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Reflections on the Dilemmas of Neo-Liberalism and Civil Society Activism among South African Marginalized Women

Reflections on the Dilemmas of Neo-Liberalism and Civil Society Activism among South African Marginalized Women


Desiree Lewis



Neo-liberalism is often defined monolithically in postcolonial feminist critiques of power relations in the global South - as a weapon wielded by those with economic, cultural and political power to exploit and rule those who are dominated by and benefit little from it. Frequently seen as having mainly economic and political implications, structural adjustment and the state’s neo-liberal economic policies are defined as the “enemy” of radical academics, feminists, activists, the poor, and especially large numbers of women. That liberal politics and economics perpetuate gender and class exploitation and the ongoing dominance of national and global elites is indisputable. At the same time, neo-liberalism profoundly shapes the subjectivities, political agencies and contingent strategizing of both dominant and subordinate groups, creating unique challenges for the work of progressive NGOs, CBOs and academics that pursue gender justice and radical mobilization and action among marginalized groups. ICT access, usage and strategies complicatedly articulate with the hegemony of neo-liberal subjectivities and aspirations, with their promise of shared knowledge and connectivity providing ambivalent, uneven and political fraught routes for “using ICTs for marginalized women’s empowerment”.



Civil society as an elite enclave?

As a feminist relatively new to working on large donor-funded projects, I find myself currently grappling with immediate and very personal challenges around what neo-liberalism means. In particular, I struggle with how neo-liberalism affects the forms and aims of alliance building between feminist researchers and marginalized women, what it means to divide a sense of accountability between the women with whom I work and funders and how having access to, control over, but also accountability for financial and other resources affects my efforts to work with marginalized women in enhancing their opportunities for public participation and local governance. I find it increasingly difficult to pursue action research in ways that I believe substantively question inherited models of “researching others”. Or in ways that avoid romanticizing participants and their sense of collectivity. Or even to make sense of and write about the multi-faceted power dynamics that affect the work I’m currently doing. One way to start seems to me to take a step back from the work I’m involved in – exploring ICT activism in deepening young owmen’s public participation in the Western Cape – and reflect on projects for civil society activism I’ve observed.



By way of framing my main arguments and observations, I want to invoke Partha Chatterjee’s discussion of the role of NGOs in postcolonial contexts. Simply put, his argument is that civil society in the present has become an elite enclave. With the growing trend towards rights-based politics, marginalized groups are increasingly defined as target populations, docile bodies whose lives and stories are interpreted by NGOs in ways that allow them to become the beneficiaries of developmentalism, rights discourses and governmentality in the form of state and global surveillance.


Chatterjee’s comments have (rightly) been criticized for their generality, but I still find them suggestive in thinking about power relations in civil society activism both in South Africa’s present, and possibly in other postcolonial contexts as well.


The intricacies of social struggles and agencies are in many ways managed, made “real” and turned into legible scripts by NGOs, CBOs and even within social movements. At the same time, the bottom-up nature of these is often romanticized, as is the case with the well-known South African Aids activist organization, the Treatment Action Campaign, which has manifested deep divides along gender and race, despite its global visibility as a singularly inclusive popular rights claims movement.


Alongside the translation and simplification of “the lives of the marginalized”, NGOs, progressive researchers, feminist academics and the like are becoming increasingly less receptive to working with the multi-faceted struggles of marginalized groups, and end up translating and often standardizing the often messy experiences of subaltern groups, especially subaltern women.


I don’t think that Chatterjee’s critique or criticisms of this have taken into account the massive impact of ICTs in influencing the (mis)representation, translation, mediation, appropriation and of course silencing that Chatterjee’s critique raises. But of course ICTs - especially when we consider entrenched forms of access to and control of resources - obviously involve profound forms of silencing, (mis)representation and appropriation . The intricacies of subaltern struggles and agencies are in many ways made real and compelling by digital platforms, but also flattened as manageable texts by new media including documentaries, photographs and information for websites.


