Thursday, January 27, 2011

Nelson Mandela Foundation - silent spokesperson for a Legend #Madiba

The official 'spokesperson' of Nelson Mandela (and his family) is not speaking to ordinary South Africans and citizens across the world via social media. And their choice in this moment is not reflecting well on the ability of one of the most prominent civil society agencies in Africa to understand and use new media. 

The Nelson Mandela Foundation is one of more than 200 000 registered public benefit organisations in South Africa. The Foundation is well-known world-wide and was established to drive the vision of Mr Mandela forward in a structured way - going beyond his person and lifetime. It implemented a Memory Programme in a few years ago with the intention to offer:
"an integrated information resource on the life and times of Nelson Mandela, giving members of the public, scholars and fellow memory institutions across the globe access to relevant information, primarily through the internet and mobile phones. The programme also prioritises advocacy work around access to information, dealing with the past, and related issues". 
Believe me, I have no doubt that the Foundation plays a wonderful role in providing information about Nelson Mandela and the values that he embodies. However, I think a critical opportunity is being missed by the public relations or communications' team at the Foundation to be part of the current (relevant) conversation - as opposed to providing content only. Or simply responding in a knee-jerk way on speculations on Madiba's health that currently spirals out of control due to the selective social media silence of the 'spokesperson' (the Foundation itself in the person of Sello Hatang - out of his depth, I think)

The undated little line on the website simply did not do enough for the public and media, when Mandela's coordinates on earth shifted to a South African hospital on Wednesday 26 January 2011:
 Granted, other active users in social networks picked up the little line: "We can confirm that Mr. Mandela is at Milpark Hospital undergoing routine tests. He is no danger and is in good spirits", and it spread across the digiverse. 

More importantly, speculation in the media due to lack of further information on Nelson Mandela's health, increased security and visits of close family is running like a wildfire: this is clear from the stream of tweets from across the world via Kurrently. So much so that the South African Presidency (with a presence in Twitter, unlike the Foundation) issued a press statement, with a tweet that blazed to the top and called for 'calm and restraint'.
 
Of course, we should be responsible with information. However, the point is being missed by our government and the Foundation alike.  If you do now own the story (especially in social networks), someone else well. If you do not provide the information, someone will fill in gaps in ways that you may not like. As an aside, some may try and create viral trends for own benefit at the worse of times. Not sure I like what News24 is doing at the moment with its call for viral sympathy, at this time via @MyNews24
"Here's the challenge, send us a photo of you with your message of support for @ and we'll put them up on News24 - phots@news24.com (sic)" 
Fact is: Mr. Mandela is not a young man. At 92 he had a full and event-full life. He said once: "I hoped that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own contribution to their freedom struggle," and in what I have learned about him, I know that life did offer him these opportunities. He will pass on one day (maybe today, tomorrow...soon..later) and he will rest in peace. And already, his life and legacy offers his Foundation the same opportunities, but the leaders will need to get their communications' specialists together and ask themselves how to share more and better via free social networks.
 
Indeed, we need to respect the dignity of people and their families. In the same way, we need to have respect for the rapid (and very different) new mechanisms of information dissemination and the socio-political impact! and influence! it could have if we remain quiet for too long. It is a responsibility that the Foundation should take much more seriously in my humble opinion. They will be called upon to respond with integrity - even more so if Mr. Mandela passes on one day. In February 1990, 50 000 odd people listened to Mandela in Cape Town when he spoke his first 140 characters from a balcony, today his Foundation could have had thousands if not millions hearing virally from the Foundation every few hours (at least). It will not harm, it will create a framework for conversation and quench the thirst for accurate facts in an emotionally charged moment for world already burdened with too much information.

At the end of 2009, we conducted training for 75 of the top organisations in South Africa - in social media and communications' strategies. We did not invite the Foundation, as we believed that they already had the capacity and resources. Desperately searching the website of the NMF for a Twitter profile or Face Book fan page, I realized it may have been a grave mistake to assume so much. We really do need the Foundation to be speaking up clearly in times of uncertainty - via the channels that South Africans use: public meetings, community newspapers, community radio, MXit, Face Book and Twitter - in this order. Or appoint a PR company? No offence intended.

The Foundation says: "During 2011 efforts will intensity to make his legacy available to the world..." A good start would be to talk to the world (and not only to a few select international reporters, celebrity friends and agencies) in ways that ordinary citizens currently embrace. Madiba's legacy and voice was one for the maginalised and the poor, for those without access to information - not for the elite and the powerful. This is not the time to be so quiet...so hope to hear from you soon via a press release... it will help.

The greater test for our humanity and South African society will however come in the way that we (all media - traditional and social) and all reporters (professional and citizens) respect privacy and dignity of one of our most loved leaders. He deserves no less. Until a bit later, this is all I can do:



Saturday, January 22, 2011

Trusting the Pain we did not Plan

No one plans for pain. We plan to succeed, not for failure or making mistakes. We all plan to be happy. To smile back at a world that smiles upon us. Our plans do not include days of loneliness, deep misery, or anxiety about the future... Of course not.

