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

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.

#FearMustFall

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

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

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

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.