Siyathanda – ‘we love’ in isiXhosa – is a non-profit initiative founded in 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. We envision a world where people unite with integrity and dignity to end the social, economic and ecological injustice and create a world together in peace, equality, creativity and love. To this end we aim to be a resource of experience and reflection that strengthen peoples movements by raising awareness amongst activists of the interconnection between personal freedom and political justice – and promoting a practice that enhances their ability to transform the personal, organisational, and political.
In South Africa and beyond there are many valid reasons to despair: From obscene wealth alongside grinding poverty and the rising tide of racist patriarchal authoritarian populism, to the daily violence – gendered, xenophobic, and other. Despite all the rights won in the 1996 Constitution and upheld by the judiciary, most people in South Africa are confronted daily by a callous state and private sector concerned only with their own self-interest. The deepening unemployment crisis tears at the social fabric of families and communities. The ecological crisis threatens the planet as we know it.
There is also a massive leadership vacuum across society: While liberals and conservatives of all stripes hold economic and political power and make many populist promises, their economic system – capitalism – is in crisis and they have no sustainable solutions to offer on any of the problems we face. The ruling party, despite attempts at renewal, continues to weaken and divide into elite factions compete for access to resources. The working class and poor are trapped in struggles of daily survival, consciousness is low and collective responses are largely limited to very localised service delivery issues, outbursts of xenophobia and retreats into organised religion.
South Africa enjoys a relatively active citizenship organised into variety of forms for diverse purposes. However, in this hostile context of our organisations are weak. Communities and workers are largely demobilised. Low levels of political consciousness, limited resources, as well as repression, make organising very difficult.
Many community organisations form in response to an immediate threat or crisis but lack the internal democracy and more long term strategic perspectives to sustain themselves over time. Our largest unions are deeply compromised by decades of alliance with the ruling party, many are beauracatised and almost paralised with factionalism. Our NGOs compete between themselves for limited donor funds that demand short term results in a context that requires long term organising. Efforts at greater unity – like the United Front, Unite Against Corruption and the Working Class Summit – have failed despite a strong basis for unity because of the limitations of their constituencies.
The historical gender, race, and class conflict and social violence that is currently deepening across society manifests within our organizations and relationships generating to what many now call a ‘toxic environment’. Our current inability to organise effectively to tackle systemic issues results in growing alienation, frustration and exhaustion, apathy, isolation, aggressiveness, depression, competition, mistrust and conflict amongst activists. In this context we encounter high levels of despair.
Despair creates a fertile ground for opportunism. Whereas activists take up struggle with a collective purpose and commitment to more human relations of solidarity, we see a narrow and cynical self interest taking root.
Some retreat into inward looking ideological or social cliques (demanding ‘safe spaces’). Many NGO-based activists approach their work more as an a-political career than a socially meaningful vocation. Many community-based activists give up on the hard work of collective organising all together, resulting in the high turnover of activists and fragility of local organisations. Often the more experienced community activists are drawn into a sort of activist entrepreneurship that involves attending NGO catered events with the possibility of stipends.
We are really deep in the interregnum Gramsci described when he wrote “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Yet the seeds of ‘the new’ exist amongst the ‘morbid symptoms’. The deepening social-economic and ecological crisis offers great opportunity: While the centre cannot hold and our social fabric is being torn apart, the daily manifestation of injustice and violence evokes more and more people to join in struggle. New waves of activists are being created.
In South Africa we have rich traditions of resitance and struggle for social justice born out of the anti-Apartheid movement. Many organizations are engaged in critiquing aspects of the context, imagining just alternatives, undertaking popular education and advocacy, and experimenting with mobilisation and community/worker organising. The high points of struggle are well documented and range from mobilizations for access to HIV treatment and the anti-privitsation movements of the 1990s, to more recent mobilisation for free decolonised tertiary education and urban land/housing.
Activists have all joined struggle with a commitment to working for a better future. We all have a lived experience of working in solidarity with a shared purpose. In many of our organisations we challenge the authoritarian ‘strong man’ model of leadership and expect greater levels of participation and accountability.
Most importantly – for Siyathanda – a range of techniques have been developed in recent decades enabling people to reflect on their behavior, emotions, and beliefs, to heal past trauma and reconnect with a more noble sense of self and purpose.
We work directly with people through a holistic lens that centres on the interrelation of the personal, organisational and political. Today the political/organisational dominates activists discourse. We intend to shift/balance this activist focus with interventions that are deeply personal and explore activists’ relationships with themselves (personal), with others (organizational) and with their socio-economic/ecological context (political).
Our emphasis is on praxis. We are less interested in abstract theory or philosophy, and more interested in the dynamic interaction between the personal/political/organisational and comrade’s actual lived experience. We work with people’s specific day-to-day experiences within their organisations and broader environment as well as the emotions and beliefs that shape their behaviour. Our favorite Lenin quote is: “One must always try to be as radical as reality itself”.
Our work draws on the foundations laid by Marxist notion of alienation and the Black Consciousness movement that took off in South Africa in the 1970s and played a critical role in challenging the self-belief in ‘black’ inferiority and worked to imbue the ‘black’ identify with pride and self-love. We also draw on the Human Potential movement that emerged in the USA in the 1960s to challenge peoples’ irrational limiting beliefs and to connect them with their full humanity. Central to these traditions is the desire to see people detach their self esteem from the value prescribed by dominant ideologies and instead celebrate themselves as beautiful people – social agents living the contradictions and possibilities of society.
In this spirit we are non-sectarian. We celebrate the contributions of all liberatory traditions (feminist, socialist, democratic, black consciousness, human potential, pan africanist etc, etc) and believe that comrades coming from each of these traditions bring the seeds we need to grow a new politics together.
We are action oriented. By always emphasising activist agency and the intersection of the personal, organisational and political we will avoid the pitfalls of self-indulgence and self-preoccupation that, as Jonathan Grossman notes, “has characterised professional middle class in advanced capitalist society” and “reduces happiness to an individual psychological state of “self-fulfillment”, without recognizing a happiness which is embedded in the exercise of agency, as an essentially collective, shared activity of human solidarity”.
Our Organisation & Community
We have established a Siyathanda Activist Collective made up of comrades who share our vision and purpose. The Collective gives strategic direction to the initiative and we will partner established NGOs for administrative/legal/financial support. We we are not rushing to set up a legal organisation.
We are convene gatherings to strengthen awareness of the initiative and support participants to integrate learnings into their activism – aiming to develop new layers of Siyathanda activists and facilitators into a community of practice around the initiative.
Participants in our gatherings have included leaders, activists and workers from the Alternative Information Development Centre, CASSAWU, Khulisa Social Solutions, Imam Abdullah Haroun Education Trust, Institute for Security Studies, International Labour Research and Information Group, Get Up Stand Up, Labour Research Services, Mandela Park Backyarders, Mawubuye Land Rights Forum, New Womens’ Movement, Peoples Health Movement, Radio 786, Right2Know Campaign, Schools Environmental Education Project, Sikhula Sonke, Silvertown Community for Development & Training, Thrive, Treatment Action Campaign, Trusts for Community Outreach and Education, and others.