If you know the greater Johannesburg area, you will be familiar with a sulphurous smell that permeates the air at certain times of the year and reminds one of being on a long road trip with a windy family member.

Theories abound as to the cause of the smell; when we were kids we were told it “came from the mines”. But everyone has a theory; some rather randomly say it comes from Modderfontein, others blame factories, landfills and sewerage. 

I was in Johannesburg recently and caught a familiar whiff. Suddenly, I was in Parliament and it was the 8th August 2017 and I was listening to the results of the motion of no confidence in the President. As I listened the smell seemed to get stronger. Next thing I knew, it is three weeks later and the smell which is usually gone by morning, is still hanging heavy in the air. It just won’t go away and although it isn’t nauseating, it is just – there; constantly.

I have tried to understand this smell that won’t go away. Of course, the easy answer is that it is the stench of avarice; greed upon greed upon greed; corruption breeding with itself to produce a deformed and grotesque fart bag. But that is too easy an explanation because we have lived with that smell for so long we hardly notice it anymore. (Note to self: When citizens become numbed to the crimes being committed by their leaders, the nation is on very rocky ground.  Wrongly, I have stopped reading anything that has #Guptaleaks in the title. It’s become like ambient noise that I just tune out. I must wake up, read everything and allow indignation to rise again.

But this time it seems different. The stench I am smelling is, I think, a rather toxic blend of fear mixed with helplessness. Many South Africans from all walks of life had been unrealistically hopeful about the motion of no confidence. Some even believed that it would succeed in removing the President. When it did not, we seemed to collectively drop down onto the pavements of our country, our banners limp and impotent, and quietly give up. The dominant collective mindset seemed to say: “Well, we have him until 2019 now – lets ride this out and hope we don’t get someone even worse.” And then the fear kicked in as it began to dawn on us just how long two years is when you are being led by a Jacob Zuma.

But surely if the smell is fear and helplessness, then the smell is coming from us. After all, these emotions don’t come from outside of ourselves; they come from within.  And if we have quietly resigned ourselves and hence our country to the fates, then are we not to blame if we get more of the same?

But I sometimes find myself asking: “What more can we do? We have marched, prayed and railed. We have signed petitions and e-mailed MP’s. What is left for us to do?”  

The answers to some of these questions came to me this last week as I facilitated a 2-day workshop for the organisation Partners for Possibility. Their ground-breaking and internationally acclaimed program pairs a business leader with a school principal for 1 year to help the principal develop and refine his or her leadership skills. This workshop was all about how to build authentic community in and around a school and indeed, in one’s businesses and neighbourhoods. Half way through day 1 a couple of things occurred to me: the first was that these school principals – who have every reason to be negative – were anything but; they were positive, eager to learn and passionate about their schools and the kids. The business leaders were equally as positive; they sought solutions and were eager not to pass the buck onto government or anywhere else for that matter. The positivity in the room was infectious and as a result, the community of this group built quickly and discernibly.

The realisation was two-fold: when we surround ourselves with positive people – and are open to having our minds changed – fear falls and hope rises.  Secondly, when people come together to discuss possibilities rather than problems, solutions emerge. This feeds the positivity, and the fear and hopelessness are further eroded.

Another thing became very clear to me for the umpteenth time since I have been involved in community and NGO work; as we get involved by volunteering our time and skills, something shifts in us. We stop focusing our attention solely on what isn’t and begin to build on what is.  

This of course does not mean that we will suddenly be rid of our corrupt leaders. But what it does mean is that we will triumph over our own fear and helplessness; we will find ourselves in a position where we are able to celebrate what is great about our country. And when the moment comes when we need to once again rise, lift our banners and take to the streets, we will have the energy and the zeal to do just that.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

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


It’s Time – Adding Action to Faith

It’s Time – Adding Action to Faith

There has been a great deal written about Angus Buchan’s recent mega prayer faith gathering near Bloemfontein entitled “It’s Time” and I don’t intend to add to the commentary on the event itself. However, it came about in a week in which an extraordinary video from a US church exploded on social media.

The video sees a middle-aged, white evangelical church pastor asking a young black man onto stage during a sermon. He gently invites the young man to take a seat and asks him to remove his shoes and socks. The pastor then recalls Donald Trump’s election campaign strapline “Make America Great Again” and asks the congregation to consider who America has ever been great for? Certainly not, he says, native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans like this young man, Asians or any other minority group for that matter. America, he says in a brutally factual and disarmingly humble manner, has been truly great for only one group of people; one race; his race. The white race.

In that same week, another church man – this time a local lay preacher and writer by the name of Lorenzo A Davids – penned a less widely circulated but no less powerful article in which he asked some equally probing questions as the US pastor had in his video: If “It’s Time” as Brother Angus tells us it is, then what is it time for? And why is now the time? In the context of his vast audience being mostly white, why was it not time when Madiba died or when Anene Booysens was brutally murdered or, I would add, when Chris Hani was assassinated? What makes now so unique as to see hundreds of thousands of people gather to pray in faith? Is it simply another way of articulating and embodying the Trump rallying cry; “Make South Africa great again.”? And if this is the case, then who are we really praying for it to be great again for? Because it was never great for too many people other than one race; my race; the white race.

Now, you may say that there were also non-white people at the Angus Buchan prayer gathering and that the spirit between races was loving, brotherly, embracing – even healing in its nature. I have heard superb stories of what happened at that event. This is all good and I do not wish for one moment to belittle anything of what took place there. However, it is not enough by a long way. We must add to our faith – whatever faith that may be – works that will actively arrest the decline of our nation but also radically transform it and bring restitution. What does this look like? What must we do? What is it time for?

I believe that what the American evangelical pastor does next provides us with the answer, but before going there, let me borrow again from Lorenzo A Davids who speaks profoundly about what he terms the Zacchaeus Moment. When he meets Jesus and has a revelation about the many he has wronged, the legendary criminal tax collector Zacchaeus – the small guy who had to climb up a fig tree to see Jesus – repents. This is not just a simple matter of saying sorry, although I am certain he did this. As part of his repentance he gives half of his possessions to the poor and to those he cheated out of money, he returns 4 times the amount he had taken. Put another way, his repentance included significant restitution. He added to his faith, action. It was only then that Jesus declared salvation over Zacchaeus’ house. It is this salvation that Brother Angus is praying for.

As he continues to speak, the white pastor gets down on all fours in front of the young black man. He looks him in the eyes and he speaks with such tenderness as he takes his feet gently in his hands and begins to wash them. A young black man. An older white man.  He tells the youngster that he cares about him; that he is valuable to him; that he is not inferior to him despite what history would tell him. They are brothers even though their contexts are so different.

He holds his feet with such care. He gets down as low as he can; as close to the young man’s feet as he is able. He massages his feet, each one in turn – slowly. Tears fall down the young man’s face as the pastor slowly dries the young man’s feet, embraces him and tells him he loves him.  

This is not American theatrics. This is what leaders like Christ and more recently Pope Francis model in terms of a start point for healing and restitution. For Francis, he washes feet whenever he can; Christians, non-Christians, men, women, refugees, prison inmates you name it. He actively eschews his position as the leader of millions; he makes himself accountable for the wrongs of others; he humbles himself by getting down as low as he can to take broken and dirty feet into his hands and wash and sometimes even kiss them.

It’s time.  

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

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

Storming the Stage – the New South African Drama

Storming the Stage – the New South African Drama

Writers and commentators have been referencing South Africa’s politics in theatrical terms. Words like “Shakespearean”, “tragi-comedy” and “drama” have been used to describe recent events.

Depending on which side of the political divide you occupy, central characters –  Pravin Gordhan, Mcebesi Jonas, Jacob Zuma, Ahmed Kathrada, Gwede Mantashe et al – would be to you either villain or hero.

And then came the recent Easter break when the curtain fell for interval. Apart from the unseemly off-stage spat that played out between the two drama-queens playing the part of Police Minister Berning Ntlemeza and Fikile Mbalula, the actors took a break and the audience enjoyed some well-earned respite from the break-neck pace of the show. 

But the theatrical metaphor is good only to a point. Thereafter it becomes misleading and possibly even demobilising. Whilst it works for the main characters, it assumes that the citizenry plays the part of the audience; passive spectators laughing, clapping, crying and jeering with no impact on the unfolding narrative after buying our tickets – read paying our taxes and voting. This of course has – with some notable exceptions – been dishearteningly true, as we have sat back and watched the unfolding story of the first two decades of our democracy. There are two main reasons for this passivity: either we believed what the show’s poster promised, or we hoped that that the whole production would be a flop so we could say; “I told you so!”. Either way – we are all now in a witch’s brew of Macbethian proportions asking how we got here and wishing we could go back and rewrite the script. Perhaps something like: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”?

