Tuesday, 27 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part IV): My First Nobel Prize ... Winner

One day in mid January George calls me into his office.

"Are you busy this afternoon?" he asks.

"Not particularly."

"Would you like to come with me to visit a friend?"

"Yes.  May I ask who it is?"

"Have you heard of Nadine Gordimer?"

Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923, is a South African author whose writing focuses on moral and racial issues during apartheid. She is a life long political activist and joined the ANC party when it was banned by the apartheid government. 

She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature when she was recognised as a woman 'who through her magnificent epic writing has been of very great benefit to humanity.'

"As a matter of fact, sir, I happen to have one of her novels in my backpack."  This is true.

"Bring it with you.  Maybe we can convince her to sign it."  He winks and smiles.

Sweet.  My first Nobel Prize winner.

We go for lunch at our usual spot - Bocaccio's - owned by a charming Greek couple.  George and the owners exchange a few words in Greek and they show him freshly picked (and oversized) tomatoes and cucumbers from their garden. After a delicious lunch (tremazzini for me - beef curry for him) a driver arrives to take us to Nadine Gordimer's house.

Her home is simple but charming much like George's. One of her helpers invites us in to where she is sitting. 

I am in the presence of two living legends.

"Nadine, this is one of our brightest young lawyers, Joseph."

"Pleased to meet you Joseph."

"It's such a ... It's very ... Ummm ... Privilege ... Honour ... I'm Joseph."

I look down at her coffee table and see Milan Kundera's L'identité
bookmarked. I tell her I read it a number of years ago when I studied French literature in university and ask what she thinks. She says it is her second time reading it and that "his writing style is just so interesting." Talking literature with a Nobel Prize in Literature winner. No big deal.

Her small stature is contrasted with a mental toughness that is made very clear over the course of the afternoon.

We settle in and she begins telling us about her upcoming novel No Time Like the Present. We even get a sneak preview of some of the pages. It is 2012 and this is her 14th novel. She is 88.

The two begin reminiscing about the past. They worked together on a number of initiatives during the struggle. There is a very clear and very touching mutual respect and admiration they have for one another.

I am awe-struck and silent. I remind myself where I am over and over again.

As we are about to leave, I quickly speak (perhaps for the first time since arriving).

"Miss Gordimer, would you please sign your book for me?"

Without really giving her a chance to answer, I reach into my back pack and take out a copy of July's People probably her most famous novel and the one that likely won her the Nobel Prize. When I learned I was going to South Africa the previous July, I decided to explore some South African literature. Nadine Gordimer's name came up more than once. So I bought her book. Little did I know then that I'd be sitting in her home just 6 months later.

She asks me for the spelling of my name and writes:

For Joseph Chedrawe

With best wishes
Nadine Gordimer

She then looks up at me and asks, "Do you like short stories?"

"Yes, Miss Gordimer."

She quickly shuffles into the next room and returns with a huge brick of a book. I look at the cover and see it is an anthology of short stories she has written between 1957 and 2007.

"May I give you this?"

My mother has always taught me that it is more polite to first refuse an offer of something - be it food, drink or gift - and then accept if the person offering insists.  But I could never even pretend to refuse a gift from Nadine Gordimer.

"How could I refuse!" I exclaim.  Mom would understand.

She signs it and hands it to me:

For Joseph

Nadine Gordimer

Hoping not to push my luck, I ask if it would be alright to take a photograph with her.

"Oh no, no, please. Not like this," she says, referring to her casual dress.

I am disappointed, but George quickly interjects, "Oh, come on Nadine, it's just so he can show his mother."

He puts his arm around her and stands ready for the photo. I join the photo and her daughter (who is visiting from her home in Italy where she is a teacher) snaps it. The light isn't very good and it's not zoomed enough and it might even be a little bit blurry. But I don't care. This is my photograph and it's special.  (Note that this is the first photograph I've added to any of my blog entries.  Score one for the technologically inept!)

As we walk towards the car, I say to George, "I feel like if I keep thanking you for all these wonderful experiences that it will come across as insincere and disingenuous. But thank you Mr Bizos."

"Well it's important that we share these opportunities with our young lawyers. Thank you for all of your help."

The driver takes me home.

"I'll see you tomorrow morning Joseph."

"See you tomorrow morning Mr Bizos."

Monday, 26 March 2012

201 Days with Bizos (Part III): It is well with my soul.

One sunny morning in December, I'm feeling particularly great. I'm on my way to Pretoria with George Bizos for the inauguration of a memorial museum at the Gallows in the Pretoria Correctional Centre. I assisted George with putting together his thoughts for the speech he'll be giving.

But let's go back to a few days before.  George calls me into his office: "Joseph, we have another speech to write.”

As with all other requests from Mr Bizos I tell him unequivocally and without hesitation: "Absolutely Mr Bizos".

(He tells me to call him George but I can't bring myself to do that yet.) 

