You, me and Bheki Cele

It was moments after the Boks trounced Scotland at St. James Park. Spirits were running high and flowing liberally. The family – along with the nation – were elated. My Uncle Reggie was in good form but I noted with some concern that he was getting quiet. This always suggests that one of his famous political proclamations is not far off. And so it came. Somewhere between a Nick Mallett technical tirade and a Naas Botha – well, a Naas Botha, Reggie murmured: “They must just bring back Bheki Cele.” We all turned slowly, jaws slightly ajar. It was not this bewildering non sequitur that elicited our collective bemusement but rather the fact that Reggie had learnt how to pronounce “Cele” properly – click and all. (Like most English speakers he would usually pronounce it Chelly as in “Jelly”). This new-found respect spoke volumes. Reggie clearly meant business and we could tell that it was time to turn off the tellie. The most recent crime statistics have caused justifiable shock. The details are well documented, suffice to say that we are slowly but surely turning the tide on nearly two decades of solid progress in reducing most categories of crime. Our National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega’s head is being called for and the general vibe is that people want Bheki back. Of course on paper this makes some sense. The man served for only three years and managed to reduce crime in nine out of 10 categories. His predecessor the lake Jackie Selebi was also relatively successful in reducing crime. He wasn’t as successful as Captain Fantastic but he was certainly more successful than Phiyega. Now let’s be honest the only thing that she currently has going for her over the other two is that she hasn’t been found guilty of any crimes or serious misdemeanours. Selebi died in disgrace having been jailed for corruption. Cele was also found guilty of maladministration by a Commission of Enquiry and relieved of his duties by the president. “Reg,” I ventured tentatively; “Bheki Cele was found to be unfit for public office” I knew I was in trouble the moment I said it. Twenty minutes later we all excused ourselves and went our separate ways. You see we South Africans do many things well; braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and international TV personalities. But we are Olympic when it comes to double standards. Without any hint of irony, we can call for Jacob Zuma’s removal from the presidency for alleged corruption and in the same breath call for Bheki Cele’s reinstatement as Police Commissioner in spite of his guilt not being alleged. How does that work? Well, it’s quite simple really. Our values hold no value. Simply put, we are willing to flip-flop our way through life going wherever we can get the best deal. What is the result? A nation bedevilled by some of the highest crime rates in the world. Get it? We are the problem. Now you may ask what the connection is between our nebulous values and the soaring crime rate. Well if lawfulness is our value – which I am trusting that for most of us it is – then we have to hold to that value (not simply hold others to that value!) in spite of what benefits there may be to compromising it. This means that there are some things that we are not permitted to do. Here are some of those:
  • We are not permitted to call for the return of Bheki Cele as Police Commissioner – however much we may believe his approach to policing worked – because to do so would be to endorse maladministration.
  • We are not permitted to break the law however “small” we may feel the infraction to be.
  • We are not permitted – however tempting – to act on the question; “everyone is doing it so why can’t I?”
  • We cannot withhold revenue or information from SARS.
  • We cannot pride ourselves on doing the right thing “most of the time”.
  • We cannot work in an environment that is corrupt or unethical without either speaking up or resigning.
  • We cannot give or receive bribes even if to do so would prevent us from being imprisoned.
  • We cannot take revenge when a wrong is perpetrated against us.
This list is not exhaustive and hopefully you will already have noted one or two that I have missed. Now remember these points only apply if lawfulness is your value. If it isn’t then not to worry about any of it. The law may or may not catch up with you. But if – like me – you are passionately concerned about peace in our country then the above points need to be adhered to as a minimum requirement. It begins by putting an immovable stake in the ground when it comes to living our values. Then it takes us acknowledging the double standards we have got so used to living by, and ridding ourselves of them. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