But take heart; the end of the first half saw the drama take a turn. As Pravin Gordhan became an unlikely romantic lead, the thing became edge-of-your-seat edgy; alive; even dangerous – in a good way.  And as the tension rose, so too did the dissatisfied rumbles and dissenting mutterings of the audience; the resultant metaphorical raining of raw eggs and tomatoes on the underperforming players, turned into a full-on storming of the stage.

And apart from the usual antics of the leads and some very unusual dramatic timing; Ahmed Kathrada’s death, Zuma and Gordhan sharing a birthday in the middle of it all – stuff you wouldn’t script for fear of being dubbed corny – the audience is what has made this the beginning of the end of this current drama. For the most significant time in nearly two decades, huge numbers of us rose, donned our costumes, took up our props and stormed the stage.  And whilst the whole devilish plot was designed to force us to look stage left whilst the villains walked off with the treasure stage right; whilst crafty sleight-of-hand was being used to sow division through carefully constructed PR campaigns and the manufacture of terms like radical economic transformation- the fog was clearing and the audience was murmuring about the rottenness in the state.

And from here – more and more – the show becomes totally interactive; the audience is now on stage and in many cases becoming the lead players. This is the drama of democracy at its best; it’s most healthy. He is a very calculating President but not even he could have predicted this. He took a chance that we would – as we have always done – sit and watch. But it backfired badly. Ironically his attempts to divide and conquer resulted in us uniting and fighting back.   And a new narrative has begun; of that there is no doubt.

A caution as the bell rings for interval: we mustn’t be tempted to return to our seats. The show is nowhere near over. The break simply allowed us to draw breath, gather our strength and storm the stage again. Who knows how many times we must do this?  I imagine many, many times more.

And this must not be interpreted as just marching – that’s just the marketing campaign for the show. I wrote recently about each of us taking the time to determine our unique role in this drama. But this is very tough for most of us because we simply do not know what to do. But we must not sit. We must stand up and walk out; onto the streets and into the malls, offices and places of worship in our communities. And once there, we must be better than those who are working to destroy us and our country. Yes, we must speak out against them, but then we must be the opposite of them too; defy the label of “racist” by being uncompromisingly non-racist; enact “radical economic transformation” by being radically generous with our time, money and expertise; be unscrupulously honest and incorruptible in all our dealings.

This is the formula for a new narrative: we must push and pull.   That means that we do not only protest against something old and rotten but we create something altogether new and healthy.

The excitement is building as we enter the most challenging but also the most exciting stage of or drama.

Thank you Mr President for creating the perfect conditions.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

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

Zuma: The Violent Destroyer

Zuma: The Violent Destroyer

As I write this I am watching a TV screen that is flashing up the plummeting value of our post-junk-status Rand.

I pick up my phone and the anti-Zuma rants pour in on social media. An e-mail comes from a pastor friend inviting us to “pray up, speak up, stand up, march up, and shout from the rooftops, against the firing of Gordhan and his deputy, against Zuma’s shameless blatant ‘treasury capture’ to further pillage and rape the nation’s resources for his own ends of security and power.” My wife sends me news of a local march we can join.

We march, we pray and we speak out as many South Africans have. But is it just me or does this response seem so inadequate, so uncreative, given the scale of the evil against which we are protesting? Are these actions our only answer to a president who is committing willful acts of violence against our people? I ask this as a person who fully believes in the power of prayer and protest.

Violence? Yes, I use this word deliberately. I believe this is where we have gone horribly wrong in our assessment of Jacob Zuma and hence how we deal with him. Jacob Zuma is not just a corrupt man. Jacob Zuma is a violent man.

A Sanskrit definition that proves this point says that non-violence is: “A lack of desire to harm or kill; the personal practice of being harmless to self and others under every condition.” By this definition, our president is a violent man; out to harm people through stealing from them; systematically destroying our currency and hence the value of people’s savings, pensions and grants. He is killing our economy, squeezing every drop of life out of it for himself and his cronies.  And the ultimate insult? This is all being doing in the name of ‘radical economic transformation’; that absolute necessity that has thus far eluded our post-apartheid democracy without which we simply cannot succeed. 

And all the while our poor are getting poorer, hungrier and sicker; people will undoubtedly die because of Zuma’s acts of violence. They will starve because their grants will no longer afford them the necessities they need to survive as junk status rips our economy to shreds. They will be unable to afford transport to clinics to get life-saving medication.

Please let us stop reducing Jacob Zuma to such relative niceties as some buffoon with a shower rose on his head. Jacob Zuma is a calculating, violent despot who must be made to answer a litany of charges including why he willfully and knowingly brought yet more poverty and starvation to the poorest of the poor in our country, by knowingly taking us into a junk bin.

