Solidarity Organizational Health Language of Rights 43April 06, 2024

43. South Africa: Organizing – a superpower for the landless

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

The shack dwellers of South African cities have been abandoned by their government, left to try and make homes on land they don’t own, without sanitation or electricity, and vulnerable to adverse weather or corrupt and violent law enforcement. But being poor and marginalized doesn’t mean you are powerless. The social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo which organizes in the informal settlements has a membership of 120,000 and rising, and a remarkable record of defending its communities against eviction, despite a series of targeted assassinations that have taken 25 of its grassroots leaders. Abahlali’s General Secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, explains the movement’s organizing approach, strategies, and its formal structures, and how it is responding to violent attacks and marginalization by the ruling ANC.

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The Interview

‘We need to be organized because we’re fighting a system that creates evictions’

For Thapelo Mohapi, preventing an individual eviction is only part of Abahlali’s goal. “We have a bigger picture – a just and equal society we’re empowering a community so that it understands that it is not just them facing this eviction. I mean, I got into this work and more extensively into leadership because of the eviction that I faced. And I realized that I should take what I’ve learned through my pain, through my struggle, to protect other evictions from happening.

The Coda

‘What I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I been afraid?’

Eleanor Thompson, a Sierra Leonean human rights lawyer and social justice activist in Freetown,  returns to an essay by Audre Lorde in which she reflects on the ways we may avoid speaking our truth for fear we might incur anger  or rejection.  Facing her own mortality, Lorde realizes that she gains nothing from staying silent but gains connection from others when she uses her voice – inspiration for Eleanor, as she navigates feelings of both difference and belonging in her community


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity, I’m Akwe Amosu, here with episode 43 of our podcast about the tools, tactics and strategies being used to defend human rights.  And this time –  


  • The art of organizing – a close-up look at what it takes to build a powerful disciplined movement in a marginal, impoverished community   
  • and in the Coda:  what makes you afraid to speak up, is also the source of your power 


AA: We don’t usually feature the same organization twice on this podcast but we’re making an exception this time – we’re going back to Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers movement in South Africa. You might recall that last year we invited Abahlali’s president S’bu Zikode and human rights lawyer Nomzamo Zondo to talk about their partnership -what constitutes respectful solidarity between an NGO and the social movement they support. Preparing for that episode, I got really interested in Abahlali’s organizing model. They support a population of landless people, abandoned by the state, forced to rig up makeshift homes without sanitation and other services, and facing constant threat of eviction and harassment from police and local party and city officials. Some might think that these would be unpromising conditions in which to try and build a disciplined, self-confident struggle. But in fact, despite their marginalization and lack of resources, these communities have been able to a generate powerful, tactically smart movements that can work on very local problems with mass action, pursue legal strategies, keep democratic practice alive in their structures, and find time to show solidarity with other movements, notably the Palestinian struggle. So, when I had the chance to speak with Thapelo Mohapi, Abahlali’s general secretary, I seized it. But before we start, just a word about Thapelo’s own journey. When he was about 20 and living in an informal community with 300 other people in the Durban area, a senior police officer bought the land they were on and tried to evict them.  Thapelo and a friend went to Abahlali, then a pretty new grouping, to ask for advice and with their support went on to win the battle – 18 years later, they are still living on the same land. So he is both a beneficiary and a guardian of the movement he leads.  


AA: Welcome, Thapelo. 


TM: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate. 


AA: I want to have a conversation with you about organizing, because from a distance, at least, Abahlali seems to have, you know, some secret sauce. You’ve got some ability to really help communities get themselves organized. So let’s say we have a community where eviction is taking place, and you have a young, energetic, determined person who wants to protect their home, their family, their community, and they come to Abahlali. What does Abahlali tell them? 


TM: Well, such evictions are common in, especially in South Africa as a whole. I mean, there’s one that recently is happening in Johannesburg, in Germiston but in other areas, they are not as brutal as they are in Durban. First and foremost, we want people to be organized, because we are not fighting against the evictions, we are fighting against a system which creates these evictions that are brutal. Two people come to our offices and say, “we are facing this brutal eviction.” We take them through how the law works, we take them through how Abahlali are organizing, but also we encourage them to go back in their community to organize more people, because we don’t believe that that eviction is affecting an individual; it affects their entire community. And that’s where the organizing starts, first and foremost. 


