Preparing, living and
surviving a social
Lebo (she, her, hers)
This story is part of ‘Resourcing youth-led groups and movements: a reflective playbook for donors and youth organisers.’You may listen to and/or read Bonnie’s story down below, jump to the proposed exercises for donors or to those for youth-led groups and movements.
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Preparing for the movement
Lebo does not remember what she was thinking about the day the #FeesMustFall movement started. She had just stepped out of one of the last classes of her undergrad degree; her head was in the clouds. At the university gate, heading home, she heard a familiar voice with a solemn tone declaring that the university was occupied. There was confusion. All gates were blocked. She clued in to what was happening when she realised the person speaking was one of her friends from a reading group on radical black thought. “We are occupying the university,” she said. “Are you in?” She shook off her confused look, ran home to get some clothes and went right back to campus. This would become her new home.
Inside of her, she knew something was about to happen. In a sense, she had been preparing for this movement for a whole year by participating in the reading group. The group was underground and very disciplined: reading would be shared on Mondays and the discussion group hosted on Fridays. Over the course of the year the readings had become more militant and their reflections deeper. An announcement that university fees were going to rise by 10.5 per cent was the spark for the movement. Yet the pillars of the movement were deeper. They had been constructed in long debates around critical black thought and questioning of neoliberalism.
There was a sense of restlessness amongst South African black youth and students. A few months earlier, protesters had thrown excrement at a statue of the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, looking peacefully out over the ocean from the University of Cape Town. Protesters expressed their collective disgust at the celebration of white colonialism and requested that the statue be removed: a clear sign that the time for bullshit was coming to an end.
Living the movement
During #FeesMustFall Lebo was the girl on a bike. She put herself at the service of the movement. Everything moved so fast her head was spinning. Things just started happening.
After a week of occupation, the students sent home all the cleaning staff and started managing the university. Living at the university meant they had to clean, cook, organise protests and manage media relationships, among other tasks. Every morning there was an entire team assigned with preparing food for the occupiers. At Lebo’s university, the occupation was managed across four other teams: media, direct action, legal and medical.
How did they manage to resource themselves and coordinate all this work? Lebo explains that the media was giving so much attention to the movement that resources just seemed to flow in: they received, for example, donations of toilet paper, pads, material and food.
Lebo explains that there was much adrenaline in the air but it was hard to see the whole picture: where were the resources coming from and why?
On 23 October 2015, to appease protesters, then-President Jacob Zuma invited students to Pretoria for an encounter. A couple of dozen buses appeared out of nowhere to drive students to the meeting. Lebo still does not know who paid for the buses.
In Pretoria, it was announced that there would be no fee increase in 2016. Yet to many of the student activists, this did not feel like a win.
It eventually became evident that, as well as the individual donations received, a political party had been paying some of the student leaders to co-opt the movement and separate the students into factions. When Lebo and her friends became aware of this they felt confused, disillusioned and angry. The students who were associated with the political party lost all credibility. They were effectively isolated by the rest of the movement.
The movement continued throughout 2016 amidst adrenaline, teargas, rubber bullets, screams, chants, blood, stones, media attention and police brutality. All of South Africa was trembling, says Lebo.
Surviving the movement
Come 2017, #FeesMustFall had wound down. Activists were left drained and traumatised, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Their deeper desires for systemic change remained mostly unaddressed. The movement had lost momentum with a sense of confusion. Who had won and who had lost was not clear.
Lebo observes that CSOs had extracted the language and critiques they liked, but not necessarily the depth of the underlying ideologies. To Lebo it feels like being back in the times before the movement started, except that civil society now ‘speaks like them’.
Some of the former movement leaders have joined CSOs, some are doing community projects, some have started social enterprises and others have gone into politics. Many have been left paralysed by trauma. Some were jailed and later given suspended sentences or kept under house arrest.
The movement diffused. Yet the ideas that grounded the movement left an impression on Lebo’s generation of students. Social movements might flare up and then fade. But thanks to her participation with #feesmustfall, Lebo became an activist.
Exercises for donors, allies and enablers
What does it look like to provide resources to a social movement without co-opting it?
Engage in a reflection with your colleagues around this question.
Write down your organisation’s principles in relation to working with social movements. As an inspiration, you can review the ones designed by 350.org to support youth-led climate strikes.
A personal and collective care manifesto
Engage in a reflection with your colleagues around this question.
The mental health of students was seriously affected by their participation in the movement. In general, activists can experience serious mental health issues that are often invisible.
In order to support youth-led organisations with their mental health, you might want to start by ensuring you have some internal principles to promote self-care and collective care within your organisation.
You might want to create a manifesto around mental wellbeing. As an example, see Frida’s Happiness ‘Manifestx’.
To design your own manifesto, you can follow these steps:
Once you have reflected on your own personal and collective care, you might want to start considering what it look like to integrate a mental health component to support activists as part of the resources you offer.
Building a self-care and collective care manifesto for our organisation
Scissors, coloured paper, markers, glue, flipchart or brown paper.
Group size: 10 to 100 people.
Cut out coloured paper of different shapes and sizes Place the cut-out papers next to big pieces of paper, spread
across the room with the following sentences:
1. A beautiful life looks like this:
2. In my life, I take care of myself by…
3. When I enter the space that [x group organisation / group / alliance] creates I want to feel…
4. To protect my personal wellbeing, I can stop…
5. Above all, I believe that to give the best of myself in my work I need…
There should be five stations around the room with one of the sentences above, markers and coloured paper of different sizes and colours.
Step by step
• Invite your colleagues to create a self-care and collective care manifesto: a document that creatively captures your vision, values, motivations and intentions around care.
• Ask each person in the room to fill in the sentences using symbols, drawings, words and phrases. Keep one idea per paper.
• Ask each person to pick three papers across all stations and bring them to the centre.
• Play with the different sentences until they look like something all participants feel happy with.
• Stick all papers on a flipchart.
• After the workshop, you can ask someone in the group to write up the manifesto if you want
Exercises for youth-led groups and movements
Strengthening your roots
Lebo explains that reading group discussions helped build the bases for the #feesmustfall movement. What activities could you do to deepen the ideological roots of your group or movement?
Ahead of every meeting with your peer activists, dedicate half an hour for organising a talking circle as a space to reflect, learn and align around the ideas, aspirations and values guiding each of you.
Here are some questions you could address:
Understanding your ideological roots
- How do you each understand social change?
- What are the values guiding your engagement in a social movement?
- What change you would like to achieve together?
Preparing for a movement
- What kinds of resources are needed for this movement to flourish?
- What do you need to sustain the movement?
- What kinds of organising and leadership do you need?
- What would be the scenario in which the movement could or should dissolve or transform?
Sustaining your movement
- What can you do to support each other throughout different phases and actions you will be organising and taking part in?
The Extinction Rebellion movement has been emphasising the wellbeing of its members, and has put together a number of useful resources and guidelines. Some of the methods they use to sustain wellbeing across their movement are:
- Talking circles following actions
- Buddy guide
- Connecting to your body and how you are feeling
- Connecting to your values
- Connecting to each other
- Connecting to nature
Could you adopt any of these or other wellbeing activities to support members in your movement?
- Do you see risks of any form of co-option of your movement?
- Do you intend to interact with political, institutional, or other entities?
- How would you like this interaction to play out?
- Is there any actor who might have interest in buying-off movement members or promoting division?
- How could you anticipate and mitigate this risk?
Other stories and exercises
Did you do some of the exercises above? How did Bonnie’s story inspire you to view your role as a donor or youth organiser differently? You can let us know your thoughts by writing to us at email@example.com.
These and other exercises and stories are also available in the pdf version of ‘Resourcing youth-led groups and movements: a reflective playbook for donors and youth organisers.’