But fact is, pain is part of life and like the seasons of the year, it is certain that new growth can only be real when we go through the dreaded cold. I remember farmers telling me in the region where I grew up as a child: "As die winter lekker koud was, is die vrugte lekker soet..." (when the winter is nice and cold, the fruit will be sweet). 

So here I am, still making peace with pain - trusting the pain I certainly did not plan. David Richo writes a book about the things we should embrace - the 'givens' in life (and pain is one such 'given'). I am enjoying this book and have been thinking it may be valuable to others as well. So as I work through it, I construct the lessons of the book into a small workshop that could be used in our community training, or even online - both? Well, whatever direction it takes me, I am grateful for authors that put into words the feelings that make us human, and carve a way forward through it to healing and enlightenment.
For our heart to yield without revolt to the hard law of creation, is there not a psychological need to find some positive value that can transfigure this painful waste in the process that shapes us and eventually make it worth accepting?... Dark and repulsive though it is, suffering has been revealed to us as a supremely active principle for the humanization and the divinization of the universe"... 

It often takes a community to hold the pain of one of its own - not only does it lighten the burden of painful experiences that we face, but it also brings people together to seek significance together, not answers - but meaning.To honour the seasons that bring us to meaning, is to embrace the truth that we are part of a cycle of life way beyond our own desires and narrow self-interest - we are connected to a universe of shared experiences. Heinz Kohut, another psychologist, speaks of 'emphatic immersion' (such great term!) which implies a dedicated presence with someone else - being there for some one else on their terms, and with a caring curiosity. We can trust the pain we did not plan - we can trust it to bring people together. This helps.

Dedicated to Lynne Thackery, Friend & PR Manager at Dementia SA

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Social Networks are not Therapy Sessions

I am contemplating the value (or not) of sharing our personal triumphs and challenges - and whether it is considered a weakness or strength to connect in social networks, and then share every day life, and our reflections and emotions. After all, most of the people we meet via these networks are not truly friends. And as much as we are tempted, these networks are not therapy sessions to resolve trauma of unemployment, broken code, illness, divorce, rejection, botched face lift, death, latest fight with a lover, or demise of reputation. Or are they?

We tend to put a high premium on intellectual content shared, but shy away from emotional content - as if this has less value and is inferior. And yet, books are written about 'emotional intelligence' (a barely disguised choice of words to make it more acceptable in the corporate world?). Even the latest technology, like BlackBerry's Empathy Phone is starting to recognise the fact that is emotions that makes us human and aid us in our connectedness with others - beyond the cute emoticons of Yahoo Messenger making us smile or frown. (I remember well the first discovery of using keyboard symbols on Internet Relay Chat when I first connected with friends across the world online in the late 80s).

The world is shifting towards a more person-centred as opposed to profit-centred framework for decision-making. At TED last year, Nicolas Christakis talks about 'The Hidden Influence of Social Networks and how emotions can be 'contagious' in certain areas - could we call it location-based emotion? :



But it is the comment on his talk by Theodore A. Hoppe - quoting from the South African project, 'Social Brain' - that really drew my attention: 
"For the last two decades, the model of the rational individual- 'homo economicus'- that has underpinned our faith in democracy, reliance on the market, and trust in social institutions has been consistently undermined by social psychology, behavioural economics and neuroscience. The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.  The rational individual construct was not based on naivety, but on the belief that this was the best model to help us plan our economies and organise our societies. However, a variety of social, political and environmental challenges, culminating in the current economic crisis, makes this model seem increasingly unhelpful." (In the future, we need to allow for authentic expression of emotion in our social networks and in business and in public life, as opposed to seeing it as 'inappropriate'. And don't let me even start on the bias encountered in the workplace that women are 'too emotional for doing serious business').
The clever Dr Michael Lara, of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, describes an emotion simply and beautifully as 'a feeling of what happens' with the root of the word 'motere' - implying that every emotion holds in it the possibility to move us to action. (As an aside, I have seen emotions play out in social networks just recently by following the tweets on the 2011 #GeekRetreat here in South Africa. Such an interesting discourse. Read a bit about it via this blog, and comments, by Ivo Vegter: Circle of Jerks).

Sure, there is a difference between emotion, moods and temperament and we should not subject our fellow emotional human beings to our every-changing moods (we all have these) or our temperament all the time - unless we have no choice due to illness. Now, I think of my mom with Alzheimers - where the physiology of her brain is altered by this cruel destructive disease (my emotional words) and deregulation of serotonin, as well as degeneration of neurotransmitters, lead to her mood changing from angst to sadness to happiness (less often these days). And we should have such gentle and lasting understanding with loved ones suffering. The rest of us don't get to have excuses when we inflict our moods on innocent - or some times not so innocent - bystanders. And we should be held accountable for our temperament when it crashes into someone's peaceful day...

