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Our Collective Values Will Determine The Future Of The World

I am often astounded at how we as the human race have assumed trust of each other. We trust that the driver at the next intersection won’t run through a red traffic light to end our day, we trust that the bank will hold our pennies in a safe place, we trust that the ingredients in our soft drink will be safe and unaltered from the last 500 times of consuming it.

Are we merely naïve or have we been designed to trust?

I have a passion for designing structures of belonging; be it through one-on-one dialogue, the design of social space or how we convene as groups – I am therefore overjoyed at Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging that speaks to all of this. I am relieved that social entrepreneurs are sensitive to how we relate as people to each other and to the planet (although I hope that in the near future we can drop the word “social” with moving to a mainstream approach to doing business). I do however skip a few heartbeats when we forget how we treat each other in our everyday that detracts from our grand intentions of creating this alternate world we want to live in.

As a wannabe social architect, I conform to the belief that every conversation we have, every action and inaction either contributes or detracts from the greater good of humanity. We cannot outsource our personal behavior to the organisations we work in, or hide behind those brands. Our values are integral to our personal development, our ability to relate to others, our roles in organization and society. It determines if and how we do our part of an agreement, be it a written or social agreement. It determines whether we become armchair critics or roll up our sleeves in shaping society or merely the block where we live.

Through my work and circle of friends, I see many people battling with relationships. The choice between retribution and forgiveness is not an obvious option to select when an injustice has occurred. Applying integrity at work with quality delivery does not come easily when uninspired. Many of us begin our journey in life with hand-me-down values based on the religious principles we were born into. Through the knocks and bumps we receive in life, we may let go of a few and adopt a few new ones. I love the saying that a diamond is simply coal that handles pressure well. It’s through adversity that our true values, and thereby character shows up. This is when our ore (also core) is sharpened in the flames of life and our convictions are refined.

Who are we when nobody is watching? Are we bringing our gifts into the world without thought of punishment or reward? Are we showing up as our authentic selves regardless of the consequence? Perhaps we should not wait for the conditions of operation to be ideal. We face a gap in society where we as citizens need to be the leader examples that we need in order to overcome the state of corruption and selfishness that we find ourselves immersed in. We need to create this alternative future by both stepping forward, but also merely practicing our values.

I don’t think this is an overwhelming ambition for any of us; it starts by merely giving thought to how we show up. Are we contributing or detracting in any given situation? Take a moment to pause and breathe before acting and speaking. What good would that piece of gossip bring? Seeing that you tarnish your own character by tarnishing another’s.

While this is a constant practice in my life, I have been met by a few surprises. As an entrepreneur, I speak with the passion of intention of what my work will offer the world. While I truly believe it, the future is uncertain so any promise that I make will be done on a shaky foundation of uncertainty. I have however on more than one occasion received investment and an invitation to paid work because of the belief that I would practice integrity and perseverance in delivery. While reward is not the aim, the circle of life gifts it to us :)

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Celebrating 20 years of Democracy: a gift of subcultures

When I started university in 1998, it was quite daunting being a timid Coloured student at die Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit (RAU). Everyone from my race group knew each other and social groups were still based on the superficial quality of race. I was not the popular type, and if anything more of a social survivalist. I had very little in common with this social grouping; my thoughts lingered on philosophy and you’d find Allanis Morisette in my CD player, not some R&B jam.

For some or other reason I stumbled into the transformation conversation on campus (university). Having lived in campus residence, I found myself playing translator for black girls at residence meetings; translating very important information from Afrikaans to English – never mind that statistics at the time showed that 65% of classes were taken in English and not Afrikaans. At the time we had the choir and an African choir. It was well known that the choir had more budget and opportunities than the African choir that sang more traditional vernacular chorals. We explicitly had white parties and black parties institutionally organized on different sides of campus, including White Spring Day and Black Spring Day – at Milo Park. My heart silently yearned for the music of the White Party, but I had no access point and no business being there – I would also forever be ostracized by “my people” if I went.

