Church Based Community Organizing in South Africa

Cape Town Earlier in the Organizers’ Forum visit in South Africa we had started in a church in Orange Farm outside of Johannesburg that was ministered by one of the national leaders South Africa’s CBCO — Church Based Community Organizations.  Now in Cape Town we met one the Cape Town lead organizer, Deborah , and some of the leaders of the organization to get a closer look at the work.

 Rev. Terrance Jacobs, the South African Director of CBCO, had been a member of our delegation throughout the trip.  CBCO is a sister organization to the Gameliel Foundation based in Chicago and directed by Greg Galuzzo.  The work among churches began in the Durban area where Terrance is headquartered, but had spread to Orange Farm, Cape Town, and other locations.   The heart of the support seemed to come from Anglican (Episcopal in the USA) and Catholic Churches largely.

 Deborah gave us a briefing in an interesting location — the Crypt — a coffee house & cafe in the bowels of an old Anglican Church right near Government Road, a walkway up the hill in the center of the city alongside the gorgeous Dutch East India Company gardens, the statue to Cecil Rhodes, museums, and the president’s house.  As she spoke one could not help reading the inscriptions on the crypts memorializing various English officers and soldiers who had died in the great Boer Wars.  The Boer Wars pitted England against the Afrikaners in their drive for independence from the Commonwealth.  There are huge monuments to the Boer Wars in park behind the Parliament in Toronto and in the downtown central square of Montreal.  This was a war the English cared about deeply.  I doubt if the Boer Wars make much of a mention anymore in US history books, though one suspects its still fresh in the histories of the English and their colonies.  We were buried in old history where the weight of reactionary forces made it hard to know how to choose sides.

 Crime had been the big campaign in Cape Town.  The twenty or so churches who had pieced together the organization had recently held a meeting of thousands with this as the main plank in their platform.

 We were able to attend a leadership meeting of the organization one evening while in Cape Town.  The priests and ministers speaking to the results of that assembly were still in awe of their turnout.  They told a story that resonates throughout community organizing about trying to pin down the target for the action.  The priest excitedly told the story of the Mayor giving them the slip and sending a second in command to deal with them, and of overhearing the flunkey calling on the cell to the Mayor and telling him he better get there, because it was churches and there was a “huge crowd.”  They felt the power.  They described the Mayor’s promise as tepid and lame, and it was hard to follow in our brief visit if there was a more aggressive or progressive program and strategy at work here, or whether this was simply middle class parishioners in suburban churches working with their ministers to express their fear and frustration about crime and related issues.  Among the thirty odd leaders there was one white woman and one black man and in the terms of apartheid, which are still the cultural and political constant even a decade later, the rest of the leadership was “coloured” as they were self-described. 

 The leaders were gracious and friendly, surprising us with a potluck.  We were meeting in a Methodist Church, so I repeated the common theological line for all Methodists in the USA that the one thing that was eternally certain was the belief in the potluck. 

 The model seemed to have been a carbon copy of what one would have seen in a church based organization in the Gameliel network in the United States.  As we could easily see in both Jo-burg and now in Cape Town, Gameliel had obviously found fertile soil in building their kind of organization among the welcoming churches of South Africa.

 This bears watching.

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The New Women’s Movement

Cape Town In a country where the government concedes nearly 29% “official” unemployment and the argument rages over how to count disillusioned job seekers as they fall off the charts, no one seriously disputes the fact that unemployment is likely at least 40%.  In the world of numbers that means that in lower income areas a national baseline figure, call it 29% or 40% or whatever, is going to explode past the majority of the population up to 70-80%.  How in the world do people make it?

 They make it by the hardest obviously.  Some people we met speculated that every job holder in the country was probably supporting another 10 people in their immediate and extended families.  Another answer lies in the vast “informal sector” of the economy.  Yet another answer lie in learning about the fight over the last decade — and partial success — to extend social security payments — or what we would call welfare payments — to more children in the country.  In Cape Town we met with the director of the Basic Income Grant (BIG) coalition supported by COSATU, APF, and many others, but we did not feel that we were really close to the story until we met with the leaders of the New Women’s Movement in a historic building in District 6 on a rise overlooking downtown with acres of undeveloped land all around us.  The meeting space was almost a story in itself, because it was a last vestige of what had been the community before it was cleared out and resettled by the leaders of apartheid. 
 We were fortunate guests at a one-week training leadership school for young women 18-24 that NWM was running a the center.   One could not escape feeling that one was in the bosom of the best of feminist values and principles as the older NWM women — several of whom had helped found the organization — spoke quietly and firmly of their history and the struggle for more welfare coverage which they had led, largely on what we would call a shoestring and a prayer, as they had mobilized forces throughout the country, camped in the Parliament, and finally secured a concession raising the age for child support from 7 to 14 years.  These were gritty, determined, and I must say, elegant sisters, who clearly had made deep decisions about what was right and just and then played way, way, way over their weight class and through conviction, commitment, and persistence had won a victory.  It was a great story and no doubt they had played an important role. 
We no longer cared about all the details and exactly who had done what and when.  One could look around the room and see in their eyes and hear in their voices that our delegation of hardened, cynical labor and community organizers had gone mushy based as much on what they were hearing as the totality of the environment.  The whole idea of senior women leaders now training young women had power and appeal.  Hearing the training director and the young women describe the week’s curriculum and its emphasis on everything from social & political economy to AIDS health awareness to how to run a meeting was moving our organizers.   Going around the room, the young women stood up and identified the communities where they lived and what part of the training meant the most to them and why.  The wind was roaring outside suddenly.  Windows and doors were slamming shut in the sudden gush.  You could have heard a pin drop.
The organization had little real capacity.  Talking to one of the founders she shared with me the facts.  The two days here and there scrambling to find enough pay to work for the organization.   This was a labor of political commitment and love.
I asked the assembled women if they could bear yet another weight of responsibility and stewardship.  One of the founding members of the Organizers’ Forum board, Andrea Kydd, had recently stepped down from the board for health and professional reasons.  I told the story of first meeting Andrea more than 35 years ago when both of us organized — as they did here in South Africa — for the National Welfare Rights Organization, me in Massachusetts and Andrea in New York, and of her continuing work including her interest in health issues.  I asked them if we could make a modest contribution to their work for the next couple of years or as long as possible in Andrea’s name in honor of her work and service to organizing, and would they accept the responsibility to carry that work forward in some appropriate way for their sake and to honor the contributions that Andrea had made to this struggle as well.
I looked across the room directly at ……………the founding member.  She rose to her feet with what Barbara Bowen, the Organizers’ Forum, described as tears in her eyes, and with solemn grace said that it would be an honor and thanked us.
There is a spirit of struggle that is invincible and it is always good to be reminded that its power will in fact change the world.

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