A Prayer for Election Day


We were apprehensive about that election in 1994: the first democratic vote in South Africa’s history. There had been so much bloodshed leading up to that point, and I was just one of a throng of believers who prayed fervently as people cast their ballots. More often than not, I found myself praying 1 Timothy 2:1-6: for a government that would allow us to lead peaceful and quiet lives, so that the gentle work of God drawing people to know him could continue.

Today is election day in the USA, and again I am one of a throng of believers praying. This time, these are the words I keep finding myself praying:

Our Father, who is in heaven,

Hallowed be your name.

Your Kingdom Come,

Your Will be Done –

– on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread,

and forgive us our sins. Even as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.

Lead us not into temptation,

Deliver us from Evil.

For the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory are Yours.

Now, and Forevermore.


Hornbill (Arthur Attwell)



Tockus flavirostris
We know you at our campsites, your great moon-beak
swinging like a bludgeon from your small, grey head,
the crazy fruit of acacia trees, the bogey’s pod
swelled with the seed of the dirt you shuffle in.
There isn’t any mouthpiece in the world
more fitting to your cry of thorns and gravel,
a stutter in your anguish. And then silence,
as your ugliness settles over you like a shroud.
But in the air you are the wind’s trapeze, the stroke
of a brush on its canvas. Nothing flying compares
to your dip and ride, to the feather-tipped lunette
in your flight’s dome. When we saw it first we knew
the gag was over, dumbstruck at the proof
that grace – the slow parabola you carve
from the very air – can find its way from place
to place, alighting there, cast in the bone of your wing.
by Arthur Attwell, in Killing Time (UCT Writers, Snailpress, 2005)
art by Corrie Haffly
Arthur Attwell is a South African publisher and poet, and also a friend of more than twenty years. He was the first poet I knew in person, and his publication of a little poem in a collection at our university was the first time I bought a work of poetry. I only read two of the poems in that collection: Arthur’s, and one which caught my eye as I thumbed through it and paused to read. It said this:
You’re reading this
because it’s short.
Aren’t you?
I remember laughing out loud: at the ludicrousness that those three lines could be considered poetry, at the feeling of being busted, because the truth was I had, indeed, read it because it was short.
My mom bought me Arthur’s first published collection of poems, Killing Time, for my birthday ten years ago, and I was stunned to hold this volume written by someone I knew. You can read an excerpt from the collection here (and by the way, it’s well worth your time to scroll down to page 16 and read the poem for which the series is named)
I chose this one, however, because the African hornbill is a bird I’d often wondered about on trips to the South African game reserve: it really is ugly, and yet majestic in its own way. Like the warthog, it’s one of those creatures that makes me think anew about form and function, and how sometimes we see beauty in people when they’re at work, rather than stationary.

Some thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius verdict

images-2Here are some important things to know about the verdict given about Oscar Pistorius:

* He was found guilty

* He was found guilty of killing (homicide)

* He was found culpably (blamably) guilty of killing.

Perhaps it is because the South African legal language of culpable homicide is unfamiliar that confounds people abroad’s frustration that he was not found guilty of murder – but in truth, he was found guilt of the equivalent of manslaughter, or murder in the 3rd degree (at least).

I understand people’s frustration that he was found guilty for something less than murder. Believe me, I do.

And yet, I support the judge’s decision and wanted to explain why. Firstly, to be found guilty of murder, there must be evidence not only that the accused actually did the crime, but that they planned to do so. Proving mens rea (or, state of mind) is a necessary component. The rules of evidence require the prosecution to make a case which is beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill.

Anything less than that: like knowing your actions could possibly kill someone, is something less than full murderous intent. The categories of “lesser murder”, like manslaughter, or culpable homicide (depending on your jurisdiction), still hold people responsible for wrongfully taking life, but don’t have the intention-to-kill aspect.

Pistorius’ defense, flimsy and guilt-ridden as it may have been, pleaded that he did not intend to kill. He thought there might be an intruder in the house, they said. He thought his girlfriend was asleep next to him, they said.

In the handful of articles I have read on this, commentators are aghast that this excuse was considered “reasonable doubt”. Here again, I have a little more compassion. Was the threat of an intruder reasonable? Many say not. In an article from The Guardian, the writer commented that the “imaginary body of the paranoid imaginings of suburban South Africa has lurked like a bogeyman at the periphery of this story.”

To that, I would just want to say that I don’t think it’s fair to categorize the fear of a violent intruder as a fear of the “bogeyman”, or worse yet, a fear of the “black bogeyman”. For in the South Africa I know, the fear of being attacked in one’s home is real, it extends beyond class and colour lines, and it is a fear based on knowing first-hand stories of people to whom such things have happened.

