Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Michael Coetzee - an activist who was 'the best of the best'

Michael Coetzee’s passing away brings with it a profound sense of loss but also a reminder of the organising style of this gentle but highly effective activist. Coetzee has since 2002 served Parliament, first as deputy secretary but more recently as secretary. But, for me, what stands out most is his striking contribution during the heady eighties and his powerful expression of leadership in those times.
In the eighties, when the struggle was at its boldest and most wide-ranging, people like Coetzee were the salt of the struggle and the vital middle layer that made the struggle so resilient, rooted and effective. They did so by providing information to communities and making links between the local level and larger processes. They built support for non-racialism not just through strident rhetoric but on the basis of community organisation. They helped build the appeal and popularity of leaders of the mass democratic movement; because communities knew and trusted such activists, community members were willing to accept these leaders whom they did not know but had been rapidly elevated to national leadership roles. In short (in a country riven by divisions and unevenness and for communities caught between the past and future) such activists helped to stitch together the struggle.
Michael (or Mikey as he was known to friends) was at one level easy-going and humorous. But he could switch in minutes and engage reflectively on serious matters. He had an astute analytical sense. He could effortlessly link local popular struggles occurring in the eighties to events like June 16, to the vision of ANC’s founders, to the "pillars" of the liberation struggle, to anti-colonial struggles and to global systems of oppression and exploitation.
Activists like Michael knew (almost instinctively) how to build a movement. At a certain point, they were too young to be formal leaders; or they generally did not see themselves in figurehead roles. But they were leaders in so many other ways; they were the walking evidence of a leader-filled movement. They could be sent anywhere with very little apart from a contact name and, relying on their initiative, they would make their way and begin organising. In so many ways, Michael was the best of the best. For him, the overriding and yet simple and obvious goal was to advance the movement for freedom He was a prime example of activists who are driven by a clear mission, who are skilled social change practitioners, who rise above hidden agendas and who maintain a selfless commitment to the end.
Speaking to others (who knew him) after his passing away on 13 June 2014, it is clear that Michael is remembered with respect and veneration. I recall my own moments of engagement with him over the years. In discussion, he always provided insight, wisdom and a clear exposition about possible ways to go forward. But the start and the end of meeting would always be ‘real’ at a human level; moments in which to find a shared sense of belonging. In this regard, Michael always exuded warmth and a genuine welcome. A reminder that, despite painful realities and many aspects to the contrary, the struggle was also a place of friendships and profound human connection. 
Michael leaves behind his wife Bridgette, his son Matthew and his mother Bertha and siblings Alexandra and Reggie. And he also leaves a compelling legacy of selflessness and activism as well as pockets of comrades/colleagues/friends who honour him for the life he led.

Frank Meintjies

Friday, 6 June 2014

New Ministry of Women should use astute strategies to drive fundamental shifts

The launch of the Ministry of Women in South Africa may be a welcome change – a streamlined ministry may be just the right thing for a country groaning under the weight of sexism and gender violence.

But to get the Ministry working as a high performance unit will first require that we – both the public and those who will work in it – get over prejudices and inferiority complexes about a gender ministry.
A Ministry of Women is regarded as one of the most marginal ministries, vying for bottom spot with Arts and Culture. Why should this be so? True, these Ministries are not the ones who influence economic policy or command huge budgets. But the gender ministry, insofar as it seeks to reverse the oppression of women and girls, addresses the needs of more than half the population. And Arts and Culture – amid the trauma, dehumanisation and alienation that haunts our dreams – has the potential to help us find the soul within us.

Minister of Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu could do a lot worse than adopt the Kader Asmal approach. The late minister took the Ministry of Water Affairs, then seen as marginal, and made it a star department. He simply tackled his job with vigour; concentrated on outcomes and ensured his top officials built a department with capacity for focused delivery. The Ministry regularly received an A in end-of-year newspaper assessments.
The minister of this new portfolio has immense opportunity to make a difference on critical issues. I propose several strategies.
The new ministry should approach gender as a crosscutting issue. In this regard, it does not require a huge staff complement and a budget running into billions. It can use the crowbar effect – using innovative strategies and minimal resource to bring about great shifts. It can work with other Departments to help them use their much larger budgets in a manner that advances gender equality and better addresses the needs of women and girls.
The ministry can, for example, intervene by using gender planning, a method pioneered by Caroline Moser. It can require that all government departments submit all major plans to this Ministry for assessment from a gender perspective.

Using a gender lens to evaluate a plan means assessing whether the plan, when referring to stakeholders or beneficiaries, clearly spells out whether women or men will have most of the action. It calls for terms like community, entrepreneurs, beneficiaries and the poor to be broken down to clarify what percentage of men and women are included in these target groups. Once such information is known the principals in each department – the Ministers, Directors-general and others – can better assess whether such plans comply with our constitution and truly advance equality or improve the position of women in society.
Gender planning does not try to dictate to other line departments. It offers itself as a resource. The idea is to work more intensively with willing departments, while keeping an open line of communication with others.  Working in this way gains traction through the success stories and role models that show how proper accounting can change the position of women, propelling them into the forefront of socio economic development.

Apart from assessment of plans, the Department of Women can initiate studies into selective areas of public life. For example, it can:

§  assess the work of the prosecuting authority in relation to gender violence cases, examining aspects such as success rates and relevant capacity.

§  commission studies into the media and how women are portrayed, paving the way for constructive recommendations.

§  probe the situation in, for example, the mining sector and examine whether there are specific impacts on women and girls and call for gender-aware social changes.

§  launch a review of the current position and ongoing grievances of women who testified at the Truth Commission and who maintain that government has reneged on commitments made to them. 
It can also hold public hearings on specific gender issues, for example the rise in violence against women and girls, raising awareness and seeking solutions from interested and affected persons. Such studies and hearings can be undertaken in partnership with the Gender Commission.

Decisive and strategically effective gender work that empowers women can be undertaken with a lean staff complement. Capacity can be sourced in, as government often does with legal teams and auditing firms. In this regard, the Gender Ministry can complement its own staffing capacity by using gender specialists based at universities or in other parts of civil society.
Doing gender work in government will have setbacks – and in this case may or may not receive backing from the big men in the Presidency who may be uninterested or otherwise occupied. But it is not impossible. A great advantage is that most departments claim to properly address the needs of women and girls and to reverse marginalisation. The problem is that the reality of non achievement is often masked behind planning systems that don’t allow them to face up to what is and what is not achieved. A good place to start, therefore, is to offer to help a few line departments do gender work more effectively and with demonstrable impact.

Frank Meintjies
This article appeared in The New Age on 6 June 2014.