Archives - ‘South Africa’

this is the city that has it all!

April 27, 2016 | Rebecca, DVM, Afrique du Sud, Gender at Work - Labour Research Service, assistante de programme

I have been in Cape Town for only two days and my initial impression is ” this is the city that has it all”. Geographically stunning, Cape Town is surrounded on all sides by the gorgeous mountain range, made up of Table Mountain, the Twelve Apostles, and Lions Head Mountain, and the bright turquoise ocean. Incredible wildlife, forests, and gardens climb up the mountainsides and spill into the city that is nestled below this scenery. Cape Town has a thriving city center full of restaurants, shopping and museums, business district, several working harbors, many beautiful beaches for relaxing or surfing, and calmer outskirts, such as Observatory, the neighborhood where I am living, and Salt River, the neighborhood where my fellow intern is living. We are fortunate enough to have a week off before we begin work and we took advantage of our first full day in South Africa to take a city bus tour through the many areas of Cape Town, up the mountains, through gardens and parks, and along the coast. This gave us a taste of the many adventures that the city has to offer.

However, it also showed us the incredible inequalities that exist in this beautiful city. Our city bus tour drove from a winding coastal road that displays massive sleek glass condos lining the mountain walls leading to stunning ocean views, to an intensely crowded slum full of ramshackle tin houses and dirt roads. These slums are referred to as townships in Cape Town and, to my initial knowledge, are both of a result of apartheid and rural-to-urban migration. Sabrina and I were uncomfortable when the tour bus suggested we hop off for a walking tour of the township; we weren’t comfortable with the idea of someone’s neighborhood being a tourist attraction based on the fact that it was viewed as impoverished with bad living conditions. It seemed wrong to me for a group of presumably wealthy tourists to invade the homes of others and ogle at their everyday realities, and then get back on the bus and return to a privileged situation. Trying to apply this situation to myself, although I am someone with much privilege, I considered how I would feel if very wealthy people in Ottawa went walking through my student neighborhood of Sandy Hill in order to share with their friends how poorly we were living and possibly pity us in our situations. This scenario to me seemed degrading and unwelcome, ultimately chipping away at the dignity and pride people may have for their homes. We also knew that we may be working in the townships through our internship assignments and were looking forward to learning more about the townships within this professional environment. However, the tour company informed us that the walking tours are purely run through the township and all of the money goes back into the neighborhood itself; if it is a source of revenue for the local people, does it become more ethically responsible? As well, the townships are widely recognized as a major social issue for Cape Town and protests regularly take place as township residents call for more awareness and solutions for their issues. Perhaps tours are one way to raise awareness? Finally, who are we, as visitors who have only been in the country for a day, to say that something run by Cape Town residents is wrong; wouldn’t they be the ones to decide what is right for their own neighborhoods? We still turned down the offer and I have been considering the ethics of this business venture since. I ultimately do not feel comfortable with this situation and likely won’t be engaging in a township tour, but am interested in knowing if anyone has any thoughts on these sort of tours? It has some similarities to the voluntarism debate often had within International Development circles.

I will close off by saying that I feel incredibly privileged to have been in Cape Town for a day and to have seen more of the city than many South Africans or even local residents have had the opportunity to see; one of the many inequalities I am beginning to recognize.

Back to Reality

December 14, 2015 | Zen, South Africa, Labour Research Service, Gender at Work, Program Assistant-Monitoring

It’s amazing to think how fast three months can go by, and how much you can accomplish and change in that time period. In terms of the internship I have completed tasks that range from transcriptions, taking minutes, compiling and finalizing reports, interviews…the list goes on. One of my favorite tasks however was sitting in on the workshops as well as conducting interviews for the LRW campaign. I have learnt the sad reality of what happens when campaigns end because of funding, or the things that campaigns are unable to do because of lack of funding. On the other hand, I have also seen the impact of having sufficient funding. With am ample amount of funds, the LRW campaign has been able to reach a number of workers and unions. With their workshops able to provide a venue for workshops, plus food (breakfast, lunch, and tea) helps within bringing individuals into the workshops. On another note, I have seen the need for dedication to wanting to make a change. Many of these workshops happen over the weekend, so participants must take out time from their leisure lives to attend the workshops.

