How Do We Learn During COVID-19?

As global warming is already becoming a crisis with more potential for disruption than COVID-19, we cannot afford not to learn. How well we make sense, grow our understanding of what is important, needed and possible now and in the months to come, is crucial. We will have to be even more disciplined in carving out time and space to reflect and learn than before COVID-19. To learn effectively from this crisis, we need to capture the learning as it happens, in-situ, in order to avoid retrospective coherence. Sonja Blignaut explains: “If we don’t capture learnings in the moment, we will connect dots after the crisis has passed, in ways that satisfy our need for linear cause and effect and we will create stories that make sense to attribute success and justify failure.” Dave Snowden agrees: “The real learning happens during the crisis as  you go through it. Don’t wait till the end to review it. After the event, politics and hindsight come into play.”


Cartoon by Chris Lysy from Fresh Spectrum @clysy

Intended vs. Emergent Learning

There are two different types of learning. Intended learning is based on knowledge (from past learning) and skills and competencies needed for the present. This learning is crucial in maintaining business as usual. It can happen with the help of predetermined strategic learning questions, that guide an oganisation’s inquiry. However, with COVID-19 we ended up in uncharted territory, and our old maps of  how the world operates are no longer helpful. Our existing approaches may no longer work very well either.

Using the Cynefin framework to better understand our conetxt, we can identify if we are working in chaotic, complex, complicated or simple contexts – or what combination of these domains of change is present. As we discussed here, instead of making big moves towards a defined future goal, in complex environments, we need to identify entry points and take small safe-to-fail steps in directions that might offer the most potential. Dave Snowden offers a helpful metaphor of crossing a river on stepping stones.

As Sahana Chattopadhyay points out, when faced with complexity and ambiguity, learning from the past or continuing to build on existing knowledge doesn’t always work. According to her, under these circumstances we need to move to emergent learning, defined as learning that goes beyond the cognitive to integrate the heart, gut, body and intuition. It happens from a place of reflection and sensemaking. Snowden agrees: “The last thing you want to do is follow the successful practice of the previous era when the new era is going to be very different. Hindsight does not lead to foresight in complexity – you have to manage in the moment.”

Chattopadhyay believes that holding space for emergent learning is one of the preconditions for creating a thrivable and anti-fragile organisation, one which flourishes in the face of change and disruption. However, since most organisations struggle to become and remain a Learning Organisation in the best of times, getting good at learning during a crisis is no mean feat. What can we do to strengthen emergent learning in our teams and organisations during COVID-19?

1. Carve out dedicated time and space – Collective reflection and learning will not happen if no specific time is allocated for this in staff member’s busy schedules. Some staff will instinctively feel the need to take time “off” the job for dedicated reflection and learning – but individual learning does not automatically lead to team and organisational learning. In order for the latter to take place, a learning rhythm needs to be developed, consisting of set times and spaces where individual teams and the organisations as a whole get together to reflect and learn on and from the work. If the organisation does not have a very strong reflective and learning practice, it is wise to start small. It is important that reflection and learning spaces are safe spaces where staff can open up about success as well as challenges and failures – if this is not yet part of your culture, start creating this by focussing foremost on what works well and how this can be strenghtened. It is important that the individual reflections and lessons feed into the team reflections and lessons, which then feed into larger organisational processes of reflection and learning. This is a bit of a tricky one and you need to get the balance just right. “Feeding into” does not mean “repeating verbatim” the reflections that already took place elswhere – make sure you are having the strategic discussions where they belong. This links to the question of frequencey. If empowered and decentralized teams are reflecting on issues weekly and addressing them successfully at team level, a monthly organisational reflection and learning session will do just fine.

2. Strengthen individual, team and organisational reflective practice – In times of upheaval, it is important to reflect often: formally, informally, individually, and collectively. Learning should be initiated and/or strengthened at all levels of an organisation. An effective way to build reflective practice is for staff to start integrating small measures of observation, reflection, learning and planning into everything they do, so that it becomes a natural practice. As individuals, we learn by doing (which is effective for simple tasks) or by trial and error (where we try something and if it does not work, we try something else). In times of crisis, we need processes of deeper learning too. Reflective practice (also referred to as Action Learning) is a more conscious way of how human beings naturally learn from experience. In its simplest form it involves thinking about, or reflecting on, what you do. The difference between reflecting “on the run” and reflective practice is that the latter requires a conscious effort to pause and think about experience and/or practice. Learning here, is about surfacing deeper implications and guidance for the future. Ideally, individual staff members take some time out at the end of each day to write down their observations and reflections, which they can then share within the bigger team at the end of the week, in a reflective practice session. An After Action Review is one of the tools that can be used by teams to collectively reflect on practice. The Harvard Business Review developed a helpful guidance note on After Action Reviews (AARs).

An effective AAR involves comparing what actually happened with what should or could have happened and then carefully diagnosing the gap, be it positive or negative. The goal is to learn. Teams that are not used to reflect on their work could start holding short AAR meetings and keep things simple at first, developing the practice slowly. Alternatively, they could start this practice at an individual rather than team level, with the support of an “Innovation and Learning” officer alongside COVID-19 response teams. Chris Bolton from WhatsthePont developed a process for this.

To ensure that a rigorous AAR process is followed, they should be run by a facilitator rather than a team leader. Trying to get a full and accurate picture of what occurred requires considering multiple perspectives. The reflection relies heavily on staff’s observations and impressions, but if data was collected, this can also be brought into the conversation.

An AAR is not a post-mortem. Rather, it is forward-looking and connects to thinking about how the work could be improved. However, AARs can also fulfil an important affirmative practice, by identifying what is going well and how this can be strengthened – this is often a good place to start for teams that are new to the practice.

3. Act on hunches and insights, but also allow the seeds of action to germinate – As Julian Barr points out, the risk of working adaptively is that failures are not learnt from as well as they could be, as it might feel more useful and exciting to try and test the next approach, rather than reflect on an approach that does not seem to be bearing any fruit. As much as reflective practice is forward-looking and should inform decisions and action, it also requires an ability to stand back, suspend judgement and acknowledge that there is a lot we simply don’t know yet. Sometimes the biggest insight from an AAR is a new or better formulated question, rather than a proposed change of activities or strategy. Numerous short cycles of “plan, implement, reflect, learn, act” allow teams to validate lessons for their own use and to ensure that the lessons they share with other teams have sufficient depth. Documentation of AAR conversations and lessons learned is fundamental, so that they can be shared with others. Since rigorous learning processes are the backbone of a more adaptive M&E system, some donors might be interested in receiving (a sample of) these reports too.

4. Focus on the “how” more than on the “what” – Chattopadhyay observes that, at the organisational level, we often restrict reflective practices to “project retrospectives” and don’t tend to include taking a conscious look at emotions, quality of experiences, the relationships, and the overall energy flow. Chattopadhyay: “By only focusing on what needs to be done, we ignore how it gets done. However, it is the “how” which creates the movement of energy, the joy of moving toward a common purpose”. It is also the “how” that distinguished our organization from others doing the same kinds of activities. It is important to reflect on “how” things are done (process dimension), so that we become more conscious and continuously strengthen our practice. This is especially important during times of crisis, as we are often experimenting with novel approaches and practices.

