Organizational Health Episode 12July 13, 2021

12: Building activist movements for the long haul

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

The past decade has seen some spectacular social movements emerge, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people in defense of rights and sending powerful images of protest around the world.  This revitalized activism is gaining energy despite rising authoritarianism. To hold the ground they gain, activists need to sustain their movements in between battles but turning a loosead hoc network into aorganization with structures and systems isn’t easy.  One group in the Democratic Republic of Congo seems to be finding a way, however. Lucha is nearly a decade oldyet it remains a grassroots movement. Fred Bauma, a member of the movement since its early months in 2012, explains how they are doing it.  And in the Coda, Zimbabwe youth activist Namatai Kwekweza gets into some good trouble. 

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The Interview

‘We showed it was possible to be the master of your fate’

Congolese activist Fred Bauma has been a member of Lucha – Lutte Pour Le Changement –  since 2012 when the movement was just a few months old.  Committed to non-violent, community activism, the movement gained a reputation for courageous protest and Fred was himself detained for 18 months 2015-16, triggering a campaign for his release that attracted international attention and support. Lucha has gone from being the local initiative of a group of young people in the Eastern Congo city of Goma to having branches in multiple cities and huge name recognition.    

The Coda

Getting into good trouble in Zimbabwe

Inspired by the late US Congressman John Lewis, young activist Namatai Kwekweza reflects on the difference between bad trouble and good trouble and explains why she’s determined to keep making a noise about injustice: I personally believe that if the noise didn’t really achieve anything, then they wouldn’t be telling us to keep quiet. 

Transcript

Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this Strength and Solidarity.

Welcome to our podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world. Coming up:

How does a social movement stay true to its spontaneous activist roots yet still organize itself for the long haul? We go to the Democratic Republic of Congo –

And in The Coda:

How the late US Congressman John Lewis gave a young Zimbabwean permission to get into trouble.

Regular listeners will know that on this podcast, we take a keen interest in the ways that new generations of activists are defending rights, equity and justice. We’ve heard a range of perspectives from South Africa, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Argentina, and Thailand among other places. While there’s great diversity and approach, some common themes do emerge. Like, dislike of hierarchy, or leadership models that concentrate power at the top. Or valuing spontaneity over strategy and planning. It’s easy to overstate such characteristics, but there do seem to be some real underlying shifts in the ways rights are being defended.

One criticism sometimes heard is that although these movements pack a big punch at times of peak mobilization, they seem less good at sustaining engagement between the peaks. One movement that doesn’t seem to be having that problem is Lucha, “Lutte per la changement”; in English, “Struggle for change”. It’s a network in the Democratic Republic of Congo that’s nearly a decade old now, and apparently navigating a path between honoring grassroots activists agency while building enough structure to manage power and keep going. To find out how they’re doing it, I spoke with Fred Bauma whose been a member since the early months of the movement’s creation.

Akwe Amosu: Welcome Fred.

Fred Bauma: Thank you, Akwe.

AA: So I want to ask you about Lucha and your own origins, uh, in the organization. When did you join?

FB: I joined Lucha, I believe on September, 2012. And at that time, it was just a group of young people who didn’t want to create an organization actually, but who wanted to organize themselves and organize non-violence, actions for those subjects, mostly related to a basic need in the community, in Goma and, and security at the time.

 

AA: So what was the issue about not wanting to start an organization?

FB: I think the idea was that it wasn’t very relevant to have just another organization in their region where the number of NGOs per capita, I think it’s the highest in the universe. Like you find NGOs everywhere because of the humanitarian situation, I guess. And the humanitarian crisis creates a sort of NGO market where there is a lot of money being spent on humanitarian stuff and the response like local NGOs and international NGOs are joining every day. And the civil society, of course, is also abundant with many local NGOs. And for us it wasn’t really important to have another NGO because we thought they were even not very effective.

AA: So it’s a kind of cynicism – we can have an organization, it can get money, but it doesn’t make any difference to the world.

