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June 2011 Archives

By Anam Kaleem

"Hayya 'ala-Salah, Hayya 'ala-l Fala. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. La illah illallah." (Come to prayer, come to success. God is the greatest. There is no God except the One God.)

The call to prayer filled the city from the towering minarets of Cape Town's majestic Jumu'ah Masjid in the Bo-Kaap, the home neighborhood for a South African Muslim minority known as the Cape Malay, many of whose ancestors were brought here from Indonesia as slaves.

Crowds of Muslims, predominantly men dressed in suits, quickly shuffled into the mosque for their obligatory Friday sermon and prayer. Since it starts at 1 p.m., many people came straight from their jobs, said Shereen Habib, an activist born and raised in Cape Town.

We entered the intricately designed metal gates and climbed the few steps leading to the mosque. At the top were six fat, evenly-spaced white columns, giving it a modern look tied to classical Muslim architecture.

The two doors and the line of windows were shaped in an arched wooden design. The right door was the women's entrance, and the left was the men's.

In the marble floored foyer, the thunderous, amplified voice of the khateeb--the orator of the sermon--could be heard as attendees took off their shoes and put them on wooden shelves before entering the carpeted prayer area.

At the top of a short set of stairs stood the khateeb, a pale man with acorn-colored hair who was dressed in a floor-length white robe and a short, stiff, brimless white cap called a kufi. The men sat near the speaker while the women sat behind them, separated by a wooden divider that they could see over and listen to the speaker.

The khateeb, speaking primarily in English, told the people they should not feel as though they were better than someone else because they had the opportunity for more knowledge. He also said we should not focus on the minor details of Islam but should concentrate on the fundamentals of the religion.

"Some men worry if the hems of their pants are folded the right distance away from the ankles while praying but are not thinking about the real importance and intention of the prayer," said the khateeb, as light reflected off a metal chandelier shone on his face.

"Aqeemus Salah," said the khateeb, indicating it was time for prayer. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot in straight lines across the mosque. The khateeb, standing by himself at the front, recited a prayer at the end of which the people responded with "Ameen" (Amen).

Afterward, some men rushed off to work while others stayed for the opportunity to mingle with their brethren. "My son loves coming here on Friday because this is the time he gets to meet his friends and hang out with them," said Habib.

By Maddie Eagan


Bundled in a shiny black belted-down coat and purple turtleneck, Nozwelo Ncube welcomed us to Simelela Centre Site B Day Hospital as we left the reception area where a woman was sitting and waiting--her right eye bruised and swollen.

Simelela is a "one-stop shop" for survivors of sexual and domestic violence in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town township with over 700,000 mostly black inhabitants, said Ncube. It provides counseling sessions, forensic tests, sexually transmitted infection prevention medications, and emergency contraception.

In addition, the client has an option of opening a court case, she said. Simelela will contact the on-call South African Police Service (SAPS), which will come to collect a statement. The clients also receive referrals for local organizations that provide psychological support. But, according to Ncube, only six of 23 cases took advantage of these referrals last month--a large concern for Simelela.

Because of significant underreporting, only 60 cases were brought forward last month, said Ncube. They included 21 under the age of 12 years old, 24 from 12 to 18, and 24 over 18 years old. Some victims may not seek help because of lack of knowledge, the cyclical structure of the abuse, or prior discouraging experiences with the system.

"They go straight back into the same environment, and nothing changes," said Ncube, a Zimbabwean immigrant who has worked at Simelela for one year.

District Manager Caroline Tsetsana said she sees changes in the women that come forward and undergo a two-day assertiveness program that Simelela offers. The first day, most have little self-esteem, and it is hard for them to open up. By the second day, they arrive early, are ready to share, and show signs of improved strength and confidence. Other Simelela programs include Kitchen Aid, Family Strengthening, and a counseling for perpetrators.

The diversity of sexual abuse victims is vast, said Tsetsana, describing a well-to-do white woman who came in with dark sunglasses to hide her swollen black eyes, her Mercedes keys in hand.

Many men also come in to the center simply for advice, unaware that their stories are considered abuse, she said. Sexual and domestic abuse occurs among all sectors of the population, but it is it is especially prevalent in Khayeltisha due to the overcrowding, the poverty and the high level of unemployment.

A tour of the facility includes a blood-testing room for perpetrators with bars on the windows, stark white walls, and a separate entrance; examination rooms for the victims with comforting photographs and posters; and a bathroom where clients can wash the mud and dirt off of them after being abused.

Another woman, probably abused, sat by herself in the reception area. She was waiting to start the process.

By Rubby Wuabu


Valhalla Park (Outside Cape Town)--"Hello, I am Gerti. I am unemployed and work full-time in the community," said Gertrude Square, 61, the chair of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign.

Square got involved in community activism after being evicted three times for falling behind on her rent, she told a group of Simmons journalists. The first time she was evicted she borrowed money from friends and family and was able to move back in.

The second time she came home to find her belongings outside. She still had her key so she moved back into the house. She said she woke up very early before the landlord and moved back out onto the street to keep from getting arrested. Then she ran around and borrowed the money to pay her debt.

But by the third time, she said "enough is enough. I am going to stand on my feet, raise my voice and speak up for myself. I matched over and showed the housing office my pay slips. I asked them how am I supposed to pay all my bills with the money I make? Fortunately, I was able to negotiate with them and was able to stay," said Square.

"Word spread quickly about what I did and soon people began asking me what I did and how they could do the same. That's how I became an activist," said Square.

"Today, the only difference between apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa for us is we have strong organizations with women taking part because they suffer the most but we are still struggling in the township," said Square, voicing her frustration with the slow pace of government subsidized housing development.

The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign is an umbrella organization that focuses on evictions, accessibility to water and electricity in the community. They have worked to bring cases against the city regarding housing and the use of public land, said Square.

One case was over using a huge piece of land to build a multipurpose center. "We told them that's not what we need. We need homes. We won that case, and as a result the city is building 775 houses on that land today. It will not be enough, but this is the first housing project that has happened in this area, so we are optimistic," said Square.

"We are not sleeping now that a housing project is happening. We are encouraging other communities to push for housing projects. We have a lot of open land. We are also in negotiations with the city about paying or not paying rent for the people who will get these houses," said Square

The campaign also works closely with evicted families to get them back into their homes. "The way we look at it the police have been paid to do a job, and so we don't interfere with it. But as soon as the police carry the last spoon out, we start carrying stuff back into the house. Now the city has to pay someone again to go and evict but usually they don't," said Square.

"Because of this we have been shot with rubber bullets and beaten but we have never run away leaving the family out in the cold," she said.

By Allison Whittier


On Feb. 11, 1966, District Six--a multicultural hub in Cape Town--was declared a white area. Over the next decade, all the black, Indian and coloured families were pushed off their land and their homes demolished, destroying a heterogeneous community known for its harmony and vibrancy.

New Age's Alex La Guma, featured in one of the museum's displays, described District Six as "the main artery of the local world of haves and have-nots, the prosperous and the poor, the struggling, and the idle, the weak and the strong."

Today, the two-story District Six Museum, run by former residents in what was once a Methodist Church that served as a gathering spot for the displaced families, keeps the memories of that community alive.

The building is adorned with artifacts from the apartheid era struggle, including original street signs, letters, and pictures. A replica room resembles a family dwelling from the neighborhood. Music and video clips from that era are streaming throughout the museum.

In 1968 the first demolitions began, and over 60,000 people were removed in a multifaceted process--the "main artery" was no more. But due to local and international protests, the rubble-covered land was left unoccupied despite its prime location and access to the heart of the city.

After the end of apartheid and the first multiracial elections in 1994, the land was officially released from the regime. Two years later it was reclaimed by the original inhabitants and the District Six Museum was established.

Curator and ex-resident Noor Ibrahim describes the inhabitants of the area as "one big happy family" before its dismemberment. This sense of family can be seen in the various community efforts found throughout the church. The seven-meter Namecloth inscribed with names and messages from ex-residents and District Six floor map to reclaim land are just two of the efforts they have undertaken.

Ibrahim says the ex-residents of District Six were very involved in creating the memorial--a true testament to their fallen community. They wanted to capture the life that once existed on the streets and in the homes of their community, he says.

By Ava Salitsky


Along the shore of the Indian Ocean south of Durban, there are miles of undeveloped sandy beach and steep, scrub-covered ridges, topped by brightly painted vacation houses. In the valley below, however, thousands of people are at risk of environmental poisoning.

Less than a mile from the beach are two huge oil refineries, the largest paper mill in South Africa and acres of oil and chemical storage tanks. These industries fill the air with acrid smoke that endangers all who live there.

A group of Simmons students took a "toxic tour" of Durban led by Bongani Mthembu, an air pollution inspector from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), and discovered the health concerns for the mostly poor Indian and "colored" residents of South Durban and the environment in which they live. The SDCEA works to educated them about the dangers and to advocate for change.

