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.

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.

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.

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

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!

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.

Portfolio Career…. err, what do you do?!

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I’ve been ruined by my first job. Well, technically it was the only “real” job I’ve ever had. This lasted from the ages of 22 – 25 before I went part-time at said job then freelancing. I did an undergrad of B.Com (Industrial Psychology) but never went on to become an Industrial Psychologist. It was never clear to me how many loops one needs to jump to become a professional and master in a field. I was a jack-of-all-trades in my first job, and with it being a start-up I was one of its first employees. When starting the job search in London I realized that I could not be neatly labeled in a particular category. I did not practice my field of study, and I did not hold a degree in lifelong learning about social change. The term intrapraneur has only started to surface in recent years and still comes up on my spellcheck when I type it.

On the side of being an employer, I can recognize that I will employ someone with certain qualities and a particular skills set. With the right attitude, I’ll even invest in the required knowledge. But whose responsibility is it to prepare staff for the “world out there” beyond this job? I’ve just had dinner with my friend Busi and tried to imagine looking for work. A wealth of over 10 years of diverse experience and I still can’t come up with that silver-bullet line or tick that would make a recruitment agency happy.

I see all sorts of interesting self-descriptions popping up on people’s signatures and at networking events they will introduce themselves using said description with a straight face. To avoid the risk of offending anyone, I will not give any examples. I do however wonder how these people find paying work.  In the time that innovation is trendy and it’s the age of holistic living and purpose-driven careers by all means, it’s great that we’re defining ourselves by words of our own choosing. But how do we lose the fluff and invite people into our awesomeness if they can’t understand what we’re all about? What we’re capable of?

I’m on a journey of learning how to communicate what I do in a mainstream way that allows people to access me. The term portfolio career has made its way into business schools. Perhaps those of us who do a-little-bit-of-this, a-little-bit-of-that stand a fighting chance now. But does this show that we’re multi-talented and entrepreneurial or just unfocused? Let’s think twice on how we package ourselves on this one.

The Dilemma of Giving

Tomorrow morning I will make my way to work and within 15mins of my 45min journey I would have had an average of 3 beggars approach me. Between 12 – 15 beggars would have approached me by the time I reach the office. The same occurs on my way back home and in-between meetings each day. That is an average of 20 encounters per day and 100 per week.

The trouble with statistics is that people become nameless and faceless. It does not speak about my heart being wrenched each time I stop at the traffic light, my wish not to be affected. I have had countless conversations with friends who deny car guards (a uniquely South African phenomena) their few rands because they see it as organized begging. There are also those people who prefer a sympathy handout to finding a job. My friend Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase went from being a car guard in Durban to being a Mandela-Rhodes scholar and so much more. He highlighted the plight of the lack of access to education for refugees and asylum seekers that lead 74 of us to participate in the 702 Walk the Talk last week. When possible, I have now started to engage with beggars to try to understand how they got to be where they are. The stories behind some of their situations are a crime to humanity. And sometimes it is due to the recklessness of crime and alcohol abuse making it hard to suspend judgment.

I have also done work for a handful of NGOs and have left depressed seeing how money is spent or the basis of some decisions. How the assumption of more money coming in would stifle innovation. This unfortunately clouds those NGOs doing amazing work, who cannot by nature function as a for-profit organization and have created efficient systems of operation.

My personal response to my dilemma now is to try to understand which avenues of giving will result in there being a shift in that system or at least will have the greater impact. I am happy with the one NGO I adopted about 8 years ago, Lapeng Child & Family Resource Service and strive to treat everyone else with human dignity.

Community approach to raising finance – going beyond institutions

A few years ago I first stumbled on the idea of the everyday man investing in a production for Tim Greene’s movie Boy called Twist set in the Western Cape. This was in 2004 and the sophisticated term “crowdfunding was not used then. For R1000 (about €100) you could have your name credited as an associate producer. It’s not your ordinary donation as it has a reward and I thought cool, even I could do that!

I was also excited because I saw an opportunity for the public to vote for the content they would like to see at their local cinema. Not to simply accept the international exports that we are fed. Above all, it symbolized the strength of the community for contributing in something that we believe in. Something tangible, with feedback on results that’s often more reliable than our questionable X that we mark every four years.

I was equally impressed last year by my friend Rosie Motene and her crew for crowdfunding the movie Man on Ground, a high quality production that raises awareness around xenophobia.

But the story of crowdfunding is not limited to the movies. People have crowdfunded for surgical operations, building a house, inventions, you name it! At the heart of it is people contributing to changing the status quo of something that they are passionate about. This is what I call active citizenship.

What differentiates it from charity for me is the fact that these projects will have longer viability beyond the contribution or the once-off need would have been met and hey, you may even get a reward!

As an entrepreneur working in the space of building resilient and cohesive communities, this is a clear signal on where local (and international) energy resides. Money may be one form of energy, but people generally spend where their priority lies. You will then know how viable or relevant your offering is right now.

So perhaps this is the new way of financing our collective dreams; each one giving a little and culminating into momentous possibility.

See Hub Johanneburg’s website for more information on crowdfunding and keep an eye out for the campaign soon to be launched to relocate the community.

The Paradigm Shift

I woke up after 4am this morning with these words booming in my head…

It’s not about maintaining the status quo. It’s not about smoothing things over. It’s not about ticking boxes of compliance and patting yourself on the back.

To create large-scale change, some systems may need to be disrupted. It means going to the unknown, embracing your discomfort.

So here’s to the rebel with a cause. The ones who are deaf to the naysayers and persevering on, sometimes seeming crazy but provoking communities and cities until their solutions become mainstream. The world may need a revolution but is comfortable with evolution. You’re ahead of your time quite often, but the world will catch up, even though your name may not be attached to it.  We celebrate you!

A consideration: I’ve just spent a week with communities of all sorts, large scale financial institutions, NGOs and entrepreneurs. At the heart of their qualms are not a lack of finances necessarily, or SMART objective setting and solutions, but rather the people factor. People not meeting each other as fellow human beings, not connecting.