From the Ground Up: Civic Engagement in Our Time
80th Annual Summer Conference, August 4–7, 2011
They say that every journey begins with a first step. I come from Johannesburg which is often portrayed as the violent crime capital in Africa. Well like all big cities in a country that sees such great gap in societal inequality and poverty there are the scary parts. But it is bursting with the vibrancy and energy of a young teenager. Its hormones carry the troubled angst of its past with its brutality but overall the milieu of cultures, religions, languages and cuisine make it the most cosmopolitan capital of Africa with a refreshing vibrancy, hospitality and generosity. It is where my children were born and grew up.
An hour’s drive from Johannesburg sits the Cradle of Humanity. Here Professor Tobias, one of the most eminent paleoanthropologists in the world discovered the Sterkfontein caves which has yielded the largest single sample of Australopithecus Africanus as well as the first known example of Homo Habilis from Southern Africa. It is now a World Heritage Site.
I am the Patron of a project called ‘Scatterlings of Africa’ , a program that will link up the palaeo-anthropology archeological sites of Africa that show scientifically that our shared ancestry all come from the beautiful continent Africa. What I have learnt is that of the tens of thousands of genes that make up the human DNA only a handful determine our skin color or physical characteristics. Yet our world continues to be divided in terms of culture, religion, gender, language and race.
Defining our shared humanity remains one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.
‘Extremism knows no national, cultural or religious bounds said Desmond Tutu about the massacre in Norway. Tutu, an icon of spiritual wisdom and Nobel Prize laureate added: It also showed people are not doing enough to close the gap on prejudice and intolerance, and to foster broad-mindedness, an acceptance of one another and love.
Hannah Kvilhaugsvik, a young Norwegian studying to be a teacher said: ‘I don’t want a society where everyone is walking around suspicious of each other’. And yet another youth leader said: ‘We don’t want a Norwegian Patriot Act,’ referring to the US law heightening security after the September 11, 2001, attacks.’
This gives me hope that the next generation is looking for new solutions in which different cultures can embrace each other as the human race.
I grew up in South Africa, born in the port city of Durban, South Africa. My great grandmother Angamma came from Tamil Nadu in the south of India. She was an indentured laborer recruited in the British Raj from an impoverished village and lured by promises of a better life. It was 1864 and she left on foot to the city of Madras and boarded a ship to cross an ocean to unknown and distant shores of South Africa. While slavery had been prohibited by the British Parliament her work on the sugar farms of Natal were not much different to the inhumane life a slave lived.
I visited the village in 1999 as a Minister of Nelson Mandela’s Government. Not much has changed in the village but they knew who Mandela was and compared him to the father of India’s freedom struggle Mahatma Gandhi. It was a humbling moment for me – nothing I have done in my life could compare to the courage of a young woman leaving the security of her home and village and forever changing the line of my ancestry.
It makes me ponder the question of what is nationality. What is the nation state?
Surely we are all part of one human race. I was a foreigner in India although it was the first time I was in a country where the majority of people looked like me. Are we not all immigrants of one kind or the other? Are we not temporary sojourners given the privilege of guardianship of Mother Earth and Nature? And in turn what are the footprints we leave behind?
This is the second big challenge facing us today.
The South Africa I grew up in became the pariah of the world. It was a social engineering experiment in which racism was institutionalized and legalized. We had laws that forbid Mixed Marriages. That meant it was illegal for me to marry my wife Lucie Pagé. Certainly I would have gone to jail if we were caught having sex and my kids would have been defined Colored. They would even have a pencil test to decide their race – a pencil that stayed in your hair could make you a Colored. Today my children carry the blood of India, Africa, Québec, Mohawk and Irish. They are proud global citizens who are confident of their heritage.
The more heinous apartheid laws where designed to ensure a cheap supply of young black men to work in the mines. A system of migrant labor tore families apart and destroyed much of the social fabric. Families were left in poverty in the reservations and men housed under brutal conditions in huge hostels with little privacy and harsh conditions. Apartheid was not just a system for political oppression; it was a system designed for economic servitude.
When I was 4 years old we were evicted from the home we lived in. I was bewildered. Why do we have to leave here? I love my home, garden and friends. It was never explained but later I understood that we removed in terms of the Group Areas Act. We were the wrong color and apartheid had a strategy to remove all ‘black spots’. Almost 3 million people lost their homes in this way and communities across the country were disrupted.
