Maverick Citizen

SOCIAL JUSTICE ASSEMBLY

More than 250 organisations commit to the struggle for a fair, just and democratic South Africa

More than 250 organisations commit to the struggle for a fair, just and democratic South Africa
Nomzamo Zondo, executive director of The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri), is one of the pioneers of the Social Justice Assembly. (Photo: Rumana Akoob)

The inaugural Social Justice Assembly convened in Pretoria on Thursday, and the two-day event provided a platform for nongovernment organisations, social movements and academics from across the country.

More than 250 organisations from across South Africa turned the spotlight on themselves when they gathered at the Social Justice Assembly to critique where they had gone wrong and what they could do better.

This marked a change in focus for the civil society sector, which often meets to discuss themed socioeconomic challenges and highlight the plight of the most vulnerable. 

The chairperson of the assembly, Nomzamo Zondo, said she was proud of the delegates for coming up with tangible solutions.  

“I am grateful to hear that we will not repeat what happened in history; the honesty and robustness of owning our mistakes were refreshing. It is wonderful to hear practical, tangible solutions that we can put into play as soon as we leave here. We wish for this to be a seed for how the sector engages within itself,” said Zondo, the director of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (Seri). 

The inaugural Social Justice Assembly convened in Pretoria on Thursday, and the two-day event provided a platform for nongovernment organisations, social movements and academics from across the country.  

Organisations dealt with issues that included voter rights, hunger, gender-based violence, migration and mental wellness.

In 2019, the Raith Foundation initiated a Social Justice Sector Review Study to map the key milestones and developments of the sector. Fast-forward to 2021, when the Convening Assembly was selected from civil society leaders and worked tirelessly to bring the Social Justice Assembly to life.

Seri’s director of litigation, Jason Brickhill, presented ideas for funding, which is one of the biggest challenges for the sector. International philanthropic organisations are moving their funds out of South Africa and opening the taps in lower-income countries as South Africa is now seen as a middle-income country.

Mqapheli Bonono, the deputy president of the land rights movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, said it was a contradiction to call South Africa a middle-income country, “when so many people are still suffering, unemployed and hungry”.

“As Abahlali, we have so many people who work tirelessly in their communities and they never get any payment, so I am at this assembly to hear the language and to see how our comrades work. It is clear we have to speak a certain language and in certain rooms to get that kind of nonprofit sector funding and I’m weighing that up because we want to keep the purity and autonomy of the organisation.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Civil society has been a force for change – but can it change the politics of South Africa?   

Brickhill said sharing resources doesn’t have to be about money but can be about sharing services, such as communications, office space and litigation. He said organisations had to consider state funding and corporate funding.

“There are pockets of money in corporate, especially with the corporates’ social responsibility. When I suggested this before, I got a full spectrum of views, from, ‘This is dirty money, we can’t take it’, to, ‘This is dirty money, let’s take it and repurpose it.’

“Some organisations, such as SECTION27, have rules for what they won’t take; for example, if you are doing health work maybe don’t take money from big pharma. Maybe none of us should take money that comes from guns, tobacco, or money linked to Israel,” said Brickhill.

From the ground up

Herman Tema, who runs a drama school and youth development nonprofit in Limpopo, said red tape to get funding was discouraging. He said that in the social justice sector, some organisations were favourites while many were overlooked.

“Some activists become celebrities in a way and they have influence, so they can channel money into their organisations, while many are overlooked,” said Tema.  

The event also included wide-ranging discussions on the history of the sector and its impact, cultures of accountability and governance, and resource allocation and power dynamics within the sector.

The first keynote address was given by Noncedo Madubedube, the general secretary of Equal Education, who looked at the current challenges faced by South Africa and the social justice sector. The keynote address on the second day was given by Ayabonga Cawe, an economist, activist and author of The Economy on your Doorstep.  

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Delegates agreed that there was a need for consolidated action, coordination and a vision. 

A revised interim coordination team will be created to build awareness about the assembly and engage with other stakeholders in spaces where social movements, the working class and activists meet.  

Seri’s Zondo said: “The quality of lives of millions living in South Africa has deteriorated to the extent that if we do not do something now, we might reach a place where we are not able to. Not only do we see it fit to reflect on our gains as the sector, but also to forge new ways forward to make sure we take all along with us.”   

The Social Justice Assembly received close to 1,000 applications and the organisers selected participants based on their area of work and geographical location to have as wide a representation as possible.  

The declaration 

Below is a lightly edited excerpt from the draft declaration as read by Mazibuko Jara, the executive director of Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda, a community-owned rural development facilitator in the Eastern Cape. 

“As the assembly, we call on all who live in South Africa to stand up and take back our democracy, power and future. We declare that a just and democratic society out of poverty is not just possible or necessary, but extremely urgent. If we do not overcome the system, not only will the lives of our people become more wretched, but life itself on our planet will be at grave risk. 

“As delegates, we leave the assembly recognising that our diverse struggles have a common goal: the creation of a peaceful, just and fair society based on real democracy. We commit ourselves to deepening and sustaining the struggle to achieve this goal. 

“We commit to stand together to build solidarity and unity in action where we find support, strength and purpose and a voice that can no longer be ignored. We want a people-centred democracy that restores dignity and guarantees peace, security and justice for all.  

“We want leaders who consult with and answer to the people, who are active in their communities and who use their positions to fight for the rights of the people they represent. We demand an end to corruption in politics and business.  

“We are tired of politicians who use their position for personal gain and for building business networks. We need to remind politicians that they work for us. And if they’re not doing their jobs, they can and will be replaced. We demand that democrats work to end racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, tribalism and all other forms of social oppression and exploitation in our society.  

“In our democracy, we recognise and affirm the common humanity of all, the value and strength of our diversity. We stand for a democratic and just society. We will continue our struggles demanding land, quality education, decent housing, water, electricity, proper sanitation and other basic services for all. We want peace, security and comfort. We want to feel safe in our homes and our communities. We want an end to violence against women, children, LGBTIQA+ people and other vulnerable communities.  

“We want lively, thriving and vibrant communities characterised by recreation, arts, culture, healing and social cohesion. We want an end to irresponsible behaviour by big businesses which put profits before the people.  

“We are tired of our environment being poisoned by the dumping of toxic wastes, widespread ecological degradation and the continued use of polluting fuels when renewable alternatives are found. We want ecological sustainable development.  

“We want to hand over a living planet to our future generations. We demand real jobs and decent opportunities, better working and living conditions, and the bountiful wealth and resources of our land to benefit all our people. 

“We are internationalists. We have no illusions that the crisis we face can be resolved without transforming our region, our continent and the world. We stand for pan-African and broader international solidarity with the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world. We unanimously agreed that an urgent task for us is to fight Sinophobia and Afrophobia. We embrace refugee and immigrant communities who are primarily the victims of the same crisis we face. 

“We want real democracy. We are tired of going through the same old routine of every five years, electing politicians who will change nothing. We want to become active citizens and reclaim the tradition of deep, active, substantive and meaningful participatory democracy forged in the struggle against apartheid.  

“We agree on the need for, and we commit to build a broad platform uniting all of us in a common vision, common demands and programme for social justice, based on solidarity and unity in action.” DM/MC

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