Friday 17 October 2014

NGOs and Social Justice Colloquium: Key Themes

Lungisile Ntsebeza and Mazibuko Jara 
The fourth annual Thinking Africa colloquium took place from 27-28 September 2014 at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. Thinking Africa colloquiums seek to encourage careful consideration of key issues related to the study of Africa and typically include active participation from postgraduate students with the aim of encouraging conversation and debate between current and future scholars.

This year the theme of the colloquium was NGOs and Social Justice in Africa. A broad range of speakers attended the event, some who work as academics, others in NGOs and/or social movements and quite a number who have involvement in quite a number of different areas. The Thinking Africa event was preceded by a meeting organised by the Unemployed People’s Movement at which activists spoke out about their frustrations with NGOs who often undermine rather than support popular struggles. This was followed by the two-day Thinking Africa event where an hour was spent on each speaker’s presentation giving plenty of time for discussion.

Some key issues emerged during the colloquium. The first was the question of emancipation. Many of the speakers touched on the question of what emancipation means and whether or not NGOs can be emancipatory actors. While there was much scepticism about the ability of NGOs to act as emancipatory actors, some of those involved in NGO work suggested that the question of what emancipation is might be more complicated on the ground and that NGOs might actually be able to play an emancipatory role if we are more flexible about what emancipation might mean.
Another key issue that caused much heated, but fruitful discussion was the question of race and the South African NGO sector. Some speakers felt that the South African NGO sector has failed to adequately address questions of race and white privilege and that this is a key issue that needs addressing before we can begin to think about NGOs playing a positive role in struggles for social justice. It was also suggested that the very way in which social justice is understood needs to be decolonised.

A third issue that struck me as I listened to the presentations was the way in which ‘big picture’ conceptual issues inevitably seem more complex when we try to think them through in relation to particular contexts. Those who are actively involved in NGO work revealed how even when NGOs are apparently just ‘filling gaps’ and administering ‘band-aids’, they might also be indirectly addressing bigger issues related to the underlying causes that result in the needs they are meeting. Speakers also showed how diverse the NGO sector is and how tenuous distinctions between NGOs, social movements and other ‘civil society’ actors are.

We hope to continue the conversation started at the colloquium by publishing a book on NGOs and Social Justice in Africa that will draw together revised versions of several of the papers presented at the colloquium. 

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