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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

From the mouths of the ancients

In the time of Alexander the Great, anyone who was not a member of a small group of tribes on the tip of the Aegean peninsula was a barbarian and of inferior stock, worthy only to be a slave. That included Macedonians such as Alexander.

Among Athenians, only one who owned land and was born of an Athenian father and mother could be considered a citizen. Even craftsmen and entrepreneurs were considered inferior, unworthy of citizenship.

After the wars, Alexander made a famous speech to the Greeks, which seems more relevant today than ever before. He said: “I wish all of you, now that the wars are coming to an end, to live happily in peace. All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working towards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country – a country where the best govern, with common laws and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people, as many narrow-minded others do, into Greeks and barbarians.

“I’m not interested in the origin or race of citizens. I distinguish them only on the basis of their virtue. For me, each good foreigner is a Greek, and each bad Greek is a barbarian. If ever there appear differences among you, you must not resolve them by taking to arms; you should resolve them in peace. If need be, I shall act as your negotiator. You must not think of God as an authoritarian ruler, but you should consider Him as common father, so that your conduct will resemble the uniform behaviour of brothers who belong to the same family. For my part, I consider all – whether they be white or black – equal, and I would like you to be not only the subjects of my commonwealth, but also participants and partners. Within my powers, I shall endeavour to fulfil all my promises. You should regard the oath we have taken tonight as a symbol of love.”

Alexander’s dream of peace embraced all his people, including the foreigners in their midst. As a Macedonian and foreigner himself, he waged war and experienced hatred and prejudice; ultimately, he learned compassion. Today, for far too many people, Alexander’s vision is still only that: a dream of what mankind could achieve if war, power-mongering and greed were abandoned in favour of the upliftment of society and compassion for one’s fellow man.

If our leaders in this country had done half as much as Alexander, if they would say what they mean and execute what they promise, South Africa would be a different country. Instead they make war on their own people by stealing from them daily, constructing a web of hypocrisy and lies that continues to ignore the fundamental rights of every South African: access to food and clean water, a decent education with full literacy, jobs and housing.

But when elections loom, these leaders wave a magic wand. This wand erases past abuse and paints a future for no other purpose than to inspire voters to come out in droves in support of them.

The people’s response should be exactly the opposite. The future under the present ANC government will look just as it does right now. No change. There is no magic wand, and if people want change in their lives, they need to begin with themselves. They need to withdraw their support in droves. And if they cannot imagine voting for a party other than the ANC, perhaps their best option is not to vote at all.

Imagine the kind of land we would share if Nkandla was given back to the people it belongs to, if every cent stolen by corruption was sunk into housing and amenities and education and training. Imagine a land with respect for our fellow South Africans and their suffering; imagine a land that is humane to the foreigners in our midst – many of whom are not drug lords but struggling desperately to make lives for themselves in harsh circumstances.

As is the case throughout history, corruption begins at the top and trickles down to the least of us, the most deprived, so that when horrified questions are asked about heinous crimes that take place, among them the rape and murder of babies and children, one should stop asking and do the simple detective work: such barbarism exists because many who commit such deeds have had no scaffolding of family and community, and little or no government support. They have been outcast and trodden on, given nothing but empty promises. In such arid ground evil is the only thing that grows: how else to vent hopelessness and helplessness but on those who are equally helpless, unable to comprehend or to fight back?

These days, when people’s eyes skim the headlines detailing the latest theft by government, the next catastrophe, they shake their heads and go about their business. This is because endless headlines of crime and abuse by those who should know better do not breed compassion, but its opposite: desensitisation.

How much worse must be the desensitisation and disconnection of those who have never known what it is to be nurtured, who have never had the opportunity to provide properly for their families or to experience feelings of pride and dignity?

