You’re not being bold enough. I don’t mean that you should be going out. Stay at home, covidiots! I’m writing this from home in Italy – and just as it is said that the past is another country, right now this other country, Italy, is probably your future. So stay home.
And I don’t mean the nurses and the frontline workers – you are heroes. You are the boldest and the best of us.
I mean you policy wonks and thought leaders and popular economists. Seriously, you are not being bold enough.
You can taste the pollution at Kankoyo. Not just smell it, you can taste the air.
Welcome to Kankoyo, Zambia, welcome to the Mopani Mufulira mine that has made many millions for a rich few and made whole communities sick from the filthy air and water, made farms unfarmable and a whole town unliveable. Watch out for the sinkholes. Watch out for the security – private, public – who are not there to protect the innocent but the guilty.
Have a look at the tin roofs of the houses – notice how the metal is eroded by the poisons from the mine. Now imagine, the community point out to us, if it does this to metal, what it does to their bodies. They don’t have to imagine. They have seen their friends die. The lucky ones quickly. The unfortunate ones slowly.
We are here at the invitation of the community with an international solidarity group of activists from over a dozen countries as part of the international Fight Inequality Alliance of unions, social movements and NGOs. The local people have cried themselves hoarse with their demands to be moved from this place. “Our children are being poisoned, our community is being destroyed. We have asked the same thing over and over again. But the government and the mining company seem not to hear us. Please tell our story. Perhaps they will listen to you.”
Campaigning works. I have seen time and again how people uniting for change secure justice. But sometimes the odds seem impossibly high. This is David against Goliath, if Goliath owned the referee and David had no sling. How does a mother from a poor community take on a huge international corporation which seems immune not only from accountability but from shame? I’m trying to think through a path to victory, of how to influence the influencers to tip the scales back to humanity, and I can’t. How do they keep going?
“We ask to be moved so our children live. We ourselves are already dead, we just keep going by grace.”
Perhaps they cannot win. Perhaps even when people will lose it is better at least to die in dignity, to die defiant, to remind oneselves that the cruelty is undeserved. But I am still scanning in my head to try to work out a path to victory. I can’t.
Then my colleague and friend from El Salvador, youth activist Alejo Labrador, stands up to speak. He is in tears. “We in El Salvador won a victory against the metal mining corporations to save ourselves from this suffering. But it took 12 years. And in that 12 years we never knew if we would win. So I want to give you this” – and he takes off his bandana from around his neck – “because your struggle is our struggle, and people who fight are people who win.”
So, what is the path to victory? We do not know. Perhaps there is not one. But Prisca Mutale – one of the leaders who has emerged from the Kankoyo community – begins for the first time at the meeting to smile. Her suffering is unchanged, but she is not alone. I took these pictures of Prisca not at the mine dump she is forced to live beside but at an oasis that looks like the place she is working to bring about and which she deserves.
We reach out to Glencore, who own most of the mining corporation, and to the government and local MP. Glencore does not reply. The government does not reply. Silence. Then we get this message from the local MP: “Just tidying up some loose ends. Mass relocation for the identified areas to follow. Mopani fully on board.”
Resistance doesn’t always work. But acceptance always doesn’t work. Every struggle that has won has been filled with periods of despair, and times when even those who took the first steps could not see the path ahead. It would be naive to put our hope in an MP’s promise (it was not a great surprise that when we followed him up on the promise he made to us of relocation, he repeatedly refused to say when it will happen). But is it naive to put our hope in what ordinary extraordinary heroes like Prisca can do with determined friends from around the word like Alejo? “The moral arc of the universe is long,” pointed out Martin Luther King, “but it bends towards justice.” He did not mean that cosmic intervention would fix it. He meant that folks Prisca and Alejo were already at work, and that in time enough of us would join them.
As activists we sometimes talk as if we know the answers. As researchers we get to admit that we don’t (until publication, of course :-)). As both an activist, and a researcher, I’m asking for your advice.
