This England

Argus title : Our entire society is based upon a culture of exploitation and bullying

Alexander McCall Smith, a Zimbabwean-born Professor of Law at Edinburgh University, has written a very successful series of novels about a female private detective in Botswana.It begins with “The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency”. I read it just a few months ago and since then, enthralled, have read them all.

I’d avoided the books in the past, in the belief that no White man would be able to write about Africa or women without patronage. In fact, McCall Smith describes Botswana with respect and gentle humour. And his heroine, Precious Ramotswe, the “traditionally built”, owner of the Ladies Detective Agency is a delight – kind, strong, intelligent and resourceful, a Motswana woman who loves the best traditions of her society and challenges those that need to change – particularly the status of women.

Few male authors make women their chief protagonists and fewer still allow them to be fat. Precious wears her bulk as a badge of pride. She has survived the death of her beloved father Obed Ramotswe, a violent marriage to the no good trumpeter Note Makoti and the death of her baby. She loves Africa, meditates philosophically on its cattle and pumpkins and the virtues and many weaknesses of its men. She eventually marries the finest mechanic in Botswana, Mr JLB Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, who loves machines and is entirely without corruption.

McCall Smith writes about men with affection, but these novels hinge on the resourcefulness, strength and endurance of women – Precious herself, her assistant Grace Makutsi with her huge glasses and a “difficult complexion”, who struggles out of poverty to achieve 97% in the final exams at the Botswana Secretarial College, but cannot find work because she isn’t pretty enough. And the fearsome Sylvia Potokwani, very traditionally built Matron of the orphan farm, who deploys force and fruit cake to manipulate men into helping the children.

HIV/Aids is never mentioned by name, but is there in the background. Grace’s brother dies of it and the orphan farm is packed with children. Poverty is ever-present and suffering never very far away, but Precious triumphs over all odds and each novel ends well.

In fact, these are latter day morality tales in which the characters overcome adversity and through virtue and honesty acquire happiness and wisdom.

Precious has little education and has never even seen the sea, but her vision of the world is crystal clear. She wants a world where everyone is treated with courtesy and elders are respected, in which women aren’t beaten and are free to pursue education and employment – and in which children do not die young. She wants a society in which people seek no greater wealth than they need and share what they have.

One wonders what Precious Ramotswe would make of the world in which we live. Her vision of old age is one in which elders are honoured by the young and, in retirement, rest peacefully shaded from the sun, contemplating cattle and the wide African sky.

In this country, we deny our old people a decent pension, leave them in substandard care homes, providing them with no effective protection against abuse and neglect.

Precious Ramotswe admires Seretse Khama, the first leader of an independent Botswana, who died at 59 of Pancreatic cancer. We in contrast drive out our leaders because they are old or disabled. Ming Campbell can be cast aside not because he is a dishonourable leader, but because he cannot compete in the macho cut and thrust of Westminster. His political opponents and the media attack him because he is over 60 and because he appears to them to have been enfeebled by cancer. You can almost hear the Westminster boys club speculating about whether Ming can “get it up”.

The fact that Gordon Brown has recently fathered a second child, grotesquely affords him some protection. Yet the buzzards are circling. He is mocked not just for his politics, but also because of his age and blindness. One columnist wrote the other day that Brown keeps swimming goggles in his bathroom so that he can keep the Grecian 2000 out of his false eye.

It is not just politicians who are treated in this way. When our elders are ill or disabled, we deny them the medication and care that younger people take for granted, abandoning them to infection in filthy hospitals, often denying them food because we cannot be bothered to assist them. A recent survey found that 29% of all adults complained of age discrimination.

A recent survey of 5212 dental patients revealed that 6% had had to treat their own dental problems themselves. Some, often elderly and driven half mad with pain, had removed their own teeth with pliers. One 64 year old extracted 7 of her own teeth.

The old are not the only ones who suffer. We don’t care for our young and have few effective child protection strategies. Our response, when abused and neglected children act as such children often do, is to impose ASBOs or lock them up.

If young people are convicted if serious offences, or are at serious risk of harm, it is justifiable to limit or deprive them of their liberty. However, this is only true if underlying problems are addressed and they are cared for and educated as children should be.

In reality, far from providing rehabilitation or protective care, we abandon children who may have known nothing other than bullying and abuse in their families and schools to worse bullying and abuse in young offender institutions.

We lock up more children than any other country in Europe, often leaving private security firms to oversee their care. Several have been injured, and at least two young teenagers died in separate incidents in 2004, as a result of restraint techniques used by staff employed to protect them.

It is hardly surprising that between January 1996 and December 2006 there were 150 self-inflicted deaths of young people in custody, of whom 18 were aged between 14 – 17. Despite this, our government is seriously considering prison officers’ request to be allowed to use batons against children under 18. It is an obscenity, but it doesn’t surprise me.

Our entire society is based upon a culture of exploitation and bullying. Those who can exploit others do – and those who can’t at least have the dubious pleasure of enjoying others’ distress. Our schools may not turn out good readers, but they surely do teach bullying well, training young people to perpetrate it, collude with it and endure it without redress.

Arguably, such an education provides some sort of training for adult life. In our society the rich and powerful exploit the waged labour of others, while they in their turn are bought off by low cost commodities produced by even more exploited labourers in other countries – and food so cheap it destroys our farming communities while all the while maximising profits for supermarket chains.

And it prepares girls for sexual and other service in a society which needs their low-waged labour, but has built its “care strategy” on their continued unpaid care of children and the growing number of elderly people the state has no intention of supporting.

And when we the people go home from our insecure jobs, we are “free” to get drunk on cheap alcohol, bully our children, beat our wives or malign our neighbours. We can watch substandard reality shows in which celebrities and others are ritually humiliated. Or spurious satire which is cruel without insight and challenges nothing about the way we order society. We learn nothing, because politicians and the media are always there to provide us with someone or some group to despise or fear. And if we’re at the bottom of the heap, and there’s no one else, we can always turn on and injure ourselves.

What is truly miraculous is that despite it all, there is daily evidence of the goodness of people. Few people want to live like this – and we have our own Precious Ramotswes everywhere,

But who will lead us out of this? Not the senior churchmen with their big houses who say they feel “uncomfortable” with the idea of “giving a moral lead”. Not the trade union leaders who’ve been bought off by flash suits and big cars. Not the politicians with their comfortable salaries and gold standard pensions.

It’s us, just us. But then it always is.

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