Akwe Amosu: Hello, and welcome to Strength & Solidarity. I’m Akwe Amosu with Episode 19 of our podcast – a regular dive into current activism to see what we’re learning about the tools and tactics getting traction, but also the obstacles that are blocking struggles for rights equity and social justice. Later in the show, revisiting a prescient warning from 50 years ago by poet, musician, Gill, Scott Heron that is even more relevant today. But before that, a return to a theme we looked at very early in this podcast’s history – the continuing effort to realize the promise of democracy and rights in South Africa, what’s the best way to center grassroots leadership in activist organizations without getting bogged down in political battles?
AA: In the nearly three decades since the end of apartheid, South Africa’s civil society has been justly celebrated and admired for its energy and impact. Backed by a progressive constitution that centers human rights activists have scored some major victories. One of the most famous dates back some 15 years to when the Treatment Action Campaign, TAC, successfully forced the government to provide antiretroviral drugs to people living with HIV and AIDS. Several more remarkable groups have emerged since then, like Equal Education, the Social Justice Coalition, or Ndifuna Ukwazi, built on a similar model that mixes social movement-style mobilization with the professional tools of an effective NGO – public interest litigation, skilled advocacy and professional communications. And there’s plenty for them to do. Despite 28 years of ANC government, there is still extreme inequality and devastating poverty. Basic services are lacking or substandard for most. And there’s a feeling among ordinary people that the political system prioritizes elite interests, not theirs. So how is the struggle for rights faring in these tough conditions? That’s what I wanted to learn from Axolile Notywala – Ax for short – who until last year was the General Secretary of the Social Justice Coalition. Ax grew up in a large community on the margins of Cape town called Khayelitsha – much of it an informal settlement of shacks without sanitation and other vital services. His activism began there and continues to be rooted there, most recently in response to the COVID pandemic.
AA: Welcome Ax.
AN: Thank you.
AA: So you get involved, you become part of a community of people who are activists, and it’s become really your life, this work, how do you assess the power of the idea of human rights in South Africa today, as a young person? you’ve grown up in a free South Africa.
AA: So what does human rights mean to you as a tool?
AN: Um, I mean, I was having a conversation with some visiting Palestine-Israeli activists, and the question that was asked – and majority of us were people from Khayelitsha in a township – was whether there is hope? To us who are now involved in activism, we can see that hope, because we know what’s wrong. For many people coming from very poor communities, because of the fact that there isn’t much of that understanding of what human rights are, it’s difficult for people to be involved. Maybe we need to reconfigure what politics – what we view and know politics are, because people might be wanting to be involved in talking about human rights but maybe the only way they know is through politics; and currently politics is a dirty word to many South Africans. But our lives are political, everything that happens in my street, whether there’s a political party or not, is linked to the ecosystem of politics, of how we are governed and who governs us. So those are the types of politics that we all need to be involved in, it does not necessarily mean we should be politician in the party political sense. We can be activists, or we can be regular individuals but that are participating in politics, within our communities.
AA: Well, South Africa is known for remarkable activist organizations that try to connect the demands of the citizen in the street with policy change by government, you’ve worked in and then led one such organization, the Social Justice Coalition. How well do these organizations enable engagement of the type you’re talking about?
AN: It’s a very important role that I think civil society, and also social justice organizations play and have played in South Africa. I think when a number of us come into the space, one of the examples that we are told about is that of the Treatment Action Campaign and learning from that activism. It was one of the biggest social movements in the country. Many people had died because they were not getting the proper medication that they needed. And so I think it’s through learning about those tactics and the many different ways in which they challenged government to provide those services. The organizations that have been involved, some of them have sort of took that same model, from the Treatment Action Campaign. The Social Justice Coalition was formed by people that had been involved in the Treatment Action Campaign, and I guess these organizations have given some hope to a number of communities within South Africa, because where the government and service provision is missing, even though these are not organizations that are service providers themselves, the one or two big successes that they have, changed people’s lives. So it’s been through these organizations that some change has come about, within the political sphere of the country.
AA: And do you define those as social movements or as NGOs?
AN: I mean, they are defined as social movements and at the same time they are defined as NGOs, in that as NGOs they’re not linked to government but they practice as social movements. But I think both the TAC and the SJC in my view, they’ve been trying to, to sort of model a hybrid of what you would call a social movement and an NGO, where you see you have some professionalization within the organization, but, you’re trying to get it to be led by communities through participatory democratic processes. So that’s been the manner in which the organizations have been shaped.