I’m really delighted to be starting a new role this month as Hewlett Fellow for Public Policy at the Kellogg Institute at Notre Dame. It’s wonderful to join a place with such brilliant colleagues, and one rooted in values of service to society. And it’s a great privilege to be given the opportunity to step away from day-to-day organising to spend time in deep thinking, exploring, and testing ideas with others. There’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some activists about whether time in the academy is something of indulgence. (I love the 1930s story of two friends: “I’ve been away fighting the fascists in Spain,” declares one, proudly, and the other replies, “No, my friend, you’ve been away writing about fighting.”) And there’s sometimes a nagging concern in the minds of some academics that activists lack the objectivity needed for proper investigation. (I confess that I absolutely have a side – what the church has unashamedly termed “a bias to the poor” – and that I am interested in research into the fight against inequality in order to help advance that fight.) But I do think that both of those nagging doubts that activists and academics have about each other are ones to work through, not to send us our own ways. The academy is enriched in practicality by exchange with those working for change, and those working for change are “armed” (non-violently!) through learning from exchange with the academy. And the more I have got involved in working on inequality, the more I have appreciated that it is both possible but also very hard to win the fight against it – because it is a fight where so much power (in wealth, in social dominance, and in hegemony of ideas) is weighted against it. So it’ll need a huge movement, and it will also need for that movement to be as well prepared as possible for the struggle, which is something I hope my research will help with.
I’ve had a joyous and wonderful time helping to launch the Fight Inequality Alliance which has grown from just an idea into a vibrant coalition of over 300 NGOs, unions and social movements building power from below to press for change, and I am really excited about where it is heading. (Look out for news of some of the mobilisations happening later this month – I’ll be reporting from the one in Mexico, others from events in the Philippines, India, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, the UK and many others.) I’m also really excited about the brilliant and diverse broad leadership of the alliance today – especially from women and youth from Global South communities who have been at the sharpest end of inequality, whether neglected rural areas or marginalised urban slums. This is where the leadership of a international social justice movement must come from for it to live its values, and for it to succeed. (An issue I covered in more detail in this Guardian piece from 2013.) I’m really excited to support this new leadership and to start a new role of service through research at Notre Dame into how best to organise to fight inequality.
So now here is my request for advice. There has been a lot of excellent work on how inequality has gotten so extreme, why it is harmful, and what kind of policies could help tackle inequality, and to that work my research will be deeply indebted; I’ll try to summarise some of it in the book, but I won’t be adding much to that. Instead my focus will be on how help build the social and political context for such policies to make the journey from paper proposals to enactment to implementation to sustainability. In other words, complementing the what with the how. Learning from social movements of today and of history seems key to that. My aim is to produce a book to help those working to fight inequality. Advise me please: What are the key learnings to build on? What book on social movements fighting inequalities has most inspired you? Which activist or researcher would you particularly recommend I link with? What are the current and past examples I should explore? What have been the key learnings from your own work? How can I make sure this is a book that is fun to read and helps people bring change? You can tweet or DM me @benphillips76 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org – or even send an old-fashioned letter to me at Ben Phillips, Kellogg Institute, Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.
Thank you for your help, your solidarity, and for all that you do to fight inequality.
I think, in the end, we’ll win. Together.
When you meet your heroes, you wonder what they will be like in person. When they are really as special as they seemed from afar, that’s inspirational. When your heroes are younger than you, it’s a whole another thing.
I met Maliviwe Brian Matyila, a 22 year old South African activist of the Fees Must Fall movement, at a gathering of the Fight Inequality Alliance in South Africa. Fees Must Fall is, as Brian put it, “a group of South African University students who are mobilizing broader society to call an end to commodification of education as this further broadens inequality in society in a country that has one of the most unequal societies in the world.” What more formalised organised civil society had failed to do – challenge the South African government on inequality, mobilise in large numbers, and win some real victories – had been managed by a group of young people who had had to learn campaigning, and go to school, while doing it.
