Losing Hope for South Africa?

Losing Hope for South Africa?

In his best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes how the smoking of cigarettes came to denote a loss of hope in concentration camp prisoners.

Given the lack of even the most basic necessities in World War 2 camps like Auschwitz which Frankl endured, cigarettes were a luxury reserved for the SS captors and the “capos” – SS appointed prisoners who headed up labour squads.

Being this scarce, cigarettes became part of camp currency and prisoners could be rewarded with a few sticks for performing especially taxing or unsavory tasks. But the prisoners didn’t smoke the cigarettes; they would use them to buy soup or a mouthful of bread to sustain their lives. Cigarettes of themselves had no use beyond a means by which to barter for life-giving items. So, when one witnessed a fellow prisoner smoking, it was an ominous sign. You knew that all hope had been lost and it was only a matter of time.

You see hope is not a nice-to-have. It is essential to our well-being and even survival. We simply must have something to believe in; a purpose or faith in the broadest sense. Some call it a “why” we live. Frankl quotes Nietzsche who said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.

I think we can all understand why a prisoner in a World War 2 concentration camp would lose hope and smoke their cigarettes. But what about us? How quickly and easily do we lose hope? The answer to this question recently came at me in the form of a good many responses to a column I wrote about the great hope that can be found in South Africa right now. Many people just didn’t want to hear it. One person’s words were particularly startling: “If you are still hopeful about this country then I feel sorry for you.”

Now let’s be blunt here; we are not comparing our loss of hope to hope that finally slips from our grasp like the smoke rising from the gas ovens that we have witnessed for months and even years. This is quite simply the hope that is given up because we – and I include myself in this – don’t get our way. As soon as things get too hot in the kitchen (i.e. we are downgraded to junk status, our political party doesn’t win, our political party doesn’t look like it used to, we get the wrong Councillore, our President doesn’t get arrested on our timeframe, we discover that corruption goes beyond us paying cops the odd bribe, our roads get potholes, our currency devalues, our pension is eroded  etc.), we threaten to leave; we refuse to vote; we engage in anarchic and disruptive violence like the flinging of poo; we kill one another; we turn on our country and her people by engaging in negativity and racism. In Frankl’s terms, we sit down, light our cigarette and declare that all hope is lost. Really?

Where is our resilience, our much-praised South African spirit and work ethic? Where is our willingness to fight for what we believe in as so many before us have done? How can we expect anything to change if we are not willing to do the changing? If we don’t change it, guess who gladly will: the corrupt and the criminal – to suit their greedy needs.

How do we even begin doing this when all around us is doom and gloom? According to Frankl the only freedom that camp prisoners had left was the freedom to choose the attitude that they had to any given situation.  And of course, this is ultimately true for all of us: what attitude will I adopt in this situation – in South Africa nearing the end of 2017? Will I choose to give up hope, or to grab every hope I can and make the absolute most of life in this incredible country? And having adopted a positive attitude, what actions can I take to better the situation for me and mine and for us all? Positive actions – however small – are catalysts for hope to grow. And as hope grows so our desire to do more hopeful stuff follows.

For all humanity the learning is clear: if people like Frankl and millions of others could find hope in the worst possible conditions, then we can all do it.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

 

Welcome Home to the Turmoil and Hope

Welcome Home to the Turmoil and Hope

A letter to my sister who is about to return to South Africa having lived in Britain for the past 4 years:

Dear M,

I hope you are well and surviving that UK weather. I wish you could send some rain to the Western Cape. The drought down there is horrific.

What do you make of what’s happening in Zim? If you had told me last week that in a matter of days Mugabe would still be alive but out of power, I would have laughed at you. It gives me such hope for South Africa, though we must do it peacefully and democratically (and preferably in less than 37 years!)   

Your decision to come home is such a great one – not that I am biased! It’s a very exciting time to be in South Africa, though it’s not for the faint-hearted.  So, as you make plans to come back home for good, I wanted to give you my thoughts on the “state of our nation”.

From all you will have heard and read, things will appear significantly worse in South Africa. To some extent they are. But you should know that the most important difference between where we are now and where we were say last month or even last year, is that the rot is pouring out into the open in a way that it has never done before. This is thanks to people like Jacques Pauw who wrote The President’s Keepers, NGO amaBhungane and The Daily Maverick who exposed #GuptaLeaks, Adriaan Basson and Pieter Du Toit who wrote Enemy of The People. The list of people bravely exposing Zuma, the Guptas and the stench of corruption and state capture is long and growing.

