In this past week I was required to be a witness at our local magistrates court. It was a case of ‘possession of stolen goods’.
In April of this year, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, there was a break-in at the Radio Station I work at. I received the call at about 00h30. I dressed I drove the 7 miles through deserted streets to be greeted by armed response vehicles & South African Police Service officers. Lights flashing. Adrenalin pumping. Temperaments flaring.
It was a smash & grab. An office window was broken. A laptop-computer grabbed from a desk.
Then a police officer discovers a young man hiding under discarded boxes across the street. He has a laptop with him. I identified it as the stolen item. The boy, for that is what he is, not even quite past twenty, is arrested for possession of stolen goods.
I wonder about justice, as I drive home that fall evening.
Clearly this is the boy who broke into our radio station. Why else would he be hiding across the street with the laptop? And yet, he cannot be arrested for the burglary. There is no evidence. No one saw him break in. No fingerprints were found. Just him, hiding nearby, with a stolen laptop in his possession.
I make the necessary statements to officers & detectives.
Then the summons arrive. I am to be a witness. I was the one to identify the stolen computer & I am summoned to come and declare as much, under oath, so that the boy’s fate may be decided.
It is Spring when the case comes before the court.
The past six months the boy has been in custody, awaiting trial. No bail. I am not the only witness. He has other cases against him. Two for burglary in which he was not so fortunate with the absence of finger prints.
This was not my first time in court.
There was the time when I was twenty-four & had to appear in the Alexandria Magistrates court, or rather decided to appear. I could’ve paid an admission of guilt fine, but decided to ‘defend my honor’.
It was for a traffic violation & the residing magistrate found my efforts amusing. I did not have a lawyer. I decided to defend myself & submited photographic evidence & called the traffic officer who accused me of the violation as witness.
I was acquitted.
I walked away certain that next time I would rather just pay an admission of guilt fine & be done with it.
I am not much of a gambler.
I hope I live a peaceful life.
A life to the benefit of the greater good, not infringing on others’ freedom, not intentionally endangering anyone, but rather building our little bit of world.
I do not know how it is in other parts of the world. Here in South Africa, if you’re summoned to appear in court, you should clear your schedule for that day. You could be up first, or last, or even be subject to a postponement & required to clear your schedule on another occasion.
I spent the best part of the morning listening to case after case, witness after witness, defendant upon defendant.
They were all clearly guilty.
Guilty of taking what was not theirs to take.
Guilty of being born between 1980 and 1990, in Africa, to parents who did not take responsibility for raising them.
Case after case brought a young South African to the stand.
It might have been just that day.
It might have been just that court.
Although, looking at the facts, it could not be.
In the United States people are occupying Wall Street & every possible site related to it. They are fed up, mostly because of an economic system which parades itself as capitalism, but which has long ago been perverted into greed and injustice. They are moved to action as 9% of their population is unemployed and many are losing their homes to banks who foreclose with only limiting their risk and guaranteeing their profit in mind.
In South Africa unemployment is considered to be at approximately 25% of the population.
50% of South Africans live on less than $61 per month.
Not on $61.
On less than $61.
What can you buy with $61?
That would be about 488 South African Rand.
I spend 20 times that on my monthly bond payment & more than 10 times that on fuel and electricity.
12 times that to pay for food to feed my family.
6 times that clothe myself & my Zuko & our three children.
$61 is insignificant.
It is not even existing.
To those who live on $61 a month I must be the 99%.
In Africa I am.
Over 20% of Africa’s population is between 15 and 24.
36% of Africa’s unemployed are young people.
And I look at my children. My son of 12. My two daughters of 10 and 9. The baby being formed inside my Zuko to be born into this world in the early months of 2012.
Will they be part of this statistic?
Perhaps the ones on trial, this morning, as I await my turn to be a witness, as I witness one young South African after another take their turn in the stand, found guilty, sentenced to time in jail – perhaps the ones on trial are not they?
Perhaps it is us?
For this is a world of our making.
Eric Zuehlke believes: ‘From the recent riots in Greece to increased unemployment in urban China to anxiety over the prospect of more protests by young people throughout Europe, youth unemployment and underemployment is increasingly recognized as a potential trigger for social instability … ‘
This is not an African problem.
