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What must Social Movements focus on in the ever-changing and violently disrupted global political moment?

I recently participated in the 2nd African Social Movements Baraza, in Johannesburg South Africa organised by Trust Africa, CAPSI and the Wallace Global Fund. I felt at home being amongst the brave, outspoken and determined activists belonging to different social movements in Africa. The activist in me told me I was in the right place as collectively everyone from those in the feminist, student/youth, debt justice, LGBTIQ, to the environment and to the creatives in the human rights movements made the same plea ” let us dare to invent the future” for Africa. 

The packed and insightful programme, zoomed in on the state of social movements in Africa, its victories but also problems it has to address to build stronger movements that dismantle all the political and economic borders that isolate the African people. On zooming out, the movement grappled with defining the global political moment that they have to stand up to and sometimes sit with to ensure the global locomotive in its rigidity, aggression and blind spots does not continue to crash African lives and livelihoods. The global moment defined at the Baraza for me was one of a bleak, crises infested and violent moment that continues to put local lives, issues, initiatives for survival at the periphery. Metaphorically I imagined a moment that sets your house on fire, throws at you a fire extinguisher and an invoice for the extinguisher. 

Re-imagining the future beyond the global political moment took dissecting various issues including, energy, climate, just transitions, the global economy and economic justice for Africa and identifying what kind of a political system would deliver justice. From all the panels and conversations in the room, I could see that we have to set a new agenda for African recovery from the past and present violence and disruptions if we are going to invent another world, another future that centres humanity. The questions, that lingered on my mind were; do we stop this moment and build something totally different or we just begin building back better? How do we immobilise the moment and pivot it towards addressing our problems of the day. I had no answer but my framing found resonance in knowing that social movements have a role in this moment, a moment that may not repeat itself in a very long time. The current system which bore the moment we are in cannot be iterated and expect different results. It takes a principled, radical and connected social movement to come up with alternatives that will un-sit the current system and moment. 

Responses to recent global emergencies and disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts with the heightened Ukraine-Russia war and climate change have seen negative impacts percolating through Africa. These impacts present in Africa as debt distress, poor social service delivery, joblessness, lack of access to economic opportunity, environmental degradation, rising temperatures, droughts, floods, you name it! Solutions proffered lean on a flawed system that vehemently resist considerations for public sector investments, people and the planet to solve the problems of the day. It is big promises, zero fulfilment kind of situation.  It holds on to sharing the planet’s resources unequally, benefit more from available resources even when not in need of them and the private sector can get bail outs to easily bounce back after a disaster while the public sector is called on to reform and make difficult decisions of life and death and leaving many in the doldrums of extreme poverty, indignity and contradictions. 

The pulse of the social movement has to be in the rhythmic beat of solidarity that flows from Cape to Cairo; flowing connecting the struggles of the masses, building a broad based social movement that understands that it is more than events, disasters that throw children out of school into child marriage, that make a vendor fail to rebound after a pandemic, that leave a community homeless after floods, that kill a mother giving birth and the list of the tragedies and sacrifices go on and on. From fighting colonialism, Africans have always cherished being cosmopolitan by advancing the culture of “ubuntu”, that we are one and one cannot exist in isolation and survive for long. 

The required solidarity has to break down political, social and economic borders that have caused silo approaches in the various struggles that social movements are involved in. It takes traversing across Africa, holding hands and lifting up voices that are muzzled, showcasing a different narrative, one that proffers community-based alternatives that have made the African people survive up to today despite the challenges. There have been brave stories of overcoming poverty and injustices on the continent, these could be transformed into pan African actions that are replicated across Africa. New innovations, fields of doing business and solidarity hubs for different aspects could be birthed. To do this I left the Baraza triggered for practical actions and I think many others felt the same. These actions are practical alternatives that point to our very fight for existence in a global political economy that has glorified extractivism and greed on many levels.

As I came back home my key take aways from the 2nd African social movements baraza were hinged on the zooming in on the state of the social movement and placing it at the centre of transformation. Clearly, the need to build a broad-based pan African mass movement could not be over emphasised. However, what that has to be built on has to be redefined, it has to be ideologically sound to connect each social movement with the other. Beyond ideology, conviction and principles, it has to lead itself. This leadership cannot take place without being in control of the agenda and building own resources across the continent. Therefore, funding of the social movements has to begin to shift towards self-dependence, leveraging on own resources in their various forms, from; expertise, social capital, platforms to harnessing own financial resources through strengthening own funding mechanisms such as African philanthropy and community organised funding.

The institutional infrastructure of the social movements has to be built on a solidarity economy which brings together an alternative financial or monetary system, exchanges ideas, experiences and pass on the button of people-to-people solidarity to the next social movement, and to the next and to the next until an alternative way becomes self-evident. Our social movements have to be the alternative to the current capitalist system. 

For example, if the current global economy has failed to deliver the people of Africa out of poverty, what alternative economy do we begin to build from our own initiatives? If the African healthcare system has failed, how do we build our own localised safe healthcare facilities and mechanism? If multinational companies have failed to deliver decent jobs and development but looted our resources, how do we build our own local cooperatives into humane and honest businesses that build our communities? In the absence of a robust social security plan at national and continental level, amidst high levels of informality, how do we build and secure people’s own social security mechanisms? If the financial services sector denies access to financial resources on the premise of lack of collateral, how do we include on the basis of integrity and trust of each other?  These are some of the questions that the social movement in Africa has to begin to answer, intentionally moving away from rhetoric and reiterating the same system. 

Organising, mobilising and keeping connected will keep the social movements alive. Linking across movements and sectors across Africa will sustain the struggle. Ownership of the agenda and reclaiming the economic and political spaces will make the people be in control of their prosperity, peace and dignity.  

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  1. A very insightful and thought provoking piece! Social movements can only survive if they dare the status quo, interrogate their achievements, and above all adapt in line with the ever changing political landscape otherwise they will die a painful death. By day, the world is getting more complex. Thank you for getting our minds out of the limbo.

  2. Interesting read indeed, I was reading on how we can develop a human centered design for our communities and while you are right that we need more than just an element of organization and structure, I think it will take a huge amount of discipline and commitment to the cause. Thank you for this article