Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why I Hate This Country.


 This is not yo' momma's pie. Just for today, this is yo' momma's politically motivated diatribe, with the potential to incur rancour, counter-accusations and very probably boredom. But since you have come here for the Pie of Plenty, I have sprinkled in a smattering of facetious commentary and the odd gratuitous "fuck." I feel it important to respect my target demographic and loyal audience of 17 in this manner.

   I love American politics precisely because, despite the shortcomings any politician will invariably suffer have, their government and political process functions as exactly that: a political process. It matters what the candidates say in the press. It matters what they stand for. The economic climate matters, and each candidate's approach to it matters. Even if you are loyally devoted to your party, there is enough sway term to term for actual qualification and efficacy to make a difference in which way the vote eventually goes. It's a fascinating process, and while it's unlikely- with the human factor- for any country to ever get it entirely right, at least there's a genuine interest in trying and understanding the mechanics of it.
   There is so much you could complain about here in South Africa. Point a finger, you'll hit a political iceberg. Mostly our ire gets directed and focussed on race relations, because whether we like it or not, our past 50 years or so as a country has been defined both locally and internationally by our racial problems. You can make arguments in any direction you want, and frankly, even the most bigoted side has its points. Yes, Apartheid led to a generation of people who have been denied certain very basic privileges and rights, more than anything withholding education. Since we started out with one of the wider cultural divides of any "first-world" country, not allowing decent education to those who needed it only managed to further the divide and reinforce whatever natural blocks existed between us already. After Apartheid was abolished, we were left with an imbalance in power, and that needed fixing.
   If you place a brick on one side of weighing scales, it's going to be imbalanced. However, the way to correct that is not to remove the brick and put it in the opposite pan. That is, however, our new government's approach to fixing the inequality of the past. Look, I could write a treatise on the subject of BEE management and the ANC, and it would take a lot of talking to explain the current tensions in their subtleties to anyone who doesn't live here. The problem most South Africans face in trying to bring the situation across to anyone from outside the country is that the tendency on hearing it is to measure standards against the known and accepted standards of cultural benchmarks in America or Britain. It's never going to sound like anything other than white power holdover and biased polemics- unless you've got hours to go into minute detail and a fairly open mind to begin with. But beyond racial issues I could simply illustrate the fucking horrifying state of our country's government by pointing to the fact that our taxes- including the very aptly named road tax that's meant to cover these kinds of things specifically- no longer covers the maintenance and upkeep of our roads. Not long ago, there was a massive stink about the impending implementation of E-Tolling which was proposed and prepared for in order to make up for the apparent deficit in our national funds at the massive expense of the individual traveller. It was fought and postponed, but it looms like a particularly slow and stupid Goliath; the exemplary personification of the mounting issues the new institution cannot get ahead of.
   Once I've called your attention to that, (which could easily seem like an acceptable blip in the fluctuations of government control over spending) I would very much like to hold it up next to the fact that we've spent millions enacting changes to street and area names. This is meant to be in the interest of placing that brick in the other pan, fixing the enduring wrongs of the Apartheid era in what is obviously one of the most grievous and harmful acts of the regime- removing references to historical figures from before with "Africanised" names, you know, for justice. The sheer amount of money, man-power and effort that has been put into this- even after the massive unrest over the whole "Pretoria is now Tshwane" thing- boggles painfully. From changing street signs to maps and GPS's and changing our major airport from Johannesburg International to OR Tambo, the focus has been to make a stand and a point about Apartheid not through actually creating jobs, training or providing education and housing, but through the petty change from the obviously evil "Church" street to Stanza Bopape. Everywhere you go in Pretoria, you'll come across street signs with red tape through them and a new, often fairly unpronounceable name over it. Some valiant and probably ignoble souls even vandalised some of the new signs to change them back to the old names, but as fun as that may be as a protest idea, all it really does is cost even more money to fix again and hammer home the racist boer image.
   A friend of mine was telling me a few days ago how blindingly incensed she was about the fact that on top of all these kinds of egregious mismanagement sins and fund allocations, that our president- Mr. The Ever Honourable Sort Of Rapist Kind Of Felon Have Another Wife Why Not Zuma- was renovating his house and beefing up his security at an expense of over 200 million Rand. These renovations are essentially being paid for by tax money, and are wildly illegal, but as the balance of power stands in this country, little more than ineffectual noise can be made about vague "inquiries" and finger-wagging. This was something like a trigger for her, a very real example of how a monopoly on power in this country screw us over again and again without any recourse at all. Come election time, we'll all go vote, but it will not matter that the president funds his renovations at a cost that could easily cover more than ten extremely upscale, luxury residences. It will not matter that the ANC has been making increasingly thin promises to supply housing and education to impoverished sections for years, always promptly dropping even the most cursory allusion to follow-through the moment the elections are over. It doesn't matter that the candidate has been accused of rape, been through fraud and corruption charges, and adds wives to his collection like Toby Jugs. None of that matters, because South Africa functions on the kind of power branding holds. Despite the length of what is ostensibly only my introductory rant, it's these intricacies I'm refraining from going into detail on, because I really only needed to set up the background for the main point I want to get to today. I'll bore you with an analysis of our political system another day.

