Tuesday, May 3, 2011

SA - Not So Liberal After All

Not interested in politics? Not interested in how the government spends its time - and your money? Really? Think we live in a nice, quiet, safe country where all is right with the world? The government is benevolent and doing its best to deliver all the things it claims to? Think it lives up to our Constitution? Think it cares about all the people who live in South Africa? Think there is no reason to be concerned with anything to do with politics?

Who is still naive enough to think we aren't already living in a police state? Come on, don't be shy - put your hands up.

Think about it for a moment. No, really.

The South African Police "Service" have resumed the use of a military rank system - and their "General" has told them for all intents and purposes to shoot first and ask questions later - and to shoot to kill. People accused of crimes, innocent or not, spend years in prison awaiting trial. The recent spate of police brutality and excessive force and unjustifiable violence has resulted in comparisons between the current Police "Service" and the old Apartheid-era Police "Force" - and these comparisons have been made not just by the average citizen - but also by those formerly oppressed by the old Police Force. Looking at it closely, one can understand perfectly why.

Two weeks back, a local activist in Ficksburg was brutally assaulted and then shot dead by a group of policemen in riot gear - this despite the fact that the man was not even resisting them. The fact that this transpired openly in front of press cameras and journalists, speaks of a shameful devaluation of human life and threatens to redefine the term "transparency". Last week, an unarmed civilian was shot dead by a policeman in the street outside a police station while in her private vehicle, apparently after colliding with a parked police vehicle. It is as though the average police officer these days doesn't care a damn what they do and who sees it and knows about it - because the "boss" said it is "okay" and they are after all, "only doing their job". Also last week, it was reported that a policeman at a crime scene refused to call an ambulance for a wounded victim despite repeated pleas to do so because "she was going to die anyway". And yes, the victim did die - but who made this policeman an expert in the medical field? The fact that she did die doesn't prove him right - if anything, it makes him complicit. So first we had "shoot to kill" - now we have cops who think they are qualified to decide whether shooting victims will die or not. We now have police officers who seem to think they are the law and they are above it.

What about that non-existent crime problem the government likes to laugh about? I remember our previous President still made a big joke about it by saying in a speech "what crime problem?" - while living in the presidential residence which was protected by a palisade electrified fence, perimeter cameras and other expensive security devices. As I recall not long afterwards, he was burgled and some of these devices were among the items stolen. C'mon - you have to love the irony in that.

Irony aside though, we ordinary South Africans are prisoners in our own homes, reluctant to go out for fear of being hijacked, attacked or killed - and if that isn't bad enough, we fear being attacked or killed in our own homes. That's right - these days criminals don't wait for the occupants of a house they target to go out, they strike specifically when they are home, so they can get their personal items - and the codes for all the security devices and safes etc. You have to ask what does a person intend if he breaks into a house while the residents are home, while he is armed with a knife or gun? And to make matters worse, if we injure or kill our attackers, even in our homes - we are treated like the criminals and not the victims. Relatives of a deceased burglar shot dead in the act by a homeowner were shown the other day outside the court where the homeowner was found innocent, protesting the verdict of innocent. How can people think that way? What do burglars want inside people's homes - and what do they expect if they break in when people are home?

Licensed owners of firearms are pressurized by new laws designed to make the whole process of acquiring and keeping firearms such an ordeal, that most people prefer to just hand them in to the Police at a loss. Firearms prices have plummeted because nobody wants to go through the hassle of applying for a permit - and because everyone who wants to get rid of their weapons and wants to recoup their costs can't find a buyer. Licensed weapons handed in to the Police sometimes find their way back onto the streets illegally instead of being destroyed as promised, and criminals commit crimes with illegal weapons, not legal licensed ones - which have been mostly stolen, and often from the Police or military themselves.

Ordinary licensed gun-owners have to renew gun licenses every 5 years despite nothing having changed to bring their competency into question during that period, and each time facing an ordeal of multiple forms that need to be filled in. And then there is the cost - where a gun license was a once-off thing that cost you a R50 revenue stamp, the process of licensing and renewing a license every 5 years now costs you R140 a pop. That's right - so tell me, is this about keeping society safe from people considered sane and safe enough to own a weapon becoming somehow inexplicably incompetent - or about making more money to waste on stupid government "cultural" affairs and parties? Add to that the inconvenience of having to produce two recommendations from relatives. Now what about people who have no living relatives? Will they be excluded from renewing or procuring a license?

Speaking of licenses, while people still drive without licenses unhindered on public roads, licensed drivers have to renew their driving licenses every 5 years. Whereas before a person's license would be kept in their ID book and was a once-off item, it is now a card that has to be renewed - and for a fee. Try as I may, I can think of no sane logical reason to go on renewing this item every 5 years - aside from generating yet more revenue for a wasteocratic state that thinks the average citizen is a dumb-ass knucklehead who will just STFU and pay repeatedly for something they already have. Trouble is, they seem to be right.

Then we also need to ask about all the licensing scams that took place over the years, and how many of the licensed drivers out there are actually licensed at all. Add to that the whole of southern Africa's (hopefully) licensed drivers can cross the borders and drive on our roads without having an international driver's license. Great - and we think the taxi's on our roads are an accident looking for a place to happen? Are the training and licensing standards equal to ours? I have to repeat something I said in an earlier article - a local yokel from Zim or Lesotho can drive on our roads with his license which in all likelihood he probably bought somewhere - but a person from a first-world country with first-world standards and with a first-world license, has to first get citizenship of this country before going for a K-53 license test and being allowed to drive here? That makes no sense at all to me.

All that aside, we also have to question the effectiveness of the legal system. The independence of the judiciary is clearly in question, and has been for some time now. It goes without saying that our South African government is corrupt and filled with incompetent buffoons appointed solely because of their race or because of who they are related to - or who in power owes them a favor. The effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission is debatable, as certain issues are dealt with timeously and decisively - but others, of less interest to the government are delayed or ignored completely. Take the issue of "corrective rape" and hate crimes against the Pink Community - or a prime example such as Jon Qwelane. Qwelane, a former columnist for the Sunday Sun who despite facing charges of hate speech and incitement to violence in the enigmatic Equality Court, has somehow evaded facing justice for 4 years now - and was appointed as SA ambassador to Uganda, by no less than President Zuma himself. Further, the relevant government department that pays him a salary out of tax money paid for by amongst others, the object of his hate speech and incitement to violence, has also recently declared that Mr Qwelane would not be recalled "no matter what opposition" to his appointment.

Let's look at some of the laws that govern our privacy. Currently the "RICA" law means that you can't have a mobile phone service, whether prepaid or account, without registering the number to your name using your ID book and proof of address. Well, you could go on for a while, but when the cut-off date arrives, the service provider is legally obliged to literally cut your service, regardless of how long you have been a client or how much revenue you generate for them. Further, all service providers are obligated to make their client database available to the government, should this be deemed necessary - which they could probably have done under the old existing legislation, although pre-paid users could continue anonymously. When considering internet use, this Act also allows the service provider to tell the govt whose mobile phone number and whose IP address belongs to who, and thus you can no longer have anonymity when having a mobile phone or internet service.

Also, most people don't know how effective a tracking device a modern mobile phone is. They tell the network exactly where they - and most likely you - are, 24-7. What, you think a mobile phone with GPS only works one way? The network knows where that phone is - and if the network knows, the government can know too. Yes, I have to say it sounds awfully like "Big Brother" is watching us, doesn't it?

The financial equivalent of the "RICA" law - the imaginatively named "FICA", tells the government every little detail about our bank and financial details, our investment or banking history - and ties every single bank account to an ID number and proof of address. Every single transaction on your bank account - and if you drew money from an ATM in Johannesburg - or transferred funds from a pc in an internet cafe in Middledrift - is open to scrutiny. Thus, nobody can have a bank account without the government knowing who you are and where you live and what you have been doing and where.

Ever buy a plane ticket? Notice how you need to supply an ID book for that? Even when you're travelling just from city to city within South Africa? All air carriers do that I suppose - just in case the late Osama decided to catch a plane under his own name - but when last have you bought a bus ticket? Same thing - you can't buy a bus ticket without producing your ID book. Try it sometime. In short, we cannot make use of air or bus services in order to travel between cities in South Africa without the government being able to find out our movements. Oh, but you can use your car to travel - you think? Ummm - got a tracking device fitted? Have a GPS unit in your phone? Use your bank card along the way? You can bet that information is available somewhere in the legislation too, seeing as it uses cellular or satellite communications technology. Some of these tracking things are really advanced - they can even tell you on your internet interface the different speeds your car was doing on the N2 and at what time of day. How long will it be before that system gets linked to a government traffic control system to nail you for all your indiscretions in a 60kph zone?

Aside from that, we also have some interesting new laws waiting in the wings - and I think you'll notice that right now, around election time, they are being kept ominously quiet - perhaps because the government is afraid of scaring off the few discerning voters they have among the masses. The so-called Protection of Information and "Pornography" bills threaten to extend total control over our private communications. As if to demonstrate the dangers of the POI last year a journalist was abducted by security forces in full view of the public, kept against his will for several hours and later released.

