What Happens Beyond the Ballot Box?

What Happens Beyond the Ballot Box?

I have always believed that one must vote.

But an insightful piece by journalist Ranjeni Munusamy before the elections questioned this hitherto unquestionable logic and I must say – as I saw how many voters chose to spoil ballots or simply stay away – I now question it too.

Choosing to withhold or spoil your vote, is also a democratic choice. Whilst it won’t assist in putting a politician into a seat in parliament, it does send a message that you are gatvol and no party deserves your vote. This year 235,449 people spoilt their vote. Well over 9 million people registered to vote but abstained. This is massive. People are clearly tiring of a system that does the same thing every few years, but for them doesn’t produce the promised change . Surely, we are entering a “post-democracy” era? 

I have also heard it said that if you don’t vote you have no right to complain. Well, this is absurd. Firstly, everyone has a right to complain if they will. But more importantly, if you aren’t going to vote surely you should do something else to contribute to change? I am not a big fan of complaining but if you can’t vote, get involved in other ways. Write letters to your local press explaining why you chose not to vote. Get hold of your local ward councillor and demand accountability for specific needs within your community. Resolve to tackle racism in yourself and others. Get active in your local community: Start a community dialogue in which you discuss how to help your local school to perform better. Join your community block watch. Fix something that’s broken. Pick up litter. This is all doable regardless of who you are and what your situation is.

I did vote and I was excited to exercise that right. But as far as political choices were concerned, I was deeply conflicted. Had I been true to myself I wouldn’t have voted.

The truth is that to vote, withhold or spoil our vote is the end of our role as citizens of a democracy, unless we are prepared to participate for change beyond the ballot box. We can no longer delegate the running of our lives and our country to politicians and bureaucrats. This dance is up, and it didn’t work particularly well in the first place.

We must show up as active citizens every day between elections and contribute in ways that build our people and our country.        

Then we will watch our country rise.

Only When Minds Change Does Power Change

Only When Minds Change Does Power Change

We are just days away from our South African general election and still I feel undecided over which party to vote for.

Most of the people I speak to feel the same and the wildly differing research polls seem to confirm that many of us are conflicted over this election and all bets are off.

This was demonstrated to me on a recent work trip I had in the heart of the Northern Cape. My stereotypes got a severe beating when two wonderful middle-aged ladies – both white and Afrikaans – stated quite frankly that they were voting for the EFF and the ANC respectively. Change is in the air, ne?

As I reflect on this dilemma – an unusual one given the fact that loyalty to political parties can be hard to change – my sense is that this is just where we need to be. 25 years into democracy, we need to be confused, questioning our old patterns and looking at fresh options. This makes the possibility of change real.  And we desperately need change.

When I work with my clients, we often use the words attributed to Albert Einstein: “You cannot solve problems with the same mind that created them.” In order to improve the world, we need to literally change our minds (not only our decisions, but rather the actual way we think about things) in order to solve problems and create new realities. This involves changing the way we think about the world; it involves shifting our single-story narratives and it involves changing the ways we show up in the world. Christians call this “putting on the mind of Christ”. Buddhists call this sunyata. It all points to emptying the mind of the thought patterns that created the problems in the first place in order to discover a new reality and way of being.

Democracy without citizens involved in active processes of changing their minds (and hence their governments) is autocracy. We can kid ourselves that we are a democracy – and on paper we are – but robotic, repetitive voting patterns create Mugabe’s and indeed Zuma’s. Only when minds change does power change. That is what makes democracy good (citizens have the power to change who is in power) and terrifying (if the people are trying to solve problems with the same minds that created them).

Could this election be the start of a new consciousness in South Africa; the start of us changing our collective mind? Could it be that we stop thinking/voting/not voting the same way we have done since 1994? I am talking to all of us here – regardless of political affiliation. I believe so. Power won’t change, but how power shows up and how we respond to power most certainly will. We are putting power – all power – on terms. This election is a big moment.

Come on – let’s change our minds.

I’d love to hear from you and how you feel about the upcoming election, and your process of deciding who to vote for. Send through your comments and let’s be an involved community sharing our thoughts and experiences.

The Memory of Apartheid is Nowhere, Yet Everywhere

The Memory of Apartheid is Nowhere, Yet Everywhere

When the train pulls up at the small Dachau railway station in Bavaria, Germany, you are greeted by the sight of flowers.

Boxes and hanging pots all containing a wild and vibrant array of spectacularly colourful blooms adorn the platform. They seem out of place and yet so poignant. A message from the town’s Mayor hangs above the exit. It is more than two decades since I visited the place, but it reads along the lines of: “This village was the site of horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis. Now it is our home and a place of friendship and peace. We the townsfolk are committed to never allowing the memory of the horrors committed in this place to fade. Welcome to Dachau.”

Over the years I have been profoundly moved by experiences of the many concentration camps in both Germany and Poland. I have visited Auschwitz, Birkenau and of course Dachau. You can never un-see what you see at these places; you can never un-feel the feelings. You may ask why one would visit such morbid places; stand inside gas chambers and tiny huts in which dozens of people suffered, starved and died. This may not be a thing for everyone, but my freedom somehow compels me to do it. I believe that by standing in solidarity with all of humanity that has suffered we never allow ourselves to forget what was done to them. In this way we ensure that such depths of evil and depravity are never arrived at again.

The Germans have paid much attention to never allowing the memory of the holocaust to fade. Have we done as much in South Africa regarding apartheid? Should we even be asking such a question?

Either way, the answer would seem to be that we have almost gone the other way: “Can’t we just move on?”, we ask; “It’s been 25 years – must we still keep being reminded of apartheid?” “When will we stop blaming apartheid?” Are these questions valid or do we ask them because the memory has been allowed to fade? Or perhaps some of us don’t really believe it was such an atrocity at all? “Aren’t we over all that now?” Or the worst denial of all: “We were better off then!”

We removed the icons of apartheid: the flag, the racist signs, the architect’s names on our street signs and airports (as we should have). But in doing this we seemed to remove virtually all trace of the regime itself. If you were to visit South Africa and not visit say Robben Island or the Apartheid Museum (the two big attractions for anti-apartheid pilgrims) you would be hard pressed to find any physical evidence of the apartheid regime at all. Have we denied ourselves an opportunity to remember; to continuously seek healing; to make restitution on an ongoing basis? I think we have – and hence – whilst few physical remnants of apartheid remain – there are social and economic remnants everywhere. The memory of apartheid is virtually nowhere, yet everywhere.

By erasing history, we run the risk of repeating it. Isn’t this what is terrifying people about political killings, book burning, land redistribution, attempts to muzzle the press, large scale corruption, incitement of racial hatred etc? What is stopping us from rewinding the tape 25 years we might ask? Is it just our Constitution (which very few of us have even read) or is there something more day-to-day; more accessible – something we can all get involved with?

We must create spaces and opportunities for recollection to happen whenever we can (as the media did with the 40th anniversary of Solomon Mahlangu’s murder); where people can tell and retell the stories.

Not to foster guilt, but to keep the memories alive.

ANC, DA or EFF? The Appeal of None.

ANC, DA or EFF? The Appeal of None.

I absolutely love elections! I get genuinely excited about the whole messy process of democracy.

My wife says I’m a nerd and that nobody loves elections. She says they only love the fact that they get a day off work. But the way I see it, elections give the little people like me a chance to have a real impact on the course of history. Who wouldn’t get excited about that?

But this election, not so much. I find myself not only lacking my usual excitement, but apathetic. Having been a lifelong advocate of the crucial importance of exercising ones right to vote, I find myself conflicted over what I shall even end up doing come the 8th May. In the end, I will of course vote – we all must. And hopefully I will find my mojo and enjoy it. But I’m not feeling it; I am depressed at the fact that our country’s politics and corruption, has knocked the guts out of my excitement for democracy and especially our unique, much-celebrated democracy. I am sure I will get this back…I am working on it.

And so, to the big question of who to vote for. I literally have no idea. Can we return to power a party that has quite literally defecated on our dreams; told us that our lives are meaningless in the face of their insatiable needs? A party that has delivered lie-upon-lie-upon-lie and still lies to us?

Can we give our precious vote to a party that has no visible leadership of any kind? That uses the identities of dead people – yes, people who died at the hands of the ruling party – but actual deceased human being’s names, for political gain? I mean what the hell have we become when dead people are fair game to win votes? Identities stolen and used without even asking for permission? And it mustn’t go unchecked that these people were the most vulnerable of all society.

And then there is a party who if proven guilty can be called nothing but evil incarnate; what has happened to the soul of mankind when it wins votes by wooing the hearts and minds of the poor and then allegedly robs their bank? ROBS THEIR BANK!?

This is how I see it: If I vote for either the ANC, the DA or the EFF then I am complicit in the vile and utterly contemptible abuse of the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of our country. Forget all my private middle class concerns of land and the Rand and stock prices and whether we have load shedding today and I can’t power up my laptop. Our poor need not to be poor anymore. Period.

So again, who will I vote for? I am open to suggestions. All I do know for sure is that I have a couple of months to answer this one question: Which party honestly and truthfully has the alleviation of poverty at the heart of not only its manifesto but its track record? That is the party that must get my vote because at the end of the day, poverty – which encompasses the issues of education, unemployment, housing, land, crime, the economy etc – is the only issue that really matters.

Instability is guaranteed if poverty is not addressed – fast.

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.

 

 

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.