FB: Yeah, exactly. And I think the other reason, was that there was a tendency towards more professionalization of civil society. And professionalization is not always very bad, but I think the level of professionalization becomes the most important thing, and the engagement – the call that put those people to join those organizations becomes something secondary. So more focus will be spent on making sure that you have grants; making sure you have salaries; making sure you have your share in the market. And that requires you to use some language, that you’ve got to behave somehow, and with time, you know, it became difficult to target some of questions, or to take some positions that donors may find controversial. So the NGOs adapted themselves to this situation, and I think they become less relevant by doing so.

 

AA: It’s a chastening verdict given that they say that they’re there to do good and to support people and to protect people’s needs and rights. And, if the very people who are mobilizing to defend their rights are already sure that they don’t want anything to do with that model. It’s quite a condemnation.

FB: Yeah, And maybe I’m being unfair to NGOs, but yeah, that model didn’t give a lot of place to empowering people – NGO unfortunately use this word very openly, right? – but the reality is not that they make those people able to do things by themselves, but they keep them in a situation where they are dependent on NGOs.

 

AA: So you, and the others who formed Lucha a few months before you, you were natural activists, you wanted to take some action to put power behind demands that you had. What was exercising you? What was the most important thing that you needed to get done?

FB: At the very beginning the most important thing was to guarantee access to water and good roads and employment and security. Let’s say those four things – basic needs – and this is something that is particular to a city where the movement started, and I was born and grew up – this is Goma in Eastern Congo., It’s a coastal city. We have a lake, a big lake. And there is no water in houses. Congo is known for its hydro power capacity and we don’t have electricity. In Goma it was very unlikely to have electricity twice a week, in the city. And the other thing is that there was a volcanic eruption in 2002, I believe, and it destroyed large parts of the city. So many roads were destroyed, but the city was rebuilt by the people mostly and the state didn’t do its part. So, if you look at Goma, like in 2012, most of houses was rebuilt already; the economy was a vivid one and where you needed to find (the) state, you couldn’t find it. Like the part of that development rebuilding project that the government had to do, (it) didn’t do it. The road wasn’t built. Water wasn’t built and stuff like that. So we started mobilizing… and also, youth employment; because the unemployment rate, I think in DRC, I don’t know if there’s official figures, but people estimate that it’s more than 70% or even higher, so at the beginning, we were mobilizing around those social needs; basic needs, let’s say.

 

AA: So, I mean, Lucha went on to become a really powerful, inspiring idea. It starts there in Goma, but you end up within a few years with new Lucha branches and groupings in multiple cities and international awareness, international prizes, a lot of mobilization on behalf of you and others who end up getting detained. So looking back now, nine years later, what did it become? How would you define or describe what Lucha is today?

FB: I would be biased, right, because I’m part of it, so I may look at it differently! But today, Lucha, as you said, is a big movement – probably the biggest social movement in the country. It is in almost every big city in the country and you find people in many places who identify themselves as Lucha, even when they are not formally member of the movement. And I think if I believe most of the feedback that I hear from various people, Lucha has been an inspiration for people, at least, what we showed was that it was possible to take the leadership of what you want your life to be; the only master of your fate. I don’t know if I can say we succeeded completely or not, but at least today, you see in many cities more people are able to go in the streets to ask for more accountability from the government, and even to face repression, because I think that it was one thing that we had during the last nine years. Most of the time when we went to the streets demonstrations were repressed, but I think with time, we were able to use that repression in our favor – at least the courage that our colleagues showed made people realize that maybe being arrested is not the worst thing in life. It’s a price that you can pay for something big that you are aspiring to.

 

AA: And would you say that the direct action that you participate in is still the heart of the Lucha project? Or has there been some, as it were, evolution in its formation? Has it become organizationally more structured or has it developed some kind of hierarchy? Has it formalized itself in some ways?

