Khulumani’s tools to unlock civic competence

An Interview with Marjorie Jobson, National Director of Khulumani Support Group Johannesburg

Claske Dijkema, October 2009


  • social transformation
  • apartheid
  • social justice
  • empowerment
  • post-conflict
  • South Africa

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I have interviewed Marjorie Jobson in an airport terminal, when I was flying in and she was flying out of Johannesburg. I wanted to hear more from her about the apartheid litigation against companies that were doing business in South Africa under apartheid. This led us to a much wider discussion about the tools Khulumani developed to empower a socially and economically deprived group of people who have suffered from years of structural violence. In short, how to implement social transformation.

Khulumani Support Group is a membership organisation comprising around 58.000 members who are survivors of apartheid atrocities. There are around 8-15 organised groups in each province.

Having a membership that is geographically dispersed is an advantage but we do have a challenge of being able to share information effectively amongst a widely-dispersed membership.

Our members live lives of significant deprivation. A recent study by Professor Jacklyn Cock revealed that vulnerable households in South Africa are providing their members with only one meal per day and that meal is usually a cup of tea and two slices of bread. The nutritional content of bread is no longer controlled by government so the nutritional value of the available bread has decreased. The reason people are living only on bread is because of the inaffordability of energy – whether electricity, paraffin or wood.

Our members have always suffered disproportionately from unemployment. The situation has worsened with the escalation of unemployment. (More than 900,000 people in formal employment lost their jobs during 2009. A number of mines are currently in serious trouble and are looking at retrenching thousands more workers).

Using Litigation to Unlock Civic Competence

For Khulumani, our greatest excitement has been for us to witness how a lawsuit being conducted in a foreign country has served to unlock the civic agency of the people who were most harmed by apartheid. This is what the lawsuit was intended to achieve, but it is very difficult to use legal instruments for the empowerment of vulnerable and marginalised people.

The legal documents including the Judge Schendlin opinion / judgment are very difficult documents to read and understand, but our members are demanding copies of these documents and are demanding to be kept fully informed of lawsuit development.

This is why we have set up a mobile phone short message service alert system that is currently reaching some 18,000 of our members with alerts about these developments. Our members sit and study the documents that have been formulated by legal firms in Washington DC. It’s an extraordinary phenomenon.

But we have also tried never to give people false hopes that we could win this case. The real question for us has been - how to ensure that a transnational human rights litigation can serve the purpose of victim re-empowerment.

Enabling Victim Re-Empowermewnt

One of our central concerns has been how to ensure that the skills gained in legal processes can translate into other skills for economic re-empowerment. We call this re-empowerment because our members and their families used to be powerful. They were land-owners and successful agricultural producers who were progressively dispossessed of their land and access to educational opportunities to ensure that they could only access menial and unskilled labour opportunities. Being forced off their land, forced formerly self-reliant people into conditions of servitude in industry, and in particular in the mines. South Africa is the only country on the African continent that experienced a fully-fledged industrial revolution and it seems that government believes that industrialisation is the main route to job creation and to overcoming such deeply entrenched poverty. This route unfortunately comes at a great price – of increasing pollution, further dispossession of people in communities where more minerals are found; and ongoing practices of corruption where certain individuals in communities are paid off to sell rights to multinational companies as has happened in the Xolobeni community on the Wild Coast of South Africa.

The multiple policies and pieces of legislation that ensured that the majority of South Africans were obstructed from realising their potential and were thwarted in making their significant contributions to the development of their communities, is the legacy that Khulumani seeks to redress as a basis of our struggle for social justice.

Struggling for Social Justice

We see this struggle for social justice as including but going beyond mere legal struggles for human rights which can serve us but which fail to harness the capacities of organised groups to serve as local focuses of self-organisation for self-reliance.

On the spectrum from dictatorship / authoritarianism which is our past to the chaos and disorder of thousands of local level so-called “service delivery protests” (some 10,000 recorded protests per year presently in South Africa) there is a middle-ground that comprises the terrain of Khulumani’s struggle – the struggle for enabling an environment in which all the capacities of ordinary people can be unlocked to serve to address local problems. This is why our victim empowerment programme differs from the victim empowerment programme of government, which is one of top-down imposition of programmes. We see this middle-space as the space of self-organisation / self-regulation and the unlocking of the vast capacities of ordinary people to build really safe and secure and flourishing communities. (This is supported by the work on African fractals – a mathematical model that supports the experience of the incredible stability and productiveness of the middle space where ordinary actions can add to the immense repertoire of contributions that ordinary people can make)

Without these kinds of processes of economic enablement, there is no future. We have to enable local actors, Khulumani members, to be the change agents in their local communities, rather than being under the central control of a political hierarchy. What is very strange is that there are models of successful non-hierarchical social organisation across Africa, that are not being perpetuated while we seem constrained to impose more western hierarchical models of democracy.

Retaining Political Independence

Khulumani has the advantage of not being aligned to any political party. This has been difficult because of the way that government funding works. It seems we are slowly beginning to change the situation were government funds are directed almost exclusively at ANC-approved projects. This battle however is far from over and is particularly difficult at this time, when the ANC is seen as the ‘road to enrichment’. Khulumani values not being in the pockets of the ANC or of any other political organisations, but we do appreciate when government becomes the enabler of the kinds of approaches that we are trying to introduce and promote.

Practising Non-Partisanship

Khulumani has gone out of its way to assist all direct survivors of the political past in South Africa including former combatants for whom government has put in place a range of additional benefits that are not available to our general membership. We have reached out to rural areas to help as many people who qualify as possible to access grants for which they may qualify. We have reached thousands of military veterans in this way and we are proud to have lobbied successfully for amendments to the Special Pensions Act in Parliament to try to extend access to these benefits for those who joined the liberation armies when they were very young.