    In America, you have two major distinctions for political affiliation and general proclivity: Red and Blue. There are red states and blue states. All that means is that one state is either overwhelmingly liberal or conservative, usually associated with either Democratic or Republican leanings. South Africa is one massive red state. More than that, I believe we may actually accept conservative, traditionally Republican values even more uniformly and commonly than any red state in America, which makes it very hard for anyone who differs in belief or opinion from that norm.
   Now thusfar in my most pompous and unfunny blog post yet, I'm likely to have pissed off two very specific groups of people: those who are reading this through "white South Africans who complain about the ANC are racists"-tinted glasses, and those who are inherently opposed to being bombarded by unnecessarily heavy-handed political rhetoric on a comedy blog. For you latter sufferers: I'm sorry. Not a lot, and probably not terribly sincerely, but take my token apologies and please help yourselves to the complimentary doughnuts and coffee. The main grievance dear friends, is yet to lambaste you right in the face, as it is wont to do when I'm the one encouraging it to lambaste. In fact, the entire post up until now has been to illustrate that we as a country are so known for our two-directional racial and cultural intolerance, that a whole other component of the same kind of bigotry and insanity is practically invisible next to the monolith. But a lot of the opinions I've expressed have very out-spoken support in this country, so I've likely also gotten a few people to nod their heads in agreement. What I'm about to say, however, is likely to alienate damn-near everyone.

   This morning I was making myself some breakfast (grilled cheese with mushroom and pastrami, a side of broccoli lightly sautéed in lemon juice and olive oil, HOLLA) and settled on reading the local paper to while away the time it takes for the sammich griller to turn my toastie into the molten cheesy wonder that will so perfectly accompany my broccoli. In most of Pretoria (and Centurion which is technically Pretoria adjacent) we all get our weekly copy of Die Rekord: a bi-lingual paper featuring both English and Afrikaans articles, with varied content to reflect the news in different towns. It's admittedly not one of the more serious newspapers, but it enjoys a pretty wide distribution and bears the responsibility of covering most of the goings on in Centurion and Pretoria- whether they're light-hearted or more serious. Since Centurion is comparatively one of the more metropolitan and lower-middle to middle-class areas, the articles usually focus on the Miss Centurion pageant winner's charity endeavours and the odd burglary. But South Africa still being South Africa, it falls to the Record to cover the few murders that still do happen here.

   My eye fell on this article. It appears to be a follow-up on an initial report of a double-homicide not far from where I stay. I'm not going to translate the whole thing, (the writer managed to write a fair block of prose without very much information in it at all) but I'll try to convey the gist of it as faithfully as possible, and translate relevant quotes.
   The the facts alone (according to the article) are thus:

