Tag Archives: Apartheid

Human Rights & Writes on World Poetry Day; And Still I Rise, Maya Angelou

World Poetry Day and Human Rights

A day of beauty and soul, World Poetry Day, falls on the same day as the South Africa’s Human Rights Day, which remembers the fight against Apartheid and particularly the 1960 Sharpeville massacre of 69 black South African demonstrators and further killing of another 21 on the 25th anniversary of that day in 1985. It also became the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 1966 and today still says, “We need to fight racism everywhere, every day”. It is fitting that we celebrate human writes and rights together. Whether it’s the campaigning of organisations like the United Nations and Amnesty International, or the placards of activists, or poems of voices of discontent and history, we cannot be silent to ongoing racism, its history, and its continued scourge.

Yes we need action more than just words, but 15 years ago, at a World Conference Against Racism in South Africa, the Durban Declaration sought to combine words with action:

“People of African descent have for centuries been victims of racism, racial discrimination and enslavement and of the denial by history of many of their rights… they should be treated with fairness and respect for their dignity and should not suffer discrimination of any kind.”Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, 2001

Sadly, in 2016, we are little further forward according to several human rights experts:

“Fifteen years after the Durban Conference very little progress has been made in tackling racism, afrophobia, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.”

Maya Angelou – be part of “the possible”

Maya AngelouMaya Angelou died in 2014 but 45 years before that, in a decade of American civil rights activism, she wrote the first of her autobiographical books, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book describes her early years including racism, and a rape which led to a traumatised silence for 6 years, it goes on to document her rise from child victim to young woman, mother and adult voice.

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom”

She has become renowned as a woman full of inspiration, and love not hate, reminding us how to be better humans through her best-loved poems which she would write from a motel with, nearby, “a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room”.

Watch Maya Angelou read her poem A Brave and Startling Truth which she wrote for the United Nations 50th anniversary in 1995, here is a section of it:

We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …

… We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

It would be great if we, “the possible, the miraculous, the true wonder of this world”, would stop hating and discriminating.

Maya Angelou – Still I Rise

In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”, are the words: “Out of the huts of history’s shame”. She’s said before, the truth is that:

“A person who does not have a clue to his or her history stands a very poor chance of mapping out a future.” – Maya Angelou interview (1m40s)

She was not one to be cowed or subjugated, instead, she found her voice and gave hope to others.

The full text of her poem, “Still I Rise”:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise

Maya Angelou 1974
Maya Angelou, 1974

Be amazing, A rainbow in someone else’s cloud

Maya Angelou also said, echoing a similar sentiment of Albert Camus:

“If you are always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Perhaps, we could also paraphrase that, if you are always following the crowd, buying into cheap national and racial stereotypes you will never discover not only how amazing you could be but also how amazing others are, irrespective of the colour of their skin or some other characteristic of difference. “Human beings are more alike than unalike”, she has said.

“The thing to do, it seems to me, is to
prepare yourself so you can be a
rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.
Somebody who may not look like you.
May not call God the same name you
call God – if they call God at all. I may
not dance your dances or speak your
language. But be a blessing to somebody.”
– Maya Angelou

She wasn’t all “turn the other cheek” love, she also saw humour as a defence, and since “life’s a bitch”, the need to “go out and kick ass”.

Corporate Cultural Change – Can Big Business be a Force for Good? What about People Power?

Can business behemoths end bigoted prejudice in conservative cultures? Can this assist people power movements, or is corporate collaboration selling out?

We all like to blame big business and banks especially for the financial crisis and resulting austerity, not to mention bonus culture and tax avoidance, but can they be a force for good too? Are they big enough to effect change and shift cultures in otherwise more conservative or religious societies that may discriminate against LGBTI+ people or women, not only in employment, but in life? By being openly supportive of LGBTI+ and other minority employees, creating safe spaces for them at work, helping stem existing employment prejudices, can change happen?

Goldman Sachs in Singapore is doing just that. In a public student recruitment drive it has positively targeted LGBT students, inviting them to dinner to discuss issues such as being ‘out’ at work in the local culture.

Goldman Sachs has a strong track record on diversity with positive employee networks such as their Disability Interest Forum, Women’s Network, and LGBT Network.

Boycott Barclays Don't Bank on Apartheid NUS Poster
Boycott Barclays – Don’t Bank on Apartheid, NUS Poster

Alongside Goldman Sachs are similar stances by JP Morgan, Google, Barclays and BP. Barclays Bank were not my favourite bank in 1970s/80s student politics with their pro-Apartheid trading, the University Union I was then at, UCL, refused to take Barclays payment cards in protest. In 1977 after UN embargoes on South Africa, Barclays pledged support for Botha’s racist regime. Yet now, here in Norwich, Barclays boasts several gay bank managers and proudly marches with Norwich LGBT Pride. The University of London Union, the biggest in Europe with 120,000 members now acts on issues such as Palestine.

We acknowledge people power, indeed we have the power to change bad corporate practice, worker exploitation, tax avoidance, for example by boycotting their products, be they Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon, Apple etc, but do we? UK Uncut, the Occupy movement, showed the power we have as consumers – if we follow through. To paraphrase Plato’s “The price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men” our hypocritical inaction as consumers going for cheap over ethical, image over substance, is to be ruled over by Tescos and High Street coffee shop clones.

