Monday, April 20, 2009

Shaved Head, Black Clothes, Loves Black People

I didn’t write about it at the time, because I was doing it, but here’s a post for posterity:

Last year, Cape Town had an outbreak of violence against (mostly) Africans from other African countries. There were lootings, rapes and murders. Local people, the primary theory is-driven by extreme poverty in informal areas, attacked people not from South Africa. In a week, over a hundred thousand people were displaced from homes and communities, and sought refuge in safety camps, community halls and churches.

I volunteered at an NGO which was coordinating relief efforts, and was, after a few hectic days, offered a contract job as communications person. This was because I had said I need to get back to work, and said I do write magazine articles sometimes. On the strength of that, I was hired.

So, I went from writing humourous bits for parenting magazines, to organizing massive press conferences, appearing on TV news, and blabbing to the radio stations, sometimes half a dozen a day. This went on for six months. I was the person providing press statements. My name got in to all sorts of compromising places. But we, as civil society, pushed government to look after these people, even f they didn’t want to, taking them to court twice.

Some highlights, behind the scenes of an accidental activist:

  • Getting food to 80 000 people, using donations alone, with a team of about twenty people in the war-room.

  • Phoning political heavyweights, and I mean household names, to get them to back us up. (Who am I talking to? Scott who?)

  • Indulging in a public fight with government, the mayor and the UN in the newspapers and on the radio and TV.

  • Meeting some of the most amazing refugee leaders and activists you could ever hope to meet.

  • Working for this guy. Awe inspiring- becoming his friend.

  • Doing a TV interview and realizing the newsreader was smartly dressed above the desk, but wearing old jeans and trainers below.

  • Swearing during a radio interview with a muslim radio station. It was recorded, so they could edit.

  • Writing a memorandum, and organizing a march of thousands to the Provincial Legislature to hand it over to the Premier- I managed to get her to accept it on her first day in the job.

  • Writing the first civil society complaint in the world ever to get a delegation sent from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to carry out an investigation- but only after I organised the BBC to blow the story in Geneva. A team was sent from Geneva and Canada to interview almost every important government agency and NGO in South Africa. Whoops. I kept a low profile after that. Hahah, Me. Writing to Ban Ki Moon.

  • Having to then sit before the equivalent of the UN Internal Affairs commission and get cross-questioned.

  • Taking government to court, and winning.

  • Finding out that people I was working with were getting arrested and followed, forced off the roads and threatened by spooks.

  • Discovering that government really couldn’t care less if people are getting raped in safety camps, murdered in their homes, or if babies have no formula for weeks on end. Their official line was ‘there is no problem’, and ‘we can’t acknowledge it, it will damage SA’s reputation for the soccer World Cup next year’.

  • Meeting with the heads of Medesins Sans Frontieres SA, Amnesty International and others.

  • Taking a phone call from a British charity offering R5 000 000. ($500 000).

  • Making a difference, in the City I love.

    So all this is not meant to say how wonderful I am, but just that it was an historically important time (not that it is by any means resolved), and that even normal people can get involved. I still am, having been part of a small group which started at the time: The Social Justice Coalition, which now has the support of Desmond Tutu and others. There were maybe fifty people at our first meeting.

    It isn’t about politics, but about wanting to do something rather than bitch about bad news. This country needs everyone to get involved in some way in our communities. Government won’t do it.

    Some of my best friends are black. I like saying that. Some of them are white, too. Racism and xenophobia are totally evil. Rant over.


  1. Thanks for writing this. This is brilliant: "It isn’t about politics, but about wanting to do something rather than bitch about bad news. This country needs everyone to get involved in some way in our communities. Government won’t do it."

  2. Great. Now I feel like a no-good selfish schmuck compared to you. Some of my best friends are black too, so I guess I have THAT going for me.


  3. Reading your blog is the oddest thing since I never know what to expect. This might explain that time your boss told you to get Desmond Tutu on the phone. We need fewer teabaggers and more folks like you in the States.

  4. @Beck: Unfortunately, it's true. Might be as simple as picking up litter, or deciding NOT to spraypaint City Hall.
    @NGIPs: Nooooooo! I'm completely self-absorbed! Most of this I stumbled into, I am NOT a saint. Just live in a very complex society. There exist places in society where black/white/whatever people are marginalised according to skin colour. Yay! Black people!
    @MDL: Hhahahahahaha I never know what's going to come out until I sit down, so you are seeing moods/whims/insanity/pot luck. It's especially hard to write funny. You do that really well, consistently!

  5. Wow... so you haven't been forced off the road or followed around?


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