Action-Reflection-Learning: PACSA reflecting on our context and our practise in this context

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Action reflection

Reflecting on the changing nature of our context and who we are and how we act in this context is a regular feature of PACSA’s organisational learning rhythm. In early March we spend two days on such reflection and were joined on the first day by Ariane Gruszczynski and Anke Schünemann from Bread for the World, one of our partner organisations. Two case studies were presented as part of our action-reflection. One case dealt with PACSA’s practise in working with local government and the other case addressed the difficult question of how an NGO should act in spaces designed to surface the voices of community groups.The case study on working with local government spoke to two invitations PACSA has received from the Msunduzi Municipality to engage with them on two municipal issues: to make a presentation on our socio-economic analysis, as it pertains to the municipality, and which could inform their 2017 -2020 Integrated Development Plan (IDP) and secondly, to make a written and oral submission on their 2016/17 Tariff increases on electricity, water and sanitation. In deciding on whether to engage on these two matters we reflected critically on whether these meetings provided spaces for contribute towards social change or not?
In the first instance the possibility of influencing a more progressive stance in the municipality was possible while the other instance, the Tariff hearings, such a possibility did not exist. We therefore participated in the IDP drafting but not in the Tariff hearings. We did not see a possibility for influencing positive change in the tariff hearings because after years of participating in such hearings we have now come to the conclusion that Msunduzi municipality is not committed to seriously interrogate the issue of municipal tariffs affordability. To participate in such a process will not contribute towards our social justice objective and will lend credibility to a public consultation process that we believe to be deeply flawed. We came to this conclusion after interrogating the draft tariffs presented:
• It did not respond to severe economic pressures faced by low-income households in the city.
• No affordability study and analysis of socio-demographics informs tariff deliberations.
• Electricity tariffs are not structured on a stepped tariff framework which would allow low-income households to access sufficient electricity at affordable prices whilst ensuring cross subsidization  from those who use more (business and high consumers).
• The Equitable Share from National Treasury, a financial instrument to subside services for low-income households, is not effectively used to provide free basic services for low-income households.
• Households on prepaid meters continue to be excluded from accessing free basic electricity.
Reflecting on this case study the importance of keeping our objectives in mind in decision-making processes in changing contexts was stressed. Furthermore, participation by CSO’s in state-led processes can often lead to the CSO’s participating in their own marginalisation and exclusion. The importance of working with principles rather than a blanket approach of always collaborating surfaced and strengthened or practice that instead of having policy positions on always working with the state we use the principle ‘it depends’ – it depends on the issue and the possibility of influencing social change. If that possibility to influence change does not exist then we should not participate.
The case study focussing on how an NGO should act in spaces designed to surface the voices of community groups emerged from the recent community health monitors exchange that PACSA participated in. A number of community monitors as well as NGO’s from various parts of South Africa participated in the conversation. The objective was to create a space for the community clinic monitors (people at the grass-roots) to have a conversation to reflect together around lessons learnt in monitoring; how to use outputs of monitoring (with a specific focus on advocacy); and in the process build relationships and identify spaces for greater learning, collaboration and solidarity. The intent was therefore for the monitors to shape the space and NGO’s to learn from the monitors on how they can support the monitors work.
The case study highlighted the dynamics within the conversation concerning when NGO staff spoke the community monitors held back on their comments but when some of the NGO’s staff were absent from the discussions the community monitors were quite powerful in their contribution. The difference in the practise of the participating NGO’s in relation to their community partners were also obvious and were discussed in length. It emerged from the case that spaces where monitors can talk directly to monitors is extremely valuable – sharing different strategies and building a larger picture of public health care situation in South Africa. Such exchanges could provide spaces for rich learning and solidarity but it requires of the NGO’s to know when not to speak and how to act in spaces. Comparing our practise to those of the other NGO’s in this space reaffirmed our commitment to a practise that allows those most directly affected by the issue – in this case community health monitors – to take the lead in surfacing what is critical to them and surface the learning and create solidarity. An important learning, again reaffirming our practise, is that process matters and what emerges from these kinds of dialogues or exchanges is richer if the process and space allows those most directly engaged with the issue take the lead and shape the space and debate in a manner that is useful to them rather than consider what is useful to the accompanying NGO’s.
A further topic which was discussed at length during the reflection space was the frequency, intensity and nature of protests and what PACSA’s connection to these could be? It is clear from our contextual analysis that the streets are more and more becoming theatres of political voice and action and not only a negative reaction to action by political leaders or so-called, ‘service delivery protests’ but rather places of organising people’s power. In reflecting of protests and PACSA’s connection these we spoke to building a joint leadership and creating space for a new type of politics.
Additional discussions on the day surrounded how the anger of people is a tool for significant social change; and how the affordability crisis is a direct result of government incompetency and unrealised democracy. We found commonality in the struggles we face as process facilitators and decided that it is critical to make space for our partner groups to ask similar questions. However, it was affirmed that asking the right questions and using the right language to define the situation are paramount. Now more than ever we hold true to our founding principle that everybody can think, speak and act in the journey towards social justice.

PACSA reflecting on our Practice
PACSA reflecting on our Practice 2

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