Reflecting on No Shame Day

“It’s not who you are, it’s what you have” is the powerful motto of The Siwe Project that today marks its global No Shame Day. The aim of this day is to push an understanding that mental illness should not define the identity of those who have it. It’s an important campaign that I’m proud to support. This campaign has chosen storytelling and community building as powerful weapons against stigma.

I’m pleased to play a small role in promoting the work of The Siwe Project as its photographer in Southern Africa. In the Johannesburg network, I support The Siwe Project’s Mimi Selemela who first introduced me to Bassey. I would love to share with you my story of how I came to be involved with The Siwe Project (TSP) . It goes back to the day I met one Bassey Ikpi when she travelled from the US to Johannesburg for a poetry performance.

It’s not everyday that you meet someone and they go from total stranger to someone you care for in one instant. In my line of work I meet so many people but very few of them stand out. But it was different with Bassey. I was immediately struck by her zest for life, her energy and her powerful presence. She was quick to laughter, the laugh warm, hearty. When she spoke, it was in a rapid fire kind of way.  The words booming confidently and elegantly from one clearly used to commanding the stage. It was no surprise then to discover that she was a performance artist, and that she had toured as a Def Jam poet.

At her performance at Bassline in Downtown Joburg, she delivered lines of poetry that ranged from the personal to the social, and even the political. Underpinning each of her poems was a quest for justice, for fairness. The poet in her seemed to be teasing the words to make sense of a world in which those charged to protect frequently unleashed the most incredible violence on those they should shield from wanton violence.

When she performed Diallo, her poem about the young man Amadou Diallo pumped with 41 bullets by New York cops, you could hear a pin drop. ‘Where do our screams go’ Bassey asks with palpable pain as the lyrics reach a crescendo of anguish ‘We march to mourn another murder in silence’ Listening to Bassey both on and off the stage, it is clear that she’s a woman with a very clear sense of purpose.

In those first meetings with Bassey I couldn’t have guessed that this outstanding performer, this activist for social justice suffers from Bipolar II disorder. She gave so much of herself, was generous on stage, smiled broadly for the camera and derived what seemed a palpable joy from life. This reinforces the relevance of the motto of The Siwe Project, and the rallying vision behind No Shame Day, that ”It’s not who you are, it’s what you have” #noshame

This is why it is so important to support No Shame Day objective of encouraging more people to seek treatment without shame. Instead of worrying about stigma, they will realize that mental illness is a disease like any other and that it can be treated. Bassey named the project for Siwe Monsanto, whose suicide on June 29, 2011 jolted Bassey to found this not for profit mental advocacy movement.  Bassey is not only a gifted writer, but one of her gifts is her frank and transparent reflections on living with Bipolar II Disorder.

I think those of us that may not have stopped to look closely at mental illness, or even know how to deal with it in our own lives or those of loved ones can tap into The Siwe Project. Bassey and her team have gifted us this global non-profit aimed at creating awareness of mental health throughout the international black community.

On this, the first annual No Shame Day, I’ve been encouraged to see how Bassey’s goal of making this an international campaign is already reflected in the conversations taking place on the various networks. People have shared their stories, both of the illness as well as treatment and the forging of a strong sense of community.

This project is bigger than Bassey but I think she provides a very clear sense of the generosity of spirit behind its founding, and the philosophy of caring transparency that underpins it. Let’s all support this worthy cause as it seeks to improve awareness and understanding of the problems faced by those suffering from mental illness.

Let’s make today No Shame Day. I salute Bassey’s courage and her effort to reach beyond her own circumstances to create this potent global force against stigma.  and also to dispel many of the misconceptions about it. That this network already stretches from Washington DC, London, Johannesburg and Lagos, speaks to Bassey’s tenacity and ability to reach across barriers.

As Bassey tweeted today “ #NoShame is trending worldwide. Thanks to you and your willingness to face fear and share your truths. Thank you” This campaign is a trending topic globally because it has touched people in a way that matters to them & they are engaging and deepening this important conversation about mental health.

There is no doubt that in going from poet to create of The Siwe Project, Bassey has simply connected the dots between the activist and the poet with a powerful narrative rooted in social justice and fairness.

