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The Social Justice Assembly (SJA), consisting of over 200 NGOs and community-based organisations from all over South Africa, held its first meeting in Pretoria last week to lay the basis for a collective response to South Africa’s multi-faceted socio-economic and political crisis. The two-day conference was instigated by a social justice sectoral review in 2019 conducted by local donor organisation, the Raith Foundation, but had been stalled by the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The SJA was opened by the Socio-Economic Rights Institute‘s (SERI) executive director, Nomzamo Zondo, who provided the background to the inaugural meeting, and together with Mbongiseni Buthelezi, the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) executive director, presented its purpose and objectives as follows:

Hold a focused dialogue on the state of South Africa and the region,Reflect on the social justice sector,Encourage effective co-ordination among organisations,Discuss what we can do collectively to change the situation, andCreate a democratic forum and “creative space” for dialogue on a non-hierarchical basis.

The keynote speaker for the first day was Noncedo Madubedube, who is the general secretary of Equal Education, an NGO-driven social movement focusing on addressing inequality and the crisis in secondary education. Madubedube highlighted the need and importance of dealing with Afrophobia and integrating LGBTQI rights into our struggles around socio-economic issues. She lamented the failure of NGOs to build social movements while being too reliant on legal action. Importantly, she raised the question of which social forces are the vanguard for revolutionary change.

Zaakirah Vadi from Defend Our Democracy was given the platform to inform the meeting of the outcomes of their Conference for Democratic Renewal that was held in July 2022. Their conference seemed intent on emulating the United Democratic Front (UDF) of the 1980s that played a big role in campaigning to end Apartheid rule. She called for mobilisation around the electricity crisis and identified 2023 “as the year for political accountability”.

Boichoko Ditlhake from Kagiso Trust briefly reported on a similar conference held in November 2022 that agreed that civil society should co-ordinate itself based on a common platform against corruption, engaging communities and against youth unemployment. He argued that “reform is no longer enough, people want revolutionary moments” and that we need to build grassroots organisations from the bottom up.

Respondents to Madubedube

Tessa Dooms: The crises are multiple, but the core crisis is political and of our state machinery. Politics is paramount and we will need to fight political battles with a focus on the 2024 elections. We need to move beyond resistance politics – anger is not enough – towards something that galvanises us for the future. We need to paint a clearer picture of the future. We need radical solidarity with a roadmap and in the form of a new UDF.

Sithembile Mbete: SA’s democracy is broken and we have a crisis of a collapsed administration. We also have a demographic crisis with 42.7-million South Africans under the age of 40 years and an unemployment rate of over 40%, with youth between the ages 16 – 24 years making up 60% of the unemployed.

Mercia Andrews: We have a wealth of experience, leadership and understanding in our midst. We need to be cognisant of the difference between an NGO and a popular movement and our main task is to build popular movements that are political with political leadership at their centre. We can’t have an NGO leadership that sees their work as a 9 – 5 job and should not conflate an NGO coalition with a popular movement. We need to discuss and decide on what are the key issues that we should focus on.

The rest of the first day and part of the second were spent in workshops on various issues and themes, including engaging the state, voter rights, hunger, gender-based violence, migration and mental wellness.

Workshop participants registering for workshops on the second day of the Social Justice Assembly.

Day two’s discussion was introduced by well-known broadcaster and political commentator, Ayabonga Cawe, who provided a critical analysis of our current situation and what is required for movement building. In assessing who and which social forces are the agents for revolutionary change, he argued that it is not the industrial worker but rather the marginalised, under- and unemployed who struggle to survive. He questioned the theory of change which informs what issues we take up, with who and how, and what tactical decisions we make with respect to national political processes such as elections.

His input was followed by a panel of youth respondents. Most pertinent were the points made by Equal Education’s chairperson, Sindisa Monakali, who related his direct political learning experience as part of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network responding to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic in Cape Town. They brought educational messages to informal settlements that led to the communities campaigning successfully for the provision of water that was required for preventing the spread of the disease. This experience led him to understand that through organising, raising political awareness and action, the working class as the social strata most affected by the crisis, will “come up with answers”.

He pointed to a more long-term perspective of the struggle for working class power and forecast thirty years of organising, class struggle and building a solid mass base that is knowledgeable, experienced and well organised to mount a significant challenge for revolutionary power. He warned against the allure of contesting for power through elections and parliament and favoured a more long-term revolutionary path. He highlighted the need for genuine solidarity between organisations and different communities and called on all participants to meet regularly to assess our struggles and “disrupt the past”, and in so doing unlearn our current stagnant ways of campaigning. He called on the assembly delegates to find each other and to build a socialist future.

Sindisa Monakali from Khayelitsha Community Action Network said they campaigned for water provision during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The SJA initiative appeared to enjoy much support from the participating organisations and all present. In its declaration adopted at the end, it set itself ambitious political goals and an action plan:

As the Social Justice Assembly, we call on all who live in South Africa to stand up and take back our political power from the hands of the elite who claim to rule in our name. The struggle for justice and democracy must continue until all have a fair and equitable share in the distribution of the resources of the country. It will continue until we have a government and leaders that take seriously the voices of all and not just the elite few, while the poor and the dispossessed continue to be ignored.

As delegates, we leave the Assembly recognising that our diverse struggles have a common goal – the creation of a peaceful, just and fair society based on real democracy. We commit to stand together to build solidarity and unity in action, where we find support, strength and purpose and a voice that can no longer be ignored.


We will mobilise as widely as possible to unite the broadest range of organisations, movements and communities to fight the increases in electricity prices and Eskom’s pollution of the atmosphere threatening severe climate change.

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Finally, we reaffirm that all of this starts by building solidarity in our struggles and between our movements. An injury to one is an injury to all. In this way we will be laying the basis for rebuilding hope and vision for a new just society where all can live in peace, security and comfort.

We call on the unemployed, women and youth, shack-dwellers, back yarders, rural people, workers, the landless and the dispossessed, immigrants and refugees, to organise, mobilise and unite. It is not yet UHURU. As the Social Justice Assembly we pledge our solidarity in your resistance and struggle.

While the Social Justice Assembly and other such initiatives to address the political and socio-economic crises are long overdue, they have been attempted before and have floundered. It is vital that the SJA learns from these experiences and comes to terms with them.

Moreover, the assembly was composed of predominantly well-funded NGOs and the middle class. This places a severe constraint of social and political distance in relation to organising and building a movement that will primarily represent the interests of “the unemployed, women and youth, shack-dwellers, back yarders, rural people, workers, the landless and the dispossessed, immigrants and refugees”.

If it is serious about its aims, then this must be addressed practically by the SJA, through struggles and grassroots mass democratic movement building such as initial door-to-door engagements with relevant communities and workplaces.

Martin Jansen is the director of Workers’ World Media Productions which publishes Elitsha