AA: So you don’t say, okay, we’re coming to help you, you say, go back and, and, 


TM: And mobilize more people.  


AA: How many people? 


TM: We, well, we encourage, 50 people per branch, in order to establish a branch, in Abahlali, we need to have at least, 50, individuals from the community, or 50 households, in fact. 


AA: So, so, so then it means that this person who may have no experience doing political work or organizing work, you’re just saying, go back and find another 49 households. And then we’ll talk to you. 


TM: Yes. But that is encouraging collectivity, not individuals. So people assume that we are lawyers, we can protect that individual, but we are not lawyers. I mean, we have a, a bigger picture – a just and equal society. I mean, it’s not about preventing the eviction from happening, but it’s also empowering a community so that one day that community understands that it is not just them that are facing this eviction. I mean, I, I got into this work and more extensively into leadership because of the eviction that I faced. And I realized that I should take what I’ve learned through my, my pain, through my struggle to actually protect other evictions from happening. And that’s what I’ve done over the years to actually prevent evictions from happening and restore the dignity of the impoverished in South Africa. 


AA: So, you know that the model works. 


TM:  It works, it has been tested for, for, for many years since I’ve been in the movement. And when we say go back and organize those people, it’s actually the starting point of you learning how to organize. We call it the art of organizing, because you get into organizing without having any studying about organizing, you go back because it’s your pain. You understand that Abahlali will protect you, but the only way to protect you is to organize others who are in the same struggle, in the same pain as you. So people do go back and organize people, and then we go and give them the political education. 


AA:  Okay So let’s assume your person has gone back. They found another 49 households. They’ve somehow managed to have a meeting and agree that they all want Abahlali to come. You come and – what is this political education? What do you actually do with them at that point? 


TM: This is what we do. And this is what Abahlali are unique for. One of the things is that, we educate people because the politics in the country has divided people. Others are from the ruling party, the ANC, others are from the Democratic Alliance. And the EFF. One of the things that we talk about with them is that, you may be EFF, you may be ANC, you may be DA, but right now we are all impoverished, there’s nothing that separates us. We are facing an eviction. We are facing a brutal state and we need to take your political party hat off and let’s talk about the real politics. The politics that we are facing right now is that we don’t have access to land, is that our dignity is not recognized, is that we don’t have even the basic services, people are going to sleep outside. Because you see, these evictions, what they do is, I mean, in some instances I’ve encountered women who are on ARVs, and when the demolitions happen their medication is lost, and, and it’s a very painful moment that you come across and you wonder what will happen if this person no longer takes their medication? And you have to intervene in that regard, try and get the hospital to provide the medication that they’ve already provided and so forth, and go to the police station and open a case of, you know, this brutal act. I mean, we’ve had women that have lost children, who gave birth premature because police will come with tear gas and so forth. So, these are brutal. I mean, when you come and do this political education, you have to understand the situation that people are going through. It’s, it’s a painful experience when you see people’s property all over, food all over the place scattered. And you see these armed men just having this power over this community. and your approach should acknowledge all of these things that are taking place to say, look, I know that this is difficult, but we, we’ve been through this a number of times, we understand what’s going on, but also make people understand the struggles that they’re in. 


AA: And, and the reason that you make this point about the political party affiliations is, at one level, it’s obvious, you’re right, the reality of living in this situation and facing this danger affects everyone, whatever party they support. But you are also presumably worried that in some way, party affiliation will divide them. 


TM: Yes. Yes. In fact, in fact, we made it very clear to people on the ground when we do the political education, that you cannot love your political party more than you love your life. Because right now, your life is affected, your family doesn’t know where to sleep. Um, there, there’s nowhere to eat and nothing to eat. And, and therefore, you should not put your party ahead of your life, your own life, the life of your family. That’s why we are saying, put that hat on the side. Let’s talk about the real issues that we are facing. The real issue is that we don’t have electricity, we don’t have water, we don’t have land. We are facing an eviction, and we have a government that does not even recognize us. Our existence is not being recognized. and we are brutalized because we are poor, because we don’t have money because we, we, we are black, and the government does not care about us. And, and some of those things in the past have worked. 