In finishing this reflective piece, it’s worth repeating the laudable motto of TSP.

‘It’s not who you are, it’s what you have’


Interview with Photojournalist D Michael Cheers about music, freedom & writing

In Conversation with D Michael Cheers, Co writer of Still Grazing, With Hugh Masekela


A broken education, in urgent need of fixing

Our education is broken. In the Eastern Cape it’s as if it has been flattened by a raging tornado. Each week, new stories reveal the scale of the devastation of the schooling system in the province. Still the authorities are mostly silent. When they do act, it is to apportion blame or suspend an individual. The frightening truth is that the entire system is in need of a complete overhaul.

It is not enough for authorities to think they can tinker only with the apparatus even as they inadvertently condemn school children to a bleak future as ill-educated citizens. This catastrophe is a national one, affecting us all, and it goes way beyond any political point scoring. If the authorities are still thinking that this is a ‘management’ issue, one that can be fixed by their army of management consultants, they are fooling themselves.

Perhaps the raw pain that the horror experiences young school children have been subjected was captured by Metro FM’s Melanie Bala who wrote “The lump in my throat was from reading about the state of education in the EC in today’s @TimesLIVE…” As she quoted from the heartbreaking article, “Kids, desperate to learn, balance their books against a wall to write. There are no desks, no chairs. Eastern Cape Education” This is a terrible indictment of the country, given the amount of money South Africa pumps into education but has very little to show for billions poured into education.

No one is asking the education authorities to perform any miracles, but surely they can do more than simply watch as the education system falls apart. Each year, the system has been falling apart, and with each thing that gets broken, it is impossible for despair not to replace hope. It is said, rob the young of hope and they have nothing.

There is a pervasive sense that the worm of tenders has ruined delivery and maintenance of the infrastructure of education in this province.  This is what drove Melanie Bala to exclaim “I don’t know much about building but that seems exorbitant! Surely you can build 10 classrooms, an office & staff room for R7m?” The department of education’s own price tag was an astronomical R50m.

There is no doubt that the trouble seen in the Eastern Cape’s classrooms of despair runs much deeper. Poverty is rampant in this province, and with it, its accompanying twin evil, hunger. When you read that children as young as three are dispatched to school because it’s the only way they can get a meal, you grasp the scale of the problem. And terrifyingly, this will most likely be their only meal of the day. Without food there can be no proper education as hungry children are unable to take in their lessons.

It is this that has driven Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of The Free State to start his ‘No Student Hungry’ Campaign at the University of the Free State’. This is a fine example of a simple, no frills campaign that is not aimed at enriching someone with a ‘tender’. Prof Jansen speaks not from the Ivory Tower of high management, but from the perspective of one who remains close to the daily struggles of students & knows fully the pain and anguish of hunger and poverty.

As Jonathan Jansen says, “There is no pain worse than student hunger. You are caught between the promise of a degree that will, they say, one day change your life and that of your family, and the pangs of hunger that keep reminding you of much more immediate, instinctual needs that must be met in order to survive” Acts of kindness are well and good & those that can afford it should support this & other initiatives. Jansen stands out because he criticizes as much as he solves so many of the problems that he is able to solve.

On top of that he finds the time to inspire his students to soar above their circumstances. Unlike many leaders, he is not missing in action, only to surface when there’s a ribbon to be cut, or a conference to address. We are lucky that there are other unsung leaders in education; teachers, principals and professors that are making a tangible difference in the lives of those they teach. Their dedication does not seek recognition or awards, but is driven by their innate goodness, that attribute we call ‘Ubuntu’.

But one cannot escape the feeling that the need for private charity serves to highlight the failure of those in charge of education to grasp the daily struggles of students. You cannot produce world class students if they are studying on empty stomachs. It is high time those in charge stopped lording it over deeply meaningless, astronomically costly conferences & other events and instead turn their attention to grassroots struggles.

The problems and failures of our education system cannot be reduced to those of feeding school children. But it is a good way of measuring the way in which a school is responsive to its larger role in society.  Perhaps this story from nearly two decades ago will reinforce this point. Ntabayengwe Primary School lies in the Ngwavuma area of Northern KwaZulu Natal. The school lies some 40km North East of the Jozini Dam. In 1993, I did a story on how a feeding scheme known as Operation Hunger brought hope to 414 hungry children at the school.

Prior to the feeding scheme, the young children used to fall asleep during lessons. Absenteeism was high, and malnutrition was prevalent in the school. But once the feeding scheme was introduced, once dull eyed children became vibrant, tasting hope in each morsel of food. I still remember the words of teacher Nonhlanhla Khumalo, then 40, who said “Even the children we thought were slow learners are now doing very well” In all these years, I’ve carried this story around with me because it showed how it’s in getting the small things right, that the big ones can be fixed.

The stories of the rot in our education system are legion, not just in the Eastern Cape, but in other provinces such as Limpopo. From undelivered textbooks in the middle of the year, to teachers that are focused on their union rights, to broken desks and absent teachers, it is clear that the system in a terrible state of disrepair. This is what has driven so many to give up as it becomes shockingly clear that SA’s education is in a disastrous state.

One of the under reported issues is the negative power of unions. This was eloquently captured by Njabulo S Ndebele in a recent column when he wrote “After a brief, agonised silence, TeacherX continued: “But I preferred to spend more time with the school children. Otherwise, I would have to spend a great deal of it responding to trade union demands.” He was referring to the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu).

Njabulo Ndebele goes on to say “Rather, Sadtu is a strong organisation in a weak democracy in which a relatively low number of participant citizens have organised themselves to compete democratically with its vision. Inactive citizens give birth to a dominant party democracy that then spreads itself throughout the nation in a plethora of uncontested fiefdoms of power that cumulatively snuff the life out of the form of democracy voted for in 1994.”  Here is a link to his powerful article published in City Press
There can be no doubt that active citizens will get the myriad problems fixed much faster than distant government officials. Jonathan Jansen’s initiative is an important one, but there are others too. They need our support because they’re not the grandiose initiatives typical of bureaucrats. It has already become clear that the schools that are strongest don’t wait for officials to fix problems. Instead they rely on a strong principal, a dynamic board & parents committee as well as local activists.

As Kevin Leo Smith says “Governments find it easier to confuse infrastructure of education with education. Books and good teachers will always be best”

Our education needs urgent fixing, but it is clear that what is needed is a complete overhaul of the system and the culture that has led to this collapse, not just of buildings and infrastructure, but also morale. Only in this way can we restore hope and dignity to schools that lie in the forgotten hinterlands of SA.

City blog News

Joburg’s Inner City Blues

Urban renewal, gentrification, inner city rejuvenation, call it what you will, awaits every ageing city. When done well, it is more than plastic surgery for the city, but almost a reinvention.
The decline of Johannesburg’s inner city coincided neatly with the arrival of democracy in South Africa. The reasons for the flight from the inner city were many, but some were just rumor and others no more than urban legend. Safety was cited as a major reason, but it is also likely that developers saw an opportunity to make a killing and they knocked on the doors of corporate bosses at a time when change was in the air. In any case instead of a trickle from the inner city, it became a flood.

Since its decline in the 90’s Joburg’s inner city has flirted with any number of ambitious plans to give it a face lift and attract hip urban dwellers. But these plans have all ended in despair as its once bustling streets are virtually deserted by the end of the Joburg rush hour. As they say, ‘kukhala ibhungange’ in the evenings when very little stirs in this iconic city

The iconic Mandela Bridge, named for Nelson Mandela


No one will ever know for sure what precipitated this exodus from this once hallowed city, but overnight, once prestigious office blocks and gleaming restaurants were left vacant, haunted by their quick fall from glory. Parking spaces that had once been reserved for shiny chauffeur driven Rolls Royces were left to rot and decay as the offices were abandoned. The rush to flee the city led to a plethora of suburban office and residential developments in places like Sandton & Fourways.

The departure of the city’s business for the suburbs had a devastating effect on the inner city as rents collapsed and restaurants, fine shops and nightlife spots closed in quick succession. The departure of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange from its imposing building on Diagonal Street was probably the symbolic moment when the inner city became a ghost town. The city’s financial heart had been transplanted to the then largely residential hub of Sandton, something that would have been impossible to imagine even five years earlier. When the money men from the JSE left for Sandton, the really big money soon followed suit and the Sandton CBD was born.

But even as the business elite were departing for the barren safety of the suburbs, a few die-hard inner city loving businesses put up a regal fight against this hasty retreat from the once mighty city. The mining houses like Anglo, JCI, Amplats and some of the Banks like Standard created the first of what came to be known as the Inner City Business Improvement Districts, initially focusing on safety and cleanliness. Their first recruits, with distinctive yellow caps and green uniform, were to be found armed with a shiny baton, gleaming handcuffs and a broom. They certainly kept the designated precinct clean, startlingly at odds with the rest of the inner city that was yielding to dirt and decay almost without resistance.

Condemned building in Joubert Park
Condemned building in Joubert Park

But it was not enough and the sale of the Carlton Centre for the ridiculous bargain price of just over R30 million signaled the nadir to which Joburg’s inner city’s fortunes had sunk. By then whole office blocks stood deserted, once prestigious restaurants shuttered and hijacked buildings were a sign of the times. The captains of industry had made way for informal dwellers who moved in to make a new life for themselves in cheap but unsafe digs inside neglected buildings that had been condemned by the city officials. Building hijackers made a fortune as they packed desperate tenants in this twilight zone of abandoned buildings. But it wasn’t long before the madness of this hasty exit from the inner city became obvious. Then a a second wave of inner city rejuvenation was tabled.

But this time it was driven entirely by a bunch of dreamers who sold implausible tales of turning the Joburg inner city into the next Manhattan, complete with loft apartments and sexy bistros on crowded streets. Armed with computer generated impressions and killer smooth talking salesmen, they made a killing as greedy investors bought into the tantalizing possibility of buying penthouses on the heap and off-loading then for lottery scale profits. But it turned out that many of these developers overestimated their ability to act as a catalyst for the rejuvenation of Joburg’s CBD. In their wake they left many of their flagship projects half finished, and what had once been impressive show units now serve to highlight the improbability of the pitch that had been sold to gullible investors.

Developers like Urban Ocean once hosted the hippest parties in the inner city and even provided the 900 square metre penthouse for the production of the first Apprentice show in South Africa. But beneath the shiny brochures and aggressive sales pitches of a rejuvenated Joburg inner city to rival Upper West Side, the numbers did not add up and soon these projects were abandoned. Even some of the first flagship projects remain unfinished, but those investors who threw money at these extravagant dreams have had to brave it and live in half completed developments.

One of the biggest problems that faced the renewal of Joburg’s inner city were the completely unrealistic expectations of the developers. It is as if they expected to make their profits overnight, and they sold the same irrational exuberance to their investors. The idea of buying an empty shell on the cheap and ‘flipping’ it for a massive profit was part of the DNA of the rejuvenation. But the prices they were asking for were truly outlandish and so these developments foundered as economic reality dictated what rents owners could charge once resales dried up. In many instances all that remains of these lofty dreams are the tattered outsize posters that once promised an urban paradise, complete with names such as Shakespeare and other names that tapped into fantasy.

But all may not be lost as the renewal of the Braamfontein seems to have hit on a formula that may work. Gone are the drams of outlandishly priced penthouse, but instead a more modest approach that develops accommodation for students and young professionals at prices they can afford. On the other side are developments like Randlords and the refurbished Alex Theatre that cater to Joburg’s need for spectacle. But neither Randlords nor the Alex Theatre expect their patrons to hang around the inner city at the end of the lavish events they host. In this sense then it looks as if Braamfontein may be about to give the city of Gold its first rrejuvenation success story.

There is no doubt that a new lease of life courses through the streets of Braamfontein. The streets are full of people well into the night, the theatres, clubs, salons, art galleries and restaurants are popping up all over the place. It is a remarkable achievement given that it has happened without the usual hype that surrounds urban regeneration as publicity hungry developers and city officials punt its potential to create new real estate millionaires.

It is well known that Joburg has always had its fair share of dreamers, visionaries and conmen, and from the first day it was mooted, urban renewal was presented as the new ‘gold rush’ it attracted all three in equal measure. Since the mid 90’s tidal wave of white flight to the surburbs left the downtown Joburg desolate, city officials have launched many ill-fated programs to rejuvenate the city. They each promised a return of the city to its golden age, but all that remained after the hype were dilapidated billboards and posters advertising this false dawn.

In each instance of a renewal project, the speeches were long, the fanfare sizeable and the hope tangible, but no amount of hyperbole could hide the fact that the renewal of Joburg remained an elusive dream. This fate befell the much hyped Newtown renewal which did revive the theatre arts complex around the Market Theatre and even brought new residents like Kaya FM into the precinct, but the buzz that accompanied the initial renewal has been replaced by a palpable indifference. Bars that had sprung up have closed, and the swanky lofts that sprung up near Newtown are exchanging hands for much less than their initial asking prices. Still there are remarkable success stories, like the low income housing not far from the Mandela Bridge. This was not fancy accommodation, but it was decent, solid and affordable and it was sold out immediately. Crucially people live in the development, unlike many of the developments that were bought by ‘investors’ with no intention of spending a night in the inner city.

Detail on a once beautiful inner city building
Detail on a once beautiful inner city building in Joubert Park

But the opening of 70 Juta Street in 2010 was different in that there were almost no officials but the ordinary people that can this precinct aims to attract. Since its opening this short street has retained most of the buzz that was evident during it’s Sunday opening, attracting visitors to the boutique shops, galleries and design shops that line it.

The problem with many of the previous attempts at renewing Joburg is that they wanted to import wholesale what had worked elsewhere. A lot of time and money was spent trying to turn downtown Joburg into the new Manhattan, but this was doomed from the start. They should have known that each city has its own unique history and that it is impossible to just import wholesale solutions that worked elsewhere. If you look at the first brochures that promised the renewal of the city, you would have believed that they had Wall Street salary earners in mind when you look at the inflated prices of the apartments and penthouses.

In the aftermath of these giddy launches, many front page stories in glossy magazines were written touting the inevitable rise of the hip urban dweller. Interestingly enough these stories mostly portrayed the sellers of this lifestyle, not the buyers, and even then the hype should have been evident.  But it was a tantalizing story and it created new heroes in a city that is always inventing them even as it discards its old ones.

Who can forget the hype that was first generated when the first swashbuckling renewal starlets captured the public imagination with their endless stories of ‘Manhattan style lofts’. We should have smelt trouble at the first mention of Manhattan because that model is not what Joburg needs.

Joburg’s renewal has to be home grown, but it also has to face head on the terrible legacy of the Apartheid city on the patterns of urban living and commuting. The terrible truth is that unlike in other cities in the world Apartheid banished the poorest workers to live furthest from their place of work. As a result they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on travelling to work and their homes. In many other cities such a cost, in effect a penalty, is passed on to those who choose to flee to distant middle class suburban enclaves, not those forced by history and circumstance to commute such long distances.

Thus any inner city renewal that is aimed at shutting out the ordinary workers and create yet another haven for the already well off is bound to fail. Braamfontein already had a head start in that it is a nucleus for student accommodation, but now it has extended its offering to include the young and the not so young but hip at heart. It has also created a multiple offering that includes the very rich but also the ordinary hair salon and supermarket worker.

In many ways it has been the absence of hype that has given Braamfontein’s renewal the opportunity to get right what earlier attempts to revive downtown Joburg had missed by a wide margin. The new precinct on 70 Juta Street is a small but significant step in the right direction. Perhaps now the officials can learn what actually works and implement it in other parts of the city minus the noisy hype they like to accompany their projects. It is also telling that many new corporate offices are being built in the Joburg CBD by the likes ABSA and the number of empty buildings has declined. Heavy morning traffic into the inner city is the clearest indication that Joburg’s inner city has once become a hub for business. This is what will provide the backbone for a credible rejuvenation programme, not the empty hype of publicity seeking mavericks.

You will know that these schemes to rejuvenate Joburg’s inner city have worked when the city has cafes, bars, libraries and music clubs that stay open in the evening which is when most cities come to life. Of course much has changed and the city may not rediscover the glory of its heyday, but it will once again become a city that does not become a ghost town in the evening.

View from Biccard Street
A view from Biccard Street, one of Braamfontein's busiest streets