My own personal collection of stories is sadly not uncommon in South Africa: I’ve been mugged twice, my home has been burgled, I have had to call the cops when my sister’s roommate called me from her closet to say that people had broken in to her house and she was hiding lest she be found. I have prayed for another friend’s elderly aunt and uncle who were beaten and raped in their home at night. I have a colleague whose daughter was murdered. I have a friend who lives in a home with the best security money can by in my mother’s neighborhood, and she has told me of the armed robbery in their home one evening just before dinner.  I have heard more whispered stories of rape than I can bear. I have felt the desire to murder in response.

A friend of mine posted this status update on social media this past week: “So in the news this evening: woman employee raped while at work at Helen Joseph, woman raped by burglars at Stellenbosch res, woman raped by man wanted by police for 10 years, durban high school employs a known paedophile who continues his abuse at the school and four teenagers convicted of raping a 10 year old boy as part of a game. And that’s just tonight’s news.”

World out there: it’s not an unreasonable fear.

Is it plausible to argue that a South African in the middle of the night might fear there was someone in their house wishing them harm? It might be. It might be considered reasonable. In South Africa, perhaps more so than many, many places in the world, it may be enough to raise reasonable doubt as to why someone might respond to a nighttime threat with a gun.

And so, in the tragic case of Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius, as much as I also long for justice to be fully realized, I also want to show support for the limits of what the judge could do. For to convict of murder, there needed to be proof of murderous intention, and the proof needed to be beyond reasonable doubt. Not just “he probably meant to kill her”. But “I am absolutely persuaded he intended to kill her, in particular.”

And given the context, and the fear that every single South African deals with – including the black, female judge who was called to weigh this matter, I am not surprised that the ruling was that there was a smidgen of reasonable doubt. Enough to find him guilty of killing her. Just not enough to find him guilty of doing so premeditatively.

And so, as the world awaits the sentence next month, I too am one hoping that he will be sentenced to the maximum jail time for his offense. And I take comfort in these things:

* He was found guilty

* He was found guilty of killing

* He was found culpably guilty of killing,

and, as a friend rightly pointed out, the most important thing of all is this:

* He still bears the lifelong burden of conscience and the need to be made right before God.

Just a few of my thoughts. For what it’s worth. (Since more than a few have asked for my once-upon-a-time-I-went-to-law-school-in-South-Africa opinion.) Holding my breath for sentencing day, and along with you all, hoping for justice.

P.S. South Africa: watch out for the locusts

locust_effectReading Gary Haugen’s new book The Locust Effect was a consuming affair. It was sobering, thought-provoking, illuminating, and an emotional punch in the gut. Drawing from years of experience in seeking justice for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the book is a call to awareness and action. I confess that even though I was born and raised in Africa, even though I have a law degree, even though we have experienced violent crime first hand, even though I have been on mission trips…. I didn’t know.

I didn’t know that for the poorest in the developing world, violence is not just a problem. It is THE problem. 

But as I read, and formulated my thoughts on how to tell others about this reality, this challenge, this opportunity… there was a niggling thought at the back of my mind. A niggle which wouldn’t go away, and which I need to articulate here: The Locust Effect is a book written about the world’s poorest. It speaks of the poverty stricken in the developing world, and how crushed public justice systems have left them vulnerable to every day terror. Like a plague of locusts devastate everything in its path, so too violence destroys the little the poor have to live on, and threatens their daily existence.  (My review on Amazon is here, and my blog post on a beginner’s guide to the locust effect is here.)

But the niggle is this: the book may be talking about the poorest in the developing world, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was talking about South Africa too. South Africa is among the most developed and the wealthiest of all the countries in Africa: it is politically stable, it is economically robust and developing. But South Africa knows about the locusts of violence. It knows about the terror of vulnerability.

As such, I want to commend the Locust Effect to South African thinkers and talkers and prayers and community leaders – as a case study and conversation starter. The book offers case studies drawn from around the world, seeking understanding about why public justice systems in post-colonial eras have struggled to protect the most marginalized. The book highlights two reasons which are particularly relevant to the South African conversation:

1. The checkered history and development of law enforcement.

Haugen recounts the insights he gleaned from Kirpal Dhillon, the Former Director General of Police in the Indian states of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh and Vice Chancellor, Bhopal University, India. Dhillon’s experience and research into the history of the Indian police has given him invaluable insight into how policing in India got to be how it is today, with millions left without any protection or shelter from the law, and thus vulnerable to slavery, sex-trafficking and a host of other horrors. Dhillon explains that part of the problem in his endorsement of The Locust Effect:

“In a remarkably sensitive study, very aptly named The Locust Effect, the authors have provided many new valuable insights into the intimate relationship between poverty and violence plaguing the billions of global poor in many post-colonial societies across continents. This is also probably the first time that Western observers have come upon the unpleasant reality that it is, in fact, the native political establishments in South Asian countries themselves who stubbornly refuse to break away from the colonial ruler supportive police and criminal justice systems, concepts, laws, procedures, and mind sets imposed by the imperialist rulers, thus denying their peoples the benefits of a citizen friendly law enforcement system. An invaluable companion to all criminal justice studies.”

