Living Extraordinary Lives

Many of you will recall the 1989 movie classic Dead Poets Society. Set in 1959 at an elite and conservative prep school in England, the movie tells the story of John Keating – an English teacher who inspired his students through his unorthodox methods of teaching poetry. The central theme of the movie could be summed up in the teacher’s exhortation to the boys to “make your lives extraordinary” a sentiment he summarised with the Latin exhortation carpe diem – seize the day. In 1989, this movie had deep resonance with me and a close group of good friends at our similarly elite and conservative high school in Johannesburg. At the time in an all-boys South African school, if you excelled at Rugby then you were assured a smooth passage through to matric with an assurance of being a prefect (and probably not a virgin) by the time you reached matric. But alas, my group of friends where no good at rugby and so you can probably guess that our leadership lives (and indeed our love lives) were less colourful than they might have been. In 1989, we were in Standard 9 – or grade 11 as they call it today – and into our lives walked one Roger Lovett, our very own John Keating. He was a teacher of enormous passion whose English lessons were filled with drama and wildness. He was an eccentric chap; portly with a thick mop who wore tweed jackets and owned a Great Dane, inevitably named Hamlet. He broke every rule in the book swearing, talking about sex in a way that mattered to 17-year-old boys and forcing us to reflect on the reality of life outside the safe confines of a mostly white South African private school. The video club he started would find us watching age restricted movies like the harrowing Burt Reynolds classic Deliverance. He started movie and theatre clubs and we would watch, discuss, argue and critique. He pushed us way beyond our 17-year-old selves. The only rule seemed to be that no subject was off limits. Friday evenings would find us at his home debating something-or-other most fiercely whilst eating food cooked by his wife and drinking wine that was most certainly not permitted. In all this, Roger Lovett caused us to believe we could live extraordinary lives. That is the power of great teachers and my friends and I owe a tremendous amount to this one man. I have not kept up with all my pals from our very own Dead Poets Society, but of the ones I am still in touch with, one has become a top lawyer, another an award-winning broadcast journalist, another began a hugely successful chain of restaurants and the other has become an award-winning movie producer. None of these achievements – all so different – should be seen outside of the impact that Roger Lovett had on our lives. You see this teacher gave us all a love for language, art, theatre, movies and reading. But most importantly he taught us how to think. He never allowed us accept the status quo; life as presented by the prevailing dialogue of our time. He never allowed us to regurgitate stock answers fed to us by our parents or the media. He forced us to engage critically with issues that matter. For me – in fact for us all –  this is where it all began; in that classroom, round that dinner table, in those theatres and movie houses. It was a member of this ‘elite group’ – film producer Barry Strick – that got me thinking about Roger Lovett and how desperately we need more of his ilk in our classrooms. Last weekend Strick’s significant and controversial movie “Twee Grade van Moord” (Two Degrees of Murder – subtitled in English) about the topical but thorny issue of assisted suicide, won Best Feature Film and the Audience Choice Award at the important Karoo Arts Festival. It is just the beginning for a much-needed movie that is tipped to go a long way both locally and abroad. Now, I seriously doubt whether beautiful and necessary films like this would ever see the light of day if it weren’t for great teachers like Roger Lovett challenging their learners to push the envelope of extra-ordinary in their chosen fields. We may grow up and move on but their legacy remains throughout lifetimes. I am not sure where Roger Lovett is today but two things I know for sure; the first is that we desperately need more of our teachers to become John Keatings and Roger Lovetts if South Africa is to reach her full potential. Yes, we need our teachers to teach but perhaps more importantly, we need them to inspire our children to extraordinary lives. The other thing I know is that if Roger Lovett was anywhere near Barry Strick at this point, he would grab him by the shoulders and bellow at him: “Well bloody done Strick!” Twee Grade van Moord opens at cinemas nationwide on 22 July. 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.

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 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.