We sit for an hour together while he speaks and I type.  My favourite moments come when he says, "I want to tell you a story. But it's between you and me. No need to include it in the speech."
The speech is about the death penalty and the executions that took place during apartheid. After an hour he says, "See what you can do with that." I spend the next two hours working on the 2000 word speech and present him with a copy.

"This is excellent work. You are really great, you know."  Words you don’t forget.
He only has one small addition. He wants to include a line from a song sung by the innocent on death row during apartheid. "Senzeni na?" (What have we done?)  It's a hauntingly beautiful and tragic song.  He sings it to me with tears in his eyes.
Speech done. Print final. Make copies for him to hand out at event. Email to media. Done.
"Would you like to come with me tomorrow?"
"Absolutely Mr Bizos."
"Be at my house in the morning.  And wear a suit."
I take a taxi to George's house at 7am. I'm wearing a suit. His house is quaint, modest and charming. Not what one would expect from a living legend. But exactly what you would expect if you knew George who is not one to show off. He gives me a tour of his house and his garden, which reminds me of my grandfather’s (my jedo's) garden. In fact George is around the same age as my jedo would have been if he were still alive.
The driver is very late but when he arrives George is kind and patient. We make it to Pretoria in good time and as we drive through the prison grounds, dozens of correctional officers wave to George and bow their heads as a sign of respect.

The pre-official program involves a breakfast meet-and-greet. It's a who's-who of South African politics. I sit next to George and he quietly says to me, "I am going to introduce you to the people sitting around this table with us."  

Then he begins:  "This is the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  This is the Minister of Correctional Services.  This is the Minister of Justice.  This is the Minister of Home Affairs.  This is the Executive Mayor of Tshwane.  This is High Court Judge Aubrey Ledwaba."  

I am in awe. 

I ask George, "Why are all of these important people here for the opening of a museum?"

He replies, "Didn't I tell you the President is coming?"

George introduces me. "This is Joseph. He is an Oxford educated lawyer from Canada who is working with us at the Legal Resources Centre. He is the cream of the crop."  More words you don't forget.
The Mayor of Tshwane says to me "You are here with Bizos? You know he represented half of the people in this room?" Most high ranking government officials were freedom fighters during the apartheid struggle. 
All the guests have VIP badges.  As far as I can tell, George is the only one with a VVIP badge.  I have no badge. 

President Jacob Zuma arrives.  He and George share a moment in private.  I shake the President's hand and introduce myself.  He politely and kindly says, "It is nice to meet you, Joseph."  I look down.  He also has a VVIP badge.
After breakfast, they divide the attendees into two groups: those who will attend the inaugural museum tour with the President and those who will not. I go with George and the President.
The museum is excellent.  It's a touching tribute to those who were executed by the apartheid regime.  We walk the path of those who were hanged. It's a very emotional hour. George's words from one of his many political trials are featured in the museum.  

When the President unveils the memorial plaque, he and George shed tears together.  George repeats over and over: "They were innocent. They were innocent."  It is a difficult moment for everyone.  At the end of the tour we walk outside to the memorial monument and we each throw a white stone in the garden at the base.
From there we go to a giant marquee where there are more than 500 people already seated, including hundreds of family members of those who were executed.  An African choir sings "It is well with my soul" a beautiful hymn about finding peace after tragedy and everybody sings with them.
I am sitting at a table with an attorney who acted on behalf of political prisoners during apartheid, four family members of executed persons, the President of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, the Mayor of Port Elizabeth, and a High Court judge.
The Minister of Correctional Services gives a passionate speech on the importance of the Gallows memorialisation. She says:  "Many have criticized the expense of a memorial here.  To them I say, we can spare no expense in our country's healing process."  The audience applauds.
She also describes George as "one of the foremost representatives of justice."  He is the only person alive who is honoured in her speech.
George gets up to speak.  There is an extended round of applause as he approaches the microphone.  He begins the speech and then goes completely off script!  I worry for about 10 seconds.  But his impromptu words are better than anything we wrote.  He is passionate and inspiring.  He is interrupted several times to receive applause.  

He finishes with this: "I look around the room and see many families of those that I defended. I have already spoken to a few of you. I hope the rest of you will come see me after the luncheon so we can talk about old times."  He receives a lengthy standing ovation.  Nobody else that day does.
After George is seated, the Master of Ceremonies says, "we owe a great debt to Mr Bizos who is not only an excellent lawyer, but an excellent human being."
There are many speeches.  The most riveting is the testimonial of a former prisoner on death row.  He says "When I was released I promised myself I would never come back here again. So why am I here today?"  It is clear that it is not easy for him to speak of the events he witnessed while on death row, but he is eloquent, articulate and moving.  "I am here to share my story and to honour my comrades who were executed at the hands of the apartheid government."
The lunch continues.  I meet Gwede Mantashe, Secretary-General of the ANC as well as Advocate Simelane, the former Director of Prosecutions whose appointment was declared invalid by the Supreme Court of Appeal, and the former Minister of Defence now leader of the Poko.
President Zuma is introduced to speak.  He begins by leading the crowd in singing Senzeni na.  The entire crowd joins him.  It is a moment I will never forget.  Many tears I shed.  I am not immune.  He says: "We come together today to remember painful times. But we still sing." 

