The Power of Mentorship and Partnership

The Power of Mentorship and Partnership

Over the 8 years that I have written this column, I have interacted with many people who have shared with me some of the incredible things they are doing to make this country a better place.

I have been very struck by the passion that people have to make a difference and just how willing they are to make sacrifices big and small each day to achieve this end. Many have expressed their frustration – a frustration I share on a very deep level –  at not being able to do more. To those I remind us of Mother Teresa’s often quoted: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

By far the most common way that people participate in the healing of our nation is through mentorship. This is almost always informal; we mentor our staff in the workplace, our domestic workers at home, perhaps their kids; educators mentor their learners outside of the formal learning process; religious leaders mentor their flocks; Granny’s and Grandpa’s, aunts and uncles – most of us mentor somebody; young or not so young. It seems that being a mentor to someone is very deeply rooted in our DNA; we do it almost instinctively without giving it a formal name.

There are of course reasons for this; we acknowledge that without healthy and functional younger people in particular, the young themselves and society at large is at risk. So, on one level it is about survival – passing on from one to another the necessary skills to navigate the world and life well. On another level it is tied up in our instincts to care and nurture, which is why we react so viscerally when we read stories of the abuse of children; it goes against every instinct we have.

But science also proves the power of mentorship. Research conducted by the mentorship program Big Brothers Big Sisters tells us that when an adult mentor spends 1 hour a week with a child for one year, that child will be 53% more likely to stay in school; 32% less likely to engage in violence and 46% less likely to use drugs. It is for this reason that I maintain that mentorship – perhaps more than any other intervention – is a critical tool for the healing of our nation.

Over the years that I have been involved in mentorship, I have become convinced that everyone can mentor someone. So, for the purposes of this column I would like to broaden the definition of mentorship so each of us can get a sense of the role we can play. Traditionally, mentorship was seen as an age-based thing i.e. older people mentoring younger people. But some of my best mentors have been younger than me; for example, my dear friend Akhona Ngcobo has mentored me in the ways of Zulu culture. She is several years younger than me. So, mentorship is more about experience in one area or another, than age.

The other perception we should change is that mentorship only benefits the person being mentored. This is perhaps the biggest misconception created by the fact that mentorship relationships have typically been based on an unequal power ratio.  Everyone I know who has enjoyed a powerful mentor-style partnership (whether adult-to-adult or adult-to-youngster) has reported that they grew just as much from the relationship as the mentee did – if not more. This means that we should start viewing and defining mentorship differently.

In South Africa we have phenomenal programs that work on this basis; co-mentorship or what some refer to as “thinking partners”. These programs create partnerships that are totally reciprocal and impact both parties equally. One of the most powerful of these is Partners for Possibility which I have mentioned before. They are leaders in this type of thinking as their program partners school principals from some of the poorest schools in South Africa with a business leader, in a mutually beneficial, generative, adult-to-adult relationship. Some of the leaders are active in business currently, others are retired; some are in small entrepreneurial ventures, others in multi-nationals. They come from different departments within businesses, but all share the same passion; to partner with a school principal in a way that facilitates their respective growth as leaders. This last week, Partners for Possibility achieved the remarkable success of being the only South African NGO to be ranked in the top 500 NGO’s in the world in the 2018 Geneva Rankings by the independent group NGO Advisor. They came in at 97 demonstrating the uniqueness and efficacy of this approach.

For those of us not involved in business or schools there is our local mentorship program, Bright Stars. This assists adults and youngsters to effectively partner with one another. These youngsters may be ones that you are already in relationship with but that you need support with. You might not be in a partnership with a child currently and would like to be. The program offers comprehensive training and support to both adult and youngster for the length of your partnership – usually 1 year.

I extend an invitation to all of you; make 2018 a year in which you partner with someone regardless of age. The contribution you will be making – to yourself, to them and to our nation at large – will be enormous.

For more information about Partners for Possibility e-mail pfp@symphonia.net and for Bright Stars e-mail jo@peaceagency.org.za

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

The Great Matric Lie: A Glimmer in the Darkness

The Great Matric Lie: A Glimmer in the Darkness

“Dear South Africans, why are we so gullible?  Here goes Minister Angie Motshekga once again leading you by the nose.” Former University of Free State Vice-chancellor Prof Jonathan Jansen responding to the release of the 2017 Matric results.

