South African Civic Associations Twenty Years after Apartheid

Ideas and Issues

517L8CD1vsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Brooklyn    Mzwanele Mayekiso was an organizer and leader in building one of the more remarkable civic associations, the Alexandra Action Committee, in a large township during the tumultuous years that finally toppled apartheid in South Africa twenty years ago in 1994. He did three years with other activists in prison during that period accused of treason for his organizing and activism. Out of all of these experiences came a fascinating book as well, called Township Politics: Civic Struggles for a New South Africa, which he is now updating twenty years later.

I read the book recently after Mzwanele suddenly reached out to me through the magic of the internet from reading my daily reports and asking if we could meet the next time I came through New York City, where we talked recently for several hours comparing the challenges and successes of community organizing in South Africa, the USA, and elsewhere around the world at the Pratt Institute, where we both knew people well and could find a somewhat quiet spot. I had found the book fascinating, partially because it offered a vivid and invaluable look at the grassroots level where the fight for freedom crossed paths daily with the fight for improving the living conditions and circumstances of people living in the township communities, and partially because some of the questions left lingering at the book’s end are questions that plague many community organizing ambitions.

The AAC in the wake of apartheid’s fall saw it as critical to secure assistance for housing development for example. Having been closely involved with the African National Congress (ANC), the party that forged the governing coalition under Nelson Mandela, they were convinced of the support of the government for such community development and of its deep commitment to equality and to upgrading the townships. As the ANC became more transactional in order to govern, the ability to achieve those kinds of civic developments became surprisingly difficult and frustrating. The problems of the movement overwhelming the grassroots organization and the inability to maintain them fully or forge an effective national community organization also confounded Mzwanele and others both then and now. All of these are classic problems so discussing them in Brooklyn was energizing.

It will be interesting to see Mzwanele’s book, when it comes out in 2016, and what he will make of all of this with two decades of study and reflection. He splits half of his time between South Africa and the USA now and has a global range of contacts from his post-apartheid years of study in the US as well as his role acting as the international affairs representative of SANCO, the South African National Civic Organization.

It turned out he had looked me up because his current project is building a kind of think tank of sorts for what he calls intellectual discussion of these kinds of organizational problems with a base in South Africa, the USA, and soon Brazil, Sweden, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell what might come of such discussions, but it will be both important and interesting to hear and participate in the struggle to find successful paths through this maze of challenges faced by community organizations.