After reflecting on all the time I have spent in Cape Town on my own I was afraid that going to the re-entry training would be difficult in the sense that since I was feeling badly about leaving South Africa, I felt that talking about the trip and reminiscing would make me miss the people and the place even more. However in reality, it made me realize that perhaps one of the reasons I was feeling so overwhelmed about leaving was because I was unable to fully comprehend and digest everything that I had experienced in the past three months. Talking about my experiences and trying to understand some of the core reasons why I feel sad about leaving made me realize that feeling sad sometimes is a good thing! In this case, it means that I had an amazing experience in Cape Town. So if there is one major skill I still need to learn, and will hopefully learn sooner than later, is the ability to let go.

Cape Town is just starting to go into the summer months and it was beautiful just before I left. With beach day weather every day, hikes, wine tours, and braais with new friends, leaving Cape Town feels like I’m leaving a paradise behind. It’s strange to think a place I’ve lived in for only a short time is now feeling like a home I’ve left behind, but I’m ready to see where my life takes me next. Hello again, Canada.

The Problem with Aid Darlings

November 13, 2015 | Shahreen, South Africa, Gender at work, Labour Research Service and Gender at Work for Cape Town, intern

The last two weeks the other intern and I were conducting interviews with participants of the Labor Rights for Women campaign, most of them being Gender Coordinators in South African trade unions. A common theme throughout many of the interviews was the issue that the campaign was still needed and there as a lot of work to be done. This is because the LRW campaign was ending due to discontinuation of funding.

Back when we were at Joberg, I was told securing funding was difficult in South Africa and all the old sources were drying up. The main funder for Letsema, an LRS initiative against gender-based violence, was a Swiss company that would raise money through citizens, but, increasingly, citizens were losing interest in sending money to South African initiatives.

There is a definite culture or trend for foreign aid, as we’ve been taught. For every aid darling, there’s an aid orphan. Aid darlings can often fall, too, when they no longer exhibit what some call good governance. One of the main reasons that South Africa doesn’t receive (as much) aid is due to its status as a middle-income country despite indicators that have shown wide disparities in wealth among the population. In comparison to Rwanda, a longstanding Aid Darling, that’s (for all intents and purposes) exhibited a good control of corruption post-genocide, South Africa is seen as quite corrupt, which no doubt discourages foreign aid as donors may worry it’s a poor investment.

But what are the consequences when aid is allocated based on a set of conditions rather than need or merit?

For South Africa, this means that programmes like LRW and Letsema have limited potential, forced too soon to end. This in turn perpetuates poverty. What I’ve learned first-hand in SA is that poverty goes beyond a limited access to finance but a limited access to education and thus a limited access to the wider world. For many participants of the LRW programme, this was their first foray to being educated on gender rights and the LGBTI community. When education isn’t present, people tend to rely on tradition and/or societal views. This may explain gender-based violence, the rape and attacks of lesbians, and the killings and physical assault of gay men.

Although I usually try to end things on a lighter note, this has been extremely frustrating for me, talking to participants about how much they’ve gained through programmes like LRW, and realizing that so many others would not have the access to information they’ve had. On a wider societal level, this meant that things would stay the same. There is a desire to learn; all people have that innately, but when it’s not nurtured, especially when it’s not nurtured in the masses, naturally, there is ignorance.

To conclude, I don’t enjoy living in a world with so much ugliness. It bothers me – and that’s what motivates me to change things.

Protea: Challenges of Desire

October 26, 2015 | Zen, South Africa, Labour Research Service, Gender at Work, Program Assistant-Monitoring

After being fortunate enough to travel to Cape Town, I was given the opportunity to travel to Tzaneen in Limpopo as well as Johannesburg this past week. I have met many members who have held organizational positions within the LRW campaign, union leaders and government workers of South Africa who have roles within community safety and women’s shelters, more than that I have met workers who are fighting for a National Minimum Wage and who know first hand, the issues that workers face (wage, treatment, leave etc.) I am grateful for having the chance to sit in on multiple workshops and seeing the participation of others. I have seen how the campaign reaches out to workers. To see the contribution LRS is able to make helps as a drive to commit to the work, and understand the context and needs of the workers here.

One aspect of the trip I was not expecting was the accommodations of the trip itself. When we arrived at Tzaneen Country Lodge I had my own room, with a tub, shower, television and a large bed. For me, having a room to myself would have been a luxury already. In addition to this, we ate very well during the course of our stay, had a driver, visited Kruger National Park, had nights under the starts with our co-workers, drank and overall lived well while we were there. In Johannesburg I stayed in a very nice Bed and Breakfast, there was a pool right outside our room (me and the other intern shared a room here), we got a ride to where work, and are fed great meals for both lunch and dinner.

Now don’t get me wrong, there has been a lot of work to do during this trip that I have enjoyed and learnt a lot. But through the course of the internship, acknowledging privilege has been on my mind almost every day. I can’t help but think that NGO work is not always like this, I personally believe that they are going out of their way to ensure that we are comfortable, because they know we come from extremely privileged lives and would like to treat us well. As an example, a co-worker recently went on a trip to Washington, after speaking to him, coming back he was telling me that he ate a lot of bread because everything else was too expensive and he could not afford it with the allowance that the organization gave him. Now I know that there is a pricing difference between South Africa and Washington, but defiantly not such a large one that my co-worker could not afford a good meal at least once on his trip while here I am staying in very nice accommodations, eating good meals everyday, flights. So I am therefore, very happy that they spoil me.

This trip has made me more aware and conscious of my own privilege and has made me respect the context in which other people live. This trip has also made me more aware of how powerful words can be, so after re-reading what I had initially wrote here; let me change the tone to be a positive one. I have realized that for me, one large part of my privilege that I never realized until recently is the privilege to say no, or more, to have the option to make my own choices in an environment full of opportunities. Here in South Africa, I am consciously making the decision to indulge in the people I have met. To listen to them, who ever they may be, to understand their smile and laugh, and to understand their context of life here in Cape Town, Johannesburg or Tzaneen. I am choosing to indulge in the nature of South Africa, to visit and experience the beaches, the water (though chilly) of the Pacific and Indian Ocean, the Mountains, the parks, the abundance of animals and birds and (in Tzaneen especially) the stars at night in a relatively rural place. I am choosing to indulge in the experience of this adventure, and be thankful that I have this opportunity to be on this internship.

So the question isn’t just what is my privilege, but also what choices do I make with my privilege and why? Living in privilege only becomes problematic when we take it for granted and become so consumed in our own lives that we forget that we live in a world for which we must share. The actions I take have consequences, and to live in a reality where exercising my privilege impedes on someone else’s rights or needs is, for lack of a better term, quite sad. Regardless of privilege, I am here to learn from the people in South Africa. And at the end of the day, I can only hope that I can impact the lives of those I have met here with the same strength in which they have impacted mine.

A Whole New World

October 26, 2015 | Shahreen, South Africa, Gender at work, Labour Research Service and Gender at Work for Cape Town, intern

On Saturday, my partner and I travelled from the very urban and tourist-hotspot of Cape Town to Limpopo and Johannesburg. We recently left Limpopo and are now at the end of our first day in Johannesburg. Both Limpopo and Johannesburg are very different from Cape Town. Traveling to new places has allowed me to gain a wider understanding on issues in South Africa. More importantly, this experience has taught me how important it is to consider South Africa’s socioeconomic and political history as a context to issues such as gender-based violence, crime, drug rates, and high rates of poverty and inequality. I had previously harshly criticized such issues without background knowledge so I’m grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained on this trip.

