Category Archives: Propositional

ideas of how things can change

What we Want – What we Love

When we are young and in a battle to like ourselves, we fall in love with someone to the extent that they match our ideal picture; as if we will be given a score for our choice.

When we have seen and been more, when we learn to look deeper, then we fall in love with someone’s ability to love.

That is what we are supposed to look for, and the number of failed and unhappy relationships and marriages might confirm my suspicion that many people have not yet learnt this.

We should fall in love, above all, with someone’s ability to love.

If love is the highest ‘command’ the purest path, surely it is the thing to look for in a partner or friend?

I was blind for too long.

Treasure Hunt

You can save a lot of time and money by collecting more childlike treasures: things that are cheaper, sentimental, old, cute or rare.
Hunting for those and gathering such performs the same function as buying expensive brands, which by definition becomes cheap when anyone can walk into a shop and take it with a swipe of a credit card.
If we are going to be weak and ‘gather treasures on earth’, let’s at least make it an adventure and interesting.

What do these narrative and meaning infused treasures look like? Each person has to figure that out for themselves. For me, this journey of refined compromise includes the following: One of the best treasures is when something precious is given to me freely from someone with humble means. Some treasures are special because I uncovered, designed or built them. Places, events and people are the soul of these alternative treasures.

Consider your inner desires and the needs that your work and spending aims to satisfy. Then explore creative ways to reach the same goal.

Happy hunting.

Family Ties

Despite our addiction to numbers, categories, labels and the illusion of control they give; we mostly build our lives around metaphors. Easy ideas that help us to make sense of bigger issues. Some see themselves as advanced monkeys, some as children of God, some see themselves as human resources or investors, some as unrecognised celebrities or even as soldiers in a war. To use a metaphor, we need to be acquainted with the subject. If you see yourself as a pawn, you probably know something of chess. The trick for me is therefore to use images and metaphors most people can understand. If you view yourself as an animal in the circle of life, being part of a human group (I wont say herd), you are probably into nature and ecology.

One of the no-brainers I guess is family. Be it good or bad, we all have an idea of what a good family should be like. Hence, the following articulation of the most important investment guideline, blueprint, compass, operating system, telescope, text book, voice, game plan, or whatever image you might also use:

As a human being the single most important question that you need to answer is: “Who do you view as your family?” It’s not a question to resolve some day or say that you don’t have an answer. Your daily decisions, now, reveal who you think is part of your family. Who is your brother and your sister? Once you have an honest and conscious answer on this question, your life will never be the same again. Unless you’re an asshole and you just give a shit answer to it.

Friends and the Art of Living

We mostly meet people through other people. I can’t claim any of my good friends as an independent product of my cleverness. It does not matter who introduce me to a person, what is important is the ability to see, really see a new person when we meet them. The art of living and the creation of a quality life is inextricably linked to our ability to choose friends. Some acquaintances are nice and good to keep in our lives, but at arms length. Other folk are better stayed away from or even deliberately cut out of our lives. Yet the crucial one is to figure out the five or six people you will allow close to you. It is a crucial decision, firstly because you just have so much time and every hour you give to one person is an hour denied to numerous others. Secondly, we become like our friends in that their thinking and values rub off on us. If you want to know yourself, look at your closest friends. A bit of crazy diversity here and there might be in place, but be sure to spend the bulk of your time with friends that are smart, authentic, inspiring and good.

If i evaluate my own life, I have hundreds of people I could consider friends and I don’t mean Facebook friends. So who do I give my time to? Its tricky. Sometimes life makes us grow apart and awesome people just drift away due to various reasons. I can think of school, university and church friends that fall in this category and there is no real reason for being disconnected, other than drifting apart through diverse lifestyles. I also have about five people in my life that I don’t see because of conflict, people I don’t want to talk to because I view them as either stupid or harmful (or they might be ex’s). I often think of them, feel bad, but I don’t have any desire to patch things up. Some friends are fun to hang out with, they make me feel good on a superficial level. But my best friends are those that motivate and inspire me to be a better person, not by talking but by who they are and how they live. Some people do not even see a great friend or person if they stand right in front of them! If you search for cool, you won’t find good.

I am very lucky in that I meet hundreds of nice and good people. Yet, my true fortune lies in the grace that I had, that I, as a naughty, funny kid, managed to meet (and became friends with) incredible human beings. I wont mention them, yet I think of at least 20 awesome people I am allowed to call friends and about five of them form part of my inner-circle.