New revelations emerge daily and whilst this is extremely angering and even frightening for many of us, it is good. The exposure of the sheer magnitude of criminality within government, our state-owned enterprises and institutions like the State Security Agency is the necessary bursting of a boil that has been festering under the surface of this nation for too long. We naively believed that Nkandlagate and revelations of the looting of State Owned Enterprises represented giddying high points in corruption and the capturing of the presidency and the state. But we now know that they are individual cases of a plague that has swept our country. We now know that abuse of power and sheer greed run right into the heart of the democratic apparatus of our state.

So, I’m not saying things are good. They aren’t. They are appalling.  But ironically, the fact that we know they are so appalling should give us a sense of hope; a sense that we are better off now than we were yesterday. For without knowledge of the enemy we are fighting, how can we possibly win? And every day we learn more and this must inform our fight.

Which brings me to my second point. Time and again history has shown us that it only takes a handful of good men and women to turn the tide on evil and we have more than a handful. There are so many people in this country (and indeed outside the country) who are risking everything to expose corruption and lead in ways that honour the legacy of our democracy’s founders. I mentioned Jacques Pauw et al but there are dozens of people who are speaking out daily. This extends from our often-fearless press, to individuals like Pravin Gordhan, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Zwelenzima Vavi, Makhosi Khoza, David Lewis and his team at Corruption Watch, Sipho Pityana, Vytjie Mentor, Lord Peter Hain to opposition parties, civil society groups and NGO’s to the man and woman on the street. I think of the many police I have interacted with who will not solicit a bride. I think of the many friends and family members we have who will not pay a bribe or a kick-back.

History has always proved the adage that “good will ultimately triumph over evil” and South Africa will be no exception. This is simply because the good men and women of our time are taking a stand big or small. They are resisting the temptation to join the feeding frenzy and exposing lies and deception whenever they can, and hope remains.

My honest belief is that you are coming back at a very good and very necessary time. There is no doubt that it is a time of hope, rebuilding and restoring; it is time for a new struggle that involves all of us. As the good book puts it: “I (God) will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.” The image of locusts is spot on. If I was a cartoonist I would draw Zuma, the Guptas and all the rest of them as locusts destroying everything in their path. But ultimately – like every other plague in history – the locusts will not prevail.

I began this letter by saying that South Africa is not for the faint-hearted. But South Africa also isn’t for the complacent, the lazy or the negative right now either. If you aren’t willing to actively participate in a better future, then you will probably be over-whelmed by the scale of the rot and want to jump ship. It is only when people make the decision to remain hopeful and seriously invest in a nation – time, energy and money – and stand up for their ethics and values, that they become a positive and active contributor to the solution.

I hope this gives you some perspective. We can’t wait to have you home.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Holocaust & apartheid: same side of the same coin

Holocaust & apartheid: same side of the same coin

Recently, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos wrote an important piece on the controversy surrounding the old South African flag that was hung in a Sea Point bar.

He was clear; the old South African flag should be destroyed for good along with other relics of apartheid such as the inclusion of Die Stem in the national anthem.

De Vos stopped just short of comparing the old South African flag with the familiar red Nazi flag with its chilling black swastika. I must admit that I understand why he steers clear of this association. However, as I consider it more, it seems that it would be justified on the basis that both images represent the beliefs of one group of people who believed they were superior to another group of people and acted on that belief.

So why do we skirt this comparison when debating apartheid and its iconography? Perhaps it is out of a deep and justified respect for the millions that lost their lives during the holocaust. Perhaps we conclude that fewer black people died during apartheid than during the holocaust and therefore the link between these two criminal regimes is unjustified (does fewer lives lost make evil less evil?). Perhaps as a white South African I just can’t stomach the link.

But such a link needs to be made and discussed simply because we hold the holocaust up as an ultimate low point in humanity’s recent history (as we undoubtedly must).  Yet if we hold it so lightly that it becomes an event beyond compare, then we run the risk of using it to lessen and even dismiss other evils and our complicity – silent or active – therein.

Of course, at this point we must question why the world knows much more about the holocaust than, say, the 1994 Rwanda genocide that saw eight hundred thousand people slaughtered in just 100 days. African genocide and other human rights atrocities on the continent go comparatively unremembered and un-immortalised in art, film and literature. And coming back home, was the Jewish life lost during the holocaust more valuable than the black life lost during apartheid? Was the displacement of the Jewish family during the holocaust more wicked than the displacement of the Black South African family? Was the physical and psychological torture of the Jewish person ‘eviller’ than the torture of the Black person?

If we put ourselves into the shoes of either oppressed person – the Jewish holocaust victim or the black apartheid victim – the answer must surely be ‘no’. This is because we have brought both atrocities down to their most basic level; individual human pain and suffering. Now, evil is evil .

Now things take on a different perspective: I dare not avoid the comparison in case I diminish people’s suffering – in this case, our own people. Now the comparison becomes useful and even necessary if we are to begin the process of taking full responsibility – at the soul level, not just the head level. Because let’s face it, Germany has not built itself up from post-world war nothingness into a great powerhouse by asking: can’t we just move on from all that holocaust business? They face their demons – with humility and dignity – through the many museums and memorials they themselves have erected – on the sites of the concentration camps themselves – so that they never allow themselves to forget what they did and their capacity for evil. We have not done that yet because we still don’t truly believe that what we did was evil; not holocaust evil anyway.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Evil is Evil

Evil is Evil

Recently, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos wrote a typically informed and important piece on the issues surrounding the controversy of the old South African flag being displayed in a Sea Point bar.

The cogency of his argument was matched by the passion of his plea; that the old South African flag should be obliterated without trace along with other relics of apartheid such as the inclusion of Die Stem in the national anthem.

De Vos stopped just short of comparing the old South African flag with another infamous icon of supremacy and tyranny; the familiar red Nazi flag with its chilling black swastika. I must admit that I understand why he steers clear of this association; as a white South African working to make sense of my place in our history, I react viscerally to the thought of such a comparison. However, as I consider it more, I must acknowledge that it would be justified on the simple basis that both images represent the ideologies of one group of people who believed they were superior to another group of people and acted on that belief.

So why do we seem to skirt this comparison when debating apartheid and its iconography? Perhaps it is out of a deep and very justified respect for the millions that lost their lives during the holocaust. Perhaps we surmise that fewer black people died during apartheid than during the holocaust and therefore the link between these two criminal regimes is unjustified (as if fewer lives lost somehow makes evil less evil). Perhaps as a white South African I simply cannot stomach the link and all that it implies about me.

But as hard as it may be, such a link needs to be made and discussed bravely and openly simply because we hold the holocaust up as an ultimate low point in humanity’s recent history (as we undoubtedly must).  Yet if we hold it so lightly that it becomes a sacrosanct and incomparable event, then we run the risk of eternally using it to diminish and even exonerate other evils and our complicity – silent or active – therein.

Of course, at this point it would be remis not to question why the world in general knows infinitely more about the holocaust than, say, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that saw eight hundred thousand people slaughtered in just 100 days. African genocide and other human rights atrocities on the continent go comparatively unremembered and un-immortalised in art, film and literature.

And coming back home, was the Jewish life lost during the holocaust of more value than the black life lost during apartheid? Was the displacement of the Jewish family during the holocaust more atrocious than the displacement of the Black South African family? Was the physical and psychological torture of the Jewish person ‘eviller’ than the torture of the Black person?

If we can put ourselves into the shoes of either oppressed person – the Jewish holocaust victim or the black apartheid victim – the answer must surely be ‘no’. This is so because – without diminishing the horrifying scale of the holocaust – we have brought both atrocities down to their most basic level; individual human pain and suffering. This should not remove our mental images of the barbaric means of mass murder and torture of the holocaust or the unimaginable numbers of lives lost. But the simple fact is that if you reduce atrocities to my life, your life, your child’s life; lost; forever traumatised; stripped of all dignity, then evil is evil.

Now the matter takes on a very different perspective: I dare not avoid the comparison for fear that I may diminish anyone’s suffering – in this case, our own people. Such a comparison is not only useful but utterly essential if we are to begin the necessary process of taking collective responsibility – at the soul level, not just the head level. It is essential if we are to properly understand the magnitude of what we were – and still are, complicit in – so that we can weep over our people’s pain as we weep when we watch holocaust movies or read the tomes that have been written about it. Only then will we begin to truly and humbly ask for forgiveness and change our hearts and minds. Only then will real healing and growth take place in South Africa. Because let’s face it, Germany has not built itself up from post-world war nothingness into the great powerhouse of Europe by asking questions like: can’t we just move on from all that holocaust business? They face their demons daily – with humility and dignity – through the countless museums and memorials they themselves erected – even on the very sites of the concentration camps themselves – so that they never allow themselves to forget what they collectively did and their own capacity – and the capacity of future generations – for evil.

We have not done that yet because we still don’t intrinsically believe that what we did was evil; not holocaust evil anyway. Which is why we are still debating whether the old flag should be displayed, and hiding ourselves behind arguments of whether we have the right to do so. It is why we are still defending the place of Die Stem in our national anthem; why we still can’t understand the tearing down of monuments celebrating our past evils or why land should be returned to its rightful owners.

I am acutely aware of how painful this is to talk about and how hard it is to face; I feel the pain very deeply myself. But whatever pain we may experience as we face the demons of our past, is not a fraction of what was – and still is experienced – as a result of the horrors of the holocaust or apartheid. 

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

 

Unpacking Privilege and Identity

Unpacking Privilege and Identity

“A black child born today is more likely to be born into poverty than a white child…..Twenty-three years into democracy this is simply not good enough.” Rob Davies – Trade and Industry Minister.

As I ready myself to speak, I am acutely aware of the irony of the situation: a privileged school asking me to facilitate a dialogue session with learners on the topic of “Privilege and the Youth’s Identity”. Place that school in the affluent Upper-Highway area of KwaZulu Natal and the challenge is akin to the infamous Comrades climb up nearby Field’s Hill. But they are up for it and so am I so the irony is overshadowed by their bravery. Would that more schools would emulate Thomas More College and grasp the stinging nettles of our time so fearlessly.

500 or so learners of varying ages pile into the school hall and take their seats in grades on the floor. I am sat up front with a panel of 6 students representing all grades, colours and genders. We begin the conversation with a bit of a warm up question: “What is your understanding of the word privilege?”  

There are those times when hope and possibility rise. Even whilst – from time-to-time – succumbing to anxiety and even anger over the state of our nation (the capture of our state that continues to make statements like the above from Rob Davies true, is a case in point), something happens and I know that everything is going to be okay.  This is one of those times. As the youngsters speak I find myself transported beyond their words and into a space that is really nothing less than the new, New South Africa. These millennials are so clear; so passionate; more thoughtful and considered than just about any adult I have spoken to of late. They know the issues; they care and it is clear and they will be the source of the healing of our nation.

Their answers are informed; all variations on a dictionary definition of privilege: “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Their heads are full of knowledge and they speak with assurance. You can tell this is a school that teaches kids how to think.

But of course, my job is to challenge them to think more deeply about what privilege really looks like in the real world; what it smells like if you will. I have just 20 minutes and I want them to be repulsed by the pungent stench of inequality.

And suddenly, the academic privilege dissipates; it means nothing as reality bites: “Are you all equally privileged?” I ask. “Some of us are more privileged than others,” replies one very thoughtful young black man.

“Did you know that in South Africa, women earn around 28% less than men?” A ripple of shock goes across the hall: “And ladies, don’t think you’ll be better off if you leave the country,” I say looking to add a touch of humour: “In the US women earn around 21% less than men.” Another ripple of horror and the voicing of disgust from our panel. They are grappling hard with these facts in the face of their perceived equality. “According to Statistics South Africa, black South Africans earn on average just 20% as much as their white counterparts.” The shock now is eerily silent.

“I want to do something to practically demonstrate what all this looks like,” I say somewhat reticently. I ask the young black lady to push her chair back several feet so that she is excluded from the group and I instruct the two on either side of her to close the gap in front of her. I do the same with the young black man and the Indian girl. It was an exercise that I had planned to do with them but I must say that I felt ill doing it. It felt so wrong; sick in fact.

I asked them if this process was okay; if this was acceptable what I was doing: “No!” cried a young girl emotionally from the front of the panel. I ask them if we should bring the outsiders back and they all say we should. We welcome them warmly back in and I explain as gently as possible that this is the harsh reality of privilege; inclusion or exclusion based on nothing more than your colour or gender.

They begin to suggest ways that they can personally counter inequality and the young black lady – still visibly emotional from the activity – delivers a line I shall never forget: “I am going to ask white people what they have that I don’t.” It’s like a punch to the guts. 

