“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.
Should the proposed National Minimum Wage of R20 an hour (R3500 per month) be implemented, around 6.6 million people will benefit.
We should take a moment and allow that to settle in our souls; an estimated 6.6 million people earn less than R20 an hour. R160 per day. And get this, I know people who know people who are paying R11 an hour with no contribution to transport. R88 per day with up to half of that lost to transport. R44 a day. Most of these people are domestic workers who care for our children, our elderly and our homes. We entrust our loved ones and our most valuable assets to people we pay somewhere between R50 and R120 per day.
There are a few unavoidable consequences when people are impoverished and demeaned in this way. Here are a few of them – I am sure you will think of some more:
People live with unimaginably high levels of stress
People resort to debt simply to live
People steal and engage in other criminal behaviours to survive
People may turn to alcohol and abuse of other substances as hopelessness sets in and they lose the ability to dream.
Loyalty and work ethic often diminish
Anger and resentment build
And yet I know people who know people who are resisting paying their staff well despite all this. And we must remember that the word ‘minimum’ is just that; a minimum. We should be striving to pay significantly above this.
When The Peace Agency began the first Baby Home in Durban, South Africa we resolved that one of our key objectives as an NGO was to pay our team of staff a poverty-busting wage. One year, we doubled each staff member’s salary and from then on, everyone received at least one, sometimes two significant increases a year. Everyone always gets a 13th cheque. Yes, this means that as an NGO we can “do less” in terms of babies. But the reality is that we are caring for more people. As a team, everyone feels dignified and empowered. This dignity and empowerment – not to mention resources – is then imparted outside of the workplace in our families and communities. Not only that, but because we are well cared for as a team, we can care well for the babies in return. People want to work at the Durban North Baby Home.
If we cannot afford to pay at least the minimum wage, then we cannot afford to start companies or NGO’s, and we cannot afford domestic staff. Poorly paid work is not better than no work at all as it destroys people’s humanity and hence the very fabric of society.
We recently had a dear uncle visit us from Singapore. He was surprised by the vast number of massive building projects he saw. The number of ‘cranes in the sky’ – a very good bellwether for the state of a countries economy – completely belied what he had heard about the perilous state of our economy.
Alas, we concluded, what a shame that these cranes were obviously an anomaly because we all know that South Africa is teetering on the edge of economic demise.
That week of my uncle’s visit, final quarter GDP growth figures for 2017 were released and the cranes had not been wrong after all. At 3.1% we had enjoyed the strongest growth rate in 6 quarters. This obviously does not mean we are shooting the lights out – and we certainly have major challenges ahead of us – but it does mean that we are growing.
Now the question is, what damage is done when we follow blindly and parrot liberally the lies and half-truths that generally support our political bent? If my uncle from Singapore – and incidentally he is in the forex business – is hearing nothing but bad news coming out of South Africa, you can be sure that this narrative is dominating worldwide. The phenomenon of what I call “narrative sheep syndrome” – blind followers of a particular storyline – will be impacting not only how we are viewed, but on foreign direct investment, tourism and of course employment and poverty levels. We are our own worst enemy.
Similarly – but perhaps even more damaging than the economy narrative – the last few months have been fraught with tension over the issue of land. This has been a worrying example of narrative sheep syndrome because the wrong story with this issue could lead to people fleeing the country and worse. We simply are unable to separate the facts from the fiction and we are being driven by fear that is precluding us from seeing the enormous possibilities that lie within land expropriation without compensation.
To give you a sense of the possibilities, just last week I was exposed to a totally fresh narrative around land and how it can work if we think differently. I had the privilege of spending a few days with colleagues on a remote and extraordinarily beautiful Free State farm. In a valley in the magnificent Maluti Mountains we felt like we were in another country; the way these people are living life again totally belies the news headlines that we had left behind.
Several years ago, new owners bought the land and immediately partnered with the local village residents. Now this in itself is nothing new. But what was new was how they were partnering. They placed respect, dignity and equality front and centre in a non-patriarchal partnership. The land became a holy space of cohabitation and production rather than a bone over which they would fight. We had the opportunity to spend an evening hearing the locals speak about the partnership and there was no hint of the depressingly usual: “Baas so-and-so has been so kind to us – we are so thankful.” This was a partnership in every sense of the word. For example, a lodge and conference centre have been built by local hands – but not by simply contracting them in as labour, but by inviting them to offer their skills and talents so that they are engaged in work that they enjoy. The farm is productive and is now at the centre of a successful cooperative. Oh and by the way, after generations of uncertainty, the owners have given the locals their land. They didn’t involve the authorities in this negotiation, they did it themselves; with the requisite honour and respect that was due to both parties. They sat together as partners and decided what would be right and fair and that was the number of hectares they agreed on.
