Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Levels of Citizenship

A few weeks ago I attended another “development dinner,” an informal dinner party organized by a marvelous group of South Africans and expats concerned about the state of this country.  They meet once a month, drink copious amounts of wine, eat delicious food, and discuss various development issues.

For the past few months they have largely focused on active citizenship.  The last meeting, however, was the first one of 2013 and, as a result, the chairman decided it was time to pause and reflect on the actual definition of an active citizen.

A series of questions emerged: What’s the difference between a good person who tries to improve the lives of those around him/her and an active citizen?  Does active citizenship need to somehow involve the government?  How informed do you need to be?  How engaged with social issues?

Although I didn’t share the following with the group, it seemed to me that they were talking about three different levels of citizenship: informed, engaged, and active.

I would define each as the following:

  • An informed citizen is someone who not only follows current events, but also takes the time to understand underlying issues.  Watching the evening news is not enough.
  • An engaged citizen votes and goes to local community meetings.  He/she signs petitions and may even write letters to government officials if he/she has a specific grievance.
  • Active citizens take matters into their own hands.  They may be working with a socially-engaged company or in the government, actively trying to change the status quo from the inside.  Or they might use external pressure to create change.

As the discussion progressed, it reminded me of a conversation I had with my father at Christmas.  He asked me what political blogs and alternative news media I follow.  I told him that I listen to the radio, but I don’t follow any online writers.

He accused me of being uninformed.  Me!  I got defensive and exclaimed, “I have a full-time job!  I don’t have time to sit around and read online articles all day!”

Then I calmed down and asked him for a list of website recommendations.

The reason I got defensive, however, was because of the truth in my dad’s allegation.  I’ve always had strong political opinions, but often they’re based on half the story.  Frequently I don’t take the time necessary to really research a topic before either condemning it or praising it.

And I act on my biased opinions.  I basically moved to the other side of the world on the assumption that I’d be doing “good work” over here.

I think that most of the passionate people I’ve met need to make the jump from an informed citizen to an engaged or active citizen.  I, on the other hand, need to step back and become more informed.


FNB versus ANC

Recently, First National Bank (FNB, a major bank in South Africa) ran an ad campaign in which school children voiced their concerns for their country’s future. 

Since I don’t have television and was without a car (or radio) for a couple weeks, I completely missed the ads.

Now, however, I’m aware of the controversy FNB and the ANC’s reactions have created. 

A smart analysis of the situation can be read here: 

A hilarious, yet pertinent, take on events can be read here:

Imagine if Scotia Bank or Canada Trust ran ads about Harper!

I’d love to see what my younger sister would have said.  Or the rest of the children from my hometown hippy island.

Or even those West Van rich kids who support the Conservatives.

Can someone back home please get on this?

Pointing Fingers

Last weekend, a South African friend and I watched “The Power of One.”  The 1992 movie is based on Bryce Courtenay’s 1989 novel about a white boxer growing up during apartheid in the 1930s and 40s.

It’s a beautiful story and well-made movie.  Furthermore, it was interesting to watch it with a South African and hear his commentary.  Most of the history I knew already – I did my research before moving here! – but his opinions were fascinating.

(White, non-Afrikaner) South Africans generally have a fierce pride of their country, but also shame of their past and anger towards their current government.

My friend told me, “You must be shocked at us.  The British invented concentration camps and killed thousands of Afrikaner women and children.*  Apartheid continued into the 1990s.  You know the Immorality Act was in place during our lifetime?  You and I wouldn’t have been allowed to be together.”

The Immorality Act prohibited mixed-race relations.  Technically I never would have been conceived (I have Asian and European heritage), but I didn’t dispute his point.

Instead, I told him something along these lines:

“Do you know what the problem with South Africa was?  You were too open about your discrimination.  You made it easy for the rest of the world to condemn you and you provided a clear enemy for people to fight against.  Every other country institutionalizes racism as well: we’re just more subtle about it.  We use economic barriers and personal prejudice instead of laws to disempower whole populations.”

I went on to explain that there are areas in the United States where, if you’re black, you’re more likely to go to jail than get a job.

In their paper, “Carceral Chicago: Making the ex-offender employability crisis” (2008, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research), authors Peck and Theodore argue that the United States’ strategy to outsource manufacturing combined with racial stereotypes and their War on Drugs have essentially criminalized poverty:

“The outcome is a socially produced, institutionally regulated, and in some respects officially sanctioned designation of the young black male population as a criminalized class” (26).

Moreover, imagine if Canadian First Nations was a majority population in Canada.  British South Africans may have invented concentration camps, but Canadian settlers invented biological warfare.  Our fearless leaders would purposefully give smallpox infected blankets to Native chiefs and encourage them to give the blankets to families.

Lucky Canada – we were able to kill off most of our Native population.  Even as a minority, however, Canadian Aboriginals frequently live in Third World conditions and are politically disempowered.  But our government doesn’t advertise that fact.  Instead, school children are taught to celebrate diversity while Native dancers feature prominently in publicized events (i.e. Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics).  Meanwhile, Aboriginal women go missing at an astonishing rate in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and the police largely ignore the problem.

My friend also told me about his family’s home in Knysna (pronounced “Nize-Na”) on South Africa’s southeast coast: the island’s population is mostly white.  There is a coloured section, but they only inhabit one area.

“Sounds like the island I grew up on!” I laughed.  “Except we don’t even have a coloured population.  Out of 3500 people, I could list everyone who’s not white.  There’s about 20 of them.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Vancouver legislated where you could or could not live depending on race.  The British Properties (the richest section of West Vancouver) prohibited Chinese residents until well into the 1900s.  My mum’s aunt and uncle were the first Chinese people to move there.  How did the neighbourhood respond?  When people saw my uncle working on his beautiful garden, they tried to hire him as a gardener.  That’s the only reason a Chinese person would be hanging out in the area, right?

But the past is the past.  There’s no reason to get bogged down with guilt or shame or accusations.  On the other hand, it’s impossible to understand present issues without examining history and context as well.

It’s heartbreaking that apartheid didn’t end until 1994.  But look at how fast the country is changing!  Some would argue not fast enough, but I’m still optimist for South Africa – as well as Canada, the US, and the rest of the world.


*Please note that the concentration camps were conducted by British soldiers who came to South Africa then returned to Britain, not by the British colonizers residing in South Africa.

Hate Crimes

Absolutely incredible piece of writing.  The beginning is heartbreaking, but it’s worth reading right to the end.

 “So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over  1,000 homicides of that kind a year — meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular terror. (Another way to put it: the more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides since 9/11 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the “war on terror.”) If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or male roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.”

“What’s the matter with manhood? There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online and in the marches from New Delhi to San Francisco this winter.

“Increasingly men are becoming good allies — and there always have been some.  Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy.”

Too Much Hippy Love

During a recent political discussion with two Canadian friends, one of them accused me of being oblivious to humanity.  He said that if I knew more people then I wouldn’t be so hopeful about our common future.  He argued that people are naturally lazy, selfish, and cruel.  Moreover, we need greed to motivate us or else society will never progress.

It wasn’t the first time that I’ve been accused of such things or heard similar arguments.

As a result, you’d think that I’d have responses ready.  But I don’t.  Well, I have statistics and case studies against the usual capitalist arguments advocating greed in the form of healthy competition, that poor people deserve to be poor, that progressive taxation limits innovation and creativity, etc. etc. – but I don’t know what to say to refute the personal criticisms.

It’s true that I view the world through my own paradigm: my upbringing was filled with love and security, I’ve never experienced any serious hardship, and the majority of people I’ve encountered in this world have been kind and generous.

But that doesn’t make my opinion less worthwhile.

Does it?

I worry about this.  I worry that my middle-class, educated background somehow discredits my experience of the world.

On the other hand, I’m mostly arguing with other middle-class, educated people – yet somehow their cynicism validates their opinions.

It’s not that I haven’t met petty people – or people who are selfish, cruel, or lazy.  If you ask my friends, they’ll tell you that I used to be incredibly nice.  But I’m not anymore: I’ve learned that if you give people the chance to take advantage of you, they will.

But that’s no reason to judge others too harshly.  The unfortunate truth is that very few people are looking out for you – you have to look after yourself.  You have to put your needs before others because no one else is doing anything different.

See?  I’m not completely full of rainbows and sunshine.

Despite these beliefs, however, I still contend that humans have infinite capacity for love.  We each contain both angels and demons – neither side is more “natural” than the other.

Humanity is evolving.  Most of our history is full of brutal violence.  Much of our current news is full of brutal violence.  But the violence is decreasing.  Slowly.

I have confidence in my fellow human beings.

Maybe this means that people don’t like my opinions.  There are lots of reasons people disagree with me: too socialist, too feminist, too focused on power structures, too critical of capitalism.

But too compassionate?

Ad hominem.

Some Positive Aspects

Without a doubt, commuting via minibus taxis is inconvenient.  In the mornings, I get off at Braamfontein Centre, which is a 15 minute walk from my office building.  In the afternoon, I have to walk to the Bree Taxi Rank; it’s a hot, busy, crime-ridden 30 minute walk from my office.

Besides the walk to Bree, though, I like taking the minibuses.  It’s great to start off my day with a brisk walk!  At 8am, the bright sun is warm on my skin and the sidewalks are relatively empty.

Furthermore, in the afternoons I usually walk with at least one other person from my office.  I’ve heard more gossip during this past week than in the last four months!  Our receptionist is especially chatty.  Occasionally she’s start a story then gasps, “Oh no, I have such a big mouth!”

“Don’t worry,” I soothe her.  “Who do I have to tell?”

Then she’ll continue with her latest juicy tidbit.

In addition, it’s interesting to see the culture differences between winter to summer.  When I first moved here and took minibus taxis, it was winter and most of the people were inside.  Now that’s it’s summer, however, there are more people hanging around outside.

 A couple days ago I stopped to watch a group of amazing dancers that had attracted a significant crowd.  I think they were doing “gumboot dancing”: a style that emerged among the mineworkers during apartheid.  Unable to talk to each other because of their white overseers, black miners established a language communicated through stomping their feet.  Over the years this evolved into “gumboot dancing” which includes not only boot stomping but acrobatics as well.


I never would have seen that on my usual drive!

Plus I just like to talk to people.  I like to listen to conversations and see strangers interact, even if I don’t understand the language.  I like how helpful people are to me.

My first morning taking a minibus to work, I hailed one down and said that I wanted to get to Hillbrow.  One commuter inside explained that I could get to Braamfontein and either walk or take another minibus from there.  When we got to Braamfontein Centre he ushered me off the bus then pointed out the direction to Hillbrow.  “It’s 10 minutes,” he said.  “Or you can take a [Metro] bus, but I don’t know how to catch those.”

“Thank you!”

There are more anomalies in my day now, and that makes it all the more exciting.  For example, yesterday another white person got in my taxi.  In a business suit.  Want to know the most amazing part?  From his accent I could tell he was Afrikaans!  The whole experience blew my mind.

Does it really matter that my commute is 40 minutes longer each way if I get to see a big Afrikaner squished in a minibus taxi?  Nope.  Totally worth it!

Some Negative Incidents

A couple days ago, three Canadians and I went for dinner.  Even though it was the beginning of the week, we began to brainstorm ideas of how to spend our weekend.  We decided that we wanted to check out Tanz Café in Fourways since it usually hosts local bands on Fridays.  Moreover, there’s a specific building that one of the interns wanted to see and take photos of.  The only problem is that Fourways is quite far north from our neighbourhood.

Should we drive there and take a partner taxi home?  That means that the taxi brings two people: the taxi driver and someone to drive your car home for you.

Or should we cab it both there and back?

“Why don’t we take the minibuses up there?”  I asked.  “You want to take photos so it’ll still be light outside.  We can leave right after work!  It’s only 10 rand each and really fast.”

The other three shook their head.  They had no interest in taking a minibus taxi.

“Don’t you want to experience how the majority of Joburg travels?  And it’s not that bad.  Honestly, I kind of enjoy taking them – it’s always an adventure and everyone is so helpful!”

The intern who’s been here a few months already and knows me pretty well answered for the group:

“B Dobs, of course you enjoy minibuses.  You love everything.  I’ve never heard you say something negative about anything.  C’mon… tell us something you don’t like.”

After the conversation, I started to think about this blog and how I portray Jozi.  I hope that all of you reading don’t think that my natural optimism is causes me to downplay the negative aspects of this city.

As a result, I’ve decided to write about some of the bad things that have happened:

Two weeks ago, there was an armed robbery a few blocks from my office in which one policeman was shot and killed and another was severely injured.

Three days ago, we heard two gunshots just as I was getting ready to walk to the store.  Because of the recent shootout, I decided to wait a bit before leaving.  Five minutes later we heard sirens go by.  Fifteen minutes later I left for my walk.  Life in Hillbrow goes on.

Last night a minibus taxi lost its breaks while it was flying down Claim Street (the road that worries me the most on my bi-weekly drive to the pool).  It hit a woman and flung her into one of MHA’s buildings.  She died on impact.  The taxi took off.  The driver probably didn’t have insurance.

Since I’m currently taking minibus taxis again, this incident has made me slightly more concerned.  What would I do if my taxi hit someone and fled?  What would the driver do about the commuters still inside?

Want some stories outside of Hillbrow?  In early December, my neighbour and his friend were mugged at gunpoint on 7th Street (the busy commercial street) of Melville at 11am.

Something less dramatic?  My bachelor suite hasn’t had hot water for over a week.

I can continue.  It’s easy to keep listing horror stories – especially robberies and muggings – but we hear about that enough in the news already.  Like most cities in the world, crime rates in Johannesburg have dropped significantly over the past 20 years.

Enough of this.  Tomorrow’s post will describe the best parts about taking minibus taxis again!

Taking Taxis Again

I thought I’d experienced the taxi buses of Johannesburg enough when I first moved here.  Lesson learned!  No need to endure that mode of travel ever again!


This week, I’m back to the taxi buses.  Probably next week too.  Maybe even indefinitely.


You guessed it.

My car broke.


I’m trying to remain positive about it.  No one was hurt!  It could have been a major accident, but I didn’t even get whiplash!  Yay!

The story:

Last week it was hot and sunny all week.  On Friday, however, the rain finally hit.  It poured.  By evening the rain had stopped but the weather remained gray and overcast.

It was 11:30pm Friday night and I was on my way to a friend’s house.  Unfortunately, he lives at the north end of Joburg and I live in the middle, so it takes approximately half an hour to get to his place when there’s no traffic.

I had just left my place and was about 2km from my house, curving left along the bend of the on-ramp to the highway.  My windows were down (my defrost is terrible), my music was loud, and I was enjoying the empty streets.

All of sudden my car started turning sharply to the left and continued spinning.  The front smashed into the curb, slowing the vehicle down.  It stopped with its back bumper along the curb, perpendicular to the road, 270° from its initial position.

As it was spinning, I couldn’t figure out what was happening.  Had I hit an oil slick?  But then I would’ve continued forward, instead of dipping to the left.  Had my tire popped?  But I hadn’t heard anything.

After it came to a complete stop, I got out and looked at the damage.  Not too bad, considering what had just happened.  The front was pretty banged up, but it was already banged up when I got the vehicle.

A car stopped and the couple inside asked if they could help.

“Uh… let me call my friend… I have no idea what happened… all of sudden it started spinning… no I’m not hurt… thanks for stopping….”

I was barely coherent as I tried to piece together what had just happened.

Less than 5 minutes after the accident, a tow truck arrived and offered his services.

I called my friend, a Joburg local.  The conversation was not very helpful.

“Hey.  I don’t think I’m going to make it to your place tonight.  My car just self-destructed on the on-ramp to the M1.”

He told me he wasn’t surprised given the state of my vehicle and gave me a lecture that I was in a “dodgy” area and not to get a ride with a tow truck driver.

Me: “A couple people have stopped and offered to help.  Everyone’s been amazingly nice so far.  As for the tow truck, it’s almost midnight and this area is pretty dead.  I don’t think I have much choice.”

Him: “Seriously, Beth, these guys put nails on the road and wait for cars.  They’re not safe.  Don’t trust them.”

He was too drunk to come pick me up, though, plus he was half an hour away.

The tow truck driver lifted my car and towed it home for me.  On the way, he told me that he had been driving home from work in the other direction when he saw me standing beside my car, obviously in trouble:

“I decided to check on you.  If you’d been a man I wouldn’t have stopped.  But because you’re a lady, I couldn’t leave you stranded.”


As you can probably guess, the conversation made me feel super safe!

He got to my place and backed my car into my parking cage.

“How much?” I asked.

“1200 rand.”


R1200 is about $140, almost half my month’s rent.  But I was still shaken and not in the mood to argue, even though he was charging me at least double what he should be.  Furthermore, I was extremely grateful that he’d arrived so soon afterwards.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done otherwise.

I gave him the money (barely had enough in my house) and asked for a receipt.

He didn’t have his receipt booklet with him.

“Can I please have your card then?”

Instead, he wrote down his name and number on a piece of paper.  He said that he’d bring me a receipt the next day.

I wrote down his company’s name as was painted on his tow truck and his license plate number.  I texted him so he had my number.  “So you’ll bring me a receipt tomorrow morning?”

“No.  I’ll call you tomorrow when I get off work,” he smiled.

Suddenly the rest of our conversation during the ride made sense (“Where were you going?  To your boyfriend’s?”): he was hitting on me.  He was hoping to get a date for Saturday night.


But I kept it together.  I didn’t have the energy for a fight.

I never heard from him.  The next day I decided it wasn’t worth contacting him for the receipt.  It’s not like I’m going to get reimbursed for it anyways.

