In times of strife community activists must seek support, collaboration and strike alliances to reach a common goal, argues William Gumede. Collage: Elvin Nethononda
In times of strife community activists must seek support, collaboration and strike alliances to reach a common goal, argues William Gumede. Collage: Elvin Nethononda

SA's future is in the hands of activists

By William Gumede Time of article published Sep 17, 2017

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Unheralded local civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders, working at the coalface with local communities where broken families, decay and failing public services have plunged swaths of communities into hopelessness, apathy and violence, need extraordinary resilience to keep going.

From preventing political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal, deadly trade union rivalry in Marikana, gang-warfare on the Cape Flats, and xenophobic attacks in Alexandra, such civic, community and civil society activists also have to deal with their personal, family and public service delivery troubles.

They are often more trusted by the community as credible peacemakers than the local police or elected representatives.

South Africa desperately needs resilient local civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders to continue to help local communities empower themselves.

Resilience is variously described as the ability to bounce back from setbacks, to overcome deep-seated challenges thrown into one’s path and to be able to improvise in moments of terrifying crises by coming up with innovative solutions.

Diane Coutu, in an article in the Harvard Business Review, argues that among the key characteristics resilient people possess are “a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise”.

Civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders must not only boost their individual resilience, they must also strengthen the resilience of their distressed communities.

The state is failing, mismanagement is soaring and corruption is out of control. Ordinary people are losing faith in the democratic, oversight and protective institutions, such as Parliament, the prosecuting services and the police. There is a mass disillusionment in membership organisations, such as political parties, civic organisations and trade unions.

Leaders that were trusted before have let many down. Many religious leaders, traditional authorities, and big business figures have equally disappointed those looking to them for answers.

South Africa is experiencing a breakdown of democratic rules, laws and norms - because leaders ignore them.

In many cases civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders are the last thin line against community collapse, public and elective representatives’ callousness and violence spiralling out of control. They provide alternative versions of leadership at the local level - honest, accountable and consensus-seeking.

They personified active citizenship, often absent in our democracy, yet necessary to hold the government, leaders and democratic institutions accountable for their actions, decisions and failures.

They often provide education to communities, helping them understand their rights in order to hold the government and leaders accountable for non-delivery. They often also disseminate information about the government and leaders' wrongdoing - so that citizens can act.

Strengthening the resilience of individual civic, community and civil society activists and leaders will prevent them plunging into helplessness, apathy and despair themselves. What would be the ingredients to bolster the resilience of these uncelebrated local heroes?

Fighting injustice should remain a central meaning of their lives. They should see the desire to battle seemingly intractable challenges as an obligation to their individual, their family and community.

They must retain their faith, even in the direst situations. They must remain positive. They must try to see setbacks as temporary, changeable and not permanent.

They should not fall into a victim mentality even if they are hard done by. They should seek pragmatic, practical and inclusive, rather than ideological, political partisan or outdated "traditional" solutions.

Importantly, their actions should be value-based. The democratic constitution, laws and rules should guide the values framework.

They should adopt, what Steven Snyder, the author of Leaders and the Art of Struggle, calls a growth mindset, the idea that one’s abilities, skills set and intellectual prowess are not fixed, but can grow over time.

Deeply held beliefs which are not evidence-based should be jettisoned.

They should seek support, collaborate with others and strike alliances to reach common goals. They should leverage all skills, institutions and resources in their communities - in support of delivering to their communities.

They should strive for life-long learning, whether in the classroom or in the school of "life". Reinventing oneself is crucial. So, too, is having a sense of humour. Refreshing oneself physically, spiritual and mentally through exercising, cultural activities and reading is important to retain a sense of balance.

Researcher Michael Ganor aptly describes community resilience as the ability of communities to “deal with a state of continuous long-term stress; the ability to find unknown inner strengths and resources in order to cope effectively”.

Many of South Africa’s previously disadvantaged communities suffer from chronic long-term stress caused by the service delivery failure, systemic violence and apartheid-induced trauma.

How can civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders build the resilience of the communities they work in?

Most importantly, they must use the available resources in communities, government and community organisations - churches, schools, hospitals or local business. They must also use all the skills - which are often hidden - available in their communities.

They must build coalitions for common goals within and among different groups, sectors and organisations within communities. They must form development coalitions between local government, civil society and local businesses. They must form community monitoring and evaluation committees to hold government delivery sites accountable. Community members should sit on such monitoring and evaluation committees, playing an oversight role over service delivery in schools, police stations, hospitals and national department delivery sites, such as the Department of Home Affairs.

They should mobilise communities to participate in and influence ward committees, which is supposed to enhance local public participation, but which has widely failed to do so.

They must also get local communities to participate in determining the priorities in municipal budgets.

They must establish social enterprises which can produce public services, plant and make food and produce manufacturing products for the government, business and the local community.

Such community social enterprises should become the black economic empowerment partners to business.

The government must buy from such community social enterprises through its preferential procurement system for black-owned companies.

But South Africa’s business sector must strengthen struggling communities by financially supporting genuine capacity programmes, providing corporate welfare to communities in their catchment area and buying products from community-based organisations.

Corporates must support efforts to establish community-based social enterprises, which can produce public services, plant and make food and produce manufacturing products for government, business and the local community.

South Africans of all colours with financial means should show greater social solidarity with historical disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Privileged individuals could give their domestic workers industrially useful practical skills - driving, first aid or vocational training.

They could adopt a child’s education in the township or adopt a township family - through regularly helping.

Finally, the government must govern more honestly, more inclusively and become more accountable - which will ultimately foster resilient individuals, communities and society.

* Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. His latest book is Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times. This is extract is from an address to the Peace-builder’s Convention, hosted by Freedom House on September 9, in the Gariep, in the Free State.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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