Merle's Blog

Insights and Outsights

Don’t stress about us in South Africa…

Posted by Merle Levin on February 5, 2014

I thought I would share this letter.  It speaks to the spirit many of us who live here feel.


Don’t stress about us in SA

Oct 28, 2012 | Paul Harris

A letter about the state of South Africa from FirstRand founder Paul Harris to a concerned friend has gone viral


Hi Jeff

HOPE all is well with you guys. I will drop you a line later with the family news but I would first like to respond to the e-mail you sent me attaching an article by Clem Sunter, which seemed to concern you about us here in South Africa.

You also sent me an article last year by Moeletsi Mbeki warning about the danger of an “Arab Spring” in South Africa. I often get e-mails like this from “concerned friends” worried about us, which is sweet of you guys. Of course we are concerned. Some worrying things have happened but we have been through and survived much worse in much more volatile environments. Including the Boer War, two World Wars, apartheid, the financial crisis without a bank bailout, the Rindapest, Ge Korsten and Die Antwoord!

However, for as long as I can remember there have always been people who think SA has five years left before we go over the cliff. No change from when I was at school in the sixties. The five years went down to a few months at times in the eighties!

But it seems the people who are the most worried live far from the cliff in places like Toronto, Auckland, London and other wet and cold places. Also from St Ives and Rose Bay in Sydney, Dallas and Europe and other “safe places” that are in the grip of the global financial crisis, which by the way is quite scary. Many of them have survived decades of rolling “five years left” since they left South Africa. So maybe they will be right one day!

My message is, please don’t stress about us in South Africa. We are fine. We are cool. We know we live in the most beautiful country in the world with warm and vibrant people. There are more people here with smiles on their faces than in any country I have ever been to.

Young people are returning in droves with skills and a positive attitude. Collectively we bumble along and stuff many things up while letting off a hell of a lot of steam (have you heard of a chap called Julius Malema?). Yet in between South Africans do some amazing things like win a few gold medals, big golf tournaments and cricket and rugby matches.

The South Africans I know get off their butts and do things to build our country rather than whinge from a position of comfort. We actively participate in projects that improve the lot of underprivileged communities. I would not trade for anything last Saturday in a hall full of 1500 African teachers singing at the top of their voices and demonstrating their commitment to improving education in their communities.

We have our challenges and surprises. The standard deviation of our emotions are set at MAX. You are never just a “little bit happy” or a “little bit sad”. At one moment you can be “off the scale” pissed off or frustrated or sad or worried or fearful or depressed. The next moment you are “off the scale” exhilarated, or enchanted, or inspired, or humbled by a kind deed, or surprised by something beautiful. It makes life interesting and worth living.

We also have passionate debates about the future of SA. Helped of course by red wine which you must taste again because it is getting better every year! Clem makes a great contribution to the debate as others like Moeletsi Mbeki do. Russell Loubser, the former head of the JSE, made a feisty speech the other day that has whipped up emotions. Up to MAX on the emotions meter of the ANC Youth League whose campaign for nationalisation of the mines was attributed to people who have IQs equal to room temperature.

South African politics has always been volatile, we have opinions that could not be further apart and it evokes emotion on a massive scale. Interesting and stimulating for those that want to take it seriously but noise in the system to me. Fortunately we are rid of apartheid that would have definitely pushed us over the cliff. These are the birth pangs of a new and unpredictable democracy. So buckle up and enjoy the ride and contribute! That is the message I convey to South Africans.

Sad as it is, it is true that the South African diaspora has a largely negative influence on confidence in South Africa. It would not be a problem if their fretting about how long we will last before we go over the cliff was merely a reflection of their concern for us, their friends and family.

The problem is that it does impact foreign investment, which is important for economic growth. A person who is thinking of coming to visit or investing is often put off by listening wide-eyed to the stories of people who have gapped it.

As you know I host many foreign visitors and I have never, EVER, met anyone who has visited for the first time without being blown away by the beauty of the country and the warmth of the people. It is not for nothing that South Africa has the highest ratio of repeat visitors of all long-haul destinations.

So, Jeff, how can I help you stop stressing out about us? Maybe best is that you get exposed to some articles and websites that give a more balanced and uplifting perspective of South Africa. So please don’t worry and if you get a chance, put in a good word for us.

All the best


* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times


~ o O o ~

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Having no head

Posted by Merle Levin on January 1, 2014

I was gifted this reading by Ken Wilbur of a chapter in Douglas Harding’s book.  It arrived moments after I did as we awoke out of one year and into another.  It was the first mail my sleepy eyes reached and came from my friend Suzanne in Seattle.  “Having no head – a pointing out exercise” the title of her email read.

“It’s what 2014 feels like,” I said to myself. ”  It’s got it’s name, but it has no head.”  I looked over at Jeff’s sleeping head on the pillow next to mine and did not allow myself to go there…

I  listened to Ken’s drawl, scraping out the words in his heartfelt way.  I heard his emotions choking over the love bits.  I felt my brain feeling…

“How to go headless?” I asked myself after listening to this reading the 20th time. This is more scary than saying “I’m sorry”  instead of  “you’re not the boss of me!”

I looked up into the Cape Town sky and waited for it to turn into a big blue pancake.

I waited for it to fall on my shoulders, where normally a penetrating head sits.

I thought of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who describes this as the feeling of enlightenment.

None of it helped.  My head has refused to give up its position.  “I like it here” it says.  “You need me more than you need a blue pancake.”

So this is my New Year’s resolution:  To practice driving with the rooftop down and  topless, then allow myself to taste the sky, drink the ocean and eat the earth. Any joiners?  Let’s hope the rain does not shrink my shoulders!

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The human side of a legend

Posted by Merle Levin on December 9, 2013

I met Mr. Mandela on three occasions.  My first meeting was fleeting,  I was pasted to the crushed crowd of thousands to touch the hem of his garment at the Parliament of World Religions  hosted by  Cape Town in 1999.  He and the Dalai Lama had just spoken to the adoring crowds and were leaving the auditorium close to where I happened to be standing.  I felt him smile at me as if I was the only person in the hall.


My second meeting had a humorous twist.  I have these past days, been reading many articles about his wicked sense of humor and his love of astounding his security guards and am pleased to say, I experienced this side of his greatness, on two lucky occasions.


In 2000 I was collaborating on a book  on the San Bushmen  for a German publisher.  My collaborator Glynis and I were on a trip to the Kalahari Desert on one of our research forays.  We had been driving from Cape Town to the Northern Cape for many dusty hours, and being a Sunday, we found nothing open.  By 2pm we were so hungry we were ready to eat the dashboard of my steamy Toyota.  Lo and behold we discovered an open restaurant in the town of Upington, the last major town before we hit the deep Kalahari. 

“Yes they were open but no we could not eat there” was their reply to our gob-smacked faces. 

“You’ll have death on your hands! I insisted. 

The reason they explained, that we could not eat in the restaurant, was that Mr. Mandela was due for lunch with his entourage.  There was, plain and simply: no room at the inn.


I managed to persuade the restaurant owner to set up a plastic table for us on the dusty pavement under the shade of the only cloud in the hot blue sky.

Glynis and I sat down and ordered “Just exactly what the president is having please” and were just digging into the filet of ostrich, to the amusement of the occasional vagrant,  when the black Mercedes cars began to roll in like thunder. 

“Just eat!” I whispered to Glynis, “I guarantee you, no-one will even notice us.”

 The largest car  of the entourage stopped and out-stepped Mr. Mandela, who strode right over to us.

 “And what might I ask are you to lovely women doing, sitting on a pavement, eating?” he asked.

 “It’s because of you!” I answered, laughing. 

With that, his security guards blanched as he called for a chair and sat down at the pavement table to join us for lunch while the rest of his team ate in the air conditioned conditions of the smart indoor restaurant.  He was fascinated to hear about our San Bushman project and I don’t think I have ever eaten a more delicious meal.  It could have been cardboard and we would have relished every mouthful.


My third encounter was at the airport in Johannesburg, flying to Cape Town from a conference on Indigenous People of Africa in Geneva at the UN.  We flew into Johannesburg and then were bussed to another plane for the domestic flight to Cape Town.  The plane was surrounded by police vehicles and tanks.  No one had any idea what was happening, but we boarded the steps to the plane, carrying our hand luggage.  At the top of the flight of steps, stood our president, greeting each “ordinary citizen” as we boarded the plane. 

His simple act of reaching out in such an unexpected way, when he could so easily have been shuttled into his seat quietly away from the crowds.  After takeoff the captain announced a welcome to the precious cargo on board and everyone broke into Nkosi Sikalele.  What a trip.

