Meeting the Need that Meets Me

“Purpose”; “meaning”; “calling”– these and similar concepts have become very popular in recent times. For many of us, it is no longer enough to work hard to support our family and pay a weekly visit to our place of worship be that mosque or mountain. We want to be a part of “changing the world”; “shifting the needle”; “making a difference”. This is because we are evolving and so is spirituality and faith – thank God.

As it dawns on us that charity (love) should begin at home, but that it certainly cannot end there, we might begin to feel a pull towards something to do that is bigger than ourselves. And we might – especially at the beginning of a year – look to volunteer at a creche or visit the sick or elderly. If we are feeling very brave, we might go on a mission trip or even think to start an NGO.

This can all be very useful, but to what extent is it ego-driven – all about my purpose; my calling; my giving back? Or possibly an appeasement of guilt or a way to shine up my personal brand? In the end, our true purpose – the kind that will have lasting impact – is found and met not by what we do, but by who we are; by how we show up in the world every minute of every day. Is it authentic? Is it about what I say it is? Is it rooted in love? Are my eyes, my mouth, my heart and my hands aligned as I reach out beyond myself?

I have come to this through involving myself in seemingly “big-hearted” works that in the end were much more to do with my ego than the subjects of my seeming love and compassion. This has been a deeply painful realisation.  

So now, I am just trying to show up differently. If there is someone selling litchis at the tollgate I will buy the litchis because this is someone’s livelihood. Do I need hangers? Perhaps not – but I can afford to buy the hangers. I will buy them as this will feed someone’s child. If I hear that people have lost everything in a fire in a small town or a flood somewhere, I will send what I can. So, what I am trying to do is meet the need that meets me, whether that is a national news story or a car guard who has perhaps done very little to guard my car.

Please note: I am generally awful at this. I get very irritated and frustrated and I often find myself miserly and tight spirited.  But I believe that my weak efforts to show up well are better-intentioned and hence more impactful than my grand gestures. I also believe that they mix with grace to create an impact beyond themselves.       

First Do No Harm

“Primum non nocere” is a Latin phrase that means “first, do no harm.”

Apparently, all medical students are taught this fundamental principle and it basically means that when faced with a problem, it may be better to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good. It may strike you that this is rather negative. If the whole world – when faced with an issue – did nothing for fear of causing more harm, then presumably nothing would ever get resolved. But, that is not the power of this maxim. Its potency lies in the somewhat un-Western notion of stillness, silence, non-doing when action or words would simply fan the flames of trouble and strife. An example: Marikana. If “primum non nocere” had been the guiding moto of the police during those horrific days in August 2012, that atrocity would likely never have happened. The aim of this monthly feature is to give all of us small, achievable actions that we can each do daily to contribute to the healing of our nation. But perhaps we should have begun with something even more basic; on the surface, simpler – yet fundamentally more challenging. Primum non nocere – first, do no harm. What might this even look like for us living in South Africa? On a personal level, I think it suggests that if we have nothing positive to contribute either with words or deeds, then rather say and do nothing. Practically, this might mean bowing out of pessimistic conversations with friends or colleagues and taking a decision not to forward negative (and often untruthful) articles or statements on social media. If you have decided to leave the country to leave with the excitement of a new adventure top-of-mind rather than feeling the need to justify that decision with negativity about South Africa. You see negativity is an energy just as positivity is. We build stuff with positive energy. So, if you don’t feel positive – which is fine – then choose simply not to be negative. First do no harm. On a broader level, I would suggest to companies and NGO’s, ask whether your actions – as well meaning as they may appear – may cause more harm than good. An example: you may decide that a community close to your business needs a community hall because you see people holding meetings under trees. You build a beautiful hall using your CSI budget but are horrified that within a couple of months the hall remains unutilized and has been vandalised. You say: “What ungrateful people – we shall never help them again”. Trouble is, you didn’t ask them if they needed or wanted a hall. You made an assumption based on what you thought they needed. In fact, they tore down the hall and sold the materials so that they could raise money for piping water from the one community tap they have to several outlets. Now, you are angry at them and they are angry at you. Nothing good has come from what began as trying to do something helpful. Another example of this comes out of my NGO The Peace Agency. We raised funds and built a home for abandoned babies in Hammarsdale, Kwa-Zulu Natal. We chose this area because one of our best carers from our other Baby Homes in Durban Thando Dlamini lives there and we wished to upskill and empower her to run her own facility. We built the place and it took forever. Literally nearly 3 years. But during this period, we were able to do some unplanned research. We were fortunate to discover that the community there didn’t need a home for abandoned babies – they don’t have any issue with abandonment. They needed a creche. So, we changed our plans slightly and Thando now runs a top-notch facility. The lesson here is to conduct in-depth needs analyses before embarking on any community projects (yours or others). And if the need is not immediately evident and supported by all within the community – wait. First do no harm. Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte famously said that “a leader is a dealer in hope.” If you can, choose to deal in hope. If you are running low on hope – just enjoy a period where you don’t deal in anything. Rest perhaps and take all the time you need to rediscover a sense of possibility. 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.