FB: I think it has formalized some ways – in many ways actually. We have always tried to keep the idea that the structure needs to remain horizontal and less vertical. But also, we realized very quickly that it was easier to have a completely flat organization when we were in one city and became more challenging to maintain the same structure when we expanded to many cities. And the risk of just, you know, falling into a chaotic organization was real. So at some point we decided to have a charter of the movement. We created cells and sections and they were horizontal functional units rather than a formal hierarchy. So you would have a communication section in charge of managing communication. You’ll have a section in charge of education inside the movement. You’ll have cells in charge of organizing demonstrations and other kinds of nonviolent direct actions. There was a kind of organization internally so that the work at least of the movement was shared between many people – making sure that we are accountable to each other and that all the power doesn’t rely on one core structure or one cell, but that it’s shared.

 

AA: Well, say a bit more about that – about power being shared – because I think it is often the stone that an organization trips over: whether it manages power in such a way that it continues to grow and thrive, versus, you know, charismatic individuals capturing the leadership and not stepping aside – building and owning the relationships with the donors. These are known problems. I’m curious to learn a little bit about how Lucha navigated that.

FB: One thing is we have never had any person that is the leader of Lucha. And this is true – even despite many pressure that sometime we received – you know, for people or the description that you find in media. Like some of the most visible figures of Lucha were pushed to show up more and more like leaders. And usually we resist that. Like, I know in my case, for example, every time I receive a bio where, they write “leader of Lucha,” I delete it and I ask them to change it. And I think it’s forced us, even those who by destiny become more visible than others to accept to step back sometime and let other people play a key role. The other way we navigate it is that we have one cell that is called [inaudible] like, it’s a core group, like a steering –

AA: A steering group or a core group. Okay –

FB: But that group is renewed every year by half. And I was part of it when it was created, in the first group. Some of my colleagues; most of them were present in 2012 when the movement started. A few years ago, we decided to step out – to leave that group and let new people come in. And it was difficult for the movement, but we thought it was important not to stay, you know, inside that core group and to give the chance for the renewal of people who play. And today, for example, I receive the decision of the movement as every other person. I contribute to the movement in my cell, but me and some of those people at the beginning are not in the central group. The other thing is the sections in the cities have a high level of autonomy. The annual retreat just took place, and at every retreat, the movement together, all the sections decide what will be the two main focuses of the movement nationally. And the rest is determined by sections themselves. And they do it you know, freely, without being managed by any central authority.

And I think the last way of dealing with, you know, leadership and power is the idea that we have the Guardians. So we need to make sure that people are not staying forever, but at the same time, we need to make sure that the memoire of the movement is not lost. So there is people who leave that core group. When they left it, they joined another cell, which is the Guardians.

 

AA: I see. So you and others who’ve played those leading roles in the steering group end up in another kind of elders group or a Guardians group, as you call it. And your role is to somehow carry the institutional memory of Lucha?

FB: There is an Archive cell, but somehow our role is that – and to advise the movement and to help solve conflict, if there is any conflict arising. But that cell is like a – how would you say – “Cellule dormante”? It’s like, it’s not a very active cell –

AA: You could say sleeping cell.

FB: Yeah. It’s like a sleeping cell. We act when we are requested to, but normally that cell doesn’t do anything. We discuss between us, but we don’t decide to comment.

 

AA: But Fred, I mean, okay, I’m probably an old cynical journalist, but I hear that and I think to myself, okay, he says, there’s no hierarchy, but this body, this sleeping cell of former leaders, it must be very influential. People must be always asking you, “What do you think?” And trying to see whether they can persuade you to put your thumb on the scale; press the steering committee to go into this path or that path. Does that happen or am I being too cynical?

FB: Yeah, I believe there’s a big part of cynicism in it! But I have to acknowledge, it’s difficult, no? To just sit and maybe have an opinion that you want to express and not being able to push for it. I remember, recently there was a lot of demonstration in Congo and this may be controversial (laugh) – but you have some part of the actions of the movement and personally I’m like, “Maybe we could do this differently”, And then we discussed between us, but it’s not up to us to decide, so it can be frustrating – but at the same time, I think everybody in that group accepts the idea that we are not the ones deciding in the movement or for the movement. And we give advice when we are asked to, but it’s not up to us. So it’s forced us to become humble, and we can still contribute in a different normal cells where the life of the movement is.