Like I said, I’m trying to remain positive about this whole thing.  Thank goodness it didn’t happen when I speeding along the highway!  Lucky it was so close to my house!  Fortunate that it didn’t happen in Hillbrow while I was trying to maneuver around a taxi bus – I probably would have smashed into at least a dozen pedestrians!

Furthermore, three Canadian interns just moved into a house up the road from me and they have a vehicle.  On Sunday morning they took me grocery shopping so that I won’t starve over the next few days.

They also provide amble distraction.  I slept over on Saturday night and we had a braai Sunday evening.  We’ve already started compiling a list of touristy things to do.  It feels great to have expat friends again.

Back to the car:

The worst case scenario is that the car is a write-off and I have to lease a vehicle for the next 5 months.  It’ll be expensive, but money is just money.

For me, the hardest part is waiting.  I want to know the verdict so I can make a plan.  Patience is not one of my strong points.

We got it assessed on Monday and the mechanic said it will be expensive to fix: the suspension is shot, one of the wheel axles is broken, and the sump was hit quite hard.  Plus the body work.  He told us that if we go through insurance, it’ll most likely be written off.  Or it’ll be very expensive to fix because the insurance company will require that everything damaged is completely replaced.

On the other hand, if the insurance company writes it off then they’ll give us the compensation money and we can buy back the car from them for next to nothing.  Then he can repair the damage instead of replacing it and it’ll be much cheaper.

The insurance procedures here don’t make any sense to me.  Big surprise!

Regardless of the outcome, however, I’ll be commuting via taxi buses for at least a week.  This will completely change my lifestyle: I can’t travel at night, I can’t go swimming, my 20 minute commute will now take at least an hour, etc.  At least the ultimate Frisbee field is close to where I live – close enough that I’m sure I can find rides.

I always thought if my beast of car broke, it would 100% my fault.  I thought most likely I’d hit a taxi bus on Claim Street in Hillbrow.  But, in reality, the car was a death trap waiting to spring! 

I’m not sure if that makes me feel better or worse.


South Africa has great Indian food.  Generally the Indian restaurants here are much better than the ones I’ve tried in Vancouver.

Except for the samosas.  Or, as they’re spelled here, “samoosas.”

In Van, we have big samoosas filled potatoes and veggies and spices.  One samoosa can easily be a full meal.

Here, however, samoosas are tiny.  And doughy.  There’s way too much dough compared to the skimpy centre.

Furthermore, cheese samoosas are popular.  Many places have mince samoosas, chicken samoosas, and cheese.  No “vegetarian” with veggies.  Just cheese.

Last week I finally decided I had to try a cheese samoosa.  The three kinds I’ve seen are listed as plain “cheese” or “cheese and corn” or “cheese and onion.”  The food stand I happened to be at had “cheese and onion.”

Guess what was inside: it was like eating a deep fried doughy cheese triangle with some chopped onions.  I can see why some people would find them good.  Even though I love cheese, however, I thought it was disgusting.

Thank goodness it was tiny.

My friend couldn’t stop laughing at my expression.  Even 5 minutes after I’d finished the thing, he said there were traces of revulsion on my face.

You live and learn.

I can’t wait to try “cheese and corn.”


In Jozi, it’s easy to forget that I’m living in a Third World Country.

There are more than enough organic markets, classy restaurants, chic boutiques, and luxurious spas to fully satisfy my middle-class heart.

On the other hand, there are beggars at every intersection and garbage littered everywhere.

This mixture of First and Third World are part of what makes this city so fascinating.

Within a 15 minute drive, I travel from my cute residential neighbourhood through expensive business complexes to the dilapidated inner city.

And I mean dilapidated.

Since the Christmas holidays, our internet connectivity has been shoddy, to say the least.  It comes on for 20 minutes, then switches off for 5 minutes, then comes on for an hour, then goes off for 15 minutes.  All day, everyday.

As one director exclaimed, “There’s better internet service in the villages of Zim [Zimbabwe]!   This is supposed to be a ‘world class African city’!”

We’ve called the internet support services a couple times.  We’ve had various tech guys wandering through our office.  No improvement so far.

It feels like our office building is giving up.  The elevator has been on and off as well.  As a result, we’re keeping the Emergency Stairs unlocked (another surprise – how are you supposed to use them in an emergency when there’s a cage covering the door?)

Today we had a new surprise: no water.

Are these breakdowns related? 


Or is this just a rundown building in a neighbourhood with neglected infrastructure in a country with negligent building codes?

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