“It doesn’t matter how your story started out. That is not who you are. What matters is who you choose to be”
-From Kung Fu Panda
Kung Fu Panda inspires me. He seems to see clearly the nexus between peace and justice. Or rather, he learns it along his journey. Plus he is one of my boy Luc-Michael’s heroes, so it’s special bonding time for us
Many think that peace and justice are at odds with each other. My journey has conscientized me to the belief that peace absolutely cannot exist without justice. But I see justice very differently now to everything I learnt in Law School.
My life had a few rocky starts. At 11 months while away with my Mom and two older brothers (our Dad was overseas on business) I contracted encephalitis. 7 babies in the locality contracted the disease, 6 died one lived. That was me. But I was left paralyzed from the neck down. Two weeks later in a display of early signs of thug tendencies, I started crawling again. But dragging my legs behind me. The next 9 years I had daily physio and used a wheelchair. A series of surgery and by age ten I abandoned the wheelchair, the “special” school as was called in those days and I went on to accomplish in academics, public speaking and school leadership positions. Whilst still in a wheelchair I managed to accomplish in swimming-competitive swimming and also I was the youngest kid in the then Transvaal to complete lifesaving training. I think I was seven. And in a wheelchair.
After school I went on to complete two law degrees, practice as an attorney and conveyancer for ten years before going into Alternative Dispute Resolution, Access to Justice and Human Rights.
But there were some intervening years that I barely survived. Without going into specific detail, the context that myself and my daughter (now 14) were in until she was three and a half was violent. Even after exiting the situation, it has taken me years to digest that anyone would want to hurt me physically, emotionally or psychologically. And I was subjected to too much of it all. My baby girl- I don’t know, and I will never know what really happened to her, what she went through or the full extent of what she witnessed and endured. But I do know, looking back, that I exited the context far sooner than she. And that to a degree still leaves me shattered. But she is an incredibly beautiful, intelligent and brave young woman and I think she carries a mandate to be a world changer.
We are both safe now in most ways. But there is a haunting that I guess will never leave either of us. There is a struggle to understand our own individual needs and our tendency to apprehend our own safety, even in some ways that may leave others feeling violated. A hyper-vigilance and a profound sensitivity that may bare response that leaves others confused and mystified. We have had to understand that even we have violent impulse. Neither of us would wilfully physically harm another. Neither of us would wilfully verbally abuse or demean another. But we have to watch carefully for signs where we feel unsafe, vulnerable and liable to apprehend our own needs at the expense of others.
The crazy thing is I often feel safer at a negotiating table surrounded by men armed with Assault Rifles than I do in day to day suburbia. I guess there is a lot to be said for knowing exactly where someone stands. Its comforting to be able to actually see the threat and know what you are dealing with. The most terrifying thing that our experience has left me with is not really what is going on, on the inside of everyday seemingly caring, hard-working “descent” individuals. Not knowing what may lurk in the shadows of another’s life and not knowing until far too late that you are actually in a situation that can or will damage or destroy your life. That someone with a legal and moral duty to cherish and protect you, can be the biggest danger to you is just beyond terrifying.
I think the toughest thing for me was having the father I had. He made mistakes like everyone else, but he was literally one of the kindest humans I ever knew. I grew up thinking male strength was gentle, and fair, and just, and compassionate. That was my Dad. He was a brilliant swimmer, athlete, provincial rugby hero. And he was a remarkable business man. But he was so humble. And so gentle. He was beautifully spoken with an amazingly gentle voice and he was the best storyteller we ever knew.
I don’t think I ever got over the shock that there were men in this world who were not like that. That there were men who were simply not strong like that. But there are such men. There are many. Not all.
The most serendipitous intervening event of grace in my life was meeting my husband, Mike. The night I met him I thought he looked so much like my Dad as a young man. That was ten years ago. My father loved Mike. Last December my father lost his life. Mike wept at his funeral. I had never seen Mike cry.
This year has been the toughest of my life. Learning to do life without the guy that my Dad was in this world. Its just been really, really hard. But I know he left a legacy of kindness in my four brothers. I know that same kindness has been in Mike all along. And I know my kids and my niece get it.
I also know that because of who my Father was, I am able to embrace God as a loving father who rescues, restores, redeems and heals rather than a punisher who waves the threat of fire and brimstone. This fortifies and advances my belief and work in Restorative Justice and Access to Justice and my commitment and unshakeable belief that the Law can be used to protect, heal and restore.
Today marks the start of the 16 Days Campaign. We are encouraged to partake in activities that will stop the violence against woman and children.
For me we have to go bigger, we have to work to dismantle violence full stop. Violent thinking, violent speaking and violent systems. I spend a lot of my time working to find creative alternatives to the redemptive violence that is at the heart of our criminal justice system and our safety and security mechanisms (our police “force” not services)
My faith continues to be bigger than all I can see. Guns (as a symbol of redemptive violence) have never made this world a safe place. We have to work to exclude the use of violence as an answer to the problem of violence. It has never worked, except to perpetuate violence.
I dream of mass action turning symbols of violence into useful stuff. Converting systems that harm into systems that heal. Until we work to address violence, full stop, the vulnerable will always be vulnerable.
And the way things are is not the way things need to be.
I returned from Cape Town last night and this morning as I opened 3 brand new files for evictions of communities, I wept.
Look. The weather in Cape Town was enough to make any grown Durbanite cry, but right now, I write of not natural phenomena, but imposed human tragedy and suffering.
I was in Cape Town, primarily to advocate for members of the Taxi Industry who are patently being sidelined and subject to arbitrary non-renewal and non-granting of permits which is accompanied by, expensive, and sometimes violent, law enforcement.
