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Looking for answers that pop through the boundaries of thought

A few thought-provoking ideas, reflections and entertainments from the deep south of Cape Town...

Some serious, some frivolous, some perhaps just ranting - see what you think!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Shouting our fears a little too loudly


South Africans have been complaining about crime and violence for a long time. It is, of course, something the modern state was given as a starting factor, given who founded it. The Dutch East India Company, like their other European counterparts, were basically pirates. Jan van Riebeeck, the reluctant first governor (who soon skedaddled back off to Europe), was a convicted fraudster who was recalled from Indonesia after siphoning off company funds for himself. His posting to the Cape was an opportunity to make good, but he came with a veritable bunch of rogues who insisted on some pretty random rough justice during their time in charge, to say nothing of the crime and violence that was the slave trade. UCT still has a student residence called “Driekoppen” named after, well, three heads of slaves put on a spike in the area for killing their master. Moving right forward, the South African kleptocracy under apartheid was really more of the same, and the fear it instilled of “the enemy” everywhere while helping to spread more and more guns around the subcontinent for later criminals – during its phony wars aimed at destabilising neighbouring states -  was hardly helpful for our present situation. But even so, our post-apartheid shouting of our fears has been fuel for the media, which currently is heavily geared towards considering negative events as the only newsworthy ones (sport excepted).

Of course, victims of crime often suffer trauma. I know, on a simple level, having been a victim of violent crime myself, some 8 years ago, when I was mugged at knifepoint. The crucial thing was regaining my own sense of responsibility over the situation. I was the fool who walked alone in a poorly-lit non-residential area late at night. And my philosophy also allowed me to own that on some psycho-spiritual level I had invited the attack as a lesson of some kind. I also was able to feel considerable gratitude that despite the threats and the knife I got away unharmed – just material losses. But I still went into a sort of histamine shock state picked up quickly by a wonderful holistic doctor a couple of days later. Guess my body felt I needed to shout and rage a little more before getting all equanimical about it. Of course, the shouting and raging would be best done towards a neutral third party willing to hold the charge coming at them – and then assisted to “de-role” afterwards. The actual person committing the crime might only be ready to take responsibility for it in this way years later, and giving them that rage too soon leads to that horrible cycle of retribution and hardened stances that our planet sees far too much of.

There are some terrible things happening in certain corners of our country. There is violence and hatred and corruption. It’s a 21st century thing, guys. It happens right around the world. There are some special reasons, mostly economic, why it is less visible in certain countries way further north, and some special reasons, to do with history and collective karma for why we have to put up with quite a concentrated dose in this country. But too often the story we like to put out to the world is one of how terrible life is here. As Syd Kitchen said, Africa’s not for sissies.

Well, when I first came here I felt I had travelled a fair bit. I’d travelled through Europe and Asia, I’d seen “the third world,” I’d been mugged, robbed, and witnessed a violent riot before (all in London, as it happens). But the stories I heard of South Africa were of another order. Now many may have originated with the South Africans “Packing for Perth” who were leaving and looking to justify this to the world with a story of crime that their cosy lives had not previously encountered. But there’s no doubt that it was reinforced by those staying behind. After a few days here back in 1996, I set off for Cavendish Square, the most famous and upmarket mall in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. I trusted my (foreign) flatmate enough to take the minibus taxi from Rondebosch to Claremont. It gave me a bit of a thrill, not least because my (white South African) flatmates wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing, and my foreign guidebooks (which should have known better) also recommended avoiding them. The trip was perfectly safe, as has been every other taxi journey I have taken, with the exception of one into downtown Jo’burg (it started raining at which point I realised the windscreen wipers for were decoration only). The periodic madness over routes notwithstanding, the main reason I don’t use taxis much is that the music is often too loud for me to be able to think, much like a typical Indian bus.

But the scary bit was stepping onto the pavement in Claremont. I can still remember the wariness with which I did so, in case muggers, pickpockets and other no-gooders were hiding at every corner. It took a while to overcome this fear, though I was determined to do so. In hindsight the fear was completely over the top – I mean come on, the great shopping centre that is Claremont? In the busy daytime? Dangerous? Today it makes me laugh. But sadly others who are not so willing to overcome the fears they’ve imbibed might never make it here. Capetonians’ horror stories about Jo’burg meant it took me a year and a half before I ventured into that city, during which time I travelled the country, visited Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and, well, Jo’burg airport before a quick guided exit to a conference out of town. The nerves were high in Jo’burg airport that first time too. I am not alone in this. Another friend of mine, on business from the UK, flew into Jo’burg and was told such horror stories of the place that - when I was slightly delayed in reaching him – he bolted out of the airport and got a taxi to the safe haven of a Holiday Inn in Pretoria! Yet another friend came on holiday from the UK and loved it here (under my guidance) but has never managed to persuade his wife to come too… she watches the BBC, you see, whose express role is to convince Brits that more interesting parts of the world are dangerous basket cases and they’re better off staying in their rather dreary island.

Other outsiders have attempted to shift the image of the country. Robert Young Pelton, a Canadian who presented a series for Discovery on the world’s most dangerous places (I can see why he might want to find a little “danger” in life, being from the world’s most pleasant country), visited Jo’burg in 1998. He walked across the “unwalkable” section of downtown, openly displaying a large camera and other items designed to say “I’m a tourist, please mug me”, only to find nothing of the sort happened at all. He was almost disappointed to relate how South Africa would not even be getting mentioned in his book. Jeremy Clarkson – the BBC Top Gear presenter who is probably usually way off the cultural radar of many of my readers – concluded a couple of years before the world cup that, contrary to Syd Kitchen’s assertion, Jo’burg was actually “the city for softies” but one where citizens were particularly keen to go on and on about how many dangers they and their neighbours faced. Both were, predictably, panned by locals for “not really knowing because they’re foreign” or for being “insensitive to crime victims”. Even the World Cup, which brought us such positive press worldwide, was just one big party leading to a typical South African doom-and-gloom hangover.

