I was recently invited to be part of a small speaker panel at a local church in my home town of Salt Rock, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
As I prepared for the session, I became overwhelmed by all the bad news that is currently surrounding us in South Africa.
I tend to steer clear of regurgitating reams of negativity as I feel the mainstream press does a great job of keeping us all up-to-speed with that. But my mind couldn’t help going there: the brazen looting at VBS, the constant revelations of state capture; Johan Booysen’s reminder to us of the rot at the National Prosecuting Authority; the various commissions of enquiry that literally spew forth the rotten, effluent of the Zuma years. The Rand tumbling. Petrol prices sky-rocketing. Good people fleeing for foreign shores and bad people remaining, unpunished. It made me feel quite ill to be honest.
If you are feeling a degree of discomfort or even depression at the state of our nation and indeed the world then in my mind you are simply human. It tells me you care; you desire the fulfilment of your right to happiness; you are concerned about the betterment of the world; for safety and prosperity and well-being for all and not just the entitled rich; for the well-being of our children.
But questions kept coming to me that troubled me: Is my discomfort, my depression based on reality or on an invention of some kind? Who or what is controlling my state-of-mind; me or the news media or my friends or what I read on social media? Am I choosing to believe what is negative to fulfil some need for belonging; belonging to a legion of South Africans who are trapped in their own victimhood? Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
I asked these questions because there was appearing a genuine paradox in my mind: I cannot possibly deny that we are better off as a nation today than we were this time last year and yet I feel worse. How come?
So let’s unpack this for a moment: If this time last year I had told you that Zuma would be gone, Cyril Ramaphosa would be our President; Tito Mboweni would be our Minister of Finance; Shaun Abrahams would have gone; Tom Moyane would have gone; Nomgcobo Jiba would have been suspended; some R100 billion worth of foreign direct investment would have been committed; a slew of commissions of enquiry would have been established to investigate state capture and the demise of SARS – would you have taken it? I would have!
So again, why am I more negative today than this time last year? And why do I know that I am not alone?
The truth is that the truth will set us free. However, it will cause us considerable discomfort even pain, whilst it does. We are currently buckling under the burden of bad news. Because as much as I may list all the great things that have happened since last year, they have come amidst revelation after stinking revelation of the depth to which our nation has sunk in the past decade. And as we ingest our weekly, daily sometimes hourly doses of News24, Daily Maverick, City Press or whatever our media poison happens to be, we are systematically contaminating ourselves with the truth. And we are right at the bottom of the bad news barrel right now; we are in a very deep, dark place and we are struggling to see the many colourful and beautiful lights that are surrounding us.
I am not saying we shouldn’t expose ourselves to what is happening around us – far from it. The evangelist Billy Graham used to say that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I believe this wisdom should apply to us all. But we must also guard against over-exposure; we must be wise in what we consume and what we believe because not all “truth” is true; not all truth is good or helpful; not all truth needs to be immediately consumed.
This column is all about giving people small things we can all do to make South Africa a better place. But without hope (as opposed to optimism) we are not able to breathe; we are not able to give or serve; we are not able to fulfil our purpose for the world. We must take time; find some quiet and stillness and allow ourselves to find the good amidst the bad; shake off this crushing weight of negativity and take some time to focus on just how and why and where we are better off today than a year ago.
Then – charged with a lightness of being and a slight twinkle in the eye – we can be that change that we wish to see in the world.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death
Today I was touched by an e-mail forwarded to me by a dear friend Dr Leann Munian. She is a Paediatrician who was writing a farewell note to her colleagues before transferring to another hospital.
In the note she wrote a fascinating line about a major shift in her thinking and her career that took place some time ago after a stint in Syria with Gift of the Givers:
“…I returned to the hospital of my birth, “to save the world”, “one baby at a time”.” What a remarkable thought process; that changing something as huge as the world can happen one very small baby at a time.
But it jogged my memory, because my dear friend and colleague Dr Rama Naidu puts the same thought in a slightly different way. Now for some context, this man is a world class agent of change who has impacted on countless numbers of people during his remarkable career. But he works in small groups of between 8 and 80 people at a time, facilitating their growth and development. He says: “We change the world one conversation at a time.” This echoes one of my gurus Peter Block who talks about changing the world “one room at a time; the room you are in.”
Another friend and colleague Dr Louise van Rhyn founder of Partners for Possibility – the world-renowned South African program that pairs school Principals from under resourced schools with business leaders in a transformative co-learnership – talks about changing the world “one partnership at a time.” There simply must be something in this thinking if all these doctors are saying the same thing!
But it sounds fanciful, even flaky, especially within the parameters of our Western thinking that is so dominated by outcomes, measurement and numbers. In the NGO field, tell a potential funder you save the world “one baby, one conversation, one partnership at a time”, they will smile and tell you to come back and talk when you have “taken your project to scale”. In the business world, have a conversation that is about change outside of the context of a rising bottom-line and you will quickly hear terms like “soft skills” being used.
We play this game because we must – or must we? It seems that all of us in any form of people-based, healing, transformation/change, “nation building” work have been on a journey to understand and accept that change and growth can only happen one of anything at a time. And this is on the positive spectrum. Just ask Adam Catzavalos how one racist WhatsApp message can change your life for the worse.
This may seem frustrating because we want positive change to happen quicker than this. It just doesn’t satisfy our hard-wired need – and the world’s expectation – for us to “deliver results” (aka numbers). It has taken me literally years to come to terms with this “one-by-one” thinking and I thank my friends above for always reminding me about this when I get frustrated by my own or our country’s seeming “lack of progress”.
This column is about each of us playing our part in the change we wish to see for our country and our world. So, the question is what is your “one at a time”? For my paediatrician friend it is a baby. For Rama it is a conversation. For Louise it is a partnership. For you it could be one customer at a time, one article at a time, one learner, one client, one staff member, one patient, one child.
The trick? Be for that person or situation everything you wish to see the world become.
Then the world will change. Not tomorrow or next week. But right now.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered and Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.