I recently traveled to Oslo, on a series of discussions around nearly two decades of democracy in South Africa.
Below is the story and video published in Bistandsaktuelt:
The international development industry has become a sort of industry with people on the move from one event to the next to talk about change. But they do not reflect the voices of people on the ground. This is my challenge to organizations: “Let the poor argue their own case. When I was a union leader I never spoke on behalf of the workers, they spoke for themselves. They even ran the negotiations in the factory and mobilized communities”, says Jay Naidoo.
In the 1980s, Jay Naidoo was one of those who crafted the strategy that changed the country from white minority rule to a plural democracy with one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. He went from being the Secretary General of the black national labour movement Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), to become minister in the country’s first two governments after the 1994 elections. Gradually he became more and more dissatisfied with the ANC board corruption and market focus. He retired as a politician.
Today he joined nutrition campaign Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and sits on the boards of a number of civil society organizations.
Desperate and angry
“People in Turkana in Kenya know nothing about carbon emissions, but they know when there is a water shortage in the lake and the fish disappear. We need to talk to people about issues that affect them in their daily lives, and not about what we as organizations believe are important,” says Jay Naidoo.
“The Development debate has been hijacked by people without contact with people on the ground. You hear more from business organizations such as the World Economic Forum than from civil society,” he adds.
Naidoo points out that leaders in the developing world today, talk about how economic growth lifts people out of poverty. He sees little of this in Africa, despite the great economic growth and abundant natural resources. It is also the reason why there are many protests in several poor countries.
Shut up and listen
Naidoo still draws on the lessons of his early years as a protester and activist. He was a youth activist in the student uprising in South Africa in 1976, it was called the Soweto uprising after the city where it began. The revolt against segregation was crushed by large police forces.
The pupils had no support. “We learned from the Soweto Uprising that we had to organize workers, talk to their parents’ generation. Therefore, I sought out hostels where the miners lived. I had to learn to shut up and listen. To be an activist, it is important to listen.”
“Movements grow only when people realize that they have power”, said Naidoo.
He is concerned about the youth who are now growing up in Africa and elsewhere in the world. They are long-term unemployed.
“They are angry and feel excluded from society. They are deprived of hope and they see the inequalities in society. Some are extremists, others choose violent protests. Violence becomes a language, for them,” said Naidoo.
“In 2050, Africa’s population will be two billion people, most of them young. We must make sure that they are part of the system. If we do not they will not just be our demographic nightmare, the same applies for Europe.”
The people change
He believes that civil society organizations around the world need a wakeup call.
“Development Activists do not do enough to help people to regain their dignity. Many civil society organizations are now more accountable to donors than to members or groups they represent”, said Naidoo.
“When I talk to young people that they must organize themselves around issues that affect them, they reply “we have no money.” But we mobilized in South Africa in the 70s and 80′s and never had generous donors. We believed in justice and went out and worked for it. We organized people around that we were concerned”, says the activist.
He believes that popular mobilization is important.
“We need to work with people about their concerns, listen to them and together identify the tools needed to achieve their vision. There are people who must establish sustainable movements that create change. People are the driving force for change.”
“Sometimes when I discuss with civil society today, it seems as if they think that any technique will come and create change. This is not a laboratory. It’s about real life, about the slums, villages and factories. We must combine the old way of organizing peoplebut today we have the use of internet, social media and mobile phones. Most importantly though is that people must be at the centre so that they take hold of their own future.”
“Change and development ultimately revolves around politics, it is about power and governance. We need governments that are more efficient and deliver,” says Naidoo. He continues:
“Many of the current development debates are distant from the recognition that people must be organized at the grassroots for development to take place. Today we have professionalized development sector, and it is a great retreat. There is a role for people with special knowledge, but they should only be catalysts. International development experts are not the driving forces for change, it is the ordinary people who are. That’s what we have to discuss the future, says Jay Naidoo.”
Disclaimer: This article was edited and adapted from a Norwegian to English Translation.
Below follows a video of this discussion: