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.
On a recent family holiday to the Kruger Park, we were enjoying a swim in one of the day visitor’s public pools.
The pool was full of people all having fun together and we were laughing and playing with the other families. Suddenly, I became aware of the pool attendant calling me over to speak to him. I waded over to him and asked if there was a problem. In a typically polite African way, he quietly told me that there was another pool at the main camp that we might enjoy more. “Why, what’s better about it?” I asked him perplexed. But then it dawned on me that he was inviting me (not telling me) to use a pool where there would be other white people. We declined his obviously well-meaning offer and stayed in that pool for the rest of the afternoon.
A lot of my writing focuses on race and racial identify in post-apartheid South Africa. For me it has been – and still is – an often very painful journey; a journey on which I have discovered to my shame the positive role that the simple colour of my skin has played (and still plays) in my life. On this journey I have also learnt the negative role that skin colour played (and still plays) in black people’s lives. But my white skin has also, at times, made my life sad and disconnected. It did at that pool. Why? Because I want to swim with my fellow South Africans. I do not want a special pool inhabited only by other white people.
As I have grappled with my white privilege and my place in post-apartheid South Africa, I have often felt deeply disconnected, as I did that day. This disconnection results in a form of displacement that manifests in many ways in us white folk; fear; racism; superiority; in statements like: “we’d be better off leaving”; in urgent and often frenzied attempts to “do good”; in burying our heads in the sand about racism; in leaving for foreign countries siting crime or lack of opportunity as reasons.
I have come to understand that at least some of these positions and attitudes come about as we discharge our pain and discomfort at living in a country in which we feel – to some degree – unwelcome as we are. There seems to be a built-in shame – acknowledge or unacknowledged – at being white living in South Africa. And lest we think we can outrun this shame, writer and researcher Brene Brown tells us that it is those of us who battle to admit to shame that suffer from it the most. This shame left unhealed is very toxic.
For those of us who remain here, do we deserve to feel unwelcome? Perhaps that isn’t the right question. Perhaps a better question might be; does anyone deserve to feel unwelcome in their own country?
Now, I don’t often feel the pain of being disconnected or displacement in overt ways such as the incident at the pool; it is subtle and not all the time. The white monopoly capital rhetoric makes me feel disconnected from my country. This is not because I do not believe that our wealth is still way too concentrated in the hands of white people – it is.
Political campaigning which suggests that prospective leaders are using too many white people on their campaign teams makes me disconnected. This is not because I believe that black leaders should use more white advisers than black – I do not.
Quotas and BBBEE make me disconnected. This is not because I don’t believe that our sports teams should privilege black players over white – I do. I also believe that a black job applicant should be privileged over a white job applicant of the same qualifications or experience. This is because restitution for decades of white privilege over black people must continue, until equilibrium (whatever that ultimately means) is reached.
So then, why am I writing about the pain and discomfort of being white in South Africa? Do I have the right to write this? Do I not deserve to feel this? Is it, for want of a better term, a necessary pain that must drive me – drive us all – to seek the healing, restoration and forgiveness our country still so desperately needs? I guess the answer to this will vary between people.
For me, the answer to all these questions is yes: yes, I have the right to write this; yes, I deserve to feel this pain and discomfort and yes, it is a very necessary pain that I must be willing to live with – embrace actually – in order that I might start to learn a new and better way of being white in South Africa.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.
There has been a great deal written about Angus Buchan’s recent mega prayer faith gathering near Bloemfontein entitled “It’s Time” and I don’t intend to add to the commentary on the event itself. However, it came about in a week in which an extraordinary video from a US church exploded on social media.
The video sees a middle-aged, white evangelical church pastor asking a young black man onto stage during a sermon. He gently invites the young man to take a seat and asks him to remove his shoes and socks. The pastor then recalls Donald Trump’s election campaign strapline “Make America Great Again” and asks the congregation to consider who America has ever been great for? Certainly not, he says, native Americans, Hispanics, African Americans like this young man, Asians or any other minority group for that matter. America, he says in a brutally factual and disarmingly humble manner, has been truly great for only one group of people; one race; his race. The white race.
In that same week, another church man – this time a local lay preacher and writer by the name of Lorenzo A Davids – penned a less widely circulated but no less powerful article in which he asked some equally probing questions as the US pastor had in his video: If “It’s Time” as Brother Angus tells us it is, then what is it time for? And why is now the time? In the context of his vast audience being mostly white, why was it not time when Madiba died or when Anene Booysens was brutally murdered or, I would add, when Chris Hani was assassinated? What makes now so unique as to see hundreds of thousands of people gather to pray in faith? Is it simply another way of articulating and embodying the Trump rallying cry; “Make South Africa great again.”? And if this is the case, then who are we really praying for it to be great again for? Because it was never great for too many people other than one race; my race; the white race.