AA: Okay. So political party affiliation – set that aside. What else are you telling them in practical terms that needs to happen now that you’re ready to organize with them?  


TM: So, so another thing is that we’ve always believed, I mean, we’ve won battles in courts, and people should understand that, that you can win in court and lose on the ground; you can lose in court, but win on the ground because the masses are there. So we’ve always told people that they should not rely on one strategy.   Where I come from for instance, eThekwini municipality, I mean it’s very brutal. And, in that particular province, the ANC-led government think that they are law unto themselves. So even when you have an interdict that prevents an eviction from taking place, they will still come and evict because they believe that they would not be told by court how to govern. And that’s what they always tell us. So, you can have this interdict that prevents the municipality from evicting and, and destroying people’s homes. But if you don’t have the masses on the ground to actually defend themselves… 


AA:  Yes. So, so what is that other strategy?  It sounds as though it’s about putting bodies between your homes and the bulldozers. Is that it -sort of physical protest, physical occupation of the land, so that people can’t –  


TM: Well, you don’t have to put your body on the bulldozers. But what happened would be that, and, and this is a first strategy because it’s called people’s power, when they destroy your home, you go and block the road, to say to people out there that we are facing a problem here. Uh, you must understand that we, we are also human beings, and we live in this country,  


AA: Like a highway nearby or something like that.  


TM: Yes exactly. And by, by the way, that that’s how the movement was formed. It was formed through the blockade of the road. and the blockade is a sign of people that have not been heard, the people that have been, uh, neglected for years. Because people, particularly middle-class people, think that people decided to go on the streets – I mean, recently, the people in Kennedy Road blockaded the road and that is because two months have passed after there was a shack fire, and three lives were lost, and the government has not responded. And people are asking government to respond. But we are saying it can’t be a normal in this country that the other side continues with business as usual, while the others are still suffering. So that’s, that’s a sign of the poor trying to say, hey, we exist. We are here. We, we want to be listened. We want to be known, and we want you to know and understand our struggle that, there’s a government that is failing us. 


AA: So, so that’s the point that you are getting across in these first meetings of political education is that you’re not just relying on the court.  


TM: Yes.  


AA: You have to do this for yourself. Here are the tools that we’ve been using and that we know work, to get the attention of the authorities and make sure that they don’t just ride roughshod over us. 


TM: Yes. Yes. The first one being the one that I just mentioned – the people’s power, uh, which was how the movement was formed. It was formed through that. It was formed in a difficult time   nobody would protest against the ANC because it was 10 years and here we were saying that no, this freedom that people are talking about is not coming. Um, that’s people’s power. The other one is using a media strategy. Of course, we write statements. We, we invite the media and we tell the media what, what, and exposing what is happening. Um, and then the courts, of course becomes, another strategy. But the courts is used after all these other strategies have failed. And even if you have gone to court, you still use these strategies. Um, I mean, I remember in one of the occupation, after people who were being killed, people’s homes were destroyed. We got an interdict to prevent the municipality from doing that. And the municipality came back the next day after we have the interdict and destroyed people’s homes, and the community took to the streets. I mean, we got the interdict, and now we wanted to hold whoever is responsible, personally liable for not respecting the courts. But in the midst of that, the community need to continue their own struggle So, so those are the strategies.  


AA:  So can we go back to the group of 50 households? Yes. And the original complainant who came to find you and asked for your help. At that point, they’re now sitting in the meeting with you. They’re understanding what has to happen, you know – how do they feel? Because, at one level, I think they might have hoped that you’re going to do this for them. But you’re kind of telling them, no, your trouble starts here. You’re gonna have to do all of this yourselves, we’ll help you.  


