Wednesday, 2 July 2014

'If you want to know what NGOs are all about follow the money and you will know':NGOs and Social Movements

Ayanda Kota will be participating in our upcoming Thinking Africa colloquium. He is also involved in the organisation of a workshop on NGOs and Social Movements which will take place on the 26th of September 2014. Sally Matthews interviewed him recently about UPM, social movements and NGOs.

Ayanda Kota is a member of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) in Grahamstown and President of Makana Football Association. He is a campaigner for social justice whose roots can be traced in the Black Consciousness movement. He is also a community development worker for the organisation Masifunde Education and Development Project Trust. He is a die-hard fan of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and other divas.

Sally Matthews: What is the UPM?

Ayanda Kota: The UPM is a grassroots movement that was formed in 2009 to address the unemployment crisis in South Africa and to encourage community members to be active citizens in the struggle against unemployment. The formation of UPM was a contestation of space. We realised that only a particular people were allowed to speak about the unemployment crisis and how it should be resolved while others were excluded from this conversation. We realised that we cannot be spectators in our own struggle so we took a conscious decision to be active as role players in our struggle. Furthermore, we realised that the political parties who supposedly represent the poor and unemployed were part of the problem because of their relationship with capitalists. For example, it seems as though the ANC has been captured by the elite – Marikana is a good example.  Another example, the ANC wants to implement the Youth Wage Subsidy even though there has been much contestation against the Youth Wage Subsidy by Trade Unions and Social Movement. In essence UPM is grassroots movement that encourages active participation by the unemployed in the struggle of unemployment because we believe that we are our own liberators; nobody can liberate us but ourselves.

Sally Matthews: What is the relationship of the UPM with Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs)?

Ayanda Kota: Like I said the UPM believes that we are our own liberators. So we refuse to be the forgotten voices and to be treated as victims; we are full blown political actors.  The UPM is critical of NGOs because of their attitude towards the struggle and the people within the struggle. NGOs, just like politicians and other experts, enter these spaces with a messiah complex like they have all the answers. Most NGOs only feel comfortable with sitting in their offices and drawing up proposals for funding while dictating what should and what should not be implemented in the social movements. They shy away from field work; protesting, mobilising and organizing people, they believe that they are the ‘brains’ and we are the numbers. So again there is this attitude that people in marginalised communities are just victims not full blown political subjects. So we believe that the unemployed, the landless and the shack dwellers and everyone else should not be treated as victims. NGOs should operate in such a way that they support the struggles of social movements, they should not dictate or try to control social movements. I was reading about the Arab Spring and I came across an article about what happened in Thahrir Square. There was an influx of NGOs who wanted to assist with basic needs like water, food, health etc as humanitarian intervention. But again, we see a reoccurring pattern. These NGOs didn’t recognise the agency of the Egyptian people and by not recognising the Egyptian agency they could not support already existing social movements in the struggle for freedom in Egypt instead most NGOs wanted to get involved in advocacy, forming their own social movements or advocating for policy changes. Again, this pattern of civil society norms, where NGOs choose to approach the struggle diplomatically but in doing so they tend to undermine those who choose a different approach.

Sally Matthews: What is the difference between Social Movements and NGOs?

Ayanda Kota: Social movements are rooted in the community and they understand that without the people there is no grassroots movement hence social movements receive their mandate directly from the people within communities. The members/activists of the social movements are people from these communities and are active in identifying problems in the community, identifying the causes of these problems and finding possible solutions.
The NGOs, especially those NGOs that work with social movements, serve as intermediary between funders and social movement. The funding proposals are not informed by communities instead the funding proposals are informed by the market. We have to ask ‘Who are the funders? What are they willing to fund? Can we realign our focus with the paradigm shift of 1994 or the funders’ paradigm?’ It seems as though NGOs receive their mandate from fenders, if you want to know what NGOs are all about follow the money and you will know.
All victories have been achieved through consistent and persistent struggles not in ivory towers and discussion about policies, which policy is right and which policy is wrong. Social movements rotate in the communities – without communities, without people, there will be no movement and certainly no victory. We understand that without these communities they would be no UPM, that’s where we get our mandate as opposed to NGOs who get their mandate from funders.

Sally Matthews: But isn’t that the case that often social movements and NGOs are getting their funding from the same places?

Ayanda Kota: Yes, in this country NGOs and Social Movements are competing for funding. My understanding is that Social Movements apply for political work without it being detailed and will try to use the funds to address the immediate needs of the community. NGOs on the other hand will receive funding and decide on the projects that they will establish in the communities, without the consultation of the community, to exhaust their funds so they don’t have to return money back to the funders. So with social movement we use a bottom-up system whereas NGOs use a top/down system.
One could also say that social movements compete for funding from NGOs while NGOs compete for funding to fund social movements. It is a competition for survival as NGOs will not survive without these funds. On should interrogate why NGOs serve as intermediaries, in most cases between funders and social movements. These organisation expect us to be spectators because we are ‘uneducated’ they don’t trust that we can handle our funds or they just don’t trust that we will use the money to better our communities so they would rather have ‘educated’ people handle these funds and redistribute them to different social movements. Hence, we are competing for funding with other social movements and this has political consequences.

Sally Matthews: But don’t you think that sometimes movements have particular people that are dominate in the movement and that sometimes the approach is not as bottom-up as it may seem?

Ayanda Kota: You are right; I would actually rephrase your question. Let me make an example with me, Ayanda, who has been a leader for many years. The question should be directed at Ayanda: ‘how come you have travelled this road for all these years? How do we make sure that we create another layer of leadership?’ I think that’s where social movements have failed, the inability to create another layer of leadership. I think we should take this seriously to avoid seasonal memberships where you have people leaving movements after two years. You can attribute that to the presence of academics in the social movements who become dominant actors within these social movements, the voices of the academics becomes the voice of the movement. That deceives people because it seems as though leaders and members within these movements can articulate and understand their situation thus that’s why it is crucial that we produce leaders within the communities who are devoted and well informed about the politics of this country and  of social movements.

Sally Matthews: Often leaders from social movements are recruited by NGOs. What are the risks and benefits of that process?

Ayanda Kota: The individual benefits because they earn a salary which will better their livelihood. However, it could also benefit the movement because if an individual is getting a monthly salary they can still continue with the struggle and the individual could use their salary to finance costs of the movement. The problem is that NGOs approach the individual as opposed to the movement.

Sally Matthews: At present NGOs approach people who have proven themselves in Social Movements and offer them jobs but I’ve heard you say before that you think that NGOs should rather approach social movements as a whole and the social movement should decide who within the movement should work with these NGOs.

Ayanda Kota: Yes, maybe NGOs should put people from movements on their payroll to do the work of the social movement, rather than the work of the NGO. NGOs are taking people out of movements in order to make the NGO more credible, but forgetting that this is at the expense of the movement. Political parties also do this too, but their intention is different. Whereas NGOs co-opt people in order to make their organisations credible, political parties want to dissolve the social movements.

Sally Matthews: in closing what role, if any, do you see for NGO in struggles for social justice in South Africa?

Ayanda Kota: I think many NGOs in this country are characterised by management that always refers to a book – they will tell you ‘Don’t raise these question because in Leon Trotsky’s book, this volume, this page it says ... The answer is there if you look at Karl Marx book, this volume, the answer is there.’

Sally Matthews: So they are very much rooted in ideological position.

Ayanda Kota: Very rigid, not just ideological, very orthodox, there is no pluralism and there is no terrain for contestation. I think there has to be pluralism, there has to be a space for contestation and new ideas. We have to understand that you might have the best formula in the world but it cannot solve all mathematical problems. NGOs need to recognise that they do not have all the answers so they need to open space for pluralism and contestation of ideas to learn. Although they are orthodox and they went to school they need to realise that there is something that they can learn from someone who lives in a shack in a township just as much as we can learn from them. Professionals/ academic have studied dialectics but they don’t understand that dialectic is two-way. I find it very odd. So if these people have studied dialectics they should understand that it is conversation, it can never be one-way it has to be two-way.


  1. This is very insightful, and I love Ayondas personality.