This is a world problem.
How can we expect the next generation to have hope, if there is none?
How can we expect the few who do find employment, to be anything but selfish in their westernised individualism, as they fight for a crumb from a pie which clearly seems to be too small?
Zuehlke says: ‘Africa in particular faces demographic challenges as its population of young people ages 15 to 24 increases and access to secure jobs continues to be problematic.’
In 1980 unemployment in South Africa was 9%.
Now it is 25%.
The pie is shrinking.
Opportunities are less.
As we wait between cases I talk with a police woman. She is here as witness as well. The case, one of domestic violence. She and her partner were on patrol. Neighbors ran out of their house, stopping their vehicle. The screams coming from behind a make-shift door of a corrugated iron home. They entered the house. Found a man strangling a barely dressed woman. He was drunk. Angry. He turned on them. Venting anger & desperation. She was caught in a struggle. His dirty hands closing around her own neck. She fought him off. Arested him. He was a husband. A father. A simple quarrel with his wife erupted in anger. He’d used a measly R80, maybe $1 he earned that day to buy liquor. He drank it alone to ease the pain. She was not mad at him for not buying food. She was angry because he kept the liquor all to himself, not sharing some of the ointment she also desired.
How broken our world.
An accused is brought into court. Witnesses are heard. Innocense claimed. The gavel falls. Guilty. Another young South African off to jail.
Who is guilty?
We talk again. Myself and the police woman as we wait our turn to be witnesses.
As we are witnesses & participants to a broken society.
‘How do you cope with this?’ I ask. ‘How do you go to work, every day, knowing such violence might lie in wait?’
‘I’m used to it’, she says. ‘I’ve been shot at. I’ve been beaten. The work is not the worst. It is going home which gets to me.’
For a moment I do not get it.
I do not get her.
Maybe because going home, for me, is something fabulous. Amazing. Fantastic. To be with my Zuko. To engage our children. To talk and enjoy & inspire each other.
‘My husband is bi-polar’, she explains. ‘If he is on his meds, it is okay, but you never know when he’ll not drink it. And then it is chaos. He says it numbs his soul. But an un-numbed soul is unbearable. Then he tries to kill himself.’
She tells the story of her husband’s childhood.
Of what she believed may have contributed to his life.
‘When he was nine years old he saw his father butcher his mother like a cow. He strung her up by her feet. He cut her throat. Let her bleed unto their living room floor. Then cut her open from neck to belly, her innards falling limply on the floor, before he skinned her.’
I swallow back vomit.
Off course he will be broken.
Who could witness that & ever sleep again.
His father was arrested.
He stood trial.
He was sent to an insane asylum.
You must be crazy do have done something like that.
He still lives.
Now free from the institution who supposedly brought him to psychological sanity.
I wonder what his story is?
I wonder what his father did?
In front of him?
Which changed his being?
Fathers.co.za believes that ‘fatherlessness is one of the most significant social problems facing South Africa. Research supports the facts that children from fatherless homes are more likely to be poor, become involved in drug and alcohol abuse, drop out of school, and suffer from health and emotional problems. Boys are more likely to be involved in crime, and girls are more likely to become pregnant as teens. The cost of fatherlessness is high. Unfortunately even when a father is physically present in a home, he may be emotionally absent.’
Perhaps it would have been better for this man, husband to the police woman, to be fatherless.
He was more than fatherless.
Parent24 reports: ‘Children from fatherless homes are
15.3 times more likely to have behavioral disorders
4.6 times more likely to commit suicide
6.6 times more likely to become teenaged mothers
24.3 times more likely to run away
6.3 times more likely to be in a state-operated institutions
10.8 times more likely to commit rape
6.6 times more likely to drop out of school
15.3 times more likely to end up in prison while a teenager.
According to Parent24 ‘73% of adolescent murderers come from mother only homes and daughters who live in mother only homes are 92% more likely to divorce.’
My turn to be a witness in the case of the boy who hid under the boxes with the stolen laptop came shortly after lunch.
I shared the events of that evening.