He says to the families, "Today, with you, we feel the emotions that you felt at the time of death of your loved ones."  They also present all of the families of the political activist prisoners who died with a plaque commemorating their deceased love ones as well as a framed photograph of each of their loved ones - the last photograph taken while they were in prison.  They present it to the family of Mini, probably the most famous political activist to have been hanged in the prison.  

Later, all the families gather outside for a photograph with the President.  They are all singing and dancing.  It is a joyous occasion to have their family members honoured in this way after dying so that others could live freely.
Shortly after 3:00pm, we finish our delicious lunch of beef tenderloin and head outside to leave.  As we walk towards the car, dozens of men and women stop George and ask him for a photograph.  I think to myself, "Wow. He's like a rockstar."  Then I realize that to the people of South Africa, he IS a rockstar.  Heck, to me, he's a rockstar!
We receive small tokens of appreciation from the museum - umbrellas and candles - and begin the drive home.  George listens to a cricket match and I fall asleep but wake up when we arrive at George's house.  I thank him for the best day I've had since being here.  He thanks me for my help and hugs me and wishes me a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

"I'm sure we will have many more things to do in 2012."

He's not wrong.

201 Days with Bizos (Part II): Please touch my blood.

After the success of his speech in London, one day, George kindly takes me out for lunch.  We go to his one and only lunch spot, Bocaccio's, a small restaurant owned by a Greek family just a five minute walk from the office outside of Gandhi Square in downtown Johannesburg.  

The five minute walk takes 20.  

We are stopped more than a dozen times by South Africans wanting to thank him and wish him well.  Out of respect, most will not approach him directly, but rather ask me, "Sorry, is this Bizos?"  When I reply that it is, they loudly exclaim, "Mr Bizos!  Please touch my blood!"  The expression is simply a heartfelt way of indicating trust, admiration and friendship.  

One young man starts jumping up and down exclaiming to his friends, "Gents, do you know who this is!  This is Mandela's lawyer!"  A street cleaner sweeps the sidewalk in front of him and says, "It is an honour for me to have you walk on my pavement, Sir."  One elderly woman begins to cry when he shakes her hand and says she cannot wait to go home and tell her entire family that she met "Bizos".  This becomes a regular part of our weekly lunches. 

When we return to the office, he begins to tell me about his next speech. 

"I am being honoured by the University of Pretoria with an honorary doctorate."

"That's wonderful! Congratulations! It can't be your first, can it? 

"No. I believe it is my 12th." 

Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Dr Bizos and I begin to brainstorm ideas for his speech.  He settles on "Don't Blame the Constitution", a theme he has been building on for quite some time in response to increased critiques about what the Constitution has accomplished (or not accomplished, say the critics) post-apartheid.  

Over the course of the weeks that follow, however, we read about a newly emerging target for criticism: the Constitutional Court.  Many politicians and government employees are challenging the Court's power, implying that the Court is over-stepping its boundaries in declaring laws unconstitutional, and announcing the establishment of an assessment body to review the decisions of the Court.  A number of well known former judges, academics and top advocates in the country give speeches defending the Court and George wishes to join them.  

"Joseph, we are changing the title of the speech.  It will now be 'Blame Neither the Constitution Nor the Courts'." 

George's contribution to the dialogue is one only he can make.  At age 83, he has an incredible historical knowledge of the law in South Africa.  He describes the history of the judiciary in South Africa, how there was a time when apartheid era President Kruger described the right of courts to test policy as "a principle of the Devil", and how the apartheid regime at one point established a review body to overturn the decisions of the highest court in the country.  His words are powerful: "These are also two examples of how the apartheid regime responded when it was unhappy with the judiciary.  I hope that our current ruling party does not intend to follow either the regime's example or that of President Kruger." 

I don't know if it's possible to listen hard. But every moment I spend with George, I listen hard. When he speaks, I rarely ask questions for fear of interrupting his train of thought. It is a lesson in patience and humility. More than that, every moment spent with George is a lesson in life from a life well lived.

The speech receives wide media attention all across the country and is cited in many other speeches defending the judiciary that follow, including one made by the first ever Chief Justice of South Africa, Arthur Chaskalson.  (More on him later.)     

I finish here with some of the closing remarks from George's speech: 

The resilience of the human spirit is a powerful thing.  I have always been touched by the innate goodness, incredible generosity and unyielding courage of the human spirit, particularly of those who suffer most.  It is not only well known leaders whom I admire, but also the women in rural areas who burned their passes, the children who refused to attend school on the first day Bantu education came into being, the men who challenged their banning orders, the men and women who were detained without trial, the family members whose sons and daughters were executed, and many others.  

