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The Sound of Symphonia- What IS working in South Africa?

8/5/2008 9:23 AM

What does it take to feel positive, alive and engaged in South Africa today? How do we become artists creating new possibilities? What moves us to become joyful contributors to our society? How do we co-create and renew our vision of a country we're delighted to call home?

After being mugged in 2000 and petrified to live in Johannesburg, I opted to leave, choosing the beautiful and safe environment of Ojai, a small California town just forty minutes from Santa Barbara. Ojai (pronounced Oh-hie) has a population of 9,000 and the most common crime headlines in their weekly newspaper read something like: 6 Crates of Beer stolen from Starr Supermarket. Most people never locked their homes at night. And very few home owners installed burglar alarms. Two years ago, I returned to South Africa to write a book, and fell in love, again, with the warm energy of our people, the roller coaster dramas, the conversations and the excitement that is part of our daily lives. I feel that my heart is finally now home. My soul at peace. I'm staying!

Yes, it's scary. However, in spite of the unsettled and disconcerting political turbulence, I continue to be moved and inspired by the creativity that flourishes in our civic landscape. Amidst the shocks and chaos of our complicated political story, creative partnerships and vibrant dialogue spaces abound. I am frequently struck by the magic that South African people weave together. "Black like Us" is one space.

Now in its fifth year, "Black like Us" promotes the work of young black artists. The major sponsor for the event, Herman Mashaba, in his opening speech spoke of his excitement about being part this art exhibtion. Part of what is working in South Africa. And he is right. There was clearly a respectful, loving and collaborative partnership between Black like Me (one of Mashaba's companies) a vibrant and highly effective non-profit organisation, the Water Colour Society of South Africa and of course the artists themselves, who came from all over - South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Cameroon.

The exhibition, (hosted at the Manor Gallery until August 28th) is a beautiful venue in Fourways, Johannesburg. I arrived there to the sounds of the song "Don't Worry, be Happy". Soaking up the sun, I enjoyed being with people of all ages and colours. including two babies Mwangala (Joy) and Mwamba (Happiness) all of six months old. They were the daughters of one of the Zambian artists sleeping quietly in a pram made for two. Their names and the peacefulness of their faces matched the upbeat music and the hopeful energy blessing the occasion.

Another magical moment took place on July 18th on Madiba's 90th birthday. A friend of mine, Louise van Ryn, promotes Ben Zander in South Africa. As well as conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Zander gives transformational talks all over the world, on "The Art of Possibility". For Ben "A life lived in the discipline of the Art of Possibility is a life lived with grace, energy, joy and contribution. It is what we wish for ourselves, for our families, for our communities and for the world." A great fan of South Africa, Ben Zander, was visiting Johannesburg in July. During his visit he wanted to celebrate Madiba's 90th birthday. Louise, a friend of mine, Bonang Mohale (CEO of Drake and Scull) and I collaborated to create a small event - where 16 of us met in a private room in an elegant restaurant, Ten Bompas, in the suburb of Dunkeld. The group in attendance was diverse - entrepreneurs, business consultants, writers, a doctor, a musician. The youngest person around the table was Oran Cohen, who is organising the Ubuntu Congress, a Pan African event penned to create a new movement within leadership grounded in spirituality. This Congress, hosted at the Cradle of Human Kind in 2009 will be forming a spiritual parliament for youth.

Also present was Alec Hogg, a radio announcer and host of Money web. We were African and Jewish, Afrikaans and English. The twinkle in Zander's eyes and the passion in his voice belie his seventy odd years. He set a wonderful tone for the evening by sharing a beautiful story. "I once had the opportunity to tell President Mandela that he was the first leader of Symphonia. "Oh", he said, his eyebrows raised in amused interest, "What is that?" I explained that the word symphony is a combination of "sym" - together, and "phonae" - to sound - the sounding together of all the voices. "You are", I said, "the first leader of Symphonia, because instead of leading in the traditional way from the top down, you focused on allowing all the voices to be heard." And then, with that inimitable broad smile that you all know so well, he said "I like that!"

And we lived Symphonia in several ways in our small gathering of 16 people at Ten Bompas. One by one, we were invited to share our stories and reflections of Madiba. Louise had been studying in London in 1990 when Mandela was released and acknowledged her embarrassment about shedding many tears on the occasion of his release. Coming from Voortrekker stock, Louise was sure in 1990, that the country would go to wrack and ruin and cried about the feared loss of a future for her family and not for the triumph of Mandela's release. Now 18 years later, she weeps with love for her country and her desire to re-ignite the flames of possibility for South Africa. Louise is committed to do what she can to strengthen the fabric of our South African society. Her objective in bringing the Zanders to South Africa in August is to influence the conversations for enlivening positive possibilities in South Africa. She has created a grueling schedule that will enable Benjamin and Rosamund (his partner and co-author of the book "The Art of Possibility") to inspire more than 14,000 people in South Africa with their message of Possibility.

Bonang Mohale in introducing people around the table, placed the occasion in the current global context. He acknowledged the economic turmoil of our times, mentioning that the uncertain international environment pointed towards hard times. Back home, he continued, "we are also not immune to these and have our own home grown challenges of political uncertainty; electricity black-outs; signs of social unrest; acute skills shortage and escalating waves of emigration". Bonang urged the gathering to "never lose sight of the political and economic miracle we inherited as a direct result of the legacy richly left us by Madiba." He regaled us with stories of his many experiences being in Mandela's company. He shared with pride, that among his most treasured possessions are beautifully framed memorabilia from Madiba's 80th birthday celebrations. His friend Mike Motlalepula Motsoane was one of the last runners to complete his 10th Comrades marathon race in Durban this year. The gift of Mike's very first race in 1998, was the privilege of seeing Madiba clapping for him and smiling as he ran across the finish line.

Steve Dyer, a musician, expressed his feeling that we need to go beyond race and colour and transcend our tendency to label people - black, brown or white. Our small gathering clapped loudly supporting the idea that we go beyond the deep conditioning of colour-based labels and simply see each other as part of a large human "tribe". And then Etienne, an Afrikaaner, asked a question of the group. "How many generations have to live in South Africa, for one to be called an African? My family has been here for 11 generations." "Then, my friend," said Bonang, "you are an African!" The conversations were a symphony of voices - different voices all sharing a profound love and reverence for Madiba and for our country. An effortless weaving of life tapestries in an unrehearsed Symphonia. Zander applauded us. "You know, it is only in South Africa that you are perfectly comfortable in holding these kinds of conversations!"

Then we sang Symphonia. Ben invited us to stand up and sing Happy Birthday to Madiba. Our performance was evidently harmonious and inspiring enough that the customers in the restaurant asked if we could sing it again, this time including everybody! Everybody included six waiters, and the bartender and ten more customers. Together, we sang Happy Birthday again. After the singing, Ben hugged each waiter and almost everybody in the restaurant. And so ended a most memorable evening.

What does all this mean for us here in South Africa? Everything. The pictures, the stories of these kinds of events merit telling. As we face an uncertain and complicated political environment, from which it is difficult to draw inspiration, focusing on what IS working is not only essential to remember, but important to savour and to celebrate!

I leave you with a reflection and a challenge. In his lyrical book, "Star book", Ben Okri, the Nigerian novelist, narrates an enchanting mythical story where beauty, regeneration and fulfillment are possible. He describes a tribe in which "all men and all women were artists, in one way or another, but did not know it. To be alive was to be a creator, or a co-creator. At least you helped create a destiny. Therefore, with all being artists, humanity was considered to be the greatest work of art that is being created. One way or another, all are contributing to the greatest vision that ever will be, the vision of all above and below, in life and in death, on earth and in heaven."

While reading this passage in Okri's book, I wished deep down, that WE could be this tribe. In South Africa. In the World. On this day, I wondered whether if our " one human tribe" chose to be artists of the possible, rather than bystanders or victims of a political landscape difficult to watch, couldn't we, together paint a picture of a different future? A landscape honouring the greatest work of art - our common humanity. If we choose to shift focus from the political dramas and focus on life, on art and the magic that people create together, there are many treasures to be found. South Africa abounds with grace, energy, joy and contribution and IS alive with possibility! It's a matter of choosing engagement over apathy and deciding to craft different stories. It's about continuously inviting each other to be artists of possibility and singers of Symphonia.

(Barbara Nussbaum is a published author, a coach, consultant and freelance writer. Her writings on ubuntu have been published internationally Benjamin and Rosamund Zander will be coming to South Africa on a 3 week tour from August 11 - August 31. Public events will be held in Johannesburg on August 15 and August 20th. For more information on all events, check out

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