Where Have All the Activists Gone?

By Charlene Houston · 3 Apr 2012

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Picture credit: Activist Post
Picture credit: Activist Post

Last month South Africans marked Human Rights Day and although most critics of government say that poverty is worse than ever, the day was a rather staid affair. 

Many of the holidays we observe in post-apartheid South Africa emerged out of a struggle culture where activists took advantage of the opportunity to raise awareness about socio-political issues, engaged in protest action and in some cases, even celebration.

These public holidays were once important dates on NGO calendars when much preparation and investment went into their success. We felt so strongly about these days that we vowed to campaign for them to become national days under the democratic dispensation. This is why today we have Human Rights Day, Women’s Day, Youth Day and Worker’s Day, even though the latter takes its lead from a long established international public holiday.

The public broadcaster, SABC, has special programming that recalls the origins of these important occasions, even drawing out their programming to a month long focus for some national holidays.

And while one must acknowledge that retailers and advertisers are being opportunistic when they use these public holidays to promote their brands and products, we must also concede that the subject of the national holiday is at least reaching a larger audience.

However, these public holidays, that is to say, those rooted in the struggle for a better life, have not really grabbed the imagination of broader civil society concerned with socio-political issues in South Africa today.

To be sure there are some NGOs who organise events and even take the trouble to release press statements, but by and large, there is an indifference to the significance of these days that has settled into broader civil society and its institutions.

Could this be another signal of the affliction prevalent in anti-poverty civil society institutions like NGOs?

These national holidays undoubtedly hold the potential to become a platform for a range of concerns that could keep the fight against poverty at the centre of the nation’s agenda.

Compared to the dark days of apartheid, we now have free speech, while the right to protest is enshrined in our Constitution.

So why this apathy?

Well, NGOs face a number of challenges that have already been well documented: a general lack of funding for anti-poverty work, poor leadership and the inability to attract the best candidates for all kinds of positions, are the most serious reasons underpinning the failure of the sector.

But perhaps the most telling challenge facing civil society is a lack of activism.

Most NGOs today consist of paid staff in a “job”. When the money dries up, the work stops. Staff move on to the next organisation that can sustain them or quite often, to the civil service. An unspoken trajectory seems to exist where activists move from grassroots organisations via NGOs to government or corporate jobs. Those with the skills and networks to sustain themselves without having to answer to a boss become independent consultants.

Even when civil society leaders choose to remain in the sector, it is not uncommon for them to be taunted by their peers that have moved on to BEE opportunities and affirmative action posts in corporate South Africa. Seemingly, real activists who remain in the field are losers.

I am not suggesting that an activist remain a poorly paid volunteer forever. Of course in this world where one’s ability to survive and thrive is dependent on some measure of financial security there is a clear need to work for financial rewards that meet our needs.

However, it does seem that many activists have lost the ability (and the inclination) to work while at the same time giving full expression to their activism. This phenomenon has created a vacuum once filled by strong leaders and advocates for social justice that inspired a whole new generation.

This lost practice is a factor in the low numbers of youth activists we find involved in socio-political issues outside of political parties. Many youth have not followed the old trajectory from grassroots or student activist to NGO campaigner. Instead they are more likely to take up opportunities provided by the online revolution. Today there are many fast-fingered Facebook activists that will likely never do more than sign an online petition. These people also need to find ways to connect with communities where change is long overdue and where justice has been slow to arrive.

And while you might point to the numerous service delivery protests as evidence of no shortage of activism on the streets of South Africa, we must remember that activists do more than just protest.

I think of activists as change agents. They are people who identify social injustices almost instinctively and are driven by the need to bring about change. They do this in all kinds of places within varied contexts. In some instances they may not even be involved in particularly radical activities. They are simply people driven by a healthy contempt for injustices, big and small. For example, you might find them on the parents committee of the school that their children attend or in the hospital where they’re a patient. Activists rarely allow incidents of unfairness to pass by without some intervention.

And while activists don’t always have the answers and may lack strategy, many simply act in as far as available knowledge, skills and resources allow. They understand that their individual choices and actions matter in so far as affecting changes to the big picture.

For example, the activist who has not waited on the government to change trade regulations but has made a conscious decision to buy local products wherever possible knows that all change begins with one person taking a stand.

Sadly today most of these activists are found outside politically oriented organisations. The organisations that are concerned with issues related to the structure of society, its decision-making institutions and the distribution of resources are extremely short of these change agents.

While it is unfortunate that many South African NGOs are permanently closing their doors, this could also herald an era where we return from professionalized forms of struggle to activist-driven efforts based on a sound interpretation of the challenges and opportunities within the current context.

But contemporary politics is far more complex than many of us are prepared to admit. It requires more than merely electing the ‘good guys’ into government.

We often hear the call for “new forms of organising” to keep up with the shifting sands of our social and political challenges. It’s time for activists to step forward and demonstrate what these words really mean.

Houston is an activist, storyteller and public history scholar based in Cape Town.

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