January 2017


Post 233.

I’d argue that political and economic elites have greatest responsibility for the persistence of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s true that state officials, from the most petty to the most powerful, are involved, whether for a bottle of scotch, a bag of cash, a big cheque or small house. It’s also true that citizens of all classes engage in corrupt behaviour, illegality and disregard for law.

However, the scale and impunity of corruption differs vastly among classes, and there have never been convictions of ‘big fish’ or for white-collar crime. The impact of such impunity in a context of economic inequality means that if the big boys can get away with unbridled greed, then the small man thinks it is right to give it a try as part as one of many survival strategies. Even with patron-clientalism, corruption among the wealthy hits impoverishment among the poor more severely. Hypocrisy about this at the top is real.

Political and economic elites also have the most informal and formal influence on legal and institutional protections or their lack, for in all kinds of familiar ways, their business is interlocked with each other and the state.  They may not be able to make public officials or the state bureaucracy work as efficiently or modernly they would like, but the story of a ‘culture of corruption’ is far more stratified than the narrative of  ‘all of us are equally responsible’.

Some have more connected contacts than others and some can gain more than others – it is they who have both more to lose and more responsibility for ending the kind of corruption among their friends to which is regularly turned a blind eye.

Frankly, for the political parties, their financiers and their middle and upper ranking beneficiaries, the entire purpose of the state appears to not be about managing the social contract, but to legitimize and launder questionable personal gain.

This isn’t too surprising. Postcolonial societies like ours were founded on the intersection between elites, government and white-collar crime, known as colonialism, and the virtually unchanged state as we inherited it historically provided the managing infrastructure.

I therefore think its worth tempering a story about the role all of us have to play in curbing corruption with one that demands greater responsibility from those with greater privilege and power, as well state officials at all levels. Keep in mind that, in Trinidad and Tobago, confidence in the police and the justice system is half of the world average, and because people feel ‘advantage’ is the order of the day, nobody trusts anybody.

It’s in this context that Transparency International released its Corruption Perception index on Wednesday. Trinidad and Tobago scored 35, with freedom from corruption being 100, and our score was four points lower than in 2013.  Our public sector is increasingly perceived to be corrupt.

This is a global problem, not defined by race, political party or religion. Indeed, resource rich countries are at highest risk of corruption simply because so much wealth creates greater opportunity for public resources to be twisted into private gain at all levels of the state and society. Such wealth may provoke corruption, but tackling state officials’ and institutions’ failure, and failure to hold political and economic elites accountable, might give trust and truth more currency.

The Trinidad and Tobago launch drew different perspectives about how to curb corruption; the proverbial, ‘What we go do?’ question that persistently plagues us in relation to government and state. Some suggestions were for the reintroduction of ethics curriculum in schools. Some felt that corruption was so widespread in our society that it was everyone’s responsibility to not be enticed to pull strings, use contacts or grease palms in their dealings, whether with the Port Authority or Licensing or in securing contracts.

Other suggestions pointed to promised procurement legislation and official structures for monitoring compliance and breaches as well as the necessity for whistleblower legislation.  Ever hopeful, the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of TI has planned trainings with a range of state officials, from the Auditor-General’s office to the Ministry of Planning.

The bottom line is that we are doing poorly.  Without an urgent shift, the only outcome is greater inequality.

Advertisements

Post 232.

Regrettably, it is uncertain whether Tuesday’s Senate vote on the Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 will actually lead to protection of girls from too-early marriage. The Bill has to be passed by the House of Representatives before it becomes law, and it will likely be passed now that the AG has framed it as only needing a simple majority, which the PNM can provide.

However, having been passed, it is likely that a constitutional case will be kick-started to establish whether or not constitutional freedoms were violated and whether or not the AG was correct to tactically switch from a 3/5 to simple majority passage.

No one can tell at this point whether such technical considerations regarding constitutional law will lead to the amendments being overturned or upheld. In the end, it will become about a battle between UNC and PNM, and religious patriarchs versus the state. The best interest of girls, whether or not they represent a minority of marriages, will disappear from priority.

The UNC, under Kamla Persad-Bissessar, helped to create this disgusting situation. In government, the party courted and relied on religious conservatives, and was unwilling to risk ire of this small but vocal segment for a more progressive approach to women’s and girls’ rights. In last Wednesday’s debate, they brought in temporary senators to present perspectives, clearly vetted by the party, which the wider population found shocking and partially misinformed, particularly in terms of why the Children’s Act’s (2012) “Romeo Clause” rightly decriminalizes adolescent sexual relations.

