Cultures of Respect Episode 2January 05, 2021

2. South Africa: Rebuilding a movement’s culture after crisis

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

South African social justice movement Equal Education went through a major — and very public — upheaval after allegations of sexual harassment by members of the movement’s leadership emerged.  General Secretary Noncedo Madedubedube describes her root and branch effort to change and rebuild Equal Education’s culture and restore confidence in the organization.

00:00 / 00:00

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device on Apple, Breaker, Google, Radio Public, Spotify, and Stitcher

The Interview

‘Rebuilding a movement’s culture after crisis’, an interview with Noncedo Madedubedube, General Secretary of Equal Education in South Africa

This episode’s interview is with Noncedo Madubedube, General Secretary of a South African social movement called Equal Education that holds the ANC government to account for its failure to provide decent education for young south African primary and secondary learners. EE’s members — the “Equalizers” — are organized in every province to demand roofs and decent sanitation in school, safe conditions for students and good teaching. Madubedube was elected to the top position in the organization in 2018 at a time when the Cape Town-headquartered organization was beset with bitter recriminations around sexual harassment issues  and negative coverage in the national press. Despite calls from feminist and other voices in civil society for the focus to be survivor-centered, putting the harassment incidents front and center, as she tells Strength and Solidarity, Madubedube decided that her priority had to be the culture of the organization she was leading.

The Coda

Turkish human rights leader Murat Celikkan shares an Ariel Dorfman poem that evokes the pain and fierce determination of the “disappeared” and their loved ones

Veteran human rights defender Murat Celikkan has been in jail three times — he knows what it is like to be locked up for your beliefs. Formerly a senior journalist and editor whose solidarity with Kurdish journalists was the cause of his most recent incarceration, he now co-leads Hafiza Merkezi, or Truth, Justice and Memory Center, in Istanbul which works to uncover the fate of numerous individuals forcibly disappeared by the Turkish state in the late 90s and never seen again.  For the Coda, Murat chose to share a poem by Ariel Dorfman that speaks intimately and powerfully to the issue of abduction and the anguish of those left without information or contact about their loved ones.

Transcript

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

Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the people and ideas driving — and disrupting — human rights work around the world.

In this episode,

  • We talked to the leader of a social movement about rebuilding her organization’s confidence after an internal harassment crisis.
  • And in our Coda, we’ve got Turkish human rights leader, Murat Cellikan, sharing a profound and intense poem by Ariel Dorfman.
  • But before that, I’m going to check in with my colleague, Chris Stone, and see what’s interesting him this week.

Part One: Conversation

AA: Hey Chris, how are you doing I’m well, how are you? Yeah, I’m good. Thank you. What are you thinking about this week?

CS: I’ve been thinking a lot about Egypt and the way that organizations seem to be building strength there, in particular, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, EIPR, that was in the news a lot at the end of last year because of the detention of the leadership by General Sisi and by the state apparatus in Egypt. But for me, I’ve been thinking back about what that incident tells us about the strength that the EIPR has been able to build and why that strength is so important.

AA: So say more, say more about that. What is it that you’re seeing about EIPR that’s important here?

CS: I think a lot of times when you see mobilizations against a state’s detention of a human rights activist, the mobilization is around that individual, to free that individual from detention. But the campaign late last year in Egypt, while it mentioned Gasser Abdel-Razek the director of the EIPR, it mentioned Karim Ennara, the criminal justice director at EIPR, he mobilization was really about the regime’s attack on this organization. This is not an organization that simply is reduceable to one leader or one founder, EIPR is an organization that’s now on its third director, it’s had a strong run over many years. The reaction around the world was not so much about their individual stories, who they were as individuals, but the fact that this was a government attacking a strong, in some accounts, the strongest human rights organization in Egypt.

AA: That’s really interesting. Are you making a general point about the health of a human rights movement when you focus here on the strength of the organization?

