Rosetta / Philae is here. Witness and remember.


[Update: Philae has landed — well done ESA! Liked the DG’s comment: ‘The problem with success is that it looks easy.’]

New house. Full-time job. Life. And yet — I will watch the Rosetta landing, or at least as much as humanly possible.

Watching this, I feel there are too few momentous events in our lives, particularly where the exploration of the solar system is concerned.

Something like this doesn’t happen every day. Let’s enjoy it.

At the risk of seeming petty, the attractive lady presenter is dressed rather like Carl Sagan from Cosmos: beige jacket, dark polo neck, gawky manner and so forth. Sexy, enthusiastic and scientific. Bless her.

She is interviewing lots of nerds. Bless ‘em too.

The broadcast is from ESA in Darmstadt, Germany. I worked for EUMETSAT for a couple of years, who are ESA’s sister organisation. Memories…



Leafy creature (in progress)

A leafy creature, made largely of cat’s claw creepers wrapped around a T-shaped frame of wire and string. The head is an old piece wood. Once this layer dries up and the leaves fall off I’ll add more cat’s claw and embellishments to fill out the limbs.

So far the creature is rather ugly and has a distinct voodoo look, but that is not really my intention. I’m hoping the end result will suggest some kind of wood sprite / forest guardian.

20140615_104214 20140615_104222

Who will defend our collective chastity?

[The full version (PDF) is published in the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership’s newsletter Reflect.]  

Politics and reality television: not so different. (Image source: Washington Post)

Politics and reality television: not so different. (Image source: Washington Post)

Politics are like reality television, where a group of good-for-nothings denounce one another – most often in an attempt to curry favour with the audience (i.e. voters). I’m simply too embarrassed to listen to politicians, or their bronzed and air-headed counterparts.

For reasons I still don’t fully understand I was asked to write an editorial about responsible leadership in the political domain, which may be the grandest oxymoron I have ever encountered. As a rule I avoid reading or writing about anything political. This means I need to begin from first principles in the hope of uncovering a grain of integrity hidden beneath a mountain of slush funds and dodgy lobbyists. I apologise in advance for my naivety.

First things first: we live in a democracy, which is a vast improvement over apartheid, ruthless colonialism, laissez-faire corporate anarchy (I’m looking at you, Cecil Rhodes), terrorism and war. Unfortunately democracy is largely defined by its flaws, rather than its redeeming features. Right now South Africa is not particularly democratic, nor are its rulers very effective – mostly likely due to a lack of a cohesive opposition. The lack of accountability in the present government is a problem.

Autocrats inevitably begin to take liberties with their citizens.

Autocrats inevitably begin to take liberties with their citizens. (Image source:

Leaders in a ruling majority invariably start to take certain ‘liberties’ with its citizens, and  there is every indication that something similar is happening in South Africa. We citizens are like secretaries subjected to the occasional paternal pat on the rump every time the boss wobbles by on his way to another six-hour luncheon. Such naughty behaviour may seem relatively harmless at first but can easily escalate into a full-scale assault on our collective chastity. Ruling parties can grow dangerously paranoid and quickly ossify into tyrants as the citizenry are increasingly forgotten or oppressed. Just ask Uncle Rob M up north.

A more immediate concern is that South African leaders appear to suffer from ‘entitlement syndrome’, where the act of achieving a position of leadership is seen as the equivalent to being a leader. A perfectly random example may involve a politician who commissions a R200m taxpayer-funded ‘homestead’ for having achieved a position of leadership – and not much else. A case of such monumental hubris may actually be visible from space.

Visible from space?

Is this presidential ‘homestead’ visible from space? (Image source:

But we need to be careful, as it’s all too easy to criticise el presidente and his minions. Politicians are flawed individuals like the rest of us. Like us, some are arrogant, short-sighted, occasionally even stupid. A handful of them do work hard and with the best intentions, that is until their luck runs out. Politicians often need to make deeply unpopular decisions sooner or later. All we can hope for is that they consistently make the least undesirable of choices on our behalf. That said, their labours are conducted within an overwhelmingly corrupt administrative and party-political superstructure. Idealists often fail through slow asphyxiation of their principles.

My point is that politics are a mirror of society at large: a bedlam of fragmented souls, confusion, contradiction and lethargy – so there is little sense in us complaining about their general ineptness, unless we’re willing to criticise ourselves in turn. Until that happens we simply cannot expect a host of diligent saints to ease us into the future.

However, there is no harm in searching for a benchmark – some default level of competency that can help us determine whether our dear leaders are of any use to us. Here’s one: above all, our politicians should do what they’re supposed to do. Decent leaders don’t need to be charismatic, driven, or even particularly intelligent. What’s important is that they do what they are supposed to do. Everything else is secondary.
But this raises the question of what we should expect of our politicians in the first place. A knee-jerk answer may be ‘to govern’, but such a response already hints at trouble. To govern implies domination, subjugation, even ownership.

Thomas Jefferson, looking determined.

Thomas Jefferson, looking determined. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s go back to basics: we often forget that democratically elected leaders are intended to be our representatives. Voting somebody into office is not the same as having them represent us. Quite simply, if our leaders do not represent us then we should not expect any help from them, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out: ‘When the people fear the government there is tyranny. When the government fears the people there is liberty.’

Jefferson was right, but I think we can do better. Let us rather state that when the people serve the government there is tyranny. When the government serves the people there is liberty – which suggests that politicians should be caretakers who do as they’re told, rather than overlords who do as they please.

But we’re not out of the woods yet, because the whims of the average voter may easily be misguided, naïve or just plain wrong. The mob can be as vicious as any dictator who displays an unsettling fondness for firing squads. So, should a leader simply be an unthinking automaton who does the bidding of the voter? No. We need responsible politicians who will leave behind a legacy of enlightenment and education. A great leader will set an example and help us make the difficult decisions. Such a leader will not only do what they are supposed to do; they will also be remembered for changing us – hopefully for the better.

Anybody come to mind? There was one man, not so long ago. But he’s gone now.

Letter to the President of Botswana

Office of the President
Private Bag 001

Flag_of_Botswana.svgDear President Khama,

South Africa is in difficulties. Following centuries of misrule we are no closer to establishing a stable and competent political system. We lack leaders – and options. Our current system is in a state of (self-inflicted) paralytic buffoonery.

2014 is an election year in South Africa, where an array of political parties will vie to rule over a persistently divided country. This year’s elections may be summarised in four figures: 51 million voters, 135 parties, one existing majority, and zero credible alternatives. Barring divine intervention, one smug and corrupt party will continue to govern over us by default – and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The other 134 parties are tiny, fractious microbes that barely deserve a mention, much less any praise.

We have no credible government and no effective opposition. This is the root of our problem.

Some political commentators believe that we require a strong coalition to tackle the ruling party. The trouble is that coalitions don’t work because they weaken the resolve and credibility of all its member parties. Ruling majorities adore opposing coalitions, who are hopeless at presenting a united front. At best, a South African coalition would resemble current Italian politics. None of us want to be like Italy.

Others talk about the need for a single, strong opposition that will force a ruling party to govern more carefully. Unfortunately a two-party system does not guarantee meaningful progress. Two-party systems are like a pair of identical twins, of which at least one is a raving lunatic (and nobody seems to be sure which one). The United States, for example, is as poorly governed as any ‘young’ democracy. We do not wish to be like the US either.

Thus, we concluded that our democratic system is inherently flawed. We duly considered various other political structures, but all present equally serious limitations. For example, dictatorships are renowned for their brutality. Apartheid is simply nasty. Communism is out because we dislike watery soup. Theocracies and oligarchies are even more prone to corruption than our current government. None of the above-mentioned systems offers a plausible solution to the worrying state of South African politics.

But there is another way, and it is the reason we write to you.

We have determined that the single remaining solution is invasion by a foreign power. We formally request that your armed forces occupy South Africa (preferably peacefully) for an indefinite period. During your occupation we kindly ask that you either a) devise and install a reputable political system that takes to heart the concepts of leadership and responsibility; or b) grant us Botswanan citizenship, enabling us to participate in your political system. We gladly leave the details to you and your advisors.

You may be asking yourself why we chose Botswana as the executor of our proposal. Allow us to explain:

Botswana’s government and its leaders are accountable for their actions. Its political system is uncharacteristically down-to-earth, efficient and respectable. The Botswana Democratic Party enjoyed a strong majority in the last elections – but your political opponents nevertheless present a semi-coherent front. Your economy is thriving, you have a robust educational system, and you tackled HIV/AIDS quickly and effectively. The BBC further points out that your ‘no-nonsense approach has made [you] popular abroad, particularly since [you] broke ranks with regional leaders’ timid approach to join international criticism of democratic abuses by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.’