While I was there, I was consulted by yet another community facing eviction. Correction, this is the first one facing eviction. The other two were evicted in some kind of act first and explain later massacre of the law and complete derogation of the essential standard of what is humane.
This community faces eviction. And they were referred to me by Ses’khona on the day before the action for eviction was to be heard in court.
I met with the community leaders who handed me a heart breaking statement they had written on the mandate of the community. I publish it here, with their consent.
“New Castle residents we came from inside Monwabisi Park that know as Ndlovini, we were living as back yarders and house keepers. Living like that was never been pleasant, the land lords do whatever they like because they know that we were depending on them. It hurt deep inside when somebody is telling you that should’ve been living on the streets if he/she didn’t accepted you in his/her space.
Being a backyarder had never been easy. You must always keep in your mind that anytime you can be kicked out as that happened to us, because we were not in our own space or plot. What during the process of development we were given the notice by our land lords to move our shack out so they can put their relatives and children on the spaces so they can get development. It is hard to refuse when someone is telling you that, while you know that you living in his/her space. Rent and electricity are so expensive, some of us are not working, and some of us does not get enough salary/wages to go rent some else when we got kicked out. When got kicked out we didn’t know where to go, we then decided to use piece of land to build us some houses.
As there is a speech or saying here in South Africa, South Africa belong to all who live in it, our feeling on that speech is like we are foreigners in our country. We then decided to come to this space at back of Ndlovini which we called it New Castle and use it as our home. A home is where it is safe, we took that as our responsibility to keep New Castle safe and secured.
In New Castle we did not mean to interrupt the metro of City of Cape Town on the progress of working. As the slogan of our metro says, this City works for you, we sincerely want it to work for us on this really hard situation. We have families and children to take care, we don’t afford to be on the streets.
As New Castle residents we are sincerely needed a place to live and that’s why we ended up here.”
So yesterday what I did was attempt to call the City’s attorneys to let them know we had been instructed and needed time to consult with the community and instruct a legal team to represent them. I found that even with a case number and file reference number, the firm dealing with the matter could not direct me to the attorney handling the matter. I have over 10 years experience formerly practising as an attorney and conveyancer, over 18 years experience in teaching law and ADR and in the practice of alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice. And I could not secure these details. What chance does a Xhosa speaking community of urban shack-dwellers facing eviction by the City have?
As I was heading down to court the community leader called me
“Mamma, the community is waiting at court for you
I’m on my way
Mamma can the community sing?
Yes, you can sing. But remain peaceful. We must be safe.
As I arrived at the court, I heard a group approaching, singing.
They gathered in from of the court and I thought it was the New Castle Community. But I stood on the court steps waiting for the community leaders. The group were singing and dancing, but they were peaceful.
At some point I was called by our clients. They had gone to the wrong court and I directed them to the High Court. I realised the community before me were not our clients. I learned this was a community who had been evicted and their matter was also in court.
At some point a police officer approached me:
“This group must stop singing
Why? They are peaceful, I said
Do they have permits to gather?
They have been evicted and summoned to court. They have every right to be here, I said
The police officer turned menacing and took out his phone threatening that if they do not stop singing he would “call who I have to call”
He a wrapped up his threats with “They will disturb the office workers and we can’t allow that”
Seeing this engagement the group started to Toyi Toyi. So just to help diffuse the situation I approached one of the members upfront to chat to them. The community became suspicious and started to chant “shoot, shoot, shoot.” In Xhosa. I with the assistance of someone with me was able to convey that we were allies of their plight and not against them and all remained calm.
Time was getting short so I headed up to court to see if I could find the City’s lawyers. The registrar was helpful and said as soon as they arrived, he would introduce them to me. Looking around the court and seeing it filling up with Advocates rapidly, I said to the registrar, the community is gathering outside and there is another community. I think things may be tense with police and I may like to invite the community in just to help mitigate against any injury or harm.
“We don’t care what happens out there, they can kill each other for all I care. We don’t have space in here”
So I said, Sir, I think we have a responsibility to guard against injury and loss of life.
The Registrar softened and said “Madam, you are right, and they have every right to be here. Inside. Please invite them in”
When the City Legal Team got there, they were immediately directed to me. They were gracious and approachable and agreed on a two week postponement for Access to Justice to understand the case against the community and instruct an appropriate legal team.
Outside, in the rain, I addressed the community, with the help of one of our Taxi Operator clients who helped me interpret and who helped me get to Court and Assisted me in navigating all the territory, literally and figuratively. I explained to the community the purpose of the adjournment and how we would gather information and advocate for engagement with the City in terms of Section 26 of the Constitution and the Grootboom case which makes it unlawful for Administration to evict without proper consultation on alternative living arrangments. I also gave them comfort, confirmed by the City’s legal team, that no action to evict would be undertaken immediately.
As we were wrapping up, a woman approached me and asked to meet with me. She happens to be the acting head of the SA Human Rights Commission of the Province. We met later and discussed the disturbing trend of local government and the state literally negating the needs of the poor and actually creating further homelessness. We spoke of the plight of the poor as the sleeping giant about to surge up and agreed that we would do all we could to work in solidarity with each other and others who recognize this as untenable for every citizen of the country. And we agreed that we would respond to the plight of the poor in this with whatever measures we can to protect them against further injury, further homelessness and further, extra-aneously imposed poverty. We agreed that it is in the interests of every single citizen of this land that we protect the poor.
We will not accept a status quo where office workers are protected from hearing singing in the streets, but the poor are not safe in their own homes. And the enemy of the poor, happens to be the very ones with a responsibility to protect them
Sheena St. Clair Jonker
ADR Network SA and Access to Justice