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.

 

 

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit Part 1

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit Part 1

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

Connecting NGO’s

We have a dear friend and colleague by the name of Cindy McNally. Cindy lives in Durban. She is a wife, a busy mom to two little girls and a Chartered Accountant. She loves South Africa, social media and wine – not necessarily in that order.

Two years ago, Cindy decided to marry her passion for these three things with her desire to make a difference. One night whilst drinking a glass of wine and playing around on social media, she began to do some research. Were there groups on social media that connected the tens-of-thousands of NGO’s in our country, enabling them to collaborate? She discovered to her amazement that there wasn’t; that NGO’s in our country are largely very lonely, lone rangers.

SA NPO Network

So, without further ado, she started a Facebook group called SA NPO Network and quickly NGO’s all over the country began to connect. She moderated these discussions in her spare time, whilst having a glass of wine.

In two years – with no funding or PR or office – SA NPO Network has over 3000 followers. The group swops ideas, contacts, donations and products. It puts NGO’s in contact with donors and vice versa. Just recently a company in Johannesburg wishing to donate hundreds of boxes of ready meals was connected with a creche in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal via the group. A thousand catheters found needy patients, an unused jungle gym in Cape Town is now being played on by some very happy under privileged children – all via SA NPO Network.

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit. Cindy McNally is a living example of this. Her secret? She is doing something that is in her “sweet spot”, because it involves stuff she already does and loves.

What do you love? It may be as simple as walking so you can greet people as you pass them by thereby creating bridges and connections across age, race and gender. You may love sport…you may love cooking. What can you do with these talents to lend a hand? That is the heartbeat of this call; no grand gestures necessary. Just us using what we have. This is your toolkit!

Thuma Mina Workshops

We will be running a series of workshops to help people get clarity on what they can do. For more information e-mail justin@peaceagency.org.za. In the meantime take a look at SA NPO Network on Facebook.

Inequality the Real Time Bomb

Inequality the Real Time Bomb

There is a very small lad that begs at the stop street outside our Estate on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He is that small because of his severely contorted feet and legs that he drags along the tar whilst heaving himself forward on his crutches. He is 16 years old though he looks much younger and at the same time very old.

As I come and go from our estate, I wonder how a lad like this comes to be in the position he is in; body broken; future non-existent; a desperate human being. But to be totally honest, for me – a member of the privileged class of our country – he often becomes simply another demand albeit heart-breaking, on my wallet. How often I have returned from my day and recoiled as I saw him. With the greatest will in the world, I get so tired of the poverty; the sickening stench of inequality; just too many car guards, too many beggars, too many unemployed people, too many drunkards and drug addicts. One cannot possibly keep up. This country can be overwhelming in its lack. But I am so fortunate – so “blessed” as we might say – that I get to go to my home at day’s end, have a nice whiskey and a hot meal and blot out all that lack from my mind.

And in truth we live constantly in the tension caused by obscene inequality. It is just a part of our everyday reality and our collective psyche has been seared numb; we look but we don’t see; we listen but we don’t hear; we smell but we wind up the window and put on the aircon. But it is simply too dangerous to continue responding in this way – or is it?

Suddenly, a firm capitalist favourite comes to power and the air suddenly smells sweet again. We drink it in and we toast the future. And the little lad at the stop street is less of a frustration somehow. We buy him a pie and a Coke. Now everyone is happy – the post-Zuma vibe is euphoric. The Rand strengthens – awesome! The stock market goes up – hooray! Unemployment will almost certainly decline along with poverty and inequality and crime – woohoo! The NHI is still on the cards; nice idea but…; Free higher education and tax increases to support it – now hold on a moment, it’s getting hot in this kitchen. Let’s rewind a little to all that good stuff can’t we? Expropriation of land without compensation – now stop right there you are going way too far! That’s never worked and it will destroy our economy and it violates our rights and we will go the way of Zimbabwe and who knows who had land stolen and when anyway. Our fear runneth over.

But we have missed the point totally – again: the economy is not the point – dignity is the point; humanity is the point; equal opportunities; long overdue redress – that’s the point. Our little lad at the stop street, what does he care about the economy? After over two decades of broken promises – what do millions of South Africans care? What do I care? I care just enough to sacrifice the cost of a pie and a coke. This is no longer good enough.

In response to the emotional-more-than-economic issues of our time: land expropriation without compensation, free tertiary education, the NHI – we might consider not so much what we might lose – but the lost; those people who do not know what it feels like to live a dignified existence let alone a privileged one. Perhaps we could see – really see – a lad with contorted legs eking out no more than a pathetic existence; a family whose umpteenth shack has been destroyed by fire; a mother – unemployed and destitute – caring daily for her 15-year old Down’s Syndrome daughter on a grant of no more than a few Rand a day. Perhaps we could see the classroom in which 150 learners get packed; see it; hear it; smell it; taste it. Not just put up our protectionist, pseudo-academic arguments for why attempts to right the wrongs – the evils – of the past, will fail.

Perhaps we might not turn first to fear-filled racist rhetoric; parrot the endless “look what happened to Zimbabwe” nonsense. Might we not ask how can we help to restore dignity and well-being to people? Might we not ask how we could possibly contribute to a constructive dialogue around how to bring our people out of poverty and dispossession; how to make land expropriation work? Might we not ask these questions before we ask how we can safeguard our pension/get out of this place/protect our land?

Finally, if we imagine that land expropriation is the most dangerous thing for our economy and our country at large then we aren’t paying attention.

Inequality is the real time bomb.

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

 

Land Expropriation: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Land Expropriation: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

“No one is going to lose his or her house. No one is going to lose his or her flat. No one is going to lose his or her factory or industry.” EFF Leader Julius Malema.

Calm is needed around the issue of expropriation of land without compensation. We run the risk of this becoming the most polarising issue of our post-1994 democracy and it really needn’t be. In fact, I would suggest that this issue could – if we view it slightly differently – become one that further unifies us South Africans and strengthens the bonds that have developed between us over the past two decades.

The reason I say this is because most people I speak to or listen to on radio agree on so many of the fundamentals around the issue of land expropriation: They agree that imbalances in land ownership are still a major stumbling block to the realisation of the dream of a fair and equal, democratic society; they agree that land that was unfairly stripped from black people, needs to be returned; they agree that progress in terms of land redistribution has been slow to the point of near non-existent. So, unless we harbour prejudices aside from the actual issue at hand – redress of the wrongs of the past concerning land ownership – we are largely in agreement that things need to change. How often does that happen, especially with such an explosive issue as land?

It is at this point in the land expropriation without compensation conversation that fear kicks in: What will happen to my land? What will happen to the economy (or put another way, my savings, my pension)? And to justify my fear (as if fear needed justifying) I turn to tried and trusted arguments: Look what happened in Zimbabwe; It is a disaster when unqualified people are given land they do not know how to farm.

But these arguments and questions are futile and unhelpful for the very reason that they elicit more fear and bring about further polarization. More useful (if more difficult) questions will guide us back to productive solutions and ultimately, unity – even if we disagree on how things finally get done: How do we empower our people with land in a responsible manner? How do we put our differences aside to make this happen? What needs to be done to ensure that expropriation, or rather redistribution, benefits the recipients and the economy at large? What needs to happen to allay the fears of all current land-owners? How do we ensure food security?

This issue needs to be handled with such levels of care and sensitivity. That sensitivity should begin with us – the citizens – and how we think of and speak about this issue.

But land redistribution (lets be cautious of the language we use to describe this) should happen, and will happen whatever we think and whatever we fear. We must acknowledge the deep pain around this issue and be open to the possibilities that it represents.