Thursday, 3 December 2009

in the real world

I've spent this week in Pretoria, meeting and interviewing a group of people who are really doing everything they can to make things happen in South Africa and I have been humbled by the commitment and dedication I have seen.
More than that, I feel that I have a new belief and hope in South Africa. A conviction that the ideals that took us to our miraculous new democracy have not been entirely drowned out in the greed and wabenzi mentality of so many of our new priviledged class.
Not to say that the challenges aren't there. There is still a huge gap between what turns out to be some pretty good, state of the art laws that create a framework for real excellence and the realities on the ground in our municipalities.
The number of people who are toyi toying to protest the lack of service delivery is a clear indication of this gap. But what I discovered this week is that the gap is being recognised on the highest levels, and bridges are being built across it. And those bridges are designed for two way traffic: bottom up as well as top down.
I would be dancing to the new rhythm I have found  if I wasn't so exhausted after meeting and interviewing 18 people in four days and filling a notebook full of notes that is so precious to me now that I contemplated getting it plastic wrapped at the airport for extra protection.

And then, the cherry on the top was meeting a fellow blogger in real life, and discovering that she was just as real and interesting as I thought she would be. I expected a Harry Potter scar on her forehead, but even without one she was magical.
It was a meeting that seemed doomed to failure at the entrance gate of the ultra high security complex she calls home (because her husband's company puts a high premium on their safety...). I refused to give the guard at the gate my ID number so he refused to let me in. I offered my address, phone number, photo... but no, only an ID number would do. So Extranjera had to walk down to fetch me (greyish green hair and all) and then let me in.

I spoke to my son while I was waiting and he was pretty freaked out by me arguing with men in uniform and planning to meet someone whose name I wasn't sure of and who I had met on the internet as through someone else in Denmark  who I actually haven't met yet either. (Thanks Julie!)
I had to promise to phone him immediately after I left so he would know I was safe and that she wasn't an axe murderer. (She wasn't, but I did have one of those "hmmm" moments when the first thing I saw in her home was her skull and crossbones tablecloth.)

Actually its pretty cool to have your son worrying about you, rather than the other way around.

(And I do worry about him, in spite of the fact that he is perfectly capable of looking after himself. As is my other son, Ben who is on a huge adventure here and quite obviously life life to the fullest.)

One of the real bonuses of meeting Extranjera was finding out that she was exactly as she appears to be in her blog. She's real, she's interesting, she's fun (and I suspect could be more fun but was maybe a bit on her best behaviour?). And for me, most importantly, she is not living in her security village, hankering for home and remaining cut off from the reality that is South Africa. She's teaching English to children in Diepsloot, a tin shack township which has more than its fair share of problems.
She is contributing to the solution in ways that many South Africans do not.

So... the end to a good, inspiring week. I'm feeling so positive that I don't even care that my 1Time flight to Cape Town has been delayed an hour (just like the one coming up to Joburg). At least it has given me time to finish this post.

For those that may need explanations of some of the words in this post:
Wabenzi are the newly rich who indulge in the bling lifestyle and drive expensive cars (like Mercedes Benz)
The closest definition I can think of for Toyi Toyi is protest dancing
The Harry Potter reference to Extranjera is explained in her blog. Go and read it. 

Thursday, 5 November 2009

of housing and need

I've been thinking a lot about housing lately.
It all started with the Isandla 10th anniversary celebrations where Tokyo Sexwale, Minister of Human Settlements, spoke about his perception of the housing problems we have in this country. More importantly, he came to listen. Unlike so many of the government ministers, who arrive to drop "pearls of wisdom" and then leave in a hurry, Sexwale was very aware that the development practitioners in the room were the real experts.

“I don’t think it should come as a surprise that we are changing the way we are doing things,” Sexwale said. “We are seeing the end of denialism.

“We are looking at the situation of RDP houses that are dotting the landscape of this country: they are expensive, they take arable land, they’re ugly, they look like barracks. We take responsibility for them. We have provided unos that are worse than the Apartheid-era four roomed houses. We’ve done even less for our people. Our ministry is busy about attending to that. We need to look at other forms of housing and rented stock.”

But why are we actually providing houses for people? And are their needs really being taken into account?

At a recent meeting with Rene Moodley, a development practitioner working with the German funded Support for Local Government Programme in the Eastern Cape, I learned the importance of asking people what they want and need. In one of the areas that Rene works, for example, the men are emasculated by having the houses built for them. It is culturally important for the men to build the homes for their families.