I listened in rapt attention to a young man who had taken on such responsibility, and finally asked him, “is it difficult?” “Yes,” he said. “Being a student who could get thrown out for activism can make it hard for family. The pressure from authorities, too. The repression. Being black in university is anyway a pressure. And being a young gay man too.”
Brian was a young man who, like his comrades, took huge responsibility on his shoulders, carrying the burden of centuries of injustice and putting himself on the line. He and his comrades were tough and challenging – much less indulgent of whites who tried to steer direction than earlier generations had been. He was bold, fearless, and deeply serious. He was also huge fun – and his conversation would flit from detailed discussions of policy and reflections on political theory to joking about the troubles of dating. He and his Fees Must Fall comrade Lesedi found themselves in different camps of South African politics but remained wonderful and supportive friends. Here is Brian and friends signing the beautiful anthem, Nkosi Sikel ‘iAfrika;
And now he has passed. He will go down not only as a future leader that has been lost but also as a leader that already was. I feel so fortunate to have known him. I hope he will one day be in books about politics and history.
As I went through our old facebook messenger conversations I found an interview we did that I planned to publish as a part of a series. Now it stands on it’s own. Here is what Brian told me.
How would you describe in a sentence or two the current state of your struggle?
The movement has gained a lot of traction in society, we are now in the process of educating everyone on the pillars of the movement and ensuring that we build a movement that is grassroots based and consolidated nationally.
What motivates you personally?
I am motivated by my own personal sufferings. I look at my family, being the only one in my family who is in University and how education is still seen as a privilege whereas it should be regarded as a basic right. I wake up everyday praying to work hard to ensure that more rural, black kids like myself have access to education.
What are the hardest times, and how do you deal with them?
The State has responded to our cries with repressive and oppressive methods with arrests, rubber bullets and intimidation being a daily experience in our spaces. I think some of the hardest times for us is when we time and time again find one of us being sent to prisons with bail being denied. We gain strength from the support we give to each other and more especially the support we receive from the elderly and international allies.
What do you have to face in terms of resistance by the powerful?
The repression that our movement has received from the State and our Universities in enormous. It often feels like the State has brought back apartheid security tactics to silence us. It frustrates us to see that the very same government we voted for and see as a democratic government time and time again refuses to listen to its youth but chooses to imprison, intimidate and “deal with”
How would you describe public opinion in relation to your activism? How do your families relate to your activism? What are the misconception and how do you counter them?
The general public initially failed to understand FeesMustFall as a movement that includes all, including those who are outside of the University space. It has taken a lot of community engagements and education for us to correct this perception and we are now seeing more and more community based movements, trade unions, religious groupings and other members of civil society coming together to not only pledge support but recognize themselves as an integral part of the movement. Families tend to be skeptical of our involvement in the movement as they fear their children being victimized by the state as they have seen the extents in which the state has adopted to silence us. The greatest misconceptions about the movement in the public’s eye are around the violence that has played itself out in the eyes of the public in our protests. This violence is usually as a result of private security and police literally beating protesters and being physically abusive, Media has a number of failed to report these incidents factually.
How best can you inspire more people to join you?
The simplest form of inspiring people to join us is by explaining how expensive University fees affect all parts of society and how these fees hinder a lot of people with great potential from accessing education leaving the have nots poorer while those who already have grow their knowledge and wealth.
Describe how it was to meet activists fighting inequality from Tunisia and Brazil and elsewhere? What do you see as the commonalities of the experiences and struggles in different places?
Meeting activists from other parts of the words was truly inspiring for us. We tend to be too invested in our struggles and we end up failing to realize that there are other people who face as much hardships and struggles as you do. There was a great lot to learn from each other and we learnt the importance of connecting with others and learning from each other because indeed it is true that in unity we are much stronger.