I grew up angry and resentful. Everything in the system conferred an inferior status on one. My mother was the one that calmed my troubled spirit. She was so calm and honest. She was my first teacher of human values. ‘”All religions and cultures are but tributaries of the great river of humanity that you must always treat with respect and learn from their wisdom. There is no single path to God. It is not the rituals or how often you pray. It is what you do with your life and how you serve your Family, Community and Society without expectation of reward that carves your path to spirituality. Remember you walk in the footsteps of your ancestors and remember to bless that heritage with kindness and compassion.”
I learnt so much from her and Elders in our community. Not many of them had formal education but they had an innate wisdom that was passed down from generation to generation. Today we need to reinforce that lesson. While we are information rich from all the technology at our disposal, we lack the human values that build great communities and nations.
Growing up, it was impossible not to be politically active. Racism confronted you daily. One hot summer’s afternoon when I was a teenager I went to a public meeting held in the Lutheran Church to hear Steve Biko speak. The hall was crammed with people. It was stuffy and humid but the air crackled with excitement. Two large cars had swept into the parking area and unloaded a bunch of burly security policemen with barely concealed weapons under their ill-fitting jackets. They marched into the church and took up seats on the front benches.
I stood at the back watching this spectacle unfold. A young African man walked out to face the crowds gathered at the church hall. Biko clenched his fist in the air and shouted ‘Amandla!’ - power ‘Ngawethu!’ – is ours - the people responded the audience.
It was a political slogan carried down the decades and Amandla is still called out during political rallies and speeches, and still prompts the same response, ‘It is ours’.
Back then, the hall reverberated with the sound of the slogans. The apprehensive crowd became more confident. We outnumbered the security police who were there to intimidate us.
‘Black man, you are on your own. We are tired of standing at the touchlines to witness a game that they should be playing. We have nothing to lose except our chains. There is only black and white in this country. There is no middle ground. We must take a stand. We are either for justice and freedom, or apartheid and servitude.’
I was inspired to become politically active.
The next few years were spent working as a student activist. Then 1976 exploded with the Soweto Uprisings. It was a watershed. As that generation we marched in the streets rejecting the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and declared- ‘We have had enough. The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. We want freedom and social justice now.’ The State murdered Steve Biko, smashed our organization detaining many hundreds while thousands fled into exile.
Recently I was in Cairo as part of the Advisory Group on the World Development Report 2011 which focused on the theme of ‘Conflict, Security and Development.’ A code name for ‘Why do States Fail.’ We met with students who led the revolutionary movements that toppled Mubarak and dictators across North Africa, with new Government representatives, academics, the new trade unions and business. The cry of the ‘Arab Spring’ and the youth for ‘jobs, freedom and social justice’ struck a chord with our winter of discontent in 1976. This is the most defining moment of the decade for citizen power.
It had taken us 18 years from 1976 to free Mandela and to give birth to our democracy. It had involved many sacrifices, painstaking organization of our people and a global solidarity movement to topple the powerful apartheid machine.
A key challenge facing these transitional societies in the Middle East and North Africa is defining the ‘democratic processes’ from old to new dispensation.
By 1978 after a period in hiding and teaching on a temporary basis far from where I was known, I returned to organizing in communities around the ‘bread and butter’ issues that people faced such as high rents, poor rental stock, access to education and health facilities, drug abuse and transport. Hard work won the trust of residents and built organizations that could win them small victories that gave them confidence. Ultimately such communities were mobilized and local leadership was able to mount campaigns that improved their lives and challenged the undemocratic authorities.
In 1979 I went to volunteer in the fledgling trade union movement. It was still illegal for African workers to unionize but under international pressure the Government was forced to compromise and grant limited rights. We used this opening to fight for full worker rights and by the early Eighties international companies in response to calls for economic sanctions began recognizing the new unions. By 1985 we had united the new progressive unions under the banner of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). ‘A giant was born that would challenge all who stood its way.’ I was the founding General Secretary.
By 1987, we had built a formidable organization based on national industrial unions strongly organized at the workplace and a movement of tens of thousands grassroots shop stewards, mainly with little formal education but highly skilled now in the law and negotiations. The union movement became a school and a university of social, economic and political education. We realized that winning worker rights on the factory floor was inseparable from the broader struggle for freedom in our country.
So we built alliances with the youth, student and women’s organizations, religious and faith based groups, NGO’s and even small black business. Because we were organized at the factory floor it was more difficult to smash our organization as they did at a community level with the army occupying the schools and townships where people lived. As the strikes mounted in our ‘winter of discontent’, millions of people poured into the streets. Our buildings were bombed including the Cosatu HQ, hundreds detained but we were determined that we would have freedom in our lifetime.
