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.
“Do you think my vagina will be safe in the car?” asked Sue Barnes as we alighted from our rental vehicle. It would have struck me as an unusual sort of question but for the fact that we had been discussing Sue’s vagina and other related topics for the best part of the morning. We were on one of our “menstrual missions”, distributing packs of Sue’s miraculous washable, reusable Subz sanitary pads to 500 impoverished girls from 5 desperately needy community schools.
Before handing out the packs, Subz founder and inventor Sue does a brilliant talk in which she lovingly explains menstruation and the fact that each girl’s body is a precious thing; something to be honoured and respected. This is not as obvious as it might seem to you or I. As I have written before, many of these girls make use of toilet paper, newspaper and even soiled sanitary pads belonging to friends or relatives during their monthly period. The harsh reality is that menstruation will keep over 60% of South African girls away from school for a cumulative total of more than one-and-a-half years of their 5-year high school career. This makes passing matric virtually impossible and their options become limited to menial work or worse still a life at the mercy of a sugar daddy, now disingenuously referred to as a “Blesser”.
For the purposes of illustrating the various parts of a woman’s body, Sue makes use of some highly innovative props; an apron complete with breasts, removable nipples and a vagina and a 3D model of a woman’s pelvis. This is the particular prop that she was referring to when we got out of the car.
Spending time with Sue Barnes on what she refers to as a school activation, is a truly enriching experience. Not only do you get to see the utter joy on girls faces as they receive their free 3-year supply of washable, reusable sanitary pads, but you also get to speak openly about sex, breasts, nipples, penises and vaginas. I find this to be extremely liberating and very necessary in our society.
You see a significant contributing factor to our very high levels of woman abuse, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, abandonments etc. is the gradual erosion of dignity and sanctity that so many girls and women in our country experience. This happens when young women are denied access to proper information presented in a respectful, open fashion and products that dignify them and celebrate their femininity. I also believe that the language (or lack thereof) that we use for sex and related issues is highly problematic and plants early seeds in both boys and girls that sex is dirty and shameful – even violent. This creates fertile soil for later perversion and abuse to flourish.
When Cathy and I became parents we made a decision to refer to our and Lolly’s genitals by their proper names. No peepee and foofoo for this family! We allow her to look, we talk with her about our differences and – in an age appropriate fashion – we answer her questions. It is quite telling that we have copped some serious flak for this approach.
Now please understand, this is all new to us and something that we are really battling with ourselves. In fact, we have to steel ourselves every time we use the words or have the conversation. Neither Cathy nor I come from families in which sex was discussed. In fact, recently, Lolly loudly announced to her Granny that she had an itchy vagina and my poor old Mum nearly lost her lunch. “Don’t say that word!” she said in hushed tones.
Now my Mum’s response would actually be Cathy and my response had we not taken the decision to make a concerted effort to try and normalise these things. This is an attempt to help our child grow up without the sexual hang-ups that we have.
My point is that so many kids grow up with a sense that you can’t even call something its proper name – it’s that bad. The words vagina and penis – even menstruation or intercourse – have almost become swear words to the point where we often use slang words to describe our reproductive life and organs; words we deem to be more appropriate but that I would not necessarily put into print.
So, many children – girls in particular – grow up stripped of their dignity through a combination of shame, a lack of suitable sanitary products and very low levels of real understanding around their menstrual cycle and even how they get pregnant. This leads to a degradation of their and others sexual selves because of a general lack of care and openness around these topics. For this reason, I suggested to Sue Barnes that this Child Protection Month we should launch a “Love Your Penis Love Your Vagina” campaign. Even she said no!
However, you can help. To date Mercury readers have raised a staggering R150k for girls to hear Sue’s life-changing talk and receive a pack of washable, reusable sanitary pads. With your support we have reached over 1000 needy girls in 10 schools. We invite you to join us and sponsor a (nother) 3-year supply of pads and panties for one girl. For just R140 you will change her life forever.
The Peace Agency bank details are as follows:
FNB Durban North
Acc #: 6215 995 8217
Branch code: 22-04-26
Please reference your donation with “Project Dignity”
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.
Open letter to a friend and colleague:
It has become fashionable to write open letters to public figures. These letters are usually vitriolic and self-serving. Come to think of it I have seldom read an open letter that is kind, affirming and hopeful. One of my objectives in writing an open letter to you, is to change that.
You may not be a public figure (yet) however you are very famous to your beautiful son, your brothers and Mama who are the very breath you breathe and your large network of friends and associates – me included.
Regrettably such fame doesn’t generally garner much interest. So why am I writing this? I am writing this to make public a simple truth that we exchanged via Whatsapp during the time of the Penny Sparrow scandal; black and white works.
This may seem like a somewhat fatuous statement at a time of such racial upheaval. But my association with you has demonstrated time-and-time again that this fact is true. Not only that, but black and white is necessary as we seek to find balance in this country of ours. Let me explain.