The UNC’s approach was to friend up all sides simultaneously, thereby showing only supreme self-interest. On the one hand, Persad-Bissessar has said she herself supports raising the age of marriage to eighteen years old. On the other, the party brings in men who oppose that position, under the guise of inclusion and representativeness. Such mixed messaging sparked concern, certainly in the women’s movement, that sending the Bill to a Joint Select Committee would lead to it being buried there or watered down to assuage patriarchal interests.

Keep in mind that the legal age for girls to marry is eighteen years old in India and Iraq, and sixteen years old in Pakistan and Egypt. So, let’s be clear that there is no single Hindu, Christian or Muslim perspective on the legitimacy of marrying girls at fourteen or sixteen years old.

It’s in this context of the UNC’s unwillingness to do the best thing for girls that the AG may have wrongly made his tactical switch. The fact that the need for a 3/5 majority was included in the December 19, 2016 version of the Bill is itself a sign that he and the drafters recognized that there were constitutional implications.

The expediency with which those paragraphs were removed was bound to be seized on by the UNC as the AG playing politics with law. So, the AG may have to take his chances in court, at taxpayers’ expense, risking having this key amendment overturned on a technicality, at girls’ expense. I applaud his willingness to push through this legislation, and here the UNC has not one moral leg to stand on, but the AG’s decision has made the process more politicized and messy.

Speaking of messy moralities, the UNC is now using language of “respect for family life” in its constitutional counter punch, showing instead no respect for globally-established, detrimental effects of early-marriage on girls, and global conventions to which we are a signatory. It is unbelievable that girls’ individual life chances are still being subordinated to those of the “family” in a way that is not applicable to boys, with party leadership ignoring such legal inequality.

The Miscellaneous Provisions (Marriage) Bill 2016 simply seeks to raise the age of marriage to eighteen years old. Women’s organisations have argued that possible amendments should have included an exception allowing both girls and boys to marry from sixteen years old, with counseling and parental permission or, instead, a magistrate’s permission given with these adolescents’ capacity, choice and best interest in mind.

As this debate moves to the House, the nation must insist that girls’ self-development and rights are our priority. If you agree, make those 41 MPs represent you. This legislation is overdue.

Post 231.

As I wrote last week, I visited communities where people were forcibly removed from their neighbourhoods, where stalwart ANC activists now live in poverty without pension or insurance, where jailhouses were rocked by such systematized racism it makes you feel ill to think it was all real and not that far in the past.

Now, too little conversation appears possible between White, Coloured and Black Africans, for each occupies such a specific connection to this history that it seems almost impossible to walk in another’s skin. ‘What do you think of South Africa?’, one White woman from Johannesburg asked me. ‘The injustice has never been adequately addressed’, I said, ‘its effects seem to over-determine the lives of many blacks, and inequality appears so stark between racial groups’. ‘Yes’, she responded, as if we were having two different conversations, ‘now that Black people are doing so much better, Whites are having a hard time finding work.’ Her answer deflected engagement with so much of what I saw, for racial and economic inequality remain deeply interlocked in vastly structural ways, whatever a minority of individual and neoliberal gains.

Amidst these contradictions, I wondered what it would require for South Africans to end such a conversation understanding each other’s analyses and agreeing on fundamental truths, without belittling or disrespecting the other.

President Obama said as much in his end of term speech this week, that defeat is forgetting our better selves, our dreams for justice, our call to speak to each other in ways that avoid intent to wound. Whatever the blood on his hands in relation to bombings in Pakistan and his failures to reign in Wall Street impunity, whatever the imperfections of his decisions, like Mandela, he will be remembered for the dignity he brought to public deliberation.

We need far more of that here, for there is a vast chasm between what is required, whether from politicians and state officials or columnists who prefer to pelt small-mindedness rather than fill their word space with hope or strategy. Who will dust off injured good will and find the language and action necessary for a public to remember it can collectively create greater good, and know which best steps are next?

Last year was hell for women, men too, but, the numbers mean more than their simplistic comparison, for many more women are at risk specifically within relationships and in their homes, because they are women and in ways specific to women. Cynicism, meannness, backlash and attacks, however phrased as a bully’s style of jokes, fail to remind us weekly of our best selves and what we need to succeed beyond tears and terror.