What would success look like in the short and long term?
In the short them success for us would be unconditional access to higher education of all who are academically deserving without any financial burdens and in the long term it would be a decommodified, afrocentric education that seeks to service the youth of South Africa.
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned after becoming an activist?
I have learnt that inequality is a reality and we must all do our utmost best to fight inequality.
Hamba Kahle Brian. Go well. In the so many others you have inspired, you live on.
The words we never thought they’d say have recently turned from a trickle into a mighty river. The very building block of any decent society, commitment to reduce inequality, which governments had rejected for decades, has now become the cornerstone of official policy. We in civil society pinched ourselves when the IMF started saying it. This week even the G7 – yes, them – have joined them. Has our dream come true?
Both wings of the rivalrous South African government now say that they are focused on tackling inequality; elite opinion-leaders from the FT to Davos regularly beat the anti-inequality drum; the European Union says reducing inequality is key to its own and global harmony; Indonesia’s President says it’s his top priority; even the world’s richest men highlight rising inequality as a threat to stability and progress. New French President Macron declared at his inauguration that social division has driven extremism, and that to heal the divisions the government must fight inequality.
That such statements would be made was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. And yet government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. Try listing every country that has signed up to fight inequality under the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and you will run out of breath. Try counting every government taking the action that ensures a markedly more equal society within their term of office, and you won’t need to use more than one hand. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery.
This is partly because the current crop of world leaders are a poor imitation of better days. At a recent pan-Africa feminist meeting I attended, no one there felt they could name any current leader who matched Sankara, Mandela, Lumumba or Machel. And in the North, well, let’s just say that Americans have started saying they miss George W Bush. Yes – him. Our leaders will not lead us. But it is also because even when leaders are more inclined to change they cannot act without the wind at their back that civil society can give them. Remember how President Lyndon Johnson told Martin Luther King “I know what I have to do, but you have make me do it.” Politicians are currently under so much pressure from the ever more powerful 1% that, if they are well-intentioned, they need our pressure. And if they are not, well, we need to pressure them even more.
As a person who came from the mainstream NGO advocacy tradition, part of my own journey has been one of unlearning, of realising that the most important change isn’t brought by the professionals but by the amateurs. As friends from Kibera who stopped a slum eviction told me when I asked them how they did it, “we have no other home to go to.” Former Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “we’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.”
This is why, in the #fightinequality alliance I am part of, we do less “lobbying” and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to us, it will be fought for by us.
The leaders are there – but they are not in government. My hope these days comes from young civil society leaders like Aya Chebbi from Tunisia who was part of the Tunisian revolution and is now challenging the IMF restructuring of her country; Lamin Saidykhan who helped found Gambia Has Decided which toppled Jammeh and now leads support for youth activism to fight inequality across Africa; Brian Matyila who helps lead Fees Must Fall and also fights for LGBT rights; and Brazilian youth activist Lira Alli challenging austerity. Through the #fightinequality alliance they are learning from, and teaching, leaders who have led struggles for decades like Anti-Apartheid activist Jay Naidoo who hosted the first global #fightinequality gathering and Filipino debt campaigner Lidy Nacpil who hosted the second. Change is always collective, never individual, and the folks I’ve just mentioned would modestly point instead to other names. This is great – we are leaderful. I list these few to say that if we are looking for leaders, we will find them – but it is more likely nowadays we will find them active on the ground and not in the corridors of power.
Despite the claims of the elites that we have persuaded them to fight inequality, we are in a period that in the short term will likely see it get worse. In many respects, we have entered a dark tunnel, but it is one we will get through, and it is the fire of courage of activists which will light the way. The social movements who constitute the #fightinequality alliance have been out on the streets in the Philippines, Brazil, South Africa, the US and elsewhere challenging the policies which favour the 1% and hurt the rest. Together social movements are building a collective power that can shift power. And when that starts to happen, we really will have won.