Making things better requires, in the first instance, that one knows about the problem. Phyllis Byars discovers a group of nyaope addicts like these, at a spot where they normally meet, and talks to them.
Johannesburg - Few things make the hair on my neck stand up more than the reflection on apartheid that begins with the phrase: “Well, we just didn’t realise that was going on.”
It bites at my yearning for compassion and connectedness and at my belief in human interdependence.
I often wonder if there is anyone in this day and age who is willing to argue against the freedom axiom, “No one is free while others are oppressed”.
The “I didn’t know” talk prompts a one-sided conversation in my head where I silence the speaker with strong phrases like my indignant: “You didn’t care enough to see your oppression while it was right under your nose and in your very home” or even a smug, “Isn’t it wonderfully convenient that those horrible human conditions never crossed your path and you could enjoy your life in green suburbs?”
I can derive a great sense of satisfaction from this right-setting of history within my own mind.
Fast forward, from 1990 to 2014. Zoom into Bishops Park on the outskirts of the Joburg CBD.
I’m with a group of young managers on the GIBS Nexus programme where we ask these leaders to increase their self-awareness and their awareness of the larger socio-political context in which they work. Through experiential learning and dialogue, delegates are challenged to find ways around the obstacles holding themselves, others and the country back.
Our facilitator explains that there is so much we don’t see and we think, (or we hope) it doesn’t affect our world if we don’t actually see it. But today, we will see.
Our group unloads from the taxis feeling quite ready to take on the leadership challenge of the day. But when we cross into this hilltop park, some of us are starting to wonder if this locale was the safest option and begin to check that our volunteer police patrol are still with us.
Then, with the help of the patrol, we talk to the men and women in this park who score and consume nyaope, crack, cat and any other addictive substance they can get their hands on. What is compelling about these conversations is the generosity of explanation and the clarity of mind of the storytellers.
We hear from one young Cape Town man, who moved up to Joburg to get a job, how a friend got him to try “some stuff”. Six years later, he can’t bear to call his mom and explain he breaks into houses for his daily fix. “Better she thinks I’m dead. I don’t want my mom to see me like this.”
A woman says: “I couldn’t take working at a till, helping people buy stuff I knew I could never afford for even one more day, so here I am instead.”
She wears an impromptu tourniquet around her upper arm and shows us a full syringe she was about to use before we arrived. “So I’m here doing this. I’ll probably be dead soon and I know that. I just can’t be that worthless person anymore.”
It strikes me that these conversations mirror those I have with my closest friends. Am I making my family proud? Am I living to my fullest potential? These conversations with the drug addicts are humanising.
Then we meet a young guy. I imagine he is young because of his story, but his face looks weighed by many, many decades. He brings the story home. “I’ve tried to get work. I’ve tried to volunteer, to do anything to get out of this life. But guess what? If I can’t get a job, I am going to make you my job. I will come into your house and that will be my work.” And there it is.
That story of those people becomes each of our stories. Every house break, every broken car window, every purse picked from a handbag ties these seemingly divergent groups together. The division in the “they” and the “us” fell away.
I realised all those conversations with neighbours about steps towards crime prevention, the establishment of safety and security, never mentioned people whose social and economic needs drive them to cross lines they didn’t imagine they would.
As if reading my thoughts, Mr you’re-my-job asks: “When do you ever think about me? Only once I’ve broken into your house.”
We can challenge the merits of his logic around responsibility for his actions, but we can’t argue his contention that he is not a thought on the minds of people outside this park.
So that internal dialogue kicks up again, but this time, I am repeating that dreaded phrase from the other side of the argument. I justify my position to myself by agreeing: “Well, I just didn’t realise this was going on.”
It takes me right back to the apartheid- era argument. I just didn’t know.
But the reality is now upon me. Now, I do know. It is painful, it is complex and it’s part of my story because it is part of my city.
If I choose not to recognise that, any solutions I put my efforts behind are purposefully incomplete.
So I need to remind myself to look, to see, to recognise and to consider the full view of the challenges and opportunities in my environment.
This doesn’t mean I can solve it; it means I can’t pretend it is not real and not having an impact on the life of those of us who call this city a home.
So I invite you to borrow this lesson from me. Ask yourself what you are choosing not to see and think about and how that might be inhibiting your ability to be as effective as you want to be?
* Phyllis Byars is associate director at the GIBS Centre for Leadership and Dialogue
** The views expressed here arenot necessarily those of Independent Newspapers