Each year at this time, we the public face up to the spectacle that has become the announcement of the Matric results; a proxy for the state of basic education in the Republic. It’s become a bit of sport. Forget the boxing day test match; its more like the Matric results tennis match with the Minister serving up ever more creative ways to spin the announcement of the Matric results, and commentators and education gurus like Prof Jansen and Stellenbosch University academic and educational economist Nic Spaull replying with winning returns to prove that she is smoking her socks. It would be rather entertaining were it not for the fact that it’s our children’s lives – and de facto the future of our country – that they are talking about.

The devil is in the detail. The Minister tells us that the Matric class of 2017 achieved a 75.1% pass rate. This is true. However, the specialists will reply that this is a desperate attempt to cover up the reality of education in South Africa; there is a crisis of epidemic proportions in our basic education system and we aren’t fixing it quickly or decisively enough to deal with the knock-on consequences including unemployment, poverty and inequality. It is not stretching the point to say that the story behind the Matric results is the story of how and why we are failing to deal with this triad of evils in this country.  This is why Prof Jansen is quoted as saying: “Any government that prides itself on the few that succeed and ignores the many that fall out of the school system has clearly lost its moral bearings.”  He is prompted to make this statement by the fact that over 50% of children who start Grade 1 will not reach Matric; over 645 000 pupils drop out between Grades 1 and 12. What happens to these children? And just as terrifying is the fact that 50% of those who qualify for university will drop out before completing their higher education.

What is causing this crisis and what can we do about it? Time and time again it is proved that schools that have strong, passionate, disciplined and principled leadership succeed often in the face of overwhelming hardship. You would be literally blown away if you were to hear the stories of school Principals I have sat and spoken with who defy all odds to produce astonishing results from their kids. But here’s the challenge – how do we create such leaders?

The answers may not be ones that we want to hear because it may require something of us: We need to acknowledge that the government does not have the answer here. It is failing. Period. This means that – whilst we must hold government to account – we the citizens of this country must step up in the interests of our children and our nation at large.

There are a number of ways we can do this, but I would like to focus on one in this column because it has been proved to be instrumental in fundamentally altering the future of schools and children in our country. It is simple: partner a business leader with a school Principal for a period of 1 year. This hands-on and very simple leadership development approach has been proven both locally and internationally as one of the most effective ways to transform schools and hence the basic education system.

In South Africa, the NGO Partners for Possibility is acknowledged to be a leading light globally in this field. Since its launch in 2010, 684 business leaders across the full range of industries and business sizes, have partnered with school Principals for a year. This leadership development exercise at the top of a school has impacted 20 520 teachers and over 547 200 learners nationwide. This extraordinary impact has led to Partners for Possibility being a strong contender for listing in the prestigious “Top 500 NGO’s in the World” ranking due to be announced next week.  

I want to go at this thing hard because it is a remarkable program that changes lives – and not only the lives of the Principals, teachers and children it impacts, but also the lives of the business partners. If you are a school principal or teacher reading this; if you are a business person who wishes to play a significant role in our country and in children’s lives by using your skills in business, then Partners for Possibility should be top of your new year’s resolution list. (And incidentally, it is not a huge commitment in terms of time.)

Partners for Possibility has information sessions coming up in Durban on the 25th January and in Pietermaritzburg on the 26th of January. For details contact Diane@Symphonia.net.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

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

How Do We Decolonize Adoption?

How Do We Decolonize Adoption?

A few months ago, I wrote a column on the orphan crisis that is gripping South Africa in general and KwaZulu Natal in particular.


This column resulted in something of a breakthrough. Readers of this blog and many in the online community heeded our call to action and the KwaZulu Natal Adoption Coalition was relaunched to address the situation of adoption in the province.

Concerned parties gathered in Durban for the inaugural meeting. It was a significant moment because for the first time in many years, people concerned about the future of vulnerable children in our province got together in one room, parked their own personal agendas and asked how they could play a role in ending this crisis.

More on that in a moment. A week after that meeting I received an email containing statistics that inform the use of the term ‘orphan crisis’ in South Africa. They are utterly overwhelming. Two are worth keeping in mind:

  • 3 million orphans nationally; up to 1.2 million are maternal or double orphans.
  • In 2016, there were 8 adoptions in KwaZulu Natal, the province with the lion’s share of 1.2 million orphans.
Yes, just 8 adoptions in one year. 

Let me qualify: not all orphans are eligible for adoption. At any one time there are approximately 500 children legally adoptable. But 8? Something is seriously wrong.

