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Adventures in recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg

“It is unbelievable that my neighbours don’t separate their waste”, proclaimed the gentleman I met for lunch a few Sundays ago over his fish dish. I’m not sure what my own neighbours do with their household waste in the privacy of their own homes, but I do know that recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg can, on any good day, be quite tedious, interesting and/or frustrating.  I, however, choose to describe it as adventurous. A few months ago I moved from my townhouse in a security complex in Pretoria to an older established suburb in Johannesburg. In the security complex recycling was very straightforward. The complex has bins for glass, paper and plastic and these bins are collected regularly. All one has to do is separate one’s household waste and deposit recyclables in the correct container.  My current situation is quite different. Now I live in a stand-alone house in an old (and poorer) suburb and I am responsible for dealing with my recycling on my own, meaning I have to make the effort to remove it from my premises, drive to where I can find recycling containers within the suburb and deposit the items in there. But it being Johannesburg, a city plagued with inequality and poverty, there are also recycling collectors who roam the streets on ‘rubbish collecting days’ searching the bins placed in the street for recyclable items which they then sell to recycling companies. With the full realization that by removing my recyclable items from my bin, I might be depriving several households from a livelihood, I decided to still separate my household waste but to put the recyclables in a separate container for easy collection by the recycling collectors. To my bewilderment, my logical system was completely ignored by the series of collectors going through my rubbish bin. They left behind several items in my recyclable pile and still ransacked my other waste to see what might lurk in there, taking very noticeably the black plastic bag the non-recyclable items was in. Being a true Johannesburger, I also have CCTV cameras angled at my pavement for security reasons and being a researcher, I decided to use the CCTV footage to ascertain the collection patterns to see what is collected and what is not. Whilst it might have been acceptable to just let the remaining recyclables go off to the dump, I was not sure whether these would be separated at the dump or whether it was all just going to end up in the landfill. So, I decided to watch and study the collecting habits of the recycling collectors and adjust my separation accordingly. As I was anyway taking glass to the recycling bin – glass is not collected by the collectors presumably because of its weight and the danger of carrying and pushing breaking bottles – I might just as well take the remaining recyclables as well. Putting aside my concerns about the ethics of using cameras to spy on uninformed persons, I embarked on studying the collectors’ habits over several weeks. Every week I learned something new; every second week any assumptions I had, based on my on-going research results, were proven to be incorrect, as the collectors (who are all the same persons every week) changed their habits on a weekly basis. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to their collecting.  Last week, feeling quite exasperated, I dashed outside to speak to a collector when he tossed aside my carefully collected paper waste, which he had collected just three weeks prior, to ask: “Man, what gives?”.  “It makes my bag too heavy”, he answered.  “But I thought you get paid based on the weight of your products?” “Yes, we are, but if it is too heavy, I cannot push and pull it easily and I might get hit by a car. Today I have a lot of tins and plastic. I do not need your paper.” Hmmmm…. Further discussion with the other two regulars indicated that the items they will always collect are tins and plastic bottles. Paper… well, that depends on the situation on that day. Other recyclable plastic, unless it is big black plastic bags that can be re-used, are also not wanted. So, going forward, I will deposit my paper and plastic in the appropriate recycling bins when I deposit my glass. Tins and plastic bottles I will put aside for the collectors and this way, hopefully, all the bases will be covered - for now. As I said, recycling in the suburbs of Johannesburg is an adventure like no other.    