5. Collective sense-making – In a crisis, we’re exposed to so much ‘information’ about what is happening and what is trying to emerge that, in addition to reflecting on our intervention, it is important to engage in regular collective sense-making. Sense-making is the process by which we make sense of the world so that we can act in it. According to Chattopadhyay, organizations that allow information to flow freely irrespective of positions and power, naturally create the conditions for sensemaking. When everyone in the organization has access to freely flowing information, they can interpret, respond, and build shared awareness of the context and the ecosystem. However, in addition to free flowing information, it is important to meet and engage in collective sensemaking. Collective sensemaking helps reduce cognitive bias (unintentional blindness). All of us are predisposed to only see what we expect to see. Collective sensemaking can help teams and organisations to surface assumptions, give people who aren’t normally heard a voice and help improve the quality of decision making. Dave Snowden explains: “The collective has sensory capability, psychological support and response ability that cannot be possessed by the individual, or the some of the individuals. Mass sense – so engage large networks of ppl from different backgroudns to do situational assessments in near real time, so you can see something that the organisation needs to pay attention to. In this blog post, Chris Corrigan describes what a sense-making process could look like. The team at Lankelly Chaseturned one of their team meetings into a shared sense-making space and are attempting to harvest the insights they are gathering from conversations and experiences. The meeting is purposefully short. Here is an example of what was distilled in one such meeting.

6. Learn from your response to this crisis in order to deal with future shocks – With major disruptions also come opportunities for innovation and reimagining the future of organisations. The way we navigate through this crisis and the lessons we capture along the way will contribute to the robustness and resilience of an organisation’s strategy post-COVID. As we are being forced to do things that would have normally taken a long time to change – how do we make sure these changes stick? Dave Snowden advises that we should seize the day to create a resilient organisation. He says: “You don’t have to go back to old ways of doing things. Instead, keep carrying through these practices as they make you a more attractive org to work for.” Once we get out of COVID-19, the focus can shift carefully on training for the next crisis and for that we also need the material we will draw during the crisis to do this.

NB: Where I have not hyper-linked Dave Snowden’s name, his quotes come from the webinar on  Leading Through Complexity and Chaos, which took place on 28 May 2020 and was organised by the Human Capital Leadership Institute.






How do we collect data during COVID-19?

The Covid-19 crisis is affecting the way that we work and most of us are learning how to work remotely. The crisis has created additional challenges in terms of data collection efforts by social science researchers, evaluators and development organisations. As the recently launched website Evaluation in Crisis points out, all of a sudden, the majority of contexts now have become ‘hard to reach’. Because of physical distancing and movement restrictions, we have lost the opportunity to meet target groups and stakeholders face-to-face in interviews or focused group discussions or to observe activities and interventions in-situ. What can still be done in order to monitor our intervention(s) and ever-changing context?


Picture by Heather Krause from We All Count (

1. Cause no (additional) harm Many NGOs are responding to the challenges caused by COVID-19 by moving towards or increasing their use of remote data collection tools. A lot of guidance on how to do this properly is out there, for example, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s post on best practices for phone surveys and ID Insight’s series of articles on the same topic on Medium here, here, here and here. There is also 60 Decibels’ Remote Survey Toolkit, developed in response to COVID-19. Furthermore, Feedback Labs has listed a number of platforms that offer remote data collection tools with pre-designed questions related to COVID-19, such as Social Suite and Upinion. This may be an interesting option for organisations that do not have the capacity or time to develop these tools themselves.

Clearly, the problem is not the lack of available tools to collect data at a distance. The challenges lie in the way we use these tools. As Adam Jowett points out, the first thing to bear in mind is that the health and wellbeing of participants and front-line data collectors should take priority over research and monitoring and evaluation timelines and deadlines. While it may be possible to change interviews from face-to-face to online, we should consider whether asking people to participate in research or monitoring activities at this time will put them under any additional unnecessary stress. In addition to that, we should be aware of the exclusionary factors surrounding the use of technology. 

Feedback Labs urges organisations to consult constituents on the best way to reach them before any decision is made on what tool(s) to use (or what questions to ask); to give people time, space, and multiple options to answer in a way that makes the most sense for them; to be flexible on deadlines and to close the loop by telling people how you will be responding to their feedback. Heather Krause from We All Count, points out that remote data collection can serve multiple purposes, e.g. phone surveys can be used not just for data collection but also to maintain personal contact and to offer guidance and support.

2. Rethink rigour in a move towards “good enough” data –  One of the most important skills required now, to navigate our current crisis as best as we can, is the ability to make decisions based on incomplete data. This is the polar opposite of how most people were taught to make decisions: based on the full facts. This will require a shift toward “lean data“. The emphasis here is on data use. As long as the data that is being collected enables you to answer key questions and inform your next step – you will be good to go. This entails a shift in mindset away from reporting and compliance toward creating value for an NGO and its stakeholders. What data does your organisation need on a regular basis to know what people are thinking and needing, what difference you are making and what needs to be improved? As Tim Bidey of Traverse points out here: “A sense of basic intended outcomes, simple stakeholder feedback or even reflective, anecdotal data from staff can all provide ‘good enough’ insights into the situation at hand – so long as people remain honest with themselves (and others) about how insights were generated and what limitations sit behind them”. As the Centre for Evaluation Innovation points out, one of the most striking and consistent findings from research is that even when data is available, it is rarely used by foundations, policymakers and nonprofits. The problem, they point out, is not always a lack of information, but a lack of relevant information and siloed learning and decision-making in organisations. 

3. Shift away from periodic monitoring to “real time” data – In addition to the amount of data we collect, we need to reconsider the frequency of data collection and analysis. The emphasis now will need to be on ‘real-time’ data: data captured as we implement (vs. data captured at monthly or quarterly intervals). Such data, which will mainly be generated through observation, keen listening skills and reflective practice can allow for rapid course corrections and needs to be reflected on and made sense of on a daily (individually) and weekly (team) basis.

4. Throw in a pinch of analogue – Data collected by tech enabled tools is best for answering quantitative questions but is unlikely to capture the granularity needed to assess the quality of our work. As Prof. Lipton points out, when facilitating interviews, Focus Group Discussions or M&E workshops online, asking people to respond to creative writing prompts or to draw images might still apply. She believes that these old-style methods can be really creative and are enjoyed by participants. Kevin Kahkula’akea John Fong, stresses that when working online, we should always bring in ceremony – this can be as simple as reading a poem, asking people to stand up and shake out or taking three breaths together. He says: “Technology is so head oriented that we need to be extra mindful of brining in the heart and the belly (or soul)”.

5. Share your data as much as possibleData Innovator points out that with reduced face-to-face interaction it is important to continue to share data within organisations and externally. Organisations that are able to package data and information with the help of dashboards and infographics, will be better able to use this data for rapid communication and decision making. With online interaction drastically increased during lockdown, Data Innovator advises organisations to share their data in online spaces to increase organisations visibility and the use of their data by others.



