Maverick Citizen

THE ACTIONISTS

A social justice warrior driven by the ‘generative force’ of truth

A social justice warrior driven by the ‘generative force’ of truth
Actionist John GI Clarke. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

John GI Clarke is a social worker who, through a deep-seated obligation to challenge social injustice, turns his work into activism time and time again.

Although he professes to be merely upholding his role as a social worker, John GI Clarke’s passion for political, economic and environmental justice comes through in the lengths to which he will go to facilitate change. 

Not only is he a passionate advocate for the rights of his clients, but he takes on the broader issues that they have taught him about. He then writes, campaigns and makes films about them; anything he can do to engage a wider audience and get the stories heard. 

It should be noted that he does this while simultaneously providing his clients with safe counsel and respecting the strict code of practice that social workers have towards client confidentiality.

His social conscience developed as a young man when he became a conscientious objector after spending a year as a non-combatant in the South African Defence Force – through this experience he was forced to re-evaluate his values and the impact he wanted to make with his life. 

“Our growth and development as human beings is a simultaneous process of self-reflection into your own conscience and an outward journey to consciousness.”

His advocacy has led him to work closely with the Amadiba Crisis Committee in their fight to save the community of Xolobeni from an Australian mining company that wanted to develop the land. 

“My role should simply have been to bring in the Human Rights Commission, to give them access to attorneys, the media and advocacy organisations.”

But when things became violent and the then-leader of the committee, Bazooka Radebe, was shot and killed, John decided that despite his reservations, he needed to speak out publicly. He called out the Australian mining company, Mineral Commodities, for not recognising the volatility of the situation and it responded with a R10-million Slapp suit for damages to its reputation through his advocacy.

Slapp suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are an aggressive form of intimidation that is intended to silence and censor critics of individuals and businesses in positions of power. 

“Social workers are not meant to become the story, but it was time to start putting my head above the parapet here… It’s not what social workers should be doing, but the exceptional nature of the country we live in means that we have got to do exceptional things.”

In recent months John’s Slapp suit has been settled confidentially but the experience has put him on a new mission: To support whistle-blowers in Africa who are facing harsh retaliation. To those who need it, he offers psychosocial support, spiritual counsel and advocacy, often acting as a mediator between his clients and their employers. 

“It’s a consequence of my relative privilege that I have been supported by my wife and so not had to charge people for the work that I do. I thought that if I am going to stay in this country I am going to make sure that I use my privilege, insofar as it is still valid, to make sure that there is some equalisation and redress for the vulnerable and disadvantaged.” 

Over the years his conscience has led him into some sticky situations, with lawsuits and threats from powerful people who he is unafraid to call out. John keeps going, speaking truth to power. 

“The truth about power is that it really doesn’t want to hear it, which is why whistle-blowers experience retaliation. But I believe truth is a generative force that sooner or later reveals itself. I want that to be sooner so that the long arc of the moral universe bends more quickly towards justice.”

Summing up his work, John says: “I challenge social injustice and ensure people participate in decisions that affect them.” Now that sounds like something that everyone deserves.

Find out more about John’s work through Medium, Substack and his YouTube channel. Take a listen to his interview on the Whistleblower of the Week podcast

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected].

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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