Most of the housing problems are from the apartheid era, during which where people lived was determined entirely by race. Apartheid had laws to separate them so there would be no mixing of races. This forced people of color--divided into three categories: Indian, colored {mixed race) and back--to live in the poorest rural areas and the worst urban neighborhoods, while whites got the best, cleanest places.

Today, about 52 percent of the community suffers from asthma, cancer, and leukemia because of these huge industries. Without a local treatment center for these conditions, many people remain untreated, dying from improper conditions and lack of medication.

On the tour we visited the Settlers School, a small elementary school that a small airplane had crashed into and that has been suffering the direct effects of extreme air pollution. The children are extremely sick when in school but once at home they feel better, says Nthembu.

Children often die in this area because the only hospital for leukemia is in Cape Town and many families cannot afford to move out of the area to get away from the pollution or to be nearer to health facilities.

Not only are the people here being hurt because of where they live; many who work in the large oil refineries are killed by harmful chemicals, while families are unaware of the reason, says Nthembu.

"People of the world need to come together, across every race, class, and gender to stop environmental pollution," he concludes.

By Ava Salitsky

One the edge of Pietermaritzburg, just off the Johannesburg-Durban highway, lies a small, three-room building that houses groundWork, an environmental justice organization that works throughout South Africa.

The director, Bobby Peek, says that GroundWork tries to assist vulnerable and underprivileged people who are most affected by environmental injustices.

He sits in an eccentric orange room describing how his agency functions. With each new subject his excitement grows and his tone of voice becomes louder and more animated.

Groundwork has been working with the waste pickers over the last two years. They make a livelihood by taking recyclables off waste dumps and selling them to recyclers.

"People are making a living from recycling," says Peek. On average, waste pickers earn R1,500 to R2,500 per week ($220 to $373).

Waste pickers have fought for acknowledgment by the government, but Peek says it has aggressively ignored their input on how recycling could be integrated successfully into waste management.

According to the Municipal Systems Act of 2000, cities are in charge of waste management. But they fail to involve waste pickers, who toil in most of the community waste landfill sites in South Africa.

GroundWork wants to help form a waste pickers association to help protect their livelihoods from the industrial world, says Peek.

By Anam Kaleem

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In the hustle and bustle of congested Pietzmaritzburg stands a small, gated cement house that serves as the headquarters of groundWork, an environmental justice association started in 1999 that campaigns nationally on issues of air pollution, energy, and climate change.

We were greeted at the forest green gate by a jolly, welcoming middle-aged man with graying hair and beard --Bobby Peek--who is one of three groundWork founders. He led us into a small room painted as orange as the setting sun where we were served coffee and tea before an animated one-and-a-half-hour briefing on the organization's work.

Although all three issues of the triple crisis are important, Peek said, energy use in South Africa is at the center. Coal is the main source of energy here, amounting to 90 percent of the total. Because of the widespread practice of indoor coal burning for cooking and heating, South Africa is the 11th highest emitter of CO2 in the world, he said.

Millions of people are cut off from electricity because they cannot afford it, Peek said. This is primarily due to high costs, with residents forced to pay seven times more than big businesses. During the apartheid years, people protested such costs by refusing to pay their bills, but the government-run electrical utility, Eskom, now uses a system of prepaid usage, like phone cards, so when people do not pay, they just lose service.

On the issue of climate change, Peek said there have been 16 negotiations under United Nations auspices, but none produced very much. He called the United States as part of the problem, arguing that by demanding there be a system of trade in pollution credits, the U.S. was seeking to buy its way out of compliance. The idea, he said, was that rich countries could pay for conservation in poor countries and not be required to cut their own pollution levels.

Peek said there needs to be a change in the system of producing and consuming throughout the world. Countries should strive for energy sovereignty--producing and using what they need in a manner similar to what the movement for food sovereignty, which now has growing support in poor countries, is demanding. He said the people who produce it should be at the heart of the system and not big business.

After the briefing, Peek surprised the Simmons group with gifts of black hats with the logo "groundWorks Union" stitched in red oval, making us all a part of the campaign for worldwide environmental justice.

By Maddie Eagan


Dressed in black from head to toe and adorned with red, yellow, and green beadwork, Zanele Ndlovu looks away, intent and smiling, as she plays a Zulu lullaby on a Umakhweyane--an African guitar--against a backdrop of large colorful paintings with intensely political themes.

