I was recently invited to be part of a small speaker panel at a local church in my home town of Salt Rock, Kwa-Zulu Natal.
As I prepared for the session, I became overwhelmed by all the bad news that is currently surrounding us in South Africa.
I tend to steer clear of regurgitating reams of negativity as I feel the mainstream press does a great job of keeping us all up-to-speed with that. But my mind couldn’t help going there: the brazen looting at VBS, the constant revelations of state capture; Johan Booysen’s reminder to us of the rot at the National Prosecuting Authority; the various commissions of enquiry that literally spew forth the rotten, effluent of the Zuma years. The Rand tumbling. Petrol prices sky-rocketing. Good people fleeing for foreign shores and bad people remaining, unpunished. It made me feel quite ill to be honest.
If you are feeling a degree of discomfort or even depression at the state of our nation and indeed the world then in my mind you are simply human. It tells me you care; you desire the fulfilment of your right to happiness; you are concerned about the betterment of the world; for safety and prosperity and well-being for all and not just the entitled rich; for the well-being of our children.
But questions kept coming to me that troubled me: Is my discomfort, my depression based on reality or on an invention of some kind? Who or what is controlling my state-of-mind; me or the news media or my friends or what I read on social media? Am I choosing to believe what is negative to fulfil some need for belonging; belonging to a legion of South Africans who are trapped in their own victimhood? Am I part of the problem or part of the solution?
I asked these questions because there was appearing a genuine paradox in my mind: I cannot possibly deny that we are better off as a nation today than we were this time last year and yet I feel worse. How come?
So let’s unpack this for a moment: If this time last year I had told you that Zuma would be gone, Cyril Ramaphosa would be our President; Tito Mboweni would be our Minister of Finance; Shaun Abrahams would have gone; Tom Moyane would have gone; Nomgcobo Jiba would have been suspended; some R100 billion worth of foreign direct investment would have been committed; a slew of commissions of enquiry would have been established to investigate state capture and the demise of SARS – would you have taken it? I would have!
So again, why am I more negative today than this time last year? And why do I know that I am not alone?
The truth is that the truth will set us free. However, it will cause us considerable discomfort even pain, whilst it does. We are currently buckling under the burden of bad news. Because as much as I may list all the great things that have happened since last year, they have come amidst revelation after stinking revelation of the depth to which our nation has sunk in the past decade. And as we ingest our weekly, daily sometimes hourly doses of News24, Daily Maverick, City Press or whatever our media poison happens to be, we are systematically contaminating ourselves with the truth. And we are right at the bottom of the bad news barrel right now; we are in a very deep, dark place and we are struggling to see the many colourful and beautiful lights that are surrounding us.
I am not saying we shouldn’t expose ourselves to what is happening around us – far from it. The evangelist Billy Graham used to say that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. I believe this wisdom should apply to us all. But we must also guard against over-exposure; we must be wise in what we consume and what we believe because not all “truth” is true; not all truth is good or helpful; not all truth needs to be immediately consumed.
This column is all about giving people small things we can all do to make South Africa a better place. But without hope (as opposed to optimism) we are not able to breathe; we are not able to give or serve; we are not able to fulfil our purpose for the world. We must take time; find some quiet and stillness and allow ourselves to find the good amidst the bad; shake off this crushing weight of negativity and take some time to focus on just how and why and where we are better off today than a year ago.
Then – charged with a lightness of being and a slight twinkle in the eye – we can be that change that we wish to see in the world.
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
In his best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl describes how the smoking of cigarettes came to denote a loss of hope in concentration camp prisoners.
Given the lack of even the most basic necessities in World War 2 camps like Auschwitz which Frankl endured, cigarettes were a luxury reserved for the SS captors and the “capos” – SS appointed prisoners who headed up labour squads.
Being this scarce, cigarettes became part of camp currency and prisoners could be rewarded with a few sticks for performing especially taxing or unsavory tasks. But the prisoners didn’t smoke the cigarettes; they would use them to buy soup or a mouthful of bread to sustain their lives. Cigarettes of themselves had no use beyond a means by which to barter for life-giving items. So, when one witnessed a fellow prisoner smoking, it was an ominous sign. You knew that all hope had been lost and it was only a matter of time.
You see hope is not a nice-to-have. It is essential to our well-being and even survival. We simply must have something to believe in; a purpose or faith in the broadest sense. Some call it a “why” we live. Frankl quotes Nietzsche who said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.
I think we can all understand why a prisoner in a World War 2 concentration camp would lose hope and smoke their cigarettes. But what about us? How quickly and easily do we lose hope? The answer to this question recently came at me in the form of a good many responses to a column I wrote about the great hope that can be found in South Africa right now. Many people just didn’t want to hear it. One person’s words were particularly startling: “If you are still hopeful about this country then I feel sorry for you.”
Now let’s be blunt here; we are not comparing our loss of hope to hope that finally slips from our grasp like the smoke rising from the gas ovens that we have witnessed for months and even years. This is quite simply the hope that is given up because we – and I include myself in this – don’t get our way. As soon as things get too hot in the kitchen (i.e. we are downgraded to junk status, our political party doesn’t win, our political party doesn’t look like it used to, we get the wrong Councillore, our President doesn’t get arrested on our timeframe, we discover that corruption goes beyond us paying cops the odd bribe, our roads get potholes, our currency devalues, our pension is eroded etc.), we threaten to leave; we refuse to vote; we engage in anarchic and disruptive violence like the flinging of poo; we kill one another; we turn on our country and her people by engaging in negativity and racism. In Frankl’s terms, we sit down, light our cigarette and declare that all hope is lost. Really?
Where is our resilience, our much-praised South African spirit and work ethic? Where is our willingness to fight for what we believe in as so many before us have done? How can we expect anything to change if we are not willing to do the changing? If we don’t change it, guess who gladly will: the corrupt and the criminal – to suit their greedy needs.
How do we even begin doing this when all around us is doom and gloom? According to Frankl the only freedom that camp prisoners had left was the freedom to choose the attitude that they had to any given situation. And of course, this is ultimately true for all of us: what attitude will I adopt in this situation – in South Africa nearing the end of 2017? Will I choose to give up hope, or to grab every hope I can and make the absolute most of life in this incredible country? And having adopted a positive attitude, what actions can I take to better the situation for me and mine and for us all? Positive actions – however small – are catalysts for hope to grow. And as hope grows so our desire to do more hopeful stuff follows.
For all humanity the learning is clear: if people like Frankl and millions of others could find hope in the worst possible conditions, then we can all do it.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.