My grandfather was born in McDonald’s in Greenpoint.
Of course it wasn’t Micky Dees then. In fact way back in the early 1900s it was a house called Race Stand House inhabited by Patrick Markey, a former Irish fusilier who has emigrated to Cape Town and worked as a policemen chasing smugglers around the Cape shores. PC Markey and his wife, Anne (I carry her name in mine, as my father carried his. Although mine has an ‘e’ in it, whereas hers is sans the ‘e,’ a sin subsequent Annes in the family will point out ) raised nine of the surviving eleven children there, of whom my granddad was the youngest.
Subsequently the 167 year old house which originally served as the official grandstand of the Greenpoint Race Track (hence its name) over the years became a golf clubhouse; housed a Restaurant (Seagulls); and was home to the arts as The Cape Town Art Centre.
This history is my only (tenuous) link to anything or anyone famous.
The nine children of Patrick and Anne (nee McFarland) went on to have many children and grandchildren (They were Catholic of course), and ever since the nineties, their descendants have been getting together annually on or around St Patrick’s Day to celebrate our shared kinship.
Last weekend, after two years of Covid restrictions, our cousin, Margie, hosted a get-together at her home in Rondebosch. There is nothing quite like reconnecting with folk with whom you share common ancestors, and it is rather satisfying to look around and know you are related to all the people around you.
Of course one could feel some sympathy for the spouses of all of us who didn’t realize that they were marrying a person more Irish than the Irish (as most immigrant Irish tend to be, no matter how many generations away they may be from the immigrant family, or how stalwart they are as citizens of their new country.) We’re all Irish on St Paddy’s day. Mind you, my daughter-in-law was rather chuffed to hear she is now on the family tree and the keeper of the family tree is the husband of my father’s cousin, having been married to her for almost 50 years, so they don’t all mind.
It’s the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself as an individual though that is the essence of these gatherings. Seeing my late father’s face in his now-elderly cousin, I felt the bond not only with my uncle (first cousin once-removed actually) and myself, but a link to my own parents, a sense of the collective wisdom of the ages that comes from familial alliance. Even though one of my cousins decried the fact that every time we meet, there are faces he doesn’t recognize – that is precisely the joy in family. Laughing along with him, I wished I’d known him better growing up.
Singing along to the Irish ditties, as we always do (my goodness they are maudlin – everyone dies!) we celebrate the purity of Celtic voices lifted up in song and the talent of the few who can actually sing.
And then we sing our own anthem, with greater gusto.
They say one should try everything once (Google what Sir Thomas Beecham said about that!) I discovered that three times is the minimum: once because you should overcome your initial fear; once adding variety, and once pushing the fear factor.
Now in my middle age, I am no longer a daredevil physically, but I was itching to hurtle down the virgin slopes of the coastal dunes, and discovered that no more am I the first person to put up my hands for athletic feats. In fact, I was anxiety-ridden, not about making a fool of myself (That was inevitable) but of actually hurting myself. However a colleague and I plucked up the courage and went down (sitting) together in a ‘race.’ Well ‘down’ is an exaggeration. I slithered to a halt one metre after the guide stopped pushing me. But once we got going, what fun!
Then I tried standing up – for a while – and quickly realised that making like Kelly Slater on sand would be the quickest way to return with a broken ankle, but at least I can say that I rode the slope. (Two seconds is a while!)
Behind us was an almost sheer drop which three of us braved together – I participated in that madness only because I figured there were no bumps on the slope to stop me – I forgot about my behind – leaning back in fear of tumbling head over heels, I managed to embed my personal rear bump firmly in the hill and I had to paddle to the bottom, only to have to clamber on shaking legs back up the cliff.
But what exhilaration to conquer fear just a little. And sans Sally, I would not have done that.
2. Baboons share my sugar addiction
Baboons often damage protea plants seeking the sugary nectar beneath the flower head. Thankfully they stayed away from the chocolate stashes in the restaurant kitchen, but this chap was very interested in our cottage. Thankfully we had been warned to keep doors and windows closed.
The delicious food at the Fig Tree Restaurant certainly kept us well fed and the chocolate splendour of the final dessert elicited enjoyment utterances akin to that scene in ‘When Harry met Sally.’
3. Sometimes you should just dive in fully clothed
Returning from an entertaining game drive, I joined fellow heads of schools, who were hot and exhausted after a walk through the fynbos, at the infinity pool on the cliff. Our costumes were far away in our cottages and after some splashing from the wildlife already in the pool, we threw dignity to the gentle breeze and dove in fully clothed, like children.
So often as heads of schools, we are called on to be solemn and proper, and decorous; at school we are always on display, but it was good to be real and have unadulterated fun. I think that childlike activity added years to our lives and reduced several therapy sessions worth of stress.
There’s a life lesson in that.
4. Fynbos and women
Our guide jokingly told us, as he pointed at the cones on the (female) fynbos plants he was showing us, that here the women have the… er … cajones (The euphemism is mine – he was a trifle blunter). It struck me looking at the smattering of female faces in the group how necessary it is in life for women to have ‘cones’, and not just at work. Listening to the stories of the women around me, I marvel at the capacity of women to maintain stressful careers, raise their families and run their homes simultaneously. If I have learned anything working in my job and seeing the struggles of so many single (and married) mothers, it is that there is a core of strength within us that is indestructible. Tired, yes! Defeated? Never.