By 1989 we knew that change was in the air. We had a political stalemate. Neither side could win unless we ended up with a scorched earth scenario. The apartheid regime was now isolated from even its erstwhile allies in the UK and US Governments. People to people solidarity in these countries and around the world forced politicians globally to take tougher measures against apartheid. We should never underestimate the capacity of ordinary people to take action on a just struggle.
1990 saw the last apartheid President, de Klerk lift the ban on free political activity and release Mandela. This was our moment of irreversible change. But we suffered under an increase in violence as covert forces that would lose in a democratic transition fought back. But the key protagonists on either side had established a commonality of interests on what could be sold to their constituencies. Through a process of sufficient consensus we navigated our way through a minefield to our first democratic election in 1994 even as the rest of the world was predicting a racial civil war.
At the end of the day it comes to LEADERSHIP. In Mandela’s first speech on his freedom from 27 years in prison he said in Cape Town ‘I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands. . .
This theme – and it was a genuine one - has been repeated many more times in the years I have known him. Mandela represented the ‘collective will’, always striving to reach consensus even with those he fundamentally disagreed with. As with any human being, there would be the exceptions. But he always strove to keep his ego in check – a human frailty that many others in power struggle to contain.
One of the biggest mistakes we made in the new Government was to believe that now we had democracy, civil society should be given a marginal role. In fact we robbed the country of the vibrant energy, passion and grassroots leadership so critical in delivering the better life we promised our people in 1994. The lesson learnt was that any Governments need an active citizenship and social activism to be the counterveiling force and to prevent abuse of power.
In South Africa while we have improved the lives of the poor tremendously with access to housing, water, electricity, health and education we are also characterized by high levels of poverty and growing inequality that makes us the worst example in terms of the Gini Coefficient, after Namibia. Add to that the growing corruption by predatory elite and we have explosive mixture. While we are a functioning democracy with regular elections and the right to vote that has not delivered the economic and social rights that we fought for; 18 years later we are seeing a new social activism rising like when the Mbeki Government was challenged successfully and pressured to provide free ARV treatment to HIV positive people in 2002.
More recently civil society, the media and labor movements as well as church groups are raising their voices strongly regarding corruption and attempts to clamp down on the media and service delivery by the public sector. The new fight is not just about access but the quality of health and education services. The social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and the mobile phone are today the most pervasive platforms for deepening democratic debate in Africa. The Arab Spring is clear evidence that even the most repressive regimes are not immune to the winds of change. But you cannot run a country on Facebook or Twitter.
So where does this leave us in the world? I believe we are rapidly reaching a tipping point. I have since 2003 chaired a global Foundation GAIN, launched by then UNSG Kofi Annan and Bill Gates as a public private partnership to tackle malnutrition that faces 2 billion people in the world and that kills 5 children every minute and resulted in over 200 m children being stunted. We know the solutions and the science have been long established in Canada and the US. The foundation of global social justice is the principle that every life has equal value.
Earlier this year I spent time in the villages of Bangladesh where we launched a simple product which contains an amazing invention of a medical scientist at the University of Toronto, Dr Stanley Zlotkin. It’s called Sprinkles and contains 15 micronutrients. In a country where 80 % of women and children are malnourished we know that adding Sprinkles to staple food fed to the baby can prevent stunting, anemia and host of micronutrient diseases especially in the critical period of 6 months to 24 months.
We know today not dealing with under nutrition in first 1000 days from conception to 2 years will irreparably damage the chances of a productive life. In fact the latest medical evidence proves the link to obesity, hypertension, diabetes and increased cardio vascular disease later in life. And the product that we called Pushikhona is produced by RENATA a Bangladeshi company in partnership with BRAC the largest NGO and social business in the world. It is sold for 2 US cents and only needs to be used every 2 days. That’s 1 $ every 2 months. GAIN provided the technical, social marketing and initial investment that aims to reach 7-10 m children in the next 5 years and give them an opportunity to succeed in their lives.
While I was there in the village talking to young mothers, often not much older than my 16 year daughter I could touch the sense of hopelessness. With the average income less than a 1$ a day in many of the villages and squatter camps of Africa and Asia how do you deal with food price spikes that double the price of rice or some other staple foods? Someone - most likely the mother - will have to skip a meal often because there is simply not enough to go around.
With a billion people now chronically hungry in the world, another billion facing micronutrient deficiencies and nearly a billion now obese that makes almost half of humanity. The food system is broken in the world where the unjust distribution and wastage skews development in such a fundamental way.