On blind spots and losing one’s vision

During December 2016 I lost my vision. Perhaps it happened slowly and unnoticed prior to that December morning when I woke up with darkness shrouding my left eye and my right eye not quite able to focus as well as it did the day before. Perhaps I should have taken the symptoms experienced for several months leading up to that December morning more seriously instead of just chucking them in the basket of “too many long hours in front of computer screen, too many long-distance flights, not enough sleep”. Perhaps... I can’t help but to draw parallels with sustainability issues that companies face as I reflect on my 2017 journey, which included not being allowed to travel and several eye operations, each operation bringing with it the hope that miraculously through the application of the latest medical science, the sight in my left eye will be restored.  Too often companies ignore the symptoms or the signs that something is amiss and too often it is only when there is an outcry, or a strike, or an outbreak of violence, that the issues are addressed. Like I did, many companies undergo several ‘operations’ to address the symptoms, using a variety of consultants to address the problems; and I am sure that like I sometimes wished I could gauge out my left eye and start from scratch, many companies wish they could start from scratch. Unfortunately that is not possible and one is forced to deal with the situation at hand in the best manner possible to yield the best possible result.  Unfortunately my left eye remains unusable, but in the past four months I have put in an enormous effort in adapting and re-learning how to cope with those unexpected issues that appear when one (suddenly) only has one functioning eye, including discovering that one has no depth perception and if one does not want to stumble down slopes and stairs, one must learn other ways to deal with such limitations. And similarly companies can learn new skills and adjust to different ways of dealing with sustainability issues and even if the damage cannot be reversed, the application of the correct mitigation can result in an outcome that could be just as valuable as reversing the damage, and sometimes the outcome can be even more sustainable than the original state of affairs. All that is required is the will to do it and a corporate culture that is not tone deaf and one that is willing to embrace change. Blind spots also plagued my beleaguered vision for a while. And when I read the following Facebook post late last year by a renowned and well-respected South African human rights lawyer, it made me think of how often we have blind spots when it comes to issues of power, patriarchy and institutional racism: “I recognize the delicacy of the matter, but really. Imagine I got very drunk in a hotel room with two female colleagues. Thus uninhibited and uninvited I undressed and masturbated in front of them. In the sober light of day, I would be so ashamed and embarrassed I would be forced to emigrate. Their scorn and laughter and that of their friends would be too much to bear. Now imagine I was sober, I would not even have the excuse of drunkenness, I would be obliged to kill myself. Louis C.K. is the person who comes across as a total doos. The women who were the witnesses to his shameful conduct as those who are doing the shaming. I don’t understand the narrative of the spectators to his embarrassing and utterly inappropriate behavior as his victims.”   This professional works in the human rights arena in a country plagued with inequality, misogyny and racism, and yet appears not to understand (or perhaps he is unable to acknowledge?) the power relations that exist in industries, whether in Hollywood or at the Mining Indaba or on Capitol Hill.  Not to mention the victim blaming that is implicit (at least in my opinion) in his post.  If development and human rights professionals have such significant blind spots, what hope is there? And how does one address the situation?  A medical procedure and several different eye-drops inserted several times a day for several weeks effectively dealt with my blind spots, and thus I would imagine that awareness-raising, calling out by others, and serious self-reflection would be a good start when it comes to addressing blind spots in the development fraternity. And as I had to unlearn and re-imagine my habits in order to adapt to my altered vision, whether when driving, walking or reading, hope rests on the belief that as development and human rights professionals we can also unlearn old habits and re-imagine what the world would be like without the blind spots that allow for patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and racism to continue.  We, who find ourselves in this position of building careers on the back of the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed, should certainly lead the charge to affect real change and to obliterate these blind spots. After 11 months off field work, I returned to work full-steam and with enthusiasm a few weeks ago.  I have learned that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks, and that I have the ability to adjust and be even better at most tasks than before I lost the vision in my left eye, mainly because (I think) I am now acutely aware of the blessings that come with one’s ability to see, hear, smell, walk, talk, jump, run and apply one’s mind. And also because I needed to prove to myself that I can indeed still be an asset to society and hopefully be a catalyst for change in the future. 