Back to the relaunch of the Coalition. It is noteworthy that the gate-keeper of adoption – the Department of Social Development – was absent from the meeting. This initially frustrated me, but it became clear that this was providential for adoption.

In South Africa we are quick to blame government for everything. This restricts our creativity in finding solutions to the problems we face. If the Department of Social Development been there, we would not have grappled as we did with the question: “What contribution am I making to the current orphan crisis?”. We would have turned the spotlight onto them.

Yes, the Department has only processed 8 adoptions in one year. This is totally unacceptable. But we must ask ourselves why the Department tasked with caring for our vulnerable children put a virtual end to adoption?

Such a monumental disparity in numbers cannot be explained away by incompetence or laziness. 8 adoptions simply makes no sense. Unless, you do not consider adoption to be the best option for a vulnerable child. What then? What if you fundamentally disagree with adoption? What if it is completely counter-cultural to you? Would you be prepared to advocate for and even process adoptions? Or would you do everything in your power to limit, if not do away with adoption?

I am not sure if these positions are true of senior members of the Department of Social Development – but frankly I would understand if they were. About a year ago I had what I call a flipside moment about adoption: What if my family, that consists of Cathy and I (two white parents) and Lolly (our six-year-old black adoptive daughter), looks to some like the rainbow nation and to others like modern-day colonialism?

I know we get warm smiles from many people and hostile stares from others, therefore this might be the case. What if these stares are coming from people who esteem their culture highly; people who understand that colour is a proud and very integral part of culture. What if they see us as thieves rather than loving parents: “You took everything else – and now our children?”

Formal adoption is not African as such. It is a Western concept; in Africa, a product of colonization. That is why the vast majority of the people in our coalition meeting, adoption social workers nationally, and adoptive parents, are white.

Now, we can huff and puff all we like: “But isn’t this all about the children?” and “why can’t we just move on from all that colonization/apartheid stuff?” But these questions are not only insulting, they are unhelpful. We need to start asking different questions that will move us into a new space of engagement and understanding.

Tell me what you see when you see Cathy, Lolly and I walking down the street. Is our family beautiful to you or is it painful to see? Can adoption ever be black African? If so, what do we need to do to help make it so? If not, how do we deal with that as a society? Would you be prepared to help us – an adoptive family – to bring some black into our white?

Once we ‘go there’ in terms of these kinds of conversations – what I am calling the decolonization of adoption – I imagine that adoptions in KwaZulu Natal will increase again.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
We Need to Decolonise Adoption – For the Sake of the Children

We Need to Decolonise Adoption – For the Sake of the Children

If you are not directly involved in the care of orphans and vulnerable children – or if you haven’t tried to adopt a child in the past year – you may be unaware that adoption has all but ceased in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

In May 2016, the Department of Social Development called an immediate halt to adoptions in KwaZulu-Natal over a case of alleged child trafficking. The case was never proved and it never will be. I know the family well and they are giants in the field of adoption and child care. It was simply a witch hunt designed to give a semblance of credence to the fact that the government simply wanted to phase out adoption.

The consequence is that our Baby Home in Durban North – along with other similar places of safety for abandoned or orphaned babies and children – is bursting at the seams. Where we used to pride ourselves on doing an adoption a month for some years, we have not done a single adoption in 18 months. The impact on children is huge. A quote from a recent article by child activist Robyn Wolfson confirms what we have all intuitively known: “According to Marietjie Strydom from the Attachment Foundation, studies confirm that prolonged time in care affects children’s ability to attach emotionally. Neuroscience has also shown a vast alteration in the brains of institutionalized children.” In other words, science tells us that what the Department of Social Development (that department tasked with caring for our children) is doing, is in fact actively subjecting our most vulnerable children to tremendous degrees of emotional pain and trauma.

The impact of this is well documented. Children who are institutionalized may suffer from a wide range of disorders. At one level this includes depression and anxiety and self-soothing behaviors such as chanting, biting themselves, head banging, rocking, scratching, or cutting themselves. At another level, sub-optimal attachment results in cruel or aggressive behavior enacted with a cold detachment and a lack of empathy. 

All of us who run Baby Homes, child and youth care centers and foster care facilities try our absolute best to provide a warm, loving family environment for our babies. But at the end of the day, we are not their family. We are an institution. Our goal should always be to see children placed in what we call their forever families. In the right instances, we are delighted when our children are reunified with loving and caring family members. Where this is impossible, we advocate for adoption. This is because whilst stable, loving biological family is always first prize for a child, this is not always possible. In these cases, adoption provides the care and permanency that is essential for a child to be given the best chance of avoiding attachment-related disorders.

