This blog first appeared in The Mercury on Monday 31st March 2014

Six years ago almost to the day, I was out on a dusty farm road in my other favorite province – Mpumalanga – training for the Comrades Marathon. As is my custom, I acknowledged people as I ran passed them; looking them in the eyes, smiling and saying hello. These were poor folk; farm laborers shuffling home from work; women carrying great buckets of water; old men with heavy loads of firewood on their shoulders. They all looked exhausted; worn down by the grind of life.

And from amongst these brief interactions emerged one that would completely change my life and the way I view how we ‘do country’ here in South Africa.

I looked into the eyes of an old black man who was trudging home carrying wood and greeted him. He stopped dead in front of me, his eyes darting this way and that; confused; quizzical. I too stopped not knowing what might come next. He looked at me for a few seconds and then his tired, crevassed old face softened and broke out into the warmest smile I believe I have ever seen.

In that moment I had what some might call a Damascus Road experience. I realized that the violence and hatred that seeps out of the very pores of this nation does so because – for hundreds of years – we have simply not seen one another; we have not looked into one another’s eyes; we have not taken the time to greet one another; we have withheld respect and dignity; we have ignored one another; we have turned a blind eye to suffering and pain, poverty and injustice; we have called one another hateful names; we have laughed at each other’s expense; we have elevated ourselves above one another.

As I have spoken and written on this theory of mine, many have testified that – in practical terms alone – simple acts of respect and dignity have yielded profound results; one Midlands woman saved herself and her family from certain death at the hands of a gang of violent robbers simply by showing them kindness and respect; a Johannesburg woman spoke a man and his cohorts out of raping her.

These and many other examples have poured in from actual crime scenes. However what interests me more is this: what can we citizens do to create an environment of peace and tolerance; an environment in which rates of crime and violence drop organically? What can we do to alter the atmosphere of violence and discord that we currently live in?

Back to my Damascus Road experience, I believe it is easier than we make it: an atmosphere of discord is altered by sowing harmony; an atmosphere of violence is altered by sowing peace; an atmosphere of disorder is altered by sowing order; an atmosphere of lawlessness is altered by sowing lawfulness. It really is as simple as that.

Think of it in farming terms; for decades, even centuries we have sowed intolerance, hatred, division and inequality. Now we are reaping the fruits of that which include violence, crime and corruption.

And this is why my experience on that farm road gave me such hope; it reminded me that whilst the human heart takes years of abuse to become hardened and calloused – perhaps even violent – it can become tender again in a single moment of acknowledgement or through a simple act of respect.

Once I had experienced connectedness with that old man – a connectedness that transcended language, age and race – I wanted to experience it with others. I went out of my way to converse with people on the street; car guards; tellers; packers; laborers; students – anyone I could. I began to experience the power inherent in active reconciliation and I loved it. I loved it so much I began a campaign called Stop Crime Say Hello which encourages all of us to reach out across the gaping chasms that separate us.

And as people began to experience the power of connection a fascinating thing began to happen; they wanted to do more to help create a safe, healed and thriving nation. One woman summed it up beautifully when she blurted out; “Justin, I greet everyone I can but I want to do more – what else can I do?”
The influential African American author, theologian, educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman provided a fascinating answer to this when he said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.