Ipsa scientia potestas est
17 April 2014 09:58 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jay Naidoo

Not a moment to Spear: Why, in a time of crisis, that painting is irrelevant

  • Jay Naidoo
Amidst raging debates about The Spear, a small group of fighters and thinkers congregated in Cape Town to discuss, more modestly, the issues of money, sex and power in unequal societies. I was there – and found that despite the myriad inauthentic, superficial and fly-by-night attempts at protest springing up all over the country, there are still real, old-school activists out there: people who go beyond window-dressing to really interrogate change.

While the Spear debate raged last week, a group of activists and academics convened in Cape Town to discuss the very issues that the controversial artwork sought to raise. The forum, provocatively titled “Money, Sex and Power: The Paradox of Unequal Growth” brought back a flood of memories for me – memories of the way activism once was in South Africa. And, as much as it spoke to an open-ended conversation amongst African intelligentsia, it also held the opportunity to start a conversation that would take us back to the Pan African dream of our founding fathers: “freedom, social justice and bread”.

I myself found the artwork distasteful, but no more so than I find the public political discourse in our country. For me, The Spear was not an act of activism. It failed to address issues of structural causes of our poverty and social inequality. It did not question issues that, in my view, are both pressing and disturbing: for example, the sexual assault on our children daily, in schools across the country, by predators that masquerade as teachers and rob so many of their innocence forever.

So does The Spear really raise questions around the freedom to criticise, interrogate, raise relevant issues? And does it really tackle the issues of money, sex and power in our deeply unequal society? Perhaps not. To me, in any case, a conference such as “Money, Sex and Power: The Paradox of Unequal Growth” is more probing, and more to the point. During an address in the National Assembly on 16 November 2011, the Minister of Safety and Security, Siyabonga Cwele, labelled people and groups opposing provisions of the Secrecy Bill as “local proxies to foreign spies” – adding that "foreign spies" were paying civil society groups to oppose the Secrecy Bill. In light of this, it is perhaps predictable that the abovementioned conference was not funded by the South African government or some aid agency. It was convened by the Open Society Foundation – funded by financier George Soros.

Does he have an agenda? Yes, I am absolutely sure of it. Did he have an agenda when he funded one of our first interactions with the representatives of the apartheid establishment?

Yes, I am absolutely sure of that also.

But who in the world does not have some agenda? A mother has a resolute agenda to protect and feed her children. The Chinese have an agenda in Africa. So does India, the USA, France and every other country.

I also have an agenda. It is to defend our Constitution and ensure that our communities are mobilised to demand their human rights enshrined in it, and our contract in 1994 to deliver a better life to our people.

Conferences such as “Money, Sex and Power” bring together new voices from around the world into frank African conversations. Its mix of global policy actors, with extensive experience, gives us insight into how other countries – especially in Africa, but also in Asia and Latin America – are wrestling with similar problems. It connects us to other networks and gives us a sense of the fermentation in the world, set against the putrefying stench of corruption and human greed among the economic and political elites.

It helps put our domestic situation into real, global perspective.

I took some of these international activists, amongst them Hadeel Ibrahim from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, a young publisher from Nigeria, to the launch of a book on the life of Emma Mashinini. While there, they made an impassioned plea for us to think more globally and about the continent. In essence, they believe that we need citizen-to-citizen dialogues that transcend the egos of our leaders and the elites of our countries. That the youth of our continent are the motivating force for change, given they will make up three-quarters of Africa’s population by 2050. That South Africa is the model of development that placed human rights and social solidarity at the centre of our vision.

Yet what we see when we look at our country is a decline in rights, an increasing intolerance that breaks out into ferocious xenophobic violence against foreigners.

So why do we have an American citizen funding our discussion on our African problems? While we have our fair share of hugely wealthy citizens, they are not yet engaging in this kind of challenging philanthropy.

Which of our African philanthropists will finance the public debates about social justice, lesbian and gay rights’ governance and transparency of leadership? They put their money into safe bets that will not lead to any conflict with the prevailing elites who control power and run the patronage networks that have made them wealthy; more often it about laundering reputations, money and positioning for publicity and brand recognition.

I think back to our battles of social activism around the right to treatment led by the TAC, or battles to ensure that textbooks are delivered or mass opposition is mobilised against the “Secrecy Bills”. Not many, if any, corporates or wealthy individuals will support this most basic assertion of our constitutional rights.

I have had people in the corporate sector who shared the trenches with me for decades saying “Jay, we made our contribution already. We have to do business with public sector institutions. I can’t be seen to be criticising the government.”

So while I may disagree with certain assumptions that Global Foundations make, I am grateful that they have, in many instances, given organisations involved in the social justice sector unqualified support. How else would we have seen the successful mobilisations that changed an arrogant Government that was prepared to let our people who had HIV/AIDS to die because of its Denialism?

But that does not presuppose that I have no criticism of how global philanthropy or present day civil society organisations operate.

I think back to our struggle against apartheid in the 1970s. When we were smashed in 1976, we turned to the painstaking work of organising our people at a community level, far from the radar screens of the apartheid regime. It was around the bread-and-butter issues of our people that we created the tsunami that would one day topple Africa’s most powerful regime.

We co-created a vision and strategy that ensured local ownership and grassroots leadership that would withstand the most ferocious attacks of our enemy. We never drew up a business plan or sought out some generous donor. We never entered the struggle for development as a career. We were volunteers driven by the passion. We were outraged by social injustice. It made us fearless in challenging poverty and oppression.

So what has changed nearly 40 years later? Today, I am confronted by activists who want to discuss a budget before they have a meeting or launch a campaign. A whole development industry has spawned a merchant class of poverty consultants. Development assistance has been packaged into projects. A new obsession with evidence-based funding has razed the “green shoots” – projects with promise – to conform to a narrow basket of indicators used to assess “best practice” for bean counters in distant western capitals.

Are we right in demanding the same accountability of philanthropists who are spending their own money as we do of our political leaders spending our taxpayers’ money? We need a public debate on this issue.

Many new foundations view themselves as avant garde, believing that they understand the notion of risk and delivery as they cut a swathe through the underbrush in search of big breakthroughs. Typically, the search is for a new technology or a market-based device that could change lives dramatically.

Ten years of chairing GAIN – a global foundation fighting malnutrition – has shown me the flaws in the modern system of traditional development assistance. The rush to seek single-issue solutions to complex problems fails to recognise or respond to the overarching cultural and political factors that connect them. Worse still, they may recognise these factors and presume a solution. Recipients desperate for financial support take donor aid with the full knowledge that the chances of programme success are minimal. They spend countless hours collecting useless information that does not improve their work at the coal face but satisfy some bean counter in a foreign capital.

The conference also focused on the roles of India, Brazil and China as drivers of growth on the continent, and as important political and social actors on the African Development Agenda was critical. Our challenge is that India and China have a single African strategy. Africa has failed to build a coherent development strategy and, consequently ,we have a weakened bargaining power in our negotiations with these powerful economies.

My day in Cape Town proved fruitful. I learnt and, more importantly, had the opportunity to meet and interact with, a passionate, articulate and determined set of activists who hold the hopes to unlock the potential of our beautiful continent and deliver a vision of freedom from corruption, poverty and inequality that our people have a right to. DM

  • Jay Naidoo
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Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former Minister in Mandela Government and Chair of a GAIN a Global Foundation Fighting malnutrition in the World. You can also visit his Facebook Page or www.jaynaidoo.org.

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