They are responsible for my optimism. It is why I defended hundreds of political prisoners during apartheid despite repeated threats from the regime. It is why, at the age of 83, I continue to practice law. It is why I am so honoured to be with all of you here today: to spread the message and to see your young faces full of hope and optimism. Please do not lose that.
He cannot read this last part without crying.  You begin to understand why the entire country calls him "Uncle George".

201 Days with Bizos (Part I): An Emphatic Yes

As I enter the elevator, I see him.

"Hello", he says.


"You are new here."

"Yes. I've seen your photograph all around the office Mr. Bizos." That's what I say.

"I am going for lunch now. Please come see me this afternoon. We'll have a chat."

I nod obediently.
This was my first encounter with George Bizos, internationally renowned human rights advocate. Born in 1923 to the son of the mayor of a small village in the south of Greece, when he was 13-years-old, he accompanied his father who helped seven New Zealand soldiers hiding in the hills near his village to escape Nazi-occupied Greece. Their boat, originally destined for Crete, caught the attention of a British battleship, which took them to Alexandria, Egypt. From there, he tells me, as refugees, they were given a choice: India or South Africa. He father chose South Africa. After landing in Durban, they made their way to Johannesburg. George did not go to school and instead worked in a small shop. One day, when he was 16, a young teacher in a nearby school asked him where he was going to school. When he told her he wasn't, she took him to her school and began teaching him privately as well. By 1948, the young boy who could not speak English or Afrikaans just a few years earlier was admitted into the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was there that he met Nelson Mandela.
I step into his office. 
"Tell me about yourself."
I humbly recite my short professional and academic history to which he replies, "Very impressive........ I met Trudeau, you know."
He then proceeds to tell me about Trudeau's visit to South Africa and his compliments to George and the other drafters of the South African Constitution. You see, George was on the African National Congress' (ANC) Legal and Constitutional Committee and was an advisor at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) where he helped write the South African Constitution.
"Would you like to help me with a speech I am giving next week at the London School of Economics?"
I give an emphatic yes.
After graduating from law school, George's chances of joining the Johannesburg bar as a foreigner, even though he was white, were slim. After a few years as an attorney, he distinguished himself and was finally accepted into the Johannesburg Bar in 1954. He has been practicing for nearly 60 years. During his illustrious career as a human rights advocate, he acted for dozens of well known figures and thousands of political prisoners during apartheid. At the Rivonia Trial, he was part of the team that defended Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu. Nelson Mandela wrote the Foreward to George's memoires.
The following morning, George comes to my office, sits down and asks if I have a few minutes. I give an emphatic yes (the 'emphatic yes' becomes a fixture in my conversations with George). He sits and begins telling me the stories he would like to include in his speech. The topic is "Hellenism, Human Rights and Apartheid". I wonder how he is going to fit the topic of hellenism, which is effectively Greek culture, with the topics of human rights and apartheid. He brilliantly and effortelessly weaves a speech about Greek history and the origin of human rights, of the modern day universality of human rights and of his experiences during apartheid. We laugh often. We cry less. But we do cry. I realize that I am listening to a walking, living, breathing history book. If there were a movie, there would be a piano playing in the background with a montage of the two of us together. 
After finishing dictating his speech to me, he says, "Okay. That's enough. There always comes a point when you have to turn off the tap. See what you can do with what I've given you."
How do you edit a legend? As little as you can. As much as you can. As best you can. I spend a few days working with his thoughts and words. When I finish, I take the finished product to him and sit holding my breath as he reads each page carefully, breathing a sigh of relief each time he moves on to the next page. We finish the speech and it is a big hit in London.
Upon his return, he asks me if I would like to help him with another speech.
I give an emphatic yes.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

I don't like your shorts. I like your face.

On my fourth day in Zambia, I wake up in my mosquito net wrapped bed at 6:00am and catch a bus to Botswana a bordering African country.

We are stamped leaving Zambia and get our Botswana stamps before taking a speed boat across the lake to the main road where safari style trucks take us to a hostel from which we walk to the shore of the Zambezi River to catch our no-frills double decker boat.

We see lots of hippos but very few animals on the shore. We see a naked man doing his laundry in the river and are shocked - not because he's naked but because hippos are dangerous.

We finish the boat cruise in good spirits and settle in to a delicious lunch of chicken, fish, (Botswana) beef and an assortment of salads and sides followed by some cake and ice cream.

We jump back into the safari trucks and head to the land portion of our safari. Botswana has no rhinos and we did not see any cheetahs or leopardos, but we did see the other 3/5 of the Big Five (so-called because they are the five most dangerous African animals to hunt on foot). We see water buffalo, elephants and even lions. There are two particularly exciting moments, the first hilarious and the second suspenseful.

The first I call "The Girl is Mine". We see a male turtle (let's call him Paul McCartney) mount a female turtle. It seems consensual. Their turtle love proceeds slowly but confidently when all of the sudden another male turtle (let's call him Michael Jackson) interrupts their reptilian baby-making and begins smashing his shell against Paul McCartney's shell.