While it is clear that Botswana has its share of problems too, we can only dream of such progressive leadership – hence our proposal.

The Botswana Defence Force should have little trouble annexing South Africa. However, given the hazards presented by pot-holes and e-toll (don’t ask) we do suggest conducting an airborne invasion, as you already possess a well-trained air force which is used for disaster relief efforts, typically in times of flooding. Mr President – a flood of stupidity has struck South African politics. We need your help, and hope that our proposal will be met with a favourable response.

Yours in desperation,

The People of South Africa


50+20 Epilogue: The emergence of the Idea

Book-cover-800pxA while back I edited a book titled 50+20: Management Education for the World, written by Katrin Muff, Thomas Dyllick, Mark Drewell, John North, Paul Shrivastava and Jonas Haertle.


Management Education for the World speaks to everybody concerned or passionate about the future of management education: consultants, facilitators, entrepreneurs and leaders in organizations of any kind, as well as policymakers and others with an interest in new and transformative thinking in the field. In particular, teachers, researchers, students and administrators will find it an invaluable resource on their journey.


I got permission to reproduce the epilogue which I wrote (and technically qualifies as my first published and printed work). The text has been slightly edited.

### Vera Sanchez – Rio de Janeiro – PreSnap (Prefrontal Snapture) –

(June 18-24) – AD 2032 ###

I’ve been doing this too long.

After three days of uncomfortable conference halls, endless presentations, interminable speeches, accusations and counter accusations, reluctant handshakes, air-conditioned hotel lobbies, pamphlets, police and protests I was close to giving up. Apart from the faster bandwidth and the explosion of microdrones cluttering the brown sky it seemed as if little had changed since Rio 2012: the world is a conflagration of ecological destruction, stuttering economies, interminable politics. Of course, many people were trying to resolve some of the problems through the old channels – but their efforts seemed futile when set against the overwhelming crises we face.

IMG_5277People don’t change. This is how we’ve always done things: by slash and burn, a euphoric, non-stop carnival of mass suicide. Why stop now? Why bother trying?

I woke up disoriented, having fallen asleep during one of the last seminars held in the Windsor Barra Hotel. I looked around the deserted conference room littered with discarded menus, presentation printouts, napkins, business cards – the unhappy wreckage of yet another failed workshop. I rolled up my slate, gathered my things and shuffled out of the conference room. The conference facilities were almost deserted; only a few of the cleaning staff lingered about, quietly talking amongst themselves (We’re still using humans for cleaning. Funny how machines seem utterly incapable of handling the most menial of tasks, I thought).

I gave myself six days in Rio: three for the Rio+40 Sustainability Conference, another three to consolidate my notes, catch up with friends, perhaps interview a few stragglers. I’m just mopping up now, sifting through the debris left behind by a circus of lunatics.

I felt my cynicism bleeding through again, a dull pessimism layered on physical exhaustion. I tried to recall whether I had thought any differently in 2012. Nope, can’t remember. The intervening twenty years had been defined by extensive travel, the magazine launch, taxes, unplanned motherhood, marriage, bankruptcy, failure to re-renter the job market, night classes, freelancing, divorce, relocation – along with all the drudgery and minutiae of life that pile up like rock strata, threatening to crush any passion or sense of purpose.

IMG_5348Growing increasingly sour, I pushed through the hotel’s heavy glass doors and emerged into the Brazilian heat saturated with polluted air, the howl of traffic, the rampant vegetation. And people. They were everywhere, mostly young and scrawny looking Brazilians jostling along the weed-lined sidewalks, faces vacant as they slid past other pedestrians, like water over stone. These Brazilians seemed uncharacteristically thoughtful, anxious even. No doubt most of them mere broke and hungry, absently searching for a means to drag themselves out of their misery. It’s the same everywhere.

But then I came across something unexpected, something new.

The first time I heard about the Idea was on a sultry evening the day after the end of the Sustainability Conference. I found myself near a beach outside the Windsor Barra where several people, a mixed group of Brazilians and foreigners, clustered around a small open air restaurant. Somebody had lit a fire, fuelled with driftwood and conference programmes. These people looked oddly out of place, somehow too random in their backgrounds. It’s not every day you get to see such a gathering of races and cultures, old and young, tortoise-shell spectacles alongside writhing animatoos, expensive spider-silk suits and dreadlocks scented with tear gas, weed and spray paint.

