SA must nurture its troublemakers

For me the combined 20th anniversary of democracy in SA and the death of Nelson Mandela has meant reflecting on the kinds of courage and troublemaking needed when you’re trying to “change the world”. There simply isn’t enough of it about.

That was his name, after all: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and Rolihlahla means “troublemaker” in Xhosa. He was, of course, passionate and principled, a global symbol of moral courage. In essence, he was a troublemaker.

I fancied myself a bit of a troublemaker when I came to SA 20 years ago. I had bucked convention to leave my comfortable Midwestern American life to be witness to apartheid’s end and to a country trying to remake itself. I was sure that mine would be to speak out against injustice, to “stand beside the oppressed”, to do the right thing. That’s why we get into this social change work, because we are compelled by horror at injustice, suffering and oppression, right?

For a while I really did believe that I was a brave world-changer, working as I did for a human rights organisation, and then for a capacity-building non-governmental organisation (NGO) that sought to “empower” South African NGOs with skills and training.

It was easy to feel brave in SA from 1993 to 1997, when the possibilities for change seemed at once endless and within reach. But then I went to Zimbabwe in 1997 to run an HIV/AIDS programme and my questioning started. I was put in charge of a $5m project to reduce the effect of HIV/AIDS. A dream job, in fact, with me a director at the age of 27 tackling a big problem with big money. What more could a do-gooder ask for?

But it didn’t take me long to learn that development is a multi-billion dollar business with all the politics, bureaucracy and conventions of any other business. I learnt that the job of NGO director in this business is primarily to move money around, because if you don’t move money then nobody gets more money — “use it or lose it”.

And soon came the lesson that the key at every level of development work is simply to secure as much money as possible. That means the donor is your client, rather than the beneficiaries you’re trying to help. After all, it’s the donor who pays salaries and keeps NGOs alive. So your primary preoccupation is meeting donor needs, and fulfilling their wants.

Another quick learning was that development work is not the stuff of mavens and risk takers. Rather, it is an incredibly conservative industry that rewards the technocrats and bureaucrats who produce the tidiest reports and the prettiest proposals. I learned that the byword to success is “compliance” with donor demands. And that when you’re preoccupied with compliance, it can be hard to show even the smallest hint of defiance.

Thus I sat in the middle of the world’s biggest HIV/AIDs epidemic, running beautiful workshops, facilitating really well conceived and executed training sessions. But actually, I was fiddling while Rome burned and my donor absolutely loved me, mainly because I knew how to move money efficiently, while perpetuating a belief that progress was being made. This happened even though none of us had any real-time, useful data to tell us if we were diminishing infection rates. Mostly my donor loved me because I didn’t make any trouble.

I wish I had. Just once I wish I’d had the difficult conversation or spoken the uncomfortable truth. Instead, I attended so many funerals of people who’d died of “headaches”, held workshops with school principals who doubled as sugar daddies on Saturday nights, wrote monthly reports for incompetent officials who I knew wouldn’t read them, taught women how to put condoms on because we were too afraid to talk to their men. Frankly, we ignored the everyday misuses and abuses of power that perpetuated the problems we claimed to be trying to solve.

My colleagues and I were so busy keeping our heads down and trying to be clever, efficient and polite that we forgot that social change is a messy, complicated business that inherently requires you sometimes to upset the status quo by challenging conventional thinking and by holding leaders to account. It requires us to address issues of power. Twenty years and billions of rand later, many in SA are as concerned about the country as they were back at democracy’s dawn. This is because nobody knows where the leadership for real bottom-up social improvement is to come from.

This unease exists the world over — desperation for principled leadership reduced to using hashtags to spur action. Yet there are no tidy, technical solutions to injustice and oppression, only courageous ones. And who among us has the courage to take the risks required to really change this world?

We need to bring developmental innovation and activism together to support SA’s visionaries across society. Perhaps then society’s progress would again seem a thing of endless possibility and within reach. But for this to happen, SA should nurture troublemakers in development, rather than over-emphasise “compliance”. #theworldneedsmoretroublemakers

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