by Joliz Cedeño, Campaigns Manager
There is an energy in South Africa unlike any country I’ve traveled to before. It doesn’t come from its bustling city landscape, but rather the present and palpable desire for change. Upon meeting activists and V-Girls throughout Johannesburg and Cape Town it was evident – South Africans are not ones to wait for justice to come, they are already taking action.
The first One Billion Rising Organizers meeting in Johannesburg brought together a group who’s missions and prior work seemed to differ at the surface, but all had a common goal of developing a better vision for South Africa. One in which it would no longer have one of the highest rates of sexual violence around the world. It was immediately addressed that in order for the movement to be successful, men had to be prominent and visible allies. Trevor Davis of the Africa Fatherhood Initiative made clear that men needed to understand this was not a space for them to take over, but rather to learn and support. V-Girls representative Karabo Tshikube pushed further that the larger issue was in fact education. Many boys and men do not understand the definition of rape and until they do, violence will continue to be perpetrated.
In meeting with Karabo I began to have a deeper understanding of the V-Girls movement in South Africa and how it has grown over the past two years. I was invited to tour South Africa through Karabo’s eyes. We met in Newtown, home to protest theater and creativity, and visited Karabo’s alma mater the Market Theatre Laboratory where we spoke with artists expressing themselves through a multitude of mediums. Karabo quickly hustled, speaking to each one about the One Billion Rising campaign and collecting contacts to develop relationships in hopes of having a great artistic presence on February 14th, 2014.
In meeting the rest of the V-Girls team on Saturday I quickly realized this hunger to make change was a trait that they all shared. Our session was focused on team building and understanding and working with one another’s leadership styles. Through various interactive games, the V-Girls saw how important good communication is in ensuring cohesive and strong leadership. The most revealing of the exercises was one where they had to compare their leadership styles to a tool and how those tools can work together towards building something. In a moment of honesty, Mantala Nkoatse shared that she would be a pocketknife due to her spontaneity and flexibility. She noted that this could be a problem considering she often does what she feels the situation calls for without addressing the rest of the team. Ratanang Mogotsi shared that she saw herself as a plunger, one who just does what is needed to get the job done. The group came up with strategies to share responsibilities and communicate effectively so that they could have a strong V-Girls SA team.
A beautiful moment occurred during one of the last activities. The youth were given sheets of paper and told to make war with them however they see fit. You could see frustration as they ripped and crumbled the white sheets in front of them. They were instructed then to make peace with the same paper, reminding them that often times when we get into altercations with one another, we don’t always consider the consequences of our actions. When I asked if the paper could ever be the same, the group agreed that it couldn’t but that they could build something new. Mantala got onto the floor and collected various pieces from the participants and began to build a paper V. That moment resonated with us all showcasing that despite any issues that may arise, there was a larger, more important vision that brought us all together.
That Sunday, we were invited to V-Girl Samu Madonsela Khumalo’s home in Soweto to attend Samu’s Sunday Summit – a monthly meeting of V-Girls in the area. The emotional afternoon began with beautiful improvised harmonized singing. Samu led the group of girls through various activities around the topic of peer pressure. Soon stories of rape, pregnancy, and various issues at home came out. The sisterhood felt among the group was palpable. While much of what they were dealing with were situations that could break anyone, it was evident that there was a sense of support from one another. We saw the need to connect the girls with local resources in order to have them learn about sexual health and also provide someone who could help them better handle themselves physically and emotionally. Over the course of our stay we connected with a few activists that Samu would like to invite to her Sunday Summits as guest speakers.
Cape Town was a lesson in fast paced activist movement. Led and organized by Zubeida Sheik we first met with a group of Youth Ambassadors representing over a dozen provinces. They had all been under her mentorship over the past three years and exuded the same energy I saw in Johannesburg – waiting is not an option, they are here to develop change now. The next day’s meeting was a gathering of activists from all over the spectrum. Educators, sex workers, media representatives, artists, government workers, the room was filled with people who were ready to make a difference. V-Girl Busi Mkhumbuzi said it best when she clarified that this has to be about creating sustainable change in the country and not just some flash in the pan event.
During our stay we had the pleasure of meeting with the rest of our V-Girls who now attend the University of Cape Town. They were already developing groups within their campus and seeking ways to network. A dynamic group of young men, who the V-Girls were already acquainted with, had birthed a movement just a few weeks ago called AmaDODA [Nguni for grown men]. Their goal is to change the face of male leadership throughout Africa and as they put it – they want men to start leading from their hearts. The V-Girls and AmaDODA quickly began to plot events to lead up to One Billion Rising, coordinating their efforts for the campus.
It was then that the vision of V-Girls became clear to me. In Johannesburg, Samu’s Summit was a prime example of what the younger (high school) spectrum of V-Girls could look like – a space where girls learn about issues that affect them and seek support from one another as they navigate through the world. This group heavily requires resources from their community in order to address challenging topics they struggle to deal with emotionally. In Cape Town, the V-Girls in college showcased what the high school group can evolve into – a group of activists who now have a deeper understanding of problems facing them and have developed the skills to make impactful and sustainable change. The resources they would require from their community are more about networking to develop campaigns and events that would build their movement. This is the kind of development I wish to see in V-Girls globally, a space for them to grow not only as young women, but as leaders in their own communities.
On our last day I invited the V-Girls out for one last meeting. It was beautiful to learn more about them as people and learn about the plans they had for themselves. They are all such talented powerhouses and are intent on being lifelong activists. While many personal stories were shared that I will never forget, a moment that I think will never leave me due to its sheer brilliance was Mantala discussing her annoyance towards people questioning same sex couples. “They ask, who is the man and who is the woman? And I’m like, do you ask chopsticks who is the fork and who is the knife.” This girl is sheer poetry in human form.
There is much work to be done in South Africa but after experiencing the people who are committed to Rising, it’s evident that there is going to soon be an impactful sustainable change. These activists would not have it any other way.
For all photos from the trip, feel free to see the album here