AA: So in the classic model of the NGO, you have a director, you have a senior staff, you have program staff, you have a board that oversees, and you have donors who, on the basis of the confidence they have in the work and the management, give money. That’s the NGO side of it. and many organizations operate that way. But I doubt if many such organizations have figured out a way to be led, in quotes, by the community. So how is that done?
AN: So having to lead such an organization, such a hybrid, is one of the most difficult tasks or jobs that one can undertake, because I mean, I was the general secretary of the SJC, you’re essentially taking two positions. Because you have to do all that a director does- you have to report to a board, whether that’s an advisory board or whether that’s an elected board, you are leading the organization, you have to report to donors, you are the interface between the organization and the donors. At the same time, you have to be the leader of the social movement. Uh, you have to interact with the communities, you have to interact with the people who are elected, from these communities. You have to be part of the activities of the communities because you are elected to do that job. It’s not a job where you just sit in the office, and you write funding reports and all those things – you have to combine all that. And at times those tasks can be in conflict against each other. And that’s been a huge challenge, which I don’t think we’ve spoken about a lot in the sector, um, hence some of these types of organizations have had numerous challenges around just sustaining themselves because the people that have to be at the helm, are leading these organizations, also burn out and get frustrated because of having to deal with this hybrid-type model.
AA: And obviously a system that causes the leadership of the institution to burn out and give up is not a viable system. Maybe say something about what the community side of this looks like in practice, most NGOs don’t have any kind of electoral process embedded. So maybe just explain a bit about that.
AN: I think this is part of the problem with the electoral model, in that it’s a model that is the same, or very similar to the model of political parties, the model of unions, because that’s where you have these type of positions – where you have a chairperson, a general secretary, a treasurer and all those positions, which get elected at a Congress, at a national Congress of a political party or a union. And this is the same thing that these hybrid organizations sort of adopted where these positions of power, you have to go to a Congress or an AGM and the communities where you have a presence in, or the constituency communities have to be part of that process. so they have to engage in electing who gets to lead the organization. And at times, there isn’t really much of a check, uh, or interrogation in terms of whether the person has the required skills, is able to look into financial documents and all those things that are required for a director that would be employed through an interview type of a process. The election is not just of the person that’s gonna run the day-to-day of the organization. It’s also the election of a board, and people don’t bring CVs to be elected to a board. These are people that might not necessarily understand, uh, have never read an audit report, have never read financial documents. and that’s where you get problems in terms of the governance and the oversight which, then when those problems arise, it becomes a risk to the donors. And so when the donors don’t trust the people that are providing oversight, they see that as a, as, as, as a risk. So essentially, we haven’t, we haven’t spent enough time to make sure that people are able to participate in this model.
AA: The thing is, I guess elections are popularity contests, they aren’t necessarily a great way to select for competence.
AN: I mean, that model is the same model, as I’ve said, that comes from political parties. When there’s going to be an election, you have factions, because I want to elect that person because that person might have promised me something or might have promised my community something; the other person wants to elect someone else. And therefore you start to have rifts within the organization. And the important work that you’re supposed to be doing falls apart, or falls behind, because now you have to focus on trying to deal with these factions before an election. And post an election, those factions continue, and you end up trying to mend relationships and mend factions, instead of being able to continue with the work that you are elected to do. And so that’s where numerous of the headaches, come from these types of hybrid organizations.
AA: So having tried to operate what sounds like an incredibly internally contradictory system, what’s your conclusion about the desirability of maintaining it? I mean, I totally understand that for a person who keeps faith with their activist roots, the idea of just removing the citizen from the process and just making it all about you and your board is unappetizing, but what you’re describing sounds dysfunctional, and doesn’t deliver the benefits that you want. So how does this problem get solved in your view?