AA: But you only speak if you’re asked – as the Guardians cell – you only express a view if they ask you?

FB: Yeah. we only act if we are asked to, to act; I cannot volunteer myself to be in a operational cell, which (laugh) it’s difficult, but I believe it’s something good to make sure people don’t abuse the influence that they can have. And I think it’s a very interesting experience, uh, for me personally.

 

AA: So I guess many people, myself included, have seen a lot of, inspiration in the social movements that have emerged over this last decade, like Lucha. And I hope I’m not overstating that if I say that to some extent, I’m thinking that this is the future of human rights defense. This is the future of human rights protection – these grassroots mobilizations that find ways to reproduce themselves; to stay on the scene, but aren’t burdened by the kind of distorting pressures of fundraising, professionalization, the waning of courage that comes with becoming parents and having little children, and being less willing to throw yourself in the path of the armed forces. Am I right to be hoping that the Luchas of this world will shoulder that responsibility for protecting and advancing rights? Is that the right place to see that work located for the future?

FB: Well, I think we are playing our role in our time, and I don’t know how the future will look like, but I think we social movements today are managing to navigate those challenging and maintain their independence, like intellectual independence and freedom. And I think that is important. I don’t think we are completely out of the risk of professionalization, I think it’s like a daily and a permanent struggle, an internal struggle, to make sure you don’t fall into that, because as the movement grows, the tendency – and it can be a rational way of thinking – maybe to have more structure, more management, you know, to formalize. And if you look at current literature on management, organization and so on, the tendency may be, you know, to go the same way as many organizations have – towards a more structured thing. And I think that the risk for movements, if we fall under the pressure of the challenges that we are facing, there is a higher risk of becoming just another organization and losing what make us special. And I really hope that we activists today we’ll have the necessary courage to continue, and when they will be tired, I hope they will have created or have generated the next generation of freedom fighters and human rights defenders so that they can carry that burden. But I think we are doing the contribution in our time and within our challenges.

 

AA: I suppose, less optimistically, one of the critiques, which I think is understandable, that you will often hear is that social movements like Lucha can put people on the street. They can get, you know, a number of people with a certain amount of power behind them targeted at a wrong or an abuse, but that they’re not very good at imagining real profound transformational change. So that they’re good at the defensive posture, but the task of imagining and building proactively a better society, a better form of government, a less venal, more serious leadership for their countries – They’re not so good at that. They’re more reactive and very tactical, not so strategic. What would you say to that?

FB: There’s some truth in that, but it’s a combination of things. If you look at mobilization as the only indicator, and if you look at mobilization as an event, a particular event in time, I think that may not be the right way of thinking because like the peak of mobilization usually is a combination of many events. One friend in Congo who passed away last year used to tell us that “If the non-violent struggle is like a war, what movements do is like special units of that war.” We do targeted action and we create the necessary tension that leads to mass mobilization. And by the time there is a huge mobilization, I think people understand the urgency of the situation. Now being able to mobilize in time is one aspect, but the other aspect, and I think where we are not probably very good is describing what we are fighting for. Usually we are very good at articulating what we are fighting against. And we are probably busy trying to mobilize people, and we forget to focus on why we are doing it. And what would success mean for us? So usually when we get what we were looking for, or when we think we got what we were looking for, it doesn’t look like success. And we just find ourselves disenchanted instead of going all the way to the change we were looking for, we stop half way. People realize just months after that, “Oh, maybe something is wrong here.” But at that specific time, that was victory, you know? I think activists need to be sober when we celebrate step victories. These victories are very important, but we may lose many years of struggle by forgetting that this is not the final victory, and I think movements haven’t been good at that – at keeping their long-term goal in mind when we are on our way to freedom.

AA: Okay. Thank you so much, Fred.

Fred Bauma is a long-standing member of the Congolese social movement Lucha. I spoke to him in late April, a few weeks before the most recent eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano, which brought a new round of damage and suffering to the residents of Goma. You can find a transcript of our conversation and some reading suggestions on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.