Posted in Life Lessons | 5 Comments »

A baby girl is born!

Posted by Merle Levin on January 5, 2012

Just a quick update from an exhausted Granny. A beautiful baby girl was born this morning. She is well and healthy. Her mom Angie is still in ICU. it was a difficult birth and a second team of surgeons were called in. she is resting and still cannot see the baby, but hopefully tomorrow she will be on the mend. The exhausted grandparents are going to collapse and celebrate with a clink of bubbly.
What a day!  Thank you so much for the many responses to the post this morning.  It was amazing to receive these messages of love and prayer  all day as we sat and rocked the newborn.

Posted in Life Lessons | 12 Comments »

Countdown to the birth

Posted by Merle Levin on January 5, 2012

In a few hours, a baby will be born. I have spent the night in prayer and preparation to meet this new soul. There are prayers and candles flickering in different parts of the world this morning as we entrust this delicate process into the hands of God. Please join us if you feel moved to.
Angela will have a full anesthetic and will need a blood transfusion after the birth, which will take place sometime after 8am this morning, Thursday January 5th.

Posted in Life Lessons | 9 Comments »

Granny-dilla’s Diary

Posted by Merle Levin on December 27, 2011

It’s December 27th, 2011. The frenetic rush of Christmas is over, New year’s eve looms on the horizon. There are ships on the horizon at the edge of my balcony in Sea Point – oil rigs, container ships and even the famous “World ship” that carries rich people around their world at their leisure with their annual levy of a million Dollars per apartment. It has chosen Cape Town as it’s docking site. I see their lights reflected on the sea at nights, flickering at the stars above them. There’s a baby on the horizon as well. She will be born January 4, 5 or 6th. I will track my perception of this impending horizon under the title: Grannydilla’s Diary.
My grandson Kieron named me “Grannydilla” after his favorite fruit, the passion fruit, otherwise named granadilla. It’s sweety-sour with a healthy dose of tart. A very unaristocratic fruit, that creeps up walls and gives of itself freely when it has the right environment – sun, water and shelter from the wind. The passion part comes once you have tasted one on a hot summer’s day…mmm. Read the rest of this entry »

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Cape Christmas, Hug of Channukah, Seaside of Solstice

Posted by Merle Levin on December 21, 2011

There’s a festive air here in the mother city, as she is wont to be called. The Jo’burgers have driven down the tip of their country in droves – you can see them a mile away, driving slowly, watching the waves, choking up the windy roads of Cape Town. Empty parking spots have become hen’s teeth. Droopy, sweating Santas ring bells at the malls and beside the road sit a few dusty Pine treelets, begging to be bought. The venue for Christmas lunch must be beachside or if not, then definitely BarBQ. Channuka candles light up late, since sunset takes it’s time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Spiritual teachers come in many forms

Posted by Merle Levin on December 14, 2011

I have been thinking that it takes acute discernment to be alert to read the signs that life  gives  in obtuse clues and hints. Spiritual teachers come in many forms. I often think of Rumi and how his great teacher Shams arrived as a filthy beggar in the marketplace. He recognized his greatness instantly and left his privileged life, his position as a wealthy university professor, his marriage  and famiy, to follow his great teacher  and through that courageous event, we have the eternal poetry of Rumi.

In the past weeks I have had two interactions that have left me thinking about this: both came as a person asking me for help. Just in a moment when my thoughts and prayers were directed towards an invisible God, asking for help. I’ll begin with an event that happened last night as I was leaving the hospital. Read the rest of this entry »

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Silent chants at a monastery in Italy

Posted by Merle Levin on November 28, 2011

So many miles to traverse the earth, so many moments to discover the truth of who I am and what I bring to my life.

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Recommended meditation

Posted by Merle Levin on November 17, 2011


I have often written of Dr. Hew Len and the story of how he healed a ward of criminally psychotic patients by working on himself.  How he advocates cleaning out the old memories we carry around in our system, that hold a mortgage on our souls.  Last week Kristin Flood and I were redesigning (for the hundredth time), our upcoming week of silence in the Italian monastery (check out my website for details of these retreats if you are interested to know more:   We came upon a new meditation that has just been posted on U tube by Dr. Hew Len and I include it with my love and high recommendation.



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