Empowering South African civil society to stand in solidarity with Ukrainian activists
Crisis Action kicked off some exciting bridgebuilding initiatives in early August between Ukrainians and South Africans to coincide with South Africa’s Women’s Month.
Now approaching a grim 6-month milestone with neither side able to claim victory, Ukraine’s conflict appears to be increasingly ‘normalised’ by predominantly male world leaders viewing it through the lens of geostrategic divisions. Meanwhile the conflict continues to upend countless lives of women and children who have been subject to sexual abuse or have been forced to flee, join the frontline as soldiers, or serve as humanitarians to save lives.
Given its historical allegiance to Russia and capitalising on its proud history of fighting for human rights and freedom from apartheid – countries like South Africa have a key role to play in challenging the polarising rhetoric of ‘with us or against us’ surrounding the war in Ukraine.
Working in collaboration with the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, the Ukrainian South African Association, the Sunseed Art Project, and the Centre for the Study of Violent Conflict, Crisis Action conceived of initiatives to amplify the voices and experiences of women that risk being forgotten. The initiatives will foster new connections of civil society solidarity as a foundation for greater civic engagement to compel policymakers to bring an end to another brutal war. These included:
- Providing a platform for African civil society leaders to express solidarity with Ukrainians and call for peace. Over 70 people tuned into the ”Just Peace for Ukraine” webinar; the first of a series of dialogues with the Tutu Foundation to bring eminent personalities from African civil society together with their Ukrainian counterparts to share unique perspectives on the war. This event hosted in partnership with leading South African newspaper, The Mail & Guardian, featured African Stateswoman Graça Machel, renowned Ukrainian activist Miroslav Marynovych, and other prominent African and Ukrainian civil society leaders. Through this tactic we sought to amplify key messages of empathy and solidarity. To quote Mama Machel: ‘’I identify myself with those women and children [fleeing Ukraine]. I’ve seen this before in my continent. The camera has shifted from Africa to another place but it is exactly the same trauma… For us it is a human tragedy and human tragedy it speaks to us the same way as it speaks to the people of Ukraine. There’s no distinction at all’.
- Securing over 40 participants in an exclusive launch event of the landmark ‘Womanly Face of War‘ art exhibition in Johannesburg, including artists and influencers, human rights activists, and journalists from Agence France-Presse, South Africa’s Sunday Times and Daily Maverick (with more joining online). The participants engaged in an emotive dialogue featuring live poetry by South African poet Mandisa Vundla, as well a moving video testimony by the Ukrainian women artists whose voices we elevated in the discussion.
- Amplifying the voices of Ukrainian women artists in leading South African broadcast and print media, including a primetime Saturday morning interview on news channel SABC, and in-depth coverage in The Daily Maverick. More stories are in the pipeline as the exhibition moves to Cape Town later this week. This work complements what we have already done to elevate the crucial anti-war voices of Russians in the South African media.
- Elevating social media commentary about the exhibition launch event and webinar, securing nearly 3.5 million impressions on Twitter.
African participants in the events drew parallels with the global fight against apartheid as well as South Africa’s ongoing struggle to combat violence against women. In the moving words of Janet Jobson, CEO of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and brilliant moderator of the webinar: ‘’We can start to imagine a Global movement of Solidarity made up from people, not just states, and that can be uniquely Africa’s contribution in the context of ambivalence from our governments… the people of Africa have a powerful voice that can be heard globally.’’
Just as in the past the international anti-apartheid movement was spurred on by civil society, not by governments, we hope that these initiatives can support South African civil society actors in their efforts to hold their government to account for its stance, and to help bring an end to Russia’s military action and violence against women in Ukraine.