What Happens Beyond the Ballot Box?

I have always believed that one must vote.

But an insightful piece by journalist Ranjeni Munusamy before the elections questioned this hitherto unquestionable logic and I must say – as I saw how many voters chose to spoil ballots or simply stay away – I now question it too.

Choosing to withhold or spoil your vote, is also a democratic choice. Whilst it won’t assist in putting a politician into a seat in parliament, it does send a message that you are gatvol and no party deserves your vote. This year 235,449 people spoilt their vote. Well over 9 million people registered to vote but abstained. This is massive. People are clearly tiring of a system that does the same thing every few years, but for them doesn’t produce the promised change . Surely, we are entering a “post-democracy” era? 

I have also heard it said that if you don’t vote you have no right to complain. Well, this is absurd. Firstly, everyone has a right to complain if they will. But more importantly, if you aren’t going to vote surely you should do something else to contribute to change? I am not a big fan of complaining but if you can’t vote, get involved in other ways. Write letters to your local press explaining why you chose not to vote. Get hold of your local ward councillor and demand accountability for specific needs within your community. Resolve to tackle racism in yourself and others. Get active in your local community: Start a community dialogue in which you discuss how to help your local school to perform better. Join your community block watch. Fix something that’s broken. Pick up litter. This is all doable regardless of who you are and what your situation is.

I did vote and I was excited to exercise that right. But as far as political choices were concerned, I was deeply conflicted. Had I been true to myself I wouldn’t have voted.

The truth is that to vote, withhold or spoil our vote is the end of our role as citizens of a democracy, unless we are prepared to participate for change beyond the ballot box. We can no longer delegate the running of our lives and our country to politicians and bureaucrats. This dance is up, and it didn’t work particularly well in the first place.

We must show up as active citizens every day between elections and contribute in ways that build our people and our country.        

Then we will watch our country rise.

The Miracle of South Africa’s Survival – From 1990 to 2018

In South Africa we are no stranger to miracles; miracles of course that don’t only happen in buildings with crosses on the wall.

In fact, one definition of the word miracle that I like is: “a remarkable (and yes by all means replace this word with ‘supernatural’) event or development that brings welcome consequences”.

It dawned on me whilst listening to a talk by Max du Preez last week that South Africa has had a number of significant miracles that have taken place in the past 26 years that have either paved or saved our democracy.

There was the miracle of the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the unbanning of the ANC in February of 1990. Then there was the miracle of the peace that was experienced in the aftermath of the assassination of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993. What was designed to cause a race war became a rallying call by then ANC President Nelson Mandela: His words were the miracle: “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”

There was the miracle of the appointment of Adv Thuli Madonsela as our Public Protector on the 19th October 2009. It is common cause that her and her team – acting with supernatural integrity and bravery – brought to the public’s attention what is now known as state capture.

All these events went against the run of play – surely the main criterion for calling something a significant miracle. And believe me, there are plenty more happening every day.

But Max du Preez highlighted another and perhaps even more unlikely miracle than any of these. It happened at Nasrec in Johannesburg in October 2017 at the ANC elective conference when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC President paving his way to the Presidency of the Republic. According to du Preez who was there, there were heavies manning the entrances handing out stacks of R100 notes to ensure the vote went with Nkosasana Dlamini Zuma – Jacob Zuma’s preferred candidate. As we know, it was only the 11th hour switch from then Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza that tipped the scales in Ramaphosa’s favour. If that hadn’t happened Jacob Zuma would still be our president. #shiversdownmyspine.

What of all this talk of miracles?

Quite simply, we have no evidence to support the often-touted view that South Africa will fail. We have only evidence of miracles happening just-in-time. If miracles are what cause our faith to rise, then we should all be full-to-bursting with faith that our country is headed in the right direction.

And finally, all the above miracles involved – in one way or another – the active participation of the citizens of this and other countries.

Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit Part 1

This monthly feature is my response to the President’s invitation: “Thuma Mina – Send Me”. It is a toolkit of ideas to help the public respond to that call.