 

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For our Coda, we usually ask someone active in the human rights field to share something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. We are used to the idea that a powerful leader for justice can really energize a new generation of activists and pass the torch to them. But there’s something especially moving when that leader is able to inspire a young person, thousands of miles away in another country on another continent number.

Namatai Kwekweza – founder at 18 of the WeLead organization in Zimbabwe – had just encountered state repression at first-hand when she learned about US Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the US civil rights struggle, and inventor of the phrase, “good trouble”.

Namatai Kwekweza: I first heard of the phrase good trouble, some time in 2020 after the death of the great John Lewis. I think he died on the 17th of July, if I’m not mistaken, 2020… And there was a lot of coverage about his life; how he had been arrested more than 40 times, and all this amazing work that he did. And one of the things that really spoke to me and resonated very well with me with that it was a time when I was also getting arrested, getting into a lot of trouble –

[John Lewis] “My mother would say to me, “Boy, don’t get in trouble, don’t get in trouble. You can get hurt; you can get killed.” Dr. King and Rosa Parks and ED Nixon and others that I read about in that time, and later met – They got into good trouble; necessary trouble. And I’ve been getting in trouble ever since.”

NK: You know, I wasn’t arrested because I was caught stealing something or like, you know, committing some kind of crime. I was arrested because I was standing for something that I believed in. So when I heard the phrase ”good trouble”, it really spoke to me because I read his life story. I was like, “So wait, this is not bad trouble. So if it’s good trouble, then maybe we can keep doing it.” You know? So, yeah…

NK: It’s very, very important for us to encourage – especially young people who – in my context have become very apathetical. It almost seemed like the life of everyday ordinary young Zimbabweans keeps getting worse every day. It’s very, very difficult to get them to participate because they know that the moment you begin to participate, it invites trouble. You know, you could get arrested, you could get beaten up. You could get raped, abducted. It’s a possibility… You could even get convicted… But they must understand that it’s for the good. And if it’s the kind of trouble that we have to go through so that our kids, when they’re our age, don’t have to go through the same because it’s a better world, it’s a better country – then it’s the good kind of trouble.

NK: I really, really appreciated his determination. He was a very assertive man and I see some of those traits in myself. You know, he’s always the kind of person who was very clear about what he wanted to be an outcome of what they were doing, and was not afraid to be persecuted for it. And if you look at how long he kept doing this kind of work – standing for, you know, civil rights – he stayed consistent up until the day that he died. So I think when you have leaders that have that level of clarity, and leaders that have the level of commitment, I think it’s a very beautiful thing and it’s something to cherish.

NK: I personally have been labeled a noisemaker in my own country and I’ve also been labeled an “angry youth”. People will tell you that your noise and your anger won’t achieve anything around here, but I personally believe that if the noise didn’t really achieve anything, then they wouldn’t be telling us to keep quiet. When you make noise and you disturb the powerful and they’re not happy about it, there will always be backlash. But at the end of the day, that’s where courage comes into play. And I think one of the most beautiful words I’ve heard was from a poet, a woman called Maya Angelou when she says, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue with consistency.”

NK: I think the beautiful thing about this is that, you know, within the noise, there are facts; there are stories. Within the noise, there is hope and belief and faith that things will get better. It’s those few moments, those small victories along the way that make the fear and the torture and those uncomfortable situations worthwhile.

AA: Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo there, ending those reflections by activist Namatai Kwekweza in Harare. Namatai and a colleague Vongai Zimudzi were arrested in June last year for peacefully protesting against the amendment of the constitution. They’ve pleaded not guilty to “promoting public violence” and “breach of the peace”, and are out on bail, still waiting for their case to be tried.

AA: And that wraps up Episode 12. Thanks for taking the time to listen. Your recommendation is the best way we can find new listeners so we’d be really happy if you can tell even one person about this podcast. Also feedback is welcome. Send us an email. The address is pod@strengthandsolidarity.org. Thanks as always to our wonderful producer, Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu. Join us again, next time.