I acknowledge that I’ve lived and am living in very comfortable (and probably very high-end priced) accommodation. In Limpopo, I stayed in a country lodge that had many amenities including a pool, gym, and spa. My room was quite large, with a huge shower, king-sized bed, and large screen TV. In Johannesburg, I’m staying at a pretty fancy bed and breakfast. All in all, I’m living in privilege. While my partner feels it’s not good to indulge in privilege, I find indulgence natural and feel that, when you’re born into privilege and frequently have it, whether inherited or earned, you’re better off using your privileged position in society to make a difference in the worth rather than feeling sorry for yourself! I’ve therefore been quite motivated to give my all in the work I’m doing in my internship, as a self-aware bourgoisie and ignorant foreigner.

I have mixed feelings about being an ‘ignorant foreigner.’ I’m kind of what John Locke called tabula rasa, a blank slate. Being a blank slate means I am receptive to gaining knowledge, so that’s good. I’m not entirely a blank slate though because I inevitably come with biases, misconceptions, preconceptions and other negative baggage about South Africa  due to being raised somewhere else.

Limpopo was an eye-opener for me as it was the first time, since the start of my internship, that I felt I was somewhere quite different, as Cape Town was so organized. I got to travel with a very welcoming group of trade union members and take part in two workshops, one regarding protecting vulnerable workers and the national minimum wage and the other around the Maintenance Act (a somewhat controversial law that had recently been passed). These workshops also gave me some background on African Black culture. I learned the centrality of music and dance, for instance, as well as not-so-nice things such as gender roles and traditional senses of masculinity.

When men domineered the conversation at the workshops, for instance. I wondered: What is the cultural background to this? Are women socialized not to speak above men, for instance? What are the notions of ideal femininity?

When I was listening on a debate amongst the trade union workers regarding the LGBTI community, with one side finding them amoral and the other defending the community, I wondered: How much knowledge does the average South African have on sexuality? How much influence/pressure do religious institutions in the area place on hetero-normative relationships? And, when I found it was the women that were more accepting of the LGBTI community, I wondered if this was because they, too, felt marginalized and therefore related?

All in all, I feel very blessed to be part of this trip and have renewed passion for my field of study. I look forward to all my days here.

The Good and the Bad

October 1, 2015 | Zen, South Africa, Labour Research Service, Gender at Work, Program Assistant-Monitoring

It really only took about one day to recuperate from the long flight to Cape Town, but settling in happened within moments of understanding and mentally mapping out transportation routes. Everyone I have met has been exceptionally friendly, as I am told is the “South African way”. Invitations to Braais (barbeques), drives to beaches, restaurant recommendations, hot spots at night and hiking partners all rushed towards me during my first week here, and they have not stopped. With so much to do and friendly company it is hard to imagine wanting to be elsewhere.

However, like all countries, this area has its pros and cons. After meeting many people from Cape Town and Johannesburg it is easy to identify tensions between races. I have already experienced what some would find quite racist in Canada. As I walk down the street I see many people starting, or saying “China”, “Chinese”, “China Town”, “Chink”, even people tugging their eyes back to mimic my eye shape. In the beginning I was taken back by these comments but realized that call races are labeled and have some sort of characteristic linked onto them, and it is common to hear people making sweeping comments about the races, and even religions. Racial divisions within Cape Town are still quite apparent through every day conversations and visually through the division of demographics of social gatherings.

Though I have had many conversations with the people I have met here about living standards, minimum wage, job market opportunities, etc. the conversations always move in the same direction and usually end with the individual expressing their attachment to Cape Town, saying that too many people take for granted what they have. That far too many people too concerned with their personal problems to realized and appreciate the good in their life (mind you these conversations are between myself and reasonably middle class people in Cape Town). There is no doubt that the natural beauty here draws attention from tourists and the local people. But what about the individuals who live in the informal settings, or the children who are with their mothers as they as for money or food, or the men who look for food inside the trash during the night and day. For them, I doubt it’s as easy to forget about their personal problems and hardships, to look at the mountain and think that “Life’s Good”. Or perhaps there is a problem with my own assumptions about what life is like to live without my privileges. My intention isn’t to pity those who have less then, but there is defiantly guilt that I feel when I think how inexpensive food and drinks are in comparison to Canada, and then realize that organizations are still trying to fight for minimum wage in South Africa, and workers on minimum wage make between nine to eleven Rand per hour (approximately one Canadian Dollar).  When I am speaking to the local people, and these personal observations of mine do come out, or are brought up by the other individual, I do feel quite unimpressed with myself.