When Paul McCartney backs off a bit, Michael Jackson begins to mount the female. Again, she seems receptive but given the speed (they're turtles so relative speed) with which the switch happens, she may think it's still Paul McCartney her former beau.

Paul McCartney returns and after tucking in his head he smashes Michael Jackson with his shell. Michael Jackson begins to chase Paul McCartney and they smash shells dozens of times before hurrying back to where the female is ... or was. The girl is gone.

The second battle royale I call "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". We see two kudus (deer-like animals) quietly grazing when up ahead we see two lions slowly creeping towards them. We think we are about to witness a massacre but the kudus suddenly turn and make eye contact with the lions. The lions stop.

Our guide tells us, "They will not attack now. Lions do not chase; they stalk."

All of the sudden an elephant appears from between two trees and stands in between the lions and the kudus. There is a very still, very quiet stare down. Then...nothing. The lions turn and walk away. The kudus begin prancing in the opposite direction and the elephant continues on her path.

After the safari, we take the boat back to the border and cross back into Zambia for a quiet evening at the hostel.

On the fifth day, I wake up at 7am to go on a microlight flight over the Falls. A microlight plane is essentially a motorcycle with wings. You are completely exposed and protected only by a lap belt and a helmet.

My pilot's name is Grant. He looks young. We take off and the feeling is exhilarating. We rise and rise until we reach our maximum altitude of 1300 feet.

We fly over the Zambezi River and then to Victoria Falls. I see hippos. I see Livingstone Island and the Devil's Pool. I see people walking there like I had done just two days before. I see dozens of rainbows arching across the downward rush of the water.

He asks me if I am brave enough to make sharp right turn spirals on our side. Naturally I say Yes. We move closer to the Falls and as promised he makes a continuously spiralling right hand turn so that I am looking straight into the Falls.

The 15 minute flight has a smooth landing and I head back to the Falls to meet Gloria and Allison. We are going to Zimbabwe, another neighbouring African country.

We begin the 2km border cross on foot by traversing the Victoria Falls bridge. We leave Zambia and wait 45 minutes in line at the Zimbabwe border. The visa fee is most expensive for Canadians (not sure why).

As we enter Zimbabwe, we are swarmed by dozens of merchants trying to sell us necklaces, statues, bowls, canes and other souvenirs. None interest us. Then I hear the magic words: "Sir, how about 100 Trillion Zimbabwe dollars?"

I had recently spent a weekend in Port Elizabeth where my friends and I purchased some old Zimbabwe currency of insane demoninations, a result of hyperinflation following Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. The currency was discontinued in 2009.

I play it cool: "Oh yeah? That's neat I guess. But I already have 20 Trillion and 50 Billion (this is true). I don't need 100 Trillion."

He sees through me: "Yes sir. But this is 100 Trillion, the highest denomination that was printed." I know that. 

I offer him $1.

"Please sir, but this cost me $2."

I know that's not true, but I play along. "Oh okay. In that case, I'll give you $3."

After a lengthy negotiation that lasted about 500m and involved several walk-away tactics from both sides we agree on a price. $4. I am very happy.

At the Falls entrance, we find our bearings and begin our 600m hike across the opposite side of the Falls. It's breathtaking. You quickly understand why they call it The Smoke that Thunders. The billows of mist and thundrous crash of the waters below leave us in awe.

We walk slowly taking hundreds of photographs. The best moment comes when we arrive opposite the Devil's Pool where we'd swam two days before. We watch other tourists swimming and further along see others traversing the Falls to arrive at Livingstone Island and the Devil's Pool. We agree that it is good we did the walk and swim before seeing it from this vantage point; otherwise we may have thought twice.

We leave the Falls and begin walking to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Allison has a date with High Tea and Gloria and I are happy to come along.

We take a quick tour of the magnificent grounds of the hotel before settling in for three cups of a local Zimbabwean tea and three tiers of nibbles: finger sandwiches, scones and jam, and small cakes.

We sit quite relaxed for three hours and upon seeing the sun beginning to set realize we should head back to Zambia. We purchase post cards and mail them to our families in Canada. Then we begin the long walk across the border. After negotiating a fair price with a taxi we arrive at the hostel and quickly head to bed.

On the sixth and final day, we wake up and head to the market at the Falls. I had made two promises and I hate breaking a promise.

The first was to a vendor named Patrick. The day before I'd agreed to buy one of his paintings. We settle on a fair price for a painting of three dancers (I only buy paintings of dancers).

The second promise was to David who had spotted me a few days before and said he wanted to exchange my swim shorts for some of his souvenirs.  I generally don't buy souvenirs but I had never swapped swim trunks for souvenirs and so I agreed to the novel exchange. The lengthy negotiation of 30 minutes included the following tactics:

Me: "I'm sorry David. I just don't really like anything in your shop more than I like my shorts and so how can I exchange my shorts for something I don't like as much."

Him: "Please Joseph. I don't want you to leave disappointed. We have made an agreement and I want you to be happy."

Me: "You realize I'm going to have to buy new shorts when I go back to Johannesburg? And I may not like them as much as these shorts. So I have to spend money for new shorts."

