On 21 March this year, we commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of Sharpville where 69 people lost their lives activating for change in apartheid South Africa. We took a good look at how our current environment calls us to social action once again and how local heroes across South Africa are putting their energy into bringing about change in their communities.
In Sharpville in 1960, the police killed 69 unarmed civilians and injured 180 others who refused to carry the dompas identity document. Now recognised as Human Rights Day, 21 March is a commemoration - to make sure that we never again see protesters for human rights so brutally silenced.
It reminds us that the voices of communities have a right to be heard. It teaches us that we should not live in fear of reprisal for raising our concerns about the state of our world.
Our government currently faces a number of serious challenges interlinked with the delivery of services. The scale and range of issues is complex. Infrastructure development, food security, energy supply and access to water are but a few.
Pravin Gordhan’s Budget 2010 speech indicates renewed government commitment to service delivery at the local level, improving the resourcing of education, generating jobs and expanding critical health services. The pressure is on to deliver on the fundamental promise of our young democracy: a better life for all.
In achieving a democracy, many of our citizens handed over responsibility for their communities to the state, thereby absolving themselves of any contribution to a movement for change.
A turning tide
But the tide seems to be turning. Service delivery protests have sprung up all over South Africa with increasing frequency over the past three years. At the end of October 2009, Municipal IQ – which monitors data on municipalities across the country – reported that 83 major service delivery protests had been recorded on its website. Considering that there are only 231 municipalities in South Africa, this means that conditions are dire in at least a quarter of communities.
But it is also a demonstration of the number of community based groups that are beginning to speak out around their needs and to put their energy into bringing about change in their communities.
While the Treatment Action Campaign – itself a social movement - was able to leverage a national platform to articulate its demand for improved access to antiretrovirals, the majority of social protests in South Africa are taking place in small rural or peri-urban locations, sharing a common focus on improved service delivery.
Understanding community activism
Community activism is markedly different to more formally structured organised activity. Some key characteristics are:
- It involves multiple stakeholders drawn from a diversity of locations.
- One does not have to be a recognised leader in your community to get involved.
- Community activism is fundamentally rooted in participation. It harnesses social capital to make things happen. Social movements such as these are almost always under-resourced in every way, except for their people power.
- It organises on the basis of a vision of change. There is a problem; and there is a solution to that problem.
- It calls for action rather than speculation or deliberation.
- It is often structured through campaigns or lobbying activities.
- It is more focussed on outcomes than profile.
Every community presents infinite possibilities as to how we can become involved as social activists, as local heroes. Any action to improve our communities for the better, counts. So on 21 March this year, make a promise to yourself to become involved in community action to bring about change.
Explore Community Development organisations.
- This article has been prepared by the Greater Good South Africa (GGSA). The article first appeared in the GreaterGood News and it is published here with the permission from GGSA, the first online social marketplace for people who want to make a difference.