Accent shaming in the sphere of stakeholder engagement training

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 23 June 2017:  This Facebook post from June 20th, 2017 made its way into my inbox this morning: “When I do Stakeholder Engagement training, one of the sections is on the use of technical language when communicating with stakeholders. The easiest example we use is when technical people talk of the underground "aquifer" to non-technical audiences. We suggest they call it an underground body of water or lake instead. The hon mayor of Cape Town just told the nation on television that there is an "equifire" below Table Mountain and another "equifire" underneath the Theewaterskloof dam. My work here on earth is not yet done.” The person who forwarded it to me wanted to know what I thought of it considering that the post's author is someone who describes themselves as a ‘public participation specialist’ and who works primarily as a stakeholder engagement trainer in South Africa and other African countries. The contents of the post raises several different issues that one could ruminate on, for example the reason for the terrible drought that has Cape Town and the western regions of South Africa in its grip, the reckless wastage of water that has brought the area to its knees, climate change, and so forth; but it is the shaming of an accent that jumps out the most at me, and which I find the most offensive, specifically in the light that the author is training companies on how to engage with their stakeholders on a population diverse continent. Whilst the post starts off quite reasonably it degenerates into making fun of Ms Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town’s, accent. From the post is clear that Ms de Lille understands what an aquifer is, and she uses the term correctly, thus the first three sentences of the post does not link in any meaningful way to the last two sentences, except to display the author’s prejudice. What stands out very clearly is that the author assumes, despite evidence to the contrary, that Ms de Lille does not know what an aquifer is just because she does not pronounce it in the same way the author does, or what the author expects to be a ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ pronunciation.   This type of accent shaming is rife in South Africa, especially if the person whose accent is deemed to be unacceptable is not white, but I have also heard Eastern Europeans degraded because they speak ‘funny’ and thus assumed to be ignorant. This despite the fact that the speaker is fluent in English. It is of course not without irony that one must point out that these persons engaging in shaming do not speak any indigenous languages, except perhaps Afrikaans. Perhaps if they did, they might understand that one’s accent does not correlate with one’s intelligence, level of education nor level of knowledge. Those of us who claim to be stakeholder engagement practitioners, and those of us who also train others to engage with stakeholders, should be hyper-aware of our own prejudices. This is especially important when we work in countries with a diverse population, such as South Africa, where there is not one common ‘accent’; and in countries where our clients will most likely not be a local company but rather a foreign entity trying to deal with local customs, cultures, norms and accents. We should reflect on how our own prejudices and beliefs can be transferred through our training and how it can really befuddle our clients and students’ efforts after we leave.  

Mine Community Trusts - who benefits?

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 19 June 2017: The Mining Charter (June 2017) makes reference to the need for mine communities to be awarded shares. Whether or not this version of the charter passes the legal challenges it will no doubt face in coming weeks and months, it cannot be disputed that community development for mine-affected communities, whether through a mechanism of share ownership or not, is vital. However, the proposal that the communities’ share be held in trust, raises concerns. One wonders how this will differ from the funds currently held in trusts for mine-affected communities, and more importantly whether the communities will actually have a say in the matters related to their trusts and who will ultimately benefit from these trusts. Just recently I brought up the topic of mine community trusts for a prominent South African gold mining company’s affected communities at the company’s AGM. It was not a matter that was brought into the AGM sphere out of the blue, I had been asking questions, as a shareholder, about these trusts since October 2016. Responses from the CEO and EVP Sustainable Development had been vague, promising to investigate, and in March 2017 I was referred to the trust administrator, whose responses have been even vaguer bordering on non-existent. Responses at the AGM from the company’s chairperson, a prominent political and community activist, and the chairperson of the social & ethics committee were quite defensive, claiming that the trusts are set up as independent and that the company has no control over what happens. “What bollocks!” one is tempted to say out loud. If the trusts are independent, administered by an administrator and governed by trustees who have no connection to the community, who is keeping an eye on things? The situation with these trusts are that the community members (both under the shadow of the headgear and from labour sending areas) are not represented anywhere, not in its administration nor in its governance, and the company who formed these trusts now claim they have no control over the trusts and the outcomes as the trusts are independent entities. So one wonders who has control over the trusts? The predominantly white Johannesburg legal firm that is appointed as the administrator? The white consultant, not from the area, who has been appointed to deal with some of the community issues? The trustees who are not from the area and not representative of the beneficiaries? How would anyone, whether a community member or a company shareholder, know what is really going on? The basic questions which have not been answered by the company’s board (despite promises at the AGM to do so), senior management or the trust administrator are: 1)     Are there any annual or quarterly non-financial reports that is available to be scrutinized by community members? If so, how do they access these? 2)     What are the amounts spent thus far on host community projects, what are the amounts spent thus far on labour sending community projects? What amount spent on administration and trustee fees to date? 3)     What sum of money is reserved for this current year for host community projects, and what sum of money is reserved for labour sending community projects? 4)     What infrastructure projects are implemented via the community trusts in host community as well as in labour sending areas? 5)     How do ex-mine workers directly benefit from these trusts? 6)     Community members felt that the education trust could be used to also upskill ex-mine workers instead of concentrating only on the youth and bursaries. Linked to (6) above, is this being addressed? And if so, how? 7)     Why are community members not represented on the management of the trust, i.e. as trustees? 8)     How often are there meetings with communities discussing the affairs of their trusts, both in host communities and in labour sending communities? Do the trustees allow members of the communities to be present at trustee meetings? What access do community members have to trustees and to the administrator if they have queries? 9)     What are the criteria used for selecting projects when considering proposals from local community organizations? How many such projects have been approved and what is their nature? If this is how a company that claims to be a responsible corporate citizen handles the trusts created for the development of its affected communities, one shudders to think how future trusts will be handled. 

When bending the rules kills us

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 22 May 2017: I recently had a discussion with a CEO of a South African mining company about fatalities in one of the company’s mines. He mentioned that compared to the death-toll on the South African roads, fatalities in underground mines in SA are relatively low. He was referring to the condition of the country’s roads and the behaviour of drivers using the roads, both can vary from good to exceptionally poor, but both generally hovers around the ‘can-be-vastly-improved’ point. Whether he is right or wrong in his comparison of the two is rather moot when one considers that the underlying cause for the death rate for both is human behaviour and action.  A New York Times article about the death of two UN contract workers in the DRC and the disappearance of four more in March 2017, made me revisit my brief conversation with the CEO and made me think of safety violations in the workplace, whether that workplace is in an office in London, Sandton or New York, or deep in the bowels of the earth in an underground mine, or on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean, or in the war-torn jungles of the world. What makes us as human beings disregard safety regulations and protocol that are put in place for our protection? While there could be incidents where safety violations and non-compliance are deliberate, perhaps as acts of sabotage, there is of course also what is known in South African mining as planisa. Planisa is a Fanakalo word, which refers to “making a plan”, particularly when deep down in the mine. Fanakalo is (was?) the lingua franca based on English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu, used in South Africa, particularly in the mines.  Planisa implores minors to tackle the day-to-day problems underground with skills and ingenuity to unblock the bottlenecks that prevent production targets from being reached. When there is no (or very little) correlation between the safety regulations and protocols in the workplace and the output required from the worker, violations become the normal methods of working, often leading to incidents and fatalities. I don’t think any worker would want to be injured or perish, but most of these incidents stem from a genuine desire to perform work satisfactorily despite the constraints and the expectations that exist in the specific workplace. And it is this desire which kills so many in our mines, factories and which also killed the two UN experts, who ignored the UN security rules, no doubt believing that they would be safe and that it is the only way to get the job done efficiently.  So how does one temper the human tendency to planisa and in the process break safety rules? Is it to hold the supervisors accountable, as the mining company did following the fatalities? Or is it to improve supervision, management and culture? Is it to conduct an audit and to understand the factors that may increase violations? Is it to provide workers the tools they require to produce the output required? Is it all of the above? I don’t know, but what I know for sure is that human beings will always bend the rules when they think they won’t be caught and/or if they think there is no real danger to the activity.      