Within these three weeks, I have learnt that many people just want to smile at you and say hello, whether it is because they are friendly and want to say hi, or see the way my eyes are going to look when I smile, everyone wants to be acknowledged and feel that they are heard. And many times if the setting is right, I have questions about where I am from, as they clarify their question “where are you from originally” or “You don’t look Canadian”, which I now know means I must soften and state that I was born in Canada, but my parents are from Hong Kong which opens a whole new set of questions either about my culture or Canada. But unless I am willing to answer questions and let me pre-defined notions of racism down I would be deprived of many social interactions with amazing people, who simply want to know. When reflecting back on myself, there are many times where I have a question about a culture, person or place and I simply do not ask because of fear of being rude or insensitive, but it usually leaves me on Google for a few hours or just never finding out, leading me to become more ignorant. So for the next two months, I hope to be open to the new experiences I will be having, and respect and embrace the dynamics of Cape Town.

South Africa Post-Apartheid

September 21, 2015 | Shahreen, South Africa, Gender at work, Labour Research Service and Gender at Work for Cape Town, intern

Even today, South Africa is known through the legacy of apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced by legislation. I think it’s common, as a foreigner, to have certain ideas about the country you are traveling to. South Africa’s experience with apartheid is one of the things I had somewhat of an understanding of before I travelled here. Now that I’m here, I asked myself the following: What is post-apartheid South Africa? And, given that there is visible room for improvement, what are the issues at hand and how may they be addressed?

I’d like to clarify that the following is simply based on my observations during my first weeks here as a foreigner and on a couple conversations with locals and expats. It is in no way meant to be taken the “full picture” or even a well-structured, balanced piece of literature. I simply wanted to document my experiences and some of the conversations I’ve been having with people here.

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word literally meaning “the state of being apart.”

In the period of time I’ve spent on here so far, I can tell you the following: Observatory, the student neighborhood of SA, is predominantly White. The areas often termed by locals as “sketchy,” townships and smaller, suburban areas, are predominantly occupied by people of color. Talking to another expat here, who has lived here for over a year, there are clear socioeconomic divisions among the White and POC here. When you go to clubs and bars, whether in Observatory or Long Street, the nicer venues are the ones where my partner and I were usually the only POC. When you walk down the street, it does seem like people here stick to their own race – I find this quite disconcerting. Both Canada and South Africa are extremely multicultural countries, yet there are distinctions in social protocol, here, or even the way one person associates with another. Race always seems to be the key.

There are other things we can analyze. Consider that, in South Africa, black Africans make up around 79% of the population and White people make up around 9% of the population. Yet, most of the models in South African fashion and men’s health magazines are White men. Media representations are structured by relations of power and also show how beauty standards here are shaped through putting a value on race. So it’s really not much of a surprise how popular skin-lightening creams are in South Africa. They’re easy to find in drugstores and come in many brands – there is definitely a market for it.

These are just some observations and ideas I’d like to explore during my stay here but I’d welcome a dialogue with anyone that would like to contribute. In closing, what would success look like – that is, where would South Africa be without racial segregation? How much potential is lost by failing to have a unified population?