Now, you may say that there were also non-white people at the Angus Buchan prayer gathering and that the spirit between races was loving, brotherly, embracing – even healing in its nature. I have heard superb stories of what happened at that event. This is all good and I do not wish for one moment to belittle anything of what took place there. However, it is not enough by a long way. We must add to our faith – whatever faith that may be – works that will actively arrest the decline of our nation but also radically transform it and bring restitution. What does this look like? What must we do? What is it time for?
I believe that what the American evangelical pastor does next provides us with the answer, but before going there, let me borrow again from Lorenzo A Davids who speaks profoundly about what he terms the Zacchaeus Moment. When he meets Jesus and has a revelation about the many he has wronged, the legendary criminal tax collector Zacchaeus – the small guy who had to climb up a fig tree to see Jesus – repents. This is not just a simple matter of saying sorry, although I am certain he did this. As part of his repentance he gives half of his possessions to the poor and to those he cheated out of money, he returns 4 times the amount he had taken. Put another way, his repentance included significant restitution. He added to his faith, action. It was only then that Jesus declared salvation over Zacchaeus’ house. It is this salvation that Brother Angus is praying for.
As he continues to speak, the white pastor gets down on all fours in front of the young black man. He looks him in the eyes and he speaks with such tenderness as he takes his feet gently in his hands and begins to wash them. A young black man. An older white man. He tells the youngster that he cares about him; that he is valuable to him; that he is not inferior to him despite what history would tell him. They are brothers even though their contexts are so different.
He holds his feet with such care. He gets down as low as he can; as close to the young man’s feet as he is able. He massages his feet, each one in turn – slowly. Tears fall down the young man’s face as the pastor slowly dries the young man’s feet, embraces him and tells him he loves him.
This is not American theatrics. This is what leaders like Christ and more recently Pope Francis model in terms of a start point for healing and restitution. For Francis, he washes feet whenever he can; Christians, non-Christians, men, women, refugees, prison inmates you name it. He actively eschews his position as the leader of millions; he makes himself accountable for the wrongs of others; he humbles himself by getting down as low as he can to take broken and dirty feet into his hands and wash and sometimes even kiss them.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole.
As I write this I am sat – for the second time in 10-hours – in seat 22C on Fastjet’s flight from Dar es Salaam to a smallish Tanzanian town called Mbeya. Now you may or may not have heard of Fastjet – depending on whether you travel much in sub-Saharan Africa, but the thing with Fastjet is that it isn’t terribly fast. It also isn’t very communicative.
Having sat on the runway for quite some time watching the sunrise, we were all off-loaded because of a technical problem that apparently had something to do with the communication system between the pilot in the cock-pit and the crew in the cabin. This really was the last time anyone at Fastjet concerned themselves with accuracy of communication – for the next 10-hours.For the length of the day, we all sat in the small and unedifying Dar airport. We drank cups of tea, ate airport food and talked endlessly about nothing much; as you do when you are killing an indefinite period of time.The only thing anyone told us over the course of the day was that the problem would take 5 – 10 minutes to fix (this is when we were still on the plane) but this was adjusted to an hour to two hours when we were being off-loaded. Oh, and around 3 hours in, a tinny Tannoy announcement told us that the flight had been cancelled altogether and we should all go back to our homes and hotels. This was followed immediately by an announcement in Kiswahili proudly telling us that the plane was fixed up and we would board shortly. Both announcements were wrong.We eventually scrummed our way back onto the plane, elbowing one another out of the way in a desperate attempt to beat the irate passengers of a later flight that had also been delayed. We eventually took off in the late afternoon.“For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water,” recent Tweet from former DA leader, Helen Zille.The previous day we had landed at Dar airport from OR Tambo. As a foreigner working in Tanzania you need a temporary Visa. This must be re-purchased every time you enter the country (regularly in my case) for 200USD. Acquiring this Visa can only be done on arrival at the Dar airport and it is damn nearly impossible to do so. In summary: it takes around 3 hours for 2 hapless immigration officials to handwrite – no computers, not even an ink stamp – over 100 Visas. 35 degrees Celsius. No chairs. No water. Again, no communication. During both of these airport experiences it was clear that systems, procedures and an understanding of the critical importance of good communication, were non-existent. I would say it was organised chaos but there wasn’t any organisation at all. It was just chaos. I travelled to Tanzania with Helen Zille’s now infamous Tweet about colonialism fresh in my mind. In fact, it occupied much of my thinking during all the many hours we spent in the Dar airport (and later, the extreme Dar traffic). I condemn what she said with contempt but more, with great sadness. I assume that Zille has travelled extensively to places like Dar es Salaam and other former- colony’s; that she has experienced life in countries that are years even decades behind non-former colony’s. So, the issue should not be whether she believes that colonialism had some good points. The issue is whether – over years of doing battle as the official opposition to the ANC – she has become so hardened, so cynical, so insensitive that she has lost all perspective and indeed – heart. One can only assume that she is so jaded that she has forgotten what it is that she has been fighting for; a free and equal society under-scored by a total loathing for all that is and was unjust, oppressive, violent and dehumanising. She has effectively made herself one of the utterly heartless and brain-dead: “Things were better under apartheid” brigade.You do not even need to move out of Dar airport to get the picture; to know just how despicable, how crippling colonialism was. And the denial of this fact is alive and well far beyond Helen Zille; all-too-often I hear people opining about how Africa (they try to hide their bigotry by making it a continental indictment rather than a racist statement) lacks innovation or how uncreative Africa is or how backward.And I don’t know why Singapore works well as Zille referenced; maybe because it’s so small you can cover its length on your morning jog. All I know after spending some time in Tanzania and indeed around other parts of Africa, is that colonialism’s negative impact on Africa and her people was beyond measure.So, let us travel our continent, viewing its unequalled beauty and meeting its superb people. But let’s be forgiving of her faults and her failings because the big white boss gang-raped her and left her for dead. It is a miracle that she has come as far as she has.Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole
We have a national treasure in the National Treasury. There is little doubt that Pravin Gordhan now embodies this highest of unofficial titles; a title that we have applied to only a handful of men and women in the past few decades.