University life started to shift for me when I went to an information session about Toastmasters, the international public speaking society. Coming from a family that values leadership and public speaking, I longed to be a great orator. I was hooked and soon found myself being part of the founding team along with Fatima, Wilhelm and Shelley – we could not be any more racially and culturally diverse for the South African context. I finally found a home that could nurture my philosophical mind, and great friendships were ensued. Within a year I was part of the SRC Societies Council and invited to an AIESEC conference. AIESEC is the largest student-run organization in the world with presence in 120 countries. The conference changed my life and I was soon President of the local committee. Suddenly I was hosting people from all over the world, an equal in a meta-culture.

Back to the present…

Through my work and friendships, I spend several hours per week in conversation with people from all over the world. I also get to travel to some of these locations a few times a year. Joburg is undoubtedly my city of choice to live in, but I do get tired of our national conversation through the eyes of the race lens that is not always in tune with the ordinary person’s reality. In Joburg, we have a plethora of interest-based sub-cultures. I see it every time I take part in Critical Mass or speak to my friends and neighbours about to take their mountain bike out for a ride. I see it in our vibrant community of entrepreneurs. In hanging out with hipsters at the Neighbourgoods Market in Braamies on a Saturday. In conversation with friends on our unconscious filter to like someone on Tinder and how chats are challenging assumptions. We are at a point in our electoral process where people from all walks of life are questioning the status quo. This is not race-based and has mostly emerged in the last 5 years. I truly celebrated Freedom Day yesterday by going to the Back To The City Festival. It’s the biggest Hip Hop Festival in Africa and there were thousands of people on the streets of the inner-city who were styling, skating, beatboxing etc.

While we still have work to do on building national unity and bridging the socio-economic divide I acknowledge that it unfortunately has a racial undertone. However, after 20 years of democracy in South Africa, as we debate our differences, may they be differences based on interests and exciting opportunities that valuing sub-cultures are introducing, not on the superficial and increasingly irrelevant circumstance of skin tone.

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My Day With Raul: across Mexico City

Humans are designed for relationship; it’s even biblical. But if you’re expecting a post about an encounter with a beautiful Latin Lover then stop reading now.

…It’s my last day in Mexico City and despite being pressed for time; I stubbornly decided that I will be making my way to the Teotihuacan Pyramids. If in town, I may as well go see the place where “the gods were created” and why it’s come to be a World Heritage Site. My only problem was that the least expensive and most efficient way to get there was by hiring a taxi for a day; that’s 8 hours with someone when I don’t speak Spanish!

Teotihuacan

My colleague Monica from Impact Hub Mexico City arranged the whole thing. She did intros, negotiated the price and called every so often to check in on translation needs and if everything was going ok. I started off by sitting in the back seat with luggage by my side, with a smirk and nod every time he would look my way. It was a steaming hot day sitting in a perpetual traffic jam making our way across Insergentes Avenue. Raul motioned to me to open my window wider so the breeze could flow through. We eventually stopped for fuel where I could arm myself with water and Oreos – my tummy was done with foreign food. Two hours later, after crossing a grey industrial landscape we finally found ourselves entering Teotihuacan City where I would partially walk the Avenue of the Dead.

raulThe ancient structures were breathtaking. I climbed one of the pyramids, but possibly more astonished that all the kids on school tours were wearing tracksuits in the blazing heat! This senorita had to fist pump a bunch of excited boys while a girl laughed out loud and ran to announce that senorita no habla espanol.

me at mexican pyramids

I decided on last minute shopping and after a successful card swipe at one store, I went crazy at the next. The problem was however that there was no signal for it to swipe again. After 30mins of negotiating payment options by attempting Spanglish, the storeowner walked over with me to Raul where we decided to go to the banco. Raul made a sweet gesture by offering to pay for my purchases and we decided to pay with the cash set aside for him that we’d replace later.

The ride back to Mexico City was pleasant. Raul pulled over, inviting me to sit in front. Soon we were singing (me dancing) to traditional mariachi music on his mixed tape – that he repeated one too many times. We conversed through animated expression and hand gestures. We drank from the same bottle of water and he even put eye drops in for me. By the time we got to aeroporto, we were taking selfies to the amusement of the other taxi drivers.

