On Being a Recovering Racist – a Lifetime’s Journey

On Being a Recovering Racist – a Lifetime’s Journey

It is not simple being a recovering racist. Just as I think I am making progress I go and make a rookie error that leaves me aghast at my lack of progress.

I recently met a friend and colleague at a restaurant in Durban. At the next table was a black lady and a white man, working and drinking cups of coffee. They were clearly happening: Well dressed, laptops out, suitably adorned with the right brands and very chic.

My friend and I finished our meeting, paid our bill and got up to leave, but as I swung round in the direction of the “cool couple”, the woman was also getting up from her table and gathering up her things.

In my mind – my recovering racist (or perhaps more accurately, my recovering-stereotyping, recovering-patriarchal mind) I just saw a black woman picking things up off a table in a restaurant where a white guy was sat – ergo the waitress. She turned to face me at the precise moment I turned and faced her. Our eyes met and in my typically overly-friendly-white-guy-cum-recovering-racist-voice, I thanked her for her service and gestured to the tip I had left on the table for her. I realised my mistake mid-deed. She paused for an instant that felt like a lifetime to me, put on her outsized Dolce and Gabbana shades, and mercifully decided to ignore this white idiot and walk out.

Burning red with embarrassment, I pretended to be referring to the waitress who was indeed standing directly behind her. This only made matters worse because that waitress wasn’t our waitress at all! She just stared at me bewildered. The damage was done.

I am a 45-year old white man. I have an adopted black child whom I adore as mine. I genuinely have best friends who are black. I have done years of processing of my own racism; I read the work of black feminists and I mostly agree with what they say about white people and white men particularly.  

And yet I am still – frustratingly – a recovering racist at best. I still catch myself thinking and acting in ways that belie my genuine and passionate desire to live a non-racist and totally non-discriminatory life. Why?

Because racism is hard-wired into us. Period. We are products of a world that pumps racism and discrimination into the atmosphere in the same way as industrialisation pumps greenhouse gases. We just breathe it in. My parents were never racist – I grew up in a typical liberal South African home. But the garden boy was the garden boy. The maid was the maid. It’s just how things were. And we must work daily, hourly to dismantle that often untaught, often unintentional discrimination that placed us in “the big house” and black people in the “servant’s quarters”. Black people were always the servants.

So, in an unguarded moment I revert to type. I swing round and I give a big beaming liberal thank you to a woman who is my age, clearly very successful and a long way from her waitressing years. In

This piece is not intended to be an exercise in self-flagellation. I left and smiled an ironic sort of smile at myself and how long I still must go.

No, this piece is just an exercise in vulnerability and a humble invitation to join me on this journey – regardless of where you are along the road. It’s the most challenging but deeply rewarding journey you will ever take.

My name is Justin and I am a recovering racist.

Thuma Mina – Send Me: Thuli Our Superstar

Thuma Mina – Send Me: Thuli Our Superstar

Last week, Professor Thuli Madonsela – patron of our NGO The Peace Agency – spoke at our annual fundraising ball.

From everyone who was there, it was an exceptional night and Thuli Madonsela contributed in no small way to this success.

A great deal has been written by many – me included – about Thuli Madonsela. But after this night, I wanted to put out a couple of thoughts on what I feel makes this woman so special. The reason for this is two-fold: In terms of the purpose of this column it is to give us ideas of how each of us can respond to our President’s call to Thuma Mina – Send Me. Secondly, it is to honour and publicly pay tribute to an exceptional servant of the Republic. 

Before diving in, it is worth considering that this person has well over a million followers on Twitter. When she speaks, people listen with rapt attention and when she finishes people rise to their feet in unison and queue up – in numbers – for selfies with her. We auctioned a signed and personalised copy of her book No Longer Whispering to Power and it sold for R11,000.00.

As we watched all this going on that night, I turned to my Dad and remarked that this kind of attention is usually reserved for rock stars. So, how is it that this gentle, humble, professorial woman who occupied the office of a hitherto unglamorous and frankly rather anaemic Chapter 9 Institution, is treated like a superstar?