Submit To Not Knowing The Right Way All The Time

when the time comes
we will pull off these masks
we will remember it wasn’t meant to be like this
it really wasn’t isn’t and will not be
the money is an idea – we are, this is, the value
so meditate, pray, submit to not knowing
the right way all the time
weep, scream. bury. blame. surrender.
choose a future for all of us
crack your knuckles, prepare for battle
howl at the waning moon until it waxes, and then?
from the depths of our grief
we’ll become green again”

– adrienne maree brown (


Picture by Finan Akbar on Unsplash @finan

We faced a relatively brief period of “Peak Uncertainty” in navigating the first months of COVID-19 but now find ourselves in an extended period of being in the middle of a pandemic. By now, those NGOs that were not immediately affected by a devastating loss of funding, shall have developed an emergency-response based on the assumption that physical distancing (and some variety of lockdown) will continue for at least the next six months.

Based on the belief that we successfully flattened the “curve” (despite information that seems to indicate the opposite), certain restrictions are being lifted in South Africa, probably somewhat prematurely. There is no guarantee that we will progress in a linear fashion from level 5 lockdown restrictions to level 1. Many unknowns remain.

Development problems are by nature complex and COVID-19 is adding another layer of complexity and uncertainty. This is an opportunity for organisations to become more adaptive. Adaptive approaches to development and social change recognize and respond to complexity and to the fact that we don’t know all the answers. It is a more responsive way of working. How we can strategize and plan for the longer haul will be addressed in one of my future blogs. In this blog I will focus on what development and social justice organisations can focus on in this “in between space” that we find ourselves in.

What do we focus on now?

1. Show why your work continues to matter – Many NGOs will have had to cancel, postpone and adapt activities and/or change what kind of activities they ae able to carry out under physical distancing restrictions. Dave Algoso advises organisations to re-articulate their mission for this moment and show stakeholders, donors and partners why and how their work matters now.

2. Plan for flexibility – In conditions of uncertainty and ambiguity, when it may be unclear how results will be achieved, it’s best to work with intuitively developed plans with broad outcomes (principles and frameworks) rather than recipe-like approaches, says Doug Reeler. Adaptive programming means that activities and outputs will change over the life of the programme. In times like these, the quality of learning and progress towards high-level results rather than pre-defined implementation plans and milestones become the hallmarks of accountability (together with financial probity). Parallel, safe to fail experiments with small budgets can lay the groundwork for longer term approaches. The Oxfam publication “Managing to Adapt” discusses two case studies of these kinds of evolutionary approaches.

3. Use Evaluative Thinking To Navigate The Crisis With Purpose – When faced with an acute crisis situation, we have to react quickly, there is no time or sufficient information available that allow us to respond. However, as the situation calms down, we need to take a step back to reflect on our decisions and see where they can be refined. To support decision making under pressure, ARTD Consultants developed the 3R Framework (React, Reflect, Refine). The framework can be used at management level but also at programme level, in teams or at the level of an entire organisations. The framework is not linear, but ideally supports those who use it to walk through it in a cyclical pattern between ongoing reflection and refinement. However, at any time, organisations might find themselves back at phase 1, reacting to a relatively chaotic context. The point is to move through the phases as purposely as possible, so that our in-the-moment reactions are evaluated frequently and can be refined into more thoughtful longer-term responses over time. Here is a downloadable graphic of the 3R Framework, including questions for each phase.

4. Speed is important – As Ian David Moss points out: “Just four months ago, no one had heard of COVID-19; in that time, it has killed more than 100,000 people, destroyed trillions of dollars in economic value, and reshaped the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. Four months is how long some grant-makers take to get a check out the door”. To respond effectively to COVID-19 and future crises we need new ways of working that eliminate the bottlenecks that slow us down – at donor level, but also within our own organisations and at the level of our interactions with target groups, stakeholders and partners.

5. But slowing down too – Slowing down feels counter-intuitive when the world seems to be imploding. It does not mean inaction, it simply means, as Jennifer Lentfer points out, avoiding operating at a fervour pace, trying desperately to control something that is out of our control. She says: “Slowing down is often a first, necessary step to transformation”. Deepa Iyer, Senior Advisor at Building Movement Project remarks that, in order to survive and thrive, organisations and movements need to incorporate practices and time that enable staff and volunteers to rest, to dream and to envision for the future (more on this here). Jennifer Lentfer, commenting on the first weeks of lockdown in the US: “I saw many organizations rush to keep going with their work, but it’s not going to be possible in the same way anymore. Integrating this understanding into our bodies and minds and souls is now our work.”

6. Decentralize decision-making – Adaptive approaches require empowered teams close to the action (even if this ‘closeness’ is virtual), that can sense what is going on and respond appropriately. Dave Snowden goes as far as saying that “you can’t have hierarchy in a crisis”. Snowden: “in a crisis, the centre coordinates but decision making is distributed. The role of the centre is to observe, coordinate  and prompt, but not to make decisions. Necessary ingredients for team empowerment, as identified by IDEO Creative Difference are: (1) process clarity (Does the organization communicate methodologies, processes, and decision-making frameworks), (2) fairness (Do people understand the factors that influence the way decisions are made and feel there is enough transparency), (3) opposability (Can people in the organization raise difficult questions or challenge the status quo), (4) autonomy (Are teams given meaningful objectives and supported to drive key decisions related to their objectives), and (5) risk tolerance (Do teams or individuals feel like they will be penalized if their projects are not successful).

Working more adaptively (and making decentralized decisions) can be experienced as intimidating by staff members at first. Therefore, OXFAM suggests organisations invest in coaching and mentoring, and encourage learning and reflection at all levels (more on this here). Eventually, decentralised decision making  increases confidence as well and makes organisations a more exciting place to work for.

A Decision Journal is a helpful tool to improve staff’s ability to make decisions. It can help staff collect accurate and honest feedback on what they are thinking at the time they make a consequential decision. The idea is to write down what was decided, why this decision was made, what staff expects to happen, and optionally, how staff felt when they made the decision. Practically, using the journal is straightforward, but implementing and maintaining it as a practice will require some discipline and humility. A Decision Journal template can be found here.

7. Shorten the cycles of planning, monitoring, evaluation & learning – During and after the COVID-19 lockdown, organisations will require shorter cycles of planning, monitoring, evaluation and learning. In conditions of predictability, when there is agreement on what the problem is and a level of certainty as to how it can be addressed, we are used to spending considerable time carefully designing our interventions and planning our strategies and approaches, projects and activities. Under these circumstances, planning, monitoring and evaluation are often considered as distinct functions, separated from each other in time and space. However, under conditions of uncertainty, the time spent on planning is dramatically reduced, and we have to “feel” and “sense” our way forward – based on incomplete data and information. Ongoing and systematic monitoring and evaluative thinking takes place to make sure we are responding to the emerging situation as best as we can. The monitoring and evaluation functions will partially merge, as we will not only be tracking whether we are doing what we said we would do, but also asking evaluative questions and interrogating whether the things we are doing are in fact the things we should be doing.

What’s next?

I hope the suggestions above are helpful to organisations transitioning from a crisis response into a focus on the longer term. In my next blog I will address how organisations can continue to collect data even under lockdown and/or physical distancing restrictions. The blog after that will address how organisations can build sensemaking and reflective practices into their processes in order to better adapt and learn from their crisis response. Finally, the last blog post in this series will focus on how organisations can start planning their longer-term approach for post-COVID times.

How To Plan, Monitor, Reflect and Learn During The COVID-19 Crisis And Beyond

What Are We Facing?  