This is a model of land redistribution that is working because people are willing to think differently and open their hands. Relationship has been prioritised over land.
This story flips the land narrative on its head. We can do this thing well – as we did with the transition to democracy – and be a shining light again to the rest of the world. They made it clear that it was hard work. But it is working.
South Africa is not an easy country to get a handle on and yet we persist in latching on to single, one-dimensional narratives that are dished up by political parties and consumed around dinner tables all over the country. We then spew them forth at every opportunity. These one-dimensional narratives render us powerless to play a role as active citizens. Not only that, but buying into them creates fear which robs us of the creativity that is required to overcome difficult issues.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
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.
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 calledSA NPO Networkand 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 Networkhas 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 viaSA 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime take a look at SA NPO Network on Facebook.
“I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around, when they triumph over poverty. I wanna be there when the people win the battle against AIDS. I wanna lend a hand
I wanna be there for the alcoholic. I wanna be there for the drug addict. I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse. I wanna lend a hand.
Send me.” From “Thuma Mina” by Hugh Masekela, as quoted by Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation Address.
Much has now been written about President Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address, but I want to focus in on the above quote. Its use was a tactical master-stroke and very far from fluffy or sentimental. These words were chosen deliberately and are indicative of where our new President is taking this nation and what he expects from both himself and us.
With this quote, Ramaphosa sent two very clear messages. Firstly, he let us know something of the man he is and what his main purpose will be; that he is a man-of-the-people in a very real sense; a man who would direct his energy towards the alleviation of the pain of the oppressed, the down-trodden, the sick and the poor of our country. This was a stinging indictment of his predecessor; it was a brutal poetic slap-down of our last “man-of-the-people” President; the one who gleefully, irresponsibly, heartlessly accepted this title whilst singing and dancing and chortling and raping us.
The second thing the President did by quoting these lines is that he inspired us to join him in his mission to help “turn it around”. “Thuma mina” – “Send me”, was his version of the Obama campaign cry, “Yes We Can” in which the former US President brilliantly commissioned both himself and his fellow citizens in these 3 simple words. In an unusually personal piece by Huffington Post SA Editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee she said: “Suddenly, I want to lend a hand, to be sent. I haven’t felt that for the past decade.” This response is surely what Ramaphosa was aiming for – the mobilization of our people – and has surely been said (or at least felt) by many across the country.
But for this quote not to become a distant, feel good memory; for it to become part of the essence of who we are and how we operate as a nation in the post-Zuma dispensation, we need to spend some time with it and ask what it means for us. For Haffajee and her colleagues in the media former Editor-in-Chief of the Mail and Guardian Anton Harber hit the nail on the head in response to Haffajee’s article: “The best way you can lend a hand is to continue to be a vigilant, active, critical citizen and journo.” For our new President, we all have our views on what this should mean for him.
But for the ordinary man-in-the-street, what do we do to “lend a hand”? In the quote Ramaphosa talks to several key issues that affect people daily: poverty (and by implication it’s parent’s unemployment, inequality and poor or nonexistent education); health issues (including the destructive scourge of addiction) and violence and abuse (crime). What can we do to help ensure a better life for our people in these complex and overwhelming areas? What questions should we be asking of ourselves if we want to say with our President: “I want to lend a hand, send me”?
Before we go to some possible questions, let’s be clear that “me” may include individual actions and that is good and necessary. But let us not discount me in relation to others. It’s all about working together in some form of small “community” grouping – whatever that looks like for you – to help turn things around bit-by-bit. You may already have a group that exists for other purposes – from church home groups to book clubs to a running group – you may want to start a group.
The point-of-departure for this “lending and sending” type of work, is dialogue. The basis of this dialogue should be to come together in these small groups and ask good questions that will spark new seeds of creativity and passion in us. As Albert Einstein famously said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Here are some questions that might help the dialogue:
As a community/neigbourhood/district, what challenges do we face? Which area of challenge would we like to help in? What gifts, talents and resources do we have in this group (or could we mobilise) that could be useful? How could we begin doing the necessary work using the resources we have?
If you would like assistance, training or resources to help get started, local NGO the Democracy Development Program (DDP) is hosting a workshop called “Send Me”. For more information contact email@example.com and use “Send Me” in the subject line or call 031 304 9305.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter