So if you are wondering why the long silence since the post last week, well…I am in Durban after all, where things tend to move a little slower than Joburg and about as fast as Cape Town. And it has been busy: the ‘People’s Space’ at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), mostly at the initiative of Patrick Bond, has taken off and is always buzzing with energy, people and a whole herd of news crews from local and international media. There are activists, socialists, NGO people, more activists and a whole bunch of artists as well, mostly thanks to the Climate Train initiative and the great crew that was on board that long trip around South Africa to Durban.
The ‘occupy space’ has also been buzzing and you should take a look at the video post from the Ambush Collective who descended upon it and built a wonderful garden for the future. Which brings us neatly to another aspect of the ‘occupy space’ in Durban. It is not your classic people-driven occupy, but rather a city approved space for people to occupy during COP17, which was negotiated with the city by the civil society representatives on the C17. It is in that sense a new kind of occupy, a government approved and temporary allowance for people to express and engage. While there are so many ideological issues with such a concept, I am trying to be brave and creative enough to let go off those issues and ideas of occupy as we know it from OWS and focus on what has been happening there and maybe, some thinking about what may come of it post COP17. So far, nothing has come of the ‘occupy space’ since the march on Saturday, 3 December 2011 and in the words of my colleague, John Treat, it is now de-funked, which may go some way towards debunking the myth that international NGOs (INGOs) are capable of hijacking the occupy idea. That is something we should all be very grateful for.
And that is pretty much where I feel we can leave this blog as it seems that my assertion that NGOs and other movements in civil society will try to co-opt and cannibalise the ideals and methods of occupy for their current agendas was in fact prescient – but, I feel that maybe I am being too harsh on the people and processes in SA. And there is good reason to be kinder to our levels of (dis)organisation and the nuances of our political history which make engagements with the SA government a challenge fraught with tensions and high-drama instead of a simple critical intellectual engagement and consensus building on moving forward.
The how and why we are here mired in this stalemate is the subject of not just another blog but of several issuances from academics to cartoonists, locally and across the know universe. Yet, we as people of this nation and across all sectors seem unwilling to be brave enough to change or are too content with this divided society we are building. Or maybe it is simply that we do not care enough about how we work or fail to. Almost all conversations with locals and visitors alike tend to lead back to the question of leadership and lack thereof among civil society organisations as the key weakness in our ability to engage critically and effectively with government. And I tend to agree, though I still hold that the concept of an apex representative structure for civil society that is recognised by government is not just outmoded but also potentially harmful to the growth of ideas that manifest as ideals and changes to the stark poverty and inequality in SA. But going back to agreeing with the notion that there is a lack of leadership in the sector and what some sober and principled leadership can achieve: for a start it may help with my desire to see a better engagement process than the current hobbled together rigmarole of government doing things, civil society organisations responding negatively to it and inevitably a court process to find a better solution. I find it baffling that, in a country with a globally lauded Constitution and a rich pool of intellectual talent, we are seemingly constantly finding ourselves at loggerheads with each other over things that, at first glance at least, seem pretty obvious or common sense. A good example is the demands around climate secrets by Right2Know and while the demands themselves make for interesting reading, the fact that we must demand these things, seems to me that the ideals of the Freedom Charter are somehow being lost in this transition to a form of capitalist sanctioned democracy we are building… but maybe that is a blog for another day.
The march on 3 December was a great show of both strength and courage from a range of people and organisations not willing to be boxed into corners by a government that is increasingly moving further right in the way it treats its people. The use of what Rehad Desai calls the “Green Bombers” to intimidate other allegedly anti-government civil society groups was an appalling act of machismo and it is worth reading Rehad’s post about the incident on Facebook.
I am reminded of the outburst from former President Thabo Mbeki about the ‘ultra-leftists’ and how perceptions of political allegiance and positioning are really just perspectives. Maybe Mbeki did not realise how far right he had moved and thus some people did seem to him to be ultra left. Which is pretty much where we seem to be going with the COP17 process. The current deal period is about to expire in 2012 and with no deal here in Durban, it just means that we will have to deal with what is left, instead of doing what is right.
- Rajesh Latchman is the Coordinator of the National Welfare Forum, Volunteer Convenor of GCAP South Africa, guerrilla gardener, cyclist and an unreformed recycler. He writes in his personal capacity.