Him: "I did not ask you to trade your shorts for my wares because I liked your shorts. I asked you because I liked your face. You have a kind face. Please show me some kindness today. It is almost Christmas."

The guilt, flattery and sympathy hand. The favourite triple threat negotiation poker play of the locals.

We agree on two sets of salt and pepper shakers (one bone, one horn), two necklaces, a set of giraffe head salad tossers, and a bone beer bottle opener. I throw in my Nike ankle socks to close the deal (seriously). He thanks me. I thank him.  I head to the airport to catch my flight back to Johannesburg.

Zambia is a beautiful country with warm, kind and hospitable people. Seeing Victoria Falls was like a dream and I know this won't be the last time I visit.

"This side you are safe. This side you lose your life."

As I settle in to my emergency exit seat (with extra leg room), the pilot makes an announcement:

"Ladies and gentlemen, could you all please check the exit stamps on your passports. It seems that one of the visa agents set their stamp to November 16th 2011."

It's December 16th. Fair mistake. It's South Africa after all. About 12 people leave the plane to be re-issued new stamps. Thankfully I'm not one of them.

As per usual I introduce myself to the people sitting next to me. They're a young couple off for a romantic weekend in Zambia. I'm also on my way to Zambia but expect my 5 days there will be more adventure than romance. I am right.

The plane touches down in Livingstone, Zambia (named after Dr David Livingstone of "Dr Livingstone I presume" fame, an English pioneer, medical missionary and African explorer).

The airport has just one gate and is effectively just one room. I wait in line for one hour at immigration and after scanning my fingers and taking photographs of me, I am welcomed to Zambia.

Backpack in tow I exit to find a man standing with a sign "Welcome Joseph Chedrawe - Jolly Boys Backpackers".

"I thought you weren't going to make it!" says the large Zambian driver with the sign. I smile and introduce myself. He does the same. I expect his name to be something very African sounding as I have found is the case with most South African Blacks.

He says, "Hello. My name is Dennis." I subsequently learn that most Black Zambians have a Christian name and a "local" (or African) name. (My taxi driver to the airport went by Micah (from the Bible) but his local name was Thingunye which means "the founder".)

On the drive to the hostel I meet a group of five travelers from France and take the opportunity to practice my French. It turns out they are all working in Johannesburg. They're a great group and encourage me to sign up for a "Booze Cruise" and White Water Rafting with them. So I do.

Jolly Boys Backpackers Hostel is a very charming and colourful place to stay. It's the busiest accommodation in Livingstone with hundreds of backpackers passing through their doors each week.

I check into my room and head off to the Booze Cruise on the Zambezi River. It's 4:00pm. We board the boat along with around 50 other people and the booze starts flowing. It's the cheapest alcohol available and even still I'm quite certain it's watered down. But the vibe on the boat is good. We see dozens of hippos and crocodiles and even an elephant!

After the Booze Cruise we make our way to the Royal Livingstone Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Livingstone for what is meant to be the best sunset in town. It's breath taking. After a quick game of checkers (It doesn't matter who won ... but it was me) we head back to Jolly Boys for bed.

I wake up early the next day for a 7:00am departure to the white water rafting starting point. After a quick safety de-brief, our instructor asks, "Easy Boat or Crazy Boat?"

Crazy Boat, please.

Life jackets and helmets in tow, we walk down the rocks to rapid 1 of 25. It's going to be a long day. I'm with a great group of seven and we give each other nicknames: lazy, pinky, frenchy, hotty, beardy, hairy and bossy. (Apparently I like to tell people what to do...)

Our guide is Malvin. After missing rapid 1 the first time, we sail through on our second attempt and easily navigate rapids 2 through 6.

Then comes rapid 7 the most difficult of the day. Malvin says, "the most important thing is that we avoid the gap." As we begin to make our way through the rapid, a large wave pushes the raft to a near-vertical position. Lazy (so-called because he often neglects to row) falls out and is dragged under the water.

When the raft settles we begin looking for him and finally see him 50m ahead with a panicked look. We row furiously to him and pull him into the boat. He is shaken but uninjured.

It then becomes clear that one of the other rafts is in distress. They did not avoid the gap and their entire boat flipped dumping the rafters into the rocky rapid. I set the pace: "Row! Row! Row!" We make it to the first person. It is a girl and she is sobbing uncontrollably. "The rocks! They crashed into the rocks!"

We begin to collect other drifting rafters. One has deep scratch marks on his right leg extending from his hip to his ankle. Another has a deep gash in his shin that is seeping blood and we wrap it with a t-shirt.

Two other boats manage to collect the remaining drifters and we proceed to the shore. All but one (she decides to walk back) return to their rafts and we continue on.

After a quick lunch on the shore, we manage to complete the remaining rapids. Many fall out (me included) but the dips are quick and easy. The day is beautiful. The perfect sun, the lush green mountains, the crystal blue water and the adventure make my second day in Zambia very special.