TM: I mean, we make it very clear that we don’t struggle for you, we struggle with you. In other words, if you fold your arms and you don’t do anything, we also fold our arms and not do anything. But if you push, uh, which is why many of the occupations have been won, is because the communities will push, and on other side, we will, you know, assist where we can, I mean, we’ve won, uh, about 95 [%] of the cases that we have. Um, the 5% would be probably occupations that were won through the people’s power, because courts are not always in our favor. So, but the occupation remains <laugh> in that. So yes, people must understand that we will not struggle for them. We will struggle with them, and they’re part of the struggle, and they must understand the struggle, because we don’t want to have this dependency syndrome where you just do everything for people. I think it comes with value in, in that you feel you are part of the struggle. You feel you contributed something in the struggle. It doesn’t say that Abahlali came and rescued you, but you were part of rescuing yourself, liberating yourself. And that’s very important for us, that people understand that it is only themselves that can liberate themselves. And hence when the movement was started, S’bu said, you are on your own, we don’t know. Let’s find solution. Nobody loves us. The government is shooting and killing at us. Our comrades have been arrested. Uh, the system, the middle class doesn’t want us in this area.  It means we are on our own. I don’t have the solutions, you have the solutions. Let’s put together, those heads. Hence, the general assembly becomes a space where people share knowledge. So you’ll find a community like Cato Crest, who has been evicted 24 times, and you’ll find a, a, a community like in Enkanini which was evicted, five times. And the Enkanini community comes into the General Assembly, very angry, and saying that “they’ve been demolishing our homes five times now!” And Cato Crest will say, “no, that’s nothing. It’s been 24 times on our side.” So, so you, you are still in the start of the struggle, but you find people sharing those struggles themselves and finding solutions to their own struggles.  


AA: Okay, so this is, this is exactly where I was hoping we would go, because now we’ve, we’ve dealt with the immediate situation but then – you know, how big is Abahlali now? 


TM: Well, we have 120,000 members across five provinces of the nine provinces in South Africa. 


AA: So obviously we are not just talking about a very local “community by community” organization, you’ve got infrastructure above the level of the immediate community. Can you just describe what that is? You just mentioned the General Assembly. What is that? What are the structures that sit above the level of the local group?  


TM: Well, we have provincial structures as well. Um, but, at the moment, in Gauteng, we are still trying to find balance – 


AA: Gauteng being the province where Johannesburg is. 


TM: Yes, exactly. Yes, where we have branches. We require seven branches in order to launch a province. And in Mpumalanga, we’ll be launching soon a structure. Eastern Cape we’re still behind, understanding that we’re organizing in the rural municipality in Bizana. Um, the Western Cape also, is lagging behind. But where the stronghold is, in KZN, we have a full province at that.  


AA: KZN is KwaZulu-Natal.  


TM: Yes.  


AA: How many branches would you have there? 


TM: 72 branches in all, understandably so, because that’s where the movement was formed, and that’s where the movement is strong, at the moment.  


AA: So, you’ve got the level of the branches.  


TM:  Yes. Which you call local councils. 


AA: Local councils. What’s next up? 


TM: The next up would be the province. And then we have the National Council, which is ourselves. The internal processes and democracy in our movement would be: a branch has a chairperson, deputy chairperson, secretary, deputy secretary; it will have a treasurer who does not have a deputy <laugh>. And we have, an organizer and a deputy organizer.  


AA: So that’s your leadership. 


TM: That’s the leadership at a branch level. Okay. But, with that, we’ll have a Chairperson’s Forum that meets quarterly to discuss situations at their branches so that we get the information in the branches.  


AA: So all 72 chairpersons would meet together. 


TM: They would meet together in, in, KZN. In fact, it’s not only the chairpersons, they come with the secretary. So the chairperson and secretary come to a meeting. Um, the same applies in,  


AA: Each province. 


TM: In each province, yes. And that’s where we get to understand what is happening. So one, you have the local council, which is the branch; the leadership,would meet once a week, and then they are obligated to have a meeting of the community once a month. And then we have the Chairperson’s Forum, and then we have the General Assemblies. So that is the internal process where whatever was discussed at community level will be discussed by the local council. Whatever is discussed in the local council will then be taken to the General Assembly. Uh, people reporting what is happening in the General Assembly. 


AA: So describe that General Assembly. 


TM: Um, the General Assembly is all branches coming together. Anyone from the branches,  


AA: Anyone from the branches, not just the officers? 


TM: Anyone from the branches. 


AA: Okay.  


TM:  What we are trying to do with that is, if somebody has a grievance with the leadership in the branch, can actually bring it to that platform. It’s a platform where people pay for their transports, it’s not paid by the movement. They had to pay for themselves because they’re coming to the General Assembly.  And it’s normally packed, and of course, we don’t come with the agenda. The agenda comes from the people. So what we do, whoever is chairing the assembly would ask for the agenda. And people will raise their hand and say, today, we want to speak about this. Sometimes people will raise the same issue in a different way. And we try, okay, this is the same as this issue, but we will combine together, not ignoring the issue that the person was raising. So, what happens is, the person who raised the agenda when we start the meeting, somebody says, “we have a problem with chairpersons who are detectors in our communities.” And then we say, “Elaborate on that.” And then they start elaborating and say,  


AA: My chairperson did this, my chairperson did that. 


TM: Exactly. And then somebody else will come and say, hey, by the way, we also have the same issue. It may not be with the chair, but with the secretary who does things without consulting us and so forth and so on. How do we deal with the situation like that? And it comes from the floor.  


AA: So this is an accountability mechanism 


TM: <laugh>. Exactly, exactly. Even the National Council is accountable to the General Assembly. Remember the General Assembly can even have a vote of no confidence on a member of the National Council. One stage, the Chairperson’s Forum that was sitting saw that the movement was infiltrated. We did not see anything, we were just working as normal.  And the Forum called me to a meeting, and they requested to have an urgent General Assembly., they called it a Special General Assembly.  We did not chair, they elected their own chairperson on the ground. And the chairperson said, we want the National Council and the Provincial Council of Kwazulu-Natal dissolved and let’s go to a Congress, a new Congress, because we think that some of you are infiltrated, uh, conflicted with the ANC. That was in 2018. I couldn’t do anything because <laugh>, because here the people speaking, and it seemed like this was something that was spoken on at branches, but they couldn’t wait for the actual General Assembly;  they said, “no, we need to deal with this situation now and we have been sent by our branches to discuss it in the Forum of the Chairperson.” And, and we had to um, <laugh> find some money to book the venue and so forth, because it was not budgeted for.  We sat in the General Assembly, and we are told, while we are sitting in the front as the National Council and Provincial Council, that we must go and sit with the rest of the <laugh> people. And then somebody chaired the meeting and said today we’re dissolving the National Council and Provincial Council. 


AA:  So was this actually a sort of political stunt pulled by an opponent of Abahlali? Or was there a real issue? 


TM: There was a real issue. There were some members that attended an ANC gathering. And, and looking back now, I think the movement was saved by the General Assembly, because at that time, S’bu was in hiding, by the way –  the president of the movement was approached by the police to say that there’s a hitman that wants him, so he had to go underground at that time. Um, and that’s when we realized in the midst of that, there were some people in the National Council who were actually working with the ANC. And that’s when the Chairperson’s Forum called for a special General Assembly and the General Assembly dissolved all of us and five people were elected to prepare for the Congress. Uh, and then we went to Congress and of course the people who were conflicted, who attended that conference of the ANC, were not voted in.  


AA: But the rest of you were voted back in? 


TM:: We were voted back in.  


AA: Understood. Thank you for the lesson in how you are built and how you are organized. But your actual lived experience of being targeted, having to be constantly going into hiding in the leadership, um, the sense of the movement being embattled, is very strong. And I wonder, how do you sustain a movement and make sure it continues to work in a democratic way, that the accountability mechanisms work, when people are having to, you know, act in defensive mode all the time? It’s really hard to make accountability mechanisms work if people are in hiding, can’t come to meetings, can’t explain what they’re doing because it wouldn’t be safe to talk out loud about the work they’re doing. Those two things tend not to go well together. So I’m just curious, how is Abahlali affected by being under such hostile pressure? 


TM: Yes. I mean, it’s a difficult situation, to constantly live in the way that you are living. But I think the political education in Abahlali has, you know, built us to be who we are, including the community. I remember there are many attempts that were made to assassinate us. And my first point of protection was the community that I lived in. They would not point where I live without consulting me first. They would say, “there’s somebody looking for you. He says, he has come for this and so forth.” If I say, no, I don’t know that person, they’ll chase that person away and say, “no, you, you are not allowed to come in here.”  Um, but it is because they understand the situation that we’re faced with.  And in some instances, I must be honest with you, it does do a lot of harm, not only in the movement, but also at a personal level. I mean, I was called in a family meeting and they ask me if I want to raise my child or I want to die like the 25 that they have died in Abahlali?  Obviously one will choose to, to live and raise their children, but every time I look at those old people in the movement that we have saved, that we have protected against evictions, every time I think of all the comrades that have lost their lives in the struggle, um, it changes me to be against my family, uh, to say, look, maybe I’m in the right struggle. And we cannot go back now, we’ve lost too much of our comrades, and there’s no taking a step back because we need to win the struggle, at the end of the day. So that is what has been instilled in everyone. The ANC government has failed a lot of people. We have lots of people who are coming into our movement at some stage. Some people will tell us, “we are ANC members, but we’re disappointed with the ANC; and that is wrong because you can’t be staying in a party that is actually sending police to brutalize you. And people have changed, and people continue to come. And our movement is growing  immensely every day. I mean, we, we can’t even keep up with people coming into the movement asking for assistance. Uh, right now we have about five cases that we are – in Durban alone – that we are attending;  two in Johannesburg;  one in Mpumalanga. So you can see that people have come to say, we are fed up. To some extent they want the movement to change, to be a political party. And this has been a, a discussion in our General Assemblies lately. 


AA: And where, where, where does that discussion land? 


TM: Well, it is still a discussion in our movement. I mean, we’ve always engaged in the electoral processes. At first we had the campaign, “No Land, No House, No Vote”, which was to boycott the elections.  And we realized that the ANC was happy when we did that because we are outside of the <laugh> electoral process. Um, but the stance we took in 2014 of, uh, a tactical decision to vote with the official opposition, uh,  


AA: the Democratic Alliance. 


TM: Yes, still angered a lot of people – that we actually took the stance of voting with the Democratic Alliance, and still today they speak about it. So, we realized that we hit the ANC where it hurts the most at that time, because we are now no longer outside of the electoral process. We are in the electoral process. And the DA for the first time in post-apartheid South Africa became the official opposition in KZN, because in KZN, you have the Inkatha Freedom Party that has always been. And of course we decided not to vote for the DA after that, and the DA went back to being the third largest party in the province.  


AA: So, you showed your political power. 


TM: We, we showed our political power. And some people don’t realize that <laugh>, we showed our political power at that time, and that political power, was used by the DA in the province. But we chose not to take that stance again, and the DA lost the official opposition in the province. At the end of the day, we want the ANC out of government because they’ve failed 30 years on. I mean, it’s very difficult for people to still be talking about accessing sanitation at this time. I’m talking about women being raped on their way to relieve themselves. And you can’t be talking about that in 30 years. And it’s as a result of the corruption that’s taking place there, a result of many of our comrades have been killed. I mean, in Cato Crest, — Ngwala,  one of our chairpersons, had the information of how houses were sold to people. And the ANC councillor found out that he had that information. Before he could hand in that information, he was killed, gunned down openly. The unfortunate part in KZN is that when you are killed, you’re killed openly. They actually call you and say,” stop what you are doing, otherwise we’re gonna kill you.” And they, they mean business, and they remove you. I mean, the same happened to Thuli Ndlovu, uh, well, she was killed in that way. We were with her in the same transport coming from Cape Town to launch branches. And they phoned her and they said, stop what you’re doing, otherwise you – and it was the 27th of, September, and on the 29th, she was killed. I mean, these things have made us to say maybe it’s time for us to change the way we vote because we can’t be donating. Look, we organize people, but what other alternative are we giving our people when, if we are going to say, “we are organizing you, but go back and vote for the same oppressor?” So that’s why we are starting to have this discussion on, um, electoral processes and, and, and educating our people. So yeah, I mean, this year we’ve had more than 7,000 people taking onto into the streets to say “we are not free.” Um, for as long as we don’t have water, which is a basic necessity and access to sanitation, we can’t say we are free, uh, 30 years later.  


AA: Thank you, Thapelo. 


TM: Thank you, <laugh>. Thank you. Appreciate. 


AA: Thapelo Mohapi is the general secretary of Abahlali baseMjondolo. I spoke with him last September.  And with the approach of the general election in South Africa, you may want to know what Abahlali decided about taking a political stance. On February 4th, its leadership issued a statement recommending tactical voting to remove the ANC from power and committing to discuss how to do that with members at all levels. You’ll find a link to that statement, as well as a transcript of my conversation with Thapelo on our website, 


AA: Time for the Coda – the place where human rights workers reflect on what inspires them or helps get them through tough times.  And this week we’re hearing from Sierra Leonean lawyer and activist, Eleanor Thompson. She’s been thinking about an essay by Audre Lorde, entitled The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action which Lorde wrote in 1978, based on a paper she had given at a conference. Lorde – a black woman and a lesbian – is revered by feminists and radical thinkers everywhere for her incisive commentaries on the ways women and minorities are frequently marginalized, and on the obligation to face one’s prejudice and fear of difference in order to build a truly powerful women’s movement.  Here’s Eleanor. 


Eleanor Thompson: Lorde had just, a couple months before delivering this paper at the conference, seen doctors who had found a mass, a tumor in her breast. And although the tumor ended up being benign, she did have to undergo surgery. And in the few weeks in which she waited for surgery, had the surgery and recovered, she really reflected on her life, on her mortality, on everyone’s mortality, And it really led to some moments of deep reflection for her that you see reflected in her words and even the urgency with which she speaks in this essay. 


[Lorde] “What I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways all the time. And pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly now without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences while I planned someday to speak or waited for someone else’s words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength. I was going to die, if not sooner, then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself, my silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.” 


ET: This essay encapsulates so much, the power of finding our voices and of overcoming, you know, the fears that are both self-imposed and externally imposed and of gaining strength from sharing, learning and community. This passage is a stark reminder that our silence doesn’t change our mortality, that we’re going to eventually die, nor does it change who we are. It’s for us to ensure that we don’t remain in that silence while we are in this world. While we embrace who we are in this world, that is where our power comes from and our power and our purpose is not in being silent, but in using our voice to connect with others as she was able to do with other women, when she broke her own silence, but also the power and the strength that comes from coming into your full self. 


ET: Transforming silence into language and action requires understanding who you are. And she very confidently asserts herself in this essay, not only in her blackness, but also her womanhood and her queerness. Likewise, I, a Sierra Leonean, born and raised in America, who has an American accent, uh, higher education and socioeconomic privilege that, though earned, is there nonetheless. Those are identities that are sharply visible, particularly in the underserved community in which I live. And that visibility makes me vulnerable to criticism, to censure, to judgment, and to challenge in many ways. Challenge as to my identity, my place in my community, in the world. But at the same time, that visibility that makes me vulnerable to those things, is the same thing that actually gives me strength, the strength that comes from my identity. It gives me strength to fight now to do the work I’m doing to fight for the children in the community, in that same community, to have access to socioeconomic opportunities. 


ET: The first time I encountered Audre Lorde’s piece was several years ago when I was particularly struggling with not feeling quite like I was living fully in my purpose. There felt like some kind of a, a hole there, but I didn’t know what it was or how to fill it. So, when I read this I realized, this is why you feel this way, because you haven’t fully embraced your voice. I’m usually someone who’s, you know, in the background working hard, getting things done, helping others to push their dreams forward. And I realized that what was missing was me embracing all that I am and have the ability to do, uh, particularly when it comes to using my visibility to connect with those around me, to push social justice action, and to help people understand their rights as citizens, what their power is. And that’s not without challenges, but there’s a, there’s a beauty in that identity. 


[Lorde] “And that visibility, which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway. Whether or not we speak, we can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and ourselves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed while our earth is poisoned, we can sit in our safe corners, mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid.” 


ET: So regardless of where we find ourselves in the world, what we’re struggling with sometimes, in terms of the systems, is how those systems affect our own attitudes and our own perceptions of ourselves, and how those systems can mute us. Just speaking out is part of fighting against the oppressive system because the system wants you to be mute. It, it wants to maintain its, its status quo. It doesn’t want to be challenged. And so you have to sort of fight the internal battle, that which is eating at you inside, as you’re also fighting these external battles. 


AA: Eleanor Thompson is a human rights lawyer and social justice activist in Freetown, Sierra Leone. 


AA: And that’s it for Episode 43. If you liked this episode, please give us a five-star rating because it helps other people find the show. And if you have comments – positive or negative – about anything you hear on the podcast, we are keen to hear them. Just drop us a line at  For now, though, from producer Peter Coccoma and me, Akwe Amosu, thanks for listening.