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JASS Southern Africa spoke to Sharon Ekambaram for her take on what this post-election moment in South Africa means for womxn activists and movements in the country.

Sharon is a human rights activist with extensive advocacy experience. She was the head of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) South Africa’s Dr Neil Aggett unit, which provides programmatic and advocacy support for MSF’s regional activities. Sharon is currently head of LHR’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme. Photograph credit: Shiraaz Mohamed

What significance or value did the recent elections in South Africa hold for activists?

It’s such a good question. I think the very sentimental response would be that we fought for a democratic dispensation in South Africa. We come from a repressive regime where there was no democracy. What we did was to fight for a constitution that enshrines values of respect for dignity, respect for human rights. The Constitution is very powerful if we can mobilise and unite and educate ourselves, to hold the government to account, any government. The elections are an important part of democracy, but it’s not the only part. Where we are at the moment, as civil society, people involved in struggling for social justice and for transformation, we haven’t mobilized enough to hold our governments accountable.

How can feminist agendas be prioritised and advanced in the post-election period in South Africa, particularly through community mobilisation efforts?

Never before has there been such a heightened awareness or knowledge around a feminist agenda. Just a very simple thing like the consideration of the use of pronouns has shifted consciousness in terms of a very binary world, dominated by the word ‘he’ where you see it in religion and in law, it was always the default. That is a reflection of consciousness, especially amongst young people who’ve enforced that level of thinking and I would make a parallel with our struggle to fight against racism, in our struggle against the apartheid regime. So that’s, like the starting point.

A lot of work has been done to get us to this point, but I think that whatever ‘we’ are defined as ‘we’re’ very fragmented at the moment. We are struggling to build solidarity and to build coalitions. I think that’s where we are failing when it comes to building community structures, building at the community level building at grassroots level because, at a higher level there are organizations that have built and led campaigns and mobilised, whether it’s around legislative change, or whether it’s around dealing with discrimination or dealing with various forms of hate crimes or rape as a weapon.

Most of the movements or structures that exist are very focused on separate issues. We were struggling to work in solidarity.

What’s missing, is the glue that will bring us together and hold us together in solidarity – we have to ask ourselves, what is the lever of power? We located that in the trade union movement, in fighting against apartheid but we’ve not been able to locate that lever of power that was able to unite us and be a strength in standing up against the state.

What are the expectations and hopes for womxn and communities facing challenges or resisting injustices following the recent elections in South Africa?

The current times are very bleak moment in our history, in South Africa, in Southern Africa, and then globally. The developments in Gaza have really exposed the limitations, the bias, the failure of the multilateral structures that have been set up. It’s exposed, the extent of the power, the might of the US, its military strength and how much it’s invested over the years in military power. There’s no such thing as international human rights, it really exposes what an extremely divided world we live in.

I feel very positive that with the opening up of the democratic space. I feel like we need to now get our act together about building solidarity and building accountability structures, in communities. Above all, I think there is a very desperate want for a better word, popular education, and countering disinformation and xenophobia, and hate speech against women. And so that’s our challenge, can we find ways of building alliances and unite on things that we know we can win?

How do you foresee the future of feminist activism and movement building both in South Africa and in the broader region, considering ongoing challenges and opportunities?

I think that we are in a state where we know something has to be done. I feel like there’s not a desperation, but a level of urgency. I feel quite positive. Given the times we are living in, I do feel like people have been forced to get a wakeup call about what’s happening in the world. And I think that there’s been a significant mobilizing around the climate crisis, which will be an injection.

We got to have a strategy on what would unite us. It sounds simplistic, but if you think of all the struggles, whether it’s the feminist struggle, or the struggle against xenophobia, it’s predominantly the working class, the most vulnerable, that are bearing the disproportionate brunt of those ills or injustice or discrimination.

I think that we have to strategically formulate, the Freedom Charter was such a strategic intervention. It was the thing, the rallying call that mobilized people and united people. Similarly, we need to think beyond our specific issues on what would unite us. Imagine if we built a movement of anger against the corporate, against the multinationals against private sector for its role in the injustices of inequality of the conditions that women live under, we could find a way to include our slogans on just the call for a wealth tax in the region. So that’s the second strategy – we cannot just work within national borders anymore. I feel like that’s what will unite us. And it will do away with a lot of the walls that we built as civil society, between each other and between movements and between sectors. Those walls have to be broken down and it’s not going to be by just sitting around a table and talking. It’s going to have to be through mobilizing on the ground on something that we all support in taking our cause forward.

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