Imagine if at the time the POI had been in effect - nobody would have known about it - and none of the dozens of journalists who witnessed the abduction would have been allowed to report on it. The two Bills constitute a "double-whammy" - the one appears to focus on "sensitive" information relating to anything the government doesn't want YOU to know about - and the other is cunningly disguised as a moral attempt to ban pornography from any electronic medium - but what most people don't know is that while they are making a big fuss over the POI, "nobody" wants to be known to speak out against the "Porn Bill" because it will make them look bad - and this is the beauty of the plan, because while the POI might not pass, the "Porn Bill" could - and it would achieve for government exactly the same control over communications networks the POI would. Fun.

Then we have the public broadcaster, the good old SABC, which has a Board (when it actually has a Board) consisting entirely of ANC-appointed cronies - making it a ruling party mouthpiece. We are obligated by law to pay the annual TV license even just for possessing a TV unit, regardless of wether we intend to watch the SABC stations, or watch the free E-TV channel, or other pay-TV services like Mnet or DSTV. The SABC has clear inroads through the entire Southern African subcontinent - and while citizens of SA have to pay TV licenses for their sub-standard BS programming even if they intend to make use of other services - I wonder if anyone in any of these other countries actually pays anything for it? Back home, we are bombarded with endless advertising campaigns designed to guilt-trip people into paying the TV license, even though the SABC has been charging for ad-space all along and prompts me to think that if they still can't make ends meet, then they deserve to close up shop and hand the sector over to private companies who would run things like they actually know what they are doing.

What about Eskom? It has been supplying oodles of power to African countries at discount rates while here we poor suffering idiots are starved of it whenever we use "more than the network can handle" and are shamed into using less despite being charged more than it is worth. And I might mention one of the countries Eskom supplies electricity to at discount rates is Uganda - a country which has as much respect for the human rights of my community as Hitler and the Nazis. Every time I turn on a light I feel a stab of insult and guilt to go with it. Every time I give the fuckers money I feel a slap in the face for it. But hey, that's what is called a "captive market".

Then we have a "free" Press that, despite the current attempts by the government to gag this free press, has the audacity to self-censor. Think I'm kidding? Just a few months back, the Media demonstrated this for the second year running by maintaining a media black-out on the topic of the Mr Gay South Africa pageant. Scarcely a word was breathed about it in the Press or Media, as if by some prearranged convention. Yet these same publications which impose this blackout are also the same publications who make sure that they cover every news-item relating to the Pink Community in such a way as to make it negative or an embarrassment to us. Ironically enough, the parent company that owns most of these papers is a South African owned international giant that virtually has a monopoly of Media and Press on the continent, so imagine the chances of any change being forthcoming?

The there are the inevitable religious issues. Let's see... where do I begin? How about religious monopoly? Let's take an example. When Woolworths decided to pull Christian fundamentalist magazines from their shelves due to lack of sales, the entire Christian community went into an uproar. Never mind that none of them want to buy the books, they want Woolworths to stock them just in case somebody wanted to buy them. Crazy. And of course, not stocking items that don't actually sell naturally amounted to "persecution" of the Christian faith. Right *wink*. But never mind all the countless other people out there whose religious reading desires remain uncatered for by book stores and supermarkets across the country. I've never heard a Muslim complaining that Woollies didn't stock their stuff, or a Hindu, or even a Jew or a Wiccan. It makes my jaw drop - and I say this with open mindedness and respect for diversity, really - the paranoia and arrogance of your average Christian. They appear to be so used to getting their way that any semblance of equality with everyone else who isn't a Christian is met with hostility and an attitude of "you're discriminating against me".

Now by contrast, wherever I go in Pagan circles I encounter tales of people having tried to open Pagan-oriented businesses in shopping malls, but had their efforts torpedoed by conservatives - most typically Christian fundamentalists - who seem to forget that there are other religions in this country and it is not a crime to not belong to theirs. Thus, most shopping malls do not have Pagan book or gift shops in them, because the tenants or owners don't want them - and whenever there are Pagan shops, they end up getting picketed or visited by a bunch of local loonies coming to check out the "devil-worshipers" and to pressure them into closing. At the end of the day, this is the reason most Pagan type shops are either housed in independently owned premises, or so toned down that they are cunningly disguised with lots of crucifixes and other motif items in an attempt to placate the fundamentalists- sometimes to the point where they might as well just label themselves as "sell-outs" and be done with it.

How about the fancy book shops you find in most malls? They usually have esoteric sections, including books about multiple religions, and even Pagan faiths such as Wicca. Not in Port Elizabeth, they don't - not anymore. A friend of mine was recently accosted by a raving lunatic in a bookshop simply for browsing the tiny pagan book section - and her husband had to intervene before he would leave her alone. What is wrong with this country when people dare to try and force other people to believe what they believe - or try to limit access to information so that they limit freedom of choice to others? No Pagan books or book sections - but conversely they have massive sections on Christianity. Some choice that is eh? *wink* Now there are hardly any Pagan book sections available, and the ones that remain are even smaller. This is a sick city I live in. Trouble is, there are others just like it around South Africa.

Friends of mine are afraid to be known for their religion. They are proud of their choice of religion, they don't go around forcing their religions down other people's throats, hold "praise and worship" sessions in public streets, or hand out pamphlets promising redemption and eternal life - but they still don't want people in general to know they are Pagans, because they fear for their jobs, or the likelihood that they will be discriminated against for it. They fear for the harm that could come to them, and they don't want the loonies at their office to accost them and try to force their own religions down their throats - or to have a bunch of protesters at their front gate come Samhain when they have some friends around for a circle and a social. This despite having freedom of religion and conscience inscribed in the Constitution. What good is such a Constitution if it is not enforced?

A friend of mine is a Methodist minister, and even he has been telling me how conservative and homophobic one of the churches he serves at has been becoming lately, even though up until recently it had been quite open and welcoming. I find it shocking that despite the Constitution which prevents discrimination against people on various grounds - including religion - the same Constitution is not being enforced in many instances and certain bodies - churches in particular - which are allowed to preach hatred and to act out of malice, intolerance and to indulge in blatant discrimination and even intimidation simply because of the excuse that they believe it is their religion to do so. Would racism be excused if it was being preached from the pulpit? No, I didn't think so either. But somehow homophobia and transphobia are excusable and perfectly legal? What's wrong with this picture?

The son of our former domestic who retired 2 years ago comes over every week to do some cleaning around the house. He does it for the extra money and our families have grown quite close over the years. Now the reason I mention this is that this young man feels pressured into wearing an ANC t-shirt because of the risk of violence if he were to wear a t-shirt advertising his political party of preference. What kind of society do we live in where we have a Constitution that supposedly protects our rights to freedom of speech and expression and we still live under a threat of violence if we do so?

Currently the policy of BEE or Black Economic Empowerment has replaced the old policy of "Affirmative Action", but it is exactly the same - a racist policy which limits the jobs a person can apply for and be appointed in on the basis of their race. Now the "formerly disadvantaged" can get a job based solely on their racial characteristics, regardless of how little education or capacity they have, and we have a new group of "currently disadvantaged" people - and as a bonus we now have homeless and poor unemployed people not just of one race, but all races. Oh well, equality is a bitch sometimes, innit?

So in South Africa you have the right of freedom of speech and expression and religion - provided those in power happen to agree with you. You have the right to be milked of your money in a government-run experiment to see how much people will pay for what they used to get for free. You have the right to privacy except where the government feels a need to know what you have been doing with your money, your internet use, who you have been calling and what you have been saying. You have the right to information as long as the government - or the Press - has okayed that information first. You are free to travel the country, just as long as Big Brother knows where you are at all times. You are free to work, just as long as you are of a certain race group.

To sum up, we are dangerously close to having no anonymity and no privacy - and quite honestly, no actual freedom at all. You can't open a bank account, take out a mobile phone contract, or even travel using public transport - or your own car - without the government knowing about it and what you do with it. You can't be gay, transgender or even Pagan or of a non-Christian faith without someone preventing you from opening a business, renting an apartment, attending a religious service, or being employed or going unhindered for it. If you are, chances are good the Press won't cover it unless it helps portray your community in a negative light. If you don't fit into the cis-gender heterosexual Christian fundamentalist ruling-party supporter stereotype, you walk the streets with a bulls-eye on your back.

Is this the equal opportunity society free of oppression and discrimination we were promised in 1994? Is it?

When it comes to election time, don't be fooled by the smiles and promises, the dancing or the singing - or forget the attempts certain political parties have been making to strip the public - YOU - of civil rights, human rights, dignity and equality - even if they have gone strangely quiet on these issues close to the time.

So are you voting in the upcoming local municipal elections on the 18th? Or are you going to score one for the other side by sitting on your ass and helping the government to go on sabotaging human rights and screwing this country up even more than it has already?

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