His point is that law enforcement in India was first established to protect the interests of the colonial rulers, not the everyman-on-the-street. Structurally, philosophically and logistically, they sought to protect those in power FROM the masses, not to protect the masses from abuses of power. When colonialism ended, the new structures of the country adopted the existing system without ever re-thinking or re-organizing the purpose of policing again, and the every day poor remain as unprotected by the “new” police as they were by the old.

South Africa is not where India is. The systems are not the same. But the question is an important one, and those in law, politics, public safety and policy formation would do well to ask – are we asking fresh questions for a fresh set of challenges, and helping our public justice system to serve the needs of the new South Africa? Or are we expecting an old system to do a new country’s work, and getting frustrated when it crumbles under the pressure?

2. The parallel system of private security

The second issue Haugen raises is to consider the effect that the rise of private security has had on justice for the poorest. In countries where violence happens and public justice systems are crumbling, those with means have responded by buying their own protection. Private Security is the biggest employer in Africa. Those who can afford it, can pay for a security guard to protect their place of business, a neighborhood watch patrol for their neighborhood. They can pay a lawyer or private investigator if they need to deal with public justice, to help them navigate the system. They can BUY the protection that the justice system should afford.

South Africans know all about this.

What The Locust Effect points out, though, is that when those with education, means and influence can pay for private security – they lose the need to advocate for better public security, and effectively abandon the system to further decay. Why get embroiled with an overworked public prosecutor when you can hire your own attorney to expedite a civil claim for relief? Why campaign for better training and resourcing for the local police when you can hire a crowd of better-paid, better-managed, neatly-uniformed security guards to keep your home safe?

The result is that less political will, less community urgency, less debate and pressure and leverage goes towards making a public justice system that is better for ALL.

South Africa has not been razed by a plague of locusts yet. But we know about violence, and my nagging feeling is that there are helpful lessons to learn from others’ experience. We cannot afford to give up on the police and courts in South Africa. For the sake of the WHOLE country’s vulnerability to the locusts of violence, we can learn lessons and glean hope from others’ experience. The Locust Effect is about how the end of poverty requires the end of violence. And the implications are clear: when we take a stand against violence, we will push back against poverty too.

I’m giving away two copies of the Locust Effect this week on my blog. You can enter here.  You can read more and watch some incredible short videos on it at the Locust Effect Website. And the book will be available in South Africa in April 2014: order your copies from Kalahari or Exclusive Books.

There’s Rooibos in my Soul

Part of me will always belong in South Africa.

I’m in my tenth year away, but the smell of a steaming pot of rooibos tea can cross those ten thousand miles in an instant. To the land of charm and Mrs Balls chutney and street vendors selling “peeeeechez, just five rrend-a-beg”. To howzits and hauw’s and hala kahles. To now nows and just nows.

I love my life in California, but when we step off the plane and begin our drive on the left hand side of the road, remembering again to keep an eye out for careening mini-bus taxis, there’s a sense of belonging that comes rushing back as quickly as my original South African accent.

I take in the shanty houses: corrugated iron roofs held down with rocks, yet sporting satellite dishes. I watch for cows and teenagers on the side of the highway, knowing that either of those might venture across at any moment. I know these things without having to think. Like rusty fingers pressed into the service of Chopin after a decade away from classical piano, my mental muscle-memory is called into service along the Cape Town freeway, if not a little slowly.

I buy government loaf white bread hot from the neighborhood Spar. I count out the change without worrying that I will get the combination of coins wrong to make the right amount. In ten years, I still can’t count nickels and dimes properly, but rands and cents make sense to me.

I hear birds. Oh, the birds!

I hear languages: eleven official and funagalo to boot.

I smell trees and cars and poverty and fear and joy.

I don’t live in South Africa anymore. When people abroad ask “what’s South Africa like?” I have to say that I don’t know. Ten years is a long time to be gone. Things change. I know who the president is (more’s the pity), but not much else. My fingers have been taking pulses elsewhere for some time now.

But despite the gap of 3670 days and 16,994 kilometers between my Californian present and my Capetonian past, when I look up at Devil’s Peak and feel the South-Easter stir,



I still feel I belong.


That there is Devil’s peak, the western peak of Table Mountain. My alma mater is the rose-colored building on its slopes. This picture does not do it justice… Especially at sunset. This schmaltzy post is day 24 of 31 days of belonging a writing challenge for the month of October. For a complete list of posts, click here.