Let’s talk about The Rules: Africa and the future of social justice

When one steps back to take a look at the world, it’s not difficult to come to the conclusion that parity is not one of humanity’s strong points. Poverty and inequity are deeply rooted in our civilization to the point that the richest 85 people in the world are wealthier than the poorest 3 billion combined, while with each passing year rich countries take from poor countries more than 10 times the amount of money that they give in aid.

While most of us would agree this is not a state of affairs of which to be proud, few of us can find the words to narrate or time to connect the labyrinth of historical and socio-economic facets that constitute the inequitable status quo. Easy as it is to point out the flaws in our global system, impossible it seems to fight a coherent battle that will edge us towards a way of living in a world where seven billion people live as equals.

One organisation clambering into the ideological armour to fight on this front are The Rules. A post-NGO NGO, The Rules are anxiously trying not to fall into the same traps as many campaigning organisations before them, and are as much fighting the way in which civil society organisations fight global inequality as they are the traditional big baddies in corporate board rooms and dodgy government cabinets.

When the collective of organisers and activists first came together in early 2012, they realised that they had to fight for social justice with a fresh mindset, as well as a new pair of boxing gloves.

“For different reasons, we were all totally disenchanted from the big NGO and civil society approach to social change,” says Alnoor Ladha, one of The Rules’ founding members.

Alnoor Ladha, The Rules’ Executive Director

“We started asking how we could help support existing social movements that approach issues like poverty, inequality and climate change from a structural perspective. How could we shift the conversation from one about charity, aid and multilateral agreements to one about justice, solidarity and community driven solutions?”

The Rules have now set up base in Cape Town, South Africa, to focus on building citizen power in the Global South. They join a blooming organising community in the Mother City, sharing a civic podium with big NGO’s like Slum Dwellers International and AIDC, as well as burgeoning grassroots movements like student initiative Rhodes Must Fall.

Inspired by memetics and interested in teaming up with and supporting existing social movements, The Rules practice a relatively novel approach to campaigning that has already resulted in notable victories on the African continent. When fighting the ‘Unga Tax’ (a VAT hike on basic commodities) in Kenya, The Rules tapped into the local phenomenon of using missed calls to coordinate everyday events, supporting campaigners by developing ‘Crowdring’, a mobile petition platform that enabled people to make free missed-calls as a form of protest. 210,000 missed-calls later and the Kenyan government eventually changed course.

Last year meanwhile, the organisation led a two week workshop in Nairobi that sought to harness art for activism. ‘Artivism Lab’ brought together leading poets, writers, musicians, digital organisers and community organisers with the aim of creating “a new political and cultural toolkit for radical social change.” 300 people got involved and Alnoor believes the lab brought about a valuable “cross-pollination of ideas,” with participants creating music videos, songs (two of which made the Nairobi airwaves) and spoken word performances.

The Artivism Lab in Nairobi, Kenya

As we stumble further into the 21st century, Alnoor sees Africa as a significant front in the battle for a less exploitative global economy, pointing out that the continent harbours the only population that will double in size by 2050, when it will be home to two billion people.

“There’s an exploitative narrative around ‘Africa Rising’ that conceals what’s really happening on the continent: mass resource and wealth extraction that’s only enriching the few,” Alnoor says.

“The idea that foreign direct investment is the silver bullet and all Africa needs is more growth and more jobs is a veiled hijacking of the continent’s future. These funds are not going into infrastructure development a la the United States or Europe in the 1940s and 1950s. The type of GDP growth the continent is witnessing is the wholesale liquidation of the continent’s natural resources for short-term gain – blips on economists’ charts that will lead to long-term devastation when the bubble bursts. We have become dependent on our own destruction.”

Alnoor takes great heart however from the existing social movements he and his colleagues have worked with in Africa thus far. His team fought with Bunge le Mwananchi on the Unga Tax campaign and Alnoor sees Bunge’s structuring as a “people’s parliament” as being key to their campaign successes:

“They are not professional NGO types, but active citizens who know how to mobilise and work with their respective communities.”

The Rules and dozens of other groups also spent time organising with Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE) under the common banner Our Land Our Business. According to Alnoor, SMNE are “bravely organising in exile against one of the most repressive governments on the continent, and indeed, the world.”

Amongst the myriad African campaigners in the local movements The Rules have worked with, Alnoor picks out one particular Nairobi activist, Blessol Gathoni, as the most inspirational:

“She’s involved in countless struggles from tax justice to disability rights to LGBTQ issues. There is no issue she sees as ‘other’. She is led by empathy, humanity and a deep love for her community. She does not seek fame, awards or funding. She simply lives the ideals of selflessness, altruism, kindness and solidarity.”

While the personal stories of inspiration and localised victories are steps in the right direction, Alnoor is under no illusion that the bigger interconnected struggle against global inequality is still in its almost-terrifying infancy.

“The global battle that we are witnessing is between the concentration of power, especially corporate power, and the demands of the world’s majority, largely represented by social movements. This is not a traditional war over geographic lines fought with conventional weaponry. It is a meme war. It is a battle of ideas. And it is invariably a David and Goliath struggle.”

Alnoor scorns the majority of NGOs and civil society organisations, who he sees as being obsessed by technocratic ideals of incremental policy change and expertise. “They are busy reforming bullet six on article 21 of the SDGs. They choose to stay blind to the neoliberal ideology of growth, consumption, advertising and debt that is enslaving us.”

But Alnoor also thinks that by challenging ordinary people to question the official narrative on global poverty, governments, corporations and NGO’s, organic social movements can win the day, one small step at a time.

“The question is,” Alnoor reflects, “will we mobilise enough people, will we spread the most compelling ideas, will we cooperate with each other, will we make the radical interventions, and will we take the necessary risks before capitalism destroys the planet?

Image via John Y. Can / cc

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