5. Fynbos and fire
And that brings me to the miracle of fynbos: as anyone local to the Western Cape will tell you, fynbos has to burn every 8 – 14 years in order for the seeds to germinate. We women are certainly forged in powerful fires if you pardon the mixed metaphor. It’s a bit sad though that we sometimes only come into our own when we have to face disaster. If I think how many women are defined by their single-parenthood, breast cancer survival; or rape survival, rather than being recognized first for their strength of character or talents. But perhaps it is only in a crisis that women allow themselves to show their steely core. Don’t mess with a woman who has been betrayed: she has learned she can live without you.
But the fynbos is not merely a metaphor for the might of women, it is a sign for all of us that sometimes it is trouble that makes us fruitful. We are most creative when we are under pressure. In every tragedy there is an opportunity – that is how we tap into the creative power of the Almighty.
6. Saying no is powerful
Our itinerary involved an exciting afternoon walking along the shore and snorkeling in crystal clear waters. I wanted to go, and suffered severe FOMO by not going, but I decided to listen to my body which was screaming ‘Kan nie meer nie.’ Strong people sometimes battle to say ‘no’ or to ringfence free time for ‘sharpening sword’ activities. I chose myself that afternoon and slept for 3 hours. As a woman, as a leader, and as a female leader particularly, I frequently feel I ought to, should do, have to do, must do it all so I do not appear to be under-performing or lazy and sometimes it is a potent decision to take back my own power and just say ‘no’… and I didn’t get sunburnt.
7. Conferences versus connection
I am so grateful that the organisers of our conference put the emphasis on ‘conferring’ and connection rather than on lecturing and instructing. What made this gathering unique was the absence of powerpoints and workshops, the focus being on relationships – and funnily enough, watching the finance guys rock the slopes on sandboards was infinitely more instructive and entertaining than spreadsheets; chatting late into the evening and hearing another head say, ‘Wow you are describing exactly the challenges my school has!’ was as beneficial as formal training on collaborating about how to solve similar problems; and shared laughter was a balm for tired souls at the end of a long term.
8. Don’t lean on stone walls in the veld
Mice and goggas live there…and therefore so do snakes. There is probably a metaphor for life in that, but there endeth the lesson!
9. Life comes full circle
Arriving home was like returning from a school camp, having bonded with colleagues rather than merely shared a conference venue. I think we came back more friends than peers, a powerful thing in a post-Covid world.
And as I climbed off our overland bus, there was my son, Michael, standing at his vehicle like a Viking with with his blood-red beard, ready to take mom home, just as I had done so many times after tours and camps for my children.
The Library of Alexandria in 48BC, The Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu in 2013 and now the Special Collections housed in the Jagger Reading Room at UCT – all that knowledge and heritage destroyed by fire!
Whether such collections are lost through the power of nature, arson or a Kristallnacht type of book burning, the loss of scholarship is tragic. I went down a Google rabbit hole when looking up dates of the these fires and was horrified to realize just how many such fires have destroyed archives of learning over the centuries around the world, most maliciously done.
This photograph of people standing helplessly by as the Jagger Building burned is etched in my mind – It sums up the impotence so many Ikeys felt as part of our alma mater was ripped away by Nature and we were forced to watch it on Instagram or YouTube.
It seems as though some of the collection at UCT may have been protected by fireproof roller doors which were activated timeously but countless pieces were lost, and the Reading Room is gone. Herbert Baker’s grand pillars seem to have survived though – read into that what you will!
My mother was a librarian. For her, books and the worlds embodied in them were sacrosanct: God help one of us who was caught writing in a book – If it was in pen, not even God would help you – such an act of sheer blasphemy was likely to damn us to hell (but not always heeded by herself as I was to discover recently on opening her copy of the Combined Works of Shakespeare. However, we’ll forgive her brief hypocrisy because it was a treat to see her writing again after 26 years without her in my life.)
She is the one who taught me to read when I was five and the magic of stories, with their worlds of excitement. I remember asking her if she regretted never having been able to travel the world, and she replied that she had been to all the ends of the earth and under it, in her precious books.
She was offered the position of setting up the first library at the new Koeberg Nuclear Plant in the seventies and was really excited at the prospect of being the guardian of research and scholarship there. However, she turned them down in the end. It was only as a parent myself, that I realized the incredible sacrifice she made for my sister and I in accepting a lowly clerical job in a bank (but which paid more) so we could attend the school of her choice, a prestigious girls’ school in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, closer to where we lived. She would have beggared herself in order to ensure we achieved the private school education she had never had.
It was the same when the time came for me to go to university. If I had not been fortunate to be offered a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town, she would have made a plan – she told me she had already contacted the bank manager about it, when my funding came through.
So, for me to see the Jagger building and its African Studies collections so easily obliterated, I can imagine Sylvia Markey groaning in despair and my own soul echoes her moans.