How history will remember the man who insists on being President

In August 2014 highly respected ANC veteran Pallo Jordan found himself in hot water over lies regarding his academic qualifications. He had claimed to have a PhD going by the title of Doctor for years. Via an article in the Mail & Guardian, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe explained that Jordan had written to the party’s leadership taking full responsibility for what Jordan termed as “deceit over a long time”. Jordan apologised to the ANC, its members and all South Africans and resigned. There are moments in all of our lives that come to define us as men and women. For leaders with position and power, these moments may go down in the annals of history. For leaders like you and I they may simply become part of the history of our own small lives, or be forever etched in the minds of our children: “My Dad was always someone who did the right thing”; “My Mum played fast and loose with the law.” The story of Pallo Jordan’s deceit did not end with an apology to South Africans. That is because Pallo Jordan is a man of integrity. How can we possibly say that about a man who lied and cheated his way through decades of his life, receiving benefits that he should never have been entitled to? Well, we can say that because when confronted with that dreadful moment of truth about his lie (a variation of a lie that many of us have spoken in our lives to make ourselves or our companies sound more impressive), he chose to admit his mistakes and resign. With only the evidence provided by his conscience and a Sunday Times expose; without any pronouncements of a court of law – he did the hardest thing possible; he took responsibility and action. His apology would have meant nothing had he not resigned; his apology would simply have been a request for us to let him off the hook: “You have been a naughty boy Pallo, but we forgive you. Just don’t do it again.” My primary memory of Pallo Jordan is not that he lied about his qualifications. I remember him for the fact that he resigned as a result of being exposed. I remember how quickly, how decisively and how humbly he did it. I remember how he saw fit to respect South Africans and our democracy by doing what only the strongest of men and women and the best of leaders can ever do – kick themselves when they are down. Regardless of the fact that he would lose money, face and power he did what I have come to understand any true veteran of the struggle would do; he stood up bravely against anyone who dared to compromise the integrity of that struggle and the democracy that resulted – even when that person was him. I do not need to spell things out and in any case, much has been written about the man who still insists on calling himself our President. Suffice to say that whether you love him or hate him, this man will now be relegated to the trash-heap of history occupied by corrupt leaders; those who lied, cheated, deceived, manipulated and put themselves before the people. But he will not simply idle away his final years in ignominy for Nkandla or the fact that he violated his oath of office or any of the other atrocities committed by him. Ultimately, this will happen because he apologised without resigning. Had he resigned on Saturday night he may in years to come have even been honoured for some of his not insignificant achievements as President of the Republic. But now, history will only ever remember him for being a man who – when presented with that moment – chose to apologise but not resign. He will be remembered for the fact that he not only placed his needs before the party or his people, but before the constitution of the Republic. And this is what stalwarts, elders and civil society leaders are now protesting over. They have nothing to lose from standing against the systematic destruction of this mighty organisation. They know that a weak ANC is bad for everyone and they will not look on as Rome burns. What the man who insists on calling himself our President – and the entire ANC – has missed is that this has gone beyond politics and a scrutinising of the letter of the law. This now sets in motion the ANC’s slide downwards to the trash-heap occupied by corrupt liberation movements; those who lied, cheated, deceived, manipulated and put themselves before the people. What a tragic trajectory. Is it too late for redemption for either him or the ANC? I do not believe so. Provided this once proud organisation is able to liberate itself from its own propaganda and make itself accountable to you and I by speaking truth to power, then anything is possible. Pallo Jordan proved that people are very forgiving when the right thing is done. 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.

A man’s world – and always will be?