Combine that with a population growth predicted to reach almost 9 b by 2050 and growing crisis of arable land and water and a growing ecological disaster because of climate change and we have to ask the hard question.
WHAT IS THE WORLD WE ARE LEAVING TO OUR CHILDREN?
I am reminded of traditional Amerindian values and philosophy. "Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.” When will we realize that the planet we are exploiting and using is not given to us by our parents but lent to us by our children? I fact there is no alternative we have but to act. There is no Planet B, my good friend Kumi Naidoo who runs Greenpeace International says.
I believe the extreme weather and the growing restlessness we see in the world is a sure sign that we are reaching a tipping point. Suddenly we find ourselves in the same ‘Noah’s Ark’. Across the developed and developing world the next generation is realizing that the development model does not work in a socially inclusive way. Can the market ever replace morality?
What we are witnessing is the corrupting influence of power. Our great challenge is to harness the market and its innovation and risk taking so that it can serve the all of humanity especially the poor, not just advance the accumulation of wealth by the rich. This means bringing that global market place under the scrutiny on the rules of all of society. This I believe is happening. The youth in particular are demanding change to those rules.
I believe that the public debate on our sustainable development model will pose our greatest human development debate. What I know is that increasing consumer demand is not a viable economic alternative.
We need desperately the check and balance of a multiplicity of independent public institutions, powerfully organized grassroots movements and an independent media that holds people in power to accountable and transparent behavior in the public or private spaces.
Joblessness even in the developed world amongst the graduates coming out of our universities and colleges is increasing. It creates the basis for a great global campaign on the scale of the Anti Slavery Abolition or the Anti – Colonial or Anti-Apartheid solidarity movements possible. We have just cause to talk across culture, religion, race, gender or class.
We all want a better world for our children.
Lestor B Pearson Canada’s former Prime-Minister and Nobel laureate crystallized our challenge ‘A great gulf, however, has been opened between man's material advance and his social and moral progress, a gulf in which he may one day be lost if it is not closed or narrowed.
Well we might just be at that point now. We need men and women of integrity and fearlessness to talk truth to power. We spend trillions of dollars to bail out the banks and their high flying executives but do not have the political will to eradicate poverty with a small part of those resources. A recent study on harmonization of Health in Africa has concluded that an average additional spending in sub-Saharan of US$ 21-36 could in 2015 alone save over 3 m lives, 90% women and children and generate US$100b in economic benefits.
Do we care and what is our universal set of moral values? Is there a minimum floor? Are there different standards for different countries, cultures or races?
We might want to recall the famous words of Martin Luther King who once said ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent.’
We have to return to the values we hold dear to our humanity. Gandhi said ‘There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not for man's greed. Let us become the change we want to see in the world.’
We find ourselves bereft of leadership on the global stage. Trust has broken down between leaders private and public and the citizens. Courageous men and women will arise from the grassroots. They will work quietly in the trenches of our war on poverty, hunger and inequality. They will shun the celebrity stage and through painstaking efforts rebuild the human values that are sustainable.
Across the world I see growing awareness of the plight that humanity faces. It’s in our institutions, villages and factories that I see a smoldering fire of social activism that forges the new global consensus. It will not be in the citadels of power that this leadership arises but the grassroots passion we have for change.
The compassion of Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King or a Mahatma is a rare human quality. Not all of us can be a Mandela but we can and should care what happens to our world. He was greatly influenced by the African philosophy of ubuntu – ‘A reflection on our shared humanity; I am because we are’. We need more than the bricks and mortar that provide us our material individual comforts. We need the reconstruction and development of the soul and our spiritual values.
Conquering the demons of self interest within ourselves as we search for a better world is the most difficult journey of life; knowing the difference between right and wrong, and, justice and injustice. The true meaning of life is our compassion, with which we should embrace those who are vulnerable and marginalized irrespective of their color, culture or creed.
Amartha Sen quotes Seamus Heany in his book ‘The Idea of Justice’
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed – for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up.
And hope and history rhyme.’
That’s what underpinned our freedom in South Africa,
That is the dream I hold dear to my heart and hope for the world. I will spend the rest of life working towards this shared vision of humanity. As Mandela himself said ‘To be free isn’t merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’ I urge you to follow this path. You demonstrate the positive energy and public spirit that builds harmony amongst us as people; between people and our environment.
Let us organize from the ground up to leave a better world for children who follow in our footsteps.
Jay Naidoo – Johannesburg, South Africa. 4.08.2011