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Learning from a history of solidarity and action in South Africa

Published on 11 March 2021

After 60 years of solidarity Christian Aid has closed its country programme in South Africa. Gerhard Buttner, the country's former Programme Manager, reflects on its achievements and shares insights from the South Africa Learning Review.

As I looked around the room during the 2018 ACT Ubumbano Solidarity Community learning exchange event, I could see a reality taking shape. Community and local civil society actors from cities and rural areas, from faith-based organisations and activist organisations, discussed how they were struggling for justice in their particular contexts.

These activists brought their own lived experiences and included Zimbabwean activists affected by mining, anti-fracking activists from KwaZulu Natal and the Karoo, LGBTI and faith activists from Cape Town, gender-based violence survivors from urban KwaZulu Natal, rural climate change community organizers from Mozambique, Shackdweller Movement activists from Durban and community members monitoring the impact of mining from Soweto. Through the process of working together, I saw participants gradually finding common ground and challenges, and sharing lessons from their own experiences.

Suddenly the connections between economic, gender and environmental justice became a clear and lived reality. These discussions led to them highlighting the importance of community voice and finding new ways for those voices to connect, and be heard, shared and amplified. The Ubumbano voice, an online platform for community activists to share stories, resources and information, among other things, emerged out of those discussions.

ACT Ubumbano

Such work highlights a key element of the Christian Aid South Africa Programme: its Solidarity relationships and action. This began during the apartheid era as part of the anti-apartheid struggle, but was sustained across the duration of the entire programme.

It is therefore apt that the impact of Christian Aid’s work will continue after the programme closes, through the regional Southern African ACT Ubumbano network, which we have co-created and helped shape with our global and southern ACT Alliance and wider group of partners. We will also remain connected through  a wider group of South and Southern African partners (via Christian Aid Zimbabwe).

Community activists learning together

Community activists at a 2018 ACT Ubumbano community learning exchange event in Johannesburg, South Africa sharing experiences, knowledge and tactics with other activists. Credit: ACT Ubumbano. 

Image of a group of activists sitting around a table and talking

South African community activists - Credit: ACT Ubumbano

Celebrating our partners’ successes

The South Africa Learning Review aims to learn from over 60 years of working in South Africa. It focuses largely on the nature of the partnerships developed, and the mutual learning and exchange that was possible, examining the types of organisation Christian Aid partnered with, and also how those partners influenced Christian Aid’s thinking and its work.

While the review does not primarily focus on the South Africa programme’s impact or its work in-depth, it celebrates the work and successes of our final four direct partners in 2020. All of these partnerships went far beyond funding, and the partners have mentioned their interest in continuing to engage with Christian Aid in the future in some form. These partners are all now part of the regional Southern African network ACT Ubumbano:

  • The Church Land Programme (CLP) connects locally and globally, empowering communities and movements to set the agenda, rather than the NGOs. They were a key solidarity partner in the growth of the Shackdwellers Movement and supported unique land claim wins for the Roosboom community, leading to rebuilding churches destroyed during apartheid.
  • Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII), a South African think tank, brought about a major advocacy win: the first ever national minimum wage bill for South Africa, which came into effect in 1 January 2019. During negotiations, SPII held out for the national minimum wage of R,3500 (about £180), which was higher than the initially tabled R2,000. This has also created the conditions and opportunity in 2020 for SPII’s government advocacy efforts to include an improved minimal safety net for those living in poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The Benchmarks Foundation, a non-profit organisation mandated by the churches to monitor the practices of multinational corporations, produced the Soweto report, called ‘Waiting to Inhale’. The report was the result of 3 years of meticulous Christian Aid-funded research on the health impacts caused by the side-effects of mining. The report received widespread media coverage and attention from the South African government and corporations, and led to, for example, the rehabilitation of ageing tailings dams, and triggered a government-funded in-depth medical study on the health impacts of mine dust.
  • Economic Justice Network (EJN) of FOCCISA, an ecumenical fellowship comprising of 12 National Christian Councils (NCCs) in Southern Africa, has a long track record of getting illicit financial flows and tax injustice in Africa on the global agenda with the Group of 20 (G20), the five major emerging economies, referred to as BRICS, and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and also with the South African national government. EJN is uniquely positioned as it is often the only formally mandated faith voice from South Africa at these global spaces.  Additionally it has a legitimate Africa remit beyond South Africa and represents SADC-wide Christian Councils in global spaces. Recognizing the lack of an African presence in many of these global spaces, EJN has also refocused their G20/BRICS advocacy efforts to creating more opportunities to bring African voices to debates.

 

South Africa learning review

The learning review also explores why and in what ways the experience in South Africa turned the traditional partnership relationship on its head – enabling an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) to truly be led by its national development partners in terms of its international policy and advocacy work. 

The quote below from the report encapsulates this. 

...these organisations analysed poverty as having a political, structural and global dimension, and ‘spoke the same language’ as policy and advocacy staff in Christian Aid. What’s more, they had national and regional connections and profile that made developing linkages to global narratives and spaces more straightforward…Their strength led to partners speaking openly and honestly, challenging and co-creating with Christian Aid.

- South Africa Learning Review.

The South Africa Learning Review follows the journey of Christian Aid from the early anti-apartheid days, through the HIV/AIDS pandemic, its later focus on advocacy efforts aimed at securing economic justice, and most recently working through solidarity approaches with partners. The programme started by campaigning against apartheid, a government system that formalised racism. It evolved to engage with different forms of structural inequality. The review concludes by reflecting that learning from this experience is relevant to Christian Aid today as INGOs in the international development sector grapple with how to better respond to racism and racial inequality within their own organisations.

 

Read the South Africa learning review report
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