First Do No Harm

“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.


If you know the greater Johannesburg area, you will be familiar with a sulphurous smell that permeates the air at certain times of the year and reminds one of being on a long road trip with a windy family member.

Theories abound as to the cause of the smell; when we were kids we were told it “came from the mines”. But everyone has a theory; some rather randomly say it comes from Modderfontein, others blame factories, landfills and sewerage. I was in Johannesburg recently and caught a familiar whiff. Suddenly, I was in Parliament and it was the 8th August 2017 and I was listening to the results of the motion of no confidence in the President. As I listened the smell seemed to get stronger. Next thing I knew, it is three weeks later and the smell which is usually gone by morning, is still hanging heavy in the air. It just won’t go away and although it isn’t nauseating, it is just – there; constantly. I have tried to understand this smell that won’t go away. Of course, the easy answer is that it is the stench of avarice; greed upon greed upon greed; corruption breeding with itself to produce a deformed and grotesque fart bag. But that is too easy an explanation because we have lived with that smell for so long we hardly notice it anymore. (Note to self: When citizens become numbed to the crimes being committed by their leaders, the nation is on very rocky ground.  Wrongly, I have stopped reading anything that has #Guptaleaks in the title. It’s become like ambient noise that I just tune out. I must wake up, read everything and allow indignation to rise again. But this time it seems different. The stench I am smelling is, I think, a rather toxic blend of fear mixed with helplessness. Many South Africans from all walks of life had been unrealistically hopeful about the motion of no confidence. Some even believed that it would succeed in removing the President. When it did not, we seemed to collectively drop down onto the pavements of our country, our banners limp and impotent, and quietly give up. The dominant collective mindset seemed to say: “Well, we have him until 2019 now – lets ride this out and hope we don’t get someone even worse.” And then the fear kicked in as it began to dawn on us just how long two years is when you are being led by a Jacob Zuma. But surely if the smell is fear and helplessness, then the smell is coming from us. After all, these emotions don’t come from outside of ourselves; they come from within.  And if we have quietly resigned ourselves and hence our country to the fates, then are we not to blame if we get more of the same? But I sometimes find myself asking: “What more can we do? We have marched, prayed and railed. We have signed petitions and e-mailed MP’s. What is left for us to do?” The answers to some of these questions came to me this last week as I facilitated a 2-day workshop for the organisation Partners for Possibility. Their ground-breaking and internationally acclaimed program pairs a business leader with a school principal for 1 year to help the principal develop and refine his or her leadership skills. This workshop was all about how to build authentic community in and around a school and indeed, in one’s businesses and neighbourhoods. Half way through day 1 a couple of things occurred to me: the first was that these school principals – who have every reason to be negative – were anything but; they were positive, eager to learn and passionate about their schools and the kids. The business leaders were equally as positive; they sought solutions and were eager not to pass the buck onto government or anywhere else for that matter. The positivity in the room was infectious and as a result, the community of this group built quickly and discernibly. The realisation was two-fold: when we surround ourselves with positive people – and are open to having our minds changed – fear falls and hope rises.  Secondly, when people come together to discuss possibilities rather than problems, solutions emerge. This feeds the positivity, and the fear and hopelessness are further eroded. Another thing became very clear to me for the umpteenth time since I have been involved in community and NGO work; as we get involved by volunteering our time and skills, something shifts in us. We stop focusing our attention solely on what isn’t and begin to build on what is. This of course does not mean that we will suddenly be rid of our corrupt leaders. But what it does mean is that we will triumph over our own fear and helplessness; we will find ourselves in a position where we are able to celebrate what is great about our country. And when the moment comes when we need to once again rise, lift our banners and take to the streets, we will have the energy and the zeal to do just that. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Moving Beyond Ourselves to Find Joy in 2017

As I awoke on boxing day morning and the sad news of George Michael’s passing hit social media, I began to consider the validity of the “enough-of-2016-roll-on-2017” lament.

I do not believe that one year is any better or worse than another on any kid of grand scale; a year is simply a measure of time in which both good and bad occurs depending on which side of the fence you are on. But it could obviously not escape me that we had lost a great many wonderful people in 2016; Prince, Leonard Cohn, Mohammed Ali, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher and of course George Michael to name a few. We would all agree that these deaths were tragic for the world, as of course were the many deaths of innocent people in murders, suicide bombings and wars. But not all of us would agree for example that Donald Trump’s election was a bad thing. Many would say that this alone made 2016 a fabulous year. Good and bad is a very relative thing. This got me thinking: is there a way to ensure that 2017 is a “good year” for us personally or are we simply at the mercy of the fates? Is such a guarantee of happiness possible for human beings or is it indeed true that the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes? As far as I know, there is no formula for ensuring that good things will happen. However, there is a great deal of research and common wisdom that gives us techniques and disciplines that can safeguard joy, even in the face of bad stuff happening. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky tells us that around half of our levels of joy or happiness are determined by unchangeable factors such as genes or our personality. The other half is determined by our circumstances (over which we have limited control), and our attitudes and actions over which we have a great deal of control. Joy So, this suggests that we can at least contribute to 2017 being a joyful year by watching our attitudes and actions. What does this mean in practise? Lyubomirsky’s research confirms with hard data what many learned folk – including all the great spiritual leaders of history – have been telling us for centuries; that there are essentially 3 factors to increasing joy or happiness: the first is our ability to reframe our current situation or circumstances in a more positive light; the second is our ability to express gratitude and the third is our ability or capacity for kindness and generosity. I think two and three are self-explanatory although tough for many of us; we can all accept that grateful, generous people are happier and we know this because it feels so darn good to be grateful and generous. But how do we reframe our current situation in a more positive light, especially when it is bad? From reading the thoughts of such thinkers as the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, there seem to be two ways we can do this without slipping into denial. The first is to actively place oneself in the shoes of other people who are suffering worse than we are, and assist them in whatever way we can. As we do this our negative situation does not change but our perception of it does. Suddenly our lot is not so bad. We move from the victim position (from which no joy or creativity can flow) to the creator position, as we seek ways to alleviate the suffering of others. Joy is produced in the other and joy follows in us as an inevitable by-product. Every time we move towards others, we move away from self-centredness and joy can rise. The second way of reframing our situation is arguably simpler than the first, but it challenges us very deeply. Contrary to what our culture would tell us, we must choose to view life through rose-tinted spectacles or “see the glass half full” if you prefer. Now, this is not to say that we should ignore the bad. It just says we should look at the bad in the light of the good. It also says we should choose to see good first – in every situation and in every person; the bad will always be there and it is in our nature to seek this out. We need to intentionally re-wire our brains on this one and as we do we will begin to experience awe and wonder again – both components of joy. Perhaps the best place to begin our re-wiring process is in our thoughts and opinions of our country, so deeply negative and mostly lacking all joy. A deep awareness seems to be stirring globally; an awareness that we urgently need to move beyond ourselves to a place of radical gratitude, generosity and positivity. In short, we need to heed a deep call to love. If this is how we choose to do 2017, then it is going to be a fantastic year. Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.