Saturday, 6 August 2011

How I defended a woman and lost my good name doing it

Okay, here's more or less what happened.

About a week ago, we moved out of our previous place due to it being sold and so on. Long story in and of itself, and not entirely relevant.

On Sunday past (31 July), my wife and I moved into a room in a flat around the corner -- literally -- on the invitation of the residents there, a couple we knew from before. Let's call them Mr S and Ms K. We'd helped them here and there, as and when we could. He's an unemployed blacksmith, she a full-time mother of their 2-year-old girl. She apparently suffers greatly from a hugely swollen ganglion on her hand. The appliances we brought with us -- a dishwasher and an automatic washing machine -- were a boon and blessing to the "poor woman" who struggled to handwash, what with the hand and all.

Things went okay for the first few days... they were both very friendly, though we didn't quite "get" them. We were soon to find out why.

On Thursday 4 August, I was folding some clothes in our room when I heard the sound of an argument rapidly escalating into a fight. Not only were there raised voices from the next room, there were sounds of repeated impacts and shouts of pain. I decided to investigate. At my knock on their bedroom door, mister S opened. He was wild-eyed and obviously upset. I asked him what was going on. He replied -- relatively incoherently -- that she (Ms. K) wouldn't go away or do what she was told. Throughout all of this, their daughter was crying madly.

Before I could even answer, he walked over to Ms K and started gesturing wildly. When one of his gestures turned into a raised fist, I asked him whether he'd raise his hand to a woman that way. He immediately started screaming at me to fuck off and to get out (of the room or flat, not sure which -- either way I wasn't exactly about to leave). The few minutes were a bit of a blur -- there followed a whole bunch of screaming from both the adults (ha! adult my ass) and a lot of crying from their poor daughter. When he picked up a chair and aimed at K with it, she threatened to call the police. At that, he ripped the phone from the wall and threw it across the room -- damaging the phone jack in the process, as we later found out.

I picked up the little girl from where she was sitting screaming with crying and carried her to "our" room. Having calmed her a little bit, I came back out -- S and K had in the meantime done a lot more screaming at each other, and some shoving around on his part before I re-emerged. My having called the police by now, S took off. I tried to keep things calm. The police arrived soon after. They took K's statement and asked her whether she'd like to open a case. She apparently decided to do just that; said he'd been doing this to her for years and that she couldn't take it anymore what with having a daughter and all. I wasn't called for, so I left them to it. The police were there for some time, then left. In the meantime, my wife arrived. We were all fairly nervous, not knowing what would happen. Later that evening, S came back in; K hadn't locked the front door (at the time I thought this was accidental, though I doubt that now). She yelled at me to call the police as soon as he entered, which I did. He left after grabbing some socks.

We were just starting to settle down when the police called me -- they were looking for the address. (New shift.) While still on the phone with the police officer, I stepped out into the street to wave the police down at the right place, I saw S just about 20 meters up the street. I informed the police about this and seconds later saw the car racing after him. For safety's sake, I retreated to the flat again.

Minutes later, to our great surprise, S and the police entered the flats' grounds. "Odd," I thought,
"surely he'd be on his way to the cells by now." When the police entered the flat, however, they didn't ask or tell K anything. Instead, they asked whether they could search our room and stuff. Being off balance, and not having anything to hide, I assented. The officer mysteriously went directly for my laptop backpack. To everyone's great surprise -- or at least mine -- they found a stash of dagga, exactly where (I learned later) S told them it would be. Convenient, eh? Of course, they'd heard the "I've never seen that before in my life!" defense a bajillion times before. They weren't buying the truth I was selling.

With little further ado, I was escorted to the Mowbray police station "to make a statement". (Protip: Cops lie.)

First, I was put in the basic lockup cell. No amenities, just a bright light. I lost track of how long I was in there for. (There's no clock to be seen from within the cell -- I'm sure this technique can be found recommended in every handbook, from KGB to CIA to SS.) My fingerprints were taken a couple of times. This was a blessing in disguise, as this would also be when I could visit the toilet and drink water. This would only become clear to me in retrospect. Waiting in the holding cell, time passed -- I'm unsure how much, but judging by bladder pressure it was two hours easily. My repeated requests to be allowed to use the bathroom met with much hilarity and obvious lazing about of the front desk officers. Eventually I was told that they couldn't let me use the toilet -- despite my being in serious bladder and kidney pain by now -- because "the person who is responsible for taking me to the toilet isn't here right now." It took me quoting from the paper they make you sign (the one with the rights of a detainee) -- a few times -- before they did anything about me. (One thing about that holding cell: it has excellent acoustics; my baritone was amplified wonderfully.)