We all need something from each other. We all stick to a friend because of some selfish reason. There are also unselfish reasons and moments, but don’t let that blind you to your unspoken needs! We get something valuable from a person or we move on. The more incomplete you are as a person, the more you will choose silly friends that plug the wrong holes. I need friends that help me to see beauty, that help me to live selflessly, that makes me smarter, that teach me how to care, that recognise that I am special, that show me what it means to be a human. There is nothing as precious as a human who reveals humanity.

Some people seek party animals as friends, I seek fully aware humans. To each his/her own I guess.

At primary school on a prefect camp, Johan Niemand said something I never forgot: “we can do anything we want, as long as we are happy to live with the consequences” – pretty smart for a 12-year old.

Shack Attack

I find myself in and around ‘squatter camps’ every week. When you drive out of Durban, fly into Cape Town or near Sandton you get confronted with the uncomfortable contrasts of shacks near mansions. Foreign visitors are usually indignant and quick to join in the blame apartheid chorus. To be clear, in many ways apartheid is to blame, and we have to deal with that. Besides apartheid, if I ask whites, why they think South Africa has so many shacks, the answers vary from: “they just don’t have money” and “they just used to it, they don’t imagine anything else” to “they are useless and lazy”.

Yet after just a few chats, it seems to me that the South African government is to blame. I wont mention political parties, because I don’t want that emotional response to detract from the topic. In Zimbabwe and especially Mozambique, you don’t really see shacks; why? Their government gives them land. Either cheap or free. After 19 years of democracy our government has not yet come to the same conclusion, that it might be a good idea to give the poorest of the poor their own little stand. South Africans stay in shacks because of the government. Citizens are NOT allowed to build on the stands where they have their shacks. No permanent buildings or constructions. Even if you stay there ‘temporarily’ for 10 years, you are not allowed to make or buy your own bricks and build yourself a house. The idea is that the stand does not belong to you, it is not permanent, it is not your home. What has the psychological and societal effect of this unrootedness been? One of my friends built an extra shack room on his stand and the red ants even came to destroy that.

It would be so easy to transfer dignity and power… just give each poor citizen a stand, where he or she can start building their own house with their own hands. Are we to good or proud for that? It’s a numbers game. Compare the number of South Africans living in RDP’s and those living in shacks… Our plan is not the smartest, it is not realistic. Many with RDP’s also rent them out and build another shack! The government loves to be Santa Clause, ensuring the kids behave and vote, or they wont get a shine RDP house under the Christmas tree. The promise of a free two room RDP ensures that politicians remain seen as chiefs, instead of public ‘servants’. Some of my friends are removed from their communities, their shacks destroyed after many years of living there, forced to live elsewhere. Friendships and relationships are torn apart, soccer teams split and communities are cut in two with these generous forced removals into the South African Dream, getting an RDP for free… How empowering.

To be clear, a RDP is great, Id love to live in one. By law I cant buy or rent one, which I suppose is right. Yet it happens regularly, everywhere. In a way RDP’s do not better housing, but promotes entrepreneurship. Which is kind of interesting I guess. Yet, if our country is ever to be ‘equal’ we should start working together and learn to imagine, dream, take charge and resist, we will need to learn how to think critically, especially critical of ‘good things’ that are cheap imitations of freedom and from good people that have slipped into bad habits.

Once I discovered that shack dwellers are forced and encouraged by law to live in zinc squares, I understood why I sense such a different vibe when I am in Mozambique, why when I am there poverty feels less, despite people being way ‘poorer’. Forget building standards, self made houses don’t fall in, cheap fake contract tender houses fall in. And trust me a poor man can build a house that is safer than a shack. How many losses have been caused by fires ripping through squatter camps? The safety regulations is a white answer and poor excuse to deny people the basic right and freedom to decent housing and shelter. There is a dignity in making a home, making a place, having roots. As a whitey, I struggle with issues of home and rootedness. It saddens me to think Africans are punished by their own leaders. Freire was right: the mind of the oppressor infiltrates the mind of the oppressed, first the oppressed starts believing the lie and when they are liberated, ironically find themselves imitating the oppressors they so despised.

Im very keen to learn more about all of this.This post is my thoughts as they are in response to what I see. If there are reason and legislation Im not aware of, I would be glad to learn, understand better and even change my mind.

Below, friends in front of a shack in Gabon, Daveyton where shacks are being destroyed by government.

visitors from Sandton chilling with friends. HUge difference in housing, yet we are equal as beautiful humans.
visitors from Sandton chilling with friends. Huge difference in housing, yet we are equal as beautiful humans.


I think it was my friend Tom who questioned our common usage of the term “dead line”. At first I thought it’s an insignificant play of words, but the more I think about it the more I realise this is another symptomatic usage of language that responds to and creates real life. The idea of a dead line is that if you do not deliver on the day, you will die. Obviously 99.99% of deadlines not met will never result in actual death.

Where it becomes a deadline, is not if you fail to deliver, but if you try to deliver! By taking on the pressure and arranging your life as a series of efforts to meet deadlines, you are actually sapping the life out of your existence and the negative emotion, stress and fear makes the deadline chasing a long line of sub-quality life (death) striving to deliver things to people who use you. Even a legitimate target becomes skewed and perverted when marketed or seen as a deadline. So, whenever you hear yourself or someone else speak of a deadline, know that they are already dancing with death.

So, turning our deadlines into lifelines, imply changing the way we look at dates of delivery. Become free. Do your best and know that the consequences will be part of the rhythms and seasons of life. The ups and downs both contain beauty. Never be trapped in a cycle where you live for milestones, be it exams, promotions, awards, jobs, bonuses, or whatever. All we have is the journey, the road we walk every day, the way we think and feel every day. Sure, there are exceptional times when we put in a bit extra to ensure timely success. But if the exception becomes the rule, when the ‘season’ becomes a lifestyle, be warned that your deadlines have spread their death much wider that the expected day of delivery.

So, make your deadline your lifeline and experiment with ultimatums to discover more about others and yourself; your courage, your beauty, your emotions and your friends.

Who are you?

So often we meet someone and they ask us: “So, what do you do?” and I think it’s a useless and even destructive question, which in future, will meet my answer: “I’ll tell you what I do if you tell me who you are?”

Why is this important? Because, questions inform conversations and conversations en up informing budgets. And, we all know budgets make the world go round. Therefore, I don’t fight the budget, I rather resist the question that informs the discourse that prescribe the policies that direct the budget. Our sickness of evaluating doing over being has hollowed out the wealthy west and it is being forced onto millions of Africans who will trade their life for pragmatism and shallow cleverness, characterised by buzzwords like transparency and accountability, driven by cheap acronyms and lengthy reports written by academics who know nothing of life.

Metaphors and Language

There are many forms and expressions of development, but the dominant idea behind the word simply refers to the efforts to address poverty. Post-development scholars have revealed most of the myths associated with development thinking, Rist, Illich, Esteva, Sachs, Shiva and Escobar being the best known. For me, as an aspiring academic who grew up privileged in Africa, there is no option to dismiss development as a tool of control that maintains current power relations. I am forced, by the faces of my friends to redefine and improve developmental efforts. In general the man on the street can encounter three areas of development discourse: government support, corporate giving and grassroots expressions.

Government support, although it can include south-south cooperation (like BRICS) is generally characterised by IMF and World Bank support to governments of poor countries. Typically to build roads or dams, finance health systems or do all sorts of ‘capacity building’. I would categorise multi million dollar projects of huge NGO’s and development agencies like USAID or SIDA in this same group. Most of the scholarly articles on development address initiatives in these categories, for the simple reason that this is where the money is and where there is money you will inevitably find an expert with something to say or write. These are the leaders of the development discourse, followed blindly and naively by all the citizens downstream. By following blindly I include the minor critiques of methods and the debates about minutiae, since the debates seldom question the system, the grand assumptions and the theory of change as affected by power. I will note that certain rules are appropriate when building dams and roads, but those should not be extended to for example, individual rural youths or illiterate women.

In a country like South Africa, corporate social -responsibility or –investment is common and standard practice. Every large corporation has to spend money on SED (socio economic development) and so a new breed of quasi developmental experts arose. These are the unqualified agents that are paid to use the poor to do marketing for their ‘brand’. I have met hundreds of CSI managers and besides being a favourite BBBEE position to fill, these are employees moved from HR or Marketing and they do not have academic or contextual knowledge that could assist them with a proper strategy of engaging the poor and maximising return for the corporation. Companies have ill-defined mandates as to how they should ‘help the poor’ and are normally evaluated instead on the ‘bang for their buck’ rather than any type of sustainable impact on change in the lives of the poor. The poor are current or future consumers and if not, they will be used to show the wealthy customers from what a respectable institution they are buying. CSI have fundamental flaws, yet there is such large amounts of money at stake that one cannot simply ignore or give up on it.