But there is a fine line between acknowledging emotion in social networks and in business or politics, and not being an enabler for ego-based erratic moods. It remains a fact that feelings/emotions lead to actions and are needed to bring some principle-centred person-friendly business practices back into fashion. (What we get often today is a soul-less appetite for productivity and consumerism, with deceptive advertising campaigns based on emotive slurs to increase bottom-lines).

So, I am still battling with the question: How much do I share of my emotional life? More importantly, why do I share - well, for now, to move to action - to contribute in a small way to changed mindsets about Virtual Worlds, Africa, Alzheimer's Disease, social media, women's rights, South African politics, civil society, and other areas so easy misunderstood. But more than that - to make sense of the world around me (my experiences) by finding that other people have similar feelings. Fundamentally, to know it is OK.  Does that make me weak? Or should emotion be reserved for music and poetry, and not for the board room or networking?  Or does sharing and expressing make me human? Both? Or does it make me strong when I embrace one of the givens of life: We all suffer and cry, and we all have pain. And it is important to be with the moment and the process in order to let it go. To deny it, is to live an illusion. To share it, is a choice - no better or worse than the person in my network that choose not to be disclose. Just, different. Maybe the key is in allowing freedom of emotion and expression?




Ps: And then there is the question on intellect - related to the company we keep - the question that could keep some of us awake: Is your social network making you stupid? Looking forward to your replies...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Papers out of Poverty - the Zim Dilemma

On Thursday 30 December 2010 I managed to get hold of our gardener and trusted friend, *Michael, a Zimbabwean, and had a long conversation with him about his 'papers' and if he knows what is happening in South Africa. Our Department of Internal Affairs started with a long process to assist Zimbabwean 'foreign nationals' in South Africa to obtain the necessary documents to be legally in the country. Thousands of Zimbabweans cued across our country to meet the deadline of 31 December or face deportation back to Harare.

I am worried for Michael today. He did not go to stand in the cue from 4am to 9pm to be helped by anyone - and it is said that the Department officials' were really helpful (even though 10 000 applicants were already rejected).  He told me: "I have my Aslam (sic) but need to get my birth certificate from Zim..."to apply for a passport (he has no identification with him at the moment!). The news that he did not need his passport to apply did not reach him in time, as this relaxation of requirement was not made known publicly beyond the people in the cues. It is heart-breaking.

I urged him to make this a priority and asked if there is anything I can do to help. I explained about the possible deportation and I could see he is fearful to go back home, where there is no hope of an income for him and his family (that he currently looks after), and little respect for human life.

Neither Michael, nor I or any one of the 1million Zimbabweans without papers know what happens next. Many organisations are making pleas for vulnerable people like Chris who has been fleeing Zimbabwe - and received asylum in the first place. I wish the government of Zimbabwe could realise that its riches are not in minerals and diamonds or land, but in people like the hard working *Michael who seeks only to earn an honest living. 

There is a spreading opinion that 'President' Robert Mugabe is a "prisoner of circumstances" but there are close to 2 million ordinary Zimbabweans that are being forced back to a prison and life of poverty by our own government - surely we could do more, or differently?


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Dreading 2011...I am sorry.

It just turned 2011 here in South Africa. I know I am supposed to be celebrating and be happy and look forward. However, I am dreading 2011 and the pain it will bring for my mom, and for me. Tonight in this very personal moment I can only think of my mom in her frail care bed where she sleeps quietly - with her mind quiet after another day of confusion. Neither she nor I could know that this year would be so different when the fireworks go off in Cape Town. Last year, she was with me here at the house with my aunt and we spend a wonderful New Year's Eve together, and I gave them both a foot spa as we cheered into 2010. I wanted to share the moment only with them in a memorable way. This year, I wanted to be alone...and declined the invitations to the parties in our beautiful city.

I wish you all a good year my good friends and am not entirely sure I will hit this button and enter this ramble. Somehow it is profoundly part of my path at the moment. And I want to share it with you - life is very real and to deny one facet is to live without authenticity. So, I also think of others that are on similar paths of a very unsure future where their health hangs in the balance - like my cousin who has cancer. I also thank you for your support. Tomorrow when the sun rise, I shall ponder the good things of 2010 and lift my chin and think how all will work out some how.


And maybe I will just go and walk along the beach of Kommetjie, and sit on the rocks and count my blessings. The life-long friends and confidants, the caring family, the loyal dogs, the supporting online friends, the hard-working team, the compassionate volunteers, the gracious kindness and patience, the safe home, the inspiring work and love... lots of it - undeserved and unconditional. And then 2011 will be quite OK and it will not be necessary to sound so dreary. But thanks for allowing me this moment. I am sorry. Gelukkige Nuwe Jaar Mamma. Alles gaan verby.

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