This is not Goodbye

July 20, 2015 | Kaitlyn, DVM, Gender at Work, South Africa, Labour Research Service

The final week countdown has commenced for my return back to Canada, which will mark the end of my three-month journey in South Africa. The last three months have proven to be eye opening, stressful, and exhilarating. The different dynamics I have been exposed to have all been informative and complimentary to one another. My work with Gender at Work and Labour Research Services (LRS) gave me insight into the complexities that exist between labor unions and workers as well as the traditional gender norms and issues of discrimination that prevail in the country. Additionally, my internship has also shown me how these dynamics are deeply integrated into the country’s past and present contexts. Twenty years after the country’s transition into democracy, inequality continues to be a major concern where significant contrasts exist between the haves and the have-nots. Despite political efforts and numerous economic and social policy changes, South Africa is still in need of necessary reforms that will reduce this inequality gap and that will permit the middle and lower classes to grow. These factors showed me how there is a need for non-governmental organizations like LRS and Gender at Work and how their work is necessary and very relevant. For example, Gender at Work contributes to gender mainstreaming in LRS’s work in relation to labour unions and workers rights while simultaneously facilitating gender programs across the country. The program I worked with directly, called Letsema, brought together a vast network of local organizations to address gender based violence (GBV). Through a collective impact and a peer action learning approach, the program used a number of methods to generate deep discussion and reflection among participants to get them thinking and questioning gender norms in their lives and communities. More importantly, the program enables participants to understand their roles as leaders in the fight towards eliminating GBV and encourages them to develop their own plans of action for this cause. Even with limited resources, the program continues to grow and achieve significant progress through discussion and bodywork-based activities.

As an undergraduate International Development student, this internship has been my first working experience in the NGO field. I had expectations and opinions about NGOs in the development field beforehand, however, now I can use my practical experience to confirm or critique my previous views. NGOs are of course not all homogenous in the way they carry out their work depending on their size and purpose; nevertheless, Gender at Work has provided me with knowledge on their organizational function and the crucial importance of communication and respect between employees. Gender at Work takes a more horizontal approach in terms of their power structure of leadership where instead of having a typical top-down hierarchy of staff, everyone is equal and has the same accountability. In theory this is ideal, however, in practice I found this challenging in my position as an intern. After some reflection, I think the challenge was rooted in my initial lack of knowledge about the organization’s work in South Africa as well as the general reality of being a temporary intern. Some of the work was extremely specific to previous program workshops and would unfortunately have been more efficiently done by someone who had been involved with the organization longer. That being said, I don’t think I was completely useless but I definitely would have been of better use after six months rather than three. Furthermore, it became clear to me very quickly that without good communication between staff, that work does not get done properly, which can be very frustrating and discouraging. If and when I do an internship again, I think I will be more realistic and upfront about my abilities and limits.

Overall, I’m pleased with how my time in this country has unraveled. I’ve not only had the opportunity and privilege to live and indulge in the Cape Town life style but I’ve also had the chance to travel to Johannesburg and Durban to experience a different side of South Africa. While each city offers something unique in terms of landscape and culture, Cape Town is without a doubt the winner in my eyes. It’s geographical organization, it’s breathtaking landscape, it’s rich culture diversity, it’s vibrant art and food scenes truly make it a full package. As beautiful as Cape Town is, my time here would not have been complete without the relationships I have built. My social network consists almost completely of South Africans, which I’m rather happy about because many international students who come to Cape Town tend to mingle with other foreigners. There is nothing wrong with this; however, I feel that befriending locals has allowed me to really appreciate and embrace their way of life, their attitudes, and of course- their slang. Cape Town, you have been an absolute treat and I will be seeing you again very soon.

Beauty Isn’t Everything

July 7, 2015 | Kaitlyn, DVM, Gender at Work, South Africa, Labour Research Service

Eight weeks in and I feel the time slipping away from me. I’m trying desperately to hold on and enjoy every passing minute of this city I have come to call home. A lot has happened since my last post in relation to work and personal life. Towards the end of May, Gender At Work flew me to Johannesburg to work alongside a couple of my supervisors for one of their programs. Johannesburg is different from Cape Town in every way, from the people, the accents, the landscapes, the weather, etc. Most of my South African friends and colleagues prefer Cape Town or Durban to Johannesburg, describing it as “a concrete jungle” with a lot of hustle and bustle. Unfortunately with my work schedule, I did not get to see much of the city, however, from what I saw, I also preferred Cape Town in comparison. However, I did have the opportunity to pay a visit to the Apartheid Museum and it was definitely an afternoon well spent. The museum provided an excellent historical overview of the South African context both pre and post Apartheid. I was surprised to learn that much of the information was new to my supervisor’s son, who accompanied us on the afternoon excursion. He explained that history in school did not delve into the Apartheid issues, which came as a shock to me because this event has shaped the dynamics and the way of life of modern South Africa.