It started in China and ended up engulfing the rest of the world in what feels like the blink of an eye. On 31 December 2019, China notified the World Health Organisation of the detection of a “pneumonia with unknown cause”, later classified as the novel Corona virus. It caught most of us off-guard and ill-prepared. In the first quarter of 2020, the Corona virus changed our world and our lives – probably forever.


Picture by Robert Metz on Unsplash @_rob_

The COVID-19 pandemic locked most of the world into isolation. In South Africa, one of the world’s most unequal societies, people’s lived realities of lockdown are determined by their social class. Some of those more affluent and lucky enough not to face immediate retrenchment or job losses took time out to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life or complained about not being able to walk their dogs or being able to surf. At the same time, residents of townships and informal settlements are requested to self-isolate in shacks and backyard dwellings that are unfit for human habitation under the best of circumstances. Some of them reportedly queue in supermarket lines for up to 10 hours. Protests and looting broke out in mid-April over hunger, which is a more immediate threat to millions of impoverished households than potential contagion with the Corona virus. We are now at a point where COVID-19 could double the number of people on the brink of starvation globally.

Faced with these unprecedented circumstances it is easy to get sidetracked by the immediate emergency at hand and lose track of the bigger picture. What, exactly, are we dealing with?

“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus. Some believe it’s God’s way of bringing us to our senses.” 

– Arundhati Roy

As a starting point, it would be helpful to acknowledge that the novel Corona virus and the disease it causes, COVID-19 is only a symptom, not the cause of the multiple crises we are currently facing. In fact, so many civilization-threatening predicaments are fast-converging that a new term has emerged: the “Meta-Crisis” — the sum of our ecological, economic, social, cultural, and political emergencies. As Daniel Schmachtenberger says: “Everything that is happening now was going to happen, even though there were many path dependencies. It could have been a grid collapse or a different virus, an avalanche of climate refugees – any of those could have triggered the systemic cascade we are experiencing now. But that it was going to happen was inevitable.” We have come to a point where we can no longer take for granted the continuation of complex life on Earth. “The Event” that global elites have been fearfully preparing for, is here.

Even though ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality, as Rebecca Solnit points out, the virus seems to be exacerbating and amplifying realities that were always there. Roy: “The virus, in very much the same way as it entered human bodies and amplified existing illnesses, entered countries and societies and amplified their structural infirmities and illnesses. It has amplified injustice, sectarianism, racism, casteism and above all class inequality”.

With authoritarianism on the rise in countries like Poland, Hungary and El Salvador and a tenuous balance of power between the securocrats and constitutionalists in South Africa, the current crisis poses a threat to global democracy and global peace and we might in fact be losing both of them, according to Francis Fukuyama. 

Human rights and freedom of expression are also under threat. China used the crisis to pass anti-sedition laws, dealing the protest movement in Hong Kong a “killer blow” and in India the police went on a witch hunt, as soon as lockdown started, against peaceful Muslim students and protesters, charging them with sedition and jailing them under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) – a draconian law that makes it nearly impossible for the accused to get bail, at a time when the courts are hardly functioning because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Under the guise of “Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste”, Big Tech is transforming the way our lives will look. As Naomi Klein points out: “The future that is being rushed into being treats our physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.” Arundhati Roy, in a similar vein: “Pre-corona, if we were sleepwalking into the Surveillance State, now we are panic-running into the arms of a super-surveillance state in which we are being asked to give up everything—our privacy and our dignity, our independence—and allow ourselves to be controlled and micromanaged. Even after the lockdowns are lifted, unless we move fast, we will be incarcerated forever.”

Despite the gloomy, perhaps even dystopian future we are facing, some positives are also emerging as a result of the current crisis. It is for example redrawing the global map with surprising (and not so surprising) new areas of incompetence but also competence in crisis. Success stories call into questions old notions such as “developed” and “developing” countries. Places such as Vietnam, Kerala (India), Cuba and a host of African countries are fighting and containing the virus seemingly successfully – even though they are not getting much attention from Western media.

In South Africa, and undoubtedly in numerous other countries, so-called Community Action Networks are popping up – communities that aim to encourage and inspire people from all walks of life to self-organise, to take local action, and to develop ways to share resources. Some governments are also stepping up. Ireland nationalised its hospitals for the duration of the Corona virus. The city of Amsterdam will reportedly use the “doughnut model” to mend it’s post-virus economy. The model, devised by Raworth, functions as a guide to what it means for countries, cities and people to thrive in balance with the planet. Spain is reportedly moving to implement a permanent basic income as a measure to help workers and families battered by the coronavirus pandemic. And in Portugal tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers have been “regularised” and given full rights for the duration of the Corona crisis.

What does this mean for global development?

Micha Narberhaus, director of Smart CSOs Lab, writes soberingly that it is remarkable how quickly many activists have declared that the world post-coronavirus is going to be fundamentally different to the one we had before. Narberhaus: “They don’t seem to account for the high risk of massive unemployment, social unrest and human misery that a transition to a de-growth economy poses. We don’t even know yet what will happen over the next few months and how bad things will get.” Accroding to Narberhaus, the discussion would benefit from much more honesty and transparency about these uncertainties.

Daniel Schmachtenberger points out that many of us have a sense that the old is dying, but the new is yet to be born. The one thing we can be sure of, is that the coming months and years will be more turbulent, out of control and less convenient than what most of us – excluding  immigrants, the precariat and minorities (or marginalized majorities) – are used to.

This raises numerous questions for those working in the development and social justice sector and in monitoring and evaluation more specifically. As Arbie Baguios from Aid Reimagined points out, “aid is at a critical juncture. The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a series of crises that have tested the logic behind our interventions; questioned our management abilities; and interrogated whether our values are truly just and transformative”.

Over a series of blog posts that I will pusblish over the next few days, I will address the following questions:

  1. How do we adapt our planning and decision making processes to respond to this crisis?
  2. What data collection techniques are best suited now?
  3. How do we learn from our response to this crisis so that we are better prepared to deal with future shocks?
  4. How can organisations start preparing for the post-lockdown world?
  5. What is the role of NGOs now?

Please stay tuned!

Who Do I Listen To As An Evaluator?

I was recently asked by famous cartoonist Chris Lysy from Fresh Spectrum which evaluation blogs I follow.

You can read my short answer here. Here is my long answer:

I’ve realised that I don’t actually follow an awful lot of evaluation bloggers. I prefer to get new knowledge and insights through the myriad of webinars on offer and particularly enjoy those organised by the Outcomes Harvesting Community. Of course I’ve been tuning into Chris Lysy’s Unwebinars too. These Unwebinars do their name justice and operate from a really cool format where the audience can co-create the conversation together with the speaker of the day.  Chris, as the host, is largely invisible and just there to hold the space.

A highly valuable platform for evaluators is the Pelican listserv (soon to be rebranded as the Peregrine listserv, to be curated by Better Evaluation. The peer-to-peer exchange that happens on the listserv has been an invaluable learning resource to me throughout the years.

But back to blogs.

I follow Zenda Ofir, a well-known South African evaluator based in Geneva. She plays an active role in the South African Monitoring & Evaluation Association and blogs about current trends and debates in the sector. I discovered the quirky and wise developmental evaluator Carolyn Camman, based in Vancouver,  through their Eval Café Podcast and only read their first blog post today (but have been following them on Twitter for a while) Evaluators interested in anything related to developmental evaluation and equity should pay attention to Carolyn.

I’ve recently discovered the ARTD blog. ARTD is an evaluation consultancy based in Australia. They’ve been putting out extremely helpful practical content that speaks to how organisations can (and should) adapt their M&E during the COVID-19 crisis. The same is true for Feedback Labs, an organisation that collaborates to create incentives, support tools & training on feedback, and foster a community of people and organisations committed to listening. Clear Horizon, also based in Australia, has a great blog too.


Picture by Mohammad Metri on Unsplash @mohammadmetri

When I develop (or redevelop) M&E training material, I look at Ann Murray Brown’s blog for inspiration. She excels at demystifying monitoring and evaluation for those who are new to the field or those of us more experienced who need a refresher.

I occasionally read The Engine Room’s blog posts. The Engine Room helps activists, organisations, and other social change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact. They are actively involved in the Responsible Data discussion, which is an important conversation for any evaluator to be at least aware of, if not actively contributing to. The Responsible Data community has an active listserv too.

Finally, Heather Krause from We All Count, a project for equity in data science, offers a host of valuable resources. We All Count has a book club that is currently reading “Feminist Measures in Survey Research” by Catherine E. Harnois, PhD. You might still be able to join!

Medium is good too

So that’s it with regards to blogs. The list does not in any way pretend to be exhaustive, but gives an overview of where I currently draw my inspiration from and where I check in, in order to stay updated on the latest developments and thinking in the field.

I however agree with Zenda Ofir, who mentions that: “As the COVID-19 pandemic races around the world, evaluation struggles for space. Research studies and data overwhelm, yet evaluation professionals and studies are not present at influential tables. We have fumbled in proving the value of evaluation for the challenges facing humankind”. She also points out the problematic distance between evaluation specialists and those working in adjacent fields like data science, cognitive and neurosciences, behavioural science, management science, artificial intelligence, complexity science and future sciences. Ofir: “All these silos slow down our ability to move forward.”

Maybe those of us brave enough and ready for a bigger audience should explore websites such as Medium, an add free platfrom for independent voices, to publish? Whether we post new ideas and  insights, provocative questions or just open up and reflect honestly on our work and purpose as evaluators – making our writings more widely available, we might be in a better position to contribute to building the field of evaluation and strengthening relationships with related fields.

The people I am currently following on Medium are Deepa Iyer (Author of We Too Sing America; Host of Solidarity is This podcast; Senior Advisor at Building Movement Project; South Asian American activist/lawyer) and Sahana Chattopadhyay (Speaker; Writer; Facilitator; Exploring emergence, sensemaking, & thrivability in a complex, ambiguous world). I loved Deepa’s post on social change organisations as pressure cookers and Sahana has been writing gems on generative conversations, transformative learning in organisations and befriending uncertainty in a post-COVID world.

Who else should I start following? Who are you listening to?

A radical force for change?

With the next South African general election coming up (on a yet to be established date in April–July 2014), it is time to talk politics. On 28th of November, I attended the International Labour Research and Information Group’s (ILRIG) public forum on ‘Malema & the EFF: A force for radical change?’. Ashley Fataar, from ‘Keep Left’ (a small Trotskyist group in South Africa affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency led by the Socialist Workers Party of the UK) and Andrew Nash, representing ILRIG and the University of Cape Town (UCT), shared their views on the topic.

Julius Malema © AFP

Julius Malema © AFP

In July 2013, Julius Malema, former president of the ANC Youth League, formed a new political movement, the Economic Freedom Fighters, of which he declared himself ‘Commander in Chief’. Malema has often been dubbed a ‘populist firebrand’ and was convicted of hate speech in March 2010 and again in September 2011, for singing the song ‘Shoot the Boer’ (a popular liberation struggle song). In November 2011 he was found guilty of sowing divisions within the ANC and was suspended from the party for five years. Eventually, on 4 February 2012 he was expulsed from the ANC.

In addition to hate speech, Malema is facing a series of corruption-related charges including racketeering (arranging lucrative government contracts for cronies in return for kickbacks) and faces up to 15 years in prison. Although Malema was once a rising star in the ANC and a staunch supporter of president Zuma, he has since become one of Zuma’s most vociferous critics.

‘Economic Freedom in Our Life Time’

According to the ‘Founding Manifesto’ of the EFF, the movement’s main objective is ‘to attain economic freedom in our life time’. It states that 20 years of political freedom have ‘not borne much significance to the people of South Africa’ as ‘the political power that was transferred to the black majority through inclusive elections in 1994 was never transformed into economic freedom as the majority of Africans remain on the margins of society as unemployed, underemployed or discriminated-against in their employment, while those who held economic, social and political power since the colonial period continue to enjoy economic, social, and professional privileges’.

It is true that South Africa’s level of economic inequality remains among the highest in the world and wealth correlates uncomfortably with race, with whites controlling a hugely disproportionate share of assets and income. Although there are some strong social movements in South Africa, such as the Social Justice Coalition, which operates nationally, and Abahlali baseMjondolo, which is Durban based, the poor and marginalised have few productive outlets for their anger and frustration. This has resulted in disenchanted communities starting take the law into their own hands and ‘service delivery protests’ becoming part of daily life in the country – which has been dubbed ‘protest capital of the world’.

The EFF, with its call to nationalise mines and redistribute land without compensation, could be defined as socialist or leftist, but according to some it is nothing more than a noisy and militant by-product of the ANC. In the South African context of general discontent, cohorts of unemployed youth and disgruntled workers seem an easy target for savy ‘leaders’ such as Malema though. Could his EFF be the force for radical change many South Africans have been waiting for or is the movement just exploiting  disenchantment – dangerously so?


According to Ashley Fataar, the launch of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has caused a lot of excitement and derisive tension. However, in his opinion, what has been written on the EFF so far misses the point. ‘The point’, according to him, is that the EFF is a nationalist movement – yet, all nationalist movements in post-colonial Africa have failed to be a real force for change.

Referring to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ he alerts the audience of the ‘pitfalls’ of national consciousness and the ‘empty shell’ of nationalism. Using the examples of the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, FRELIMO in Mozambique and the ANC in South Africa, Fataar illustrates that, for black capitalists, nationalisation does not mean placing the economy at the service of the nation but into their own hands. ‘In all these countries, the promise of a better life has been turned onto its head and the radical nationalists have turned against the masses’, he states.

For Fataar, the colonialists and the nationalists that came after them have one thing in common: they both embrace capitalism. He warns that EFF-led nationalisation in South Africa will not take into account worker control but rather be a form of state capitalism. Fataar, who does not believe in getting into parliament by winning elections anyway, mumbles something about ‘self-emancipation of the masses’ but as his time is up, the floor is given to Andrew Nash.

Andrew Nash jumps out of his chair and delivers his speech standing and smiling incessantly, beaming with energy. According to him, the EFF was launched in a context of disintegration – disintegration of the ANC and of black capitalism. He points out there were contradictions for the ANC right from the beginning, as from 1994 onwards they have been on a mission to please both international investors and the poor people at home. However, with the plundering of public resources under Zuma (or ‘Zupta’) there is an additional disintegration: the disintegration of the understanding of what South Africa could be.

