When I went to South Africa for work a few years ago, I was horrified by what I saw. I marched into the National Youth Development Agency, a government institution for young people, to talk to the team there, and was appalled to see all the young people trudging around with their heads bowed in prayer. I will never forget the workers’ faces. They looked like they’d been imprisoned by the Taliban. It was absolutely appalling.
There was a very long list of abuses happening right under our noses in South Africa. The rights of young people have been routinely violated by apartheid’s successor government. Thousands of child soldiers were recruited into a youth militia that was then used to intimidate South Africans, as a group of people who stood in the way of a transition to democracy. Children have disappeared with the help of the police and other government agencies. Just days before my visit, police arrested a girl for going to church. That’s the last time anyone’s heard from her. But I was told that two weeks later, she was released after the youth militia used violence against them.
Everyone should be outraged by the violence in Durban. Two weeks ago, residents took to the streets for a peaceful demonstration against the high levels of crime. By evening, the city center was in chaos, with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas. By the time I arrived, a hundred people had been injured and more than 100 arrested. It was really frightening.
My second incident was one that happened after I left the country. After completing my work, I stopped off in Johannesburg with a young woman, Reida Phiri. When we got to the airport, we were searched because we were suspected of having explosive materials in our bags. I expressed my discomfort, and we were escorted through security to the baggage hall. We were on the conveyor belt, and she was being held down. She was screaming, and said that they were trying to rape her. It was absolutely unbelievable. I said something to the security guards, and I can’t remember what, and then the girls’ faces slowly changed in anger. Everyone looked on in horror. My passport was checked, but nothing was found.
Then, when I arrived in Ottawa, I noticed there were three women in a dressing gown in the airport waiting for me. They were crying, and I asked what was going on. They told me that they knew I was on holiday in South Africa and they were pleading with me to do something. It was incredibly upsetting. It was a horrendous violation of trust.
I wanted to take action. I could hear the noise of a serious struggle taking place on the part of the women. I had to pull myself together to leave for home.
Seeing South Africa in these terms really made me realize the importance of showing solidarity with women who suffer abuse. I’m not an activist, but I did look into finding a group who could send my passport back to South Africa so I could go and travel without being harassed, without being in a way held down and without being made to feel that I wasn’t valued as a human being. I don’t think it was an effort aimed at reaching out to South Africa, but it was an effort on my part to use my voice and my time to make sure people who did face abuse had a place to go.
The results were pretty impressive. What I discovered is that there are a lot of rescuers there. The South African police said it was three to four people who went to Toronto and picked up my passport. The attempt to intercept my passport was much smaller than that, and it was made in the right way.
But, as with any effort, it took a lot of courage on my part to put myself forward, and it’s ultimately for others to decide whether I succeeded. The fight I took part in shouldn’t be left up to me. But the fact that I have an opportunity to use my experience to raise awareness about South Africa to people throughout the world is hugely empowering.
I want to use the story of a little girl in Canada to highlight the true extent of violence against women and children, which is happening right in front of us. These women are brave, and I want to raise awareness that violence against women and children is not just a problem in the poor countries of the world, but it is happening here, in our home country of Canada.
Many of the amazing women who work at the National Youth Development Agency live in the same kind of poverty as the poor, marginalized children I met in South Africa. But they are brave, because they know that hope is in