So, why continue with a directive to halt all adoptions in Kwa-Zulu Natal, even after the smoke screen of child trafficking has cleared? If you are one of the many prospective adoptive parents who are currently childless whilst our Baby Home is over full, this question will not only be perplexing but tragic.

The answer may be more complex than it would appear. On one level, we can simply pin the blame on the Department of Social Development. What they are doing is slowly throttling the very life out of adoption because this is not their preferred alternative when it comes to child care. But it is still contained in the Children’s Act and for as long as it is there, it must be actively pursued as an option for adoptable children.

However, we must also consider that adoption – largely the domain of white adoption social workers, white parents adopting black children (I should know; I am one of them), white activists (again, I am one of them) – also needs to reform itself. In latter day parlance, we need to work together with government to decolonize adoption. This means we will all need to lay down our weapons and listen to one another. And that charge must be led – not by government – but by the adoption community of adoption social workers, adoptive and prospective adoptive parents, Baby Homes – anyone involved in adoption. Why do I say we should lead this charge?

Because for too long we have held an antagonistic position on adoption that bumps heads with the fact that adoption is more common – more acceptable if you like –  in white culture than it is in black or Indian culture. This is a well-documented fact that is borne out by adoption statistics. For too long we have stood in judgement of this fact, as if white cultural perspective on this thing is somehow better or right. We have made our position on this well-known so now we are left with two clear options: we can all hold onto our views and adoption will slowly die. Or we can reach out to one another in humility and peace, park our preconceived ideas and cultural preferences and talk to each other in the interests of our children.

I know which option I’m backing.  

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. 

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

Keeping positive in South Africa

Keeping positive in South Africa

I am sometimes asked how I keep positive about living in South Africa. My answer is usually four-fold: Firstly, when I do those personality assessments I am usually categorised as having a positive personality type. So in some ways it is a part of who I am. Secondly – and this is not meant to be flippant or provocative – I am white and middle class; I have very little to complain about. Thirdly, our democracy is as healthy and robust as it has been in centuries and we are privileged to live in these times. Finally, and arguably most significantly, I am surrounded by incredible people; positive, proactive and passionate, who are quietly going about their business, working to make South Africa a better place.

In my writing, I have regularly celebrated such people. I have written about a little girl who gave all her hard-earned money to orphans; about a young man who made an under-privileged girl’s dream come true by taking her to his matric dance and about a woman who has invented washable, reusable sanitary pads for needy girls.

These people have replaced moaning with some form of action big or small and they seem to have the ability to see the bad but allow it to affect them for good. This is not a unique gift given only to a few. This is a decision.

Once in a while we have the profound privilege of meeting and working with people who literally take our breath away. Such people are usually more human; down-to-earth, lacking in any form of “saviour mentality” and completely at peace with the ‘littleness’ of their mission. They flee from any form of grandstanding or glory-seeking and they do not care who gets the credit. From within this humanity emanates a deep and very inspiring sense of authenticity; a lack of both false humility and ego-driven self-righteousness. They also have enormously high levels of love and empathy that are a result of years of practicing those affects.

Joanne and Bjorn Teunissen are a couple that take your breath away.

When I first met these two people they were on a mission to adopt their son, 3-year old Emmanuel. Both educators – at the time Bjorn was headmaster of Crawford North Coast and is now at Crawford La Lucia and Jo was a primary school teacher running a business selling educational toys – they had no intention of opening a home for abandoned and orphaned babies. But the call was always upon them and it was a matter of time before they partnered with Cathy and I and opened the doors of the Baby Home Durban North on their property in Glen Anil. With their experience of adoption and their expertise as teachers, they took to this new mission as if they had been waiting all their lives to do it. Typically, they embarked on a road less travelled, extending their services to caring not only for babies but also for vulnerable toddlers and children with special needs.

One word describes this couple (and indeed their kids Kiara, Tatum & Emmanuel) and sets them apart: Wholehearted. They don’t just care for vulnerable children, they do it with such joy; such unbridled glee. They simply love it; pigs in poo you might say! They do it with everything they have.

And this is what makes them so unique. If you look at their Facebook page, you won’t just see pictures of babies being cared for. You will see pictures of babies eating bowls of colourful jelly, laughing, riding plastic scooters, playing in parks, on swings, swimming, mucking about, eating ice creams, going to school; you will see babies curled up fast asleep in the arms of one of their daughters, you will see shots of volunteers laughing as they joke with the family. It is one big happy family; love in action.