It is seldom that I read something that physically winds me. John Metta’s piece on Huffington Post entitled “I-Racist” did just that. If you haven’t read it I suggest you take a few deep breaths and do so. It is deeply challenging. I don’t want to ruin the read for you but at the heart of Metta’s piece is a simple hypothesis: the world order is still fundamentally white and not much about this fact is changing. But I don’t want to go down the race road in this piece; you can read I-Racist for that. I want to make a connection between what Metta is saying and Women’s Month/Day; the world order is still fundamentally male and we – men that is – are not doing enough to change this. In fact it can be argued that we are contributing to it. Over the years I have become increasingly concerned that August’s focus on women is beginning to do more harm than good. In a very insidious way we have begun to trivialise the issue of the inequality and abuse of women on a very fundamental level and – in so doing – we have watered down the very message that this month is aiming to communicate. August was meant to remind us that the emancipation of South African women is an ongoing project that is nowhere near completion. Instead we have slowly but surely turned it into something that looks like a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day: “Have you told your girls how much you love them?” I was asked on Women’s Day. I believe that this creeping distortion of what this month is all about is damaging the cause of the true emancipation of women. Contributing to this distortion is the growing commercialisation of Women’s Month; it is being used to market and sell products from beds to stationery. The current strapline of a Bic pen campaign is particularly troubling: “Look like a girl, Act like a lady, Think like a man, Work like a boss. #HappyWomen’sDay.” This campaign – and indeed many others –belittles the devastating issues facing millions of women on a daily basis in this country. Back to the connection with I-Racist: We live in a society in which men benefit from the oppression of women. Fundamentally we don’t believe that there is a problem with women’s equality in South Africa, just like we don’t fundamentally believe that there is a problem with racism. White people believe that black people should just “get over themselves” and “stop playing the race card”. Men fundamentally believe the same about women; “what do you mean you don’t have the same opportunities as men?” we ask incredulously. And if this sounds harsh then I invite you to ask yourself a few questions: how many female directors are there on your board? How many female leaders are there in your church/place of worship? How many male secretaries are there in your company? If the answer to all these questions is 50:50 then you have joined the fight against the abuse of women in South Africa. If not – then you are contributing to it. As President Obama said about tackling racism, it is not simply “avoiding the use of the word nigger”. By the same token, we abuse women in myriad ways and not just in how we talk about them or have sex with them – although those are massive issues in this country. We abuse them by accepting salaries that are higher than our female counterparts (on average 30% higher); we abuse them by investing in JSE-listed companies in spite of the fact that only 16% of executive directors in these companies are women; we abuse them by attending places of worship that continue to privilege men for positions of leadership and we abuse them by using Women’s Day to market products. The reality is that we are women abusers not necessarily because we lift a hand against women (although many do that too) but because we fail to lift our voices against a system that fundamentally, intrinsically privileges men. 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.

Too poor to afford a sanitary pad….

A hush descends over the small prefab classroom as the diminutive dynamo Sue Barnes gets up to address the girls. She begins by asking them what careers they wish to pursue and the enthusiastic answers belie their impoverished circumstances; doctors, pilots, poets and nurses. A master at what she does, Sue quickly latches onto their aspirations explaining that without proper care of their bodies they will be unlikely to achieve their goals. Towards the end of last year I wrote an article about the fact that over 60% of girls in South Africa miss a collective total of a year-and-a-half of their 5 year high school career due to menstruation. Compelled by poverty to use unreliable substitutes such as toilet paper, newspaper and even used pads, these girls – embarrassed and stripped of their dignity – stay away from school during their periods. Little wonder that only 39% of KZN children who were enrolled in Grade 2 in 2001 matriculated in 2011. Sue has the girls eating out of her hands. No stranger to the workings of the teenage mind she pulls no punches. Over her head goes a pink apron creatively designed using pieces of coloured fabric which depict the female anatomy. The girls roar with laughter as she uses colloquial terms to describe the different parts. She explains the female body, menstruation and how babies are conceived. The most important aspect of Sue’s talk is that their bodies are precious and should be respected and cared for. In that article I spoke of a unique solution to the problem of girls missing school due to menstruation; fully washable, reusable sanitary pad-cum-pantie sets designed specifically for less privileged girls called Subz Pads and Panties. A pack containing 2 x 100% cotton panties and 6 ultra-absorbent, multi-layered washable sanitary pads costs just R130 and will last a girl for 3 years! I appealed to readers to consider sponsoring a R130 pack for one girl. The response was overwhelming. Literally hundreds of people contacted me wishing to get involved. We raised enough to supply packs to over 500 girls in an impoverished Richard’s Bay community. In that column I wrote these words: “One of my hardest lessons in recent years has been what 19th Century Saint Therese of Lisieux called “The Little Way”. She was a simple Catholic nun who came to a profound understanding of the fact that change – redemption if you like – occurs only as we embrace The Little Way and embark on a life of small, intentional acts of love and compassion and repeat them often.” Seldom have I experienced this “Little Way” so clearly – so profoundly – as I did on that day in Richards Bay. For what could be more humble – more “little”- than a young girl’s need for a sanitary pad? And yet as we handed out pack after pack – each one containing not just the product but the love and compassion of a nameless, faceless donor – one of you – I understood that the little way is the only way. For it is only as we play our small part that lives are changed, dignity is restored and dreams can be fulfilled. R130 – to keep a girl in school. Who would have imagined that it could be that simple? As an NGO we want to help as many girls as we possibly can through this project. If you would like to sponsor a (nother) “Project Dignity” girl with a 3 year supply of washable, reusable sanitary pads please contact me on and I will send you details. R130 will literally transform a young life. 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.