I remember my time in the eighties there: the burgeoning political awareness I experienced immersed in studying isiXhosa and Sesotho; realizing my own privilege and the power entrusted in me to make a difference in our nation; of standing alongside my friend, Xoliswa on Jammy steps as she declared, ‘Look! Bonteheuwel is burning’; of teargas and riot police swaggering along the freeway; of Xoliswa’s rich alto over the megaphone, as she stood outside the Jagger Library as it was known then, singing the haunting struggle songs. ‘We shall Overcome.’
And we did…
… until perhaps we didn’t.
If this fire has jolted anything from my middle-aged heart, it’s a need to do a Mister Chips (I know that’s really dating myself, but I like to think I am in the ‘noontime, not the evening of myself) type of reflection of how I’m doing on changing the world. As I grieve the loss of the writing treasures in Jagger, and the library there that nourished me, as well as the lecturers like Sam Mbiza across the road who educated me and inspired in me a love of the beauty of isiXhosa, and a respect for its cadences, I must ask myself whether I have done enough to promote the study of African literature across my teaching career, which ended up being mainly sharing my own mother tongue with others. Have I filled the world with love – of reading; have I filled the world with hope through education?
It is my hope that another such reckoning closer to the end of my life (a long time away of course, because I still plan to live long enough to be a problem to my own children) will allow me to rejoice in the scholarly works of those whose studies in African Languages started in schools where I have introduced the language to study; that someone I have taught will translate nuclear physics textbooks into isiXhosa; that someone I have taught will win a Nobel prize for literature, and that someone I have inspired is the guardian of the African Studies books at UCT… or the library at Koeberg. I must try harder.
My school has just had a week’s holiday (well 9 days with the two weekends), when normally we would have had three weeks.
I joke about every holiday being one week too short, no matter the length of the vacation and I stand by that, but the truth is I divide every break into 3 parts: for the first third, I sleep – all day and night if necessary, but essentially if my body tells me ‘nap,’ I head for my cosy bed and nod off happily. In the middle week or section of the holiday, I sleep and do all those jobs you put off for your leave, like having a haircut, visiting the traffic department, taking the next child to get an ID or apply for a driver’s licence or university. In the final part, I aim to do only self-indulgent fun things, like motoring in the country with The Maestro, clothes shopping, special time with my children, reading…and sleeping of course.
This mid-year break I have had to divide the time into three days for each of my holiday divisions: so, I have had 3 days for each. I’m into the final third tomorrow and still feel I need to be sleeping 24-7.
But I can just tuck into some cheese with this whine, because at least I have had a break. The teachers I really feel for are those in the public sector who are not getting a holiday at all, not to mention their students.
You see, they haven’t had a holiday since December. Do not believe officials who say that they were off during lockdown. They were not. They may not have been able to reach all their learners digitally, but they supplied them with work before and during lockdown, many hand-delivering tasks and textbooks to their children’s homes. And in many schools, they did just keep on teaching.
Teachers are going to burn out.
How are they going to reboot, and ‘sharpen their swords,’ as Stephen Covey speaks about, when they are exhausted; they need to rest. Every teacher grinds her teeth when the ignorant masses who believe that they know how to be teachers because they once went to school, say that teachers have half-day jobs and too much holiday time. (One deputy I knew once said that’s a bit like someone who drives a Mercedes thinking they have shares in Daimler-Chrysler, but we won’t go there.) Teachers don’t have half-day jobs and fyi most work through their vacations, both marking and prepping ordinarily. Generally they have worked the hours of a holiday before they get there.)
In April, educators were frantically reinventing themselves as IT gurus and restructuring their teaching programmes. State school teachers are not getting any holiday now. And they, and all independent school teachers, will be working right through to December with a couple of long weekends to break it up. We need to find ways to look after their health, both mental and physical.
In the Department of Basic Education’s commitment to completing the school year, I don’t know that they have considered the teachers (who are dying at their desks btw – just look at the country’s COVID statistics: as at 30 June 2020, 775 state schools across the nation are affected by the virus, and 1169 teachers have been infected – more than twice the number of children who have contracted the disease – 523; but in the Western Cape in the last week we have laid to rest 2 teachers, as has Gauteng; in the Eastern Cape the count is 18 – that is eighteen – who have died. And that is only 3/9 of the provinces.)
We are concerned about the frontline health workers who are at risk from this virus, and rightly so, but teachers are at risk of becoming the latest, silent group of victims. Many educators suffer from so much stress simply from being in the classroom, let alone all the other attendant pressures like socio-economic crises in their communities. How many are walking around with undiagnosed, stress-related co-morbidities like hypertension, putting them at greater risk, without them even being aware of it?
And tired teachers get sick. Our educators catch every virus around in an ordinary year, especially in winter. This year they are bone weary. With no real holiday in April, nothing in June, and no break of any significance before 15 December, the government is stretching one of its greatest human resources to breaking point.
Even in the independent school sector, where I work, where many schools have at least had a small break, we have identified this as a problem for us. I think we need to think about it more, before we either break our teachers, lose them to other professions or attend their funerals.
This is the biggest challenge facing schools in the next 6 months. How we address it will determine how we keep our teachers (alive).
