Interview with Johan de Meyer of Macassar pottery

This interview is based on the story A space to be human.
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“If there is no cash flow to pay somebody else to do it, well, then I better learn the skill and deal with it

Interview by Nawaal Deane

Can you tell me more about who you are? 

I had a real struggle in my life to figure out what am I really good at? Because every time I think, Okay, this is my thing. This is the tower, I can build. I can silo here. Then, I get tired of what I’m doing and start to think about all the other possibilities if I could link what I am doing to all kinds of other disciplines. I’m not trained as a ceramicist; I’m actually a journalist.  Storytelling is something precious to me. But I think I’ve made peace with the skill that I do have and that is to understand what needs to be done now. If there is no cash flow to pay somebody else to do it, well, then I better learn the skill and deal with it as far as I can until the resources and help comes along to get the job done. 

I think that’s where I fit in – as a bridge or builder that can see outcomes. What do we need to put in place, which kinds of people need to be involved so that we can get to the next level? At the pottery, the guys that work there, the relational underbelly of what we do is to open doors in the community. I often get young people that knock on the door and they’re just looking for a job. Most often, it’s because they know somebody who knows somebody who works at the pottery and they’ve been hearing the story in the community of the benefits and the things that they can learn in the pottery studio.

So how did Macasar Pottery start its journey?

It came about in 2010 when I was in-between jobs. A person that I befriended during that time is a South African musician who opened a music studio in Macassar. Macassar is a poor community in the outskirts of Cape Town.  He also received funding to open a ceramic studio. He said to me one day: “Listen, I have this studio in Macassar. And nobody could run it. Don’t you want to pop in, take a look and see if you like it.” So, I popped in, and I kind of popped in again the next week and popping in became a longer-term commitment. It’s the power of the small ‘yeses’. Well, I’m still there 10 years later. 

It’s that kind of Holy Grail that we are chasing that a normalised society is possible. 

What keeps me there is the possibility of a normalised society.  I think what keeps the guys coming is that they see the gift of space making. The gift of having a space, where you don’t need to fit into the mould. The mould is created to fit you. We don’t get it right always, but that’s very explicitly what we’re about. This is not about giving them jobs and they need to fit in here. “You are welcome. And yes, we do have jobs. But we fit the job, so that it fits you with your personality and your gifts and your dreams for the future. The job becomes the enabling factor for you to become who you want to become.” I think both from my perspective and the perspective of the young people that we work with. It’s that kind of Holy Grail that we are chasing that a normalised society is possible. 

So, what did you learn by doing the things the way you do them?

There were lots of lessons I learned when I first began to establish the workshop.  I took it one day at a time. We launched an internship for young people and started with two guys and figured out how to work step by step. We were reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work. That is what we do today. For the moment, we have about 10 staff members and a number of them in a learnership where they get paid a salary per month, so that they can learn on the job.

I had lots of very thin years because of a lack of resources. The upside was I didn’t come with the backing of a big funder and it kind of forced me to rethink the entire model.  I couldn’t come in with an existing set of principles or methodologies. It was just me. I think that has become part of the whole ethos.  What I’ve learned is to undercut those power hierarchies by my presence. It’s just the gift of being here in Macassar. I’m going to be here for a long time. And if I mess up, we need to figure out how to work through the mess and get to the other side together. Because we are in South Africa together, and we have to learn to work things through. 

I’ve made lots of mistakes, but that is the only way to navigate long-term presence where there is a commitment from all sides. In particular, from the side of the person of privilege to undermine all kinds of power as much as possible. So, whether it’s perceived power, you perceive me as somebody that has more agency than you. Then it is my responsibility to find ways to breach that and to undermine that perceived power. 

From my interaction over the past years with marginalized youth, there’s definitely a perception in many townships in South Africa that if I can make it to 21, then I’ve really made it. Because the living conditions are so violent, and not just violence of knives and guns, but the violence of economics. That kind of violence that we tend to overlook. If I can make it to 21, and not be dead, not have starved, then I’m successful. 

