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Building a social movement is an ‘extreme sport’, s...

Maverick Citizen


Building a social movement is an ‘extreme sport’, so how do you do it?

Early childhood development centre owners picket outside the Department of Social Development offices in Johannesburg on 20 August 2020. (Photo: Ayanda Mthethwa)

The early childhood development sector took its advocacy to new heights, scoring key wins in 2020. But how to take this budding momentum forward? Exponents turned to veterans of civil society, Equal Education general secretary Noncedo Madubedube and Mark Heywood – editor of Maverick Citizen – for guidance on building people’s power, forming organisational structures and antagonising government – while keeping its ear.

Advocacy work does bring about change — but it is no easy task.

This was the shared sentiment of civil society leaders Noncedo Madubedube and Mark Heywood during a virtual discussion organised by the National Early Childhood Alliance and ilifa Labantwana. They discussed what the early childhood development sector can learn from advocacy in the education and health sectors as it develops a national movement.

Madubedube is general secretary of Equal Education, a community and membership-based organisation that advocates for quality and equal education in South Africa. Heywood is the co-founder of the Treatment Action Campaign, former director of Section27 and currently editor of Maverick Citizen.

The sector saw an unprecedented surge in advocacy in 2020, said Tess Peacock, moderator of the discussion and an ilifa Labantwana associate. It compelled the government to provide it with Covid-19 relief. It won two court cases – one to reopen the sector during lockdown and another to force government to pay centres their subsidies. Out of this rose the Real Reform for ECD Campaign, which garnered over 1,000 submissions on the Children Amendments Bill.

Despite this success, some people in the sector feel uncomfortable with protest and fear that antagonising government will shut doors, Peacock explained.

If a constitutional right is not being fulfilled then we should stand up and demand it, said Heywood. “One of the principles which underpins the Constitution is that protest is legitimate – to speak out, picket and denounce in order to claim rights is part of the social contract of the new South Africa,” he explained.

He added that people should not be afraid: “We must always remember that government officials and politicians are public servants. They are there to help realise the equality and social justice which underlines our Constitution.”

Both Heywood and Madubedube have been instrumental in building their respective organisations. How did they do it?

Power is built when people understand their rights. The Treatment Action Campaign was borne out of a need for people to understand treatment as a right – this broke the silence around HIV because people became their own advocates and a social movement began to form, Heywood explained.

“We understood that we needed a movement. We were never going to make change if it was just a group of middle-class people like me operating out of Wits University and a few lawyers. They play an important role, but they can’t bring about deep, deep change.

“Change happens only when millions of people take responsibility into their own hands,” he said, adding that active citizenship makes the difference.

“Building a social movement is an extreme sport,” started Madubedube. It requires patience, building from the ground up and constant reflection. It requires one to work towards ideals never experienced before and planning under present circumstances for a better future.

It is essential to use a multi-pronged approach to bring everyone along in your advocacy, she explained. Equal Education encourages its members to think of local issues and then develop sustainable strategies for that specific context and involving that specific community.

Organisations need to spend energy and resources in connecting with communities and educating them about the issue, she said. Traditional and social media are powerful channels for communication.

Both Madubedube and Heywood stated that building relationships and coalitions are crucial and one should take the time to educate people about your issue. 

You have to take into account the specifics of the constituency you’re working with in order to be successful, according to Heywood. He gave the example that those who work in early childhood development know what it’s about and why it’s so important, but some people might not.

“They might not know it’s a right and you can’t fight for something if you don’t actually know what its about to start with,” he said. The campaign needs to explain why it is such a crucial issue for them, as well as encouraging people to protest.

Research is a key component of advocacy. It provides resources to support the campaign and helps to define the movement’s objectives, said Heywood.

Madubedube explained that Equal Education collaborates with young researchers to identify policies, protocols and systems which young people can use to make change.

This research can also be used in courts and parliament to create change, she added. Here, organisations can tell lawmakers what the reality is on the ground and how it can be fixed. It’s also important to have activist lawyers who understand why an issue is unjust and will accompany you on the journey.

If lawyers are needed, it is part of advocacy to go out and find them, explained Heywood. He said it is necessary to take the time to approach them, educate them about the issue and ask them to come along on the journey.

The two speakers agreed that strategy and targets are crucial. “If your cause is legitimate and your demands are realistic, then there should be no limit to what you can achieve with advocacy. What will hold you back is whether or not your strategies are effective,” said Heywood.

They concurred that targets should be specific as it helps maintain the sense of urgency.

Within an organisation, frequent communication is vital, said Madubedube. It builds trust and keeps eyes open to the challenges faced by other branches or teams. Having a code which mirrors the Constitution is important as it provides the team a chance to successfully build a law and culture within the organisation which they strive to build outside of it through advocacy, she said.

Madubedube recommended making sure the organisation does not grow more quickly than it can adapt. It is important to keep up communication and ask different branches what they are doing each day to work towards their local goals.

Both Madubedube and Heywood stated that building relationships and coalitions are crucial and one should take the time to educate people about your issue. 

It’s important to have relationships with other civil society organisations as well as with government and business, said Madubedube.

“The coalitions are a space where we can connect the dots and build the type of intersectional movements which will take us into a different type of emancipation and freedom in the future.” DM/MC


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