IMG_5330Judging from the noise I had assumed that these people were arguing amongst themselves, but as I cautiously approached a few turned to face me. They were smiling, their faces glowing in the light of the fire. I discreetly plugged in my translation software and listened.

“…economic growth will be decoupled from the ecosystem destruction and material consumption. The economy will progress in parallel with the well-being of society which has replaced GDP as the key global indicator of wealth. Families, communities, villages, even cities are creating a global alliance…”

“That’s the ultimate goal, but let’s start at the beginning,” said another man, some kind of old-school academic. “The first question has been answered, I believe. The current model provided us with very little intrinsic value. It’s made a real mess of everything, so we must change how business is conducted and taught. Remember, the key is thinking long term by encouraging responsibility, genuine leadership, enabling business to serve the common good and accelerating the transformation of business and the economy. We’re in the middle of species-wide sanity check – and not a moment too soon!”

An elderly woman stepped forward, picking her teeth with a splinter of wood.

“Well, he’s right about leadership. But the priority is not to scream out solutions or recommendations, but rather engagement with others. People are working together now, at last. The collaboratory helps create that space by…”

The discussion grew increasingly animated over the course of the evening. More people strolled in and out of the group. Even a few of the tanned Brazilian kids joined in, curious about the noise. I retreated a little way towards the beach where I lay down in the sand, suddenly numb with fatigue.

I woke with a snort and opened my eyes.

“Rise up and shine, lady,” said a girl beside me, wrapped in a thin blanket. She was Asian and looked no older than sixteen. She seemed energetic, nervous. Activist type probably. “You can cut off the leaves, but the roots remain,” she said, exhaling pungent smoke from a self-rolled cigarette.

“Okay.” I muttered, brushing sand and ash off my blouse.

“Roots of grass, localised nodes of action. The fundament stirs: you, me everybody. Not see? It’s started. Things different: no more lies, only work. No choice – not anymore. No more ‘no’. Now ‘yes’. Now we fix-fix-fix.”

IMG_5317The girl grinned as I crept away from the dying embers of the fire. Truthfully, I didn’t take much notice about what she had said. I didn’t care. At that moment I merely craved a hot shower, shampoo in tiny little bottles. Breakfast. The Internet. I staggered back to the guesthouse a few blocks away.

My dreams that night were a series of brief explorations, skipping over memories like a stone over the deep REM threshold, an ocean of oblivion. I recalled a student trip to the deep Tunisian hinterland over twenty years ago, shredded trash carried by the cold winter wind like colourful snow as the well-educated, over-qualified and utterly unemployable Tunisian men and women sold homemade snacks on the street corners. Well, the Tunisians had certainly done something about that.

I opened my eyes. When things are really bad, everybody gets involved, I distantly thought.

The next morning I made arrangements to meet up with Alfons Prieto, a tough, middle-aged Venezuelan-born activist and writer on social issues in South America. He’d moved to Brazil after getting booted out the Central American Union for his critical editorials on the ruling oligarchy. We agreed to meet for lunch near a market, where I half intended to pick out a few souvenirs for the kids back home.

I found Alfons loitering outside a makeshift marquee. After exchanging greetings he tilted his head toward the noise coming from within.

“Hey Vera, you seen this yet?” he asked, gesturing at the open tent flap. “This is the fifth gathering of the kind I’ve found today. The police don’t know what to make of it. Hell, a few of them have even joined in.”

I looked around nervously, half expecting the pop and hiss of a tear gas grenade, the yapping of police dogs and the whine of drones armed with sonic blocks. After Berlin in 2024 I swore I’d never get involved in another confrontation of that kind again (I’m still half deaf in one ear).

Alfons sensed my unease.

“Don’t worry, girl. Something else is going on, nothing like the conference or the protests. I just don’t understand. The people in that tent are from all over the world. The other meetings had community leaders, local officials, students – even street urchins for God’s sake. The conversations are spontaneous but structured. I’ve been in this city for years and have never seen anything like it.”

IMG_5321I told Alfons about the mixed group I had encountered on the beach.

“Then you’ve seen it too,” he replied, “Funny how people just get together and solve problems themselves.”

“Yes. Usually, when they’re angry,” I said, peering through the marquee flap. Some twenty people were inside, gathered in a rough circle. Many of them were sitting on makeshift benches.

