Changing the World – One Story at a Time

Changing the World – One Story at a Time

Our country is gearing up for the 2019 election and so predictably, the seeds of division are being sown.

Racist rhetoric, polarisation, distortion of facts and even hate speech are going to be the order of the day for the next 12 to 18 months. This sets us back in our efforts to bring healing and restoration to our democracy. But there is a simple antidote that each of us can employ.

“It’s hard to hate anyone whose story you know” – Roslyn Bresnick-Perry.

Have you taken the time to tell your story to the people in your life? Have you taken the time to hear their story? I am talking about people once or twice removed from you: Your boss, your staff, your colleagues, your fellow worshippers. When we spend time together sharing our life’s journey, walls come down and unity rises.

“Stories can conquer fear. They can make the heart grow bigger” – Ben Okri.

When we hear one another’s stories, we are startled by the resilience people have; by their courage and their creativity. Soon, differences of colour, religion, class, political affiliation and age matter less as we discover the person with all their past struggles and future dreams. Fear of difference begins to evaporate. 

“An enemy is one whose story we have not heard” – Gene Knudsen Hoffman

Story telling is the only way that we break down suspicion. Stories help us to see the real person beyond our pre-conceived ideas, our stereotypes and prejudices. In the process we develop understanding, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance of difference and real enjoyment and love of one other.

I recently came across a fantastic campaign that is being run by an outstanding NGO called Heartlines. It is called What’s Your Story (www.whatsyourstory.org.za) and it advocates story telling as a tonic for a nation desperately in need of that healing. They are rolling the campaign out in schools, businesses, churches and on-line. In these environments, people are beginning to share their stories and unity is being created. You can go onto their website, share your story, read other stories and even help to fund the roll out of this powerful initiative to 1 million people. 

Take a look at this short clip to hear more and get involved. https://whatsyourstory.org.za/donate/

Peach & Brown vs Black & White: Slipping Out of Past Realities

Peach & Brown vs Black & White: Slipping Out of Past Realities

If you are bringing up small children in South Africa, you may well have heard the words “brown” and “peach” used to refer to black and white people.

I simply cannot express in words how these terms irritate me. They irritate me even more than that other new South African buzz term “colour blind”. More on that another time.

The reasons for my grave dislike of these two terms are many. I shall limit myself in this post to just two:

The terms are used mostly by liberal white people (or black people with liberal white mates) who are trying to be politically correct. This is well intentioned, but it backfires dangerously. This is because the colour classification of a human being (as much as we may disagree with it) has come to represent vastly more than simply the colour of my skin; it is who I was, who I am and who I will be; it is the suitcase I am packed up in – but it is also the contents; it is my body yes, but it is also my soul and my psyche. I am black; I am white; I am coloured; I am Indian encompasses the way I see the world, the way the world sees and treats me and the way I live and move and have my being in the world. It is everything, with actual colour just a part of the story.

So, changing people’s colour is not only naïve, but damaging; we are tampering with something foundational and intrinsic and indeed good. People are not just walls you can paint over when the old colour doesn’t match the decor anymore. By changing black people’s colour to brown – without asking I might add because it certainly wasn’t black people who started this – we in effect negate their ‘blackness’; that thing that travels such a long journey beyond just colour.

And the terms are not just problematic for black people. Peach – which let’s face it conjures up images of happy romps through orchards on a spring day – allows us to slip out of the past reality and the harshness of our whiteness and into a new and far more gentle and comfortable outfit. With one word we are able to say: “It wasn’t/isn’t me. I didn’t/don’t benefit from my whiteness because I’m not white, I’m peach!”  But the thing is, I am white and until I learn what that really means and deal with it warts and all, no amount of peach paint is going to change me.

And when do we stop this charade with our kids? The world calls people black and white, coloured and Indian, Russian and Jewish and Muslim. Is it like swearing – they can only use these “bad words” when they are adults? We are white inside and out – and we are beautiful. We are black inside and out – and we are beautiful. God created us all in His image – black and white; beautiful inside and out. We must celebrate who we are and not try and paint ourselves in a different light.

Our kids will handle it.

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit Part 2

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit Part 2

This monthly feature is our response to the President’s invitation: “Thuma Mina – Send Me”. It is a toolkit of ideas to help our readers respond to that call.

In 2007, I returned from the UK having spent 6 incredible years living and working in London. Virtually as my plane touched down naysayers began questioning my decision: Why on earth had I come back? Hadn’t I heard that we were “going the way of Zimbabwe”?

I had all this buzzing around in my head when – out on a Comrades training run up near the Kruger National Park – I greeted an old man carrying wood on his head. His reaction changed my life forever and set me on a brand new path.

He stopped dead in his tracks (as did I, which isn’t difficult when I am running) and stared at me like I was nuts. I wondered fleetingly if I had offended him, but my fears were soon allayed as a huge, craggy smile broke out on his old face. We smiled warmly and greeted one another and in that moment a bridge was built between two very different human beings; one old; one privileged; one white; one rural. It was a bridge that I knew in my spirit was strong and permanent; it was a moment when I knew beyond all doubt that love was the beginning and end of all faith; the beginning and end of all life and purpose and the true meaning of truth, reconciliation and healing. My experience with that old man stood in stark contrast to the naysayers who had been so negative on my return. To the two of us, South Africa was indeed alive with possibility.

