On Quests and States

September 23, 2016 at 2:25 am (Things I'm thinking about) (, , )

Last week, an old friend posted an ostensibly open question: “What is an instance of systemic injustice in South Africa?” Others quickly jumped on giving a few high level as well as every-day examples of areas they see systemic injustice and institutionalized racism at play. Friend A’s response was to carefully and rationally explain why each subsequent example was not, indeed, systemic injustice. I sat back watching, fighting the urge to jump in with several more examples. The conversation felt like a non-starter. Friend A entered the conversation with the intention of proving himself right rather than opening up his views and opinions to being proved wrong (or at least challenged). Instead of asking to expand his worldview, he asked to fortify his status quo.


If your first question is not followed by a second question, you are not listening to understand; you are listening to defend.


Soong-Chan Rah made this comment which has rocked my world over the last two years, “If you’re justice-minded and have never had a person of colour as a mentor, you’re not a missionary; you’re a colonialist.” His follow up was jarring: who has permission to speak into your life? If you are pursuing a genuine quest for understanding, you have to begin asking new questions in new spaces in order for there to be any fair chance of you coming up with any new answers. So ask yourself now, whose perspectives and experiences are you giving preference to? Who is mentoring you? Who have you given explicit authority and invitation to, to challenge you, point out your blind spots and tell you to shut up when necessary? What are the last 5 books you read?


Who are the authors you are regularly reading, the news broadcasts you are following, the editorials you are engaging with, the podcasts you are listening to, the people you are spending time with? Who are the last 5 people you invited across the threshold, into the intimacy of your home, to sit at your table and truly commune with you?


If you are genuinely seeking understanding then you need to demonstrate that commitment by expanding your frame of reference. If you continue to build your carefully articulated rationalizations for the way you experience and understand the world based on the opinions and thought pieces and experiences of the individuals who look and think and live like you, then all you’ll do is continually reinforce your own position. To truly disrupt the way we see the world, we have to start asking different questions in different spaces.


Not sure where to start? Here’s a challenge. For the next 6 months fundamentally shift your frame of reference to ONLY listen to voices that don’t support your current perceptions and opinions. Seriously. You don’t need any more pats on the back, affirmations of what you think, or evidence that continues to support and reinforce your particular view of the world. That stuff is entrenched enough to handle whatever comes at it over the next 6 months (or maybe it isn’t and wouldn’t that be scandalous?!)

  1. For News
    • Al Jazeera
    • Huffington Post (but only POC authors)
    • Financial Mail
  2. For Opinion and Analysis
    • Eusebius Mckaiser
    • Khaya Dlanga
    • Verashni Pillay
    • Wanelisa Xaba
  3. For Every-Day Thought Leaders
    • Sindile Vabaza
    • Ashley Visagie
    • Linde Ndaba
    • Sam Mahlawe
  4. For Facebook Groups (Secondary challenge: don’t engage for 3 months! Shut up and listen and observe.)
    • Know the past to walk justly into the future
    • Rainbow Racist Rehab
  5. For Blogs
    • groundup.org.za
    • izwelethublog.wordpress.com
    • engagesomemore.co.za

If you have a recommendation for the list and who people might listen to during their 6-month detox experiment add them in the comments.

P.S. To be fair, the invitation goes both ways. For those who regularly engage in conversations driven by or reflected in the above list, how might you diversify the voices and perspectives you are giving credence to and the experiences and stories you are listening to?

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On gold

July 21, 2015 at 5:33 am (Poetry) (, , )


got into the special paints this morning.

(The ones kept on top of the fridge, behind the cereal and last week’s mail)

Stood on tippy-toes and

stretched her hand

up up up


she was impossibly tall.

As guilty fingers touched eternity – teetered, overbalanced –

light splattered

across the kitchen floor.

Everyone knows who did it;

The Creator’s fingertips are still stained


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on new hobbies

July 21, 2015 at 5:22 am (Poetry) (, , )

It seems while I was away

God took up a new hobby

leaving love letters I read while driving to work.