So Chatterjee’s argument, however overgeneralized and blunt, is a useful point of departure for thinking critically about the ambiguities of what it means when (even progressive) NGOs, academics, policy researchers etc seek to use ICTs to enhance the voices of socially marginalized groups.


Giving Sex Workers a Voice


I want to raise some problems and questions with reference to one organization and what seems to be a very rich and adventurous progressive use of ICTs for facilitating marginalized women’s public participation and voices in the public sphere. The organization I wish to refer to is SWEAT, an NGO focusing on rights and agencies of sex workers in South Africa.


Recently, SWEAT has become increasingly effective and visible mainly in driving campaigns for decriminalizing sex work. SWEAT has also been very proactive in using icts for its activism and advocacy, with many role players coming together to do this.


A workshop I attended in Johannesburg that focused on one of SWEAT’s recent projects in 2013 highlighted this. Various progressive academics – both South African and from beyond, sex workers, artists, photographers and ngo workers came together to discuss and evaluate the products of a recent donor-funded project called “Reclaiming Dignity”. Photo-voice methodology, combining text and photographs of and about sex workers functioned together to help insert the voices and experiences of sex workers - as an especially marginalized group into the public domain. The aim was to encourage sex workers to convey their struggles through life narratives and especially photographs, and then to use various new and traditional media to publicize and exhibit these compellingly “authentic” life narratives. The idea was also to ensure the wide circulation of these narratives – in poor communities in Johannesburg, in the city centre, at universities like Wits and the University of Cape town, and via the internet.



For me, however, dynamics at the workshop and the processes I went on to observe after it raised the problems of appropriation and reduction and control that Chaterjee alludes to.


First…the training of the sex workers by the writers, academics and photographers - ostensibly meant to help empower them - was extremely rushed. Ultimately, the photo-voice project focused less on encouraging sex worker participants to politicize their experiences, mobilize on the basis of their sense of their struggles and generally deal with the messiness and complexity of their experiences than on the end product the photo voice exhibits which needed to be prepared, installed, exhibited and made public at a particular time to meet donor requirements.



Second, the position of the artists, academics and ngo workers….although there was a great deal of very enthusiastic, passionate and politically engaged interest in using action research and new visual methodologies to explore sex workers’ complex lives, it was striking how those who were ultimately responsible for the end product – ensuring that they’d be ready for exhibition, posting them on the internet, writing about them for donor reports and so on - ended up compromising their initial utopian vision and radical politics in the face of the pressing need to deliver project outputs.


And as one of the academics who was part of this process (even if indirectly) I also ended up “playing the game”: reinforcing and congratulating the project, acknowledging that although much more could have been done to, for example encourage the sex workers’ autobiographical voices or ensure some kind of follow up beyond the project, the exhibition was powerful, necessary and would indeed go a long way towards empowering a group of women that is acutely vulnerable to violence, persecution, discrimination and othering.


Thirdly, the sex workers…about 5 sex workers attended the workshop, although many more were involved in the project of training them in photography and life-writing when it started.


Those who attended the Johannesburg workshop in 2013 had successfully gone through the process. I was expecting them to be more outspoken about the complexities of the process, and to speak for those who hadn’t been able to complete it for various reasons. In other words, I assumed that they would speak “for the collective”, raising the many difficulties of the process of being action research participants in a new media activist project. Many participants didn’t complete the process for various reasons. Some of these had to do with how the violent realities of certain their lives (violence against women encountered in work, their homes, in public spaces, poverty and family obligations, for example) prevented them from completing the training or producing narratives or photographs that met the criteria for their being displayable.


Other reasons had to do with how the emotional and psychological process that accompanied their photographs and life-writing – something that many were doing for the first time, became too overwhelming. And the project hadn’t put measures in place to address these. The trauma of being able to reflect on one’s life, often for the very first time, was huge; many sex workers are immigrants or transgendered; some realized the political implications of their faces and voices being made public not only in Johannesburg, which is where most of the exhibitions were, but also via the internet only once the project was well under way.