This experience birthed a campaign called Stop Crime Say Hello. The thinking is that peace creation is an active process that we must all participate in daily with simple acts of kindness and bridge building. By doing this we slowly begin to chip away at the culture of violence that has been put in place over decades of disrespect for one another.

As a call to action, Thuma Mina is so simple. It can and perhaps must begin with small actions repeated often; actions such as greeting people – especially those who are different to us – as we go about our daily lives.

I guess the hardest part is slowing down for long enough to really see humanity in all its wondrous complexity and beauty and brokenness all around us. Because healing doesn’t happen in a hurry and bridges take time to build.

The call is to do something – however small – to make a difference in one life at a time.  

I would love to dialogue with you around the call of Thuma Mina – Send me. You can contact me on justin@peaceagency.org.za. (www.peaceagency.org.za)

Swansong for The Flipside Column

Swansong for The Flipside Column

I recently saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that read Stop Crime Say Hello. This warmed the cockles of my heart because it was a campaign that I began nearly a decade ago. The message was very simple; at the end of the day, crime is simply a lack of love and respect for people and their things.

If we work together to restore these values to our society, crime will drop quite naturally. And for a country that has traded in disrespect and hatred for centuries, we need to focus the process of healing and restoration on restoring these simple values. We can create a peaceful society by reaching out to one another in the smallest ways and even the humble ‘hello’ has the power to build bridges between people.

The point of the campaign was of course never to negate all those big and necessary words/practises like multidisciplinary task forces, visible policing etc from the fight against crime in South Africa. But if we don’t add ‘active bridge building’ to that list we are – as my dear Dad would put it – peeing into a force nine gale.

Nearly a decade on and we are a markedly different country to what we were then. In some ways I think we were the kind of country that would quite naively give birth to campaigns like Stop Crime Say Hello. You might remember another campaign called EGBOK. It stood for Everything’s Going to Be Okay! We have grown up a little since then and we have begun to realise that whilst such positive ideas and slogans would provide a useful start to the reconciliation process, they were limited in how far they could take us.

Now, we are giving birth to things like dialogue forums that give people the time and space to discuss everything from white privilege to ethics and values. Now, groups of black and white friends meet weekly for meals to wrestle with and better understand their unique perspectives on the world. I am proud to say that even my local Anglican church is beginning a process of talking about the issue of land expropriation and what that means for people.  Thank God the church is finally starting to talk about politics in a meaningful way.

But just in case you have a picture of everyone holding holds and singing Kumbaya, these conversations can (and indeed should) get very messy. Quite often our inherent – in some of us overt and in others dormant for years – racism, bigotry, patriarchy and sexism come flooding out and we get a sense that we are going backwards. But we are not. Conversation – or what we perhaps more richly refer to as dialogue – with all its dissenting voices and opinions – is really the only way that we generate new ideas and heal old wounds. We begin to see ourselves as connected with others rather than as beings separate from the whole.

We are given the opportunity to experience our own vulnerability and lack of knowledge of one another and to cringe at our own blind spots. It is in doing this hard but necessary work – spending time with people who look and behave differently to us – that our beliefs, opinions and behaviours start to shift. I have noticed that even people’s language changes when they start to expand their view of people and the world; it becomes more spacious and gracious. And of course, our purpose changes from one of acquisition and protection of assets to one of sharing.

Why do I write about all this now? After some 8 years writing this column – a column whose impetus was the Stop Crime Say Hello campaign – this will be my last piece for the Mercury. This news has given me the opportunity to reflect on many of the ideas I have had the privilege to express on these pages, and on the conversations that I have had with many of you as a result. Not all of them have been pretty but I have loved the interactions and I have grown as a result. A column gives a writer the chance to learn and mature in a way that few other disciplines ever can. I am very grateful for that. 

I would like to end with a challenge for all of us to redouble our efforts to build bridges between people. I include in this, bridges between the poor and the rich. Because it really is impossible to build the type of society that we all wish to live in whilst we still have this hell-like gap between those who have and those who have not. If you have money, give more. If you employ people, employ more; if you care for people, care for more. And if all else fails and you have nothing left to give or do – just say hello to every person you pass.  

Let’s continue the dialogue on my blog www.justinfoxton.com

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

Transforming Our Schools – One Principal At A Time

Transforming Our Schools – One Principal At A Time

“We have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”  Research finding from 180 schools across nine states in America.

In an article published in the New York Times on March 12, 2018 entitled “Good Leaders Make Good Schools”*, writer David Brooks gives educators and principals a treasure trove of hints and tips on how to transform their schools. Citing research, he unpacks why some schools succeed whilst others fail. The main determining factor for success in schools? Strong Leadership.