NGO’s Need Cash Donations To Survive

Do you ever give donations to charitable organisations; orphanages, places of worship, animal sanctuaries, community safety organisations, education initiatives, anti-corruption groups – that kind of thing?

If you do, then you make up a small but vital part of the pool of over 80% of South Africans who give generously in support of these critical efforts. I say without fear of contradiction that this country would be in dire straits if it weren’t for our NGO’s. We have literally tens of thousands of non-profit organisations doing truly superb work with very little support except that which you and I (or our companies) might give to them. My wife and I have run an NGO for many years now. We start and administer homes for abandoned and orphaned babies and we have teams who work for us. Some of these homes now operate under the auspices of their own NGO’s, which is brilliant. Others – like the Baby Home in Durban North, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Hammarsdale Child Care Centre run under our NGO. All our advocacy work and other projects involves orphans and vulnerable children along with the creation of the kind of South Africa we all wish to live in. We are a very small NGO in the bigger picture, but last time I checked it cost us about R140k a month to operate. This is mostly taken up by rent and salaries (carers, house-parents and management – i.e. us. We employ 13 people in total). We are scrupulously honest, even going to the extent of publishing our annual report and financials on our website. However, many very generous people and organisations are unwilling to give monetary donations preferring to donate consumables; nappies, formula, medicines etc. Some like to give hardware – cots, blankets, clothes. Others like to dump their old rubbish on us but that’s for another time. Now, please don’t get me wrong. We are hugely grateful for all the (non-manky) consumables and hardware we get given. We depend on this. But we also – like every other NGO in operation – rely on money to operate. We must pay a qualified person to mix that formula up and feed it to a baby, change her nappy and lull her to sleep. It doesn’t just happen. And we choose to pay our carers and house mothers above the going rate. It is a priority of our NGO to pay poverty-busting salaries and give 13th cheques and significant increases. How else will we play our part in addressing inequality? And this brings me to my final point. NGO staff and management should ultimately be paid according to their education and years of experience – not according to the fact that they work in a non-profit organisation. NGO employees should be paid like their counterparts in for-profit companies. Yes, we are very passionate – but passion does not pay the rent. Now, we acknowledge that we cannot pay these kinds of salaries because we do not have a culture of deep respect for NGO’s that allows this to happen. For my part I have always relied on multiple sources of income for me and my family. All this humble NGOér requests is that you put aside past experiences where your generosity may have been abused and know that NGO’s need hard cash donations to survive. Our promise is that we will steward those funds wisely and carefully and we will always be accountable to you the donor. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter

Inequality – It’s In Our Hands

During the 16th Nelson Mandela lecture, former US President Barack Obama humbly and vulnerably took issue with a side of humanity that few are ever brave enough to; the side that says that more is always better.  He said: “Right now, I am actually surprised by how much money I got…There’s only so much you can eat. There’s only so big a house you can have. There’s only so many nice trips you can take. I mean, it’s enough.”   

The questions we might ask when presented with this thinking is, what is a former US President’s definition of enough? What is my enough? What is your enough? But by asking such questions we lose ourselves in ‘for instances’ and ‘hypotheticals’ and we miss the essence of what he is suggesting; that inequality is – at least to some degree – in our hands to fix. He is basically suggesting that as long as one of our number is in lack whilst I am not, then I have more than enough.

Of course, in our capitalist world where ‘more’ is the only game in town, this thinking is naïve. It sounds like charity speak. But that is where we have gone wrong; we have commoditized giving. We have turned what should be a normal everyday human response to inequality into a system of points, rewards and tax breaks.

But President Obama is asking us to look at inequality differently, perhaps a little more like my child who looks at the beggar on the street and says: “Give that man our money – we have enough!”

How do we do this well? It begins with a shift in mindset: What can I go without, so people can have what they need to survive? This may be a physical thing like a meal or a movie or some new clothes, or it may be less tangible like a degree of financial security or the size of my savings account. Having begun to think this way then we begin to free ourselves of the constraints of our own poverty mentality. We can then think about doing some of these things:

  • Enjoy the fact that our tax goes in large part to feeding the poor. We can pay it thankfully and think or pray for those who have less.
  • We can become radical tippers. I loved the story of the Brit who was so impressed by having his petrol pumped by an attendant that he tipped 10% of the value of the full tank of fuel. We can make 15% – 20% restaurant tips the norm. R10 minimum for car guards and bag packers in supermarkets.
  • R20 an hour is not a living wage. We can pay R30+ an hour which is okay but still not great.
  • We can employ more people – especially women – than we necessarily need. We won’t do work that someone else can do for us and be paid for.
  • We can help our domestics, our gardeners with educating their children, maybe by arranging that they attend a better school, and maybe by assisting with the fees.

Does all this sound naïve? It may do – but the alternative is not: The alternative is a society slowly but surely torn apart by inequality.

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.

Be the Spirit of Christmas

If you happen to visit us anytime from June onwards, you will notice that our house is more of a Christmas workshop than a home.

You see, my wife Cathy is Santa’s undisputed elf of the century! If Christmas was to be cancelled for whatever reason, my wife would immediately cease to exist. This is at once very charming and deeply concerning; concerning because in my wife’s world, literally every person we have ever met gets a Christmas gift. So, you can just imagine the shock and horror for her when people say things like; “Christmas has become too commercial! We should be giving presence rather than presents,” or “we should be avoiding gifts like toys and games and rather give our children something more useful like annual membership to the local botanical gardens.” There is a growing movement to put Christ back into Christmas and that is all good and well. But in practise, what does that mean? Whether you believe in Christ as the saviour of mankind or not, what would you imagine He would want his birthday party to look like? Now, before we get all religious about this, let’s remember that His first miracle was to create a vast quantity of very good wine at a wedding. So, Jesus was not the pious nerd that we have made Him out to be. As far as I can tell, He would want us to give both presence and presents. And the latter is not a money thing; gifts come in all shapes, sizes and prices; Cathy makes a lot of her own presents and decorations. You see, theologically speaking, Christmas and generosity are inseparable.  So why use this celebration to teach our kids about being frugal or practical? Surely, this is the time when we teach them about selfless giving and generosity? If we examine our motivation for giving less at Christmas, might it reveal some meanness in us? I know it does in me. I watch Cathy’s gift giving and my blood pressure skyrockets just about as fast as our credit card bill. But then, I see the look of joy and amazement as her and Lolly hand out the carefully chosen and wrapped gifts to school security guards, cleaners and cooks (those who are most often forgotten) and I think this is probably the kind of birthday Jesus would have loved. Having given the presents, how do we give ourselves in terms of our presence? I recently came across some suggestions from an American Lawyer by the name of Howard W Hunter. Apologies to Mr Hunter for tweaking this in the interests of space and our local context: “This Christmas mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Replace negativity with hope. Give a soft answer. Encourage a young person. Keep a promise. Let go of a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Reach out to someone who doesn’t look or sound like you. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Give people your time and attention. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love and then speak it again.” Christmas is an invitation for us to move outside of ourselves and our comfort zones and into a world that is desperate for people to extend a kind word, a gentle touch or a helping or giving hand. Finally, you will notice that Hunter doesn’t say we should stop anything; on the contrary. He suggests we start doing small things that bring heaven to earth. This is a world in which charity – kindness and generosity – should begin at home, but not end there. So, from me and my family to you and yours, may you have the most glorious and abundant Christmas ever. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.