From rafting, we proceed to Cafe Zambezi, a traditional Zambian restaurant, where we order Mosi (a Zambian liquor), fried caterpillar and grilled crocodile, among other less daring foods. Gloria and Allison (two Canadian lawyers with the CBA/CIDA Young Lawyers International Program working in Namibia) arrive at the restaurant (not coincidence, this is planned) and we make our way to a night club down the road.

At the club, the DJ does play "One of these things is not like the other" but we are thinking it. It is clear we are different. We are the only non-Zambians there and we are dressed in flip flops, shorts and t-shirts. The local Zambians are decked out in tight-fitting cocktail dresses for the ladies and trousers and long sleeved dress shirts for the men.

We begin to dance under the red lazer lights and groove to the African house music and stares of the local club go-ers. Then back to the hostel for bed.

On the third day we decide to explore the Zambia side of Victoria Falls. We sign up for the 3pm Walk to Livingstone Island to take a dip in the Devil's Pool. We catch the free shuttle to the Falls and walk a couple of hiking paths.

We follow 600 steps down to the Boiling Point which offers an exciting view of the rapids and of Victoria Falls Bridge where we watch zip liners, bungee jumpers and gorge swingers.

On our walk back up, Allison is robbed. Her assailant is swift, relentless and covered in fur. Upon seeing around a dozen baboons blocking the path, we decide to wait for them to move away before crossing. In the meantime, we take lots of photos. When they finally clear, we start walking but one large male baboon has other plans. He runs up from behind a bush and grabs Allison's tote bag.

After a brief tug-of-war she gives up and he begins to loot through the bag - sweatshirt, Lonely Planet, dry sac and a chocolate bar. The baboon ably un-wraps the chocolate bar  and essentially swallows it whole licking his fingers and the wrapper. He begins to nibble at the other items but realizes they are not food. But instead of leaving he just sits with the strewn about items as if waiting for something. We take photos.

Finally two men come and shout something at the baboon and he flees. "You speak baboon?" I ask. They laugh. We'd been warned not to feed the baboons but nobody told us that they mug you.

After the robbery a not-so-very distraught Allison declares the need for something nice. So we dine at The Falls Hotel. My lunch: a Monkeygland Burger. Monkeygland is delicious.

We then head to the meeting point for the walk to Livingstone Island. We arrive at The Shop that Thunders (the local Zambian name of Victoria Falls translates as "The Smoke that Thunders").

"Please do not bring anything you don't want to get wet."

"That's weird," we think, since most of it is a walk. So we throw our valuables into Allison's dry sac and off we go. One guide. 15 walkers.

"Okay, everybody please hold hands and make sure you only walk on the rock ledge and not the river bed."

Pardon me?

It turns out that the walk to Livingstone Island takes place at the top of the Falls less than 5m from the edge. Sure. No biggie. That's cool. (Gulp.) The walk takes more than 2 hours. Many slip (me included) into the rushing water but the team hand-holding saves us from being dragged into the current and over the falls.

I offer to hold Allison's large bag for her and having a self-admitted aversion to danger she quickly accepts. I slip on a rock and drop the bag. It is carried away by the water, but I chase it down and catch it, mere metres from the edge of the falls.

We finally arrive at Livingstone Island just before we must swim to the Devil's Pool. After a brief history lesson about Dr Livingston, we get into our swimsuits and swim across the current (again, mere metres from the edge of the Falls) to the giant rock adjacent to the Devil's Pool.

The Devil's Pool is a 3m deep "pool" (basically, a dip in the river bed) just before the edge of Victoria Falls. Our guide demonstrates how to enter by jumping in and points to the pool's boundaries saying "This side you are safe. This side you lose your life."

Only half of the group of 15 dares to dip and most slide in. You can feel the current trying to pull you over the falls but you swim, sit, smile for the photos, and revel in the adrenaline rush. It is incredible. They throw us a rope to pull us back onto the rock. I don't want to leave. But I do. Reluctantly. I subsequently learn there have been 17 fatalities in 50 years.

After swimming against the current back to Livingstone Island we catch a speedboat to the shores of the Royal Livingstone Hotel and take taxis back to the hostel where we enjoy a meal of curried kudu and chocolate banana smoothies followed by a game of 30 Seconds (a very popular boardgame in South Africa).

My first three days in Zambia are nothing short of exciting and I can't imagine it will get much better, but days 4, 5 and 6 do not disappoint.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

No Justice for Neo

Life in Africa has been busy. 

I've visited five of South Africa's nine provinces.  I've stood mere feet away from lions, rhinos and elephants.  I've run a 10K race in the Soweto Marathon.  I've competed in a provincial dancesport championship and will compete in the national dancesport championships in two short days.  I've visited Constitution Hill, the Constitutional Court and the Apartheid Museum.  I've done a bike tour of Soweto.  I've worked on dozens of human rights cases.  I've worked with a human rights legend.  I've tried great food.  I've moved.  I've grooved. 

And I promise to post about these events "just now" (African for when I get around to it). 