AN: It’s a really complex issue. and movement-building and the idea of movements, to donors, they like a sexy idea, um, that donors want to fund movements. But when there are these problems, there isn’t really much done to try and assist. I think part of the problem is the fact that a number of organizations, or movements that have existed in the country, the people that have started those organizations are people that have a history of having participated in liberation movements. And so that’s the experience that they bring in terms of how you build movements. At times, I think it has worked, but at times we’ve seen the challenges. And in that particular time, around the liberation struggle, the issues were different than they are now, in terms of who organizations or movements were fighting against, or what they were fighting for. And so I think what we need to do, is this concept that I talk about of Unlearning and Disrupting and Rebuilding, in that we need to unlearn even the process of movement building. There are many other movements that are built in many other countries and cities around the world and what I think we haven’t done enough is to actually sit down and reflect on this issue of movement-building in the country and actually pick apart the parts that are not working. We need to unlearn what we know, because I mean, we see the problems of political parties. We see how the factionalism and the factions within the political parties are crippling our country. We need to look at what is working and find other ways, learning from other movements across the country, picking the different paths that we think might work. I guess I can say we’ve been stubborn to let go of what is not working, for the last few years. And that’s what we need to do. We need to disrupt the model and we need to rebuild the model. That’s where the unlearning, disrupting and rebuilding concept, comes from.
AA: So before we end, many people assumed that COVID would just be an entirely negative experience for people who are already hard pressed in progressive movements and activism, but I think you had an experience of some renewal and I’m just curious what that taught you in the light of everything you’ve said here. Could you tell the story of what happened when South Africa locked down?
AN: Hmm. Yeah, I mean a number of us, a number of activists, when we heard about COVID and, the first few cases in the country, we came together to have a conversation around what should happen. And when we heard about issues such as lockdowns and people having to wash hands and how they protect themselves, realized that the most marginalized within our communities are the ones that are going to be affected most. And so we wanted to think of ways of how we can get communities to be part of protecting each other and protecting themselves. Out of it came this concept of Community Action Networks, in that realization that we cannot, and we should not necessarily just be dependent on the state. And I think it was great that some of us that were part of that group were coming from these organizations that I was talking about –
AA: Organizations like the SJC or like Equal Education, like TAC… Is that right?
AN: Yeah, that have had experience of organizing and also understood the type of restrictions we connect with when trying to organize. And we had that frank conversation – that, we need to try and get this to be different. One of the first conversations were how do we make this a process that is led by communities, that is not as hierarchical as some of our organizations are, trying to have somewhat of a flat structure, and understanding what are some of the limitations in relation to that. We then started to form a group – and we were coming from different parts of the city – that was to coordinate the formation of the Community Action Networks and, when we started that coordination, we knew what not to do. We said that this process must be guided by a certain number of principles or values rather than a strict, governing document –
AA: Or, indeed, a representative model in which people get elected!
AN: Yeah, yeah, exactly. In that people understand their own communities. I come from Khayelitsha, I understand the challenges in Khayelitsha, and therefore I can gather around the number of people from Khayelitsha and we can come together and say, what is it that we need to do? And so, from the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, we came together and we said, there’s no leader of this grouping – we are all equal here. We come with experience from our own different organizations. Let’s bring that experience here. Um, those that have never been part of organizations, bring your community organizing experience and let’s engage. Let’s try and take a decision without having to vote. Um, and that’s how we we’ll learn to do things. And I can say we’re able to do a lot of progressive work and even radical work that a number of our organizations weren’t able to do, that’s the type of collective building, that was really useful in how we came together.
AA: So that pretty much exemplifies the whole idea of unlearning, disrupting and rebuilding.
AN: There’s still quite a lot of Community Action Networks that continue today where some of them had started community kitchens and community gardens, because many people lost their jobs through the pandemic. And a lot of very creative projects and creative ideas have come out of the Community Action Networks which we weren’t even thinking about at the time. At the time we were thinking about people being safe about people having food, about people not being evicted from their homes. But because of how it was self-organizing, people have continued to self-organize beyond the coordinating group. We don’t even engage that much, even with the coordinating group that had started this, we would only come together when there was a need. the Community Action Networks engaged on their own, and they have formed different relationships.
AA: But so where did those community action networks get their funding? How do they function?
AN: When this was started, we even talked about funding and the realization was that as soon as we bring donors into this type of organizing, things are gonna fall apart. Uh, we’re gonna need a structure. We’re gonna need a board. We’re gonna need to formalize things. And the organizing is not going to happen. And so we discussed, had conversations, and we were like, no, we’re not gonna do funding applications. We’re not gonna call for funding. The funding that we’re going to call for is funding from individuals, from those that want to donate money that doesn’t have strings attached – just give money to a community and the community decides how to use that money. And the Khayelitsha Community Action Network got donations of up to 20, to 50,000 rands from individuals and from groupings that donated that money. And we used that money in a manner that we thought was okay for Khayelitsha. And so that’s the type of, I think, progressive organizing and community-led organizing that I think has worked and maybe needs to be replicated within Cape town, but also in the country. This was a grouping that was formed to respond on a humanitarian, more than just a broader political response, but we know that there’s broader political issues that we need to deal with in the country, but we knew we need to use that type of organizing to deal with these bigger political issues.
AA: Thank you, Ax
AN: Thank you. Yeah, I think this is the type of reflection that I hope continues and that a lot of people, can begin with their own organizing as well.
AA: Ax Notywala is a social justice campaigner in Cape Town South Africa. You can find a transcript of our conversation on our website, strengthandsolidarity.org
AA: In our Coda, we like to get someone in the human rights field to tell us about something that’s supporting or inspiring or provoking their work. Nani Jansen Reventlow is a human rights lawyer, much respected for her work in the digital rights field and for her leadership in racial justice and equity. Worried that activism on Twitter and other social media is coming to be seen as a substitute for organizing in real life, Nani looks to the late but still powerful social critic Gil Scott Heron to straighten us out.
Gil Scott Heron:
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised
Nani Jansen Reventlow: So it is a song that I must have heard plenty of times before, but I only started to take real notice of it, I guess, in the summer of 2018, which was the first summer that I spent in Berlin. I’d moved to Berlin to set up the Digital Freedom Fund. And I’d been spending a lot of time thinking about organising, about defending human rights in a digital context specifically, but also getting a little bit annoyed, I think, with equating virtual activism, with real activism and this ignited a spark. And I’ve just been, I’ve been listening to it a lot since then.
GSH: The revolution will not be televised
The revolution will not be brought to you
By Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon blowing a bugle
And leading a charge by John Mitchell…
NJR: I know that Gil Scott Heron himself has spoken about the song quite a lot in interviews since and often made the point that it’s not a criticism only of mass media and mass media culture, but that he really tried to get the message across that the revolution is something that takes place inside of you, that it, that it starts in your own head, I think is how he put it. And that if you feel disconnected with what’s happening outside your door, with what you’re seeing on TV, you have to take to the streets basically to actually really find out what’s going on. And I think that that translates really nicely also to this digital era that we have right now, where it’s so easy to share information online. It’s so easy to retweet a message on Twitter, post something to your Instagram, to your Facebook, but that’s not how you’re going to make revolution happen.
GSH: The revolution will not be right back
After a message about a white tornado
White lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom
The tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat
NJR: Revolution it’s actually quite impressive how current the lyrics still feel, even though some of the cultural references are to commercials that we are not seeing on television any more about, uh, tigers and toilet bowls and, and, what not, it’s very relatable, right? Even if some of the references are a bit further removed from us right now, it’s really clear what he is talking about. And it’s remarkable how much it still captures, well a lot of the challenges that we’re seeing right now with activism and mobilizing people and getting people to really go out there and have their voices heard and really push for change.
GSH:The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because
The revolution will not be televised, brother
NJR: Some people see very clearly, you know, what is wrong in the world and what needs to be fixed and are able to articulate that really well but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re also able to cope and that is hard. And we each have to find our own ways. And depending on the circumstances for some people, the route that they find, it’s just, unfortunately, one that also leads the self- destruction, as was the case for him. In spite of all of that, he left a, an enormous legacy because the fact that his music still speaks so much to us at this point in time, which is more than 50 years later, that is a legacy that will remain. Audre Lorde also stresses revolution is a constant process, right? It’s continuous work. We have to kind of be added every day and every day, ask ourselves, what are we doing to change things? And I really think that the song in a really powerful way, explains how we really need to actually do something. We can’t sit back, relax and follow it on our screens, be the television screen or our phones or our, our laptops or anything. We have to really go out there. We have to do the work.
GSH: The revolution will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
Will not be televised
The revolution will be no re-run, brothers
The revolution will be live
AA: Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not be Televised. Nani Jansen Reventlow is currently starting a new organization in Europe called Systemic Justice. More about that work at systemicjustice.ngo. And she’s also one of our moderators at the Symposium on Strength and Solidarity for Human Rights.
AA: That’s episode 19 of Strength & Solidarity. Thanks for hanging out with us. We’d especially love to know if there are questions you’d like to explore or people you’d like to hear from. So do drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. For now, much appreciation to Cate Brown and producer Peter Coccoma, I’m Akwe Amosu, see you next time.