My job in the next months is going to be focussed on my staff.
B-L-A-S-T: 5 Steps to building instead of breaking relationships
A colleague’s young daughter once told her mother that the principal just sits in her office waiting for trouble. It can feel like that sometimes (except we don’t have to wait…)
In a customer-centric world, it’s hard to negotiate the displeasure of those we intend to serve, especially when they may even be mistaken, wrong, or downright unfair in their complaints.
Albert Barneto is an entrepreneur who started in the restaurant business and makes his money now ‘Creating online tools for entrepreneurs and small business owners to reach, grow, and cultivate their customer base,’ according to his bio. In English, that means he knows how to work with clients and serve them well. We can certainly learn from him in the education space, which more and more needs to become more ‘customer’ focussed.
His manner of addressing customer complaints in the business world (using the acronym BLAST) is effective in dealing with both parent complaints, staff grievances and learner conflicts in schools.
BLAST stands for:
B – elieve
L – isten
A – pologise
S – atisfy
T – hank
When that parent storms into your office, or a staff member cracks up in front of you, or a student brings a complaint to you, it’s never a convenient time and often you don’t necessarily have reason to entertain the matter they raise with you because you may consider it somehow lacking in legitimacy.
And yet, the first thing you must do is believe them. Someone who is angry enough to raise a concern believes there is cause enough, whether they are flat out wrong, or not, and has a right to be there. Other conflict management processes use the LAST concept, but most exclude the ‘B’ which is sad, because it excludes the reason behind why one would do the rest.
People speak about attributes like empathy as ‘soft skills,’ but ensuring you believe the complainant actually leads to the rest. You see if you have enough appreciation for how the other feels, then half the job is done, because they will know you understand them. Believe the emotions: believe the anger; and attempt to see what lies beneath it and then you will see the matter from their point of view. That’s a strength – no ‘soft’ involved
Back in the day, in an old episode of Suits (before Meghan Markle dropped them for her real prince) Donna, the actual star of that show (because she is redhead-fabulous), tells the IT guy that the ‘key to having empathy is making people feel supported in their feelings, not just trying to solve their problems.’ ‘Platitudes,’ she said, just won’t do. Believing someone involves really seeing them.
And you can’t know and understand them, unless you have truly listened to their story. Often, I know what’s coming in a complaint because someone else may have alerted me already to the problem, but it’s important to hear it from the person who is actually affected. The temptation to form a conclusion before they have aired their views must be overcome if I am to truly listen.
I worked once for a headmaster who took the side of the first person who approached him with a problem, and that became his viewpoint. You can imagine how that lead balloon went down with people with genuine grievances.
Part of listening is waiting out the venting, (sometimes) swearing, and even personal attacks, and not defending or justifying whatever the school is accused of doing/not doing. At this point in the conversation, it is not a good idea to share your own problems, or make excuses. ‘What can I do for you?’ is the only approach to take.
Don’t ever rush such a meeting. In order to get to the heart of the problem (and yes, there is a problem if someone is upset) you have to take time to hear them out. I usually warn parents that I am taking notes so that I can fully understand them; otherwise I face them, make eye contact and generally make sure my body language is not conveying that I am closed to their concerns (no crossed arms). Ask questions (not loaded ones) for clarification; otherwise just let them speak.
One way of really listening is to re-state what you are hearing until the person acknowledges the statement with a ‘yes.’ (after you have listened without interrupting of course.) Sometimes that is all it takes. Sometimes a person just wants you to acknowledge what they are feeling. And you can’t know what that is unless you suspend disbelief in ‘your side’ of whatever is at issue.
And sometimes when you repeat their opinions to them, you’ll find you got it wrong, because perhaps you haven’t properly heard them. Don’t stop until they agree that you understand. That ‘yes’ is a magic point in the conflict – it is a signal they know have been heard.
I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’ Because sometimes things do go wrong, and people are human. We mess up. Lawyers will caution against apologising in certain circumstances, because that can be an admission of liability, but I must say that a sincere apology goes a long way compared to a refusal to take ownership of the issue. Sometimes an apology is simply an acknowledgement that we didn’t know.
Apologising is another way in which we acknowledge the reality of the other’s experience, even when (and especially when) they may have the facts wrong. I do not want anyone walking away from my school feeling let down.
There are times when that is not enough for some complainants, but at the very least, they can never say that ‘the school did not even apologise.’
I think it is important that we apologise to students when we let them down too. To me, modelling regret teaches young people that they are worthy as human beings to be treated well, and should also encourage them to practise penitence in their own lives. I have made a point of apologising to my own children when I have been in the wrong, especially when I have lost my %^$# with them (and there have been some choice moments with my beloved offspring, some even justified).
Some outdated thinking has apologising as a particularly loathsome form of losing face. I disagree. An apology restores dignity to the other, of course, but it does not reduce yours at all, not if you are a person who is genuinely humble.
If you have established enough of a rapport with your parents, staff or learners via the first few steps above, the next step, while possibly most difficult, should at least be easy to identify.