Nash points out that Malema has never known politics other than the politics of the ANC. ‘If you read his biography “An Inconvenient Youth” by Fiona Ford you actually realise that he found himself at exactly those places where this disintegration was at work on numerous times in his life’. Andrew Nash believes the EFF will most certainly hasten the process of disintegration in South Africa, although, even without the EFF the fight for tenders will continue and the political assassinations in Mpumalanga and Limpopo will not cease to exist. He does believe Malema and the EFF have something to offer to South Africa, namely:

1) They are telling the truth about what is going on in South Africa – a truth that is being concealed in the (mainstream) media and which is thus invisible for the masses. Some examples of these truths Nash refers to are, for example the fact that ‘the wealth in South Africa still belongs to whites’, ‘the ANC is enriching itself’ and that ‘Marikana and the role of police (state) violence where not an accident but the way in which the elite will react to any form of organised dissent. This is a sign of what will continue.’

2) They bring people together that may otherwise never have met. They are organising communities in the local context. Whereas the ANC says: ‘You can’t change a country overnight’, most of the people on the ground have not seen a night that was ever this long before. People are willing to come out for EFF and organise.

Nash is not overly jubilant though. The EFF project raises questions for him too, of which he highlights two:

1) The EFF seems to be as much of an authoritarian project as the ANC. Will people who have lost faith in the ANC really find something new in the top-down leadership style of Julius Malema? Liberation is about the masses taking control over their own future, not about shouting slogans back to the leader.

2) The EFF does not have a clear vision for a new society. On the 28 October 2011 Malema said ‘we want everything that whites want’. Is he talking about personal wealth? This is not going to be possible for everyone. Nash doesn’t see the EFF pushing an agenda that overrides the American view of ‘economic freedom’.

Nash concludes his speech by saying he feels the EFF is ‘the best option – even if they betray the people they claim to represent’. ‘Go and vote for EFF’, he challenges the audience, ‘I may well do so myself’. ‘But be under no illusions about what you will be getting’, he warns.

‘I did not start wearing this beret just because I got excited. I thought about this.’

As the floor is opened up for questions and debate, a somewhat electrifying energy gets hold of the audience – consisting of about thirty people, mainly black men. One of the members of the audience proudly wears the typical red EFF beret. One other person in the audience also (openly) supports the EFF. They are both young and male. As there was no EFF spokesperson on the panel, both of them take turns to respond to questions from the audience, in a respectful and engaging way – although the person without the beret gets lost in political rhetoric a little too often, reciting – for no apparent reason – from Muammar Ghadaffi’s ‘Green Book’.

Questions from the audience revolve around what kind of social class Malema represents, whether the EFF is racist and whether he is a redeemed man or will embezzle funds again in the future. Some call him a fascist and a charlatan.

Apart from discussing Malema’s persona, the audience also debates the EFF’s policies. Nash apologises (without being prompted to do so) for using one of Malema’s rather old quotes from 2011. I’m sure he finds the reaction he gets is a tad surprising: ‘I’m not just wearing this beret because I got excited, I’ve thought about this’, the young EFF supporter states. ‘People went to exile and died for things we are still struggling for. We suffered long enough in backyard dwellings and as domestic workers. If the white man can send his children to Rondebosh High School, we want the same’.

‘Isn’t that the wrong way? Why do you want to send your children to private schools?’, asks Nash in reply. ‘Should the state not provide decent education? With private schools existing next to public schools there will always be class division – the majority will pay for this with their sweat and blood. Is there not another form of economic freedom than the purely materialistic one?’ he asks.

No one replies.

‘We as the Left have dismally failed’ 

At the end of the evening, the answer to the question as to whether the EFF is a force for radical change remains hanging in the air. What the majority seems to agree on is that the Left has been swamped by the EFF. ‘We are becoming even less of a force for change. The EFF has planted a seed, which is something we as Left have dismally failed to do’, one of the members of the audience sums it up.

While the EFF raises fundamental questions around issues like land, state repression and white wealth – issues that South Africa can no longer sweep under the carpet, it remains to be seen whether the movement will betray or deliver to the people that are offering their support in good faith and see the party as a last resort to address decades of marginalisation and exclusion.

Although Fiona Ford believes Malema is more interested in power than in redressing historical inequities, professor Pitthouse rightfully points out that ‘it’s not impossible that the EFF could be changed in significant ways by the popular struggles it is seeking to capture, by the alliances it makes, internal contestation, changes in our broader political landscape or the nature of electoral politics’.

The Left in South Africa can continue to stigmatize and ridicule the EFF movement. It may be wiser – for themselves and for the country – to attempt to influence the EFF’s political line though and to work together for a better – and more egalitarian – future. Before it may be too late for constructive dialogue. The masses of South Africa deserve it.


She’s a woman. She’s black. She’s a lesbian. She’s dead. Her legs stick out under an empty sandbag, which has been used to cover part of her body. She’s lying on a bed of yellow and brown leaves. Her face is not included in the frame. Her trousers are left at her feet, still wrapped around her ankles. The man who brutally raped and later killed her did not take the effort to undress her properly.

Five gruelling pictures, taken from various angles, provide the viewer with an almost polished – yet none the less unsettling – overview of the victim’s crime scene. If it wasn’t for Zanele Muholi, the victim might have ended up being just another nameless and faceless statistic of victims of hate crimes in South Africa. Muholi was present to photograph the crime scene though, and so the victim – still nameless and faceless but no longer voiceless – features post-mortem in the exhibition ‘Mo(u)rning’, on show until 1 September in Stevenson Gallery, Woodstock, Cape Town.

Nation building

Zanele Muholi is a photographer and an activist. A black lesbian herself, she approaches and documents South Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community from a trusted and respected insider’s perspective.

Mo(u)rning is an exhibition of a photographer who is ‘hurting inside’. Zanele Muholi is a fighter and fiercely believes in her cause. Yet, she faces prejudice and downright hostility in a country that at times seems to be at war with itself. In August 2009, the then Minister for Arts & Culture, Lulu Xingwana, stormed out of an exhibition in Johannesburg, funded by her department. The exhibition coincided with Women’s Day and aimed to give a platform to young black female artists. After seeing the work of Muholi, the minister left – without delivering her speech – calling the works ‘immoral’. The black and white photographs of Muholi, depicting black lesbian couples in intimate embraces, celebrate love between two people – of the same sex – in a delicate and respectful way. The minister could not approve. “My mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because Muholi’s works expressed the very opposite of this. It was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building”, she said afterwards.

‘Corrective’ rape

In 1996, two years after the formal end of apartheid, South Africa’s new constitution became the first in the world to include provisions of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2004 the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that same-sex couples must be included in the common law definition of marriage and in 2006 the office of the president signed into law the Civil Union Act, which allows people of the same sex to get married or registered as a common law couple. Legally speaking, lesbians, gays and, to a more limited extent, transgender people have achieved equality in South Africa. Over the past decade, however, activists have recorded dozens of incidents of sexual and physical violence against the LGBTI population.

The wave of hate crimes against the LGBTI community in general and against black lesbians especially, is part of an epidemic of violence against women and children sweeping South Africa. The country has amongst the highest rates of violence of all kinds in the world. Certain statistics suggest a woman is raped every 26 seconds – this is the highest in the world for a country that is not at war or embroiled in civil conflict.

South African police do not disaggregate records of sexual violence by motive or by survivors’ sexual orientation or gender expression and identity. As a result it is difficult to estimate how many transgender men, gay man and lesbians are raped in South Africa every year. ActionAid’s 2009 report “Hate crimes: The Rise of ‘Corrective Rape’ in South Africa” mentions 31 recorded murders of lesbian women since 1998. The number is estimated to be significantly higher though. In a poll of survivors of homophobic hate crimes in the Western Cape province, 66% of women said they did not report their attack because they would not be taken seriously.

Of those crimes that are reported, only 1 in 5 ends up in court, with only 4% of these resulting in a conviction. To date there has been just one conviction – in the case of Zoliswa Nkonyana who was beaten and killed by a gang of about twenty men in February 2006. After several postponements, her case was finally recognized as motivated by prejudice – a “hate” crime.  Nine men were charged and a verdict of guilty was handed against four of them in October 2011.

‘Corrective rape’, a phenomenon in which men rape women they presume or know to be lesbians in order to ‘convert’ them to heterosexuality is fast becoming the most widespread hate crime against lesbian women in townships across South Africa. Especially ‘butch’ lesbians (lesbians that look and dress in a masculine way) are being targeted. Being black and lesbian is a highly dangerous combination in South Africa – especially if one lives in one of the country’s townships or rural areas. Those who are able to afford a middle-class lifestyle may not experience the same degree of prejudice and discrimination, but black lesbians and transgender men living in townships, rural areas and informal settlements are among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of South Africa’s LGBTI population. Young black lesbians suffer from triple-stigmatisation, where they are prejudiced against for being black, for being women, and for being gay.

Starting point for dialogue

Zinzi Voyiya & Tozama Dyantyi © Zanele Muholi

© Zanele Muholi

Muholi is the first artist in South Africa to have taken up the cause of the country’s black lesbians and other sexual minorities. Over the years, she has documented their lives – and deaths. In addition to her portrait series ‘Being’ and ‘Faces and Phases’ she has documented a large number of crime scenes and funerals of black South African lesbians, who were raped and murdered.

Then, on April 20 2012, Muholi became the target of an unspeakable crime herself. Someone broke into her apartment in Cape Town and stole virtually all her work of the past five years – a laptop and 20 hard drives and backup systems on which she stored countless images and films. Nothing else was taken from the apartment. Among the stolen material was the ‘Queercide’ project, created by Muholi to denounce and record hate crimes and atrocities committed against South African LGBTI people. Whoever got away with the boot was clearly after destroying Muholi’s visual testimony of crimes perpetrated against a section of the population that is being targeted because of their sexual orientation and preferences.

Mo(u)rning is Muholi’s comeback after the robbery. It’s her proof to the world she is still standing. “My photographs are the starting points for dialogue”, says Muholi, who is clearly not lettng herself being silenced by the disappearance of years of hard work.

Notwithstanding the photographs of crime scenes, statements of lesbian ‘corrective rape’ victims scribbled on the wall and a mourning room (where the documentary of hate crime victim Noxolo Nogwaza’s funeral can be watched), the exhibition is not all about death, hate and loss though. For Muholi Mo(u)rning evokes death, but also suggests the cycle of life as morning follows night. The ‘Being’ project brings a series of beautiful black and white photographs of lesbian couples and the portraits of lesbians, part of ‘Faces and Phases’ show people with enough courage and determination to express themselves the way they are, in a country that is showing itself to be increasingly intolerant of (sexual) differences and where homosexuality is dismissed as an inappropriate black South African lifestyle.

Petra and Praline

The highlight of the exhibition is the multiple award winning documentary ‘Difficult Love’. Directed by Muholi and Peter Goldsmid, it provides an endearing look into the lives and struggles of lesbians in South Africa. The documentary features Muholi and her (white) partner, giving the viewer an intimate look into their lives (past and present). It also  features some experts on the theme of hate crimes, as well as victims. Millicent Gaika is one of those victims. With a blue and swollen eye and clearly in great pain and distress, she relates how she was held from 11pm until 4 am by a man from her neighbourhood who ‘did with her as he pleased’.

The documentary shows Muholi as she visits a township and speaks to the people. “This is un-African. This whole thing is for whites. I would never allow my child to take these pictures”, says one of the township women. “We are like this. We love ourselves. Our families love us. So why must we suffer all these unnecessary things? Why, why, why? Why lesbians all the time?” exclaims an afflicted young lesbian woman a few minutes later.

Wendy Isaacs, a human rights lawyer, gives her view on why lesbians are being targeted: “It’s got to do with masculinity and the way in which these women are challenging patriarchy and breaking through male privileges. Men don’t want anyone to be a man except for themselves. Besides, there is the irrational reasoning that lesbian women are after these men’s girlfriends. The perception is that if they just had sex with a man they would be ‘cured’.”

The most striking and heartbreaking item of the movie shows young Praline – a coloured girl with the characteristical gap between her two front teeth – and Petra, a mature woman, who dwell under a bridge in Mowbray. They live amongst the rats (their ‘protectors’ and ‘family’) and have collected a fake cell phone, a framed picture of Obama and a computer keyboard, with which they try to make their shelter look like a home. Expelled from the homeless people’s shelter for being lesbian, they live off the street and protect themselves from prejudice and attacks by passing for ‘mother and daughter’.

Desperate hate

Mkhululi Mabija, who describes himself as a ‘fluid’ man when it comes to his sexual orientation, sits next to me as I watch the documentary. He grins, chuckles and shakes his head in disapproval at exactly the same times I do. Once the documentary is finished, I speak to him. He agrees with Isaacs. Hate crimes are on the rise because lesbians are a threat towards the patriarchal view men hold of society and women’s place in it. He explains: “South Africa has always been a polygamous society but all of a sudden women are going for women. Homosexuality is not tolerated in black communities but when our men were working in the mines in Johannesburg, homosexuality did exist. But now, lesbians are coming out and express their sexuality in the open, it is no longer as secret as it used to be in the gold mines”. For Mabija, the hate crimes are a sign of the intolerance and desperate hate, present in South Africa. “There is a lack of tolerance in the South African culture”, he says, “and this makes it an extremely brave act to speak out, like Muholi does.”

“We are suffering from the same violence that we felt under apartheid”, says Mabija. “The xenophobia, the violence against lesbians, nothing of this is really new. It just used to be suppressed in the past and now it is erupting”.  Mabija is not totally pessimistic though. “The  minute someone realises the love between two people is real, they understand it better”, he believes.

Necklacing returns to the Rainbow Nation

Protest cartoon“It’s extremely dangerous”, says Nkwame Cedile. He refers to his act of speaking out against the practice of necklacing. Necklacing (killing someone by putting a burning tyre around the neck) emerged in South African townships under apartheid as a way of killing residents suspected of collaboration with the state security forces. It has recently re-emerged. Mobs of angry and frustrated residents of crime ridden townships, who feel the police and the justice system have failed them, have taken the law into their own hands. Since the beginning of this year, eleven suspects of crimes have been necklaced in Khayeltisha, Cape Town’s biggest black township. Speaking out against it is a brave act, as it is not guaranteed that the whistleblower will not become the next victim of lawlessness.

Necklacing just a symptom

It is noon and Cape Town’s winter is treating us on a splendid sunny day. Around fourteen people – mainly white youngsters – have gathered in front of the gates of Parliament, situated in the heart of Cape Town’s city centre. Nkwame Cedile (a black Khayelitsha resident and activist) and Carina Conradie (a white Cape Town University student) are amongst the organisers of today’s protest against necklacing, backed by organisations such as the Right2Know Campaign and the Social Justice Coalition.

Conradie hopes 67 people will turn up today. It’s the 18th of July, declared Nelson Mandela International Day by the United Nations in 2009, in recognition of South Africa’s former president’s 67 year long contribution to the culture of peace, freedom and human rights. On this day, all South Africans are asked to dedicate 67 minutes of their time to helping others.

“There is no better day to protest against the brutal issue of vigilante killings”, says Conradie. “Although what we are really protesting against is inequality. Necklacing is just a symptom.”

A bundle of old tyres have been piled up against a tree – waiting to be used by the protestors. Conradie and her friends sit around the tree and are scribbling protest slogans on posters as the first journalists arrive. “Poverty Kills”, “End Inequality in Our Townships” and “A Parent Does Not Use an Axe to Discipline a Child” are the preferred tag lines.

Protecting criminals

“Some people say I’m protecting criminals”, says Cedile (45), who started a hunger strike in May against the practice of necklacing. “But innocent people also get killed”. At least one victim of the vigilante killings was an innocent youngster from Gugulethu township, who was killed by a mob of boys while patrolling his community to safeguard it from gangsterism.

Media accounts state eleven people have been necklaced so far this year, but residents believe the number might be higher, as the murders in the township are not always reported. “The issue has been receiving very little media attention”, says Cedile.

On the 14th of June, the Social Justice Coalition, one of South Africa’s newest and fastest growing social movements that campaigns for safe, healthy and dignified communities in the country’s largest and dangerous townships, sent an open letter to the Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, pleading her to start an inquiry into the crime situation in Khayelitsha. However, until the provincial and national government agree on who is responsible for handling the crisis, the vigilante killings continue, exposing township residents to shocking scenes of cruelty.

Reservoir for cheap labour

As the afternoon progresses, a number of township residents arrive to join Conradie and her friends. Patrick Sikhumbule Mnyaka (21) from Khayelitsha is one of them. According to Mnyaka, the government needs to invest more in education and the future of the township children. “There is no inspiration for the kids at all”, he says.

“When someone is killed by necklacing, the community is cheering and celebrating”, explains Cedile. “Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa is supposed to be the country of forgiveness and reconciliation. But eighteen years down the line black people are murdering one another. There is no reconciliation happening on the ground. We have the most liberal constitution in the world but there is anarchism on the ground. If this doesn’t stop it will result into chaos! The government needs to realise that we are not safe in the townships. People are burning each other because the level of crime is too high.”

Yet, only focussing on crime will not be enough. “I believe crime is bad, yes, but living in poverty is even worse”, emphasizes Cedile. “By killing each other without focussing on the underlying issues, we are destroying the future of South Africa.”

In order to address the crisis, Cedile believes the education system needs to change drastically. “Much like under apartheid, the township youth is still being trained to become security guards or tellers (cashiers) at the Pick ‘n Pay (supermarket) or worse, they end up as criminals. We are just a reservoir for cheap labour.” Housing is also an issue. “People live without the minimal privacy in townships. We are all squashed together. People want to be good parents but because of the amount of hardships they face, the often don’t succeed.”

Poor service delivery from government’s side can never be an excuse to take the law into one’s own hands though. The township residents also have to change their behaviour, believes Cedile. “How many mob killings have we seen this year? And yet I have never seen people protesting against police corruption in Khayeltisha.”

Time for a revolution

Dennis Kofi (22) from Gugulethu came down to the protest from Woodstock, where he is in training to become a radio DJ and producer. “I don’t even know why I’m here. My colleague convinced me to join her, she is the real revolutionary.”

Dennis Kofi (left) and his colleague

Dennis Kofi (left) and his colleague

“I’m not really against necklacing”, says Kofi. “I’m not for it either, because they can get the wrong guy. But if someone is caught in the act they must feel the full force of the law. And what is the force of the law in the ghetto?”, he asks. He indicates the answer by knocking on the tire around his neck. “The community will have to do the job until the police arrives.”

Ngcwalisa Magekeza (24) a member of Soundz of the South, a network of Hip Hop activists, is fiercely opposed to the necklacings. She believes that the time for a revolution has come. “If people have lost faith in the justice system, they must rebel against the government. They should not start killing each other. They are completely missing the point!”

It’s half past one when the protesters line up to pose for some photographs. They have not succeeded in stopping any traffic on the busy roads that surround Parliament. Four curious policemen observe the protest from a respectful distance. It is getting hotter and hotter in the fierce winter sun. “Are the 67 minutes done?” asks Kofi. “This necklace is killing me.”

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog. I’m glad you’re here!

As you might already have seen, I use this blog mainly to focus on social and political issues affecting the lives of those inhabiting Cape Town.

I’m a Dutch citizen and arrived in Cape Town in October 2010. For now, this is my home base. No matter where you live, I would like you to start feeling at home in Cape Town too, through reading about the city on my blog.

If you enjoy my posts, leave a comment and please share through the social media channel of your preference.

Enjoy reading!


Disclaimer: You will notice that, when describing the people I write about, I will often mention their skin colour. You might wonder why this is relevant at all. Aren’t we all part of one big family, the human race?

Let me start by saying that Cape Town is a peculiar city. Counting approximately 3,5 million inhabitants, the so-called ‘coloured’ people constitute the city’s largest group today, making it South Africa’s only metropolis where black people are not in the majority. The Western Cape province (of which Cape Town is the capital) is also the only one of the country’s nine provinces not run by the governing ANC party. Instead, the Democratic Alliance governs the province.

Up till today, the particularly harsh way apartheid was carried out in Cape Town has left deep scars. The city remains largely divided among racial lines. Much like under apartheid, whites live primarily on the slopes of Table Mountain, in the city centre and the lush beach fronts. The majority of the so-called ‘coloureds’ (a heterogenous group with diverse ancestral links such as indigenous Khoisan and Xhosa people, as well as Cape Malays, Chinese and Indians) and blacks live in more distant suburbs and the Cape Flats townships.

The spatial segregation for race runs parellel to that for social class. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, and significant disparities remain in access to health, education, housing and sanitation. Notwithstanding growing pockets of poor whites and the existence of a significant black middle class and elite, being poor in South Africa (and Cape Town) still means being coloured or black.

The discrimination and racism people experience in Cape Town today is more subtle than during the apartheid era. However, it is present and alive. In this context, someone’s skin colour becomes an essential  part of their identity and the way other people perceive them. By explicitly mentioning someone’s skin colour I feel I am contributing to clarity, transparency and openness. It is never my inention to label, stereotype or put people into boxes by mentioning that which should essentially be irrelevant and insignificant: the colour of our skin.