I think this comes down to world view. For most westerners death is just seriously scary. We are desperate to hold onto our individual constructed identity, and death means wiping all that away. Some Westerners have got so attached to this identity that they think there is nothing else after death, even though everything about the way the universe works would seem to point to this being a little ludicrous – energy and consciousness continually expresses itself in new forms. It just won’t express itself as Arthur Pewty from Benoni any more. This might not be such a Bad Thing. I’m not recommending that you don’t take precautions – but that even with precautions, death will come when it comes. Even – and this is definitely a scary thing to say – to our children.

My children can’t safely run off to the shops for me on an empowering little errand, like they could maybe have done in previous generations. But they lead lives of abundance, security, and a little bit of risk-taking. I believe their lives are healthier than the kind of limited media-heavy paranoid-parent homework-driven childhood available in other English-speaking parts of the world today. I would hate for anything to happen to them and I will do my best to protect their souls as far as possible. But there is a spiritual dimension to their journey in life - their fate - which is outside my knowledge or my responsibility. It requires the great counterpart to the fear we live with every day (wherever we are in the world) – it requires trust in an ultimately benevolent universe.

Try it. The methods and results, as I hope to outline in future articles, are often utterly remarkable. And where better to try it out than in gorgeous South Africa, where the need for an alternative to shouting out our disabling fears is so very, very obvious. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Getting Topless in False Bay

There is still discrimination on our Cape Town beaches. Clifton is home to millionaires and ranked as “one of the world’s top topless beaches”. But a woman who might want to get a full tan on top would probably feel like a fish out of water on the beaches of False Bay.

Now, there are some serious issues involved here, of course. Reportedly, hidden photographers have admitted to taking photos of women on the Camps Bay beach side of town and selling them to pornography sites. Sandy Bay, Cape Town’s most famous nudist site, is typically a hang-out for unfulfilled weirdos desperate to get their rocks off, and the only time I visited it was seriously male-dominated, (though the most dangerous snake I encountered was, appropriately enough, a lazy and flaccid puffadder on the path). And given our despicable levels of abuse and rape it’s not for me to encourage women to bare all where they wouldn’t feel safe doing it. (Luckily South Africa is still full of wonderful wilderness areas where those keen to skinny-dip can do so without worrying about the watching, waiting world and its judgements).

There are cultural issues involved too, though. When my kids were under 5 and merrily chasing around an empty St. James beach in the buff a disgusted rubbish-collector admonished me severely for being immoral. There are quite a few Muslims bathing this side of town in full-body and head outfits. You will note, of course, that on the other side of the country the Zulu Reed Dance, featuring a mass of topless teenagers, is considered a major and honourable cultural event. But that doesn’t mean you’ll find any Westernised residents of Khayelitsha taking off their bikinis, on False Bay or on Camps Bay, racing as they are as fast as possible away from any hint of the supposed “primitive life” of the past.  

But what is this nudity thing really all about? For centuries, in fact, it was the Muslim world that seemed ahead of the Christian west; behind the veil, in the hidden private world of women into which men might be invited, a much more sensuous appreciation of the body was possible, perhaps even emphasised by the covering up in the daily world. In the medieval West by contrast, apart from the odd sect urging a return to “Adam’s innocence,” (who usually ended up being burnt at the stake), the body (and a woman’s body in particular) was a thing of evil, preventing unity with the Godhead by using the infernal distractions of desire. Even though the covers have long since come off, this attitude to nudity as something inherently “naughty” still persists and fuels an enormously successful X-rated modern industry.

The “naughty” attitude was spread around the world particularly by the Victorian British, of course, who at the same time visited an extraordinarily high number of prostitutes in Victorian London, estimated to be 1 in every 5 women. Western women noting how certain Indian men congregate at beaches to ogle them in forbidden excitement  may find it hard to believe that India is the country that gave birth to the Kama Sutra. It has sophisticated erotic statues in many of its most sacred centres, and the “naughty/distracting body” tradition (which the British rulers loved to emphasise for it coincided with their own beliefs) was only one strand of Hinduism, even if it appears strongly sometimes today. This “naughtiness” is the root of all the more cringeworthy kitsch British comedy of the 70s, and all the utter paranoia about paedophilia in that country today.

The last comment might sound flippant especially in our context, but contrast this experience I had in a German public swimming pool last year. There was a male changing room, a female changing room, and a family changing room. Since we were there as a family we went to the family changing room. It was only once inside that I realised that it was not a private family changing room. Two teenage girls thought nothing of stripping off to change while an unrelated man quietly stripped off further down the same bench. In the UK this kind of thing would lead to giggles of embarrassment or be covered with headline fears of paedophilia. I raised an eyebrow, swallowed my genetic shame and quietly got on with changing like the Germans did. I would venture that this kind of social attitude probably leads to rather less real paedophilia in Germany than in repressed England – and other English-influenced parts of the world, like our own corner.

Africans used to be like the swimming pool Germans too. The days of barely-clothed tribal living were hardly a sexy free-for-all. I would venture that they may have been for the most part a time when the body was allowed to be there, acknowledged, admired, a part of life, not something to be ashamed or embarrassed of, not something to be worried about showing off or evoking puppy-dog excitement. It would be nice to imagine a time when the same could be true on all of Cape Town’s beaches, for those that wanted to get their skin closer to the elements. That would probably show that the men of this country had finally grown up.