Citizen Crime Fighters

R140 billion. That was the price of un-safety for many South Africans in the 2013/2014 crime reporting period. R70 billion of this was given to the police. The other R70 billion was split between the 9000 registered private security companies. To put this into context the total revenue from tourism during the same period was R93.3 billion. Crime prevention and policing is costing us nearly R47 billion more than our total revenue from tourism. A short assessment of these astronomical figures is that as a nation we are outsourcing our safety to others in staggeringly large sums and – given the crime statistics – the strategy is not yielding the desired results. We will not enjoy significant reductions in crime levels in South Africa simply by delegating responsibility for our safety to others. We have to embrace the fact that one of the main factors standing between us and a safer society is us; the citizens of the country. The evidence for this is compelling; communities that have active and committed citizen neighbourhood safety initiatives generally experience the greatest degree of safety and well-being. This is nothing new. For some time now citizen participation has been preached by many as a critical component in creating safer neighbourhoods. Phoenix just outside Durban – notorious for its high crime rate – is a recent example of this. It is an area which is fast becoming a safe haven due to increased cooperation between the Community Policing Forum (CPF), residents and the police. Omesh Singh – head of the Phoenix CPF – has said that residents are becoming more responsive, working closely with the CPF and police to fight crime. They are reaping the rewards in terms of a safer community. Hillcrest has also seen a reduction in almost every category of crime including residential and non-residential burglary, robbery with aggravating circumstances and hijackings. There are excellent citizen initiatives in that area including an active CPF and an organisation called SACan which works closely with security companies and the police. The same can be said of Durban North and Umhlanga which also saw decreases in most categories of crime and which also has an active CPF, an outstanding Urban Improvement Precinct (UIP) and numerous neighbourhood security initiatives. Now these initiatives work because local residents ensure that they work. We invest time, expertise and money into them in order to play our part in the protecting of our families and assets. The bottom line is that no one will care for us or our stuff like we will; that is why these initiatives are effective. Our provincial police commissioner Mmamonnye Ngobeni echoed these views when she said the following: “Police won’t win this war working alone. Crime affects the quality of life of every citizen of this province. Reducing crime and building safer communities must be a priority for all of us. To make this happen, crime prevention must be initiated at community level.” The second element we have to embrace in terms of our participation in the creation of safer communities is that we must work with the police and not against them; reporting crime regardless of who committed it; supporting and encouraging the individuals within our local force; creating a society that respects and honours the police. Human beings do not respond well to being stereotyped and boy do we stereotype our police in South Africa: “They are all corrupt!” “They are all incompetent!” “There is no point in reporting crime!” There is undoubtedly some truth in some of these judgements, but the reality is that the there are many excellent cops and the more we perpetuate the negative stereotypes, the truer they become. We need to call the best out of people even when the best is not always in evidence. This causes the spirit of the person to rise to the challenge. Thirdly – we need to create an environment in which lawfulness flourishes. I have written and spoken about this ad nauseum but whilst we continue to accept and perpetuate a culture of recklessness on our roads, of lack of compliance with laws and by-laws; with tolerance for litter and other forms of social decay – we will not significantly reduce levels of crime. Finally – don’t expect community safety initiatives and personal pledges of lawfulness to reduce crime overnight. It takes time and effort to see real societal change. We must each take personal responsibility and encourage others to do the same. We must be prepared to put up our hands and get involved. If we already have community safety initiatives we should learn from others who are doing better or who are more established than we are. Community and individual involvement are the secret weapons in an effective “war on crime”. The R140 billion will only begin to work to its true value when the citizens take responsibility. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.

On creating a safe South Africa

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.

On Nkandla

This blog first appeared in The Mercury on Monday 17th February 2014 I have been reluctant to weigh in on Nkandala. This is simply because politics is not my heartland as a writer; I prefer tackling issues that matter. But the more I learn about this scandal the clearer it becomes that the President’s pad is as much an issue of values as politics. And values do matter to me. To date the Presidency, the media and opposition parties have focused on whether or not the security upgrades to his property are a) permissible in terms of what ought to be spent on a President’s house b) whether the upgrades demonstrate corruption on behalf of the President or his people and c) whether or not the upgrades were in fact security related. In short, we have been focusing on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’; specifically we have been focusing on whether he has abused his position of power to procure – or have his people procure – significant improvements to his personal home-stead. But perhaps the even more interesting question is ‘why’? Why does Jacob Zuma – or anyone for that matter – need a home of such extraordinary worth? This is a values question not a political one. I must say that if I were a sitting duck – I mean President – with R206 million worth of heat under my rear end, I too would be encouraging the nation to focus on the ‘how’ – particularly if I was adept at avoiding corruption charges. What I would not want – just months before an election – would be for anyone to start questioning the why; my values. In a nation plagued with poverty that would be really dangerous. Here’s the point: we the people of South Africa should flatly refuse to permit Jacob Zuma – or anyone else for that matter – to lead our country when they have a personal property worth – at the very least – R206 million. It is indefensible – even by an ardent capitalist like me – that a President presiding over a nation whose key priority challenges are poverty, inequality and unemployment, has a personal homestead worth this extraordinary amount of money. And bear in mind that R206 million is not the value of the house by any stretch; it is just the value of the security upgrades. Now for the purposes of this piece it matters not how he came to have such a lavish home; whether taxpayers money was misappropriated or not. What matters is that our leader has the kind of values that allow him to be commander-in-chief of a poverty-wracked nation whilst living in a home worth an utterly unconscionable amount of money. His recent interview with The Sunday Tribune on the topic demonstrated the fact that his moral retina is now irreparably detached. He did not feel the need to defend such gross excess at all. He actually went on the offensive saying that the criticism of Nkandla was unfair. He then explained that we are all “misinformed”. That’s right; we are misinformed about the fact that our President has a medium sized village as a personal home. He has entirely missed the point: “The point Mr President – is why do you have it at all? You have completely lost touch – not only with your people – but with the real issues of life in South Africa.” How can we trust a man with such values? How can we possibly vote for a leader who has this little regard for his people? Now I am certain that this piece will be interpreted by some as a none-too-subtle pre-election leg-up for opposition parties. That assessment could not be further from the truth; at this point I personally cannot find a single political party worth my X; our politics is currently not just third world but childlike. All I know is this; whether the leader’s name was Cameron, Obama, Zille or Zuma I would be unable to vote for a person who paraded wealth in front of a poverty-wracked nation to the extent that President Jacob Zuma has with Nkandla. The simple reason for this is that if these are the values – heartless and utterly self-serving – that he is applying in his personal life, we can safely assume that the same values are being applied in his running of our country. I will end with a prediction that is safe as houses as history has proved it time-and-time again: This man – who so callously and indiscriminately parades wealth in front of millions of unemployed, poor and hopeless people – will sooner or later be tossed onto the scrapheap of South African history. 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.