By not being able to express myself through voice, I often felt trapped. I have come to see that humans have not evolved to many other forms of expression. English is not the first language to a vast majority of the world so we need to be adaptable. Beyond the spoken word, what other symbols can we exchange to get to shared meaning? A dance, a smile, the shared meaning of lipstick between women, the unifying power of The Village People’s YMCA across nationalities? We want to connect; I see the frustration at airports over long layovers. Let’s keep on trying, keep on evolving.

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As 2014 dawns on South Africa – my naïve dreams for my country

ImageIt is the 2nd January 2014. I have 4 more days before work starts, but I sit here aware that you don’t go on leave from being a citizen of the country.

I am deeply struck by the question “What does our country need most now, and how may I play a part in it?”  This last month has seen us mourning the passing of Nelson Mandela, and celebrating his magnificent life.  We have been inundated by documentaries, radio talk shows and Anant Singh’s movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom providing new revelations to some of us on the great man’s sacrifice. Fresh conversations are bubbling about the values our nation should espouse and how to continue to strive for the ideals that Nelson Mandela stood for.

In Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love, he states that (and I paraphrase) in order for a group to display collective intelligence, participants need a container where there is access to information and composition of diversity. This is where the magic of sustainable social change happens. How do we create this strong container we so desperately need?  Our country already has a wealth of diversity; we now need to work on access to information (education & no secrecy bill) and resources (shared). We first need to realize that we all need each other.

Who do I vote for that will strive to intentionally create this strong container? Which party or collective of citizens will be consultative, act on corruption and will tirelessly deliver on topics that matter to our people: education, food security, integrated public transport, poverty alleviation, etc.

This year marks 20 years of our democracy. I am proud to have friends from all walks of life – across nations, cultures, races and the socio-economic spectrum. I am however of the generation that caught the end of apartheid, so my joy of progress has an undertone of sadness, and even bitterness. Partially due to the messaging still held by the generation that precedes me; they often do not understand my openness to diverse friendships and romantic relationships. Part of my bitterness is also due to the awareness of my inadequacies around my white friends who have not only inherited financially and materially, but also a sense of adventure, sportsmanship and possibility. I find that many of my black friends are so caught up in attaining financial security that we are not prioritizing a purpose-driven life. A life that speaks to your calling seems a luxury.

I long for a society where my prejudice is obsolete and I can bask in the beauty of our diversity and shared humanity without further contemplation. Where access to resources is not the limiting factor to achieving your full potential. Where we trust that our elected leaders will serve the well being of our entire nation, not be caught up in self-interest. I long for the day that we as South Africans are proudly African and not yearn to be anything else, but lovingly embrace our brothers and sisters across the continent as equals. And finally, the day that Africa is an equal social and economic player in the world; no longer inferior but not necessarily superior. We’re all simply humans living and sharing justly and appreciatively.

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An Almost 15 year old meets Nelson Mandela in 1995

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The day before my 15th birthday in 1995 when Nelson Mandela spoke at my school, I did not fully understand the enormity of the man, although I was in awe of him and thought he was a giant with big hands when they shook mine.  I remember the media fussing about an eye operation that he just had, and may not show up. He showed up, and did not fuss. I remember him saying that he wishes he could pick us all up and carry each one of us in his shirt pocket to take us everywhere with him, protecting us. As a 33 year old reflecting back, I now understand the impact of those words… and even more in awe. He was indeed a giant.

This picture appeared on the front page of The Sowetan newspaper on 20th January 1995, my special birthday gift. You keep giving Madiba, happy birthday!

Press statement issued by the Gauteng Department on 17th January 1995

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South African Traveler Nightmares, the things they don’t tell you!

One of the most exciting things in life is the promise of a new destination to concur, one more bucket-list location ticked off.  The adventure of immersing yourself in a new culture; the sights, smells and tastes of travel. The collection of passport stamps to showoff and the pride of owning more than one passport because you’ve filled the previous one up.

For the South African traveler, things are not always that simple. In fact, it rarely is. With good reason our passport is jokingly referred to as the green mamba, it bites to have our passport because of all its limitations. Among my circle of friends, I am a late entrant to the international travel circuit. I first left our beloved continent in 2006 and quickly worked my way through twenty-two countries since then, with several repeat visits to many of these nations. This blog post collates some of my travel nightmare experiences as well as a few of friends.

In 2006 I used travel agents. I soon realized that I could get cheaper flights by shopping online and that at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to do the schlep work of completing those dreaded visa forms. The value of their contribution was therefore not obvious. In 2007 I invited a colleague to London to participate in a workshop. It was his first international travel experience but sadly the airline turned him away. It was not clear why he needed clearance so I rebooked his flight and sent him back. This time he was told that he was thought to be Nigerian and was turned away again. On the third occasion I sent him with a journalist, he was allowed to travel without any further trouble.

In 2008, I popped into South Africa while my work visa application was being considered in the United Kingdom. Upon re-entry to the UK, I was detained at Gatwick (along with nine Nigerians), and cross-questioned for over six hours about my intentions of being in the country. It turned out that my volunteer time at schools in London counted toward work time in my two-year working holiday visa time so I was infringing on my allowance by three months. I was refused entry to the country and immediately sent back to SA via Dubai and treated like a criminal without communication, forcing me to go without a shower and much sleep for three days. The year 2008 was when the Uk government decided that South Africans cannot have visa-free visits.

Last year when applying for a visa to the UK, a backlog due to the Olympics visitor visa applications along with several public holidays created some of the biggest travel stress I have ever had. I paid double the cost for the speed service but when I did not have my passport returned to me by the morning of my travel date, I went directly to the embassy in Pretoria. They saw me and kept promising that I would receive it within a few hours. They kept missing the deadline and I eventually needed to just take my passport so I would not miss my meeting in the Netherlands the next day. This was not before I was humiliated and broke down in tears when the rude senior manager told me that they could not find my biometrics in the UK and it’s the traveler’s responsibility to apply for their visa in time. It did not matter that I followed script on their website, no apology or refund was due to me.

At the end of 2007 I was flying back to London from Brazil via Portugal with a bunch of friends. The airline forgot to transfer a crate of luggage from the airport in Portugal to London. Thank goodness we all had our luggage reclaim slips, but a friend had his apartment key in his main luggage. At his own expense he had to get a locksmith late at night to open his door.

In 2009 I took my third trip to Denmark, this time for the United Nations annual COP (climate change) conference. On arrival at the embassy, I was told that I had missed the window period of getting a visa to the country as no business or tourist visas were being issued. In hindsight, I could have entered via another Schengan country, but eventually got a friend working with the embassy in Denmark to fuss about giving me entry after several attempts to get in the ‘normal way’. Changing my flight a few times cost me quite a bit of cash, but I finally boarded the plane to travel via Amsterdam where I was stranded for a few days because of cancelled flights due to heavy snow. After loads of arguments, I got KLM to move me to Scandinavian Airways who were used to flying in such weather conditions. I eventually got to Copenhagen with lost luggage, after missing the conference and when leaving the country on Christmas Eve they finally found my luggage but had broken my bag. It was replaced with an inferior quality one at the airline’s cost.

In 2011 I was making my way to Spain, flying via Frankfurt. I stocked up on liquid gifts at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Since these were duty-free purchases, they were naturally sealed. It was however confiscated in Frankfurt as I was about to take my connecting flight. I made a huge fuss, missed my connecting flight, but got most of my purchases back. This morning a friend who is a seasoned traveler (has lived in about six countries) posted on facebook that she had a similar experience at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. It turns out that one cannot purchase duty free outside the Euro zone. Someone, please tell me why there is no warning at point of purchase?!

Two months ago I was excited to be introduced to www.ebookers.com. I proceeded to book multi-city flights for my mom and I. I noticed a bold warning sign to check for the need for a transit visa if traveling via the US, but saw no such warning for the UK. Last month we confidently walked to check-in at British Airways airline. My travel documents were accepted but not my moms’. She needed a transit visa. Before cancelling both our flights, I asked a BA staff member to check the refund policy. He told me that we would lose ZAR1,700 (about €150) each. We then went shopping for another flight for that evening. I am now in a dispute with www.ebookers.com as they are refusing any form of refund because I do not have in writing what the British Airways staff member told me. In their books, I was a no-show. This includes the other flights booked within Europe despite me having sent an email days prior to the internal flights. The response once again is that it’s the passenger’s responsibility to check passport requrements. The total loss amounts ZAR24,000 (about €2000)!

Flying from Vienna to Rome, I arrived in time having checked in the early hours prior to the flight. There was what I can only explain as a language misunderstanding. When arriving at the boarding gate, I asked a staff member where to drop off luggage. In difficult English, she asked for our boarding passes and ushered us hastily in – there was a mounting queue. When going through the gates we found ourselves at security control with no time to go back to drop off our luggage. An embarrassing amount of expensive toiletries were lost.

Whether a travel novice or not, I have learnt to check and re-check travel requirements wherever I go – read that fine print! It’s impossible to cover all your basis, but reduce risk of loss as far as possible. I will always get Schengan visas from the Dutch Embassy; the most efficient and friendly in the EU region. Thank goodness I now have a five-year Schengan visa and a ten-year US visa. I am also a convert to travel agencies!

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There’s a Time for Nationalism

All and sundry know that I describe myself as a Pan-African Globalist. I am from Johannesburg, have a calling to the future of African leadership and have a love for understanding global cultural contexts, its accompanying beauty and pain and with a deep love for Ireland and Brazil. But today I am South African!

Hub Johannesburg with Behold SA hosted an event over a month ago called Making Social Entrepreneurship Practical. The aim was to develop viable business models to create social impact where four groups competed in a challenge. For their prize, today I had the privilege of hosting the winning team over lunch with modest, inspiring, and cut-the-crap David Lewis. David is the former chairman of South Africa’s Competition Tribunal, now heads up Corruption Watch and is author of Thieves at the Dinner Table. The informal conversation centered on how to encourage public participation in stamping out corruption. I was introduced to systemic corruption – where everyone becomes invested in sustaining it.

It is quite sad that South Africa has dropped in the Corruption Perception’s Index to 64 out of 183 countries. While I do not condone corruption of any form and certainly do not think that we should look at the lowest benchmark, I need to shout out my opinion that any system you create that benefits self at the expense of the other is a form of corruption.  I get to travel abroad quite a bit due to work and a huge part of my job is about bridging diversity. I see this form of corruption all the time. It may not be labeled as such but occurs each time when people create systems that promote their agenda through undetectable nuances. Outlying communities from the source of power are crying to be heard; hearing goodwill of inclusivity spoken about but there always seem to be barriers to entry. When people’s voices are not heard they feel oppressed. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire warns us “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” Those in power would therefore do well to approach life in a fair and equitable way. As South Africans with a disadvantaged past, we should keep watch of not taking on the nature of our oppressor as we all scramble for our piece of the pie.

On a lighter note, I went to Tanz Café in Fourways this evening – a part of town that’s unusual for me to socialize in. I mostly frequent places that attract a diverse racial crowd, so it was once again an eye-opener of the work needed to be done to bridge our racial divides in South Africa – I’d be surprised if more than 3% of people in the place were not white (apart from the waiters). But when the music started all thinking melted away and this was my tribe. Listening to Lonehill Estate and The Graeme Watkins Project on the same stage was unimaginable. What a surprise to hear that all those songs were South African! I knew all the words and would gladly pay the same ridiculous rate that we do for international acts coming to town. My introduction to iScream & The Chocolate Stix was pretty cool too. We paid a measly R60 to get in when my cheap ticket to Red Hot Chillie Peppers cost R415. Hmmm, this does not feel right.

So, if it means that as South Africans we value ourselves more, take our place on the global stage, appreciate diversity and reduce greed; then by all means I am proud to be a nationalist.

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