they found that Witbank has the dirtiest air in the world. This is the gift of coal as a mainstay of `development’: “Sonto Mabina … works at a small tuck shop that’s just a short walk from her home in an informal settlement over the train tracks outside Witbank, in Mpumalanga. She’s lived here for 25 years, arriving well before the three coal washeries that now surround her house … Sonto Mabina, or Katerina as she likes to be called, lives with her husband, Andries. Their house has no electricity or water and Katerina uses a coal stove to cook their suppers, the black plumes of smoke clouding their home. A municipal truck brings water once a week, but most say it’s too polluted to drink. If you can afford to, you buy bottled water in this area of the country; if not, you boil it like Sonto does and you hope for the best. `Dust is my main problem,’ she says. `Every time my child goes to the hospital it’s because of the dust. The doctors say his chest is full of it. The doctors asked me where I lived and I told them. My other child also has problems with his nose because it is always running – the dust affects him too.’ It’s an everyday problem here.”

The women who have gathered in Johannesburg are saying NO to that everyday. They are engaging in a public dialogue, breaking down barriers, transforming isolation into community, teaching as they learn, and they are demanding a better present. Not a better future, a better present. They have lived too long with politicians and others ignoring them. They are demanding that the State take climate change, the environment, community health and wellbeing, and women seriously. African women are standing their ground and more. They are organizing and on the move. The time is now!

 

(Photo Credit: Mujahid Safodien / Greenpeace)

Women cleaners and domestic workers confront violence against women

From Hong Kong to Qatar to Greece to the United States, domestic workers and women cleaners are under attack. They are under attack because they are women. In South Africa this year, domestic workers and women cleaners have confronted the attack head on.

Delia Adonis works as a cleaner in a mall in Cape Town. Last month, Adonis saw five men attack a sixth. She called the police, who intervened. She then went to the parking lot, where the five men encircled her, knocked her to the ground, and beat her. Throughout the assault, the men used racist and sexist epithets.

Adonis called the police and laid charges on the five men. It turns out they’re UCT students. Adonis claims that the police came to her and offered her money to drop the case. The officer allegedly said that the men were afraid of being kicked out of school. Adonis rejected the offer, and all it represented: “I’m really angry about this. I’m traumatised and still in pain. These youngsters verbally abuse us every weekend, and now this? I’m a mother of six – how would they feel if someone beat up their mothers like that? There was so much blood pouring from my face I couldn’t see. When I washed my face. I just thought to myself: ‘Boys, you can run but I leave you in the hands of the Lord’.”

Cynthia Joni works as a domestic worker in Cape Town. One morning, Joni was walking to work, when a white man leapt out of his car, slapped and threw her to the ground. She screamed, and he drove away. He was later identified and charged. His `explanation’ was that he mistook Cynthia Joni for a sex worker and `snapped.’ To no one’s surprise, it turns out that Cynthia Joni is not the first woman he’s assaulted. Now others are coming forth.

While the toxic mix in both the physical violence and then the subsequent violence that passes for explanation are important, the women’s response is more important. Domestic workers, sex workers, women workers reject the violence and call on the State to address it … forcefully and immediately.

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. Last year, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with both assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it.

Today’s stories echo the past. Over six years ago, four white students at the University of the Free State videotaped their assault on five cleaners, Mothibedi Molete, Mankoe Phororo, Emmah Koko, Nkgapeng Adams and Sebuasengwe Ntlatseng. The video went viral, as did disgust, and the cleaners, four women and one man, fought back. This June, the five cleaners launched their own company.

Today, however, domestic workers and women cleaners are making demands on the State. Domestic workers and women cleaners reject the protectionism that would see them as a separate class in need of help. They are workers with rights, women with rights, and humans with rights. As women workers increasingly demand their civil, labor, and human rights be respected, they consolidate power. The struggle continues.