On Corruption

This blog was first published in The Mercury on Monday 17th March 2014 Recently, I found myself driving my family through Swaziland. Now if you believe all you read about this neighbor of ours you will be aware that its roads are a mess, it is corrupt to the core and that King Mswati has run (some would say robbed) the place into the ground. I personally love Swaziland. Apart from one or two bad patches, the roads are generally in good repair, the people are friendly and the place is really rather attractive. But having read all I had about high levels of corruption in this squat little kingdom, I braced myself for a fight when a traffic officer leapt out in front of me with his hand raised aloft. I was uncertain about which law of their land I had violated and this caused me to brace further. “Good morning Sir,” said the official officially. I greeted him suspiciously. “You yielded at a stop street,” said the cop. “Oh,” said I looking in my rearview mirror and noticing a stop sign obscured by an acacia tree. He looked down at his book and then back at me, waited a second or two and said gently: “We can sort this out here if you wish.” “Gotcha you little bugger!” I thought to myself. “I knew there was a ‘deal’ in the pipeline and there it is.” Being a ‘zero tolerancer’ when it comes to corruption, I thought I would corner him: “And what options do I have if I don’t wish to ‘sort this out here?’” I said with a knowing, self righteous little smirk. “Well then we can go to the magistrate’s court and you can sort it out there.” Now having said all I have about Swaziland I certainly didn’t relish the idea of a day in a Swazi court. I had hoped he would realize his little racket was bust and wave me on but this one was clearly a fighter. “If I pay the fine here will you issue me with a receipt?” This felt like the most responsible way forward; one that would circumvent the need for a drawn-out family outing to the local court. “Please get out of the vehicle and come with me,” said the policeman abruptly. I must admit I was beginning to feel less brave now. So you can imagine my surprise when the man led me to his police vehicle and gestured to a small but very neat mobile office set up on the boot of his car. There was a Parker pen resting on an official Swazi Government receipt book, and a cash ledger on which was placed a box with cash placed neatly inside. The man clocked my surprise and clearly reading my mind said: “Sir, I do not take bribes. You broke one of our laws and you must either pay the fine or explain to the magistrate why you believe you shouldn’t have to.” Had I not been so well informed on corruption in Africa I would have fallen for this little Mr Good Guy routine. But my finely tuned corruption-busting senses – honed from years of listening to South African braai-side bravado about who had pulled off the bravest bribe of an official – told me that this was all part of his little game. By getting me out of my car and showing me his oh-so-professional office set up, he had cunningly upped the ante and would now sting me for a grand or more assuming this quivering little South African would pay whatever necessary to get back on the road. “The fine is R60 sir.” I starred at the man disbelieving for several seconds; “Excuse me – what was that?” “The fine is R60,” he repeated this time a little slower, “and I will give you a receipt from this book,” he said pointing down at his official receipt book. I slowly took out R60 and handed it over to the man. He took down all my details, gave me a receipt and put the money in his cash box. He then looked at me and said; “you may do corruption in South Africa sir – but we don’t do it here in Swaziland. Have a safe journey.” Back on the road – and still bemused by the incident – I wondered at just how far gone I am – we are – as a society; we default to thinking the worst of others especially those in positions of authority; guilty until proven innocent has become our unspoken motto and believing the best of others has become an antiquated and naïve notion. Some would believe this is a symptom of living in a country steeped in corruption. But could the opposite possibly be the case: that we are as corrupt as we are precisely because we expect nothing better of one another? 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.