“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
Maya Angelou, Still I Rise
This week many non-governmental and civil society organisations are opening their doors again to resume campaigns for human rights and social justice. But with hunger not going on holiday many activists took little time off. Some found it hard to stop ‘work’ in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. From early December the second wave of Covid-19 broke cruelly over many communities, robbing health care workers in particular of the chance of rest – so death and disease didn’t obey the calendar either.
We salute these selfless heroes.
In the last days of 2020, many people lamented the horrible year and wished that 2021 might be more gentle and forgiving. Sadly, that is probably a forlorn hope: even with several vaccines now registered Covid-19 is far from over; the climate crisis still gathers; austerity economics still infects South Africa’s government and unemployment has never been higher.
Each of these factors eviscerate the quest for equality and the realisation of human rights. In the 25th year of the democratic Constitution they challenge its social justice cornerstone. This means one thing: for social justice activists, 2021 is going to be yet another demanding year.
The worst of times will demand the best of activists.
So, as we contemplate the year ahead, where do we start?
These days, the world holds much that is unpredictable and hard to plan for. At the beginning of 2020, for example, how many people had planned for an as yet unnamed viral pandemic, Covid-19? Disruption is a new normal — and activists must be prepared for it.
There are numerous and diverse ills and evils that need attention: femicide, corruption, substance use, mental health. The list is long. Many of our problems have roots in exclusion, marginalisation and denial of human rights that are now intrinsic to capitalist economics. The challenge is to turn societal threats into opportunities and in this respect, there are some obvious challenges that all of civil society in South Africa will have to prepare for in the 12 months ahead.
Below are what we think are the big five issues on which united action is necessary:
(1) The Covid-19 ‘People’s Vaccine’ campaign: the government has now set a target of vaccinating 40 million people. It calculates that this is the number needed to achieve herd immunity from Covid-19. This seems enormous but it is not impossible and the civil society coalition being built around the People’s Vaccine campaign has a vital positive role to play in achieving this.
However, ensuring vaccine take up and overcoming a concerted misinformation campaign by vaccine denialists, will require community-based vaccine education and literacy campaigns to take place at scale (and not over Zoom it might be added).
Fortunately, we have a workable model in the Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) programmes to create community treatment literacy for the anti-retroviral roll out in the early 2000s.
But vaccine literacy requires that activists get back into communities which are, anyway, where you need to be for the 2021 local government elections (issue 2).
Over the last five years, it has become the norm that state failure and corruption is felt mostly in the collapse of basic services at local government level. However, there is a chance to put a halt to this in the middle of this year when elections take place. People feel disempowered by the political gangsters who run many towns and cities. But ironically, our Constitution (in Chapter 7) and our laws give people great power to demand accountability from local government (read and share this Activists’ Guide to Making Local Government Work). But most people are not aware of their power.
Let’s agree: elections are a social justice issue and participatory democracy can still be made to work. But to do this, mass community-based voter education and solidarity are needed to overcome voter hesitancy and despair, especially among young people. The recent presidential elections in the US reminded us of the power the vote still holds over tyrants and fascists. In a state like Georgia, power was regained after activists, led by civil society organisations and individuals like Stacey Abrams, went back onto the streets to persuade ordinary people to take back control of government.
The same lesson must apply here. But it is one thing to vote. It is another to make the vote work for change.
Communities are also where we need to be to have conversations about climate catastrophe (issue 3). Covid literacy and climate literacy should be made two sides of the same coin. Even though in 2020 Covid-19 knocked the climate crisis out of the headlines, lockdowns reduced industrial output and less travel gave our planet some relief. Yet, 2020 was the hottest year on record.
And don’t many of our communities know it.
The record temperatures of 2020 remind us that without increased urgency to slow carbon emissions and campaigns to stop the despoilment of our environment, we will not halt global heating and the chaos and misery that it portends.
The filmmaker David Attenborough’s moving “witness statement”, A Life On Our Planet, is a testament to what this means for nature and the animal kingdom. Mass migrations, food insecurity and ultimately war are an early harbinger of what it means for human beings.
At the end of last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a Climate Change Coordinating Commission. But the big question is whether it will act with urgency, bravery and vision; or will it become the latest in a long list of presidential advisory committees where activists are muzzled and tied down in endless process and procedure? That depends on the good women and men from civil society within it.
A good statement of intent by the commission would be to recognise the work that has already been done by activists on climate justice and endorse the Climate Justice Charter, that was presented to Parliament last year.
Climate change and Covid-19 is causing a loss of livelihoods and jobs on an unprecedented scale. This makes any further delay in introducing a Basic Income Grant (issue 4) unpardonable.
This year, in its 8th January statement the ANC promised to “continue discussions on the desirability and viability of a basic income grant to provide a social safety net to the poor.” This is progress, but not good enough. “Discussions” have been taking place for 25 years. Now is the time for civil society to up the campaign and demand a decision and a timeframe for implementation.
Which brings us to our fifth proposed priority.
One of the revolting features of Covid-19 has been that the ultra-rich have gotten richer and the poor have been made to carry the can. If our society is to be rebuilt we need a strong, capable and motivated state. Unfortunately, at the end of 2020, the Labour Appeal Court handed down a judgment (read here) to support the government’s decision to renege on its three-year pay agreement to public sector workers because it is deemed “unaffordable”. The court cited the Constitution and Covid-19 crisis and pitted public sector workers’ salaries against the cost social grants and other pressing needs; they overlooked the fact that the frontline workers most responsible for delivering the socio-economic rights — to health, education, social security, housing, sanitation and so on — in our Constitution are the very people we treat most shabbily. The unions say they are appealing this decision to the Constitutional Court. Civil society should be 200% behind them. Yes, savings are to be made, but there are better places to look than in the pockets of mostly low-paid workers.
To catalyse discussion and planning, Maverick Citizen believes that these are issues that all of progressive pro-poor civil society should debate and rally around, even as individual organisations continue to concentrate most of their efforts on the single issues and areas on which they have developed expertise.
From our side, these are some of the key issues that Maverick Citizen will be consistently following and reporting on this year.
As you return to your trenches, we wish you power. As has been the case throughout history, humanity’s future depends on your efforts and ultimate success. DM/MC
The Kentucky Coal Mining Museum is solar-powered.