CS: Well, this question about heroic individuals and strong organizations has been an obsession of mine. I think probably since 1991, when the whole world watched two regimes fall that had been violating rights – the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Soviet union fell essentially to a movement comprised of heroic individuals, dissidents as we called them at the time who were protesting the violations of their rights and whose stories seem to capture the violation of rights by the Soviet regime. Whereas in South Africa, not only the ANC, but a whole series of organizations mounted the resistance to the rights violations of the apartheid era, and then have built a democracy since then. And that difference between a rights movement built on strong organizations and a rights movement built only on heroic individuals, I think had been playing out in those two countries ever since. And the result, you know, you can see today, Russia where the regime is essentially led by people who were in the leadership of the KGB during the Soviet era, whereas in South Africa, you have a vibrant civil society, a strong democracy,  weaknesses in individual organizations and individual political parties, but essentially a rights-respecting culture and society that is holding on to its revolution.

AA: And definitely some of those South African organizations, I think about the Treatment Action Campaign and, uh, Section 27, I think about Equal Education. Uh, these, these organizations have been, uh, formidable defenders of rights in South Africa.

CS: Absolutely. And, and so to come back to Egypt, it means that a story that many of us saw at an individual level, the individual stories of these individuals detained and the government being forced to release them because of a global mobilization. I’ve been thinking that story tells us a different lesson as well. It’s also a lesson about how strong EIPR has become in the years since the Arab spring.

AA: So what’s this telling you about the future course of human rights defense in Egypt?

CS: It’s giving me hope. It gives me hope because the global campaign of countries, of journalists, of organizations, celebrities wasn’t triggered because the Egyptian government arrested a prominent party leader, a political hero. Uh, they didn’t arrest somebody from the global elite. They didn’t arrest somebody from another country. They arrested people who are ordinary Egyptians, but working in an extraordinary organization. It became a problem for the regime not because of the celebrity of the individuals, not because of their individual stories, but because a domestic Egyptian rights organization had become powerful in a way that often we only see power held by international actors, foreign actors, global celebrities, or the very wealthy.  Here are the line the Egyptian government crossed is they attacked an organization that had found a way to build its own strength.

AA: Okay, well, they’re not out of the woods yet. Their assets are frozen. They can’t leave the country and the charges persist. So there are many hurdles to be crossed, but it’s good to hear that you’re seeing something positive in this situation. Thanks Chris.

CS: Thanks, Akwe

 

Part Two: Interview

AA: In the years leading up to 2018, some serious sexual harassment allegations surfaced at the most senior levels of South Africa’s social movement, Equal Education. An extraordinary social justice organization that had drawn praise for its powerful grassroots mobilization, demanding, safe, and quality education for young learners now found itself in the headlines at home and abroad and its reputation being damaged. An independent panel of inquiry was set up to chart a way forward, but its members disagreed and delivered divergent findings, leaving the wider civil society and media coverage still arguing over how victims should be supported and accountability achieved. In the middle of all this, Noncedo Madubedube was elected General Secretary of Equal Education in mid-2018 after solid service as an activist in its provincial structures. I asked her what she felt she had to prioritize as she came into office.

Noncedo Madubedube: It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea that we weren’t focusing on who was in fact wrong or guilty in these processes. They felt that we weren’t facilitating a real means to an end through justice for the woman that had come forward. But there was also a sense inside the organization that these men have left now, and our work is important, and our organization represents something important to the system, and we need to get back to advocating for those bare necessities and essentials inside our education system. And so folk were willing to move on and think about, how do we learn about what we’ve experienced, but they did definitely feel that there could have been more done to give those women justice.

AA: So you understood that whatever happened with the inquiries, at the level of your membership organization, the problem was that young people, men and women, children, needed to have a different vision of inclusive culture. And that was your priority.

NM: Absolutely. Mine was to try and build a practice, and a grassrooted practice, around what we were calling an intersectional politics in the organization. And I thought that needed to be accompanied by a set of principles that we would hold and revisit, hold as a living document really and revisit with one another continuously; because it’s a youth movement, it’s meant to feel, vibrant, agile and move with the times. but it also exists inside this, like, deeply fucked-up and violent society. And so if we have an opportunity to chart what it could look like for us, we’d be able to trickle that sort of mentality, practice, culture into our communities. And then, then it spreads like wild fire. It all sounds very dreamy, but I think, I think it does start with, at least setting that kind of precedent inside the culture of the organization I was going to lead.

AA:  And do you believe that you’ve been able to do that? It now we’re two years on from the end of the inquiry, and so you’ve been building or perhaps trying to grow a better culture. What kind of a grade do you give yourself and the organization in doing that?

NM: I think we’ve been very successful. We’re able to now talk about patriarchy, feminism, sexual harassment, the marginalization of queer folk, but without all of those concepts sounding threatening or dirty. We’ve got a really robust education and training unit that sets us to task, reading together and running exercises inside of our youth spaces; we’ve also during this period, designed and implemented a safeguarding policy, which talks to, I mean, reaches as far as the service providers, the people that organize the taxis for learners to transport themselves between youth spaces. And it’s allowed us to think quite deliberately and hold each other accountable strongly to the ways that we treat one another. And for those things to also not feel aggressive to the young men in our organization, for them to also go – absolutely, let us grapple with the patriarchy.  But they typically ask us, “but can we find other men writing about this work because we’re tired of being able to relate it to Audre Lorde or Chimamanda,”  and that being an exciting request, because it means there’s an evolution of the ways the comrades understand what the emancipatory agenda that we’ll all hold is. I mean, they love the Thomas Sankara quote about, the liberation must include women. And so seeing those kinds of conversations happen with ease is an absolute joy. So it’s all been rewarding, but it has kind come at a cost, I suppose.

AA:So can I ask you about that? About you personally, I mean I think for a young black woman to come into a leadership role in that context must have been quite hard. What was your personal experience of stepping into such a key leadership position, but in such a storm?

NM: I’ve been an equal education since 2012, and I’ve played various roles. So I’ve been a volunteer, came in as an intern. Then I led one of our provinces, and so I had a deep familiarity with the network of equal education and around us. So I didn’t have – I wasn’t deeply fearful of what the role meant. I mean, I by no means knew what being a general secretary,  a head of an organization is actually about. But I  wasn’t too nervous cause I did feel that there were enough of us inside organization around us that  understood the importance of having this vehicle. But yeah, I think personally I felt like we were going to be okay; and folk in the sector, I think at least after I’d come in as the general secretary felt some empathy – there was rhetoric around like, ‘it’s typical of men to screw up and the black woman to take over to fix things’  and I mean, I milked that! I was like, absolutely – so let’s, let’s support each other! And I’ve made some really amazing friendships and relationships and comrades through this period. So yeah, it’s always felt like… not alone, I’ll tell you that much.

AA: Have you changed in terms of the way you lead, if you look at yourself in July 2018 and yourself now, what would people who work with you see as different in, or changed in the way that you operate?

NM: Yeah, definitely and not all of it is something that I’m proud of. So, like I was saying, when we came in, I was very much invested in an absolute de-centralization of decision-making governance practices and policies. I wanted the staff and members of EE to influence every single, incy bit of how we were going to find resolutions around campaigns, policies, decisions, who speaks where – completely for it, but I think it got exhausting. I think I was naive in that sense.  The reason I said that it’s not all positive is because I think, I think it’s hardened me a bit,  it makes me less susceptible to BS. You know, I just feel like, if it’s difficult for you to operate inside the things that we all feel like we’ve worked towards and built, then maybe this isn’t the place for you.  And I don’t think that when I started, I held any part of that, I honestly thought that, you know, we would all be on the same page all the time. I’m less like that now.  I am vigilant (laugh). And I think I do want to share that like a big part of what this has taught me is that it will kill you if you don’t hold alongside building a movement that centers black joy as well. So when we do have these conversations, can we start off with like a 15 minute solid song session where we’re all raising the roof and beating drums, and using language that inspired folk that have come before us, folk that fought apartheid in the eighties.  We can all identify what is hard, violent, and unjust. It takes a certain kind of courage and energy –  I want to say youthfulness, without offending anyone listening to this, , to imagine and dream and let your dream take you away,  as you build and work towards your tomorrow. And, and I think that’s what makes this work fun.

AA: Equal education General Secretary Noncedo Madubedube talking to us from Cape Town, South Africa.

 

Part Three: The Coda

AA: And now for the Coda, our regular segment where someone working in the human rights space share something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work. They do, perhaps a book, a poem, a proverb, or perhaps a song connected to their passion for rights and justice. This episode, we’re going to hear Murat Celikkan, co-director of Hafiza Merkezi, or the Truth Justice Memory center in Istanbul, talk about a poem he discovered by Ariel Dorfman.

Murat Celikkan:

When they tell you

that I am not a prisoner,

do not believe them.

They will have to acknowledge it

sometime.

When they tell you

that they let me free

do not believe them.

They will have to acknowledge

that it was a lie

sometime.

When they tell you

that I betrayed the party,

do not believe them.

They will have to acknowledge

that I was loyal

sometime.

When they tell you

that I am in France,

do not believe them.

Do not believe them when they show you

my false papers,

do not believe them.

Don’t believe them when they show you

the photo of my body,

don’t believe them.

Don’t believe them when they tell you

that the moon is a moon,

if they tell you that the moon is a moon,

that this is my voice on a taperecorder,

that this is my signature on a confession,

if they tell you that a tree is a tree

don’t believe them,

don’t believe

anything they tell you

anything they swear to

anything they show you,

don’t believe them.

And when finally

the day will arrive

when they will ask you to come in

to recognise the corpse

and you see me there

and a voice will say

we killed him

he faded out in the torture

he is dead

when they tell

that I am

entirely absolutely definitely

dead

don’t believe them

don’t believe them

don’t believe them.

 

MC: In 2013, I was a fellow at Columbia university and, uh, while in the United States, I was away from my colleagues, from my loved ones. And I found out about this poem and I wanted to share that with my colleagues in Turkey, so there I translated it into Turkish and sent [to] them, just maybe to feel that they were with me and I was with them although we were, I mean, miles apart. It makes me feel that although people just fade away and disappear, there is something left behind of them: “We don’t believe you and we insist on the existence, the memory of that person.” And I think that’s powerful.

It’s mostly during the nineties, that people were forcibly disappeared because of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. My organization, Hafiza Merkezi, for the last 13 years,   focuses on  forcibly disappeared people and Ariel Dorfman’s poem, as well as some of his plays and other literature, , is directly involved with  disappearances. And I think, this is an awful crime against humanity because it does not involve only the the victim, the person who was forcibly disappeared, but everyone related to him, his family, his close friends… they don’t know about the whereabouts, whether he or she is dead or alive. So this crime continues to go on.

I know that this is not new, but I think we people in the human rights struggle and human rights work should refer and elaborate more with artists.  Because it’s not only about the message, it’s the feelings too. And there, artists are much more powerful than all of us.

Will and testament

By Ariel Dorfman

 

When they tell you

that I am not a prisoner,

do not believe them.

They will have to acknowledge it

sometime.

When they tell you

that they let me free

do not believe them.

They will have to acknowledge

that it was a lie

sometime.

When they tell you

that I betrayed the party,

do not believe them.

They will have to acknowledge

that I was loyal

sometime.

When they tell you

that I am in France,

do not believe them.

Do not believe them when they show you

my false papers,

do not believe them.

Don’t believe them when they show you

the photo of my body,

don’t believe them.

Don’t believe them when they tell you

that the moon is a moon,

if they tell you that the moon is a moon,

that this is my voice on a tape recorder,

that this is my signature on a confession,

if they tell you that a tree is a tree

don’t believe them,

don’t believe

anything they tell you

anything they swear to

anything they show you,

don’t believe them.

And when finally

the day will arrive

when they will ask you to come in

to recognise the corpse

and you see me there

and a voice will say

we killed him

he faded out in the torture

he is dead

when they tell

that I am

entirely absolutely definitely

dead

don’t believe them

don’t believe them

don’t believe them.

 

AA: Thanks to Murat Cellikan, and also, thanks to Ariel Dorfman for giving us permission to read his extraordinary poem. And if you have a favorite item that relates to your own passion for rights and justice, and would like to tell us about it, drop us a line at pod@strengthandsolidarity.org.  OK. That’s all from Strength and Solidarity for this episode, if you’d like to know more about our work, visit our website, strengthandsolidarity.org. And even though it’s early days, we really want to hear from you. Wherever you accessed us, you’ll find a link or a form where you can tell us how we’re doing. We’d love your suggestions for the people or issues you’d like to hear about and your feedback on our podcast. And finally, please add us to your podcast library and join us again. Thanks to our producer, Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu, see you next time.