‘Activism is all about passing the baton’

A workshop that took place last year at the newly established Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education.

Although just over a year old, the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education is already making waves in passing down the torch to young activists.

The centre was established at the beginning of last year. It is based in Mowbray and encourages and supports activists.

Some of the campaigns the centre has lent its weight to include Equal Education, The Social Justice Coalition, #FeesMustFall as well as the Reclaim the City campaign, which is calling for affordable housing in well-located areas such as Sea Point.

The centre’s director Paula Ensor said their work includes education as well as an operational aspect. She said she was involved in the legalities of getting the centre up and running in January last year.

“The work started long before I came on the scene and it was the work of the Bertha Foundation. It was about how one generation of activists pass their knowledge, experience and understanding on to the new activists. Tony Tabatznik, co-founder of Bertha Foundation, saw it as a place of passing on the baton.”

Ms Ensor added that the chairperson of the board at the centre is struggle stalwart Barbara Hogan, widow of Ahmed Kathrada.

Ms Hogan, according to Ms Ensor, was heavily involved in the conceptualisation of the centre.

“She spoke to a lot of people in terms of the need for the centre and how it should position itself. I took over at the beginning of last year but Barbara did a lot of the spade work.”

She said the central part of the centre was that ideas matter.

“They matter because they guide people in the ways that they engage in mobilisation in advancing social justice. I think a strong civil society is absolutely crucial for the maintenance of a democratic society. It’s only through mobilisation and social action that the extremes of inequality that we are confronted with can be addressed. There is deep structural inequality and we’ve got to move to change that and it’s going to come from mobilisation in civil society.”

She said campaigns that focused on land, such as Reclaim the City, were important. “We’ve lent our weight to the Reclaim the City campaign and we are getting materials designed for the education of activists working in that area. We are also concerned about rural areas and the land issues more generally. It is about distribution of land in the city and in the rural areas. We are linked up with various activist organisations in the rural areas and support what they do through education.”

She said the centre doesn’t pretend to know all about the issues and that it is all about engagement and dialogues.

Phindile Kunene, who is in-
volved at the centre as curriculum and education specialist, says her journey through activism came from the student movement.

She then went into trade union work at Cosatu and then moved to government for a while to work for the provincial economic development department.

She believes that her time in government, while not complementing her interests as an activists, was valuable in learning how the state functions.

“I was very interested in political education so this centre was the ideal place to do that. What was more compelling about Tshisimani was that it was a new centre which means there was space to explore and try new things. I think that character is what attracts different people to this space.”

She said at any given time when attending one of their events you would see people from different political backgrounds.

“That is something we decided on and I hope we don’t lose that moving forward. The staff also come from different political traditions and I think that is a strength.”

She said the main goal last year was to introduce the centre to the public. She said there was a series of short courses including one that focused on how to interact with the state and understanding how Cape Town is shaped and how the segregation issues continue. Ms Kunene said they have done courses with groups such as Equal Education and the Social Justice Coalition.

She said one of the centre’s big projects was to stage an inter-generational conversation with student activists from 1976 and people who are involved in struggles on campuses today. The project was called 1976 Through the Eyes of Today’s Generation. “What was more important for us was the interaction of young people with history and what their views were. It is about using the 1976 movement to reflect on current struggles.”

Ms Kunene said there is set to be a short documentary on the project and student activism, due for screening sometime in mid-year. The projects under way at the centre include topics such as Urban Land Justice, Law and Activism and supporting union activists.

Ms Kunene said the interaction between the older generation activists and today’s youth were vital.

“That was not an easy conversation to have but the young activists’ reflections were very interesting,” she said.

Dinga Sikwebu, senior curriculum developer, said his activism experience stems from being involved in the 1976 student movement as well as trade union work. “The reason why I applied for this job was the opportunity to work with young activists and there was the attraction of this new space. I felt that I needed to do something different.”

Mr Sikwebu said he originally got involved in activism while attending high school in Nyanga.

“There are few platforms for the older generation to reflect on what they did. Although the centre is geared towards younger activists, at most events there is a core of older people who come. This is important because there is not a space for people to reflect. To have a place where people can come, talk and hear other views is important. Maybe it happens in academia but those spaces have become a bit closed. Activists used to sit in lectures and you were allowed to go into the library. You can’t do that now.”

Mr Sikwebu said the inter-generational conversations were important.

“Some of the work done by movements today is important for older generations. When we started in ’76, we thought that we were the first ones to be involved in the struggle. Most of us didn’t know about the 1950s and early ’60s and why parents spoke in whispers about it. They didn’t want to talk about politics because they had seen the worst. This is one of the things we are keen on thinking about.

“This calls for deep reflections on what is being taught at schools and universities and what we are seen to be representing. The inter-generational conversations will give us insight and contribute to the broader society.”

One project that is being headed up by City Bowl resident Gavin Silber at the centre focuses on urban land justice and the ways in which cities are formed. Another project includes that of Sea Point resident Greer Valley, who joined the centre after being involved in the Open Stellenbosch student movement, on teaching activism through visual arts.

For more information on the centre visit their website at http://tshisimani.org.za/.