Other witnesses did the same.
The boy was convicted.
He will spend more time in jail.
His future is clear.
And as I drive home tears find their way down my cheeks onto my white shirt.
How broken the world we live in.
How immensely broken.
Not just for that boy.
For us all.
And not just in South Africa or Africa, so often seen as the part of the world unable to solve its problems.
How broken our world.
How filled with destroyed children.
Boys who have to grow up without parents who raise them or love them.
Or worse, boys who have to witness their mother’s slaughter & build a life on the images of his mother’s screams.
Not just that boy.
Who see their fathers verbally abuse their mothers.
Beat them with fists of disappointment and anger.
To mimic them later.
In rape and destruction.
As I park my Defender & my children come running from our home, filled to the brim with stories of their day’s excitement, I swallow the hopelessness.
I embrace them.
Listen to them.
Interested in who they are & what they experience.
The Religious amongst us would say, that is it.
That is the solution.
You be a father.
Do not spare the rod or you would spoil the child.
I spare the rod & lavishly dish out love & grace & forgiveness, for if I teach my children that it is about obedience, if I teach them that violence is the answer & it solicits compliance, then they too will go into the world believing in the power of violence.
Locking away rapists & thieves.
Hoping that blow after blow would heal our world.
And it does not.
It has not.
South Africa has the world’s seventh highest prison population, outranking countries with five times its population.
166 267 prisoners.
The United States has 2.3 million prisoners.
China 1.6 million.
It costs R69 000 (or $8 800) per year to house a single inmate.
In our part of the world.
Gideon Morris, director of the Cape Town-based Judicial Inspectorate of Prisons (South Africa), said: “In 1997 we were spending R3,7-billion annually on running prisons. Last year we spent almost R12-billion.”
I wonder what it would cost to create a project in which the young people of our country is afforded a new opportunity?
Maybe we could create a national civil service system?
When I left school I served in the South African Navy – a conscript to military service.
I was trained in naval warfare and military thinking, for which I do not much care.
At the same time I found myself in an environment in which the playing field was completely level.
With me in basic training was the son of the then Minister of Defence, General Magnus Malan. He slept in the same bed as I did. He ate the same food. He wore the same clothes. Sat through the same classes & stood the same inspections. He suffered through the same physical training, woken up, just like me, in the middle of the night to be dragged across sand dunes, running, doing push ups, sit ups, carrying sand bags & rifles & fellow trainees.
Imagine if I was taught to be a medic?
And afterwards, instead of maintaining a navy, I was deployed in our countries hospitals. In an ambulance. Or as a nurse’s assistant?
Imagine I was trained to be a police constable – focussing my energy on the safety of our countries citizens instead of a fictional enemy?
Imagine if I was trained to teach. I had finished high school. I could easily be taught the basics of education & be a teacher’s assistant in schools desperately in need of staff.
Or I could’ve been trained to be of some assistance in the agricultural sector. Spending a year or two helping to create food security.
And perhaps I would’ve walked away from that experience, not only up-skilled, but ingrained with the understanding that I am part of something bigger. That with privilege comes responsibility.
Perhaps, if somewhere in my training was a component which focused on emotional & spiritual intelligence, I would come away from my service slightly better equipped?
At least aware that the father I had was not the father I should be?
Perhaps I am a dreamer?
But there must be hope.
There must be a new way.
The governmental options we’ve exercised has not shown results.
Not politically and not religiously.
Our societies from Africa to the Americas, Europe & Asia are broken.
It is not just the greed of big corporations or the lack of jobs which should be cured.
It is a broken world.
And, yes, my religious friend, be you Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Bhudist – off course salvation comes from God.
Off course, inside us something must change.
But that something will not change if we remain in a disconnected world in which the spiritual never touches the material.
But do not pray for God to come from above and magically touch your world.
Pray that God would come from inside of you …
Pray that he would ignite a great sorrow in me and you and your neighbour …
Pray that he would open our eyes …
That he would heal our chosen blindness …
Pray that he would wake us up …
Energize us & fill us with discontent to such an extent that we cannot but move.
Otherwise there will be no hope.
And there must be.