Kristin Palitza
Kristin Palitza

Sonke vs Malema

When ANC Youth League president (ANCYL) Julius Malema declared that charges of hate speech and discrimination brought against him by South African NGO Sonke Gender Justice were motivated by a racist and imperialist desire to embarrass black leadership, I was more than a little surprised.

Where the heck was this cheap accusation coming from I wondered? I have previously written about Sonke’s work in rural parts of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal and interacted with many of Sonke’s staff. Malema’s accusations certainly weren’t consistent with what I know of the organisation.

To set the record straight, here’s some background on the NGO Malema seems determined to malign and undermine with his call to boycott it.

Earlier this year, Sonke lodged a complaint against Malema in the equality court alleging his comments that the complainant in the Jacob Zuma rape trial “had a nice time” amount to hate speech and discrimination and contribute to already pervasive violence by men against women.

Sonke has demanded a public apology and called on Malema to pay R50 000 in damages to an NGO providing services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. But the ANYCL president, who admits to his statements, refuses to apologise unreservedly, saying he instead wants to “explain” his comments.

After Malema unsuccessfully tried to settle the case out of court, and it looks like he will have to face the music, he suddenly plays the race card. The case against him, he claims, is an attempt by South Africa’s white minority to ridicule and embarrass the ANC leadership.

“The black faces you see in front. Those are not real faces, they represent the whites who are opposed to African leadership,” Malema proclaimed outside of the court, which postponed his case until the end of August. “The imperialists and the whites who are still representing the past are using this organisation.” He promised never to succumb to pressure by a white minority and called on “progressive forces to boycott Sonke”.

By calling Sonke a Mickey-Mouse organisation, Malema clearly doesn’t understand the wide-ranging work Sonke does to support men and boys to take action, promote gender equality and end domestic and sexual violence. Sonke’s work was publicly acknowledged when co-directors Dean Peacock and Bafana Khumalo received the Men’s Health magazine “Best Man of the Year” award in June 2007 or when Khumalo was appointed by former president Thabo Mbeki for a second term with the national office of the Commission on Gender Equality, to give just two examples.

In true Malema style, the minute he runs out of valid points, he makes sweeping and completely unfounded accusations about an organisation which, unfortunately for him, has solid credentials and is filled with anti-apartheid activists, many of whom were actively involved in the ANC for many years.

In fact, contrary to Malema’s claims, the vast majority of Sonke’s staff isn’t white, and most of them — independent of the colour of their skins — have a long-term commitment to human rights, social change, political justice and gender equality. The Sonke board of directors is nearly three-quarters black, the management team two-thirds black and the staff 80% black.

Mbuyiselo Botha — Sonke’s senior programmes adviser — who brought the action against Malema, was an anti-apartheid activist. He was secretary-general of the Sharpeville Civic Association and shot in the head by security police in 1985. He has been left partially paralysed by the bullet, which is still lodged in his brain.

Sonke co-directors Khumalo and Peacock have indisputable social justice credentials. Khumalo participated in the 1976 Soweto uprising and was deeply involved in conflict mediation between the ANC and Inkhata Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s.

Peacock, on the other hand, was a founding member of the Pupils Awareness and Action Group in the Western Cape and participated in the End Conscription Campaign before leaving the country to live in Bolivia, Nicaragua and the US where, as a social activist, he challenged US interventionism in Central America and the Middle East.

To give a few other examples, Sonke coordinator Patrick Godana was an anti-apartheid activist in the Eastern Cape township of New Brighton throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He was a member of the ANC in exile and spent five years in detention. Like Botha, Godana carries physical scars from torture and security police guns as undeniable proof of this activism and courage.

Sonke’s national programme manager, Regis Mtutu, is a long-time social justice and human-rights activist from Zimbabwe who was involved in struggles for housing and a just constitution in his country. And Thami Nkosi was recently listed by the Mail&Guardian as one of the top 300 young South Africans to take out to lunch.

Looking even further behind the scenes of Sonke as an organisation brings similar results: its board of directors is made up of a variety of well-known, highly qualified and greatly respected professionals. Malema’s suggestions that they are imperialists is laughable.

The board includes Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Kumi Naidoo, former Civicus secretary-general and recent appointee as global director of Greenpeace, Rachel Jewkes, director of the Medical Research Council Gender and Health Unit and Shamillah Wilson who grew up on the Cape Flats and is the founder of the Western Cape HIV/Aids Learners’ Network, to name but a few.

All would have reason to feel strongly offended and betrayed by Malema’s accusations of being figureheads for “imperialists and whites who are still representing the past”.

More than that, it is not only Sonke staff who should feel affronted — all South Africans should feel slighted by leaders incapable of formulating arguments based on substance and instead resort to what Botha referred to as “the race card”.