The program that was in function that week in Johannesburg is called “Letsema”, which is a Sotho word that refers to a time when women in rural areas would go and join other women to help them work the soil. In this sense Letsema refers to women (and men) coming together to work the soil of creating new social norms. It is a network of diverse organizations and individuals representing women and men, the old and the young, the traditional and the modern, the heterosexual, and LGBTI who are all committed to creating 0% gender based violence in the Vaal. Women and other community members lead it and it is inspired and guided by the principle of working together to create greater collective impact. The Letsema workshop was spread out over four days with a group attendance of roughly 40-50 people including both men and women from different surrounding areas. Each day would begin with a group session of Tai Chi followed by a number of activities that addressed issues of gender-based violence in the Vaal. One of the activities that really intrigued me was called “Open Space” and just like the name, it is an open space in both physical and conversational terms. It is an activity that requires participants to make sure they raise topics they feel passionate about and participants are also required to take responsibility for their own participation. The whole process is centered on conversation, engagement, diversity and reflection. The open space allows for anything and everything to be spoken about. It was so interesting to see how a big empty room with some chairs, pens and cardboard could generate such deep conversations and powerful questions. As part of my work during this program, I was in charge of conducting several interviews with different participants, both old and new to the program, to gain insight into their experiences with Letsema. Every single participant mentioned and emphasized the power of “the open space” and how it allowed them to feel empowered in sharing their stories with others. In other words, this safe, judgment-free environment allows participants who often feel they have no voice, to build confidence and encourages them to learn from one another. All of this struck me as very ironic because if something so simple like an open space can generate such growth in individuals, why is it not more widely used in other gender related development work? Furthermore, this program is not resource rich by any means but the simple opportunity to speak and share with members of ones community has proven to be a powerful tool.

Aside from Letsema and the discussions generated from open space, speaking and sharing is something that is so much easier here. Even just a general conversation with a total stranger is common and it feels so normal. Quite frankly, it is so refreshing to just be able to talk to people instead of living in ones own bubble. I have been learning just as much from the strangers I meet then from my friends and colleagues. These conversations are not merely small talk, but meaningful conversation. The other evening I met the owner of a local pizzeria and he identified my Canadian accent immediately. He proceeded to tell me about the time he spent travelling across Canada and the globe and how difficult it is for South Africans to travel due to strict visa requirements. This made me question how I see South Africa as a country. Would South Africa and Cape Town be so beautiful to me if this were all I ever knew? Reality really sunk in after this conversation that beauty is not everything. Of course this is common knowledge, however, as a foreigner I think it is easy to forget this because this is not my reality.

Open Spaces in South Africa

July 7, 2015 | Kailey, ECH, Gender at Work, South Africa, Labour Research Service

The transitional justice that took place in South Africa in the 1990s is as much about the present as it is about the past; this has become very clear to me in my role working with Gender at Work in South Africa.  Despite the peaceful end to one of the most iconic cases of racial discrimination in recent history, race and gender equality still exist in South Africa today, and arguably so, everywhere in the country.  The Truth and Reconciliation process that followed the apartheid provided an open space and brought political change but only limited social change. There are still many lasting structural legacies of the apartheid, many of which Gender at Work (G@W) attempts to rid.  What is interesting is that there are a lot of similarities between the Truth and Reconciliation process  in the mid 1990’s and the open space work  of G@W today- such as the Letsema workshops.