Human Rights and the Private Security Industry

This article was originally posted in LinkedIn on 24 May 2016: In recent days I have been thinking a lot about human rights assessments in the extractive industry, but more and more about human rights in general and how it applies to my life, personal and professional.  While cognisant that through regular assessments of human rights impacts, multi-national companies proactively shape a strategic approach to human rights, based on relevant risks and opportunities both within the company and along their supply chain; in recent days I have been thinking about how human rights play a role specifically in smaller companies and SMEs and in their supply chain.  In particular, I am thinking of the human rights infringement risks involved in private security for home owners associations.  In South Africa, home owners associations (HOA) generally refers to a number of houses grouped together in a walled-in complex, and the association operates as a company.  All HOAs contract private security firms. As housing complexes mushroom all over the country – one would be hard-pressed to find any new suburb in any of the big cities that still caters for the large plot with one individual household on it – so does the private security industry.  Every company, whether a large multi-national, an SME, or a home owners association, has the responsibility to treat all human beings with respect and dignity.  Operating without infringing on human rights is one of society’s baseline expectations of business, it is an ethical imperative. While in my professional life, the assessment of a company’s policies and operations through a human rights lens has become nearly second nature, and so has integrating human rights principles and human rights into any social impact assessment I undertake; in my private life, it has been an uphill battle.  When I bought my current house in 2013, I automatically became a member/shareholder of the home owners association.  During the first few months in my new home, I noticed that the security guards, who are supposed to guard me and my property, never appear to have any days off and that their work station was a very unpleasant and messy area.   Upon investigation, it turned out that the company for which they worked, although duly registered with all the correct authorities, followed none of the laws and any complaints I lodged with the Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) were acknowledged but no action was ever taken.  My next stop was the HOA to enquire why we, as the company contracting the security firm, were not taking any action against the company for human rights (and other) infringements.  “It is not our problem how they treat their employees”, was the answer I received from the HOA Board of Directors.  No amount of pointing out the risks involved in having security guards who are working like slaves, who are sleep-deprived and who are not paid as per government regulation, made any difference.  The only option left was to get nominated and voted on to the board myself and to address this matter from day one. The initial approach was to work with the service provider to change their ways and follow the law: appoint a third guard to allow the guards (who had been working six days a week 12 hour shifts and on the seventh day, a 24 hour shift with no break for several years) their government-regulated time off, their salaries to be in line with legislated minimum wages, giving them contracts, payslips, etc.  As an HOA we renovated the guard house to improve the working conditions further and also started to supply the guards consumables in the form of coffee, tea, toilet paper, first aid supplies, etc., which had not been provided before.  Initially it appeared as if this approach worked and the service provider was working hard at being a responsible employer.  Unfortunately it did not last long and soon the service provider was back to their old ways.  The HOA had no choice but to sever all ties with the service provider.  That was the easy part.  Replacing them with a responsible private security company proved infinitely more difficult than was anticipated. It appeared that the norm in the South African private security industry was what we had just experienced.  We combed through about 15 proposals, quotes and visits by potential service providers.  Due diligence from our part indicated that none of them adhered to the laws and human rights were seen as something that had nothing to do with them.  They all treated their employees as slaves who should be grateful for the jobs given to them.  It was by a pure stroke of luck that we stumbled upon our current service provider.  They appeared on paper to do the right thing, even has a CSR programme.  They have a close relationship with the police and are well regarded in the sector, yet small enough to be interested in us as a client.  But even this new service provider needs to be kept on their toes.  Even they tried to slip in a 24 hour shift in the first few weeks – we sent them a letter that indicated in no uncertain terms that we will not allow this on our property – and in September (when salaries are increased) we checked to make sure that salaries have been increased as per legislation, and after the first year of the contract, we asked them for a leave schedule for the guards.  It is obviously not ideal that we, as the client, need to do this to ensure that they obey the law and obey human rights principles, but just like big companies are obligated (at least ethically) to be aware of the possible human rights infringements in their supply chain, so should small companies and home owners associations.  Monitoring the supply chain should be an imperative because human rights is everyone’s right but also everyone’s responsibility.