I am not sure if I can properly capture in words what this family does day-to-day suffice to say that they don’t have 3 kids, they have 9; 3 of their own and 6 in the Baby Home. They love totally, and with utter abandon. They are 1 in a billion.

I encourage you go and visit the Teunissen family and their Baby Home. Allow them to rub off on you. They are a true inspiration; a tonic for negative and battle weary South Africans.

You can contact them on jo@peaceagency.org.za.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.

This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.

 

 

My Holiday – by Paul Gwala’s ‘big brother’

My Holiday – by Paul Gwala’s ‘big brother’

The list of ‘firsts’ for our 22-year-old traveling companion was as lengthy as his first long-distance car journey: He had never in his life been on a holiday – ever. He didn’t know what it meant to be so excited that you battled to sleep the night before your journey. He didn’t know the thrill of being up before dawn, packing up as a family and heading off on an adventure, munching your sarmie and drinking a coffee.

He had never been out of Kwa-Zulu Natal let alone into another country. He had of course never needed a passport and were it not for this trip and our rooting through Swaziland to the Kruger National Park, he might never have needed one. He had never seen an expanse of water like Lake Jozini, a landscape as wide as Northern Kwa-Zulu Natal or a sky as blue as the Lowveld on a hot summer day.

Many of you will know the privilege of taking a child or indeed an adult on their first holiday; the wonder, the awe, the unfettered joy on their face; seeing a world that is so familiar to you through someone else, is a true blessing. As a family we go to Kruger as often as we can; it is our happy place and we know it extremely well. But through Paul I saw the magnificence of the place afresh as I witnessed it through his virgin eyes: I saw the beauty of an impala as if for the very first time; I laughed out loud at how comical warthogs are and marveled at the size of a giraffe; I willed a cheetah to show off her speed; my eyes grew bigger at the sight of elephants and I longed – longed – to see a lion (and I did!). I had my first ever bush braai off a Skottel braai and my first sundowners by a river. I had the time of my life.

Paul is a young man that has been in our life for many years. He calls me his big brother. I have mentored him through our Bright Stars Mentorship Program and I have watched how a young 14-year-old that the system forgot, has turned into a fine young man. I have walked the road of his failure to matriculate and watched as he worked tirelessly to make a real success of an IT apprenticeship, achieving necessary qualifications and clawing his way from a trainee to a junior IT consultant. I know there are many of you who have had similar experiences; you will know that mentoring a vulnerable child is as much a gift to the mentor as it is to the mentee.

I have seen how desperate Paul has been to work his way out of shack living in Mayville and into a decent life where he could one day have a wife and children and be able to provide for them. I have sat for hours listening to the specs of every Mercedes Benz on the market; Paul is passionate about Mercedes and his big dream is to one day own one!

Yet, he has never seen an Impala. He has never seen a big mountain range. He has never had a picnic out in the wild and he has never had a family that could afford to take him on a holiday. And when he Facebooks his mates to tell them all about his adventure he gets comments like: “Why does this sound like a Grade 8 oral where the kid is lying about what they did on holiday?” Paul is one of millions of South African children and young adults for whom life is a dreamless, colourless, hopeless march to the beat of the drum of poverty.

Have you seen an impala Mr Zuma? Have you and your friends been on a holiday? Do you have a decent home where you can have a family and dream about things? Your actions are indefensible not necessarily because they have been proved or disproved by your Secretary General or in a court of law, but because our Pauls live in poverty that disallows them a decent life. This is the true and most devastating fallout from your failure to lead. This is the consequence of your greed.

And it’s not just Mr Zuma and his pals who have turned their back on our nation’s impoverished young; we all have to some degree. I feel deeply ashamed about Paul. How can it have taken me nearly 10 years to take him on a holiday?

Until every child in this country can be a child; wonder, gasp for joy, jump up and down with excitement; laugh from their belly; go on holiday and see amazing things, then we have all failed.

Every one counts. Consider mentoring one of the millions of kids who need to learn to dream again; take a child on holiday if you can – or just to your local beach or bird park; for an ice cream or for a game of Putt Putt (another first for Paul). How can we expect our kids to become productive adults if we don’t love and care for them?

It is up to us.

For more information on Bright Stars contact sandi@peaceagency.org.za