This whole assembly – including the topic – was arranged by an organization run purely by pupils; the Thomas More Current Affairs Youth Council. Teachers and senior members of the school had nothing to do with it. To these brave pupils, I salute you all for being willing to ‘go there’; for being willing to hold up a mirror to your society and yourselves. You are the light of a bright and beautiful future for South Africa; a future where every child – no matter their colour or gender – has equal opportunity.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Broken Hearted for South Africa

Broken Hearted for South Africa

It is difficult to imagine the psychological and physical suffering that precedes death by Stress-induced Cardiomyopathy also known as Broken Heart Syndrome.

How much pressure; what levels of anxiety can the human heart endure before it deteriorates to breaking point? What dis-ease needs to afflict a person before the thing literally falls apart. According to the Mayo Clinic website: “The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unclear. It’s thought that a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, might temporarily damage the hearts of some people. Broken heart syndrome is often preceded by an intense physical or emotional event.” 

I see her young face everywhere I look; a picture of Hlaudi Motsoeneng has Suna Venter’s face reflected in his eyes; those violent, conniving eyes boring into her, trying to intimidate her and her colleagues into submission. I imagine him whispering to his henchmen: “Break her heart; whatever you do, make sure she doesn’t return.”

And in the next instant, his eyes reflect our President; fattened and giggling. This woman’s heart break is no accident. She was harassed, threatened and attacked until it broke.  Will we ask ourselves in 5 years’ time, what happened to the SABC 8 who are now the SABC 4? How many more hearts will break? What will be the ultimate death toll in the war between evil madmen slathering and foaming at the mouth in pursuit of money and those trying to defend our democracy? If you see this as anything but an out-and-out war, you are deluded.  Of course, the aim was silence but it never worked because these people fought to the death – and won. And the fight was always for us – the people of South Africa. Suna Venter and a small group of colleagues from the public broadcaster stood firm and took on the might of a towering empire of corruption and deceit – and won. The pen won the day.   

But not so fast fellow South Africans. Not so fast can we move on from the death of this young woman. We must not allow for the standard period of outrage and mourning and then forget the price that was paid. One of the last remaining vestiges of our democracy untouched by the fattened fingers of the Guptas and our president, was saved by their bravery. Suna Venters heart broke because she was defending the very ground we stand on; our free press. For if Motsoeneng and his compardres had succeeded in their mission to curtail what news we could and could not see, the attack on our democracy would have been virtually complete, bar the judiciary. That was what was at stake and people were willing to give their lives to defend us from this. I believe that Suna Venter – and indeed the rest of the SABC 8 – must be remembered and honoured as heroes.

How do we do this? For a start Suna Venter should by remembered and immortalised by every media outlet in this country. Their very relevance is thanks in large part to her and her colleagues. Every paper, magazine, radio and TV station should hang a photo of her; put up a plaque if you like. Get creative – but do something.  Let everyone who sees it pay their respects and remind themselves that her life was given in the fight for the freedom of our press. Let it be a constant reminder that we will not tolerate anyone who tries to trample on our democracy. We will take them on and we will win – even if it breaks our hearts.

Anyone who is involved in the media should take every opportunity to remember the sacrifice made by Suna Venter et al. In my way, I have used this column to keep the memory of Anene Booysens and Josiah Sithole alive by dedicating every piece I write to them. This is so we keep the fight against xenophobia and gender-based violence top-of-mind – not just when an attack occurs. The same applies to Suna Venter. Her name will be added to the dedication of every column I write.

As for us as citizens of South Africa, what can we do to ensure that her memory is kept alive and that we join the fight against the powerful and the corrupt who are trying to rob us of our democracy? For a start – as I have written about before – we must resist the temptation to join the system of corruption and abuse; our businesses, our homes, our cars, our places of worship, our NGO’s – wherever we operate – must be places where corruption and abuse of power is not tolerated no matter how much we may stand to gain or lose personally from the transaction. Our complicity fuels the engine. Secondly, we must be prepared -as the SABC 8 has been – to speak out when we see abuse of power and/or corruption or even manipulation taking place. This is very tough – especially when we love those committing the deeds – but we cannot turn a blind eye.

On a personal note, the passing of Suna Venter broke my heart and enraged me. I am enraged by what the President, the Gupta’s, the Molefe’s, the Van Rooyens, the Motsoenengs and many others are doing to our country and her people and I want it to stop. Too many people have been robbed from and too many people have died.

When will it end? When we – like Suna Venter – put our hearts on the line.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.