It is well past time for South Africans to turn away from old ways and old days, and to accept responsibility for the changes we must demand from ourselves in order to expect these changes to take root in our country. A good place to start would be to adopt Alexander’s concept of nationhood: that all South Africans are brothers and sisters, belonging to the same family. We must commit ourselves to eradicating the rot and the strife, dump our egos on the trash heap where they belong, and dedicate our joint efforts to building a future for that family.

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The Quality of Justice: The Shrien Dewani Case

The Westminster Magistrates’ Court ruled today that Shrien Dewani, suspected of arranging the murder of his wife Anni, can be extradited to face trial in South Africa. However, his lawyers intend to appeal the decision and legal action might drag for quite some time still. In light of the new developments in the case, here is a piece I wrote a while ago:

The killers of Shrien Dewani’s young wife are currently serving their long sentences, but they must be as confused as I am about British notions of justice and humanity. These men, better than anybody else, know the role Dewani (allegedly) played in his wife’s murder, yet the South African courts are still on tenterhooks and the outcome remains far from certain. Everybody, with the possible exception of the British courts, believes it’s high time the accused had his day in our courts, to explain to South Africans and the world his side of the story, if he has one, and to provide evidence that he didn’t use a foreign country as his killing field.

In spite of the seriousness of the crimes of which Dewani stands accused, the British have behaved with disturbing delicacy in the matter of when and where their citizen should stand trial. British courts have repeatedly heard – and voiced – the concern that their citizen will be brutalised in our prisons, and Dewani has been given a lot of time and every opportunity to recover from his ‘severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder’.

While this humanity may be laudable, it must be said that disorders such as these are perfect hiding places for what must loom large in Dewani’s so-called disordered mind: the terror of being forced to stand trial and possibly serve his sentence in the very city where murder-for-sale appears chillingly available to those who seek it.

Are the British really more humane than we are, than other nations? If so, what about the murder victim, the honeymoon wife who suffered a terrifying ordeal at the hands of strangers before they killed her? What about the suffering of her family, who heard the evidence given in the South African courts and yet continue daily to confront their unresolved loss? It seems to me that what is on trial here is not Dewani’s guilt or innocence, but the quality of British justice.

Britain’s most senior police officer has been outspoken on the subject: British justice, he says, is a joke. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens recently claimed that ‘criminals were effectively above the law, while judges, defence lawyers and court administrators rode roughshod over the rights of terrified victims and intimidated witnesses’. The entire system ‘treated those aiming to put criminals behind bars with contempt.’ He described the criminal trial as ‘an uneven game of tactics’; that ‘abusive muggers are treated like petty shoplifters.’

Sir John Stevens goes further: ‘The public are more than disenchanted with criminal justice in this country, they are fed up with it. The process actually encourages criminals in the belief that crime is merely a game of no consequence to society, local communities or their victims, so that they are not held to account. So we see robbers with strings of previous convictions strutting across the estates of inner London, having won their most recent game in court, arrogant, untouchable, fearless and ready for anything. ‘He claims that the levels of violence are unprecedented, and that witnesses are more frightened of testifying than of becoming a victim. ‘You sometimes wonder who is on trial, the defendant or the victim.’

Home Office minister Keith Bradley claims that the Government recognises there is a need for reform of the criminal justice system, and they are addressing some of the issues raised by Britain’s top police officer. Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, says he welcomes this, but as chief executive of the Victims of Crime Trust and 24 years as a front-line police officer, he has never seen the criminal justice system ‘in such disarray’.

Makes one think, doesn’t it? If Shrien Dewani’s trial takes place in Britain, his family can afford to employ the best legal minds in the country in his defence. And the psychiatrists describing Dewani’s struggle with suicidal depression wouldn’t be there if they weren’t well paid.

Given the current state of the British criminal justice system – and the much-publicised brutality of South African prisons – is it any wonder that Dewani would play any card, including his mental fitness, to be tried in Britain rather in South Africa? He believes, and Britain’s top cop seems to agree, that whichever way it goes, he will get a far cushier deal in his own country.

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