The past two Wednesdays have been filled with moments that I still hesitate to spill a few words on, as I fear furthering harmful stereotypes and subtle prejudices that I find creeping into my own heart and mind. Yet, I desire this space to be filled with honest words that track the development of my life and mission in Pretoria, and thus I cautiously write on. I want the fumbling attempts of my life to inspire others to open up to their own stereotypes and prejudices, and walk on a journey of transformation with the Spirit.
Eight days ago I found myself leaving a fantastic meeting with Luc Kabongo of InnerChange South Africa, my Congolese friend and partner in mission out in Soshanguve. He looked at me strangely as I remarked that I parked near the Taxi Rank (a huge place where people catch taxi rides throughout the city), but kept walking to his car. I thought nothing of it, enjoying the late afternoon sun and spontaneously deciding to quickly walk to the Mabopane train station before the sun went down to see if I could ever use it for a photo shoot. In the middle of the Taxi Rank, with several hundred South African eyes wondering what an American redhead was doing in their township, the classic scenario plays out like I am a traveling tourist.
3 guys approach. How are you doing? Shaking hands, not letting go. Hand in my pocket. Cell phone passed to 2nd friend. Me stupidly realizing I am being jumped. Spontaneous grabbing of man’s arm in a vice-grip, growling to give my phone back. Right hand extends vice-grip to 2nd man and begins shaking them loose. What am I doing?!?! Phone drops to ground and guys scatter. I look up, shaking. What had just taken place? And then I realize the hundreds of eyes staring at me. Why am I alone? I rush back to the car, thankful I am safe, grateful that I have an opportunity to fix Maxie’s phone at all, which is slightly broken.
Cue yesterday morning. I open my bedroom door in the flat (we had just moved here as they have begun Pangani renovations) and see a neat pile of everything that was in my backpack (files, credit cards, passport, ids). Why the heck did Curtis dump my stuff out and use my bag without asking? Shaking off the weird feeling, I move on, only to find out upon Curtis returning from his morning run, that he had found my papers scattered near a wall on the edge of our property!
Suddenly, I understand that our dogs had been going crazy at roughly 3am last night for a reason! Someone had jumped onto the property, opened a window in our hall, and snagged my backpack which was stupidly left out by yet another rookie mistake (Contents lost were minor, but significant: small digital camera, a few MacBook accessories, a jump drive, the laptop backpack). Somehow God (or the dogs!) providentially made this thief drop all my important identification, as well as having me remove my large hard drive and laptop from this bag the evening before. Stunned and a bit shaken, I realized I immediately faced a choice yesterday morning:
Would I live as a victim, or embrace this setback as provision and safety from God in several profound ways?
I stewed for awhile, and frankly, yesterday was lost in a semi-funk regardless of my attempts to release my (relatively small) losses in light of a much more major incident (ID stolen, laptop gone, my safety compromised). Sarcastically, Maxie and Curtis welcomed me to South Africa, and essentially gave me permission to confirm every stereotype that exists about this part of the world (high crime, violence, no respecting of personal property, let alone the more ‘racist’ stereotypes about Africans as thieves, etc), at least for the day.
But I realized something profound about my desire to at least not stew TOO long. I am not a victim, at least in the true etymology and meaning of the word. The dictionary on my laptop defines victim in the following manner, which I find provocative:
victim |ˈviktəm|(noun): a person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.
Suddenly a rash of thoughts came flooding into my mind, and I realized this: I live many moments each week with a victimized mentality, and I am not a victim, although I sure find comfort at times in its mentality.
I want to complain. I want to scheme. I want to find my stuff. I want to feel safe (this, is a legitimate right, although I do feel safe here!).
I want to fight the stereotypes of South Africans as violent thieves (the vast majority are some of the most generous, friendly people imaginable!). I want to release my possessions as luxurious gifts God has given me. I want to live in gratitude and freedom, not as a victim.
And Mom: I am safe. Stop worrying!
Our community joined about 50 other concerned citizens this past Tuesday at the initial gathering of the Tshwane Counter-Trafficking Coalition in hopes of bringing light (and ultimately, justice and freedom) to an ugly, seedy reality of major world events such as the coming 2010 World Cup in South Africa: the accompanying importation and exploitation of tens of thousands of sexual slaves for the overt consumption of the hundreds of thousands of tourists here to enjoy the world’s largest sporting event. Many nations have ‘imported’ trafficked persons to accompany major world sporting events such as previous World Cups or Summer Olympics, with Germany reportedly housing somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000(!) prostitutes for ‘use’ during the tournament.
We have friends in a sister NieuCommunities sight in Vancouver, and they are gravely concerned that the same thing will happen next winter for them during the Winter Olympic ceremonies, as the local city council is reportedly considering turning a blind eye towards a notoriously sketchy neighborhood in the city, seeking merely to ‘contain’ the evil that takes place there to a particular radius of blocks. Although nothing official has been decided regarding the South African position on forced trafficking of human persons, there are many existing rumors that the current government may actually legalize prostitution for the duration of the World Cup so as to ensure that women (men, children…) receive as much care as possible. This makes my head spin. Fortunately, a local coalition of concerned citizens, led by a great inner-city organization in Pretoria (Tshwane Leadership Foundation), is doing something about this. The article below appeared in The Pretoria Daily News, circa 12.08.09:
Hands Joined In Fight Against Trafficking (Barry Bateman)
Pretoria faith-based organisations, local government and civic society joined hands at the Wesley Methodist Church yesterday to launch the Tshwane Counter-Trafficking Coalition. The coalition seeks to address the trafficking scourge in Pretoria ahead of the 2010 World Cup, but will extend their efforts beyond the event which is expected to attract thousands of foreigners to South Africa.
“Southern Africa is an area riddled with poverty and unemployment. This creates fertile soil for the exploitation and trafficking of vulnerable women and girls. The 2010 Word Cup will provide ample opportunity for sexual and other exploitation, trafficking and sale of humans. “A concerned effort is needed by all roleplayers to prevent and combat this extreme abuse of human rights from taking place in Tshwane,” said Wilna de Beer, of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation which organized the event.
The coalition plans to ensure all the roleplayers are educated and informed about the prevalence, incidence, and strategies of traffickers and trafficking networks and how best to counter the phenomenon. It will endeavor to develop and expand existing outreach teams which target areas of vulnerability in Pretoria, and identify and educate possible future victims of trafficking. The coalition will also raise awareness of combating this crime and ensure proper care and counselling of victims.
Susan le Roux, victime assistance specialist at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said statistics for human trafficking in South Africa were not readily available or reliable because the crime was difficult to detect and the authorities were not adequately trained to detect it. She said that in the last year the IOM trained about 4,000 government officials, including social workers, to detect human trafficking cases.
“In the first few hours of the course people would approach me and say that they had encountered similar cases, but they did not identify it as human trafficking.” Le Roux said South Africa, with the exception of Gauteng (KAMALSKI NOTE: Gauteng is the province that contains Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital areas where I stay), did not have specialised shelters to deal with human trafficking victims.
“Victims who are being assisted will be housed at facilities which cater for…domestic abuse victims.” She said there was no legislation in South Africa to deal with human trafficking; however, there were sections of the new Child Protection Act which would be helpful.
A recent IOM study found that internal trafficking in South Africa was a cause for concern. Le Roux explained that women and girls were recruited in rural areas or informal settlements and transported to city centres where they were exploited, mainly sexually. The study found that the victims were usually black or coloured women younger than 30 years of age, their movement was restricted and drugs were used as a means of control.
She said that key to combating human trafficking was to address the factors which made the victims vulnerable in the first place. “If you do not address the pre-traffic factors you are not addressing anything at all.” “There was a reason in the first place that made that person vulnerable.” “If you are a repatriate a person and they are still affected by poverty, domestic violence or other factors, they remain vulnerable because they face the challenges that made them vulnerable in the first place.” she said.