The workshops ran daily, focusing on allowing the participants to realise how art can be a message carrier. They were twofold in their process working with space and place in that they connected inward toward the individuals own narrative, and outward toward the environment and local context.
The first day considered the participants as artists themselves, and helped them to connect with their own creative forces, removing the notion of the artist as a divine person ‘born with talent’. This reflection on the self took them away from the endless efforts of activism and the loss of energy or 'burnout' that it can bring. By working with symbols, each participant was able to bring into an image the very core of what moves them in the first place. In a supportive environment everyone painted their symbols on a wall and had the chance to express what those symbols meant for them amongst the group.
The second day placed them in a very real setting where they needed to make sensitive decisions about where they were and why they are doing what they are doing. On this day we were offered a wall to paint in the local village by the villagers. Questions about place and responsibility were raised as a starting point, and then the group was left to guide the conversations, using the knowledge they already come with and conversations with villagers who were apart of the group, through some difficult debates until a consensus was reached about what to do with the walls.
This collaborative learning experience expanded beyond the days workshop and saw the walls become a carrier for messages from around the world in different languages with a focus on education, one of the main concerns the villagers had for their youth. The second wall was taken up by some active youth in the village to run their own mural project that took place a few weeks later after meetings and consultations with other villagers.
In November 2014, activist youth from around the world gathered on a rural farm in the Freestate for an activist retreat, to discuss the state of civil society around the world and to consider their role within it. The gathering was partly in response to a letter produced on the farm, endorsed by some of the leading figures in global civil society, which called for engagement from other leading figures to partake in the debate around finding better ways to put the voices and actions of people back into the heart of the work that they do.
The farm that the youth retreat was held on has its own political history and developing narrative that enriched the experience significantly. It had recently been bought by Jay Naidoo, founding general secretary of Cosatu and the man who introduced the Reconstruction and Development Programme while a member of Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet. However, Naidoo does not make decisions on the farm alone. Earthrise Trust, a nonprofit trust, is formed up of himself, Greenpeace International head Kumi Naidoo, and an old Cosatu colleague, Gino Govender. They come together to help in decision making for the farm. The farm workers who came with the purchase run the farm, from management level to field labouring, and they are the main beneficiaries of its productivity.
Naidoo explained that he has plans to make the farm a “hub of innovations” that develops strategies and skills that can help the rural poor gain sustainable livelihoods, through smallholding agriculture, small-scale entrepreneurship, arts and crafts, eco-tourism and the like. Naidoo has given 40ha of the usable land to a separate entity, the Naledi Village Trust, where the workers and their families, 100 people in all, reside in a village of that name. They are the only beneficiaries of that land; the land is theirs to farm for their own profit. Their village is included in that land, so they own their own homes as well, which means they can go to a bank with their title deeds as collateral and try to raise a loan to fund improvements. This is a radical rethinking of land ownership in South Africa.
This backdrop, and the workshops held on the farm for the youth, helped to prepare the youth for the upcoming event they were about to partake in, the International Civil Society week that was held in Johannesburg. Many of the youth were on panels and all were actively partaking in the programme.
The youth prepared their own letter in response to the letter drawn up by the leaders of civil society before them, which can be found on Aya Chebbi’s blog here.