My New Book – Out Now!

My new book is out now. The book launch was in Johannesburg where I was in conversation with Professor Vishwas Satgar. Here’s a video of the night:


In this book, Change: Oranising Tomorrow, Today, I’ve written down and reflected on the lessons I’ve learned over the years. From when the genesis of inspiration listening to Steve Biko speak when I was 15, to the work building power through organising and collective action to contribute to the ending of apartheid to the exciting work I am a part of with Nadeli Village building thriving communities.

jay-on-the-shoulders  earthrise-building

Each generation must find their voice and this is a book from the voice my generation found. My hope is that this generation can learn from it as they find their own as they pick up the mantle of continuing the painstaking work of making a more just world and this requires great change.


To check out the interviews and talks I’ve been doing around the launch see my Media page.

Article | Time to act… or shut up

This is the piece I wrote for the Dispatch Live from 12 March 2017:

In business jargon there is something known as a “put up or shut up” clause. It is the point during a merger when real money has to change hands or the whole deal unravels.

After reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro and seeing the splendour of the African landscape laid out before me, I realised I had reached my own “put up or shut up” point.

I had to either do something to help fix what was wrong with the current system, or go on with my life and stop whining about bad governments and predatory elites.

At the end of 2013, a year before I set out on my Kilimanjaro adventure, I joined up with two of my comrades, Gino Govender and Kumi Naidoo, and we had a long reflective discussion about our hopes for the future of South Africa and the rest of the world.

During apartheid we had worked together as community activists in Durban’s Indian townships, and I know how much they care about this country. Kumi has been a social justice campaigner for most of his life, was the head of Greenpeace International for six years, and is currently the director of Africans Rising, a pan-African civil society movement.

Gino was a prominent figure in South African unions and has worked for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Cosatu, as well as globally in the mining and chemical union movements.

During our discussion we tried to put our individual experiences in a larger context, looking at them in relation to South Africa and the global village. The lessons we learnt as activists still resonated with us, and like many others, we wanted to return to our roots and work with the people again as we used to, co-creating futures with local communities.

By this time we were experienced enough to know that things are never that simple. It has been over a quarter of a century since Nelson Mandela completed his long walk to freedom, and the country he went on to lead is still in a tenuous state, full of complex politics, conflict and history that frequently generates discord.

The current state of our government may have been unforeseeable to its citizens at the dawn of democracy, but even then the cracks created by factionalism and political prejudices were starting to show in public.

The fight against apartheid, and the battles that subsequently followed it, were never simply black and white, or about black against white.

Mandela may have dumped his oppressive prison garb for colourful silk shirts, singing his melody of unity and reconciliation, but that was the furthest he could go.

He was a symbol of the “free man”, and yet there were fewer men less free than him.

His responsibilities made him a constant prisoner, his jail cell this time being one of conscience and struggle.

As the founding father of our democracy, he should be seen above all as a symbol of human endurance.

If Mandela’s example has taught us anything, it is that freedom is not an automatic privilege. It makes continuous demands, and demands continuous vigilance.

It means becoming custodians of our own lives and rejecting the notion that another Mandela will come along to save us.

It forces us to make proper historical assessments of Mandela himself – no beatifications, canonisations or shrines.

We should preserve his memory, but more importantly we need to act on it.

We can begin by acknowledging that despite the massive achievements of Mandela’s government, we still made many mistakes during our transition.

The dissolution of the apartheid regime could not be acquired without the metaphorical pound of neoliberal flesh.

In South Africa’s desire to be a player in global capitalism, we seem to have adopted the tenets of the former regime’s philosophy of power, greed and elitism.

Instead of utilising our resources for our own people, we took to selling them to the wealthiest buyer. Today, so much of this country’s land lies idle, used only for weekend excursions by absentee landlords.

The number of productive farmers is declining rapidly.

Even around rural towns, huge shantytowns mushroom, the result of farmworkers being evicted or leaving farms that are abandoned. After democracy, South Africa’s neglected or unused land should have been shared with black farmworkers.

They could have learnt about the industry from white farmers and become entrepreneurs too, benefiting from and adding value to the local food chain.

The first government of our early democracy could have fostered greater social cohesion through this strategy, literally by starting from the ground up.

Perhaps if we had negotiated with potential and former stakeholders of South African land and asked them to work together for a more prosperous society, we could have learnt to shed some of the prejudices that still exist between us.

By seeing ourselves as equal citizens with similar prerogatives, we would have had no option but to compromise.

The mythology of the “rainbow nation” should never have been imposed from the top, but built painstakingly from the messiness and disarray from below.

Today millions of South Africans could have had community-driven livelihoods through agriculture, as well as household food security, which would have eliminated malnutrition and reduced poverty enormously as the Stop Hunger campaign did in Brazil.