I realised just how fast this man was approaching national treasure status when I recently found myself with him on an SA Airlink flight to Nelspruit. Wearing a tweed cap to shield his shiny pate from the brutal Lowveld sun, he humbly agreed to having his photo taken with scores of fans whilst we waited on the runway to board our flight. Person after person – South Africans of all descriptions – took selfies with the Minister of Finance. Bear in mind that this man has held the most loathed title in any society; that of “tax man”. Bear in mind that this man revolutionised tax collection in our country during his time at SARS. Bear in mind that for years he has lightened our pockets by increasing taxes; bear in mind that he has done this whilst the public purse has been simultaneously lightened by all those entrusted to hold its strings. Yet in-spite of all this financial lightening and burdening, there we were queuing to have our picture taken with him as if he were a rock star. Those who know him well will tell you that he is a man of towering integrity. They will tell you that he is a South African of unbridled passion and commitment to the complete freedom of our people and the realisation of the full potential of our country. They will also tell you that he is fiendishly bright.But these values – great as they are – do not make a national treasure. Ironically that title is bestowed only on the humble great. Pravin Gordhan is fast becoming one of our humble great and his last (we all hope it is not his last, but alas) budget presentation proved this. It was not the maths of the speech that solidified his place in our history. In fact, many people will be gnashing their teeth at the fact that we are paying vastly more for vastly less. It was these words:
“Fellow South Africans, if we make the right choices and do the right things we will achieve a just and fair society, founded on human dignity and equality. We will indeed transform our economy and country so that we all live in dignity, peace and well-being,”
If you did not know that I was quoting our newest national treasure (and you had never heard/heard of Jacob Zuma), you might say that I was quoting a/our President; these words have a presidential feel.
But he didn’t stop at general appeals for participation. He went on to issue a clarion call for us to participate with him in the task at hand: “This is the time for activists, workers, businesspersons, the clergy, professionals and citizens at large to actively engage in shaping the transformation agenda and ensuring that we do have a just and equitable society. Obstacles there will be many. Overcome them. Detractors abound. Disprove them. Negativity inspired by greed and selfishness will obstruct us. Defeat the bearers of this toxic ethic. South Africans, wherever you are own this process; defend your gains; demand accountability. Be an active agent for change. Umanyano Ngamandla (Unity is power.)”
These words coming from our very own “broken man presiding over a broken society” would be laughable. But coming from a national treasure they have the effect of creating hope; presenting a vision and outlining a strategy to get there.
If we allow them to, these words could galvanise us into action; to pay our taxes yes, but then to pay attention to what we as individual South Africans could do to take back our power. He is inviting us to join him in fighting for a future – one that he seems to be positive about; he is inviting us to stop pointing out what is wrong – we all know what is wrong; stop whining whilst Rome is burning. He has modelled the way for us (another enduring feature of people who wear the title of National Treasure). All we need do is act.
In the immediate term, this must include an uncompromising commitment to our non-negotiable values. Punch drunk from the ongoing battering of the forces of corruption and greed, we must stand firm and not give into the temptation of; “they are doing it so why can’t I?”. This statement – this attitude – is, I believe, the single biggest danger currently facing us as a society. It will take discipline to resist this temptation but if we don’t, our demise will be fast and frightening.
In the meantime, Pravin Gordhan will need all the support he can get as the vultures’ circle. So, if you bump into him on a flight or anywhere else, have a selfie with a national treasure and thank him.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. All my writing – regardless of topic – is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens and Emmanuel Josias Sithole. I do this to help keep their stories alive.