We are in Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, visiting the Art Department of Funda Community College. Funda was founded in 1984 when South Africa was in turmoil as students and others were protesting the racist system of apartheid and the government was trying to crush them.

Today, the three-year arts program struggles to give 30 high school graduates an alternative education while contributing to Soweto's culture. The students study the basics in their first year and conceptual and perceptual art in their second. In the third year, they choose a theme, such as gender violence or abuse of power, and work on their own art. But what to do after that is not so clear.

Ndlovu, a Funda graduate who says she thinks of the director as her father, has yet to work a full-time job since she graduated. "My mom gets mad. She tells me to get a 9-5 job," she says. "When you live in Soweto, you don't have a way of putting food on the table."

Ndlovu says she is committed to storytelling, teaching young children in her community about their culture and about how to cook using home-grown vegetables, and playing her home-made guitar. She also has a children's book in the publication process, but she says she worries about the state of Soweto's culture.

"Our culture is dying," Ndlovu says, blaming this on the effects of globalization.

A second-year Funda student, Jason Rasogo, 22, says that people are not allowed to practice their own traditions in Soweto. "When people visit here, they expect to see something different," he says. "Most of the political people influence the culture."

Funda is struggling to stay alive after a politically connected group tried to take over the campus three years ago, thinking it was a potential money-maker, says Nkosi. But Funda also suffers from funding problems and gets little or nothing from the government, despite its strong record of community service. Instead, it relies on donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, a partnership with the prestigious University of Witwatersrand and a network of volunteers.

For their part, Funda students appear committed to their art, which mixes traditional images with social and political criticism. Some even stay overnight in their small studios to complete their final projects, says the director, Charles Nkosi. And they support each other.

When he stops to meet a group of visiting Simmons students, Rasogo says he is on his way to a poetry reading and story-telling session later, where he is likely to also see Ndlovu.

By Rubby Wuabu

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Johannesburg, South Africa--"We cannot be the same," Commission for Gender Equality CEO Keketso Maema told a group of visiting Simmons students. "We need a culture of acceptance. Our aim is to create a society where no one will be discriminated against."

The commission was set up under the post-apartheid Constitution to monitor progress toward gender equality throughout South Africa. It investigates reported cases of discrimination, reports its findings, and lobbies for new legislation when needed. It also reviews government policies to make sure they are in accord with the bill of rights and with international treaties on gender issues.

"We don't just point out what's wrong, but also work with the government to take care of issues of gender," said Maema. The commission also takes up issues on its own accord.

The commission has legal, educational, and research departments, as well as a parliamentary unit and an advocacy and outreach unit. Each year it identifies research areas based on the burning issues at that time.

One area of interest is the growing problem of Ukuthwala--forced marriage of girls age 10 to 11 to older men. This is a violation of these girls' rights, said Maema.

The commission works to discourage such practices, although this gets complicated when it comes up against traditional practices that may have strong support in local communities. But it is the law of the land, she said, it is the commission's job not only to discourage these practices but to work to change people's perspectives on them.

The gender commission has the power to summon individuals, organizations and even government agencies for answers when gender violations are occurring, but it cannot follow up every individual violation, said Maema. Nevertheless, commission members try to address them as best they can while focusing on the big picture.

The commission is present in all nine provinces with a total staff of 100 people, she said. A typical commission office has a manager, a legal advisor, an educator, a communications specialist, a human resources person, a finance advisor and an IT expert.

It uses the media and educates the public in workshops, meeting one on one with victims and violators to determine the best way to solve issues. Through gender education, it tackles problems at their roots, she said.

"Who told you a boy child has to buy blue clothes and a girl child pink clothed?" asked Javu Baloyi, the commission's official spokesperson. "This teaches at a very young age that there are differences between the sexes, creating different expectations for men and women."

The commission works on any issues where gender plays a role, from gender-based violence and HIV/AIDS to energy distribution. It also has a national "missionary" that determines the effectiveness of the commission's initiatives, and it assesses legislation on gender, like the Promotion and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000, to make sure it is effective.

"More women come in than men, almost as if it's a women's only organization," said Javu, who attributed this to the fact that in the African tradition the man is supposed to be the strongest and the head of the household. Thus, a man who is abused is seen as weak; to prevent others from knowing about this, most male victims do not reach out for help.

However, "we have created an environment where men and women alike are welcomed to file complaints and to seek out help," said Maema.

"It is all about changing people's perception," said Maema. "We know that part of solving issues of gender is to include both men and women in the dialogue, which is what we have been working on."

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