Capitalism is not inherently evil for it carries with it the power of its own demise or change. Consumer choice, people power, stockholder revolts, pay package rejection, the freedom to form unions. When the banks failed us in 2008-9 we failed ourselves by rescuing them, indeed it was a so-called Socialist, well ‘new’ Labour government that here in the UK aided their rescue. Unbridled free market capitalism would have effected change by allowing them to fail and something new and better form and take their place. But we, and I include myself here, are all hypocrites, still selecting the cheapest deal, not investigating their ethics and practices. When we buy from Amazon we destroy smaller, local businesses, we lose our bookshops. It is evolution, but of business, and as consumers we are partly responsible.

So can corporations be beneficial too? Certainly, with all their power they have some degree of moral responsibility and diversity in the workplace is an economic benefit, aiding creativity and bringing alternative perspectives, rethinking outside the box.

Pink Dot 2009-2014 Freedom to Love Singapore
Pink Dot 2009-2014 Freedom to Love celebrations, Singapore

Goldman Sachs’ positive employment policy in Singapore and support of the emerging LGBTI rights movements there such as Pink Dot are a powerful force for freedom. Technically, homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore but Pink Dot and its inclusive promotion of “freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation” has seen its inaugural gathering in 2009 grow tenfold in just 4 years, with the next Pink Dot, now jokingly called the Pink Whale – due to aerial views of its event growth, due to be held 28 June.

Google, for all their domination of Internet search, privacy questions and more, also have profoundly positive employment policies and with subtle changes of their logo doodle each day can send messages to billions. They’ve even done special rainbow styling on LGBT and equal marriage searches during big votes on the issue.

Though, are companies like Goldman Sachs meddling with local culture by being brazenly equality-minded? Is it a throwback to Western colonialist imposition or patronisingly paternalist interference? Certainly, we haven’t got equality right in our own countries yet. Gay British footballers don’t feel safe to come out yet. Lord Browne, the former chair of BP, never felt it acceptable to be ‘out’ at work, indeed he only did so after resigning when he was about to be ‘outed’ by an ex-lover.

Again, it works both ways, we as consumers and as corporates have the power to effect change. Mozilla’s CEO was forced out, no not in that sense, he wasn’t gay, he lost his job for supporting an anti-gay marriage campaign in the US. Boycotts of their browser by LGBT campaigners and staff forced him to quit. In reaction, conservative groups in America boycotted the Firefox browser for its support of equal marriage.

Corporate sponsorship is not evil of itself and can help people recognise inclusive employers that are safe to work for. In some societies where equality is still an emerging issue, it can be a risky stance to take, but globalisation can bring equality benefits to all countries where companies have representation. Check out the statements of the likes of Google, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and BP on Pink Dot’s website.

Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0 - The power of the people is greater than the people in powerEgyptian Wael Ghonim, just 33 years of age, has worked for Google in Egypt and UAE since 2008, though took time out in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution as part of the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East. He was detained and interrogated by Police for 11 days during the pro-democracy rallies having been a prime mover behind some of the social media, Facebook and Twitter, harnessing of people power.

Ghonim was interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes saying:

“Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture.”

Ghonim was Time magazine’s no#1 on their annual world’s 100 most influential people in 2011. In the same year he was awarded the Press Freedom prize on World Press Freedom Day.

In his 2011 TEDx talk in Cairo, on the inside story of the Egyptian revolution, he said “The Power Of The People Is Much Stronger Than The People In Power”  (9m26 into the video)

“Revolution 2.0 – The power of the people is greater than the people in power”, is also the title of Ghonim’s 2012 book, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a gripping chronicle of how a fear-frozen society finally topples its oppressors with the help of social media”.

Philanthropic capitalists have also searched for Capitalism 2.0, a “creative capitalism” that sacrifices profits for public welfare, as Bill Gates said in 2008. The 400+ billionaires of the Giving Pledge who have volunteered to give away more than half their wealth, some as much as 95% of it, are definitely have the power to change things. Milton Friedman might have argued that profit was the only motivation in business, but green businesses, community interest companies and the realisation that good PR, ethics and equality, can actually raise profits, are changing that.

London, 27 May 2014, saw a conference on so-called “Inclusive Capitalism“. Focused on renewing trust, one could easily dismiss the initiative given the likes of Rothschild and Bill Clinton’s involvement. Indeed, Dr Nafeez Ahmed, writing in the Guardian, called it PR spin and a “Trojan Horse” to quell a coming global revolt. So is corporate inclusivity to be trusted?

Rarely, too, are situations simplistic. take Starbucks, they have used legal methods to avoid tax liabilities and yet have also paid Ethiopian coffee farmers a 75% premium over market prices as corporate welfare. Fair Trade schemes may appear to benefit third world producers but in some countries they are not the most beneficial or ethical system and stringent label certification can lock out smaller producers and increase inequality.

South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine in the world and yet, even there, concerns about traditional FairTrade labelling and its insufficient benefits to workers have led to rival schemes such as Fair for Life and others that go further, offering housing, healthcare and education to employees. Stellar Organics is one such winery where it is 26% owned by the workforce and Fair for life certified.

It is both complex and simple, we can use social media to produce “The People 2.0”, informatise and organise, communitise and unionise, we have the power… make corporates recognise that, and society and governments can and will change.

[This article first appeared here]

Image Credits
Montage of Pink Dot Singapore photos 2009-2014 http://pinkdotmtl.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/2009-2011-Size-Matters.jpg
http://teryndriver.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/the-power-of-the-people-3/ unattributed image with Wael Ghonim quote added by myself
Historical NUS/University of London Union Boycott Barclays student union poster http://africanactivist.msu.edu/image.php?objectid=32-131-2B3