   Last month, Natacha Burger (33) and her neighbour Joy Boonzaaier (68) were murdered in the complex where they both stayed, a few suburbs over in Wierdapark. They are thought to have been murdered between 16:00 and 16:30 on the 26th of July (although the opening paragraph cites the murders as having taken place "Last month".)
   That's it. Factually, at least, that is all I or any reader can concretely take away from this piece. Once those facts have been established, we move into speculative territory.
   "The double homicide of two inhabitants last month in Wierdapark still remains a riddle with speculation that Satanism may have played a role in these gruesome acts."
    Ok, now immediately I have my heckles up. Under the picture of the girl is testimony by her dad that she was a loving person and "Full of the Holy Spirit." That's a minor point on its own: How does being a Christian automatically give you a good character reference? Does that imply that had she not been a Christian, she might have been a bad person more deserving of such a grisly death? It's always been a pet peeve of mine when people use Christianity as an automatic marker to indicate a person's quality.
   But that's not quite so important as the tone the rest of the article takes on. It goes on to say that she was protected by the blood of Jesus and was a true disciple, and so oughtn't have been vulnerable to such an attack. She was also working with a group called Overcomers in Christ who specialise in condescending the Satan out of people. Reportedly she had a friend who had been addicted to drugs and she felt that the appropriate way to try to help said friend was to join this organisation so she could learn about Satan and how to turn people to the light. Now I've had some experience with people thinking they know me and wanting to "help" by turning me to the light, and it's the worst kind of self-righteousness possible. But even that aside, where are these people getting their idea of Satanism from? Anton LaVey and his cohorts weren't exactly known for ritual killings, and while there are a few organised religions that worship different mythological deities that share some vague characteristics with the Judeo-Christian devil, there is no one church that worships him specifically. There're teenagers who wear Pantera t-shirts and dye their hair black, and like the fact that calling themselves "Satanists" will scare their parents and make them "dark", but even those who are unstable enough to harm small animals have no actual religious doctrine by which they do so and usually are scared shitless when things go too far. For all intents and purposes, there is no such thing as "Satanism" the way it gets applied so liberally to anything these people find subversive or scary; anything they don't understand.
    But I get incensed when I read further, and the woman who runs Overcomers in Christ (which, I'm sorry, sounds like a long-jumping competition for wankers) explains a little further about their orginiasation:

"...according to Overcomers in Christ's leader Ria Grundewald, they offer courses in- amongst other things- how the satanic church pulls children into drug abuse, breaks apart marriages and churches, and how it destroys young people through the entertainment industry."
    It natters on for a few more paragraphs about the calling the young victim received, having experienced a revelation through the bible that urged her to lay down her life for Jesus- more specifically, for Overcomers in Christ. There's some more stuff about how the saintly woman was learning all she could about Satan's kingdom in order to help her poor drug-addled friend, and how she not only convinced numerous friends to do the courses through the organisation but also eventually ended up presenting some of those courses.

"Due to her experiences with God [....] she developed a deep compassion for those lost souls, and spent much time praying for those who were born into the Satanic church."
    Again, which church is this? The LaVeyan church whose members are ostensibly atheist and devote their dogma to the pursuit of hedonism and the divinity of one's self? Arrogant and pretentious, yes, but not even an actual religion.
   Luciferianism, perhaps? Those that apply a philosophical creed (though not worship) to the characteristics of the biblical Lucifer? (Who is not universally accepted to the same entity as Satan or The Devil either, by the way.) They focus more on the "light-bringer" aspects of his portrayal, and the movement is more intellectually driven than religiously so.
   The Palladists? Endor Coven or any of the more Manson-esque scatterings of heterogenically fuelled break-off cults that- even while closer to the image we have of Satanism than any other example- still exalt the importance of knowledge and a kind of free gnostic hedonism over the veneration of "evil"?
   Theistic Satanism then, which is not exactly a uniform church as much as it is a speculation about the possibility of people or organisations who might actually worship a biblical satan as a god. Again, you'd be fighting a losing battle in trying to identify any kind of over-arching set of beliefs or agendas there, and most sects that could be classified as Theistic Satanism really just goes back to splinter cults and casual appropriation of Satanic imagery for shock and self-delusional purposes.
   There seems to be a vast, monstrous misconception within the broader Christian community that any religious body would actually want to align themselves with a malignant purpose, or identify as "evil." Pretty much every documented example of animal or human ritual killings in the name of "Satan" have been shown to be the work of very broken minds that are searching for some doctrine to cling to in order to justify and codify the urges they already have. Those are not sane people. No saner than those locked up in hospital wards claiming to be Jesus himself- religious delusion is the most common delusion found amongst those with psychiatric problems, both Satanic and Christian alike. If you wish to give credence to the poor sick bastard who cut up his neighbour's cat because Satan made him do it, you'd have to allot just as much validity to that guy in the straitjacket who insists that he is the angel Gabriel come to warn of the impending apocalypse.
   I fucking hate how such misinformed people can feel ok about not only perpetuating such utter bullshit, but even go so far as to teach it like it's gospel truth. Worse yet is that they've set up an entire operation devoted to teaching this through structured courses, when even the most cursory research into the matter would make it painfully obvious that they're basing their doctrine on blue bloody fuckall. That means they're actively making shit up to teach, extrapolating from inherently biased and flawed inferences and creating whole worlds that just don't exist. Here's the kicker:

"Natacha was also busy with a course that concerned celebrities and how they are fooled for one reason only: to get more people to pray for the satanic church."
    I believe that actually passes into the same realm of delusion that resides in that straitjacket and set the kitten on fire. I don't even have words for these notions on their own, but the thing that's giving me little piercing headaches at half-second intervals is that all of this is being reported as news and relevant fact in an article meant to be covering the murder of two people. It's not even just background information on the victim: it's blatantly making itself out to be the basis for the assumption of "Satanic involvement" in the murders themselves, even though it never even touches on the details of the event in order to substantiate the idea. It's mentioned that she found a smear of blood on the gutter outside her apartment some time before she died. She took a photo as evidence of an evil presence (presumably the Sparrow Of Doom And Bad Directional Skills Who Didn't See That Gutter Coming, I Swear It Jumped Out Of Nowhere) and asked everyone to pray with her for protection. Her father called it the "Dangerous Prayer", and described it as being a prayer specifically geared to break the evil and darkness in a life or something like that- all those words were present but either my Afrikaans or Bullshit is too poor to properly understand what the fuck he's on about and translate appropriately. Again though, this is making the point that she was somehow marked by dark forces, making this information not colour for an article to fill in details about the victim's life, but actual evidence that serves to inform about the murder itself.
   I do not care what your religion is. You go be Christian, Muslim, Scientological or Pastafarian for all I care, but this feels downright threatening to me. In this country, there's more stigma to coming out as an atheist than there is for coming out as gay. There're plenty of Christian groups here that are actively involved in showing how big they can be by overlooking your sodomy and accepting you with the understanding that Jesus is in charge of the smiting, but there are several members of my close family who would not only unfriend me on Facebook if I made my religious affiliations clear, but would obtusely ignore it as a choice and keep sending me little SMSes about how they're praying for me, and hope I find my way back to the light. Hell, Tertius- the guy who wanted to exorcise me along with my ex sent me a bible verse just a few months ago, even though the pretence was that we parted ways with the understanding that I am not a satanist but an atheist, and that it is maybe lamentable but essentially OK to be so. The fact that a secular newspaper that bears the sole weight of reporting localised Centurion newsworthy events can print an article like this means that the level of acceptance for the notion of a uniformly Christian nation is fucking tattooed into our collective brain. It reads like a church newsletter, and that's OK because who would take issue with that? Obviously only the much derided Satanists and their close friends and allies, the mythical atheists.

   And after many, many pages that you never asked to read, that is my point. This country, despite being one of the most scenically beautiful, mineral rich and culturally diverse places in the world, sucks. It fucking sucks so hard that I don't mind saying that a civil war wouldn't be the worst thing to hope for. We need a massive, violent upheaval in order to affect the change this country needs to not become Zimbabwe #2. We needed that upheaval in order to officially end Apartheid, and the new regime (which I have no doubt will, a hundred years from now, have a similarly reprehensible name and legacy) is much, much more deeply rooted and unmovable than Apartheid ever was. At least if there was a war here, there'd be a chance to apply for refugee status in some overseas country. For now, I do not qualify for any of the current film making courses and programmes, cannot work behind the counter at Woolworths, and my (hypothetical) children and the children of my friends will be forced out of the work place in a country in which they are the statistical minority. And when they're out on their arse, unable to afford school and unable to qualify for aid because they are white, other white people will actually and literally judge them to be evil because they may not believe in a Christian god. Not because of their values or how they comport themselves during their lifetimes, but simply because of which box they'd tick on a census form.
    Every single time someone tells me how good a person is because "...he's such a good Christian," I fucking cringe. I know amazing Christians, and I know a butt-load of god-awful ones who could out-Pol Pot even Pol Pot. Same applies to Atheists, and heterosexuals, and homosexuals, and black people and white people. There will always be cultural divides and prejudices, not just in this country, but everywhere. That is human nature. We very seldom manage to overcome inherent and even evolutionary inclinations to be afraid of and judge that which is alien or foreign to our understanding of how the world works. But we're fighting it. We're trying so hard to change legislation to give couple the chance to marry, and to make sure that you can vote not matter what your melanin situation or reproductive equipment. We make it not-OK to publicly decry someone's religion, race and sexual orientation. Even if the power-heads who make it not-OK don't always fully believe what they're saying and find themselves writing laws to enforce equality, the simple act of making it unacceptable to do these things brings minds forward little bit by little bit. They may not believe, but just by saying so, maybe their children will.
    This scares me because it makes it clearer than any official decree could ever do that in South Africa, there is a status quo. It's not the majority: it's all but the whole. Do what you like, but you're either white or black, Christian or evil. Grab your paintbrush and decide whose side you're on, bucko, because no matter which camp you find yourself in, it's never going to be the right one.