ANC, DA or EFF? The Appeal of None.

I absolutely love elections! I get genuinely excited about the whole messy process of democracy.

My wife says I’m a nerd and that nobody loves elections. She says they only love the fact that they get a day off work. But the way I see it, elections give the little people like me a chance to have a real impact on the course of history. Who wouldn’t get excited about that? But this election, not so much. I find myself not only lacking my usual excitement, but apathetic. Having been a lifelong advocate of the crucial importance of exercising ones right to vote, I find myself conflicted over what I shall even end up doing come the 8th May. In the end, I will of course vote – we all must. And hopefully I will find my mojo and enjoy it. But I’m not feeling it; I am depressed at the fact that our country’s politics and corruption, has knocked the guts out of my excitement for democracy and especially our unique, much-celebrated democracy. I am sure I will get this back…I am working on it. And so, to the big question of who to vote for. I literally have no idea. Can we return to power a party that has quite literally defecated on our dreams; told us that our lives are meaningless in the face of their insatiable needs? A party that has delivered lie-upon-lie-upon-lie and still lies to us? Can we give our precious vote to a party that has no visible leadership of any kind? That uses the identities of dead people – yes, people who died at the hands of the ruling party – but actual deceased human being’s names, for political gain? I mean what the hell have we become when dead people are fair game to win votes? Identities stolen and used without even asking for permission? And it mustn’t go unchecked that these people were the most vulnerable of all society. And then there is a party who if proven guilty can be called nothing but evil incarnate; what has happened to the soul of mankind when it wins votes by wooing the hearts and minds of the poor and then allegedly robs their bank? ROBS THEIR BANK!? This is how I see it: If I vote for either the ANC, the DA or the EFF then I am complicit in the vile and utterly contemptible abuse of the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of our country. Forget all my private middle class concerns of land and the Rand and stock prices and whether we have load shedding today and I can’t power up my laptop. Our poor need not to be poor anymore. Period. So again, who will I vote for? I am open to suggestions. All I do know for sure is that I have a couple of months to answer this one question: Which party honestly and truthfully has the alleviation of poverty at the heart of not only its manifesto but its track record? That is the party that must get my vote because at the end of the day, poverty – which encompasses the issues of education, unemployment, housing, land, crime, the economy etc – is the only issue that really matters. Instability is guaranteed if poverty is not addressed – fast.

In the Shoes of the Rock Throwers – Part 2

I recently wrote a post about the incidents of rocks being thrown off bridges on the North Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal.

The theory – and I do state in the piece that it is a theory – put forward in the piece is that systemic social injustices – i.e. poverty, unemployment and inequality – prevalent in one area compared with untold wealth in neighbouring suburbs, may be creating a fertile seedbed for resentment which can in turn lead to violence. The piece upset and angered some people. I want to sincerely apologise for this because my intention is always to provoke dialogue and promote an alternative narrative, but never to cause anger and resentment. So, let me try to clarify my position. Rock throwing is a heinous criminal act which I denounce totally. Instances of damage to property due to rock throwing are unacceptable; deaths caused by this act are tragic and criminal and the perpetrators must face the full might of the law.  Is there any excuse for violence? None whatsoever. Are there reasons for it? I argue that there are. As there are with all major crimes. Now clearly not all people afflicted by poverty, unemployment and inequality will get onto a bridge and throw a rock at a passing vehicle. But some might. Is resentment and bitterness a justification for crime and violence? Absolutely not. Perpetrators of crime and violence should face the full wrath of the law. But as a society, we have a responsibility – whilst we are bringing these criminals to book – to be analysing every possible root cause of such violent acts. We have a responsibility to seek out ways that we can create a healthy societal context in which violence is not perpetrated in the first place. For example, research tells us that hurt people, hurt people.  This does not mean that people who hurt others shouldn’t face the full might of the law – they should. But as a society we must seek out and apply the necessary healing treatments to create an atmosphere of peace and non-violence. This will always involve some form of dialogue and the asking of the right (and usually difficult) questions. We dismiss this thinking as bunny hugging/liberal etc at our peril for in our dismissal of the need for social healing, we in turn contribute to the atmosphere of violence and further polarise society. I am delighted that they have apprehended suspects. Now let’s work together to understand why people act violently so we can act together to prevent further violence. I am aware that many of us – me included – don’t want to believe that poverty is itself a form of violence. When humans are told that houses they were promised 10 years ago will not materialize because a zoo is being built, this is a form of violence against those people; it makes them sub-human. And often people respond to violence with violence. Again, I am in no way condoning this. But until we recognize poverty as a form of violence we will always vilify “the other” (rock throwers, violent protesters etc.) and exonerate ourselves. I have come to the painful realization that for me to enjoy the privileged life I do, someone (probably many someone’s) necessarily must go without. That is the real and painful truth of inequality and it tears societies apart as was stated just this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Finally, we can and should put cages over bridges. We must catch criminals. But for this not to be a case of kicking the can down the road, we must engage communities to get necessary insights into why violence happens in the first place – and then put actions in place to prevent or at least diminish the chances of recurrence. For those interested, I am putting together a team that is going to go in and engage local community members on this issue of rock throwing and other forms of violence on the North Coast. Mail me if you would like to get involved.

The Great Matric Lie: A Glimmer in the Darkness

“Dear South Africans, why are we so gullible?  Here goes Minister Angie Motshekga once again leading you by the nose.” Former University of Free State Vice-chancellor Prof Jonathan Jansen responding to the release of the 2017 Matric results.

Each year at this time, we the public face up to the spectacle that has become the announcement of the Matric results; a proxy for the state of basic education in the Republic. It’s become a bit of sport. Forget the boxing day test match; its more like the Matric results tennis match with the Minister serving up ever more creative ways to spin the announcement of the Matric results, and commentators and education gurus like Prof Jansen and Stellenbosch University academic and educational economist Nic Spaull replying with winning returns to prove that she is smoking her socks. It would be rather entertaining were it not for the fact that it’s our children’s lives – and de facto the future of our country – that they are talking about. The devil is in the detail. The Minister tells us that the Matric class of 2017 achieved a 75.1% pass rate. This is true. However, the specialists will reply that this is a desperate attempt to cover up the reality of education in South Africa; there is a crisis of epidemic proportions in our basic education system and we aren’t fixing it quickly or decisively enough to deal with the knock-on consequences including unemployment, poverty and inequality. It is not stretching the point to say that the story behind the Matric results is the story of how and why we are failing to deal with this triad of evils in this country.  This is why Prof Jansen is quoted as saying: “Any government that prides itself on the few that succeed and ignores the many that fall out of the school system has clearly lost its moral bearings.”  He is prompted to make this statement by the fact that over 50% of children who start Grade 1 will not reach Matric; over 645 000 pupils drop out between Grades 1 and 12. What happens to these children? And just as terrifying is the fact that 50% of those who qualify for university will drop out before completing their higher education. What is causing this crisis and what can we do about it? Time and time again it is proved that schools that have strong, passionate, disciplined and principled leadership succeed often in the face of overwhelming hardship. You would be literally blown away if you were to hear the stories of school Principals I have sat and spoken with who defy all odds to produce astonishing results from their kids. But here’s the challenge – how do we create such leaders? The answers may not be ones that we want to hear because it may require something of us: We need to acknowledge that the government does not have the answer here. It is failing. Period. This means that – whilst we must hold government to account – we the citizens of this country must step up in the interests of our children and our nation at large. There are a number of ways we can do this, but I would like to focus on one in this column because it has been proved to be instrumental in fundamentally altering the future of schools and children in our country. It is simple: partner a business leader with a school Principal for a period of 1 year. This hands-on and very simple leadership development approach has been proven both locally and internationally as one of the most effective ways to transform schools and hence the basic education system. In South Africa, the NGO Partners for Possibility is acknowledged to be a leading light globally in this field. Since its launch in 2010, 684 business leaders across the full range of industries and business sizes, have partnered with school Principals for a year. This leadership development exercise at the top of a school has impacted 20 520 teachers and over 547 200 learners nationwide. This extraordinary impact has led to Partners for Possibility being a strong contender for listing in the prestigious “Top 500 NGO’s in the World” ranking due to be announced next week. I want to go at this thing hard because it is a remarkable program that changes lives – and not only the lives of the Principals, teachers and children it impacts, but also the lives of the business partners. If you are a school principal or teacher reading this; if you are a business person who wishes to play a significant role in our country and in children’s lives by using your skills in business, then Partners for Possibility should be top of your new year’s resolution list. (And incidentally, it is not a huge commitment in terms of time.) Partners for Possibility has information sessions coming up in Durban on the 25th January and in Pietermaritzburg on the 26th of January. For details contact Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Community Development: We Get It Wrong At Our Peril

I met up again with Justin Foxton, founder of The Peace Agency, a month or so ago.

Contrary to the intensity of our first encounter – a workshop at the Ilembe Chamber of Commerce on racism, freedom of expression and the state of our democracy – a weekend away with friends and family in the untamed African bush of northern Zululand provided the perfect setting to explore our respective angles on community development. Justin recently set out some of these thoughts in his column in Independent Newspaper’s The Mercury. Our thinking was that they need urgent consideration for anyone working in or near communities: One of the aspects of the work I (Justin) do would broadly be referred to as “community development” work. Typically, this involves going into peri-urban or even rural communities on behalf of neighbouring businesses or other concerned stakeholders and meeting traditional leaders, youth or women’s groups, trustees of local trusts, school governing bodies etc. to talk about their democratic rights and responsibilities, sustainable alternatives to violence, how to organise themselves into cohesive entities, or how to start a business. Now, when I refer to “communities” in the context of community development work, I am talking about areas that are under-developed and experience high levels of unemployment and poverty and the resultant ills. They often border developed and even affluent areas that attract large investment into local business. The general picture? A booming, productive, haven of economic vibrancy on one side of the street and a desolate, poverty-wracked haven of social ill on the other. The obvious – but unfortunate – effect of this picture is that the word “community” becomes a euphemism for lack and deficit. Of course, communities often take on this negative identity and live into it as a means of survival. This creates an unhealthy cycle in which a protest is followed by business, government, NGO’s etc. swooping in to save the day and quieten everyone down. Until next time.    So this perception of communities as lacking leads us to a “fix them up” approach to community development. But we must acknowledge that – given the escalation of community tension and violent flare ups in our country – how we define communities and how we work with them, needs a radical rethink. The general approach is not working because it is premised on several “us” and “them” assumptions. For anyone who has worked in the types of communities referred to here, you will know just how dangerous these assumptions can be.  This is because they can lead to us parachuting solutions into communities. These are usually “our side of the street” solutions to “our side of the street” problems. This leads to community anger because the benevolence is perceived as arrogant and self-serving – often rightly so. I must confess that I have learnt this lesson the hard way. Along with my colleagues some of our best intentions have resulted in death threats, being held hostage, damage to property including arson, theft and hijacking. You get this work wrong at your peril! Justin offers an alternative construct, based on an approach to community development advocated by Peter Block in his book Community – The Structure of Belonging. Central to this approach is engagement; engagement that builds communities that are accountable and take ownership of their own destiny. This is the key ingredient that we have largely been missing when it comes to the building of community economies. To whet your appetite, here are a few of the steps that create this level of engagement: Dialogue is key Block suggests that all transformation, including a community’s economic prosperity, occurs through language. Engagement through dialogue allows community assets to rise and gifts to be offered freely. This causes a shift from community problems to community possibilities. Potential is unlocked as we listen to what people are saying, respond to their input and become prepared to change our plans and prioritise new possibilities, projects and activities. Think small Deep and effective engagement is an ongoing process that leads ultimately to transformation. Its building block is small group conversations that do not in themselves aim to provide solutions but rather focus on listening and asking the right questions. This allows community members to be heard and respected and to arrive at their own answers to their own problems. Block suggests that inviting people into a room and dividing them into facilitated conversation groups of 5–8 people is the basis of the transformation process and the container for the experience of belonging. Take time A community self-focus, where social and cultural nuances are not ignored or undervalued, is an important angle from which to explore community assets and possibilities. As Justin acknowledges, this approach takes time but the investment will pay off in the long run as communities become self-reliant and productive. Have the ownership conversation Communities won’t energise their own economic well-being if they don’t progress from blame to ownership; ownership that stifles entitlement and dependency. Such community building workshops should begin with questions like: What have I/we done to contribute to the very thing I/we complain about or want to change? How has my community contributed or reached out to stimulate enterprise and job creation?  The offering of gifts Block maintains that communities must stop defining themselves by their lack and begin to focus on what they have to offer; their gifts; what is present and presented. Our job as community builders is to move the conversation away from deficit towards assets. He advocates that communities choose their destiny when they have the courage to acknowledge their own gifts and opt to offer these gifts to society at large. In the community economy context, how does a community use their gifts to stimulate enterprise and job creation, even in the smallest way? This question must challenge the view that the future of communities can only be improved with new laws and policies, more oversight and stronger leadership. Finally, Justin and Cobus will be hosting a dialogue session around this approach to community development. Please contact us if you would like to be a part of that conversation. or By Cobus Oelofse – CEO Ilembe Chamber of Commerce

Youth Unemployment: The South African Tragedy

One of the most tragic parts of working in some communities in South Africa is the unemployment that one encounters among the youth.

The tragedy of this phenomenon is given graphic expression when one calls a community meeting for say 10am on a Tuesday and the venue fills up with youngsters mostly around 20 or 30 years of age. They have usually come with two questions in mind: 1) Do you have a job for me and 2) will there be lunch provided? Of course nine times out of ten the answer to both these questions is negative. It is at times like these that my colleagues and I embark on long and usually somewhat fruitless debates on how to create large-scale employment for young people who are short on skills. I mean what can a kid – often with nothing more than a grade 8 or 9 – do for gainful and decent employment? How do you even train such a person? We assume that our oft-quoted expanded unemployment rate of somewhere upwards of 35% means that there are simply no formal jobs available. So we begin looking at alternative options such as litter collection and rock crushing. And then the question becomes – and this is arguably even more challenging for me personally: are we – as citizens of our country – simply meant to sit back and watch as these young people slowly sink into the mire of poverty; turn to substance abuse and perhaps even a life of crime? Is there nothing we can do to arrest this descent? Is there no part we can play – even if it is simply a case of “doing for one what we wish we could do for all.”  Now, regular readers of this column will know not to use the ‘g’ word in my presence! It offends me greatly. This is because when we use the ‘g’ word we are usually shifting total responsibility from ‘I’ to ‘g’. These questions have no easy answers and if our only solution involves invoking the responsibilities of government then we have missed it. Why? Because as I have said in the past, if our democratic government knew what to do about youth unemployment or indeed any other devastating issue on our list of devastating issues, then it would probably do it. This is because results are the best way to win elections. In addition to this, a maturing democracy must see us make the shift in problem solving from the “you” (government must solve all the problems) to the “I” (I will solve all the problems alone – a disease suffered by many NGO’s in our country) to the “we” (we must work together to solve the problems). The thing that we need to get our heads around is that we – i.e. you and me – can be playing a much bigger role in solving youth unemployment than we might think. There are two things we can do immediately that would help move us into the space of the “we “when it comes to helping solve this issue: As I have advocated before, we urgently need adults who are prepared to mentor our vulnerable young people. Mentorship – the simple act of walking the journey of life with a youngster for a short period of time – has been proven to be highly effective in causing children to go on and live happy, functional and productive lives. Just one hour a week with a caring adult is often all it takes to turn a troubled kid’s life around or keep a balanced kid grounded. Simple as that. Secondly – and this can be done as part of your one hour a week – you can teach a young person to ride a scooter or drive a car (if the youngster you are mentoring is of age of course). Youth Unemployment Now, the first part – becoming a mentor – is straightforward. You can sign up to mentor a child on our Bright Stars Mentorship Programme (e-mail or visit for information). The second part is even more interesting. A recent Sunday Times article totally disproved most of what we believe about youth unemployment. According to mobile recruitment start-up Giraffe, there is a serious shortage of motorcycle drivers in South Africa. The same applies to cashiers, hotel/restaurant workers, drivers and call centre staff. Who knew? Now these positions often require nothing more than practical or on-the-job training and then some assistance in getting the young person in contact with companies like Giraffe ( And Bob’s your auntie as they say in the classics. You have helped to reduce the unemployment rate in South Africa by one. Now, I know what you are thinking; what difference will one make? To answer that you simply have to imagine how different your one life would have looked if you had never had a job. Imagine if no one person had ever given you – one person – a break. How different would things have turned out for you?  Having done that, isn’t it time to pay it forward?  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.