Yet the participants who attended the workshop avoided this, an it was in fact often the “experts” who were invited (I was one of these) that elicited some of this discussion from those who oversaw and managed the project. In fact, all the sex workers very formulaically echoed the language of developmentalism – speaking very positively about becoming visible, being empowered, acquiring a voice in the public sphere.



Interestingly, I also learned that these participants would have the opportunity to participate more centrally in the second round of the project.



Patronage politics in civil society activism

So what does all this raise in thinking about how power is being played out in civil society activism involving academics and NGOs as partners? Especially activism involving ICTs and the huge amounts of funding currently being put into the ICT for development projects in “developing” countries like South Africa?


I think it’s important to preface any (tentative) conclusions here by stressing that what often motivates social actors is complex and ambiguous situational strategizing, rather than acting to secure interests in a logical and systematic way.

So it’s possible to return to Chatterjee’s critiques of what civil society activism really means not by identifying coherent and static “class interests”, but by thinking about how groups such as academics, NGO workers, policy researchers as well as obviously marginalized groups within organizations negotiate complex patron client relations in terms of processes like, for example, protecting or enhancing their positions in organizations, research units, or universities by creating access routes to resources and opportunities from government departments or donors.


Some of the questions that surface for me, then, are:

1. Which groups and individuals come to constitute Chaterjee’s ”elite” that manages and translates the messy incompleteness of marginalized groups struggles and everyday experiences? At times it would seem that many within marginalized groups act as members of an elite. And as many have mentioned before, the idea of “the marginalized collective” speaking with one voice as “oppressed and empowered sex workers” under the impact of neoliberal practices and discourses is not necessarily the case when one takes into account how some might identify routes for individual empowerment and a tactical way to get themselves an those closest to them (families, children, partners, families beyond South Africa?) out of oppressive lives.


The sex workers who participated successfully in the workshop come to be empowered in highly individualistic terms, developing aspirations for further empowerment almost as clients within a project backed by significant donor funding. In many ways, then, the liberal package that a photo-voice project offered nauralised and encouraged hyper-individualism and personal empowerment. In return, the


2. How does the emphasis on human rights claims in current civil society activism shut down on broader forms of protest and struggle? And how do these human rights claims flatten and obscure struggles that take the intersectionality of human experiences into account? So, for example, many sex workers are illegal immigrants, poor, black and affected by violent forms of patriarchal abuse. Yet a central rights claim of “decriminalizing sex work” revolves around recognizing their dignity and agency, as though this agency were not profoundly shaped by how limited many individual sex workers’ choices really are. For progressives and feminists, the fact that sex workers are human agents should be beyond “proving”; surely it is the context in which particular sex workers make choices that demands attention? For many women who turn to sex work as an option in South Africa, the context is painfully embodied as massive unemployment for unskilled women with little education, spiraling violence against women, living under conditions of profound insecurity in terms of physical safety, vulnerability to harassment, access to housing, a basic income, subsistence and physical mobility. The attention to “decriminilaizing sex work and sex worker’s agency - in the absence of many other challenges facing many sex worker – surely distorts the realities of many women’s lives.


The hidden subtext in the work of SWEAT and in the “Reclaiming dignity” project was for sex workers to assert their dignity and agency, a theme that is constantly conveyed in the public statements of sex workers.


Thirdly, for the progressive and radical academics, NGO activists who are allies in civil society activism: what are the challenges of being led by the voices of marginalized groups, rather than becoming conduits for manageably textualised lives. What does it mean when we act as translators, often by using powerful and influential ICTS to convey the lives and voices of marginalized groups? And how can we surface these dilemmas and be more self-reflexive about them without feeling paralyzed.