‘How would you like to see this resolved?’ or ‘What can we do to fix this?’ are good questions to ask of the disappointed party in front of you. If you have carefully addressed the emotions of the person, they should not be demanding unreasonable public-hanging sort of solutions, and you should be able to generate a way forward together.
If they do insist on something that is not possible, they should be receptive to an alternative solution. If the problem is a systemic one, inviting them onboard to partner with the school in addressing the matter is also a way forward.
With youngsters, as with adults, the solution needs to address the emotion that has been generated as much as it responds to the crisis that caused it. A child upset over a low mark may express anger at an educator, but the underlying emotion of fear of failure for example must also be unpacked so that another critical moment does not occur later on.
Sometimes you can’t solve the problem, but note that this stage of conflict resolution is not called ‘solve.’ It is called ‘satisfy’ so that you can reach a mutually satisfactory resolution, because it may be that the problem is a consequence of an event or law that is beyond your control, or something caused by external forces, or could be an historical event which may even predate your presence in the institution. The way forward should be the focus of this step.
It is important to indicate clearly what you may be unable to fix in order to prevent further conflict down the line when expectations are not met. For example, you cannot allow parent presence in a disciplinary action against an employee or someone else’s child; nor can you expel or fire someone at the mere say-so of an aggrieved parent. Various acts of parliament preclude such actions, as well as information sharing. You can promise that the matter will be investigated and limited feedback given following the investigation. This is especially important if bullying of any kind is alleged.
Manoeuvring around in this legal space requires a delicate touch because all sorts of rights come into play, but don’t shy away from explaining clearly what you can and can’t do. And then ensure that you follow up regularly so that they do not feel as if the matter has been swept under the carpet. Often when a parent’s complaint results in disciplinary action of some kind, the focus automatically shifts onto the alleged perpetrator and is no longer directed at the alleged victim. Both sides need to be looked after throughout what can be a long process. It can be like walking on eggshells, but one must never forget the original, aggrieved person. Otherwise, you may feel the matter was dealt with, especially when there are extreme outcomes for the accused, but you could end up losing the whistle blower as well because of lack of appropriate feedback.
Sometimes the incident being brought to your attention is in fact not the real issue at all. It may be something deeper or even unconnected. (That’s why you have to listen for what lies at the heart of their disenchantment).
I shall never forget engaging with a learner who was repeatedly late for school and had been giving those on late duty a hard time about this being recorded. In the course of unpacking his fury at the matric learner recording his tardiness, I discovered that there was a special needs child in the home who frequently held up the family departure with unavoidable tantrums. His defiance was a projection of his frustration with his young brother. Not only could we engage in other ways to address the latecoming, we were able to get him the emotional support he needed as a sibling of a child with a disability. And that was actually way more important.
Always end an encounter with annoyed stakeholders by thanking them (in fact when I present this method to staff, I sometimes call it T-BLAST: start and end with thanks. Thank the disgruntled before you do anything. ‘Thanks for coming’ shows you welcome the concern and communicates your openness to consult.)
Thanking the person for raising the issue, even after it is resolved, shows you value their contribution. And you should…. Even if they are dead wrong or really irritating, they have had the confidence in you to come to you, and in these days of Social Media Complaints Departments, that is a mark of faith in you. Thank them for that.
Then ensure you keep your word. That way you will earn their trust again.
And make sure you have a good way to let off your own steam safely. Absorbing other people’s stress can suck the spirit out of you.
I have been enthralled by the series Billions over the last week or so. For those who haven’t seen it on DSTV or Showmax, it’s a series in which a ruthlessly flawed hedge fund manager is pitched against an equally determined and unrelenting US States Attorney.
Now, far be it for me as a liberal arts major to fully understand the intricacies of the stock markets and the algorithms and economic sleights of hand that go with it. But I have certainly been learning about shorting stocks and going long on information both in the public domain and info obtained via devious means.
This series though, like all shows about people in professional positions like lawyers, doctors, the press and politicians, is about people. It reveals the nuanced protagonists as both heroic and venal; yet their decisions and maneuvering are motivated by personal interest before all else.
What has struck me, with this production, is that it suggests that once you have suspended your faith and desire for honest justice, situational ethics, guilt and desire and the balancing of favours seem to operate in this society as a more powerful currency than the ‘mighty dollar.’
How true is that in the ‘real’ world, I wonder. Well, I have certainly seen what one of the Billions characters, Brian Connerty, calls ‘political fluidity’ in operation in life, sometimes in places you’d least expect it. That’s one of the reasons I like the group of schools I work in. I respect the person in charge as one of integrity. And that makes all the difference.
The characters in this series are in so many ways morally bankrupt, despite their billions. Their honour is as fake as John Malkovitch’s Russian accent. As much as everyone on the planet ultimately sees themselves as the hero in their own story, moral turpitude is all too often downplayed when people’s personal interests collide with doing the right thing.
And it’s so simple to choose expedience before integrity. Because it’s easier. How tempting it is to give a glowing reference to a person one wants to encourage to leave; how easy to overlook malfeasance in someone one feels sorry for, or bend the rules for someone you like. It’s jolly hard to be fair to everyone. I have sleepless nights sometimes trying to decide the fairest way to treat people. But, I have to live with the choices I make and face myself in the mirror.
