Posts Tagged South Africa

Are car guards a form of charity?

In South Africa we have an interesting phenomenon: car guards. These are people who stand in parking lots and parking spaces generally, typically wearing a neon vest, “looking after” your car. Typically they receive (at least part of their) income as donations from the motorists whose cars they have kept safe.  I have encountered car guards for years and I realised I actually know little about them.

I suspect international readers may find this concept hard to understand and I refer you to this comical video by a South African comedy duo.  Despite the comedic element, the portrayal is fairly accurate. As in this video, car guards are almost always male, but unlike in the video, they are also almost always black.

Many car guards are hired by the owners of the premises. I am not sure of how much protection they actually provide. I have never heard of a car guard actually stopping or attempting to stop a theft.  That does not mean, however, that car guards do not prevent attempts – like visible policing they may make thefts less likely. For the most part, however, their role seems to be to help motorists get into and out of tricky parking spots. These men are not security guards – they are not armed and I suspect most are not trained to deal with proper criminals.

Many “car guards”, I suspect, take advantage of the fact that anyone with a neon vest has a legitimate claim as guarding any otherwise unattended parking facility. Car guards have become so ingrained in daily lives that we hardly even think about paying them. Much like providing a tip to a waitron, it has been customary and we feel guilty if we shirk this duty.

In so far as car guards are not actually providing a useful service, they effectively represent a form of charity, a means of creating employment not unlike asking people to dig holes and fill them up again. This is probably not entirely fair and we must consider that South Africa sits with a glut of unskilled labour that is not being put to productive use (our youth unemployment rate is notoriously high). Car guards represent one way of giving an income, one that is earned, at least in some measure, to a portion of our unskilled labour force.

The question of whether this is good or bad is moot. It is certainly better than having a larger supply of beggars. The fact that this country has no better way of employing much of its population is the problem.  It’s also probably true that the South African public has come to expect car guards: we want them there.

I leave you with some questions. If you have something to say about any of them, please leave a comment:

  1. Do you know of any research on whether car guards do reduce car thefts?
  2. Do you feel safer with a car guard nearby?
  3. Have you heard of a car guard preventing a theft?
  4. How do you feel about paying car guards?
  5. Do you think there are more “productive” means employing a larger part of our population?

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Queer worship in Cape Town


It is a sad fact that homosexuals do not feel welcome in most churches. But it is encouraging to know that Christians have been at the forefront of the marriage inequality movement for a long time. The Metropolitan Community Church, for instance, was founded as early as 1968 and has been campaigning for marriage equality ever since. It has also no doubt contributed to the emerging “queer theology” that seeks to legitimise their stance.  I attended a service of the Good Hope MCC in Cape Town last Sunday. It was Freedom Day, the birthday of SA’s democracy.

The Good Hope MCC meets in a historical Church building on Green Market Square in Cape Town and they hung a huge yellow banner declaring that all “queers” are welcome. The pastor was a slight woman who not only preached, but also sang while playing the guitar, straight from the pulpit. The toilets were designated unisex. I have the memory of there being rainbow decorations everywhere, but this may be more of an impression than actual fact. The message, in any case, was very clear: you are welcome.

But it was also very clear that this message was not directed toward me. I’m a heterosexual male, perfectly welcome in a traditional church. No, this message was directed to the LGBT community.  Indeed, I felt like possibly only one of two heterosexuals there (the other being a friend I had brought along). This was also an impression, not an established fact. The MCC church is there for LGBT people. Every announcement and virtually every statement made was geared toward them.

And why should the MCC not focus on LGBT? In virtually every other church they are either not mentioned at all, or they are informed that they are living in sin. The plight of LGBT people in the new South Africa is still acute. There are, for instance, Lesbians being murdered or correctively raped in some communities.  Would other churches take as active a stance to stop this?

The Good Hope MCC church is perhaps the only place that LGBT people in Cape Town can connect with a community of believers without judgement. And they do so alone. Shouldn’t heterosexuals and LGBT people be able to worship together? Is it not deplorable that in 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, the church is in a kind of apartheid, heterosexuals here, LGBT people there? Perhaps, in another twenty years, it will seem simply absurd.

