/ 21 August 2012

How women power communities

Activists for more than political power.
Activists for more than political power.

"We're a good country, but we could really be great if more women had the confidence and opportunities to play their role in the collective." Dr Claudelle von Eck is chief executive officer of the Institute of Internal Auditors South Africa.

That women in South Africa still feel the heavy hand of inequality is not in question – it's the subject of many anodyne speeches throughout Women's Month. But it's usually seen as a matter of uplifting women and permitting them to have the human rights our constitution guarantees; seldom do commentators and speechmakers talk, as Von Eck does, about how freeing women from their constraints would give our country a vast injection of energy and passion.

To see what women can and do accomplish, one need look no further than the social justice non-governmental organisations which so often rely on or are even driven by their work and commitment. We spoke to four women who are making a difference.

Caroline Ntaopane
The Bench Marks Foundation

Ntaopane's introduction to activism evolved out of a personal experience. She was living in Sasolburg with a daughter who suffered from constant respiratory problems. The clinic didn't seem to offer solutions or understand the cause, so Ntaopane decided to do some research. Zamdela, originally a "dormitory" township housing men employed in Sasolburg industry, has seen an influx of rural people since the 1990s and now has upwards of 120 000 residents. Caroline discovered that a shocking 42% of them had respiratory problems; she learnt that people in the Vaal Triangle had been battling air pollution since the early 1960s; and she unearthed research indicating that this area was heavily polluted and that air pollution of this kind could lead to serious respiratory and heart disease.  

Ntaopane joined a small group, the Sasolburg Environmental Committee, which was established in 2000 to fight this problem. The group formed a link with groundWork, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with a long history of fighting air pollution in South Durban.  "Thanks to groundWork, in 2002 we were able to visit the USA where we met with communities that were also affected by industrial pollution and shared our experiences."

The group learned the air sampling technique used by the famous Bucket Brigade in South Durban and formed the Sasolburg Air Quality Monitoring Group to sample the air and send it to California for analysis.

"Before that, only the companies could monitor the pollution and nobody could verify their results."

In 2004, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance united 15 community and labour groups, including the Steel Valley Crisis Committee and the Sasolburg Air Quality Monitoring Group, and Ntaopane became the alliance's co-ordinator. (She stayed till 2008; she's since moved on to a faith-based organisation working with similar issues, called the Bench Marks Foundation.)

The alliance campaigned hard for the Air Quality Act; they went to parliament to present to the portfolio committee on water and environmental affairs. In 2005, the minister declared the Vaal Triangle a pollution hotspot, a priority area – a huge achievement which means, says Ntaopane, that "more action must be taken to minimise and reduce pollution".

She welcomes the fact that government has since installed monitoring stations in six places. The level of awareness in the community is another plus factor.

"We now have community monitors, for example, who will take pictures when they see something like illegal flaring."

Funding all of this has always been a challenge and Ntaopane is grateful that her organisation receives a grant from an international funding agency, but adds, "We don't do what we are doing for the sake of money, so we don't put money first."

Cora Bailey
Community-Led Animal Welfare (Claw)

It was 1991, black days for our country, with violence ravaging communities across Gauteng.  Like many others, Cora Bailey felt an urgent need to do something, however small, to promote justice and peace. She came from an animal welfare background and realised that when people were forced to flee the violence, their animals were left behind, without food or water, sometimes chained and unable to help themselves. When she heard about trouble in the small township of Swaneville, near Krugersdorp, she went out to collect as many abandoned animals as she could. Over the next few months she followed the trail of fighting and death, often with her heart in her mouth, to help dogs, cats, chickens, donkeys and any other animals in need.

Bailey soon hooked up with De Villiers Katywa, a man with a passion for animals and plenty of very necessary courage. (He once had to persuade a drugged-up gunman, one of a band of violent men who had arrived on the scene unexpectedly, to leave the scene, while Bailey hid underneath their trailer.)

And so Claw was born. Over the years, it has metamorphosed into an organisation that employs a veterinarian, veterinary nurse and a whole team of people who take mobile clinics deep into the most hopeless of situations: informal settlements where hunger and illness are rife. Bailey and her team often end up having to find solutions for human problems, through a network of human-focused NGOs with which Claw works. As she says, people who can't take care of themselves will not be able to care for their animals, no matter how deep their love for them.

The Claw mobile clinics provide essential basics: dipping for ticks and fleas, checking for illness, taking animals away to be spayed. Wherever you see a Claw vehicle, there'll be a queue of people, many of them little children clutching a beloved dog or a tiny kitten. From the team members they get useful tips on caring for their animals and the results can be seen: any township that Claw operates in tends to have healthier animals (and fewer kittens and puppies). That's a rewarding achievement for Bailey.  

"So many people love their animals fiercely but feel helpless about keeping them healthy," she says, pointing out that people in poorer areas face huge barriers to providing care. The cost of transport to a vet alone is beyond many people's means. "They can just pick up the phone and call us if an animal is sick and that's empowering. I am glad we give them some say in their pets' health."

She also takes great pleasure in the impact of information and education.

"Providing that knowledge is the key to a kinder society, a society with a conscience. We make people aware of their pets' needs, and then provide the support and back-up they need to ensure they get it, through a consistent presence and practical help."

Makoma Lakalakala
Earthlife Africa

"If you stop being an activist, I think you'll die," a friend once said to Makoma Lakalakala and she acknowledges the truth in this statement with a laugh. Earthlife Africa's programmes officer has been an activist since her youth in the troubled days of the 1980s, and has worked for several community-based organisations (CBOs) over the years, primarily in the fields of economic literacy and education. "Practical, developmental work that builds people's organisations, capacitates them and builds skills," she says.

Born and bred in Soweto, Lakalakala was part of the Black Consciousness movement at an early age and that experience was one of the driving forces behind her need to find meaningful work.

"It was so exciting whenever we got together, a real culture of debate and critique." Her first employment was in the retail sector, which she found unfulfilling, but she became active in the labour movement, and soon left to do diploma courses in development. Her career in CBOs evolved from there.

Lakalakala would never have imagined herself working in an NGO focused on environmental issues, but when Earthlife partnered with CBOs to educate communities about policy, she was asked to help with organising a week of action. "I'm good at what you might call 'struggle events management'," she chuckles.

After realising how many of Earthlife's campaigns interlinked with social justice issues, Lakalakala joined the organisation.

"I enjoy the challenge of learning something every day. The joy of sitting with people and simplifying important issues for them, like climate change – and the reward when they say, 'You've just made sense of something I have battled to understand'."

NGO work like Earthlife's is critical to a healthy democracy and should be supported by citizens and government alike, she says. NGOs are able to provide a critique of government's work and highlight gaps in policy, law and delivery.

These organisations need to be smarter about sourcing funding, she says – but it doesn't sound as though funding constraints will keep Lakalakala from doing the work she is passionate about. "Meaning is very important to me," she says.

Michelle Gertz
The Smile Foundation

"I was working 14 to 16-hour days helping corporates save money, but I had no sense of purpose or balance," says Michelle Gertz. "I needed to centre my soul."

 She resigned from her job and asked the Smile Foundation – which organises free surgery for under-privileged children with cleft lips and palates and other cranio-facial problems – if they needed help.

It wasn't long before she was offered a full-time job doing marketing and public relations for the foundation, and she leapt at it.

"It's hard work and very emotionally taxing. But I come home at the end of the day knowing that I've played a part in changing a child's life forever. That's what gets me up every morning!"