This generation needs voices that not only educate, but also inspire by providing maps for us to find courage and effectiveness rather than bulldozers that crush spirits for a dollar a word. To do less is to fail to publicise voices defined by purpose and principle as much as distinction, humility and care.

In this time of anger and despair when everything, both large and small, seems to have become insurmountable and unsolvable, whether it is our levels of violence or our grinding economic slow-down, we have to do better than attack in any direction. We have to, instead, quietly do the work that brings in others in creating incremental improvements in every direction.

I left a troubled country that still dreams of its better self and am bringing home with me a reminder that those dealing in debasement cannot move us ahead, cannot give us the language of such dreams. There will be the difficult conversations, ones we still haven’t found language for, ones in which we disagree. Yet, each of us can do less to erode social trust and public truth if we speak and act for accountability and with humanity.

Mandela’s words have thus traveled home with me: “Let us refrain from chauvinistic breast-beating; but let us also not underrate what we have achieved in establishing a stable and progressive democracy where we take freedoms seriously; in building national unity in spite of decades and centuries of apartheid and colonial rule; in creating a culture in which we increasingly respect the dignity of all”.

Post 230.

I entered this new year far from home and, over just these short days, have been reminded that we have less to overcome than we think and more resources than we realise. It sounds optimistic to say, given our daily and long term troubles, but it is possible to make everyday life better, to end unjust systems, and to be driven by redistribution as much as by reconciliation.

Traveling South Africa, from the Eastern to the Western Cape, the duration, force and severity of apartheid is memorialized across the landscape. In Johannesburg, the apartheid museum encloses everything from dozens of bold resistance posters to yellow and bullet-pocked police vans, feared by old and young alike, for their association with police impunity and state killing.

The images of massacres go back to the 17th century, to Dutch Boer land grabbing and enslavement of Africans indigenous to Southern Africa as well as those brought to the area along with others such as Malays and Indians. There were also merciless torch-earth strategies by the British to establish their own sovereignty over the Boers. The possibilities for European wealth sustained centuries of suffering.

Coming from the Caribbean, I thought I understood colonialism. Living in the Americas, I thought I understood how recent it was that racism, such as in the US, dictated state policy. South Africa presents something else entirely – a social experiment that extended across every aspect of life, from the prison where both Mandela and Gandhi were held to the buses domestic workers could use.

The bus driver’s mother, who lived in the infamous District 6 in Cape Town, lost her home along with 60 000 others across a range of ethnicities, when they were forcibly removed to make way for a ‘Whites Only’ policy for the area. Her home has not yet been returned today. That is only another layer on the dispossession of Black people that occurred, by imposition of Boer law, since 1913, when whole communities were moved, enslaved, forced to work to pay taxes, made homeless and jailed. Africans who were indigenous to this area, known as the Khoi, had to go work on the wine-producing farms, and were paid in wine. They have the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world today.

School children did not escape. It almost reads like a chapter in Aldous Huxley’ critical novel, ‘Brave New World’, which documents a world built on engineering inequality and subordination. The novel is absurd and clearly fantastical, but it is also disturbingly like the South African state then for whole groups were given different chances simply because of, sometimes random, labeling of their race.

Free schooling was for Whites. Black children had to pay. The quality of education at ‘Black Only’ universities could not compare to those reserved for Whites. Some children, like Hector Peterson, were killed in the 1976 peaceful protests against the imposition of Afrikaan as the language of schooling. Children were also jailed and disappeared. The cost to individual lives is hard to get one’s head around, and I walk around wondering how Black people manage to not still be angry. Turns out, they are, particularly around issues of land. Racism itself, as manifested in economic inequality, if nothing else, continues to heat a pot about to boil over. This is obvious from seeing shacks, slums and humble housing in townships in comparison to the palatial suburbs.

I saw one poet perform a piece called “I’ve Come to Take You Home’, her tribute to Sarah Baartman, stereotyped as the Hottentot Venus, who was considered to embody the link between apes and humans, and who was put on display for European audiences to gawk at her body. She then told us that her poem was translated and read in the French parliament as part of a campaign to bring Bartmann’s remains back to South Africa. They flew back with her remains, bringing her to be eventually buried in her homeland of the Eastern Cape.

What people survived here is a reminder of why all forms of structural inequality must be struggled against, and that change is always possible. It requires organization and commitment, and deep learning from the past to move ahead.