In the time that I have worked with you, we – that is Cathy and I and our respective kids – have become close friends. By virtue of spending long hours in planes and cars together, we have learnt a great deal about one another. We have challenged one another’s stereotypes – including our racial stereotypes, we have grown in our understanding of our respective cultures and we have made those new understandings work powerfully in some extremely challenging and even hostile work situations. I can confidently say that neither of us working independently in our field of conflict resolution and peace creation would have the success that you and I have had, working together. The one without the other would simply be less effective. Black and white works.
Through this process of time spent and conversations held (the only way that different people ever found one another), I have learnt a tremendous amount about your incredible culture. This has allowed me to bring a more rounded, balanced, integrated me to the uniquely African work we have been doing. My whiteness with all its strengths and weaknesses has been balanced by your blackness with such different strengths and weaknesses. And I have learnt that black and white is not the same – thankfully! Of course, we are human and equal – but we are also extraordinarily, beautifully different. This combination of our differences; different skills, customs, ways of doing things; different ways of speaking, relating, forgiving, inviting, negotiating and yes, even fighting – is powerful to heal and restore dignity when used in combination. It is an elixir not a poison. And then of course, we have many similarities. What fun that has been!
And you have deepened my understanding of what it means to be African. Through your kindness and jokeful acceptance of my often awkward attempts at being culturally sensitive, I think I have been allowed to call myself that; an African. Not that sterile classification that so polarises; white South African. No, through you and our dear friend Mr Walter Malepe, I have been affirmed and accepted as an African. I thank you for this.
And as I have listened to hours and hours of languages being spoken that I don’t understand, feeling every inch of my inadequacy, you have demonstrated the power of patient engagement. Before, this impatient white boy might have disengaged from such meetings or conversations with an air of arrogant irritation: “Why don’t they just speak English?” But because we have worked in non-Zulu speaking areas you too have been lost. We have been lost together! But you have shown me that it doesn’t matter whether we understand or not. What matters is that we respect the speaker by being present and engaged with every word he or she speaks. It matters not whether we understand the words. We work to hear the heart. It is all about dignity. Respect. Honour. This is the African way. I have developed – slowly but surely – these subtle but necessary skills, and as a result I have the ear – and perhaps even the heart – of many people who by rights should have little or no time for this mlungu. I could not have developed in these areas on my own. The thin strands of trust; the hands shaken and held for long enough to say; “you are my brother”, the ever-so-subtle but terribly warm smile from a tribal elder as I speak. That would not have happened if black and white did not work.
We have done battle together in corporate boardrooms and under trees. Many are the fights we have fought and many are the battles we have lost and won. They have been hard fought and taxing but I believe we can say that in some small way our country – room by room – person-by-person – is a better place because we have worked side-by-side. That is for no other reason than the fact that black and white works.
So thank you Akhona. Thank you for being willing to challenge me and for allowing me to challenge you; thank you for allowing your mind to be changed and for seeing the brother in me. As fires burn and as battles rage let you and I and our families affirm in word and deed what I have known to be true for all my life.
That black and white works.
Take care sisi.
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.
This piece first appeared in The Mercury on 3 March 2014
On the surface of it, crime has no benefit to communities whatsoever. When areas go through what is commonly referred to as a crime spate all that seems to result is fear and trauma; there is surely nothing good about that.
Well yes and no. If communities respond smartly to crime – harness the fear if you like – very tangible benefits can result making the area a better place to live. Let me explain.
We have all witnessed scenes either first hand or in movies when – after a run of attacks on farms or homes in a particular area – residents get together in a local hall, vent their anger and discuss possible solutions.
United by a common bond of fear they join hands – perhaps for the first time – to safeguard their families and homes. Community is often the result of crime.
And I would go as far as to say that community is not only a potential upside of crime but that effective community is the opposite of crime; that where community works well crime rates will drop. That first meeting in a local hall is powerful simply because it is a first step towards community.
Of course the clever clogs out there will reason that if crime leads to community then South Africa should have the best communities this side of the Ho Chi Minh trail and that – by extension – we should have no crime at all. This is of course not the case because of what happens next:
When we get together in that hall for the first time two things happen: we kick off by recounting our crime horror stories. Then the soon-to-be-elected chairman of the soon-to-be-constituted board of trustees says we need to “fight back”/”wage war against the criminals” or words to that effect. This in itself suggests a battle in which there will be a winner – hopefully us – and a loser – hopefully the bad guys. It implies that the war will be quick, it will be easy – shock and awe style – and we will be free of crime within a matter of months. Everyone leaves feeling positive.
Because we think a ‘battle’ will win the day, we kick off our plans by employing soldiers. Our modern day soldiers are R4000 per month employees of security companies. Now I know from talking to dozens of these guys that they could not get work doing anything else and turned to security as an absolute last resort. Very few if any grew up with a dream to sit in a wooden hut all night long and possibly take a bullet for a rich family that does not even bother to find out their name.
So what happens is that the community gets excited about being safe and secure again and they pay money each month to fund a bunch of guards on the street; maybe a camera or two. This is usually the end of the good ideas because, well, what else is there other than security companies?
Then someone gets broken into. Why? Because the R4000 per month solider did not turn up for work or he was out patrolling at point B when a house near point A was hit. Then the community loses faith in the initiative and stops funding it and this is usually where the thing, sadly, derails.
Now guarding and cameras are part of the solution but they alone won’t solve an area’s crime problem. If all we do when crime brings us together is outsource our security to a security company then we have missed the big opportunity. A neighborhood’s employment of security guards and cameras is just a tangible, visible means by which to get everyone’s buy-in. Then the work of the community needs to begin.
And what does this work entail? Well if the opposite of crime is community, then security initiatives need to analyze what well-functioning, healthy communities look like and mirror that. Amongst other things, healthy, crime-free neighborhoods have:
Neighbors who know each other and look out for one another
Regular meetings to discuss community issues
Good communication via a variety of digital media platforms
Residents who work together and with local authorities to fix what is broken (lights, roads, drains, walls, signs)
Residents who keep their area clean and tidy
Residents who assist security companies and the police by being the eyes and ears on the street
Residents who support their local police and report crime
Residents who obey the law
If your area has a neighborhood security initiative, get involved and give of both your time and money. If not – consider starting one. They are integral to the creation of a safe, crime-free South Africa.
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.
This blog first appeared in The Mercury on Monday 31st March 2014
Six years ago almost to the day, I was out on a dusty farm road in my other favorite province – Mpumalanga – training for the Comrades Marathon. As is my custom, I acknowledged people as I ran passed them; looking them in the eyes, smiling and saying hello. These were poor folk; farm laborers shuffling home from work; women carrying great buckets of water; old men with heavy loads of firewood on their shoulders. They all looked exhausted; worn down by the grind of life.
And from amongst these brief interactions emerged one that would completely change my life and the way I view how we ‘do country’ here in South Africa.
I looked into the eyes of an old black man who was trudging home carrying wood and greeted him. He stopped dead in front of me, his eyes darting this way and that; confused; quizzical. I too stopped not knowing what might come next. He looked at me for a few seconds and then his tired, crevassed old face softened and broke out into the warmest smile I believe I have ever seen.
In that moment I had what some might call a Damascus Road experience. I realized that the violence and hatred that seeps out of the very pores of this nation does so because – for hundreds of years – we have simply not seen one another; we have not looked into one another’s eyes; we have not taken the time to greet one another; we have withheld respect and dignity; we have ignored one another; we have turned a blind eye to suffering and pain, poverty and injustice; we have called one another hateful names; we have laughed at each other’s expense; we have elevated ourselves above one another.
As I have spoken and written on this theory of mine, many have testified that – in practical terms alone – simple acts of respect and dignity have yielded profound results; one Midlands woman saved herself and her family from certain death at the hands of a gang of violent robbers simply by showing them kindness and respect; a Johannesburg woman spoke a man and his cohorts out of raping her.
These and many other examples have poured in from actual crime scenes. However what interests me more is this: what can we citizens do to create an environment of peace and tolerance; an environment in which rates of crime and violence drop organically? What can we do to alter the atmosphere of violence and discord that we currently live in?
Back to my Damascus Road experience, I believe it is easier than we make it: an atmosphere of discord is altered by sowing harmony; an atmosphere of violence is altered by sowing peace; an atmosphere of disorder is altered by sowing order; an atmosphere of lawlessness is altered by sowing lawfulness. It really is as simple as that.
Think of it in farming terms; for decades, even centuries we have sowed intolerance, hatred, division and inequality. Now we are reaping the fruits of that which include violence, crime and corruption.
And this is why my experience on that farm road gave me such hope; it reminded me that whilst the human heart takes years of abuse to become hardened and calloused – perhaps even violent – it can become tender again in a single moment of acknowledgement or through a simple act of respect.
Once I had experienced connectedness with that old man – a connectedness that transcended language, age and race – I wanted to experience it with others. I went out of my way to converse with people on the street; car guards; tellers; packers; laborers; students – anyone I could. I began to experience the power inherent in active reconciliation and I loved it. I loved it so much I began a campaign called Stop Crime Say Hello which encourages all of us to reach out across the gaping chasms that separate us.
And as people began to experience the power of connection a fascinating thing began to happen; they wanted to do more to help create a safe, healed and thriving nation. One woman summed it up beautifully when she blurted out; “Justin, I greet everyone I can but I want to do more – what else can I do?”
The influential African American author, theologian, educator and civil rights leader Howard Thurman provided a fascinating answer to this when he said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.