But the question in all this is within democratic and peaceful parameters, what do we ordinary citizens do to rid our country of such a violent man? Are praying and marching – both of which are powerful and necessary – our only options? Must we wait for the 2019 general election? Or are there other tools?

I do not know specifically what you should do in your unique world with your unique skills and passions. Only you will know that. All I do know is that we need to do more:

If you are a spiritual person, begin an inter-faith, national prayer chain that prays continually – not for 24 hours but until Jacob Zuma is removed from power. As a student, form a protest group like the anti-apartheid demonstration that occupied the steps of South Africa House in London for 1408 days in the late 1980’s. As a musician, organise a concert of all the biggest acts in our country in aid of the victims of Jacob Zuma’s regime. If you or your establishment has a South African flag, fly it at half-mast until Zuma is deposed. At the very least spread peace and tolerance in every interaction you have with your follow South Africans and do not allow racist rhetoric to win the day.

And as for the privileged amongst us, we must actively close the gap between rich and poor that is being widened by Zuma. We must pay decent living wages and empower people with skills. We must embody the radical economic transformation that our President uses to justify his pillaging of our nation.

We cannot just march as we did last Friday and this Wednesday, as a once off. It takes years – sometimes decades – of sustained and focused national and international effort and pressure to bring down corrupt regimes and despotic leaders.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

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

Colonialism: The Rape of Africa

Colonialism: The Rape of Africa

As I write this I am sat – for the second time in 10-hours – in seat 22C on Fastjet’s flight from Dar es Salaam to a smallish Tanzanian town called Mbeya. Now you may or may not have heard of Fastjet – depending on whether you travel much in sub-Saharan Africa, but the thing with Fastjet is that it isn’t terribly fast. It also isn’t very communicative.

Having sat on the runway for quite some time watching the sunrise, we were all off-loaded because of a technical problem that apparently had something to do with the communication system between the pilot in the cock-pit and the crew in the cabin. This really was the last time anyone at Fastjet concerned themselves with accuracy of communication – for the next 10-hours.

For the length of the day, we all sat in the small and unedifying Dar airport.  We drank cups of tea, ate airport food and talked endlessly about nothing much; as you do when you are killing an indefinite period of time.

The only thing anyone told us over the course of the day was that the problem would take 5 – 10 minutes to fix (this is when we were still on the plane) but this was adjusted to an hour to two hours when we were being off-loaded. Oh, and around 3 hours in, a tinny Tannoy announcement told us that the flight had been cancelled altogether and we should all go back to our homes and hotels. This was followed immediately by an announcement in Kiswahili proudly telling us that the plane was fixed up and we would board shortly. Both announcements were wrong.

We eventually scrummed our way back onto the plane, elbowing one another out of the way in a desperate attempt to beat the irate passengers of a later flight that had also been delayed. We eventually took off in the late afternoon.

“For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water,” recent Tweet from former DA leader, Helen Zille.

The previous day we had landed at Dar airport from OR Tambo. As a foreigner working in Tanzania you need a temporary Visa. This must be re-purchased every time you enter the country (regularly in my case) for 200USD. Acquiring this Visa can only be done on arrival at the Dar airport and it is damn nearly impossible to do so. In summary: it takes around 3 hours for 2 hapless immigration officials   to handwrite – no computers, not even an ink stamp – over 100 Visas. 35 degrees Celsius. No chairs. No water. Again, no communication.

During both of these airport experiences it was clear that systems, procedures and an understanding of the critical importance of good communication, were non-existent. I would say it was organised chaos but there wasn’t any organisation at all. It was just chaos.

I travelled to Tanzania with Helen Zille’s now infamous Tweet about colonialism fresh in my mind. In fact, it occupied much of my thinking during all the many hours we spent in the Dar airport (and later, the extreme Dar traffic). I condemn what she said with contempt but more, with great sadness. I assume that Zille has travelled extensively to places like Dar es Salaam and other former- colony’s; that she has experienced life in countries that are years even decades behind non-former colony’s. So, the issue should not be whether she believes that colonialism had some good points.  The issue is whether – over years of doing battle as the official opposition to the ANC – she has become so hardened, so cynical, so insensitive that she has lost all perspective and indeed – heart. One can only assume that she is so jaded that she has forgotten what it is that she has been fighting for; a free and equal society under-scored by a total loathing for all that is and was unjust, oppressive, violent and dehumanising. She has effectively made herself one of the utterly heartless and brain-dead: “Things were better under apartheid” brigade.