About then, they decided they'd put me in a proper cell where I could go to the toilet "as much as I wanted". They confiscated my shoelaces, I was led to the back of the yard, made to grab some bedding, and put in a cell. I was almost pathetically grateful when they let me choose whether I wanted to share a cell or be alone. Choosing the latter, immediately hobbled over to the toilet and barely heard the slamming of the cell door over the sound of the tinkling metal toilet.

The bedding was surprisingly comfortable and warm... much more so than I expected. There being no pillow given, I worked out about a half-dozen ways my shoes could form a pillow. The lights stayed on all night; I was ever so glad I'd worn a hoodie for some portable darkness. The less said about that night the better, save that I slept better than I thought I would. Had I had any cell mates, though, I'm sure things could have been much different.

In the morning around 7AM, we were roused and marched into the main building. The other prisoner was put in the (now packed) holding cell, but lucky for me the detective working my case recognised me while outside on a smoke break. He took me up to his office to fill in some paperwork. Apparently I could either pay an admission-of-guilt fine and walk free, or I could choose to contest the case in court. My evidence of my own innocence being somewhere between thin and nonexistent, I chose the former. A (borrowed) R200 fine later, I had a criminal record and I was standing on the sidewalk with my shoelaces in my hand.

During the night, my wife returned to the flat -- only to find herself locked out. Wife-beater had returned and things seemed to be hunky dory between them. K called my wife "crazy" for wanting to take our stuff away. Thankfully she had brought a friend of ours along. Long story short, between them they got most of our stuff out save the bed, a few boxes, and the appliances. (These we fetched in the morning; that's a less exciting story. They were still using both these when I arrived to fetch them, though -- the audacity! -- and I took a certain amount of pleasure in removing the wet blankets and greasy plates from my machines before taking them away.)

Now we're staying with a good friend for a couple of days -- but we have to leave soon. Couchhopping isn't much fun if it's involuntary. We have a place to stay as of 14 August. Until then, I have to rely on friends' kindness.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Of petitions, amnesia and humanity

Petitions have changed the world. Petitions mattered in a world where writing against the government was a capital crime... where adding your signature to a certain document was a revolutionary act. That was all fine and well in an age where not only ink and paper but literacy itself were scarce currencies.

With the advent of the internet and much increased literacy figures worldwide, however, the worth if not the meaning of the petition itself has become diluted. Yes, you get warm fuzzies about signing a petition to "force the government into talks" about getting rid of corrective rape. The petition's aims are laudable and morally unimpeachable. I want to sign it because it's the right thing to do. I just started wondering exactly how much of a difference not just my but all our signatures could possibly make.

How does adding a "me-too" on some random website help anyone on the ground -- where the rubber *ahem hopefully* meets the road, as it were? Yes, a round million is a good figure with which to attemt to pressure the government into more action than lip service -- but does that million even matter to the Powers That Be?

Our current government's real power base is the poor. The disconnected. The scattered. The ones who live in shacks and work their butts off to clean floors, patrol buildings, fix roads and haul trash. They're lured to official holiday celebrations *coughpolitical meetingscough* with free food and speeches and a grand day out for all. They arrive hungry for explanations -- why are we still living in shacks? Why do our children still die, smoke tik, join gangs, and die young? Their "chosen" leaders feed them, soothe their ears and send them away feeling satisfied for about as long as the free food takes to digest. They're no less tired and frustrated the next day.

What happens to the frustration? Who can an individual poor shack dweller turn to to vent their pent-up feelings? Increasingly, communities are banding together and talking about it. In many cases, they feel it's a good idea to protest or even riot. Government sends in the police; a message is sent, an invisible line is drawn: It's us against you. We, your government, care more about property damage than about people. Rubber bullets and water cannons are deployed. Barring the odd accident, nobody is killed and the crowd disperses. That's fine in the short term, but then some sort of collective amnesia sets in on both sides. Government seems to forget that the crowd was composed of hundreds if not thousands of individuals who each and every one felt strongly enough about an issue that they would commit violence to achieve their aims.