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A story for those away from home this Christmas

I have spent two Christmases far away from home and I have to confess these were not the best Christmases I ever had. The topsy-turvy weather (I come from a country with a warm Christmas), not having my parents’ food, not having my parents, all contributed to this. This year I am once again at home and I will be celebrating Christmas with my family. I am content. But having spent time in the Netherlands, and having appreciated their strange Christmas traditions, I wondered what the reverse might feel like. That is how my latest story, Not an Afrikaner, was born.

Not an Afrikaner is the story of a Dutch man married to a South African woman and living in South Africa. He has to try to explain the strange custom of Zwarte Piet (I wrote about the controversy of this tradition here), face his unaccommodating and racist mother-in-law, and the unseasonably warm weather. This is a story for anyone who has to spend Christmas away from the country of his birth, but who can nevertheless learn to appreciate the otherness of his new home.

This is going to be in many ways a sad Christmas for South Africa with our great leader, Madiba, having just passed away. However, in the wake of his passing, I believe we will come to a greater understanding the of the extraordinary qualities of South Africa. This is something to celebrate.


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When Madiba dies

Mandela’s birthday is coming up on Thursday and people are being asked to donate their time to help others. Mandela is still in ill-health, and it seems his death may be announced at any moment, despite claims that he is recovering. With the world waiting for Madiba’s death, some here in the Netherlands have asked me what would happen then. Some (white) people seem to think that Mandela being alive is the only thing stopping the blacks from forcibly disowning or killing the whites in South Africa. This is nonsense of course.

Here is what I think will happen:

The entire country will mourn. Blacks, whites, coloureds, Indians, Chinese, everyone, will mourn. We will be one race: black with mourning.  For a very long time we will be a country in despair. Our GDP may take an appreciable hit.

But we will not erupt in chaos. We will be united in our morning, as we are united in our admiration for this great man. We will come together as we have not come together since 1994 because to do otherwise would dishonour the memory of this man. Mandela may die, but his ideals will outlive him. They will but gather strength from his death.

It will feel as if the entire country is attempting to attend his funeral (because the entire country will attempt to attend his funeral, or at least get in the vicinity). There will be tears and wails. There will be television broadcasts. Condolences will stream in from across the globe.

Mandela will be elevated to something like Sainthood. No bad thing uttered of him will be thought true. This I find a pity. For Mandela is a human being who has made mistakes. He is an example for us all, but we need to recognise his humanity. In time history will remember him as a man with a story that started long before his release from prison.

Some (read: the ANC and the Mandela family) will try to use his memory for their personal gain. I am not worried about them. They are but bit players in the grand story of the new South Africa that started with the first step Mandela took out of the Victor Verster Prison in 1990. They are overshadowed by greater ideals, by the larger strides that South Africa has made and will continue to make in spite of them. Mandela is not for the Mandelas. He is a symbol to the whole world. He will be a symbol long after he dies and long after bickering politicians and grandchildren are forgotten.

When our mourning has ceased, there will be no great announcement. There will not be a massacre or a festival. We will simply continue building our imperfect but ever hopeful country.

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Race and education

My alma mater, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has been in a (seemingly endless, but necessary) debate regarding race-based admissions. Currently it gives preference to black students. That the debate has gone on so long shows just how important the symbolism of race is in South African politics.

The alternative to race-based admission is to use things such as how highly educated a student’s parents are, the quality of the school they attended, and income. Ultimately I do not think this will not markedly affect the pool of people eligible for admission and who get given preference. Black students are the most likely to meet these criteria.

But it changes the symbolism of the process completely. It no longer assumes every black kid is previously disadvantaged (there is a new generation of young blacks whose parents are middle-class and this middle class is growing rapidly) and that every white kid is previously advantaged. Coloureds, who have complained that they are underrepresented in “transformation” may now stand an equal chance. It levels the playing field and I think it has to be done. It is a symbolic step in the direction of a South Africa in which all men (and women) are equal without sacrificing the need to redress the social injustices of the past.