You do not even need to move out of Dar airport to get the picture; to know just how despicable, how crippling colonialism was. And the denial of this fact is alive and well far beyond Helen Zille; all-too-often I hear people opining about how Africa (they try to hide their bigotry by making it a continental indictment rather than a racist statement) lacks innovation or how uncreative Africa is or how backward.

And I don’t know why Singapore works well as Zille referenced; maybe because it’s so small you can cover its length on your morning jog. All I know after spending some time in Tanzania and indeed around other parts of Africa, is that colonialism’s negative impact on Africa and her people was beyond measure.

So, let us travel our continent, viewing its unequalled beauty and meeting its superb people. But let’s be forgiving of her faults and her failings because the big white boss gang-raped her and left her for dead.

It is a miracle that she has come as far as she has.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole
Pravin Gordhan a National Treasure

Pravin Gordhan a National Treasure

We have a national treasure in the National Treasury. There is little doubt that Pravin Gordhan now embodies this highest of unofficial titles; a title that we have applied to only a handful of men and women in the past few decades.

I realised just how fast this man was approaching national treasure status when I recently found myself with him on an SA Airlink flight to Nelspruit. Wearing a tweed cap to shield his shiny pate from the brutal Lowveld sun, he humbly agreed to having his photo taken with scores of fans whilst we waited on the runway to board our flight. Person after person – South Africans of all descriptions – took selfies with the Minister of Finance.  

Bear in mind that this man has held the most loathed title in any society; that of “tax man”. Bear in mind that this man revolutionised tax collection in our country during his time at SARS. Bear in mind that for years he has lightened our pockets by increasing taxes; bear in mind that he has done this whilst the public purse has been simultaneously lightened by all those entrusted to hold its strings. Yet in-spite of all this financial lightening and burdening, there we were queuing to have our picture taken with him as if he were a rock star.

Those who know him well will tell you that he is a man of towering integrity. They will tell you that he is a South African of unbridled passion and commitment to the complete freedom of our people and the realisation of the full potential of our country. They will also tell you that he is fiendishly bright.

But these values – great as they are – do not make a national treasure. Ironically that title is bestowed only on the humble great. Pravin Gordhan is fast becoming one of our humble great and his last (we all hope it is not his last, but alas) budget presentation proved this. It was not the maths of the speech that solidified his place in our history. In fact, many people will be gnashing their teeth at the fact that we are paying vastly more for vastly less. It was these words:

“Fellow South Africans, if we make the right choices and do the right things we will achieve a just and fair society, founded on human dignity and equality. We will indeed transform our economy and country so that we all live in dignity, peace and well-being,”

If you did not know that I was quoting our newest national treasure (and you had never heard/heard of Jacob Zuma), you might say that I was quoting a/our President; these words have a presidential feel.

But he didn’t stop at general appeals for participation. He went on to issue a clarion call for us to participate with him in the task at hand: “This is the time for activists, workers, businesspersons, the clergy, professionals and citizens at large to actively engage in shaping the transformation agenda and ensuring that we do have a just and equitable society. Obstacles there will be many. Overcome them. Detractors abound. Disprove them. Negativity inspired by greed and selfishness will obstruct us. Defeat the bearers of this toxic ethic.  South Africans, wherever you are own this process; defend your gains; demand accountability. Be an active agent for change. Umanyano Ngamandla (Unity is power.)”

These words coming from our very own “broken man presiding over a broken society” would be laughable. But coming from a national treasure they have the effect of creating hope; presenting a vision and outlining a strategy to get there.

If we allow them to, these words could galvanise us into action; to pay our taxes yes, but then to pay attention to what we as individual South Africans could do to take back our power. He is inviting us to join him in fighting for a future – one that he seems to be positive about; he is inviting us to stop pointing out what is wrong – we all know what is wrong; stop whining whilst Rome is burning. He has modelled the way for us (another enduring feature of people who wear the title of National Treasure).  All we need do is act.

In the immediate term, this must include an uncompromising commitment to our non-negotiable values. Punch drunk from the ongoing battering of the forces of corruption and greed, we must stand firm and not give into the temptation of; “they are doing it so why can’t I?”. This statement – this attitude – is, I believe, the single biggest danger currently facing us as a society. It will take discipline to resist this temptation but if we don’t, our demise will be fast and frightening.

In the meantime, Pravin Gordhan will need all the support he can get as the vultures’ circle. So, if you bump into him on a flight or anywhere else, have a selfie with a national treasure and thank him.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

All my writing –  regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.