If you know the greater Johannesburg area, you will be familiar with a sulphurous smell that permeates the air at certain times of the year and reminds one of being on a long road trip with a windy family member.
Theories abound as to the cause of the smell; when we were kids we were told it “came from the mines”. But everyone has a theory; some rather randomly say it comes from Modderfontein, others blame factories, landfills and sewerage.
I was in Johannesburg recently and caught a familiar whiff. Suddenly, I was in Parliament and it was the 8th August 2017 and I was listening to the results of the motion of no confidence in the President. As I listened the smell seemed to get stronger. Next thing I knew, it is three weeks later and the smell which is usually gone by morning, is still hanging heavy in the air. It just won’t go away and although it isn’t nauseating, it is just – there; constantly.
I have tried to understand this smell that won’t go away. Of course, the easy answer is that it is the stench of avarice; greed upon greed upon greed; corruption breeding with itself to produce a deformed and grotesque fart bag. But that is too easy an explanation because we have lived with that smell for so long we hardly notice it anymore. (Note to self: When citizens become numbed to the crimes being committed by their leaders, the nation is on very rocky ground. Wrongly, I have stopped reading anything that has #Guptaleaks in the title. It’s become like ambient noise that I just tune out. I must wake up, read everything and allow indignation to rise again.
But this time it seems different. The stench I am smelling is, I think, a rather toxic blend of fear mixed with helplessness. Many South Africans from all walks of life had been unrealistically hopeful about the motion of no confidence. Some even believed that it would succeed in removing the President. When it did not, we seemed to collectively drop down onto the pavements of our country, our banners limp and impotent, and quietly give up. The dominant collective mindset seemed to say: “Well, we have him until 2019 now – lets ride this out and hope we don’t get someone even worse.” And then the fear kicked in as it began to dawn on us just how long two years is when you are being led by a Jacob Zuma.
But surely if the smell is fear and helplessness, then the smell is coming from us. After all, these emotions don’t come from outside of ourselves; they come from within. And if we have quietly resigned ourselves and hence our country to the fates, then are we not to blame if we get more of the same?
But I sometimes find myself asking: “What more can we do? We have marched, prayed and railed. We have signed petitions and e-mailed MP’s. What is left for us to do?”
The answers to some of these questions came to me this last week as I facilitated a 2-day workshop for the organisation Partners for Possibility. Their ground-breaking and internationally acclaimed program pairs a business leader with a school principal for 1 year to help the principal develop and refine his or her leadership skills. This workshop was all about how to build authentic community in and around a school and indeed, in one’s businesses and neighbourhoods. Half way through day 1 a couple of things occurred to me: the first was that these school principals – who have every reason to be negative – were anything but; they were positive, eager to learn and passionate about their schools and the kids. The business leaders were equally as positive; they sought solutions and were eager not to pass the buck onto government or anywhere else for that matter. The positivity in the room was infectious and as a result, the community of this group built quickly and discernibly.
The realisation was two-fold: when we surround ourselves with positive people – and are open to having our minds changed – fear falls and hope rises. Secondly, when people come together to discuss possibilities rather than problems, solutions emerge. This feeds the positivity, and the fear and hopelessness are further eroded.
Another thing became very clear to me for the umpteenth time since I have been involved in community and NGO work; as we get involved by volunteering our time and skills, something shifts in us. We stop focusing our attention solely on what isn’t and begin to build on what is.
This of course does not mean that we will suddenly be rid of our corrupt leaders. But what it does mean is that we will triumph over our own fear and helplessness; we will find ourselves in a position where we are able to celebrate what is great about our country. And when the moment comes when we need to once again rise, lift our banners and take to the streets, we will have the energy and the zeal to do just that.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.