It highlighted two things for me. One is that people need to be asked what they need, and the other is that blanket solutions are never the answer.

The work that Rene is doing centres largely around finding ways to ask the right questions so that the answers are revealing of the actual issues that the people face. I learned of a community, for example, where rows and rows of government houses had been built, but because no one had asked the old people, no one knew that the houses were directly in the path of the 50 year flood...the last one was around 48 years ago.

And I heard about the community who said that their biggest need was for a new clinic. By asking the right questions, the people who Rene had trained discovered that the need was not for a clinic at all, but for a doctor to be on duty in one of the three clinics that already served the community. Without a doctor, no prescriptions can be written.

Mokena Makeka, architect and head of the Isandla Institute Board perhaps summed the situation in South Africa up best:

“In some respects there is a poverty of imagination because we don't define space from a human perspective, but from an engineering one. We need an enabling environment where entrepreneurs, of all ages, can create their own destiny. The current status quo will not allow us to survive.

“We are creating a context where voices are being hidden. We are creating spaces where gangsterism can thrive. We need to be incorporating a clinic, a library, a market into our plans. At present development is around the containment of anger rather than the unleashing of people."

Friday, 23 October 2009

where there is a will there is a way

I asked Will King for some tips for entrepreneurs. His answers make inspiring viewing. As you can see, I'm still learning about videoing... don't miss the Adams Family hand that floats over the couch about half way through!

I always find it interesting to meet people who have succeeded in business, and to find out more about their attitudes to their success. In my time as a journalist I have met quite a few successful entrepreneurs and their behaviour has been as varied as their personalities.

Some are brash and loud, the kind of people who would have earned a disdainful sniff from my mother, and a comment of "you can always see new money".

Others, like Will King, the founder of the hugely successful shaving empire the King of Shaves, turn out to be absolute gentlemen, and a pleasure to meet.

When his parents decided to "take me off the payroll," after he finished his degree in Mechanical Engineering, he found a niche for himself in sales and marketing and did very well until the recession hit in the 1990s and he was made redundant.

"It was a traumatic experience," he said. Enough to make him decide then and there that he was going to be master of his own destiny, and to run a business was based on a product that he could sell.

The product which turned out to be the one that would bring him success was a shaving oil. The inspiration came to him when he was watching a girlfriend using baby oil when she shaved her legs and he realised that the oil may be a great way to prevent his sensitive skin from reacting so badly to shaving.

"People said the King of Shaves idea would never fly," he told me, but when you see his passionate belief in his product, you realise that if anyone was going to make it work, it would be Will King.

And, in keping with his royal name, he decided that the first customer that he would persuade to stock his product would be Harrods. Well, why not?

"I got hold of Mohamed Al Fayed's personal fax number," he said. "And eventually persuaded him to buy a small consignment."

That word "eventually" is key. So many would-be entrepreneurs fail because they give up too soon.

"I knew if Harrods stocked it, I could persuade Boots to take it too," he said. And the British pharmacy giant did just that in the following year. Then came Super Drug and Tesco and an endorsement from Will Carling - then British rugby captain - and Target in tne US and a host of stores in Australia and New Zealand. His products are now being launched in Clicks stores in South Africa.

By the end of the '90s, King of Shaves was the number 1 shaving preparation brand. It was a real David and Goliath story, but it wasn't enough for the intrepid Mr King.

"Most men only shave once a day, so our growth could never be exponential," he explained. So he launched a range of men's skin care products and found himself in the vanguard of what was to be a booming trend towards men's grooming.

Next step was the launch of the Azor, his revolutionary razor which is causing more than a few backward glances from the people at Gillette, who have discovered that their top spot in the worldwide shaving market is not quite as secure as it used to be.

Five years in development, the Azor is "the first eco-sensitively manufactured razor" King says. I have my husband and my son trying it out, so watch this space for their reviews.

Will King is also a enthusiastic disciple for social media... twittering as kingofshaves and blogging here. It's a great example of how social media can really be harnessed to increase a company's profile.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

little and large

This past weekend was the Swartland Agricultural Show.
It's lots of fun to visit, especially if you like farm animals (which I do)

These are some of the prize winning cattle, lined up according to their breeds. I loved the handlers in their red overalls and white boots.

Our friend Christina came to visit because she'd never been to the skou, and it turned out to be a day that was all about transport.

she went for a ride with Greg on the Harley

she got to sit in some really big harvesters

and I mean BIG!

but some were more her size.

Some of the vehicles were more old fashioned. Eight horse power seems much more exciting than the 1800 in our bakkie (pick up truck)

Some were very elegant

And some reminded us that we are all inordinately proud of hosting the world cup soccer next year.