The mob, for its part, has had a nice cathartic protest action. Government seems to make some motions, everyone is hopeful that change is in the air, and the status quo is maintained -- for now. The emotions, the deep-down thoughts, though... those don't go away and don't stop being felt.

All power is based on a threat of force. Non-lethal force is still force. What message does the officially sanctioned presence of a uniformed combat-trained troop send to the people, anyway? "We could choose to hurt you, but we don't. By the way -- don't make us hurt you." The culture of fear is reinforced. People are so afraid of upsetting the apple cart that it takes intensely strong feelings to spur them into action. Usually this is when a group's attempts at effecting change via the official channels have been stymied to the point of crisis. Why does it have to come to that, anyway? What is this nameless thing which causes this inability of politicians to learn from history? I suspect it's mostly due to most of them thinking in terms of, well, terms -- of office. Net so ver soos hulle neuse lank is.

This double-sided amnesia is a double-edged sword. I understand and to a degree empathise with why people do what they do to numb their unhappiness, pain and discomfort. Terry Pratchett once wrote: "What people want, what they really really want, is for tomorrow to be pretty much the same as today."  Of course you want your kids to be as safe tomorrow as they are today, if not more so. This is fine for more well-off folk living in safe areas, but what about the Cape Flats? Pick a ghetto, township, bad neighbourhood or informal settlement from a hat -- your children aren't safe and you know it, but even if a child still has both parents, they both need to work in order to put food on the table.

What if that becomes untenable? What happens when SA is finally done getting sucked dry by overseas corporations and the mass layoffs start? Make no mistake, one of the reasons the huge conglomerates still operate here is because of the low cost of relatively skilled local labour. What happens when our looming skills shortage becomes a reality? (Eskom alone is soon to lose fully a third of their engineers to retirement -- and they can't be replaced because we don't have enough trained engineers. That's what happens when the education department plays with their feel-good-make-the-circle-bigger circle jerk called Outcomes-Based Education instead of focusing their energies on finding and training the best and brightest, I guess... but I digress.)

The poorest of the poor often don't have electricity or running water, let alone internet access. Whether or not you believe that the creation and perpetuation of the conditions suffered by the poor is a result of deliberate conspiracy by entities inspired, empowered and motivated to long-term socio-economic dominance -- anyone with eyes and a brain can see that the living conditions of a rather large chunk of our government's power base is extremely advantageous to its hold on power. Internet access itself is beyond the reach of too many, and will remain so while the lowest-priced internet-capable mobile phone costs somewhere between five and fifteen times what an unskilled manual labourer earns per day. (This doesn't even take into account that just getting to and from work can skim a third off the top of that... let alone that due to their work schedules many of these same people have to do their major food shopping at late-night convenience stores at damn-near criminal prices.)

Which channels does the average man in the street then have to get information? A few radio stations, all licensed by the government. A few television stations, likewise. The ones who can afford mobile phones are registered and thus controlled. (DSTV is of course out of reach of Joe Soapless.) The "free press" is feeling the pressure -- both the ruling and opposition parties pay lip service to press freedom while calling for journalists to be licensed and controlled. (Self-censorship is a major daily dilemma in journalistic ethics -- how much can I get away with? How much of the truth will They let me tell vs how much do I have to say?) So whether by accident, political pressure or economic manipulation, the government more or less controls the informational channels between the outside world and the man in the street.

What does all of this have to do with online petitions? Simple: The reason why government can afford to simply ignore a million signatures on an online petition is because the online populace isn't their power base -- we're too well-informed not to see through their bullshytt. It is in government's best interest that as many people as possible remain offline. If literally everyone over 18 in SA had an internet-capable cellphone and actively responded to even semi-official online petitions, government would have to sit up and notice if a whole big chunk of the nation signed one. As it is, 1 million people is less than a drop in the bucket of biomass propping up the ruling class. We need everyone to be connected and aware for the internet to matter at all.