This brings us to the actual subjects of development, the efforts of the so-called poor. I say so-called, because anyone who have lived with the materially wealthy and materially not so wealthy knows how ironic it is to call they guy in the Ferrari rich and the family in a hut poor. Yet, for sake of the conversation I will speak of poor and rich, to indicate those without and with material opportunities that can include income, education, electricity, water, safety, mobility that can translate to the ability to make choices. The journey of a poor person to lift themselves up, with or without assistance from the rich is a journey that has fundamental differences from the two areas of development described above. How you build a road and how you link a brand to a poor community is a very different matter compared to the journey a disadvantaged youth has to follow until he can look any typical westerner squarely in the eye and compete equally on any level. The type of ‘help’ that the ‘West’ and companies give, normally undermines actual development of the beneficiaries. The problem is in the ‘how?’ of the help, and the ‘how?’ is influenced by a refusal to be critical and a refusal to fundamentally challenge the system. The reason for that is that sacrifice is not a concept that sits well with the rich. Their help is viewed as investments and investments are not sacrifices, they don’t lead to losses. Investors need returns that put them in a better position than before they made their investments. In a world with limited resources, true development, the lifting of the poor has to have an affect on the rich that sees them move down. Consumption of luxury goods has to come under scrutiny in the face of human suffering. This does not sit well in the offices of development agencies and CSI offices. They prefer to focus on the technical aspects of the projects they invest in: how to apply, how to monitor and how to evaluate. They are technocrats in that the more you focus on the acronyms and frameworks of documentation (including workshops) the less the chance is that the poor can ask real questions of equality and reciprocity. By treating the poor as a building contractors (who even have to tender!), donors prevent the critique that their involvement is more patronising tokenism than a willingness to really share wealth and promote equality.

Many problems that occur in the direct interaction with actual poor people (called beneficiaries) derive from the metaphors and language made normative by the first two spheres of development (World Bank and Corporates). Development is implemented and talked about today using the language and imagery of finance and investment management. Money is invested, invested money requires a return. To ensure a return normative managerial practices are assumed and these are based on accounting, and traditional project management. In finance they speak of the agency problem, mechanisms has to be in place to ensure the managers are controlled so that they make all decisions with the good of the shareholder in view. Most delopment workers feel a sense of cleverness when they talk about return on investment, human resources, beneficiaries, stakeholders, and other financial metaphors. Yet, they seldom bother to be consistent in their appropriation of imagery. Who is the shareholder in a small NGO or GRO? The model says it is the investor, the person giving money. Yet, surely the actual poor should be the shareholders of their own efforts and lives? Where does that leave the donor, s a stakeholder? The imagery quickly becomes inappropriate. Finance and Investment is all about profit, long term wealth creation for the shareholder, measured in financial wealth. And in this, the fundamental flaw is revealed. Donors and sub donors do business in a way that will suit their investors. Power is thus in the hands of the investor, all the rest become employees. Employees that has to conform to the system if they want a slice of the pie. As sincere development workers continue to claim their main concern is with the benefit of the poor, they refuse to admit the donor is the shareholder and everyone must ensure maximum return for the shareholder. Sometimes they drop words and concepts from other metaphors into this investment game: giving, charity, help, solidarity, autonomy, sacrifice, friendship, love, respect are all words you will not find in a handbook on finance and investment management.

