Interview with civil society activist: Gino Govender

Gino Govender, a seasoned civil society and trade union activist has recently joined Amnesty International’s International Mobilization team. He is based in South Africa and his mandate includes supporting growth in the region.  Prior to joining Amnesty, Gino was the Executive Director of Ditsela Workers’ Education Institute.  He has served a variety of student, community, labour and political organisations in organising, education and leadership roles over the years. He speaks to CIVICUS about his work, future plans and the state of civil society in Southern Africa.

Tell us a little about your current work in Southern Africa with the International Mobilisation Department at Amnesty International.

As part of its strategy to build a truly global human rights movement, Amnesty International has taken a conscious decision to grow in the global south and move closer to the communities and rights holders we work and campaign with.  One of the outcomes of an extensive consultative process is the development of an Africa Growth Strategy, which involves the creation of three regional offices, one of which will be located in and responsible for Southern Africa. Whilst assisting this process, I am privileged to work closely with a team of global activists in the International Mobilisation Programme at the International Secretariat to support our sections in South Africa and Zimbabwe, both of which are staffed by a wonderful team of staff, board members and volunteers.  We provide support for their organisation building, growth and human rights impact strategies. Both South Africa and Zimbabwe are and will continue to play a vital role in contributing to a human rights movement in Southern Africa.  Building a sustainable organisation is vital in this context.

How would you assess the current state of civil society in the region and in South Africa in particular?

I believe that in a regional context the civil society “movement” is in an important stage of evolution. Within SADC there are important political, social and economic challenges still to be confronted if the vision of a people-centred regional community that is thriving on the values of solidarity, social justice, equality, dignity, freedom, democracy and production that meets basic human needs are to be realised. It is significant that there is a general consensus on the need for a strong and effective civil society in the region. Collective leadership united under a common vision for the region is the key.  In each country given their respective recent histories there are vital sectors for example the labour movement, faith-based organisations, womens’ organisations and intellectuals amongst others that have a wealth of organisational knowledge and experience coupled with newly established organisations that are dedicated to a single campaign. This collective experience, commitment and skills when collectivised and working in unison can be a formidable strategic alliance for positive social change rooted amongst people in the region that offers hope for future generations.

You are working with CIVICUS and other civil society groups on an international solidarity initiative in South Africa. What do you hope to achieve through this initiative?

Firstly, this initiative is the product of a collective effort by the leadership and senior officials of key global and national civil society organisations based in the country that expressed the desire to work together on building a platform for effective international solidarity work.  So as many organisations as possible coming together to build a consensus of the future is a good first step in the expression of this. I hope that the mutual trust, respect, collectivism and value built through the collaboration thus far could be sustained in the medium to long term. We have focused on what unites us.  Where that have been a variety of views expressed this has been seen as an opportunity to strive for a consensus.  There are high hopes on South Africa and all who live in it to contribute to building a just global community in which the needs of all are met as opposed to that of a tiny minority. We have benefited immensely from the brave actions and solidarity of ordinary people across the globe in our fight against apartheid and this but one important initiative to support other struggles in pursuit of social justice beyond our borders. In all the literature that I have come across the common thread and the consensus thus far is for us to worker harder to build better and more innovative ways of collaborating to pursue common goals.  In the current global crises facing humanity as someone once said change will come, not only by waiting for the weaknesses of the strong  but by harnessing the strengths of the weak.

You have long years of experience in organising public mobilisation actions including during the anti-apartheid struggle. What makes a successful mobilisation?

There were many important lesson we learnt in the course of struggle whether in the factories or in communities or in organisations. There’s no one recipe as different conditions require different strategies. No one organisation can do it alone.  No one person has a monopoly of wisdom.

The anti-apartheid struggle was prosecuted on many fronts by hundreds of different organisation working on different issues.  To paraphrase Cabral, unity and struggle were two sides of the same coin.  In involves the struggle to build unity and to main unity in struggle.  Collective leadership through ideas, processes, networking and seeking the wisdom of others is key.

A just cause, hard work amongst the people, building social consciousness and people being at the centre of decision-making and leading a campaign are the basic ingredients of successful mobilisation.  In the labour movement any organiser will tell you that despite all the meetings, conferences, campaigns, workshops and the like, the best way workers learn valuable lessons is before during and after industrial action. We must choose the battles and the terrain wisely.