The short answer is that she is a superstar. To us South Africans regardless of age, race, gender or political persuasion – this woman is the saviour of South Africa. I am not saying “a saviour”. I am saying “the saviour”. First there was Madiba and then there was Madonsela and they were hewn from the same stone. And I am not using these words lightly or in any kind of gushy, sycophantic way. Trues true. As far as South Africans are concerned, she saved us. Finish en klaar.

Now, she will tell you that her team at the Public Protector was a huge part of her success. She regularly pays tribute to the many ordinary South Africans, whistle-blowers and the media for playing their part. But the reality is that the towering morality and courage of Thuli Madonsela caused many of us to find our spines and use whatever we had in our hands to play our part.

Thuli Madonsela’s presence in the world is a prescient sermon and three things about this sermon stand out for me: Whilst the world clambers for money and power at all costs, hers is a message as old as Love and Wisdom herself; be a candle in the darkness. That’s it. Will your one candle extinguish the darkness? Yes! Yes, it will. I remember confiding in her one day how I was doing battle with privilege in a sea of poverty and inequality. She said: “Enjoy your privilege but use it to help those less privileged.” Simple. Be a candle.

Secondly, when you hear Thuli Madonsela speak; when you see how people adore her, you are left in no doubt that good will always, ultimately triumph over evil. She embodies a promise that God never let’s go of the world and that all our travails and miseries are small and will pass as the work of the universe plays out; moving the world and its people forward because of and not in spite of the droughts, the floods, the plagues, the deaths, the famines, the genocides, the Zuptas, Trump, Brexit – you name it.  It will all be okay in the end and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Hope oozes from Thuli Madonsela. Simple. Live with hope.

And finally – laugh freely and often. Thuli laughs a lot. This is what happens when you be a candle and when you live with hope.

Simple. Enjoy the ride.

Thank you Thuli. Let us never stop honouring you for what you did for us and what your life continues to teach us.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter

Moving Beyond the “Harvey Weinstein Extreme”: the Next Phase of #MeToo

Moving Beyond the “Harvey Weinstein Extreme”: the Next Phase of #MeToo

The #metoo campaign has had a profound impact on the world.

Many women have been empowered to speak about abuse at the hands of men and a few of the more powerful of these have seen their careers ruined. Some will go to jail.

With the campaign has come the inevitable push-back from many men who feel victimised. These have been epitomised by the likes of Donald Trump.

My concern: If #metoo (and related activities/campaigns in this space) are to fundamentally change culture; change the system; the way men see, speak of and treat women, we (men) are going to need to get out of the extremes of this narrative and into a place where we can take individual responsibility for what women face daily all over the world – and change our behaviour accordingly.

The reality is that women from Boston to Burundi are oppressed and abused every day; they leave their homes rehearsing in their minds what they will do if they are set upon by men (physically and emotionally); they must fight a system that places women several rungs below men on life’s ladder; they are profoundly abused and dishonoured in myriad ways from the subtle to the horrific.

Is it not time for me as a man to stand up and say #metoo? I am not suggesting this as a campaign name – this is strictly for women in my view. I am saying, “#metoo – I have contributed to a system that places women below men in every way.”

 This is different to the “men are trash” movement – although that is very powerful and necessary. This is about me outing myself and not just for the sake of it, but for a shift in my personal attitudes and behaviours; to create a consciousness in me as a man that I have a role to play in this thing.

Now, in my mind I immediately move to the extreme of this narrative when I write this and say: “I don’t need to speak up here. I am not an abuser as I have never done anything to a woman against her will. I have never raped, abused or groped a woman. I have never laid a finger on a woman.” But just because I haven’t necessarily done anything to women that would land me in jail or lose me my job does not mean I have not contributed to the subjugation, degradation or weakening of women; contributed to a system that places women in daily peril and in a constant state of preparedness for the inevitability of being taken advantage of by men.  This becomes so much subtler than the abuses of the Harvey Weinsteins or the Bill Cosbys of this world. But, is it not day after day, incident after exhausting incident – just as damaging to women? Now, I am fairly and squarely on the hook.

What does this look like in real terms?

My name is Justin Foxton and I have contributed to a system that places women below men in every way.