Local governments could have set up commodity exchanges and marketplaces for rural farmers, insisting that all public institutions, such as schools, public hospitals and correctional facilities, obtain a third of their produce from family – and community-farming schemes.

With access to a state-guaranteed credit market as well as extension services, South Africa might have had a thriving farming community providing a livelihood to millions of our citizens.

It is not too late to put this initiative into effect right now and end the monopolisation of South Africa’s wealth by an old white establishment that continues to exclude the black majority.

The disparity in wealth is so large that three individuals have as much wealth as half of the population, or about 28 million citizens.

Twenty-two years after apartheid and inequality has actually increased, with unemployment at a record high and one in four South Africans going hungry every day with little chance of getting any food.

The newly established democratic government did not change the structure of the previous regime’s economy. After the demise of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, a new class of the super-rich was born.

Big capital advanced a “don’t rock the boat” agenda, its prophets ensuring that nothing interfered in the management of their large corporations. To keep the wealth they had plundered safe, our government gave them permission to take it overseas and legally disinvest from South Africa.

A policy of black economic empowerment was promoted which made a small number of people spectacularly wealthy rather than lifting a large number out of poverty. Meanwhile, the huge black underclass continued to grow and its access to wealth and land remained minuscule.

During my tenure as minister without portfolio in Mandela’s government, it was my job to reconcile the aims of the 1955 Freedom Charter – which demanded the restoration of land to all citizens – with the developmental aims of the RDP.

But there were those in the Government of National Unity, already sold on a neo-liberal agenda, who believed the egalitarian approach to be a pipe-dream. Their argument was that disrupting prevailing economic orthodoxy would cause economic chaos, and that the new South Africa rather had to find ways of adapting to it.

So we adapted and became “normal”, our remarkable, landmark negotiation for democracy in 1994 undermined by the same practices that strengthened the corrupt apartheid regime and those who had amassed fortunes by collaborating with it.

Following my journey up Kilimanjaro in 2014, 20 years after the breakdown of the RDP, I decided it was time to go back to the drawing board. With my comrades Naidoo and Govender, I returned to my roots as a community organiser and began a non-profit enterprise called EarthRise Trust, which sets out to cultivate South Africa’s greatest resource, its land, for its people.

To begin with, we purchased a 273-hectare parcel of territory in the east of the Free State next to the Lesotho border.

The area where we began working was Rustler’s Valley, home to the local Naledi village.

It was a small place to start, yes, but having not been able to help solve South Africa’s political problems while in government, I could now do something small for impoverished communities in my own backyard.

Years of union campaigning and lessons from some of the developing world’s most impoverished societies had taught me that this is often the best place to start.

Perhaps I would even go one step further and turn this project into a model of self-sustainability that could be scaled up in other communities.

I have witnessed many times how progress begins with just a few people working conscientiously to achieve.


Article | Hope in a time of despair

***Graphic above by John McCann, Mail and Guardian

This is an extract from my new book Change: Organising Tomorrow, Today that was published in the Mail and Guardian on the 10 March 2017:

At the time of the Soweto uprising of 1976, I was a second-year student at the University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) studying medicine. But my anger at what my fellow students had suffered in Soweto took up all my attention.

Our rage seemed to be pumping through our blood at the same time, almost as if we were all tethered to one heart. We might have been young and still at school, but the protests were driven by us, the students, and we felt we had the support of the country’s entire black population, as well as that of the planet. Anyone with a conscience or sense of justice had to agree with our fight for quality education, after all. Surely this would be enough to drive our movement towards victory?

It turns out organising is a little more complicated than that.

In retrospect, the Soweto uprising was a classic revolutionary movement. While the tension had been building for years, even centuries, the student protest was sparked by a single issue: a rejection of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

The anger that sent thousands of students into the streets was a focused one, and the tragedies that unfolded were very real, helping to put a human face on the struggles of a large group of people and bring it into the larger context of anti-apartheid resistance. It is clear that this rage still smoulders among the country’s students today. Former Afrikaans universities have a long way to go to eradicate the vestiges of an educational system that used race to deny black students the right to be taught in languages they understand.

The fact that race remains an obstacle in the growth of black education in South Africa is a testament to some of the failures of the past and the battles that were lost by the previous generation of student protesters. When we turned around and looked back on our struggle, we realised with stark clarity that there was no real organisation backing us up.

We might have believed ourselves victorious by revolting against the system, but we had not brought it down. We came to realise that struggle and transition are always more complex than initially assumed.

There was something missing. Our struggles were not effective, our voices were not being heard. It seemed we had not been asking ourselves the right questions.

It was only when Steve Biko died the following year, in 1977, that I realised the obvious. Throughout our struggle we had been directing our rage outwards, towards the regime. What we should have been doing simultaneously was harnessing it inwards, by encouraging the people who shared our values to join us in our fight.

There was no organised presence of academics, teachers, women, the rural community, workers or parents who were part of our movement. They understood our anger. It was their children who were being deprived of a worthwhile education and getting killed for demanding one. But what could they do? They had no impetus to help us stand up against the system, and we never provided them with any. They stood beside us as individuals, but individual bravery alone cannot defeat a ruthless armed enemy.

This is why we as students should have transformed the Afrikaans issue into something bigger, into a mobilising charter of demands linked to other, broader struggles.

We needed to organise, not only against the regime, but also around our exclusion and oppression. Because if a spark is to create an explosion that changes the world, the fuse must be an issue that resonates with the majority.

It was enormously painful for me to come to terms with this fact. In the terrible, tragic days following the uprising and Biko’s death, I learnt that building a powerful, lasting movement entailed structuring it around issues that a plurality of people found important. Our collective rage as students was completely justified, but it was narrow. Unless a student uprising convinced the wider population of their shared grievances, it would always fail. We had to build a more welcoming, all-encompassing and inclusive tent, and invite a bigger congregation to join us.

I remember experiencing that same feeling while visiting Cairo, Egypt, months after the momentous Tahrir Square uprising in early 2011. Whenever I visited the city’s cafés, university lecture halls or newly taken-over government buildings, I could sense the excitement of the citizens — students, intellectuals, women, workers — as they contemplated what lay ahead for their country. It was tangible, the kind of euphoria I had experienced in my own youth.

But I also felt trepidation at the knowledge that this event, while groundbreaking, was just another cog in the ever-revolving wheel of revolutionary history. A history I know well. I tried my best to brush my concerns away, but they lingered throughout my journey.

As a member of the advisory committee for the World Bank’s development report on conflict, security and development in 2011, I spent hours with Egypt’s union leaders, who wanted to free themselves from the previous “conveyor belt” approach to unionism that had corrupted the union movement.

They argued earnestly for an independent model that would never again be controlled by the state’s security apparatus and political elites. But when I suggested a model that involved strong national industrial unions in a tight federation, similar to South Africa’s Cosatu, they baulked. In their view, a localised organisation of their unions, located on a factory-by-factory basis, was preferable because it would impede the state’s ability to manipulate and undermine union leadership, as it had done pre-revolution.

I feel frustrated that my work in the region studying aspects of failed statehood prevented me from doing more. I could have offered a steady hand; I could have stood in solidarity with the unionists and youth when they needed people like me most.

There was no one to share with them a progressive model of an independent union and collective bargaining. Today we know that their revolution failed because there was no consolidation of people’s power, no constant working and reworking of democratic practices by the activists.

The uprisings that occurred in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 can be viewed as youth-led rebellions, not only against entrenched privilege but also against a social and political system that excludes the majority of its citizens from much-needed and rightful opportunities.

The years following the protests have been full of disappointments. Repression and torture have been restored to state rule. And yet for the young people in these regions who had a brief taste of liberation and human dignity, there can be no return to a faith in the old certainties and dogmas that stifled social and political progress for decades.

Meanwhile, the bright and talented youth on our continent are emigrating to the developed world or trapped in tribal fiefdoms ruled by warlords. Some of the poorest risk their lives in their thousands to cross the Mediterranean in leaking boats, a large portion never reaching their destinations.

But there is still hope. The transformative wave fuelled by the frustration of our youth remains charged with energy and potential. They must now show enough initiative and discipline to pursue their goals if we are not to end up with another failed revolution.

When the end of apartheid arrived, it was not because of the accomplishments of student activists, who failed to utilise fully the explosive atmosphere of the Soweto uprising. Organising a massive movement centred on a common goal proved to be more complex than we ever realised.

So we were not part of that vanguard movement that brought overall change to South African politics. At best, we were a catalyst in creating the conditions that allowed the vanguard movement in organisations such as the ANC to thrive. I came to learn this the hard way.

Ultimately it was Nelson Mandela’s generation that provided us with the political project of our time, the goal of a constitutional democracy at the heart of which sits a commitment to social justice and the restoration of human dignity. That is what his movement promised the people, and that is what he delivered.

Despite all efforts, much of that proud legacy has been tainted by the current leadership in South Africa. Their rule of the country is underscored by a fatal ahistorical conceit that presumes past errors cannot be repeated and that the struggle for freedom cannot be unwon. This has been the most destructive oversight of the previous generation of activists: their belief that the fight for justice and equality was over in 1994. It had only just begun.

This is why I am making it my duty to share some of the lessons I have learnt from past mistakes with the current generation of leaders. Perhaps by doing this I will add my own small contribution to the kind of future I hope they will build, one that I and my compatriots could not.