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Debating society with a comic twist

Lesley Stones

 

One of the main problems with South Africa is that we expect our politicians to pull us out of the mess that they have greedily pushed us into.

Instead, more ordinary people must get involved and help raise up those who are less capable of helping themselves, agreed speakers at an event called LikeMind recently.

While the ideas expressed by speakers including former Democratic Alliance parliamentarian Lindiwe Mazibuko were not unusual, the event itself was. The LikeMind sessions are being organised by notoriously foul-mouthed comedian John Vlismas, who is studying for an MBA at Henley Business School. “An MBA is a big stretch for a guy with so many tattoos,” he quipped.

The format is enticing: once a month people will meet at the stylish African Pride Hotel in Melrose Arch, enjoy free fine wines – served by a chirpy sommelier from Nederburg - then listen to short, punchy presentations, interspersed with the biting humour of Vlismas as MC. Singing comedian Deep Fried Man (Daniel Friedman) also performed a couple of songs, then the speakers encouraged the audience to question them and if necessary, challenge and disagree with them.

Vlismas is using his own eventing company Whacked Management to stage LikeMind for Henley Business School, with both sides sourcing the speakers and inviting the attendees. “I wanted to create an event I’d like to go to for a change as opposed to the ones where they have you tearing our eyes out,” he said.

The sessions should gradually kindle a group of people with the desire, the talent and the means to help turn society around, he believes. “It’s an element of activism. We have great connections and a great venue, and with the right type of people getting together you will genuinely grow a movement of people who want to solve stuff. We are just throwing seeds into the ground. We are going to incubate stuff and see what happens.”

Intelligent discourse and valuable debates with the potential to change our attitudes have been lost amid the nonsense spewed by the public, by politicians and on social media, Vlismas told the audience. “On social media we’ve started fighting on Twitter and disagreeing with each other’s 140 characters. We mock people for learning and call them clever blacks and it becomes a point of shame, and we don’t talk about racism, we just shout each other down.”

By providing genuine insights and substance with some laughs as well, LikeMind might help people to solve some of the problems they foolishly expect the government to solve, he added. “Why do people expect Jacob Zuma to do something? He was going to jail when we found him and we gave him the keys to the country,” he said. “The solutions are going to come from us, using our privilege to help people other than ourselves.”

Mazibuko, who resigned from parliament and went on to graduate from Harvard University with a degree in Public Administration, emphasised the need for ordinary people to take action. “In South Africa we have this deep dependency on a sole heroic political figure who will save South Africa. We don’t have a strong civil society that encourages us to be part of the process,” she said. “Saving South Africa is going to depend on large numbers of ordinary South Africans working together.”

Mazibuko is writing a book called We Don’t Need Another Hero about the need to bring ordinary people into the game to turn politics around. She has established a non-profit organisation to inspire and support young, talented people who care deeply and want to enter politics. “Everybody is afraid to say we need to grow a new generation of political leaders because the ones we have are not good enough. It’s really important to realise how enthralled we are to political parties in South Africa,” she said.

One challenge is assembling a team of people who can teach ethics and honesty, probably by talking from experience about what happened when they were offered a bribe and how to rebuff approaches to enrich yourself. “There’s nobody in the public or private sector who teaches ethics and morality. We need people who understand the ethics and responsibility of being a public servant,” Mazibuko said. “I don't care if you’re having an affair behind your wife’s back – that’s missing the point. I don’t want to turn morality into ethics.”

Aki Kalliatakis, a consultant specialising in customer loyalty, spoke about the difference that employees can make by giving good service. Just days after South Africa Airways received yet another taxpayers’ bail out, Kalliatakis highlighted the chasm between a helpful Virgin Atlantic flight attendant who made him comfortable and welcome and a disgruntled SAA flight attendant who left him feeling embarrassed. “Consider the benefits of taking care of customers – companies that get it are smiling all the way to the bank,” he said.

Again, he echoed the message that it’s down to us as individuals. “I truly believe we can change the world through service and the one thing that will change your business, change our country change and change the world is when we are willing to be of service to others.”

A tough childhood in deprived black areas gave Siphiwe Moyo his insight into how personal drive is crucial for success. Moyo, who teaches organisational behaviour at Henley, said apartheid marginalised black people, yet some went on to do amazing things and became entrepreneurs or top-class doctors. “Same background, different results, because many of us understood that lives are not changed by intentions but by actions,” he said.

During the ensuing debate, Vlismas jumped in when one white girl described herself as a Born Free, pointing out that as a white girl, she had never not been free. Too true, whispered the coloured woman next to me, Juanita Smith-Sampson.

Afterwards, everyone enjoyed more wine and upbeat conversations about the future. “Things are happening at ground level here that we should be speaking about. There’s positivism and people are passionate about South Africa,” said Smith-Sampson, the MD of Core Consult, which offers training in a variety of business skills. “People need to know there’s hope. If you don’t walk away from this feeling like that, there’s something wrong with you.”


For details of the next LikeMind sessions, contact admin@whacked.co.za.