“The clay itself teaches them, that if I engage with myself differently than what I perceive as dirt today can be music tomorrow”

The advantage that we have in a ceramic studio is the clay process itself is remarkably suitable for human transformation. I can literally take every step of making a clay bowl and there will be some application to the human experience. The great thing is that you don’t need to point it out. I can teach somebody how to wedge the clay, to do something with it and if they stick to it for a while eventually, they inevitably come back to me and explain how the process of working with a clay has spoken to them about their own life. It’s uncanny. But that’s the thing about clay. It’s just the way it is. It speaks to you. And there’s lots of simple ways that I can use to demonstrate that. 
Because it was a musician that founded the studio in the first place, he requested that we make musical instruments from clay, which was new to me, you can make an almost endless variety of instruments from clay. But they also help the guys to make that connection with this dirt that you walk on outside. When it rains, your mother says: “Wipe your feet, they are dirty.” What is that dirt?

It is soil.  It speaks deeply to our humanity, our connection to the soil, and that soil, depending how you engage that becomes clay. And the clay becomes the teapot in the cup on your table. So that journey from dirt to something useful. And in our case, we make the musical instruments. So that journey from mud to music, from something that we perceive is dirty, to something that is valuable and beautiful, and it makes music. I think that resonates very easily with the guys we work with, living in such a marginalised space. They label these drug addicts as gangsters because they haven’t completed school. When the clay itself teaches them, that if I engage with myself differently than what I perceive as dirt today can be music tomorrow, and that drives their transformation, because they conceive a new outcome for their own lives. 

How would you perceive the power of story for people from communities like Macassar?

I think part of my learning was how do I resist the temptation to tell other peoples’ stories on their behalf? This whole mindset that I’m helping somebody by telling their story has a kind of arrogance to it.  There is an assumption because I have more economic power, I control spaces and I can decide whose story gets heard and told.  When I started my involvement in Macassar a decade ago, I discovered some of my own arrogance in that process. We assume because the community is under-resourced that there are no solutions. Whereas this community is so resilient, it’s struggled through these circumstances for decades and sometimes even centuries, and the people are still there, and they are still alive with their families. These are places of value and happiness.  Storytelling is such a powerful tool to help people in vulnerable communities to rediscover their own agency. This is my story, I get to tell it, and I get to dictate how and where it’s placed. And then people like me that come along, we are just helpers in a way. We just use our form of capital or privilege to enable them to tell their own stories. When McKay tells his story, it’s on his terms and because of that, it’s such a valuable and very important tool. I think all other kinds of development should flow from that point.

So, what is your connection to Global Storytellers?Global Storytellers can become that kind of a tribe for us, that place where we belong because we speak the same language and we understand why this is important.  I’m very excited about where this can lead. I think it’s important from a development perspective, that everything we do in a community must have tangible economic outcomes.  Statistically, two out of three young people in South Africa will never find full-time employment. That’s a reality. We cannot say to a young person that there is no hope for you to ever have a full-time job. We are going to help you to tell your story and then we take it somewhere and then it’s finished.  They go home and they are still poor. Something like Global Storytellers helps us to connect the dots that there’s an outcome, there is a next step to telling your story. If I own my story, and I develop that agency, where do I take it next?

I think it can be more helpful to ask: “Who am I with?” In other words, where do I locate myself?

Do you actually think that there’s one universal story, one Global Story? 

We need to remember that a vast majority of the world’s population live in vulnerable societies. We live in an illusion if we think that just because we are privileged, then most people are. The vast majority of people are ordinary people struggling and just wanting a better life for themselves and their kids. I don’t think there is a single universal story. But I think there’s a universal need to be known, to be seen, to be witnessed. What that witnessing looks like, I think it’s different for different people in different societies. But different societies also deal differently with identity. I think the concept of identity in Western societies is to ask: “Who am I?”  I think sometimes that’s superfluous. I think it can be more helpful to ask: “Who am I with?” In other words, where do I locate myself? How do I choose to live my life? I think if there is a universal story, it is not so much the details of the story. It’s that underlying desire to be known, the desire to have an impact, to leave a legacy. I think we will find a lot of common stories if we go and dig a little deeper there and ask those kinds of questions. 

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