I have stated in previous blog posts my natural aversion to affirmative action. I have, however, no aversion to university admissions policies that take into account more than just the grades of an applicant. Many students with a lot of potential have grades lists that look terrible merely because they had a substandard education for instance. Brazil found with its affirmative action candidates  (here the policy also appears to be race-based), called cotistas, that they did not fare much worse than the other students, and in fact caught up quite quickly. This was for two reasons: they worked harder and they had a greater ability than show by their entrance grades because they were not coached for the entrance exams. We want such students in our universities.

Apparently affirmative action was also quite successful in American universities and this has been stated as a reason for continuing race-based admission. That is a fair point, but the redress of social disadvantage is inherently ideological and it seems to me that using clearer indicators of disadvantage fits better ideologically and is likely to give the same (or even a better) result. I do not know if there is research on this. If there is not, then I think we should try it.

I have no idea if South African affirmative action candidates fare well at university. (If you know, please leave a comment). I do know that it is unfair to keep them out. But I think it is counterproductive to force the demographics of the university to reflect the demographics of the country one for one. Find the students with ability, take into account their background (not their race), and give them the opportunity they deserve. The demographic change will come.

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South Africa’s attitude problem

I have always said that South Africa needs effective education in order to escape its poverty trap. There is, however, something else that is perhaps even more important and far harder to obtain, a change in culture or attitude.

If you look at the unrest, the constant strikes (often accompanied with violence), the unceasing corruption, you get the impression that there is a culture of entitlement. “We were harmed by the legacy of Apartheid and therefore we deserve [insert demands here]”. I fear this is only hampering our progress.

If we are to grow, to escape the bonds of apartheid, we need people who not only demand opportunities but create those opportunities. We need people willing to work to create their futures rather than just demanding it from the government or their employer. This is a part of the problem that I have with affirmative action. It enforces the entitlement culture.  It says “you deserve the opportunity and we don’t care what you do with it.”

With youth unemployment in South Africa over 50%  there is another negative effect on attitudes: despair and hopelessness. The belief that there is no way to improve your circumstances can lead to two things: complete inaction or unbelievable anger. We probably have both in South Africa, but it is the latter that makes news headlines.

Thus we need firstly to give people hope. Hope is the motivation. Then we need to make sure they know that their lives are in their hands – it is their responsibility to improve their lot. But how do we do that? Perhaps the answer still lies in our education system, in perhaps the most influential role models besides parents that children ever encounter, in teachers

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We live in Elysium

It occurred to me after seeing the trailer for Elysium, the new film by the director of District 9, that real life is perhaps not so very different from the situation described there. District 9 portrayed South Africa past. Elysium portrays the world as it is now.

The setting is so ridiculous, so Sci-Fi that it doesn’t immediately register. But the premise is essentially that the divide between rich and poor is enormous and unfair and that the poor are being hindered from advancing.

I know little of immigration laws, but it seems to me that it is quite hard to move from one impoverished country to another more prosperous one. And even then it is hard to be treated on equal terms with the rest of the country’s inhabitants. Much harder still (practically impossible in fact) is breaking out of the poverty of generations of inadequate education, which you will inevitably pass on to your children.

In the Elysium trailer there is some machine that removes minor ailments. It seems unbelievable that those in Elysium should have access to this, but the people on Earth are dying (presumably in pollution, with lack of food, medical treatment, etc.). If you are a middle-class South African or a resident of a first world country, you might not realise how ridiculously unequal the real world actually is. I had my teeth straightened with braces at a great cost to my medical aid when I was in my teens. It now seems to me almost monstrous to have been able to get such a cosmetic procedure when in my own country there are people with no access to clean water. How different is this from the futuristic machine in Elysium?

Of course, I think this is the point the movie is trying to make. We live in a world divided. If you get born into the right home in the right country or the right area you grow up with privilege. But a very large portion of this world is denied even the most basic human needs. We may not have separated ourselves from these people with as much clarity as putting ourselves in a space station, but we are separated from them nonetheless. A part of this separation is geographical (country and neighbourhood), a part of it is in structures (barb-wire fences around our homes), but mostly it is in our minds. We do not just absolve ourselves of guilt: we hardly recognise the need to do so.

I am not going to advocate giving away masses of wealth to the poor or to the poorest nations. Charity is not the solution. But I think we need to recognise we do not live in a cosy world and we need to figure out what to do about that. I hardly have any answers.

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