Where do South Africa’s activists go from here? A Cape Town conversation

August 1, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

My last DAG imagemorning in Cape Town last week was spent deep in discussion with three fine organizations – two local, one global. The global one was the International Budget Partnership, who I’ve blogged about quite a lot recently. The local ones were very different and both brilliant: the Social Justice Coalition and the Development Action Group. SJC favours a largely outside track, famously organizing local residences in Khaleyitsha township to campaign for decent toilets (see video, below). DAG also works with poor communities and their organizations, but has started engaging with ‘civics’ – often middle class ratepayers’ associations and the like, and with sympathetic officials and politicians. Cape Town’s polarized politics pushes them in these directions, since the Province and City are in the hands of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), still seen as largely the party of whites and coloureds, while Kaleyitsha is a black township whose Ward Councillors mostly belong to the ruling ANC. Neither wants to work with the other.

The reason we were talking is that both organizations feel stuck: the Cape Town city government is not responding to either insider or outsider tactics, with civic groups of all stripes feeling shut out and frustrated. SJC has been unable to get a meeting with the city authorities for over year, ‘participation fatigue’ has set in, and it has given up (for the moment at least) encouraging township residents to file submissions to the budget process, as described in the video.

So, we asked ourselves, where are the chinks of light, and where might a change of tactic/theory of action get some results?

SJC Slide_01aFrom demand to supply and beyond: South Africa is a bastion of a particular form of civil society activism – organizing CSOs to make demands of the state to supply services, housing, toilets, education, healthcare etc etc. In many countries a big rethink of that model has gone on in recent years, and my conversations in Cape Town suggests it’s imminent here too. Purely demand-led protests aren’t getting anywhere; both organizations reported conversations with harassed officials and politicians with no idea how to meet the demands (there are 3 people in the ‘participation unit’ for the whole city). Others have told them that the money is there, but they just don’t know how to find space in the communities where they can build the toilets that the population is demanding (’we have huge issues with officials not knowing what to do’; ‘I get lost as a Ward Councillor – I don’t know who to talk to’).

That suggests a shift in tactics to something like a multi-stakeholder approach – finding a respected institution or individual to bring together the residents, the officials, the politicians, engineers etc to work together (building trust along the way) in search of answers to a problem they can all agree on, such as the need for flush toilets.

Spending more time on hidden power: up to now, the activists have concentrated on visible power (the Council, the designated officials) and invisible power (boosting the self confidence and agency of township dwellers so that they get involved. But they have spent less time really understanding and acting upon ‘hidden power’ – who influences the budget before it reaches the public draft/token consultation stage? Who might the decision makers listen to (academics, former politicians, retired officials) who could amplify the voices of the residents?

Doing that requires a big shift in mindset from seeing the state as a ‘target’ to learning to ‘see like a civil servant/local politician’, appreciating their incentives and constraints, building bridges. That does not mean trying to become their best friend, but to create relationships that balance empathy and tension. It also means being less grudging about celebrating those successes that do occur.

What persuades? Cape Town is very proud of its status as one of the network of 100 ‘resilient cities’ which the Rockefeller Foundation has set up. That provides a point of entry – how to link ‘resilience’ with the need for public participation in decision-making?

But there is a bigger conceptual blockage. Many officials and politicians, in their heart of hearts, still consider places like Khaleyitsha as ‘temporary’ (even though they’ve been there for decades). That acts as a mental block to finding long term solutions like proper toilets, rather than temporary cabins. How to shift the mindset, get the townships’ permanent nature recognized? Until that happens, advocacy is always going to be uphill work.

What disrupts: There were some interesting stories of DA politicians at provincial level being willing to step outside party allegiance, going over the heads of City DA people to work directly with black activists in the townships. That looks worth pursuing. The other thing you can be sure of in South Africa is scandal and disaster, which act as windows of opportunity for shaking things up. Could activists get better at preparing and responding to such ‘critical junctures’, for example the next township flood or corruption story, putting together the research and networks in advance to mobilize in the first hours and days of opportunity?

Lots of ideas, but lots of challenges too. Cape Town’s entrenched social and political polarization means that every act of protest or advocacy risks being reduced to ‘you’re just saying that because you’re ANC/DA’. It’s probably no accident that IBP partners are doing much better in those metros (as South Africa’s big cities are known) that recently acquired coalition governments, which now have to care a bit more about what the voters say.

And here’s the SJC video (10 minutes):