Nelson Mandela Foundation

One of the standout episodes in the FreedomAfter podcast was Mark Heywood’s, Joy is Necessary. Mark generously shares the stories of his childhood in Botswana, the challenges of Whiteness and activism, and the necessity of Joy in creating freedom.

Activism in South Africa has a very long history dating back to the 19th century. I always saw it as a meaningful and inspiring way of driving change but always at a cost. Activism is needed even today given the issues that many South Africans are still faced with challenges – gender-based violence, load shedding, issues with service delivery, and access to proper health care and quality, and free education just to name but a few. Activism, standing up and advocating for what we believe in looks completely different today as compared to the well know era of activism when many fought for freedom and stood up against Apartheid. Mark’s conversation highlights the urgent need to reimagine what effective and transformative activism looks like in South Africa today.

When I think of activism, I am always reminded of my first year at the University of Johannesburg. Coming across young activists and being told that they have been in the institution for more than five years pursuing their undergraduate degrees as a result of fighting for change and the rights of their fellow students. More than 5 years pursuing a single undergraduate degree. Immediately, I saw activism as a double-edged sword that needed self-sacrifice as a prerequisite. I saw it as a prolonged, emotionally draining exercise.  

Mark speaks on what he initially thought activism was, a suspension of his personality, and interests - self-abnegation. Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke describes activism in a similar way asserting that “this work is not for yourself, kill the spirit of self”. Something I see in many of the activists today. Their interests and ambitions outside of the cause that they stand for do not matter. Their very identity becomes rooted in activism and there is often a willingness to live and even die for the cause, the cause being bigger than you as an individual. We saw this in Steve Biko, in Nelson Mandela, in Winnie-Madikizela Mandela. They all at some point or another had to sacrifice themselves for the people and their cause. 

Nelson Mandela is quoted saying “I often wondered whether a person is justified in neglecting his own family to fight for opportunities for others”. This illustrates his battle with the concept of activism and the sacrifices that come with it. Often in the struggle, women were told not to have families because this would only distract them from the cause. I think that in order to get more people to take part in activism we need to really change the face of activism.

In the episode, Mark speaks on redefining what activism is. He explores how one’s ability to keep joy alive is linked with the ability to keep one’s humanity alive. Mark says that “if you lose your humanity, you cannot appeal to people on a human basis”. This is fundamentally what I think activism should be rooted in. An appeal to people on a human basis, and a way of grappling with our very humanity, and the humanity of those around us. 

In speaking about his role in the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27, Mark describes the clarity of his intentions and how some of the organizations he was a part of were tools and vehicles he used to take part in meaningful activism by building up the power of other people and not his own power and influence. This shows us how activism needs to be intentional and sustainable. A leader is not a lone genius, but a joyous human being. Mark says that his objective was to remind people of their power, “the power and autonomy that they already possess.” 

These are challenging times for activism in South Africa. Often we see organs of the state collaborating with private interests against the interests of the people they are meant to serve. We saw this in Xolobeni, the Secrecy Bill, with the Bantustan Bills and many other instances. And when we stand up to the state, there are many instances of repression, victimization and even politically fueled assassinations.

What Mark is saying, having been part of the Marxist tendency of the ANC, having been a funder of the Treatment Action Campaign and Section 27+, is that joy is necessary even in the face of incredibly demoralizing circumstances. 

We all need to listen to this episode. 

You can listen here.