But, when all is said and done, it is always the cute girl that steals the show!

Monday, 7 September 2009

60 squares

My eldest son, Simon, came to lunch on Saturday with his girlfriend Larissa, and spent some time helping to take out the last of the lapa poles. See how the pole has rotted away in the concrete? We are really so lucky that the whole thing didn't fall down on our heads.

So now that the lapa is down, we are full of plans and ideas about what do do with the space.
(Yes, I know I used that pic in my last post. Yes I know it's my garden and I could go outside and take another (different) one. But I don't want to.)

We're back to square one, but as Seth Godin says, square one is an under rated place. So we need to make sure we enjoy being there.

Do we just cover the space in shadecloth so that we can escape the summer heat more cost effectively?

Do we build a big room onto the house? With an extra bathroom and a fireplace and windows all around? The area we are looking at covering is 12m long and 5m wide. The lapa had the same surface area (but a different shape) but somehow it didn't feel like a fixed space because it was open on three sides.

Our house is a very old (by South African standards). Typical farmhouse style... a long passage down the centre and three rooms on each side. So part of what we would want to do if we do build a solid extension would be to make sure that we don't ruin the look of the house, or its old fashioned feel.

Do we sell the left hand half of the bottom of our garden to help pay for these grand plans? (because anything that is built there ... down behind that green water tank in the distance ... doesn't interfere with our view). Or do we build something there ourselves, and boost our income with the rent (once we'd paid off the loan we'd have to take out to pay for it).

What would you do? How would you fill sixty square metres of space?

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

its gonna be a long, hot summer

We live in a place where the summers are blisteringly hot and dry. A place where, if you are lucky enough to have a swimming pool, you think twice before dashing outside to cool down.

So we built a lapa... a wonderful thatch construction, built with sturdy bluegum poles and a thick thatch roof. It was close to 60 square metres in size, and winter or summer it became the place where we lived. It was a place to do projects. It was a place to share food and laughter. It was a vital part of our home.

Until, sadly, we realised that it hadn't been built properly and it was beginning to shift away from the house. The first construction company had vanished into the wild blue yonder, so we got another company... a family business with three generations of thatchers... to come and fix the lapa.

Sadly, they were not any better than the first company, and earlier this year when a third roof pole suddenly snapped, we realised something had to be done.
So we did the logical thing, and contacted our insurance company (Standard Bank) who had sent an assessor to approve the original construction.

And they, being more interested in taking premiums than paying out policies, refused to pay because the construction was unsafe. (Yes, we told them their assessor had approved it).

Now we are trying to get the ombudsman to acknowledge our presence, but that's a whole other story.

So last week, Ollie came to help us take the thatch off.

He didn't realise how much there was!

Getting the concrete off the roof without it landing on anyone's head was pretty scary

Reuben and Ernie and Rauan came to help this weekend to take the structure down. I made lamb stew and lemon meringue pie and lemonade and stayed out of the way.

Getting the last few poles out was hard work, even though they were totally rotten under the ground.

Once the poles were out, they were stacked in the garden for use in the next big project.

And the space outside is big and empty.

But, like I've said before, there is always a silver lining...

Greg sees it as a blank canvas for the next structure. Looks like it will finally be a chance for us to learn some straw bale building skills. So watch this space.

(but I still feel bereft)

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Happy 19th anniversary, Brian

Brian Keenan was an Irishman working in Beirut when he was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad. He was released four years later, on August 24, 1990.

I will never forget his words when he was released. He described being a hostage as like "a man hanging by his fingernails over the edge of chaos, feeling his fingers slowly straightening".

I wonder if he spent time in prison, planning his release soundbite? I'm sure I would have. That's not intended to sound cynical, especially as I read An evil cradling, the book he wrote about his experiences, and was moved by his raw honesty and brutally truthful descriptions of his life as a hostage.

I remember when he said those words as he arrived back in Ireland. It was a crafting of words that felt like a sword, stabbing sharp into my mind. And as a journalist it made me remember all the times I'd asked the inane questions that journalists do, interviewing people who have gone to hell and back: "So, how do you feel, are you happy to be home?" Usually I've been met with less than honest replies from people saying what they thought I wanted to hear. Here at last was a raw, shocking statement that really put things in perspective. I wish I'd been there to hear it in person.

This picture by Jann Arthus Bertrand of tourists at the Iguazu waterfalls in Argentina, made me think of Brian Keenan, and also made me think about how thoughtless we as a species can be. We often wander, oblivious to the precipice below, forgetting to be thankful for every moment that we are still breathing.