 

(Photo Credit: Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust)

Love is all around

Love is all around

Love is all around
is my lyrical response
to a Vukani letter-writer
from out yonder KTC

Where is love
in the townships
is the question asked
(amidst partying and drinking
round our social grant days)

Love is all around
I declare as I ramble
in and about Site C Khayelitsha

A bustling Saturday morning
down Govan Mbeki Road
to the Whizz ICT Centre
for their Youth Centre Launch
and an end-user computer Graduation

(them a small light of hope
all about community sustainability
in a place overshadowed)

Love is all around (too)
at the Moses Mabhida Library
where I’ve been before
for a Reading Competition
(fall in love with learning
says a mural on their wall)

Love is all around
5 happy earthly hours I spend
(language notwithstanding)
as the Youth Centre is launched
and students joyously graduate

Love is all around

What stops you
from making it so too

 

“Where is love in the townships?” (Letters, Vukani community paper, October 30 2014)

 

(Photo Credit: Whizz ICT Centre/Rlabs.org)

Where people’s suffering is a commodity to be sold

Speaking truth to self: in these times of neoliberal careerism, where people’s suffering is a commodity to be sold in the market place of the development industry, what is a politically conscious and ethical thing to do?

Grabbing media headlines is easy and sexy.

What is meaningful solidarity with people who are suffering and in struggle? Where does fetishism end and where does defeatism begin? What would going to Liberia achieve for the dying of Monrovia?

Africans are dying. Some of us Africans are standing on soap boxes talking about and pointing fingers at those not-so-pure or not-so-legitimate ones doing things we should be doing.

What has South Africa done in solidarity with Africa in this case? I’m not even having this conversation. I am a mere bystander observing with my shiny anti-imperialist microscope. Neither is self-flagellation attractive, ethical nor useful.

So, what then? Well, get some fresh air I guess!

 

(Photo credit: Flicker.com, United Nations Development Program)

I was raised in a world around the fire

I was raised in a world around the fire. Where every waking minute was learning. There was no TV. No newspapers. No phones. No electricity. No running water except from streams and waterfalls. With the locked in aura of apartheid we barely ever left the farm, and then the village.

Besides, grandma always said kids who run around in other people’s places get food poisoning or get sick from other people’s dirt. How this reconciled with the “You must know every corner, every hole in your village. Know everything about your neighbours. When they are hungry. When they are sad. When they are happy. You must know everything about the plants that like growing there.”

The language of the forest. The seasons of the river… eluded me really. The thing about how we were taught in the school around the fire is the capacity for alertness. You had to listen. Observe. Interpret. Work out the meaning of things. There was no “moral of the story” discussion at the end of a story.

You discussed why the rabbit didn’t run this or that way. Why the wolf took so long to outwit the fox. Why the aunt was so mean to her brother’s kids. Why the boy was so stupid and didn’t follow his sister. Why the old people didn’t trust the girl until she killed the monster. Why the people thought the woman was a witch even though they never saw her kill anyone. Why the visitors were so ungrateful and mean even though the village people were so nice and welcoming. Why we didn’t have nwelezelanga’s, mlenzanamnye’s or Nompunzi’s magic powers…but the rest you made meaning of yourself. For that reason, you learnt to be alert, fast, your mind learnt to keep every detail – that thing they call photographic memory.

Well, a combination of that and books was powerful. But an erosion of that and filling it with television…not so great. Even though in the absence of a library with more than 5 books I learnt most of my English from TV. Thank goodness for those comrades who later came from South Africa (we lived in Ciskei not SA thina mos) bringing subversive books i couldn’t read but tried desperately and those subversive teachers who gave us the books we had to hide behind the school toilets or leave at home when uMhloli came. And then the half-torn hand-me-down books from the Maritz’s my mother looked after in the town.

Yes, and thanks to whomever it was that thought to do school TV. It did so much to supplement for the science experiments where I could learn how you make that fart – like smelly thing called sulphuric acid. But I did lose my alertness. My photographic memory. And the other nice things like the fearlessness to explore “every corner of your village”, which for a long time of course has been the city with too many walls and ever diminishing space and foggy skies and people who try hard to not to know their neighbours.