(Perhaps if I look under the bed, I’ll find a shoebox filled with them

and be shocked that He’s been doing it for years.

What a conversation that would be!)

I guess He was secretly spying on me

that time I sat on a bench in MOMA

captivated by iridescence.

So the Creator asked Monet to teach Him how to paint a sunrise.

I think He’s feeling quite pleased with His technique.

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on playing around

July 21, 2015 at 5:18 am (Uncategorized)

God skips across the morning sky

in front of my windscreen

trailing streamers and blowing a party horn

(you know, the kind that unfurls from pursed lips?)

Makes me think of husband-man

pulling faces and speaking in foreign accents

looking to crack a smile as I pull on my boots and check my mail.

Reminds me that this too is the Creator,

playing silly buggers,

trying to be the center of my attention.

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On spaghetti and learning

May 12, 2015 at 2:55 am (Things I'm thinking about) (, , , , , , )

The idea is simple: gather good people around good food and good discussion and see what happens. So we did. We turned off technology and tuned in to people. It was messy and it was chaotic, it was painful and it was personal and it was powerful. It was raw and it was redemptive. Some of us ate spaghetti with a spoon cos we ran out of cutlery. We sat on the floor and on stools and really close to each other – three people thigh to thigh on a chair made for two. We talked and told stories, argued and challenged, wrestled and sat in silence – the good kind and the uncomfortable kind. We left with heads and hearts aching, but full.

Here’s some of what I learnt

1. White privilege is less about access to “stuff” and more about access to choices or, in Sen’s theorizing, capabilities – the real opportunities of being and doing available to attain well-being. Here’s an example: consider a priest who is fasting and a man in a famine-stricken country who is starving. The key element in determining a person’s well-being here is not whether both are experiencing hunger, but whether the person has access to food and is choosing not to eat. The functioning is starving but the capability to obtain an adequate amount of food is the key element in evaluating well-being between these two individuals. Having a lifestyle is not the same as choosing it; well-being depends on how that lifestyle came to be.

Here’s another example. Consider a bike as a commodity which enables the functioning of mobility. Personal, social and environmental conversion factors impact an individual’s ability to convert the commodity (the bike) into functioning (getting from A to B).  If a person is physically disabled, never learnt to ride a bike, if women are not allowed to ride bikes, or if there are no roads, then a person’s capacity to convert the potential of the bike into movement is limited. It’s not enough to give someone a bike if they don’t have the ability, the capacity, the enabling conditions to ride it in a way that moves them forward (or if they don’t have access to a pump, if they cannot take the bike out without being physically threatened by a mugging, etc)

2. In a post-industrial/post-agricultural world, we believe that we too are living in the Information Age, where the primary means of production is Knowledge and the accumulation of knowledge (i.e. education) is the means by which individuals access livelihood, opportunity, resource, jobs etc. I simply don’t believe this is true in South Africa. I wonder if perhaps we are actually in the Age of Connection. Knowledge might be power, but it’s less about what you know and more about who you know. The primary means of production might be Social Capital – the contacts and connections which enable us to network, navigate and negotiate the economic landscape. Perhaps education is the capability, but the functioning is all about social capital – it’s the people we know, the professional contacts, the personal networks that enable us to actualize opportunity. White privilege is at its core all about social capital.

3. While I can sympathize with the pain and anger of black friends, I don’t think I can actually empathize. I can show compassion for, seek to understand, commiserate with, experience anger on behalf of but I can never really experience “from within another’s frame of reference”. As one of our guests so rightly pointed out “We do not and cannot experience EQUAL frustration. You had a choice.”

4. I need to shut up more. Perhaps one of our greatest failings as white people in South Africa is our inability to sit in silence. When we listen to the voices of our black brothers/sisters expressing pain, anger, frustration, or simply sharing their experience, we want to immediately question, clarify, push-back, argue, dissect, debate, wrestle, show the other side, point out the discrepancies or inconsistencies, locate within the “larger picture”, propose solutions, and find “action steps”. We don’t know how to sit – just SIT – with a rage that fills a room, sucks all the air from it, and leaves our friends shaking. We have ears but do not hear, and eyes but do not see.

5. Reconciliation is not the path towards Justice but rather Justice is the path towards Reconciliation. Until and unless Justice has been enacted we can not experience right relationship. (Thanks, Nkosi!)

Read what  Brett Fish Anderson and Nkosi Gola shared about this dinner.

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NaPoWriMo Day 8 – Calligram

April 12, 2015 at 12:03 pm (Poetry) ()

And now for something completely different…

Our prompt for the day (optional, as always) plays of our resources. Today, I challenge you to write a visual poem. If that’s not specific enough, perhaps you can try your hand at a calligram? That’s a poem or other text in which the words are arranged into a specific shape or image. You might find inspiration in the famous calligrams written by Guillaume Apollinaire. And a word to the wise — the best way to cope with today’s exercise may well be to abandon your keyboard, and sit down with paper and pen (and maybe crayons or colored pencils or markers!)


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NaPoWriMo Day 7 – Palinode

April 11, 2015 at 4:31 am (Poetry) (, )

Today I challenge you to write a palinode. And what’s that? It’s a poem in which the poet retracts a statement made in an earlier poem. You could take that route or, if you don’t have an actual poetically-expressed statement you want to retract, maybe you could write a poem in which you explain your reasons for changing your mind about something. It could be anything from how you decided that you like anchovies after all to how you decided that annoying girl was actually cool enough that you married her.

said I couldn’t run
The last time I tried
I was 9
and by the time I crossed the finish
adults were packing up the hotdogs.
Today I ran 5 kilometers.

said I couldn’t grow things
The last time I tried
I killed 2
cactus’s. You know the kind they say
can’t die?
I drowned them.
Today I ate kale from my garden.

said I couldn’t write regularly
As if words could flow on demand.
As if I were 3.
All it takes is a little
Today I celebrate a week of poems.

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NaPoWriMo Day 6 – Dis-aubade

April 8, 2015 at 5:28 am (Uncategorized)

Today’s (optional) prompt springs from the form known as the aubade. These are morning poems, about dawn and daybreak. Many aubades take the form of lovers’ morning farewells.

If I would lift my heavy head
drag it from my soft-warm bed
perhaps I’d catch the morning light
driving back the sacred night
I guess I’d see the dawn arise
reflect her curves in faithless eyes
I might marvel at the way
darkness morphs and turns to day
I’d be in awe, I don’t doubt,
of sunshine’s candor, early scout
But all this wonder soon would fade
as I with longing turn my gaze
to where my body ere laid.

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NaPoWriMo Day 5 – Heaven has different signs

April 6, 2015 at 7:00 am (Poetry) (, )

Find an Emily Dickinson poem – preferably one you’ve never previously read – and take out all the dashes and line breaks. Make it just one big block of prose. Now, rebreak the lines. Add words where you want. Take out some words. Make your own poem out of it!

Heaven” has different signs to me
Sometimes, I think that earth
Is but a sidebar to the Place
But when again, in Sorrow,

A mighty sigh runs round the World
And settles in my stomach
A Resentment, As if creation groaning
should be a stagewhisper like that

Upon the Ignomy steals a Thought
That when the promise of the hereafter is a Triumph
When death together becomes cause for Victory
And makes Some rejoice for the promise of Eternity

When the Rapture of an (un)finished Day
And Turning away from this now-unrest
All for the promise of the place
That Men call “paradise”

When “Heaven” Itself is fairer, preferable, to this present darkness
I prefer that Kingdom-come should not be Adored,
And held for a Superior Grace
Than Thy Kingdom come on earth

As it is In heaven.
Even the Not yet, Our eyes can see

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NaPoWriMo Day 4 – Love

April 5, 2015 at 2:49 pm (Poetry) (, , )

I suppose it might
Smell less like roses and more
Like mowing the lawn.

I suppose it might
Sound less like poems and more
Like please, thanks, sorry.

I suppose it might
Taste less like champagne and more
Like warm morning breath.

I suppose it might
Be less inevitable
Than we imagined.

I suppose.

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