Who Are “Our People”? A guide to conscious activism


She asked it. We were all thinking it. Some of us grumbling under our breaths about it and may have even had altercations about it over the years.  “Who are our people?” Thulile Khanyile, a fellow Obama Leader asked. There was silence across the room. It was clear. Poignant. Who are our people? Thulile spoke of her jealousy of the Apartheid era struggle fighters who were clear about who “our people” were. Are my “our people” only the Zulu nation? Only the Coloured nation specifically in Eldorado Park in my case? “Our people”, the words stung. They stung me. They unleashed my dormant activist that over the past two years was clouded by distraction and suppressed by the words of my black friends asking me why I have aligned with the white elite in protesting during the Zuma Must Fall march. I felt betrayed since this was one of several marches I participated in concerning issues I am passionate about to shift the needle toward inclusive social justice.

“Quality of governance is fundamental to poverty alleviation” Trevor Manuel

Last month Community Chest hosted ten Obama Leaders participating in the inaugural programme from South Africa, Botswana and Namibia along with a number of their student bursary recipients who shadowed our journey to grapple with poverty and inequality. The gathering in Cape Town was initiated by Melene Rossouw and co-lead with fellow Obama Leader Andrew Gasnolar. We journeyed to the past with courageous leaders who dared to stare down the face of Apartheid; they shared their personal stories and shown a light to new pathways of possibilities the nation can take. Speakers included Aziz Hartley, Editor of the Cape Argus, former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel, Crispin Sonn, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, Prof. Elna Boesak, Rev. Allan Boesak and Lorenzo Davids. Many of these names filled our homes growing up in the 80s; some who held frontline national political positions until recent years. I could sense a hunger from them to hear their side of history, but more importantly to hand over the baton to emerging leaders in order for us to reimagine our future possibilities, armed with tools to bring them to fruition.


“There comes a time when you need to chose between your own hopes and the hopes of the people” Allan Boesak

As a Coloured person in South Africa (fourth or fifth generation mixed race) I found the visit to the Slave Lodge quite emotional. I have known for a long time that my blood flows with both slave and captor – victim and perpetrator. I reconciled myself to the role of a facilitator of peace years ago due to the fact that hoarding hate means that I need to chose a part of myself (through my lineage) to hate and that’s no way to live. At the Slave Lodge I came to understand the extent to which my ancestors contributed to nation building through forcibly and literally pouring their blood, sweat and tears into developing it. Recent history only remembers job reservation for classified Coloured people because it was relatively more dignified than Black people. Our past is messy and so is the continued relationship between Coloured and Black people in South Africa before we even begin to engage deeper in tribal tension. As Africans, we need to sit at the table of dialogue and figure it out, particularly in relation to land reform.

“We have shut out morality because of what was done in the name of morality” Elna Boesak

My key insights from the week that point to an activist’s framework to reimagine the future:

  1. Begin with inner-work. Understand your values and if need be what you are prepared to die for (very Madiba)
  2. Part of inner-work is acknowledging and breaking free from our internalized oppression, the belief that we are “less than”. Psychological liberation allows us to claim our humanity (think Bob Marley and Steve Biko)
  3. Speak truth to power. Be armed with facts and passion
  4. When leaders go wayward then hold them accountable to their previously stated values. Use social media where required
  5. Leadership is a collective action; assume intelligence of those you’re serving
  6. Seek to understand the context of systemic structures of poverty and inequality. State capture for example is not new to South Africa, colonialism in itself was a massive state capture project. Similarly, while there is fear of South Africa becoming a welfare state, this notion does not recognize that it was one until 1994. The difference is that it benefited White people and social welfare for Black people was informal and part of a community system of supporting each other
  7. South Africa’s constitution is our social compact with each other, we need to breath life into it once again. Drifting from the preamble in itself has perpetuated poverty and inequality. The initial work of the constitution is about healing in order for us to get to restorative justice, this work has not yet been done
  8. We need to design new economic models and structures. One that reaffirms Ubuntu, is pro-poor, stimulates local economies and celebrates indigenous ecological knowledge that may not fit with Western norms and practices.

“I don’t just want your heart in the struggle, I want your body in the struggle. If you can stand with us, fight with us at the expense of your own privilege” Allan Boesak on being a white ally in the fight against apartheid

3 thoughts on “Who Are “Our People”? A guide to conscious activism

  1. JP Van Der Westhuizen

    A great reflection from a motivational week that has called us to action by looking at ourselves and being honest in how we go about changing our surroundings for the better..

  2. Shaz La Patrona

    Who shares are our spaces? Who is in my corner? Who is my next me? Who do I have to protect? Who can I speak For before I even have a choice to choose for myself? My people reflect me, my people cry like me, my people want what I want, my people are those whose stories no one has to tell me about… whose stories I have the urge to tell… whose voices I want to amplify…. whose lives I want to change through mine…. my people have no colour… they are stories to be told whose ending is my pending…

  3. As one of the Obama leaders who attended this conference, I must say I agree with Lesley’s synopsis. What I took away from the experience was that we must unite for a new cause since there is no obvious common enemy anymore. We must be ethical leaders instead of those who came into power after the struggle and decided it was payback time – we don’t recognise those people anymore because they have been overtaken by greed.

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