“Hm, not these,” Alfons said, “They’re talking about the future, change – an Idea. I’ve already called a sociologist friend to look into it.”

“I shouldn’t have bothered,” I said, turning away. “It’s probably just another meme, a fad – like pictures of cats wearing monocles.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not. Somebody once explained to me that an Idea evolves, matures. One day it’s just ready, a necessary evolution that takes root amongst small groups before expanding exponentially, independent of technology, culture or politics. I’ve been listening: they’re figuring out what it means to be happy, what works in today’s world and what doesn’t. They’re solving problems. And you know what? They really believe they can do it.”

“Sounds like the conference all over again.”

IMG_5325“Hah! At the conference people were just recycling dogma, pretending to justify their tenure, air miles and permanent salaries. Who doesn’t want to fly business class? But listen: over the past few weeks I heard of multiple initiatives around Rio and elsewhere on the continent. Most are very small, local – often little more than five or ten people. The favelas are in an uproar but in a good way, I think. Now governments, colleges, universities, schools are joining in too. Even businesses are involved, thank goodness. They know something is wrong. Maybe some of them are actually looking beyond their quarterly reports.”

I didn’t smile at the joke.

“I don’t get it, Alfons. What are all these people doing that’s so special?”

Alfons considered the question for a few moments.

“They’re cooperating, Vera. It seems they really listen to each other. No, don’t give me that look,” he said gently, “I’ve seen what they do. Everybody gets a say in there. Everybody has a job to do. The locals are calling these gatherings collaboratores.”

“The collaboratory,” I said distantly, recalling what I had heard on the beach.

“Something like that. Maybe this isn’t twenty twelve all over again. Waddaya think, Vera?”

“I think it’s good. It’s about time everybody did something about this mess we’re in,” I said, turning to Alfons, “Listen. Does a cynic who comes full circle become an optimist again – or just a worse cynic?”

Alfons regarded me, his expression unreadable behind his smog mask and wrap-around sunglasses.

“Vera – anybody ever tell you you’ve been doing this kind of thing too long?” he asked.

IMG_5304This time I laughed. I let Alfons guide me away from the marquee and toward the small market where I bought a miniature bench – a dainty, gaily painted toy of varnished matchsticks. I thought it might make a charming (analogue) addition to my daughter’s AI-managed doll house.

We clambered on top of a wrecked APC, eating frozen yoghurt while watching the Rainbow Warrior dirigible dispense clouds of smog scrubbers over our heads like confetti.

Later that afternoon I returned to my hotel room. I didn’t bother arranging more interviews. Nobody was answering their slates and the heat, sweat and noise of central Rio had left me drained. At the same time I also wanted to find out whether there was any more to what Alfons has showed me earlier.

To my surprise, I found that the world’s vlogs and swarm feeds were literally abuzz with activity. The forums groaned under the strain of comments, suggestions and arguments, though with noticeably less of the customary bickering I was used to finding on the political feeds. I hurriedly swiped through hundreds of trending topics with mystifying titles such as Colab_712_HK_submissions, CLB 2nite NAIRB, 3E-Academia, ExecMonLocations?, or Pop-up BuS (Ougadougou). One of the more animated discussions was nested under the heading Fix-This-Shit – an initiative launched by a loose group of social workers, schools, small business owners and squatters in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg.

I pushed away the slate, my head spinning.

My last two days in Rio were no different. Alfons was right: people were changing, listening, working together with a level of enthusiasm and efficiency that seemed impossible a few weeks earlier. A little more digging revealed that the Idea had started well before Rio+40, amongst an informal group of academics, a bunch of semi-random people whIMG_5291o decided they’d had enough and wanted a fresh start.

I came to Rio believing I’d find our society making little or no progress on intractable problems as old as humanity itself. I was wrong. I had found something else, perhaps something better and more lasting than the endless circular dialogue I had come to expect from such political and money-tainted gatherings. For the first time I thought I saw direction, a consensus that people – all people – can help resolve our ridiculous, self-manufactured disasters.

To be honest, those three days after the conference scared me a little. The human race is not naturally inclined to cooperate, but that was what I saw in Rio. I’m seeing it all around the world right now: a real desire to resolve problems, a willingness to talk, admit mistakes – a common urge to create something truly good.  Maybe Alfons was right. Maybe things will be different now.