I have done this by being male. This is not a crime but not actively fighting against male privilege is. This is not just an economic thing; this is a system thing.

I have done this by remaining naive about the many injustices committed against women daily in our world.

I have done this by listening to men trumpet their own positions of power, privilege and wealth knowing that they are standing on the broken backs of women.

I have done this by listening to sermons in which priests and pastors have misrepresented my faith by suggesting that men are dominant over women; that women should not be leaders at all.

That is enough for me to feel most vulnerable.

But that is how women feel all the time.

I need to feel that way to identify better with women.

#doyou?

First Do No Harm

First Do No Harm

“Primum non nocere” is a Latin phrase that means “first, do no harm.”

Apparently, all medical students are taught this fundamental principle and it basically means that when faced with a problem, it may be better to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.

It may strike you that this is rather negative. If the whole world – when faced with an issue – did nothing for fear of causing more harm, then presumably nothing would ever get resolved. But, that is not the power of this maxim. Its potency lies in the somewhat un-Western notion of stillness, silence, non-doing when action or words would simply fan the flames of trouble and strife.

An example: Marikana. If “primum non nocere” had been the guiding moto of the police during those horrific days in August 2012, that atrocity would likely never have happened.

The aim of this monthly feature is to give all of us small, achievable actions that we can each do daily to contribute to the healing of our nation. But perhaps we should have begun with something even more basic; on the surface, simpler – yet fundamentally more challenging. Primum non nocere – first, do no harm.

What might this even look like for us living in South Africa? On a personal level, I think it suggests that if we have nothing positive to contribute either with words or deeds, then rather say and do nothing. Practically, this might mean bowing out of pessimistic conversations with friends or colleagues and taking a decision not to forward negative (and often untruthful) articles or statements on social media. If you have decided to leave the country to leave with the excitement of a new adventure top-of-mind rather than feeling the need to justify that decision with negativity about South Africa. You see negativity is an energy just as positivity is. We build stuff with positive energy. So, if you don’t feel positive – which is fine – then choose simply not to be negative. First do no harm.

On a broader level, I would suggest to companies and NGO’s, ask whether your actions – as well meaning as they may appear – may cause more harm than good. An example: you may decide that a community close to your business needs a community hall because you see people holding meetings under trees. You build a beautiful hall using your CSI budget but are horrified that within a couple of months the hall remains unutilized and has been vandalised.

You say: “What ungrateful people – we shall never help them again”. Trouble is, you didn’t ask them if they needed or wanted a hall. You made an assumption based on what you thought they needed. In fact, they tore down the hall and sold the materials so that they could raise money for piping water from the one community tap they have to several outlets. Now, you are angry at them and they are angry at you. Nothing good has come from what began as trying to do something helpful.

Another example of this comes out of my NGO The Peace Agency. We raised funds and built a home for abandoned babies in Hammarsdale, Kwa-Zulu Natal. We chose this area because one of our best carers from our other Baby Homes in Durban Thando Dlamini lives there and we wished to upskill and empower her to run her own facility. We built the place and it took forever. Literally nearly 3 years. But during this period, we were able to do some unplanned research. We were fortunate to discover that the community there didn’t need a home for abandoned babies – they don’t have any issue with abandonment. They needed a creche. So, we changed our plans slightly and Thando now runs a top-notch facility.

The lesson here is to conduct in-depth needs analyses before embarking on any community projects (yours or others). And if the need is not immediately evident and supported by all within the community – wait. First do no harm.

Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that “a leader is a dealer in hope.” If you can, choose to deal in hope. If you are running low on hope – just enjoy a period where you don’t deal in anything.

Rest perhaps and take all the time you need to rediscover a sense of possibility.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

NGO’s Need Cash Donations To Survive

NGO’s Need Cash Donations To Survive

Do you ever give donations to charitable organisations; orphanages, places of worship, animal sanctuaries, community safety organisations, education initiatives, anti-corruption groups – that kind of thing?

If you do, then you make up a small but vital part of the pool of over 80% of South Africans who give generously in support of these critical efforts.

