Ten years ago, I sat in a coffee shop and listened to an influential member of a fraternal international organisation relate how an office bearer in my organisation had succeeded in persuading all the disenchanted key people in my organisation to rally, unite and contribute, thereby single-handedly, ‘saving’ the organisation. Having over 20 years in the South African labour movement and an additional 15 of international exposure at that point, it was not even an effort to keep my facial expression pleasantly blank, nod gently, and burble some noncommittal response to this utter nonsense.
Listening to my and several others’ collective efforts being condensed into this messianic narrative, reducing my role as lead actor to that of the passive beneficiary of someone’s heroic largess, did not require much restraint, apart from a need to mask my internal amusement at the irony of the situation. No one thrives or even survives in international work by being overly sensitive. Dear reader, you may even be observant enough to notice that I avoided any national, racial or gender description of either the narrator or the office bearer singled out for such distinction. For my message in this essay is about crafting a concerted response to the power relationship which invariably underlies all acts of solidarity, and I do not wish to distract you with how it is perceived when it manifests.
The vehicle for crafting this response is the organisational home for my wonderful adventure in international exchanges with the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA). This transnational organization was founded in 1947 and I have had the privilege of being its General Secretary since December 2007. Prior to that, I served as a member of the IFWEA Executive Committee for a decade. My work with IFWEA has led me to develop a deep respect for the education organisations which make up its membership. I am continuously inspired by the resilience, dedication of service, comradeship and respect the people of my international ‘tribe’ display to one another. Together, we have agreed that crafting a 21st Century model of international solidarity is fundamental to our education work with our partners in the labour movement, as the most pressing labour market and also social issues of our time are interconnected and global.
An essential testing ground for this work has been IFWEA’s annual programme for young leaders called the Youth Globalisation Awareness Programme, which we have conducted since 2012. By 2020, 198 YGAP graduates from 33 countries had participated. YGAP targets young educators, trade unions and youth leaders between the ages of 18 – 35 years. The YGAP curriculum changes annually and is designed by an international coordinating team. For two weeks, delegates participate in a curriculum of interactive activities designed to enhance their political understanding in a way that is inclusive, creative, diverse, respectful and, most importantly, fun. YGAP culminates in a few days of field placements in organisations working on labour, social justice and democracy issues, such as the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union. Delegates graduate with a renewed perspective of internationalism and are able to confidently design and deliver communication and/or education on global solidarity in their home countries.
One of the initial exercises is to ask participants to give us their personal understanding of what solidarity means, and also ask them what the word for solidarity is in their home language. By their responses, most have a self-defined view of themselves as social rather than personal. They see themselves as part of something larger than their immediate self, family and friends. This is a likely consequence of their organisational experience in their national labour movements or global trade union federations. Such membership is often grounded in a shared perspective of common humanity. They embrace the Southern African concept of ubuntu when it is introduced to them. Some go so far as to describe the personal value they have gained from human interaction across national/local and language divisions, their feelings of interconnectedness, of being part of a wider community, of needing to solve one another’s problems together.
There is something very powerful in believing that humanity is one. It is but a short step to a perspective that the rights and resources you enjoy in your country or continent should belong to all who live in the world. To embrace people’s struggle for economic and democratic freedom, equality and justice as your struggle as well. To feel their suffering as yours. To believe that until their battles are won, you cannot rest. It warms my and my colleague’s hearts to hear this expressed every year by young leaders from diverse countries and organisations in the global labour movement.
So if I were asked, what my most important observation about international labour solidarity after more than three decades of international work, I can say with total conviction that it is powered by an immense faith in our common humanity, premised on a view that our world is changeable and a better one is possible, and executed by people with the best of intentions who want to be a part of this change.
The complications occur when we move from the realm of emotions and ideas into the act of solidarity and its results. It is here that the unravelling begins. Underlying the idea that we should all be equal, is the reality that we are not. Firstly, whilst solidarity’s universal ideological premise decries fundamental differences, its actions are a response to the concrete reality that there are.