What model or metaphor is appropriate then in the efforts to ‘walk with the poor’? The paradigm that first shattered my way of thinking is the model of a family. I was born as a baby with less skill and ability than any poor person on earth and today I am fully developed and on top of the food chain. Why? Because my parents developed me. My parents made me develop by giving me love and freedom, by making countless sacrifices, and believe it or not, I never filled in application forms as a kid, I was never monitored and evaluated making sure my actions are aligned to my intended outcomes, objectives and goals. There were no audits on my pocket money, there were no written links between budget and outputs and my parents would not reallocate funding if one of my siblings produced better return on investment. Obviously I feel family is a better model to follow when we work with the so called poor. Families are built on love and respect, on commitment irrespective of performance. My family helped me develop; yet there are many families, which are dysfunctional, and never led to the development of their kids. That is not because there is a problem with the idealised views and principles of families, but simply because the parents did not have skills and money. In development, the donors and donor agencies doe have skills and money, yet they could, in theory fulfil the role of good parents just like my mom and dad did. If you are now clever enough not to want to be paternalistic, feel free to call yourself a brother or sister. If we can be honest about where the ‘rich’ can learn from the ‘poor’ then the former can also unashamedly help and teach in other areas where the latter require help. Most empowerment or capacity development workshops are paternalistic and prescriptive any way, so it’s a bit ironic for those organisers to call a family metaphor patronising. A family assumes long-term commitment, compared to a weekend, a year or even a three year intervention. Who change in a year anyway? Me? You? Yet we expect that of poor rural youths and women…

Because of corruption, the system today is obsessed with transparency and accountability, concepts that assumes and reinforce the notion that I am working with potential criminals. Yet, real criminals are experts at writing and reporting and whilst staying in the safety of reports and audits the money never reach the poor. Again the CEO’s and shareholders that demand audits never audit their own children: they trust them. People are quick to employ business or management language when reflecting on dealings with Africa or the poor, yet these cheap borrowings are more parroting of management cliché’s than reflective insight informed by theory and practice. People often talk about the poor, without having poor friends. Talking in abstractions is much different than speaking on behalf of people you call your friends. Development workers are normally hypocritical. They will give a workshop to the poor, yet not house that poor person in their home. If you don’t like my metaphor of family for whatever reason, perhaps consider the metaphor of friendship to guide our developmental efforts. By simply treating every person as a personal and equal friend, you would immediately eliminate 90% of the most common errors and pitfalls. Yet, the rich do not really want to befriend the poor, because it will cost them, it will lead to uncomfortable sharing and sacrifice.

Besides family or friendship, one could also consider classical charity, where giving was not investment, but simply a gift. Talk of the dangers of impersonal hand-outs and the idea of a bottomless pit has made pure giving without payback or control very unpopular, and people justify their conditions and control in the name of stewardship and responsibility. That makes sense in situations where one would just hand out cash to a face you don’t know. Yet, when you have made the effort to know someone deeply, as family member or friend, then a no strings attached gift is often the most empowering thing you can do, because it is translated as respect and belief in that person. That is real empowerment because you gave away, not just cash, but also control. In these situations even failure becomes valuable because the failure and hurt becomes the real classroom where people learn and grow. The freedom to choose and the freedom to fail are worth more than any curriculum and certificate. Those are short-cut replacement for real growth and learning. How many people treat their marriage as an investment? With planning charts, objectives, outputs, outcomes and regular evaluations? How many people go on holiday and quantify the financial investment of that trip in terms of outputs and outcomes? Yet billions of dollars are spent every year by rich people, who ‘instinctively’ knows that the holidays are good for them and justify the expense. Again, it is difficult to practice what you preach! If you want my friends in rural Africa to structure their lives as a financial investment, do the same with your wife, your kids and your holidays… Think.

For development to work, rich people should start to investigate where they need development, where they need to change and grow. Once that starts, then interaction with the poor will become meaningful and mutually empowering. Yet almost all development efforts assume the dichotomy of developed and underdeveloped, the have’s and the have-not’s, the givers and the receivers. If your system does not include two way application processes, 360 evaluation and reporting transparent budgets on both sides, then I am afraid you are doing a primitive form of ‘development’ that use, no, steal, clever words from other disciplines, and this type of engagement will not develop, it will maintain the gap, or increase the gap.

The buzzwords from finance and project management are the give-away signs that someone is depersonalising another person. So every time you hear the word audit, return, capital, risk, stakeholder, report, investment, evaluation, beneficiary, participant, performance or even sustainability; take note because these are the little alarm bells that indicate that the system has made another proselyte. Let’s use the names of our friends, not making generalisations, let’s move closer to each other. Above all, let us not use words, when we don’t even know the history of who introduced those words, when and where and to what purpose. Let us try to refrain from making noise as clever parrots.

Finance and Investment thinking has impoverished us so that today, we as so called smart people, know very little about giving. Never mind return, don't even expect a thank you.
Finance and Investment thinking has impoverished us so that today, we as so called smart people, know very little about giving. Never mind return, don’t even expect a thank you.