I say without fear of contradiction that this country would be in dire straits if it weren’t for our NGO’s. We have literally tens of thousands of non-profit organisations doing truly superb work with very little support except that which you and I (or our companies) might give to them.

My wife and I have run an NGO for many years now. We start and administer homes for abandoned and orphaned babies and we have teams who work for us. Some of these homes now operate under the auspices of their own NGO’s, which is brilliant. Others – like the Baby Home in Durban North, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Hammarsdale Child Care Centre run under our NGO. All our advocacy work and other projects involves orphans and vulnerable children along with the creation of the kind of South Africa we all wish to live in.

We are a very small NGO in the bigger picture, but last time I checked it cost us about R140k a month to operate. This is mostly taken up by rent and salaries (carers, house-parents and management – i.e. us. We employ 13 people in total). We are scrupulously honest, even going to the extent of publishing our annual report and financials on our website.

However, many very generous people and organisations are unwilling to give monetary donations preferring to donate consumables; nappies, formula, medicines etc. Some like to give hardware – cots, blankets, clothes. Others like to dump their old rubbish on us but that’s for another time.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. We are hugely grateful for all the (non-manky) consumables and hardware we get given. We depend on this. But we also – like every other NGO in operation – rely on money to operate. We must pay a qualified person to mix that formula up and feed it to a baby, change her nappy and lull her to sleep. It doesn’t just happen. And we choose to pay our carers and house mothers above the going rate. It is a priority of our NGO to pay poverty-busting salaries and give 13th cheques and significant increases. How else will we play our part in addressing inequality?

And this brings me to my final point. NGO staff and management should ultimately be paid according to their education and years of experience – not according to the fact that they work in a non-profit organisation. NGO employees should be paid like their counterparts in for-profit companies. Yes, we are very passionate – but passion does not pay the rent. Now, we acknowledge that we cannot pay these kinds of salaries because we do not have a culture of deep respect for NGO’s that allows this to happen. For my part I have always relied on multiple sources of income for me and my family.

All this humble NGOér requests is that you put aside past experiences where your generosity may have been abused and know that NGO’s need hard cash donations to survive. Our promise is that we will steward those funds wisely and carefully and we will always be accountable to you the donor.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter

 

Broadcasting Standards Fall Short When Vigilante Justice is Celebrated

Broadcasting Standards Fall Short When Vigilante Justice is Celebrated

Not long before one of those, “let us know if we aren’t living up to our mandate not to promote gratuitous sex and violence on radio” announcements, East Coast Radio’s morning DJ Damon Beard described in some detail a video that has now gone viral.

In it a man on a street in Gauteng is seen trying to steal a bag – presumably a laptop – from the passenger seat of a car. The driver and him get into a tug-of-war over the bag. Then, as if from out of nowhere, a motorcycle appears and hits the thief causing him to run away in shock. In a post on Facebook the driver later thanks the man for helping him and says that he chased after the thief, ran him over and thankfully, recovered his laptop with only minimal damage to his car. He then thanks Jesus Christ for protecting him.

Beard celebrated the motorcyclist as a genuine hero.  In fact, he even called him a Good Samaritan. I read literally hundreds of posts on line all saying basically the same thing – what a hero this guy is.

What has happened to us as a nation when we celebrate with such glee a man being hit by a motorcycle and then run over by a car for trying to grab a laptop off the passenger seat of a vehicle? Have we totally lost the plot? I am not saying what he was doing was right – very far from it. I am saying, that we cannot condone such a response as heroic. It is as criminal – more so in fact – than what this petty thief was doing. I have no idea whether the thief is alive or not, but if he isn’t then these guys are going to be up on charges of murder. That’s how serious this is.

By celebrating this kind of thing, we are condoning vigilante justice, and this is not the answer to our crime epidemic. We need to slow down and get some perspective and understand that we still live in a nation wracked by poverty and employment. Until this is brought under control, desperate people will steal and riding over them with our motor vehicles is a barbaric and inhumane response that will do absolutely no good in the long run.

Back to that announcement about broadcasting standards, was this story not a case of Beard celebrating and advocating for vigilante justice? Is this in line with good radio practice?

I don’t think it is.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter