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Publication Details

Reference
Mthembu, Ntokozo  (2006) Poor must lead their own struggles. Centre for Civil Society : -.

Summary
The rise of new social movements in South Africa has piqued the interest of many, particularly those who see their interests threatened and those whose interests remain unfulfilled.

New movements continue to draw attention through their many marches, which ostensibly represent the anger of the majority of South Africans who are poor.

Many observers thought that the societal problems which give rise to social movements would vanish after the first democratic elections, but they have instead worsened.

Questions thus surround these movements: what is the rationale behind poor people who continue to organise themselves into social movements? What developmental discourses (if any) do they bring? What impact can these movements have towards elevating the poor?

Social movements generally form because the interests of a certain group of people are being threatened. In her book The Real World of NGOs (2003), Dorothea Hilhorst observes that social movements in Europe and the United States have historically formed around class categories, such as blacks, women and students; these categories would come to be the basis for the civil rights movements of the 1960s. In the Third World, activists have engaged in land struggles and have formed themselves into peasant and squatter movements of the poor. Hilhorst convincingly argues that social movement theory has been overwhelming dominated by northern intellectuals dealing with northern case studies and movements.

Theories
New social movement theories have their centre of importance in Europe; resource mobilisation theories are developed in the United States.

Movements in the United States and Europe have tended to be based on middle-class foundations, with loose organisational structures, and with demands that emphasise lifestyle and values instead of tangible and pressing needs.

In many cases across the world, labour movements have failed to offer a meaningful emancipatory path for extremely exploited workers. However, new social movements are beginning to tackle issues which their predecessors did not.

For example, some movements are struggling for the recognition and revival of various indigenous economic systems which promote collectivism rather than individualism. These movements are taking up true decolonisation in Africa and other parts of the global south.

Perhaps this shift in priorities indicates a change in representation and internal power dynamics - perhaps not. It is widely known that new social movements are characterised by the dominance of elite, rich activists who can afford to travel and attend meetings in various global venues (while alienating grassroots communities from control over their own struggles).

In the case of South Africa, we must not forget that most early political organisations were inordinately influenced by Western countries and dominated by elites. Even the formation of trade union movements was highly influenced by experienced white workers from industrial Britain during the mining industry boom in the 1920s.

Elites
Organisations need to be scrutinised, especially those which are meant to help or to advance the war against poverty and injustice, and which seek to promote anti-racism, anti-capitalism and decolonisation.

The role of elites in poor people's struggles must similarly be scrutinised. Poor people have willingly given their support to elites by granting them the power to be their leaders. Elites are often perceived to be exceedingly capable in dealing with the problems which engulf the poor populace. However, these elites tend to be more concerned with the interests of other elites, and the interests of the poor tend to become secondary.

On the other hand, the beneficiaries of colonisation continue to enjoy the spoils of apartheid and advance the same old agenda of "civilising Africa" - further entrenching colonialism through the notion of democracy.

This scenario repeats itself while the poorest communities still see the need to unite and advance the oldest struggles around land dispossession, the denial of health services, water and food, and against racism and the oppressive capitalist economic system.

The question remains: what "new" will be brought by the newest of social movements? Perhaps a capacity to unite different activists from various parts of the world?

Where these movements will take us is an open question which depends on their ability to fully lead and control their own struggles.

Ntokozo Mthembu is a researcher at the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.



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