Don’t Turn and Look Away – Stand and See, and Act

As I get older, I find it increasingly difficult not to turn and look the other way.

I find it harder and harder to bear witness to the suffering of people and creatures and our planet: The decimation of forests, the poaching of endangered animals, the neglect and abuse of babies, the lack of education of our children, the ravages of extreme poverty and the rank unfairness of excessive inequality. I used to be able to look at all this and it used to enrage me to the point where I would act.

But recently I have found myself less and less able to keep my eyes open. I have found myself turning away. In fact, I think this could be a very neat description of privilege: The option to turn away.

At times like this I need a good dose of Pink Floyd. They remind me that turning away is no way to live. This is a Momentary Lapse of Reason. This is the Dark Side of the Moon.  They remind me that turning away can never be an option.

Be reminded too – and enjoy! Watch the video here

On the Turning Away – Pink Floyd

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand

“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it’s shroud
Over all we have known

Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud

On the wings of the night
As the daytime is stirring
Where the speechless unite
In a silent accord

Using words you will find are strange
And mesmerized as they light the flame
Feel the new wind of change
On the wings of the night

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside

Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?

Unpacking Privilege and Identity

“A black child born today is more likely to be born into poverty than a white child…..Twenty-three years into democracy this is simply not good enough.” Rob Davies – Trade and Industry Minister.

As I ready myself to speak, I am acutely aware of the irony of the situation: a privileged school asking me to facilitate a dialogue session with learners on the topic of “Privilege and the Youth’s Identity”. Place that school in the affluent Upper-Highway area of KwaZulu Natal and the challenge is akin to the infamous Comrades climb up nearby Field’s Hill. But they are up for it and so am I so the irony is overshadowed by their bravery. Would that more schools would emulate Thomas More College and grasp the stinging nettles of our time so fearlessly. 500 or so learners of varying ages pile into the school hall and take their seats in grades on the floor. I am sat up front with a panel of 6 students representing all grades, colours and genders. We begin the conversation with a bit of a warm up question: “What is your understanding of the word privilege?” There are those times when hope and possibility rise. Even whilst – from time-to-time – succumbing to anxiety and even anger over the state of our nation (the capture of our state that continues to make statements like the above from Rob Davies true, is a case in point), something happens and I know that everything is going to be okay.  This is one of those times. As the youngsters speak I find myself transported beyond their words and into a space that is really nothing less than the new, New South Africa. These millennials are so clear; so passionate; more thoughtful and considered than just about any adult I have spoken to of late. They know the issues; they care and it is clear and they will be the source of the healing of our nation. Their answers are informed; all variations on a dictionary definition of privilege: “A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Their heads are full of knowledge and they speak with assurance. You can tell this is a school that teaches kids how to think. But of course, my job is to challenge them to think more deeply about what privilege really looks like in the real world; what it smells like if you will. I have just 20 minutes and I want them to be repulsed by the pungent stench of inequality. And suddenly, the academic privilege dissipates; it means nothing as reality bites: “Are you all equally privileged?” I ask. “Some of us are more privileged than others,” replies one very thoughtful young black man. “Did you know that in South Africa, women earn around 28% less than men?” A ripple of shock goes across the hall: “And ladies, don’t think you’ll be better off if you leave the country,” I say looking to add a touch of humour: “In the US women earn around 21% less than men.” Another ripple of horror and the voicing of disgust from our panel. They are grappling hard with these facts in the face of their perceived equality. “According to Statistics South Africa, black South Africans earn on average just 20% as much as their white counterparts.” The shock now is eerily silent. “I want to do something to practically demonstrate what all this looks like,” I say somewhat reticently. I ask the young black lady to push her chair back several feet so that she is excluded from the group and I instruct the two on either side of her to close the gap in front of her. I do the same with the young black man and the Indian girl. It was an exercise that I had planned to do with them but I must say that I felt ill doing it. It felt so wrong; sick in fact. I asked them if this process was okay; if this was acceptable what I was doing: “No!” cried a young girl emotionally from the front of the panel. I ask them if we should bring the outsiders back and they all say we should. We welcome them warmly back in and I explain as gently as possible that this is the harsh reality of privilege; inclusion or exclusion based on nothing more than your colour or gender. They begin to suggest ways that they can personally counter inequality and the young black lady – still visibly emotional from the activity – delivers a line I shall never forget: “I am going to ask white people what they have that I don’t.” It’s like a punch to the guts. This whole assembly – including the topic – was arranged by an organization run purely by pupils; the Thomas More Current Affairs Youth Council. Teachers and senior members of the school had nothing to do with it. To these brave pupils, I salute you all for being willing to ‘go there’; for being willing to hold up a mirror to your society and yourselves. You are the light of a bright and beautiful future for South Africa; a future where every child – no matter their colour or gender – has equal opportunity. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Colonialism: The Rape of Africa

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