(Of course I sign the petitions if it's a cause I support -- not doing so would be sort of like taking a stand against said cause -- but I harbour no great hopes of anyone in power listening.)

It has always been the case that technology challenges authority. In this case, the technology is networking. Q: What does the network want? A: To be connected. Q: How does the network perceive disconnection? A: As damage. Q: What was the originally intended purpose for the internet? A: To maintain communications by routing around damage in the event of nuclear war.

The faster we get everyone online and aware, the quicker things might just change for the better. I fail to see how it could make things worse around here.

Mark my words, someday the words "network" and "humanity" will be synonyms, and that day shall humanity be free. Denis Diderot said "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." To this I add my corollary: "Man will never be free until the last politician is strangled with the entrails of the last lawyer." (I'd have it the other way around, but for the political gutlessness of late.)

Friday, 25 February 2011

Conservatives, Oil, and Dictatorships

This cartoon and its associated opinion piece got me thinking. (Along with this piece on what conservatives really want -- an eye opener!).


What happens when the oil runs out? By that I don't mean "when conservative news mouthpieces start freaking out about gas prices due to an oil shortage". I mean gone. Nada, niks, fokkol.

By and large, Arab dictators seem to be propped up by oil money. Nobody wanted to disturb the status quo for fear of the oil companies' wrath -- jacking up our fuel prices even more. In 2008, for instance, Libya produced around 1,5 million barrels of the 80-odd million barrels of the worldwide crude black gold output. What will the production look like this year, I wonder? Let's just say I wouldn't buy shares in any oil company heavily involved in Libya.

The oil dictators have always seemed to get along well with American oil companies, probably because these seem to be headed up by old-money rich conservatives with few moral qualms about raping the environment, the economy, and entire societies for personal gain. (Sound familiar? Old money sticks together.) A large majority of the news services in the US are conservative-owned mouthpieces. From the article quoted above:

Republican conservatives have constructed a vast and effective communication system, with think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of trained speakers, vast holdings of media, and booking agents. Eighty percent of the talking heads on TV are conservatives. Talk matters because language heard over and over changes brains. 

So what happens when the oil runs out? Yes, firstly the dictators topple due to a lack of rich white erstwhile-slaveowner money. Some see this as an end in and of itself. I completely agree; dictatorship is always bad. I see the dictators as merely the dominoes at the end of a very long row. Corporations in the US and elsewhere have achieved domination through legal means. Suddenly their cash flow runs out, and so do the lawyers. The United States of America is the world's top consumer of oil, using even more than the combined European Union. (An estimated 18,690,000 barrels per day in 2009.) 

What happens when the oil gets low with no prospect of getting more? Prices go up. The rich get richer. This will become a vicious cycle of personal gains and a societal downward spiral. The ones at the top won't be affected by these shortages, of course. Their luxury vehicles will eventually be the only ones still driving on America's massive road system. They will drive past all the cars standing abandoned next to empty roads for lack of fuel. Before long they, too, will have no fuel left. The poor will become more and more disenfranchised as they are progressively excluded from economic participation -- until one day, someone will snap and become the spark in the powder keg of disillusionment and unfocused anger which is the people of America. SUVs and limousines will burn with their sneering oil peddlers inside. News stations denouncing the mob will themselves be torched.

The US' love of cable TV and internet over wireless tech will be the undoing of many networks; it's easier to find a cable than an antenna. The sysadmin in me cries -- network damage is anathema -- but the greater Internet will survive. The thought censorship imposed by American ISPs will go with the networks themselves. One can but hope that sysadmins of the people get there first to preserve these, like the Egyptian students protecting priceless museum pieces by simple expedient human chain.

The bigger picture here is that almost the entire world labours under an economic dictatorship. Wherever you can point to a large enough disparity between the rich and the poor, you can be absolutely certain that somebody cynically planned the systematic exploitation of the working classes. Of course this was so successful that others copied the system in good faith, thus giving rise to the multitude of personal responsiblity avoidance exploitation-enabling systems we now know as corporations.

Let me bring that home for you a little. Most of Cape Town is dirt poor. The rich neighbourhoods cluster on the slopes of Table Mountain and Bellville's hills like a crust on a really big pie -- deep and wide, the Flats dominate by square kilometerage, population... everything but per capita income. Conservatives everywhere will point to the disparity as proof that they possess more discipline and personal responsibility than the poor, who are obviously less deserving "because they'd be rich if they worked hard enough and applied themselves instead of smoking tik all day" (I quote a bigot I overheard at a braai recently, sans the racial epithets. He was subsequently uninvited from my home evermore.)

Many of these people work for large corporations run by capitalists. They are the company's first line of profit. They work long hours in suboptimal conditions for meager wages, while the 1 or 2 percent at the top skim off 95% of the cream for themselves. Now add the lack of oil to the mix, and what happens?

Corporations can't move stock. Contracts are defaulted on. The money isn't rolling in anymore, so the workers can't get paid. The factory workers, truck drivers and supermarket shelf stockers can't feed their children anymore. People get savage when they're hungry and they're fighting for them and theirs. They will eventually come after the wealth like a swarm of small sharks attacking a very big surfer with a bleeding toe.

I'm not saying this is a good, right or just thing. I'm not proposing to join the fray of looting and democracy-in-action. If we're lucky, there will be no bloodshed... if we're unlucky, the government will come down hard on protesters. Civil war won't be far behind if the governmental response is sufficiently harsh.

If we're very lucky, though, we can avoid all this. We can realise that social responsibility doesn't end with paying your taxes and giving the local bergie (vagrant) a cup of tea now and then. Our responsibility to our fellow man doesn't end with voting for whomever promises the most free clinics and jobs. (To be realistic, voting doesn't even enter into social responsibility anymore -- it only encourages fat cat politicians into believing they're still relevant.) It's not enough to donate books to the charity shop. All of that is great, don't get me wrong -- but all of that is giving a man a fish. A fish wrapped in ancient newspaper and boxed in the small picture, the Kool-Aid which says that rocking the boat is immoral and irresponsible. The message charity and government handouts give to the man on the street is that everything will be fine if they just carry on with their lives and ignore the injustice we all witness every day. If you don't stand out, if you go along with the mob, everyone's lives will be better.

The idea of party politics draws on this -- a mob protests, a mob gets its will. The ones who profit, however, aren't the ones who bus themselves in at oh-god-thirty in the morning to toyi-toyi all day; the head honcho pitches to prance at the head of the mob for a few minutes for the TV cameras. The rest trudge back to their shacks and dream of one day when their leader manages to make something happen for them. The glorious leader, meanwhile, returns to a comfy home in an airconditioned luxury car and dreams of the personal and filial profits to which his rule over the mob entitles him. Should he attain power, his followers see no more of the profit from their campaigning than do the factory workers on the assembly line see the profits others have attained by their sweat and blood and silent stoic tears.

Is this what the struggle was about? Even that glorious memory has been subverted into profit by individuals and parties far and wide. It seems that no sooner does someone gather a large enough group of people before he turns into a profit pimp, whoring out his followers for personal and political gain.

I have no answers, only more questions. Russia tried redistributing the wealth; their workers' collectives fell prey to the personality cults of Lenin and Stalin, and we all know how that went. Communism and socialism no more the answer the burning questions of today than do democracy and capitalism. All known forms of government and economy eventually fall prey to human nature -- dictatorship just does so sooner than most, hence the revolts we're seeing right now.

When the oil runs out, there will be a great reckoning and renegotiation. Government will no longer be the lowest bidder in the price wars for services. Taxes levied will have to drop, for the simple reason that the services we pay for will no longer even be rendered to the already almost nonexistent extent they are now. South Africa is lucky in that it has few enemies right now. When the oil runs out, though, who knows? We have some of the best (locally-developed!) oil-from-coal technology and some of the richest coal deposits in the world. Will America get greedy and park another aircraft carrier in Cape Town harbour, this time as a show of strength as their embassy in Pretoria does some underhanded "quiet diplomacy" of their own? (Quite literally a dictator-ship...) It's not unlikely. I saw a t-shirt the other day which read "If only Mugabe had WMDs" -- in the wake of the revelations that the whole "Saddam-has-WMDs" story was fabricated, that could well read "If only Zimbabwe had oil". That just gets more chilling the longer I think about it...

Thoughts welcomed. Comments lacking same aren't.