Billions explores loyalty and betrayal and assumes everyone is guilty of something. And that is certainly true. All people are flawed in some way. The characters in the show leverage the peccadillos of the players, even those close to them, to wield power. And I guess that’s what it comes down to, far more than money: power.
I am glad I don’t live and work in that sort of wild west, but every institution has the potential to be run like that: using and trading on secrets and inside information and pitting people against each other and the worst of moral ambiguity: rationalizing it as being ‘for the best,’ the end justifying the means. It’s hard to be a straight arrow, but I think it’s important to be honest, especially to myself.
Like the traders and lawyers on Billions, the temptations remain in any institution, because when you have authority over people there is always the possibility for corruption and pursuing self-interest above what is right.
So, we must guard against it. Transparency and honesty are essential. Knowing what is right is important. A moral compass and careful adherence to the core of an organisation’s ethos keeps you on the straight and narrow. In some faith-based schools, there is a position dedicated to such oversight. In many cases it doesn’t have enough teeth, but it is one way of keeping a school on course.
A leadership team that is allowed, and in fact encouraged, to challenge the leader on matters of moral direction is also important. Good advisors are invaluable. I am lucky. I have such a team.
And I’ll keep rooting for those with a conscience, even on television shows, if I can find them.
Besides, no one can actually spend billions and there is no price on peace of mind.
“Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.”
What a beautiful name for a beautiful woman, who was about to give birth to another beautiful girl-child.
And yet she won’t because both were murdered.
I am sickened by the inability of our society to rid this world of gender-based violence. All these cute little catchy phrases like GBV and BLM mean nothing to Tshegofatso’s mother. I don’t want to hear anyone say, ‘All lives matter’ or ‘’ it’s not all men.’ That means nothing to Tshego’s mom either. In fact it is downright insulting. It’s an outrage.
It is time that men owned this problem. I am impressed to hear Tshegofatso’s uncle speak out in this vein. Just how are we raising our sons that they have such contempt for the sanctity of life? And lawyers (men) like him need to stand up and be counted now.
I have just watched the Jeffrey Epstein documentary on Netflix and again I am sick to my stomach at (male) lawyers who stand accused of at best not doing their jobs, and at worst collusion and guilt of abuse of so many young women.
What struck me was one survivor saying, “you won’t remember me because there were so many, but I will be forced to remember you for the rest of my life.’
And what about the others who stand accused: the powerful Bill Clintons, ‘Prince’ Andrews? Donald Trumps? Harvey Weinstein has at least gone to jail and fallen from grace, and back home Uyinene’s murderer will never see the light of day again (we hope). But all those famous ones…? Will this all be swept under the carpet and are they hoping the dust will settle so they can just carry on as before? Like ‘Khwezi’s’ infamous violator? He certainly has. Has anyone investigated Alexander Acosta? Will they?
What about the #MeToo Movement, #TimesUp, and in our own country, The Rhodes Reference List and all the female-led protests? How successful have they been in changing the narrative of femicide and rape in the world?
But the real question is: where are the men leading the way in combating the abuse? I am sick of hearing the gaslighting that goes on around this issue, like ‘men also get raped you know.’ That’s not the point and just as it’s gaslighting to say that ‘all lives matter,’ so does that argument not hold water when women are not safe anywhere, even during lockdown. In 3 weeks of lockdown, gender-based violence units recorded 120 000 calls. Let’s just unpack that: 120 000 in 21 days…5714 women per day! And that’s the ones who were able to seek help.
And we’re worried about COVID-19?!
None of what I am saying is new or startling and that is the greatest tragedy. We have heard it all before. Every now and again a case will grab the headlines and people will march and protest and then it’s back to business as usual. In fact, in Gauteng, people returning from an anti-GBV rally in Gauteng last week, found the body of yet another woman near Soweto. She is still unidentified though, so no headlines for her…
It’s these murders and rapes that make me extra angry. It’s not just famous actresses crying out it’s a young woman at a festival, a schoolgirl walking home from school, a child in her home, refugees and war victims. I have listened to and read the essays of too many students over the years to have patience for this anymore.
After Uyinene died, my school took a day to purge social media of posts, jokes or anything that smacked of rape culture in an effort to examine our own culpability; yet toxic masculinity is more pervasive and ingrained in the human race than that.
I once watched a father berate a young female teacher with vile language in front of his own son. Needless to say, he didn’t last long at my school, but I often think about him and his son, and wonder what kind of adult that young man will become.
A word to the women who defend their sons and lovers : shame on you. When you raise your sons by different standards and indulge that ‘boys’ will be boys’ mentality, and let them believe they are little princes in your home, you are guilty of encouraging rape culture.
But what I really want to know is what men are doing about it. All those people who worked for Jeffrey Epstein knew what he was doing; yet did nothing; even if, like the man who managed the island communications, they resigned, they still didn’t stop it. I don’t get that!
I have been sexually harassed in the workplace (it ended badly for him); I have had men try to intimidate me physically and mentally and I have even had someone try to kill me, but as Maya Angelou says, ‘Still like dust, I rise.’ As Sylvia Plath (who was abused by her famous husband too btw) also said, ‘we shall inherit the earth’. But at what cost?
