South Africa Journal: Engaged Activism Bends the Arc Toward Hope

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

I returned this weekend from an extended visit to South Africa, where Atlantic has long been engaged in supporting organisations and leaders working on human rights, reconciliation and health issues.

Ordinarily in a column, I try to drill down on some particular aspect of our work.

But to give a full flavour of the many compelling challenges and opportunities of the current period in South Africa, I’ve decided to share some excerpts from a journal I kept last week as Atlantic board and staff members and I moved around the country.

Monday, November 9 – Cape Town

An opening briefing by key leaders of a new Atlantic grantee, the Council to Protect and Advance the Constitution, including Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. The South African Constitution, and the visionary judiciary which interprets and protects it, are the envy of the world, but in the political machinations leading up to last year’s national election, many feared for its integrity and independence. All are cautiously optimistic about the early months of the new Zuma administration, which has made a number of good appointments, staunchly rejected the AIDS denialism of the Mbeki government, and signaled a willingness to listen to and work with civil society groups. All the South Africans in the room agree that international media coverage of the country often paints a distorted picture.

A trip to the District Six Museum in Cape Town, supported by Atlantic to preserve the legacy of a mixed-race district razed by the apartheid regime in 1966. After a tour, we hear from grantees working in rural advice offices around the country to help the poor access social benefits. Aninka Claassens, director of the Rural Women’s Action Research Project within the Law Race and Gender Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT), describes a campaign to assist rural women in opposing aspects of customary law that contravene the gender equity clause in the Bill of Rights. The campaign builds on the Legal Resources Centre’s (LRC) work to challenge the Communal Land Rights Act, which restricts women’s rights to own land. In the course of this work, the LRC found that in many traditional rural areas, women were evicted from their homes when a marriage broke, unmarried women could not own land, widows could not inherit land, and women were excluded from tribal and village council meetings where decisions were made about land allocation. The Rural Women’s Action Research Project is providing consultation, legal education and litigation and conducting a base-line survey on how customary law impacts the lives of rural women.

The afternoon concludes with a visit to the University of the Western Cape, a historically black institution, and at one time a center of anti-apartheid activism, which has made enormous strides with support from Atlantic to become one of the leading universities in South Africa and on the continent. The new School of Public Health, which opened in May, and the Life Sciences Complex, due to open in the new year, are stunning buildings constructed with support from Atlantic matched by the government. Brian O’Connell, the dynamic and farsighted rector of UWC, welcomes us with a cocktail reception featuring fabulous Cape Malay dishes prepared by Cass Abrahams, a noted local chef.

Tuesday, November 10 – Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg

A tour of Philippi, Nyanga and other communities near Cape Town. These started as informal settlements of mostly makeshift tin and wood dwellings, now many hundreds of thousands live there with few services and much poverty and crime, despite stirrings of hope and civic energy. Stopped for meetings in Khayelitsha, the largest of these townships, and headquarters of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a longtime Atlantic grantee working toward a quality health system providing equal and affordable access to HIV prevention and treatment for all. TAC’s vigourous advocacy was instrumental in opening up access to anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), and it works throughout the country to train volunteers to encourage testing and provide information and support for people taking ARVs. Nonkosi Khumalo, TAC’s chair, says the changes in government have opened up new partnership opportunities, but “we are aware that as with all honeymoons, it will not last forever,” so TAC is ready to agitate whenever necessary. We like that!

Lunch at the nearby offices of Equal Education (EE), a relatively new organisation sparked by experienced TAC activists and now led by young people training their sights on the nation’s poor education system and the contempt with which it often treats the poor. We meet in a wood-shingled trailer as the wind began to whip up, and Doron Isaacs, the 29-year old co-ordinator who helped launch EE upon his graduation from the University of Cape Town Law School, keeps getting up to shut the poorly-hinged door. A slide presentation has to be scratched because the equipment has been taken by some staff who needed it for a memorial service for a young neighbourhood resident. So Doron, researcher Lukhanyo Mangona and Youth Development officer Nokubonga Yawa just talk about the inequities of a system where many teachers don’t bother to show up on time for school, the physical infrastructure is crumbling, and the pass rate hovers around 50 per cent. The initial youth-led campaigns focused on repair of broken windows which students themselves documented with EE-provided disposable cameras, and moved on to teacher and student tardiness and a drive to assure that every school has a library and a trained librarian. At present only 7 per cent of the schools in all of South Africa have them, a considerable barrier to the preparation of young people for participation in 21st century democracy and economy. We fly to Johannesburg for the next leg of our trip and drive to nearby Pretoria for dinner at the home of the new U.S. Ambassador, Don Gips, and his wife Liz. Two of their impressive sons, 15 and 12, help serve the meal.

Wednesday, November 11 – Johannesburg

Breakfast at Atlantic’s office with colleagues from other funding partners, including the Ford Foundation, which has long maintained a field office and been a mainstay of support for human rights in South Africa, and HIVOS, a Dutch agency. When I arrived in here last week, I gave the keynote talk at the annual awards dinner of Inyathelo, an Atlantic grantee which works to promote philanthropy and capacity-building in the non-governmental sector, and talked about the importance of investment in South Africa, both the need for international donors to stay the course and for South Africans of wealth to step up their giving.

On from there to a national workshop, organised by the Legal Resources Centre and the University of Cape Town programme on Law, Race and Gender, where 85 rural South Africans shared stories about their experiences with customary law, the subject of one of our meetings on Monday in Cape Town. It is an impressive exercise in participatory democracy to see one person after another stand to give testimony, but as most of it is in Zulu, with only intermittent translation, we leave after a while to return to Atlantic’s office, where we talk with leaders of lesbian and gay organisations. When Atlantic started working on LGBTI issues in South Africa, the advocates were mostly white men. Now there is much more leadership from lesbians and township-based black organisations. This is important since, despite strong constitutional protections, there has been a violent backlash in many communities against LGBTI people.

With Atlantic’s help, many of these groups recently participated in a scenario-planning exercise to think ahead to the day when we will no longer be around to provide support. Nodi Murphy, director of the Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, reminds us that all the groups are in it for the long haul. Referring to the rapid and surprising way that gay rights ended up in the South Africa constitution after apartheid, she says: “In 1994, six people got together and gave us rights. Everyone went home. Now we’re under attack, and there is an end to complacency. We have to fight like hell to keep them.”

End the day with a tour of Constitution Hill, the site of the notorious Old Fort prison where thousands of people, including Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated. It is now the site of the country’s Constitutional Court, whose chamber is lined with bricks from the old prison – or, as one former prisoner put it in a film shown to the prison’s visitors, “we now build our freedom with the bricks that once imprisoned us.” Former Justices Albie Sachs and Johann Krigler join us for a reception afterward.

Thursday, November 12 – Musina

Up early for a charter flight, in a small plane, to Musina, a copper-mining town on the Zimbabwe border which is the main point of entry for those seeking refuge from economic deprivation and political persecution. Our first stop is the government “reception centre,” where we meet with the Home Affairs official running it, Sakhile Dlalisa, as hundreds of applicants for asylum and other entry permits wait, papers in hand, for a chance to make their case. Almost all are turned down, which suggests a lack of due diligence.

The centre is a very new building and has the feel of a ferry terminal or a waiting room for jury service, a vast difference from little more than a year ago, when 4,000 refugees waited and slept in the town showgrounds in miserable conditions. And yet, we learn from Médecins sans Frontières, whose clinic we visited, and the Musina Legal Advice Office that the shift to a government processing center has made it harder for health and legal workers to have access to the refugees.

The health needs are particularly dire, as many women have been raped and abused, particularly those who tried to cross the border unofficially, through the river. It is estimated that 30 per cent of those fleeing Zimbabwe have HIV/AIDS. The new Zuma government has declared a moratorium on deportation of refugees, but that hasn’t had much of an impact on local police, who make a practice of detaining refugees and driving many back across the border, in contravention of national policy.

I’m struck at times by the similarity of some of the immigration issues in the U.S. and South Africa: the exploitation of illegal migrants, the conflicts among enforcement agencies, and the xenophobia toward immigrant workers in a tight labor market.

Friday, November 13 – Johannesburg

After a short bus tour of the Johannesburg city centre, which is showing signs of regeneration, thanks partly to the nation’s enormous infrastructure improvements as the 2010 World Cup games near, we visit longtime grantee the AIDS Law Project which, like the (TAC), is adjusting to a more cooperative relationship with government after years of hostility and official AIDS denialism, and considering an expansion of its work to broader socio-economic rights like other health issues, food and housing.

At lunch, a depressing briefing about the deteriorating political and economic situation in Zimbabwe, which gives little ground for hope that what is sparking the refugee crisis will end anytime soon. Then, a meeting with Maggie Seiler of the National Peace Accord Trust and Sandile Mhlongo of the MK Veterans Association to learn more about a striking piece of good news: the new government’s significant steps to provide support for veterans of the liberation struggle through provision of housing and employment and the creation of a first-ever Ministry of Veterans Affairs, significant steps toward long-sought Atlantic goals.

Saturday, November 14 – Johannesburg

A final lunch, with Mary Metcalfe, new Director General of the Ministry of Higher Education, and Ronette Engela, Chief Director of the Monitoring and Evaluation department in the Presidency. The Zuma government seems serious about rigourous evaluation of government programmes and initiatives, monitoring performance and requiring accountability for results. We have a lot to talk about and share, since this is a core component of Atlantic’s own grantmaking.

Riding to the airport afterwards with Atlantic’s board chair, Fritz Schwarz – who had never visited South Africa before, despite having been active in anti-apartheid work as early as the 1960’s – we reflected on the extraordinary people we had met, particularly emerging young leaders. It is easy to be daunted by the challenges of turning a racist and repressive state where, even fifteen years after the end of apartheid, the vast majority of the population had been systematically deprived of opportunity, into a beacon of rights and economic justice. And there have been many obstacles along the way, not the least of which is the cruel swath cut by the AIDS pandemic. But we saw unmistakable signs of progress, and the energy and leadership of the young bends the arc toward hope.

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: