SA SDI Alliance Learning Space ‘The Effectiveness of the Movement’

By : Baraka Mwau & ThandekaTshabalala (on Behalf of CORC) Phase 1: Forum 4 learn 2 As we advance towards the close of Phase one of the Learning Space series, once again the SA SDI Alliance converged for a session to brainstorm its work. This is the platform where the SA SDI Alliance engages in critical reflections of its work; within and with other stakeholders. This time around (October the 18th) the debate was located at the epicentre of the alliance work-building an authentic social movement. The forum kicked off with the moderator asking the audience to reflect on how the SA SDI Alliance should reinforce its struggle in building voices for the urban poor. This was just to revisit on the fundamentals that propel activities of strong social movements. Daunting as the challenge may sound, the urgency is inescapable. To aid in building a lens through which the SA SDI alliance can reflect on its efforts on building transformative social movements, Fr. Jorge Anzerona was in attendance. His wealth of experience in working with social movements and organised urban poor communities in several Asian cities provided vital and relevant lessons, for consideration in the SA context.  To start with, Fr. Jorge categorically stated that social movements are different; their course and organisation determines their life cycle.

“Some are powerful enough to achieve and sustain the change they struggle for, some meet their goal and ‘die’ thereafter, while others just rise and fall”- Fr. Jorge

Based on that statement, the first reflection was to consider relevance of the struggle that the SA SDI Alliance advances. It is evident that the struggle: against urban poverty and urban inequalities is still relevant in contemporary South African cities. Fr. Jorge presented the activities organised communities and that of the Assembly of the Poor, a social movement in Thailand that was formed from common struggles by the urban poor-urban poverty and agitation to create a collective voice. The movement multiplied in months (10,000 in 2 months after its initiation in 1996). Meanwhile, NGOs came in support, to aid the movement in coordinating activities, including facilitating enumerations and providing technical support to communities’ upgrading projects. This was purposively to advance a collective voice, recognition of the urban poor and to mobilise for a common course. Although the movement is currently not as powerful, it has managed to make urban poor communities ‘visible’, and influenced change in cities. Such include:

  • Leveraging community and government resources for development projects
  • Organising communities with specific struggles e.g. squatter communities, under bridge communities, railway line reserve communities, women-centred projects etc.

Throughout his presentation, he emphasised that community driven projects catalyse the building of strong social movements. After all, the purpose of this kind of movements is to improve the lives of the urban poor, thus without the tangible improvements to living conditions, authenticity of such movements remains questionable. This led to his affirmation that community projects drive social movements. Such remark was echoed by reactions from various participants.

“Through the Projects Grows the Self-confidence of the People”-Fr. Jorge

However, relating this to the South African context, it emerged that the various perspectives of conceptualising a ‘community project’ was an area of contestation or determined the nature of emergent social movements. This squarely refers to how support NGOs and social movements interpret as the benefits of such projects.  In his remark Nkokheli, an ISN coordinator posed a critical point of reflection, by questioning whether it is the NGOs or the urban poor in the cities who need projects.  This was echoed by several contributors who seemed to concede that the harsh reality that indeed there are cases where NGOs ‘run’ turban poor settlements, seeking to implement projects. Against that predicament, Fr. Jorge indicated that depending on how projects by the urban poor are conceived, such projects contribute can or may not contribute towards building a strong social movement. In most cases, projects borne out of self-initiatives by communities have higher chances of sustaining activities of ‘real’ social movement as opposed to NGOs taking the lead. At this point the fundamental question was: how have the projects undertaken by the SA SDI Alliance advanced the struggles of the social movements? For example such community centred approaches in Thailand have resulted to the establishment of community institutions e.g. Community Development Funds (CDF) where communities pool together resources, leverage state and other external funds. The Community Upgrading Fund Facility (CUFF) is equivalent of this within the SA SDI Alliance. According to Fr. Jorge, such funds should be managed and appropriated by community institutions. They inspire confidence in communities as well as doubling as a tool for bargaining with the state. Otherwise, without such pooled resources and capacity to manage them, social movements end-up being over reliant on NGOs or the state.

Together: they discuss, look for solutions, negotiate with the government and implement”-Fr. Jorge

Important as it sounds, the reality of achieving such in welfare dominated state like South Africa was another point of debate in the forum.  In that regard, reflections on the nature of social movements needed in such a state dominated the forum at this point. Although not conclusive, it seemed that the audience resonated with calls for a paradigm shift in South Africa, where social movements and support NGOs need to agitate for pooling local resources as leverage to engage the state. The catchphrase: “The Government Will Deliver” perhaps may never guarantee the desired change, but through meaningful engagement between the state and the organised urban poor, such efforts can be realised. The role of the professionals in supporting activities of social movements and urban poor communities was another key ingredient determining the success of social movements for the urban poor. The Asian context clearly indicated that practitioners in NGOs have a key role to play in building the voice of the urban poor. Fr. Jorge was categorical that practitioners should focus on transferring skills to communities (planning, architecture, engineering, accounting and finance etc). Their role is to train communities, while at the same time learning from communities. Basically this stresses mutual learning (exchange of knowledge) as the driver of this work, in addition to the importance of nurturing precise mandates among the actors. Other than the role of practitioners and the support NGO, the nature of leadership in social movements emerged as another determinant factor. Based on his experience in coordinating ISN activities, Nkokheli observed that organising and mobilisation communities is not a problem as such, but dealing with the various factions of leaderships that exist in many informal settlements is the daunting challenge. The observation was that in such cases, if unchecked, the interests of individual leaders tend to override collective interests of the urban poor communities. The counter measure was observed to be tasking communities-through development projects to shift focus from mere politics to debates on issues affecting communities. Nevertheless, such tasking necessitates stewardship and strong community leadership and sound facilitation by the support NGOs. 2013-09-11 14.45.54 Also, the nature in which mobilisation tools are applied is crucial in sustaining the activities of the SA SDI Alliance. Such tools include savings schemes, enumerations and mapping. It was observed that organising communities into savings schemes without a purpose does not necessarily guarantee sustained efforts to build a social movement. Although saving collectives creates a platform to discuss and build social cohesion, the urgency of improving living conditions has to be an integral activity of these saving schemes. Enumerations and mapping has to inform projects, community leadership has to be accountable to communities (and not to support NGOs), and so on. Simply put, ‘purpose’-for realizing meaningful change, emerged as an underpinning principle for organising the urban poor. Towards concluding the day’s forum, it was agreeable that the common struggles of the SA SDI Alliance are far from being confronted, at the desired level. Indeed urban poverty and urban inequalities in South African cases still remain the major hindrance towards urban inclusivity and a ‘just city’. However, the need for strong social movements, driven by a broader collective vision of social change was emphasised. The anchor of this being grounded on unleashing the potential within communities- from receptors to actors: to undertake own development, while marshalling local resources to leverage government resources. Notably, more coordination among the stakeholders (including government) is needed. It is undeniable that the desired change will not be achieved overnight, considering the fact that the status quo is a product of systems perpetuated for decades, if not centuries.  But at the same time, the change is urgent; hence potential avenues for negotiating this change are equally urgent to optimise. So:

Where are we, in building the social movements?

Are we building the right social movements?”