Silence gives consent, gents. It’s time you spoke up; stood up and grew up. This is not a female problem. It’s a male problem. YOU fix it.
Don’t you dare comment on women’s bodies or laugh at sexist jokes; don’t you dare use female body parts as pejoratives, because then YOU are part of rape culture. Don’t you dare victim blame or defend men’s actions. Don’t you dare patronize women you work with or assume that a ‘yes’ to dinner means yes to sex. Don’t you dare think that your punching her is her fault, or that you have ANY right to her body, married or not.
Because then you might as well have stabbed Tshegofatso yourself.
The Dalai Lama was once asked if he could reduce the essence of all that is common to major religions into one word, and legend has him saying that that word is ‘compassion.’
This has stayed with me for a long time and underpinned what I find so powerful in my own faith. It’s something others have shown to me and which, as I grow older and hopefully a bit wiser, I am growing to see as singularly important in my dealings with others.
It requires a gentleness and empathy and a slowness of pace, a giving of your time to someone else’s world. And compassion defined as ‘feeling with’ another, an entering into someone else’s suffering.
Here are some things I have learned about compassion:
1. Compassion upholds the dignity of another
If you treat people with mercy and gentleness, you have recognized the humanity in each. It gives life to the Hindu greeting of ‘Namaste,’ (The sacred in me recognizes the sacred in you.) It’s saying, ‘I see you’ when an individual may be feeling invisible.
2. Suffering can increase your compassion
The more hurt, grief, betrayal, penury and bullying you endure, the greater the potential for deepening your own compassion.
After my mother died I became intensely aware of how desperate people can feel when they lose someone they love and I became much better at helping my students and their parents (and indeed my own friends) through their times of grief.
When my first marriage broke up, I became more understanding of the aching paralysis experienced when one stands bereft of the love of your life and its meaning, not to mention the poverty that often accompanies betrayal and abandonment.
I’ve survived toxic work environments and determined never to pit employees against each other and always to remember that staff members are human beings, not numbers to discard on a whim. I have seen both in various settings.
Recognizing the humanity in other people actually allows you to forgive your enemies because when you imagine them as suffering fellow travelers in life, it’s easier to let go of hurt.
3. You need to have an imagination
The Age of Corona has heightened the need for both empathy and compassion for people we’ve never met. I must care about people I don’t know. I must imagine what situation that person in the shop is going home to and be moved to wear my mask properly, stay on my own jolly decal on the floor and sanitize, not to mention refrain from going out when I’m sick. (Of course understanding how others may feel can lead to unnecessary guilt in an empathetic person. The other day, I had a tickle in my nose from my allergies, not the virus, in the queue at Woolworths, and had an urgent need to sneeze, but for the first time in 55 years, I swallowed the sneeze in terror that I would be thrown out of the store or lynched by fellow shoppers.) But I digress…
There is a huge need for the gentleness of compassion in this time when people are struggling with anxiety and when many are staring financial ruin in the face. It’s tempting to respond to outbursts from other people with our own annoyance in equal measure, but trying to recognize that they are just projecting their own fears onto you, helps you keep your temper and soak up their rage.
4. Compassion isn’t a feeling, it is a conscious decision.
Compassion is love in action. Therefore, it can be learned. It’s no good knowing something or feeling sorry for someone. Compassion requires the devotee to reach out to someone to help. Don’t feel bad that someone has been retrenched; buy them groceries.
5. COMPASSION DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN necessarily FIX things.
This may seem to gainsay the previous point, but sometimes you can’t fix someone else’s problem; sometimes things are beyond fixing. But the compassionate person is the one who sits and passes the tissues as the sufferer cries her way through her grief or becomes the kitchen help when there is a death in the family and just makes the tea for all the visitors. If I think of the people who heard me vent over the years about things they had not control over, who heard me say the same angry words over and over until I had expunged the ache, I am so grateful to have been blessed to have such friends.
It may be that you have to be a firm presence and not help even when you could, in order to empower someone needing to grow. Again compassion doesn’t prevent you doing this gently. One of my teachers who had the greatest impact on me when my parents divorced and I was acting out (Mrs Paveley at Springfield Convent Junior School back in 1976) held me to account for my cheeky behaviour, but understood and acknowledged (if a little gruffly, as was her way) that I was hurting. That’s all it took. I would have walked through fire for her afterwards and I cleaned up my act very quickly. And I never forgot.
6. Some people in business think compassion is a weakness
This annoys me no end. Just as hardened business consultants will pooh pooh qualities like good communication as ‘soft skills,’ they will also see a focus on people, as distracting when it comes to making ‘those tough decisions for the good of the business.’ And that’s rubbish.
It takes great emotional strength to put your own feelings aside and cross a psychological ravine to connect with another human being.
A compassionate person might need to make decisions which affect people negatively, but they can either find people-friendly solutions or manage the situation in such a way that the person involved maintains his dignity. Richard Branson says ‘Look after your staff and they will look after your customers.