For now, I want to share with you a story about a girl named Neo.  The Legal Resources Centre assisted Neo with her case.  At the end of the case, I wrote an article that was published in The Pretoria News (Pretoria is the capital of South Africa).  Here it is for you to read:


By all accounts, Neo Sobuza was a woman.  She dressed like a woman and presented and identified herself as a woman. 

But Neo was biologically male and, according to Neo, her female presentation offended Metrorail security officers so much that on 18 April 2008 they violently attacked her while she was taking the Metrorail from her home in Boksburg to university in Johannesburg. 

After requesting to see her ticket, which she immediately produced, an officer said, “Uyini?” (What are you?). 

Neo did not answer. 

The officer quipped with a second officer, “How can it be a girl when it shaves?” 

The second officer’s response was, “These are the kinds of people who need to be beaten up.  There is no woman who shaves.  He has no breasts.”

They snatched Neo’s purse, dumped it and saw that she had make-up and women’s deodorant.  This infuriated the officers.  They hinted at buying Neo’s sexual services and said she had to take her clothes off.

As the train was pulling out of the station, one of the officers grabbed Neo by her clothing and pushed her out of the moving train.  She rolled over three times on the platform coming to a stop on her back. 

She sought help from Metrorail officials, but received none.  Instead, they threw her up against the wall, strangled her, handcuffed her and slapped her across the face. 

Despite there being many bystanders nearby, nobody intervened to help.  She could not call an ambulance because her phone had been broken in the attack.

She lodged a complaint with Metrorail officials.  Nothing came of it.  Metrorail denied the incident ever happened.

Neo suffered greatly following the attack.  In addition to the resulting physical pain, she had trouble sleeping and experienced headaches and difficulty concentrating.  The traumatic incident led to hair loss, increased stress, depression and panic attacks. 

It impacted her entire life.

With the assistance of the Legal Resources Centre (the LRC) in Johannesburg, a non profit legal services and human rights organisation, proceedings were instituted in the Equality Court on 25 March 2011 naming the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and Hlanganani Protection Services (Pty) Ltd as defendants. 

The particulars of complaint alleged, among other things, infringement of Neo’s equality rights, human dignity, freedom and security of the person, and state protection rights entrenched in the South African Bill of Rights as well as infringement of Neo’s freedom from hate speech in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.

The LRC filed Particulars of Neo’s claim on 22 September 2011.  In addition to seeking monetary damages for medical expenses, the claim sought an order directing that the defendants refrain from discriminatory practices, engage in sensitivity training workshops for employees, and make a written apology to Neo. 

After a pre-trial meeting on 8 September 2011 with Judge Saldulker of the Equality Court, the case was well underway.  Then the unthinkable happened.

After repeated phone calls to Neo without any response, LRC staff began to worry. 

They travelled to Neo’s home in Soweto where they met a woman who had taken Neo in to live with her family.  She told them that Neo had died in June.  She was 32. 

According to the death certificate, the cause of death remains “under investigation”.

LRC staff travelled to Boksburg to meet Neo’s mother and to obtain the autopsy report.  Their visit to the Post Mortem Report Office in Braamfontein revealed that Neo’s death was still under investigation because her autopsy report had gone to Pathology Services’ Toxicology Department. 

It has been reported that a national backlog of about 20 000 toxicology samples has South African toxicology departments running behind by nearly 10 years on average.  The Johannesburg toxicology department’s 6 000 case backlog currently has it processing samples from 2004-2005.

According to the LRC, this was to be a major transgender case in South Africa.  Gender DynamiX, a non profit human rights organization based out of Cape Town, reports that transgendered individuals face significant obstacles in everyday society, including fear of public spaces, workplace discrimination, family rejection, HIV vulnerability and difficulty obtaining identity documents and accessing health care and public services. 

Being a Black transgendered person, like Neo, adds yet another layer of discrimination and stigma.      

LRC Attorney Naseema Fakir says, “Our hearts go out to Neo’s family and friends.  She was a brave woman and we are very sad to hear of her untimely passing.”

As for the status of Neo’s case, Attorney Fakir says, “This was effectively a case of he said/she said.  Hlanganani denied the incident ever took place.  Metrorail did not file any papers.  After consulting with counsel, it was reluctantly decided that, without Neo here to testify, we had no choice but to withdraw the claim.” 

A Notice of Withdrawal of Action dated 17 October 2011 has been filed with the Court. 

There will be no justice for Neo, but the LRC is hopeful that Neo’s story will put others on guard that such egregious human rights abuses will face swift legal action.

I offer an additional story that was not included in the article. 

Neo's family did not accept her and she was forced to live elsewhere.  When another LRC staff member and I went to the home in Soweto where Neo was living, we met the owner of the home, an elderly woman named Boniswa.  We asked Boniswa if she was related to Neo.  She said, "No, but she was a nice girl with nowhere to go and I liked her so I took her in."

I am always touched by the depths of human kindness, compassion and generosity, especially for those in our society who need it most.