I found the Letsema workshop to be very interesting for a number of reasons. I was most interested in the visible connection between theory and process as it related to dialogue; there was a clear and distinct connection between reflection and practice of the facilitators and the participants.  I found this to be interesting as it related to the groups advocating for 0% gender based violence (GBV) in the Vaal, social justice and community change. The workshop also seemed to provide a clear opportunity for direction, but also for positive leadership and sustainable change.

The framework for open space dialogue allowed participants to discuss their thoughts about their communities but also about the opportunities they saw for change. It was nice to witness how this open space was facilitated with a simultaneous bottom up’ and top down approach. Further, I had never experienced the creation of a safe space where individuals had so much freedom in revealing their thoughts and directing their actions and choices as it related to the issues at hand. They were not held back, nor encouraged to have a certain viewpoint or to take a specific action.

I was amazed at how the groups went in their own unique directions yet remained centered on the same overarching goal of 0% GBV.  The different interpersonal dynamics within the group were also very interesting because they seemed to work so well together. The dialogue facilitated cooperation and understanding between these groups and created the space for collective action and change notwithstanding the unusual group dynamics.  The dynamics were such that you would expect that there would be issues; however, there were no visible clashes except at the individual and collective levels.    This was the case even without fixed boundaries to any given relationship (race, gender, religion), even though many different factors seem to play an underlying role.   Regardless, the open space was successful in bringing a wide range of people together in the unique system created by Letsema.

However, what I found somewhat concerning about the conversations was how so many of the individuals mentioned the lasting legacies of the apartheid. They seemed to feel that while they initially felt as if they had won, now they feel that they have lost. The structural injustices that G@W tries to address in terms of gender identify how there has been political change without structural change. It seems that The Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to have been the first step in a process that was never finished and this is in part what G@W seeks to do though it may not be intentionally or on the grand scale.

Simply stated in terms of the Lestema process, I learned that with the appropriate structure, dialogue can facilitate many different things. Notably, intergroup cooperation and understanding. It can also create the conditions for change even in unlikely groups. Despite the various groups and different interpersonal dynamics, cooperation and progress was possible because of the process that was used and the willingness of the groups to move forward. I feel as if the dialogue focus of the workshop allowed for integration among unlikely groups. The collaboration between community leaders, community groups, and the youth and elders appeared to have very few setbacks and they were all able to engage in meaningful dialogue, despite any boundaries that may have existed. However, based on the Truth and Reconciliation process in the country, I suspect that dialogue will not be enough to bring the structural change that is needed in the country. Although people need to keep talking, they must take appropriate action. G@W is doing all that they can to try and make meaningful, real change possible. It is now time for the South African government to find a way to bring true social change to South Africa in the same way it was able to achieve political change two decades ago.

The Lestema process is successful in achieving its goals – although it is not a Truth and Reconciliation process  though there are strong similarities. The dialogue focus  used in the G@W Lestema workshops allowed participants to engage with others and the community.  They were able to learn new skills but were also able to apply and share the skills they already had in addressing the different needs that they defined in the community (eg. drugs and alcohol).     I liked that there was so much freedom for the participants to identify the needs in their communities, but that they also participated in planning the process, identifying how and where change could be made, and who should be involved etc.  The coaches provided support and suggestions for each group, but the participants still seemed to lead the discussion and set the agenda in many respects. I also found it interesting to sit in on the core group meeting because there seemed to be some talking about issues at more of a personal level (although it was sometimes at almost a gossip level).  However, I was still impressed with how the coaches were able to bring the group back on track and establish good dialogue.

What I was most impressed with was how there had been change in the communities and how the groups had been successful. It appears that groups often propose a lot of changes and suggestions but the talk does not always turn into action. This was not the case for these groups. It seems as if most groups were able to talk about meaningful action, but also to bring it. The Letsema process encouraged participants to take the initiative and be proactive and the participants were very invested in the changes they wanted to see. This seems to be because of the dialogue process and the amount of ownership the coaches give to their groups. Perhaps, this is something that was missing in the Truth and Reconciliation processes.