Secondly, solidarity is based on the premise that our world is changeable and that a better world is possible. However, despite 100 years of transnational labour solidarity, first pioneered, inter alia, by unions such as the IWW in the USA, the trade union federations in the Nordic countries, and the ICU in Southern Africa, conditions for vulnerable workers are degenerating from what they were only a few decades ago. Global inequality, while it appears in relative terms to be decreasing, has in actual fact been increasing in absolute terms, especially if applied to income averages and in-country differentials. Adding to this is the rapid digitization of multiple aspects of our working life, thereby reinforcing and intensifying existing social inequalities in our societies and between countries.
With these severe inequalities as the environmental context, to be a persistent proponent of transnational solidarity is to accept that our immediate acts of solidarity are not going to change the world any time soon. It is for this reason that we have to, at the very least, ensure that it changes us, the people and organisations involved in labour solidarity, in such a manner that we become better equipped and prepared to shape the longer-term change we seek to achieve.
How then, can we forge transnational labour solidarity in a way that does this? I chose to advocate that we do this by paying close attention to the narrative which frames our approach. In crafting that narrative, we tell the story of what is wrong with the world, and what we would like to see. When confronting the profound structural changes to the forms of labour, we do not yet have all the answers to the big organizational challenges confronting us. So who is doing the telling of what the change should be?
To understand and appreciate the scale of informalisation in the south which drives non-wage economies; illegal migration; low union densities and weak political influence, is difficult from the well-resourced north. To those advocates of transnational solidarity shining the spotlight on those who are not being heard, who have been made invisible by being left out of the innovative solutions for economic development, often means that they call on their solidarity partners to give testimony as their only role in transnational exchanges.
I cannot begin to list the number of international conferences, seminars and workshops I have attended in Europe and North America, where the speakers’ panel consists of Africans giving witness to their conditions, whilst the analysts and formulators of policies for change come from experts in the north. Can imported policies and structures and top-down approaches initiated by those in totally different conditions, inspire sufficient actors on the ground to change their socio-economic and political realities? A perfect example is the Pan African Parliament, which imploded recently and has been suspended until it seeks guidance from the EU, its main supporter, on how to proceed.
In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of the new movements, such as “Rhodes must fall”; “Black Lives Matter”; “Climate Justice” and “Me Too”, who have and continue to challenge the prevailing structures and narratives of the day in our countries. They have energised the youth and influenced debates on multiple issues. It is not always possible to expect mainstream trade unions to connect with these movements in an organisational manner. Our most important connection could be by bringing that which is relevant and refreshing from these movements into our dialogue.
One of the issues which has emerged is a strong critique of the “saviour complex.” I am disregarding the racial classification of “white saviour.” I have seen too many of my fellow black South Africans portray a similar set of attitudes to Africans from other countries on the continent. It is the naming of the debilitating power relationship of well-resourced benefactors and poorly resourced beneficiaries that interest me. Solidarity has to have as its core the building a relational community, crafting the narrative collectively, solving our problems together. Collaborative effort provides motivation and builds the capacity of trade unions, NGOs and social organisations to work together. Unless we give due attention and significance to the role definition and relationship as partners in solidarity, we will not engender change.
As IFWEA, we argue that part of any improvement of our current approach is education that encourages collective empowerment towards global and transnational activism. This should not be interpreted that we are advocating eternal workshopping. You can start by listening before speaking, learning before acting and partnering instead of leading. You can trust that the leadership of the organisations you seek to support are bound to have a pretty solid vision of the solutions to their problems, and that they see your relationship as part of that solution. If that part is merely to provide resources, you can work to broaden it, to exchange ideas, methods, outcomes and learning experiences as an integral element of any and all transnational solidarity exchanges. You can make sure that you acknowledge and celebrate all who have contributed towards your collective partnership, and not only focus on those who provided the resources.
The way is now clear, thanks to these new movements, to confront the power issues openly. We should not lose this opportunity, or any possible regeneration of labour activism will be of short duration.
A Luta Continua!
Sahra Ryklief is the General Secretary of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA) and former Executive Director of Labour Research Service.
This article was originally published by US-Africa Bridge Building Project.
Main picture credit: Ricardo Levins Morales