Now the issue we face in basic education here in South Africa is that we tend to view school Principals as administrators, setters of schedules and conveners of meetings. But according to Brooks, these men and women set the culture of a school; they are highly visible and interact constantly with learners and teachers; they greet parents and students outside the front door in the morning. In the US-based research, the most successful principals make 20 to 60 spontaneous classroom visits and observations per week. That may not be attainable in many of our schools but the point is, how do we equip our principals to do more of what is needed to make schools great?

Love as well as Discipline

Brooks tells us that this character in society – the successful school principal – possesses such qualities as energy, optimism and determination. Our own Prof Jonathan Jansen has found that successful South African Principals are very compassionate and provide learners with love as well as discipline. They are also ‘social entrepreneurs’ who proactively engage with parents and communities to attract involvement, support and resources for their schools and to protect their schools from destabilizing outside forces.  

Academy for School Principals?  

But how do Principals become this way? Are you born a great school Principal or do you learn this skill? The sense one gets is that some of it is instinct and raw talent whilst the rest is fostered and nurtured in the individual. Now the urgent question becomes, who fosters and nurtures our school Principals to become these types of leaders? Is there an academy for school principals? The answer is of course, no. And this is one of the primary reasons why so many of our schools are struggling and why our education system is in crisis.  

Partnering Principals

How can we capacitate our school Principals to be inspired and inspiring leaders? The answer lies in partnership; partnering them with leaders in other fields, as local and highly successful NGO Partners for Possibility (www.pfp4sa.org) is doing by pairing them with business leaders.

As we do this our schools will be transformed, one Principal at a time.

*https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/12/opinion/good-leaders-schools.html

What If We Focused on Relationships Rather Than Land?

What If We Focused on Relationships Rather Than Land?

 We recently had a dear uncle visit us from Singapore. He was surprised by the vast number of massive building projects he saw. The number of ‘cranes in the sky’ –  a very good bellwether for the state of a countries economy – completely belied what he had heard about the perilous state of our economy.

Alas, we concluded, what a shame that these cranes were obviously an anomaly because we all know that South Africa is teetering on the edge of economic demise.

That week of my uncle’s visit, final quarter GDP growth figures for 2017 were released and the cranes had not been wrong after all. At 3.1% we had enjoyed the strongest growth rate in 6 quarters. This obviously does not mean we are shooting the lights out – and we certainly have major challenges ahead of us – but it does mean that we are growing.

Now the question is, what damage is done when we follow blindly and parrot liberally the lies and half-truths that generally support our political bent? If my uncle from Singapore – and incidentally he is in the forex business – is hearing nothing but bad news coming out of South Africa, you can be sure that this narrative is dominating worldwide.  The phenomenon of what I call “narrative sheep syndrome” – blind followers of a particular storyline – will be impacting not only how we are viewed, but on foreign direct investment, tourism and of course employment and poverty levels. We are our own worst enemy. 

Similarly – but perhaps even more damaging than the economy narrative – the last few months have been fraught with tension over the issue of land. This has been a worrying example of narrative sheep syndrome because the wrong story with this issue could lead to people fleeing the country and worse. We simply are unable to separate the facts from the fiction and we are being driven by fear that is precluding us from seeing the enormous possibilities that lie within land expropriation without compensation. 

To give you a sense of the possibilities, just last week I was exposed to a totally fresh narrative around land and how it can work if we think differently. I had the privilege of spending a few days with colleagues on a remote and extraordinarily beautiful Free State farm. In a valley in the magnificent Maluti Mountains we felt like we were in another country; the way these people are living life again totally belies the news headlines that we had left behind.

Several years ago, new owners bought the land and immediately partnered with the local village residents.  Now this in itself is nothing new. But what was new was how they were partnering. They placed respect, dignity and equality front and centre in a non-patriarchal partnership. The land became a holy space of cohabitation and production rather than a bone over which they would fight. We had the opportunity to spend an evening hearing the locals speak about the partnership and there was no hint of the depressingly usual: “Baas so-and-so has been so kind to us – we are so thankful.” This was a partnership in every sense of the word. For example, a lodge and conference centre have been built by local hands – but not by simply contracting them in as labour, but by inviting them to offer their skills and talents so that they are engaged in work that they enjoy.  The farm is productive and is now at the centre of a successful cooperative. Oh and by the way, after generations of uncertainty, the owners have given the locals their land. They didn’t involve the authorities in this negotiation, they did it themselves; with the requisite honour and respect that was due to both parties. They sat together as partners and decided what would be right and fair and that was the number of hectares they agreed on.

This is a model of land redistribution that is working because people are willing to think differently and open their hands. Relationship has been prioritised over land.

This story flips the land narrative on its head. We can do this thing well – as we did with the transition to democracy – and be a shining light again to the rest of the world. They made it clear that it was hard work. But it is working.

South Africa is not an easy country to get a handle on and yet we persist in latching on to single, one-dimensional narratives that are dished up by political parties and consumed around dinner tables all over the country. We then spew them forth at every opportunity.  These one-dimensional narratives render us powerless to play a role as active citizens. Not only that, but buying into them creates fear which robs us of the creativity that is required to overcome difficult issues.

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