In the end compassion makes us better humans:
“There is a nobility in compassion, a beauty in empathy, a grace in forgiveness.”
Post-2004 in the US, this mnemonic became the FBI’s standard protocol in response to ‘active shooter’ situations or other general emergency attacks. And the ABC is used to train employees and school children across the US (sad, but true).
In many ways, this is what our COVID-19 response has been:
Avoid: social distance, wash hands, sanitize
Confront: Emerge from Lockdown and face the virus down, by re-opening
It’s a good modus operandi for many dangerous situations. I knew a black belt karateka who was a South African All Styles Champion, whose sage advice was always: run and only fight when you’re cornered.
But it does suggest that sometimes in life there is a time to come out fighting. Sometimes we can’t hide or just avoid battles and sometimes we have to come out and face down the enemy.
I’ve peered into the nasty visage of several enemies: disease, divorce; unemployment, toxic bosses; single parenthood, depression… and no chocolate.
My solution is a little simpler and less likely to get you killed:
Wearing body armour and coming out shooting, both literally and figuratively may be necessary at times, but the nature of the ‘fight’ or ‘confrontation’ doesn’t always have to be violent or aggressive. To me, the best revenge is to be happy and sometimes a benign response is better.
Oncologists will testify to how a positive attitude benefits cancer patients; Oscar Wilde says to ‘forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.’ Killing ‘em with kindness can be way more kick-ass than being a bitch. Even lack of chocolate can make you smile when you look at your ass in the mirror.
Not everything needs to be a fight. Sometimes you win by smiling.
Are you also analyzing every tickle of the throat and ache in your limbs as potentially presaging general pulmonary collapse and ague, related to COVID-19?
I think I am either becoming a hypochondriac or hoping to finally contract the jolly illness to put me out of the agony of suspense caused by expecting it at every turn.
But let’s face it, it’s not unrealistic anymore to suspect one might have succumbed. In our metropol, they have begun to identify cases by ward. There are 38 cases in the streets around us. %^&$ gets real when you realise this is not something over there in Wuhan or even across the peninsula at Groote Schuur Hospital. It’s in our neighbourhood. These are the people we shop with and jog with (okay so I don’t jog, but you get the point.)
‘So, this sore throat could be the start of my decline… Diarrhoea? Probably just a bug…but hang on that’s also a symptom…. oh my gosh, oh my gosh…. I’ve got it!’
And we confirm our self-diagnosis after consulting Gray’s Google by reading that an employee at the Checkers store we visited two days ago has tested positive… ‘so that settles it. I must have it!’
But if we take the panic pot off the stove for a bit, we’ll remember that just because COVID-19 is doing the happy dance through the air, it doesn’t mean that all the other bad boys in Da Flu Gang have stopped stalking us in the malls and taxis.
Sometimes a cough is just your allergies and sometimes a fever is from one of the other many flus that float across to us from the east every year…. I also sneezed… so it can’t be COVID, hey?!
So it might be merely something minor. Not every cold or coronavirus is COVID-19. Not every sore throat foreshadows the deadly flu.
However, no one told Cancer and her Mean Girls to leave town while we dealt with Corona.
Just this week, a friend’s nephew was diagnosed with leukaemia, a colleague’s mom had a malignant growth removed from her thyroid, and health authorities tell us patients are not turning up for TB and HIV treatments because of this pandemic. And those gangsta-germs are killers too.
… But this tiredness could be serious… I mean just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean I’m not being hunted down by swooping microbes who’ve been lurking on trolleys, waiting for my sweet blood (okay it’s a little acidic because of all the lemon tea I drink, but you know what I mean.)
My mother used to joke that only the good die young, and then she had a heart attack at 56… I’m nearly 56… perhaps that tightness in my chest is actually a heart attack…it’s genetic…
Then, as I peer into the mirror to see whether the itch around my eyes is conjunctivitis (another symptom), and hence a clear sign that I am COVID positive, the Celtic Queen Maeve of my ancestors rebukes me for such foolishness. It’s actually a slap in the face for people with real illnesses to carry on like this. Even hypochondria is a real anxiety disorder, and I don’t have that. I think I just have COVIID -19 fatigue: the only thing I’ve ‘caught’ is the unease of others. All the preparations for healthcare at school, and coping with so many other people’s anxieties about the re-opening of schools, and the financial worries of my school community have exhausted me. I am in danger of jumping into the trauma terror train of needless panic myself. It’s time to put on my warrior armour and fight my own demons.
So, I am taking a cautious step back this weekend and switching off from all things COVID.
… If I do catch it though, just remember you heard it here first…
“After obsessively Googling symptoms for four hours, I discovered 'obsessively Googling symptoms' is a symptom of hypochondria.” ― Stephen Colbert
The Real COVID-19 symptoms:
COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalization.
Most common symptoms: fever, dry cough, tiredness
Less common symptoms: aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, headache, loss of taste or smell, a rash on skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes
Serious symptoms: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure,loss of speech or movement
Seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms. Always call before visiting your doctor or health facility. People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should manage their symptoms at home. On average it takes 5–6 days from when someone is infected with the virus for symptoms to show, however it can take up to 14 days.