Connecting NGO’s We have a dear friend and colleague by the name of Cindy McNally. Cindy lives in Durban. She is a wife, a busy mom to two little girls and a Chartered Accountant. She loves South Africa, social media and wine – not necessarily in that order. Two years ago, Cindy decided to marry her passion for these three things with her desire to make a difference. One night whilst drinking a glass of wine and playing around on social media, she began to do some research. Were there groups on social media that connected the tens-of-thousands of NGO’s in our country, enabling them to collaborate? She discovered to her amazement that there wasn’t; that NGO’s in our country are largely very lonely, lone rangers. SA NPO Network So, without further ado, she started a Facebook group called SA NPO Network and quickly NGO’s all over the country began to connect. She moderated these discussions in her spare time, whilst having a glass of wine. In two years – with no funding or PR or office – SA NPO Network has over 3000 followers. The group swops ideas, contacts, donations and products. It puts NGO’s in contact with donors and vice versa. Just recently a company in Johannesburg wishing to donate hundreds of boxes of ready meals was connected with a creche in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal via the group. A thousand catheters found needy patients, an unused jungle gym in Cape Town is now being played on by some very happy under privileged children – all via SA NPO Network. Thuma Mina – Send Me: A Toolkit. Cindy McNally is a living example of this. Her secret? She is doing something that is in her “sweet spot”, because it involves stuff she already does and loves. What do you love? It may be as simple as walking so you can greet people as you pass them by thereby creating bridges and connections across age, race and gender. You may love sport…you may love cooking. What can you do with these talents to lend a hand? That is the heartbeat of this call; no grand gestures necessary. Just us using what we have. This is your toolkit! Thuma Mina Workshops We will be running a series of workshops to help people get clarity on what they can do. For more information e-mail justin@peaceagency.org.za. In the meantime take a look at SA NPO Network on Facebook.

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.

How to Perfect Corruption

You may remember an old advertising campaign for SAA that featured the somewhat benign strapline: “We didn’t invent flying, we just perfected it.”

This line sprang to mind recently whilst talking with a group of people at a work function. One of our group was talking quite openly – if a tad sheepishly – about how he had bribed a municipal official to help make something or other go smoothly in some or other area of the country where he is involved in some kind of business. I am of course protecting him and his company’s identity because – other than this little indiscretion – he is quite a nice fellow and I also happen to do some work for him that I would prefer not to lose. The conversation caused the above-mentioned advertising strap-line to resurrect itself from the deep recesses of my memory and I began to chuckle quietly to myself as I replayed it over-and-over in my mind replacing the word “we” with specific people’s names: “Shabir Shaik didn’t invent corruption, he just perfected it.”; “Jacob Zuma didn’t invent corruption, he just perfected it.” On-and-on I went, working my way through our cabinet, their friends, our state-owned enterprises and our sports teams. It was fabulously amusing in a sick kind of way.    Then the crash-boom-bang moment. I suddenly felt a little uneasy as my attention swung back to the conversation at hand and away from the ones who have become celebrities on little more than the grounds of their own corruption. There we sat, a group of hard-working, “upstanding” citizens – all of us relative unknowns, just getting about life in South Africa, contributing to the perfection of corruption; we nodded at the news of the infraction, smiled, drank our wine and ate our food and remained quite quiet. Now, even as I write this it sounds like I am being rather critical – perhaps over critical – of our reaction. In the context of a civil and polite gathering, what is one meant to do? It would be rude to tackle the person and make an issue of the thing. In addition to this it might also have been hypocritical: “Let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone” and all that. And apart from all that, the bribe itself was not millions (“shouldn’t we be focusing on catching those who are corrupt on a grander scale?”), it was a few thousand. Well actually a few tens of thousands. But it wasn’t chicken coop large or even fire pool large, it was just a decent amount to smooth a path; get things done nicely if you like. Also, it would have paved the way for jobs to be created and communities to be sustained. But this line of internal argument proved insufficient to assuage my guilt. So, I chose to get personal. I reminded myself that I might not be brave enough to speak out in person, but I do my bit; I write about citizen participation; about each of us being co-architects of a better future for all and playing our part in creating peace and stamping out corruption and other crime; I tell people to blow the whistle on corruption all the time. Is this not enough to be allowed to claim that I am doing all I can to prevent corruption being perfected in our country? Let’s forget about the above-mentioned bride for a moment because to be honest, in itself that bribe will have done little to perfect corruption. What perfects corruption is when people hear of corruption and do nothing. My mind wandered off again to an altogether less chuckle-inducing place: “Justin Foxton did not invent corruption, he just perfected it.” My self-justifying self now took over the argument: “That is not fair!” I simply cannot be accused of corruption let alone perfecting the jolly thing!” But now came the most piercing personal revelation of all: The thought process behind ignoring corruption is as devious – perhaps even more so – than the thought process that drives the corrupt act itself: I will pay this person with my silence to secure his business. He will give me money and I will give him protection. She will give me friendship and I will give her my faithful silence; he will be a brother to me and I will protect him come what may. It becomes so easy for me to point the finger at others when I am involved in the perfection of corruption all the time. We will overcome the nation-slayer called corruption as we acknowledge that we are all in some way complicit in its perfection. This is not about flogging ourselves. It’s about getting quite honest with ourselves and asking what we can personally do to turn the tide on corruption. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.