(The picture is from Jann Arthus Bertrand's free wallpaper collection. Really worth a look)

Friday, 21 August 2009

blog connections

Julie at Moments of Perfect Clarity calls them "blog crushes" and I've had a crush on her blog for a while. It's even developed into a connection. I wanted to say friendship, but although we've sent emails and even gifts, I feel a bit like its still very much a surface friendship... kind of like the connections you make in your first week at a new school (yes, I can remember that far back).

Another of my blog connections is Meri at Meri's Musings. She often comments on my posts, and I on hers and I think our lives have taken some similar paths.

Some of the blogs I read are people whose lives are totally, enviously different to mine, like Chinua with his stunning photography and incredibly beautiful children.

(My children are incredibly beautiful too...)

Others are going through different life stages to me and I feel connected to them and their experiences. Helen is like that.

Others, like Jack, I have "met" on other forums and in other places (all virtually) and I've been watching his garden grow for years.

The idea of blog connections is pretty interesting. I often wonder if I am feeling connected to people who I may not have anything in common with in real life. I subscribe to piles of blogs, mostly because I follow meandering paths from one to another and find something that is interesting. I don't always visit again regularly... sometimes its months between one visit and another.

And, of course, I wonder about the people that read my blog. Some show themselves and become followers (thank you!) and others stay hidden, or are just random visitors. I wonder about those of you who keep coming back. What is it about me that resonates with you? And is it the real me that you are "seeing" or are your own interpretations or cultural expectations colouring who you think I am?

Monday, 17 August 2009

the writer formerly known as...

Twenty years after I was born a Brooks, I became a Wilson in one of those happy-ever-after fantasies that didn't quite work out the way I had planned.

But Wilson was a nice name, and eminently preferable to Brooks (which in Afrikaans means underpants or knickers and led to horrible teasing at school) and I quite enjoyed it. It was one of those anonymous names that everyone could spell and I liked the fact that it was totally normal at first look, but had a secret history. The great grandfather of the Mr Wilson I married had emigrated from somewhere near Moscow to the US and like so many others with unpronouncable or "difficult" names (I think it was Tobinofsky) he was given another one. One of the legends is that Wilson was chosen from the phone book, another is that he particularly admired a Wilson (couldn't have been Harold).

So, for the next 25 years or so, I built my name and reputation as the journalist Lynne Wilson ... until I met and married my new happy-ever-after man (for real this time). He was perfect in every way, except for for the fact that his surname wasn't Wilson.

For the first couple of years, he put up with being referred to as Mr Wilson at functions or meetings, but I could see he was unhappy so when I started my own company a few years ago, I decided to drop the Wilson and become Lynne Smit.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Now I'm met with people who, after speaking to me for a while say things like "Oh, you're Lynne Wilson... I thought she had died" or "I wondered what happened to her" and in some situations I am more likely to get work if people know who I was, rather than who I am.

(In the last, particularly awful years of my first marriage I began only using my first name, but beaurocracy made that totally impractical).

So, what to do?

I decided to add the Wilson to my email signature so that people would know who I was, but that was complicated in itself. I couldn't say "nee Wilson" because it wasn't a maiden name (even though Mr Wilson seemed to believe that me and Mary were sisters in the immaculate conception thing, especially when it came to child maintenance). So I decided to put (previously Wilson) in brackets after my name.

Problem solved, or so I thought.

After coming home from holiday to over 600 emails, I decided to cut down on some of my newsletter subscriptions and, very reluctantly, included IRIN in the purge. Unusually, I recieved a reply from a real person, who then went on to ask me what "previously Wilson" meant. Turns out she thought I was being terribly brave and had had a sex change.

Now, while I love the thought of being terribly brave (mostly because I am much braver in thought than in deed) I am left with a new dilemma.

How many of my clients and contacts meet me and think "yoh! those sex change drugs really add on the curves."

How many are surreptitiously looking for my Adam's apple?

So now I am appealing to you...any suggestions? Please??

Saturday, 15 August 2009

talking of trees

trees in the Kruger Park provide sancturies of relaxation

surprising beauty

examples of tenacity

are attacked by termites

and somehow survive

make us feel small

continue to surprise us by their beauty, even in death

and are destroyed by elephants!

signs on the way

We saw some fun signs while we were away. Like this one at Letaba Camp in the Kruger Park:

here's what a sausage fruit looks like, in case you were wondering.

and this one at the God's Window lookout at the Blyde River Canyon was my favourite:

Friday, 14 August 2009

predators large and small

We left Skukuza when the gates opened at 6am, fortified by some strong coffee sold by an enterprising guy at the gate in the predawn chill. It was Greg's first trip to Kruger, and I was really hoping that he'd get to see some lions so I was really pleased when we came across this group, right on the edge of the road. The biggest male (not in this picture) turned and looked right at Greg as he was taking his picture. The resultant shivery hands are the reason that the photo was too much of a blur to publish here! One becomes very aware that the car provides a very false sense of security, and the lions could break their way into them if they realised what tastey morsels were travelling inside!

Less than 100m down the road, we met this group of affectionate giraffe. We noticed during our stay that giraffe tend to travel in threes. Not sure why.

Greg's breakfast toasted sandwich at a picnic spot on the way to Satara was a great attraction to the yellow billed hornbill.

They remind me of velociraptors!

the starlings seem a lot more gentle, but are equally keen to help themselves to any crumbs that may fall. There are signs all over warning people not to feed the animals, but the birds obviously can't read.

we saw some cute vervet monkeys at Satara

and an African Scops owl, no bigger than my hand

some "wild cows," according to Greg, otherwise known as buffalo!

and a sign that was necessary to explain the very green water at Orpen dam where we saw a mother hippo lead her teeny tiny baby into the water. See? that small shape behind her?

We were so ready for bed when we arrived at Olifants that we went to sleep without supper at 6.30pm! Relaxing is exhausting!

boiling frogs

When we returned to Blue Jay after our three days in Kruger, we met a mother and son from Zimbabwe who were staying there too. Two things struck me about them... the first was that the son was incredibly well behaved and the second was that the mother was overwhelmingly positive about life in Bulawayo where she lives and works as an accountant.

"There's just so much going on," she said. "There are businesses opening, big developments happening, and we even have a choice of meat in the butcher!"

I was interested by her enthusiasm, in part because it was so different to anything I'd heard about Zimbabwe in a while. Its also a very different impression to the one that my old boss, Wilmot James, got when he was on a fact-finding mission.

The fact that we parted on bad terms doesn't mean that I don't respect his judgement or his insights, so I found the contrast between her impression and his particularly intersting. His views are here

When we were chatting the following morning, Philip (the owner of Blue Jay) commented that people get so used to how bad things are that they see even the smallest changes as significant. That reminded me about how happy she had been about the choice of meat in the butcher ... choice is incredible when seen in the light of years of empty shelves.

Wilmot commented in his article "It is only possible to do this, South Africans should note, if you do not have good governance. ZANU PF fused with and became indistinguishable from government. Parliament exercised little to no oversight over the executive. Mugabe ran the Treasury and the Reserve Bank as if they were his personal bank accounts. It is only possible to have a government that may raid private bank accounts and pension funds if the judiciary is politically pliable, corrupt and obsequious. A truly independent judiciary protects citizens against the abuse of power."

Remember that old story about boiling frogs? If you put them in the pot when the water is cold, they make no attempt to escape as the water gets gradually hotter and hotter until it is too late and they are cooked. Pop them in, (with the outsiders' perception) when the water is already heating up, and they jump straight out.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

day three, belatedly

The internet connection was so bad that I decided that work, and my blog, would have to wait until I got back.

Day three saw us up bright and early so that we could be at the Kruger Park gates when they opened at 6am. We actually got there at about 5.45, but there were already 11 cars ahead of us.

The game reserve is a great place to observe human behaviour too... we were amused by the strategies of people who wanted to be first in the queue to check in. Some double-parked right next to the reception hut. Others dropped off the sprinter in their party, who rushed up to the door. We couldn't see the point of all the oneupmanship, so we ended up about 20th in the queue at reception. And it really made no difference at all... it was still dark when we got through the final entrance gate anyway!

We saw lots of elephants, in their natural setting. No chance of checking their teeth!

this is a saddle beaked stork at a waterhole near Skukuza, the camp where we spent our first night in the park.

These waterbuck were very reluctant to have a drink, and eventually left without even a sip.

the crocodile is still hard to see... but he's there. waiting patiently.

We ended the day with an afternoon snooze, a couple of sundowners next to the river and dinner under the bats at Skukuza's take away restaurant. It was probably the worst meal I had had in a long time, but the bats were fascinating. Probably a horribly unhealthy place to sit, but I don't think any bat droppings got into the food. I'd have noticed. Anything would have improved the flavour of the pasta Alfredo I chose.