Holding space within civil society


Dumiso Gatsha


As young queer individuals, our lives our consistently scrutinised. Whether it’s the way we walk, talk or answer a call, our expressions often yield questions and assumptions. We often have to share our most innate and intimate struggles, when coming out to a parent, relaying the importance of the use of pronouns to an event organiser or in filling out a grant application. Many moments of our organising are battles against triggers of harm or affirming our experiences. Our vulnerabilities are laid bare, in some instances even intimately, to advance our work and navigating what life brings before us; unemployment, non-communicable diseases or COVID-19.

These battles are inherent in our work as activists. Whether it’s in email responses or strategy meetings. Any structure that formalises organising or interventions in society is bound to exclude someone. Whether it is a government programme, a civil society campaign or grant application cycle. Framed as priority areas, strategy, eligibility or otherwise; the competing for resources can replicate if not aggravate, civic space. I have a strong belief in holding space, whether included in a structure or not. It is a critical aspect of autonomy, self-determination and participating in society or any social justice partnership.

‘What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.’ Heather Plett

I have come to learn that there are many ways in which holding space can be driven by bias or supremacy. In some instances, simply misunderstanding. Especially where a partnership might mature. As a survivor in activism, the battles I choose – or can’t – might lie within those partnerships. Where accountability can take shape inversely because of the environment or internal changes to expectations. Often leaving the task of seeking out alternatives, managing other stakeholders or even healing to either of the aggrieved/affected.

I am often left distraught, taking in some of the challenges experienced by my community. Where policies, statements and law enforcement are not there in the moments when most needed. In the homes of our abusers where we must stay put to remain safe or at a lockdown checkpoint when having to purchase essentials that does not affirm, recognise or protect me as a citizen. It is in these little moments when we don’t expect, that our dignity is taken away by supremacy of some sort or triggered by our past. The moments that add up to perpetual cycles of violence, poverty and injustice because of merely existing.

If this crisis is anything to go by, the bare minimum is no longer acceptable. Where solutions absolve leaders from the necessity of putting the last mile forward or leaving no one behind. The kind that is impractical because of the vulnerabilities aggravated by systemic impediments to freedom and being formally recognised in society. Solutions that would not separate my queerness from by blackness and neither my African-ness. Many of us are brave enough to excuse themselves from the absurdities of merely existing in a perpetual cycle of a life of struggle. Although devastating for those who stay behind, we affirm their power as we continue challenging harmful norms and practices.

My biggest fear is of someone else having to experience what I and many others have, as it outweighs all others. That however inconvenient, difficult or angry my activism may be, it is never about who it’s directed at. Whether a government official, UN bureaucrat, radio station or intermediary institution. It is in understanding that I hold space for the younger Dumi, their peers and those in similar inescapable cycles. That if they were to take up space in their own right; it would be okay to speak truth to power whilst navigating an economically unjust and unequal civic space, world and philanthropic sector. The current crisis, has placed the unaffected, privileged and professionals in the same boat as many others. Giving a glimpse to aspects of our lives as we have done in many grant applications, speeches and advocacy interventions – sans the frills of technological infrastructure, monthly salaries or institutional credibility.

As an unpaid labourer that has to inadvertedly do care work within my community, I have been spoken at [not to] as if activism is a profession separate from other decision makers, structure and technical expertise. That my acts of protest, against any power that might lead to my biggest fear within my community, in whatever shape or form should look or take shape in specific ways. However, as someone who has worked in several industries, I have learned that activism is so much more. Even more so anchored in holding space. Activism manifests in many offices: in decisions being made in recruitment processes, deploying resources, waiving bank charges, taxing the wealthy, overpaying domestic help, bureaucratic kindness or corporate social responsibility. In the face of supremacy that as widespread and institutionalised as the air we breathe; we should exercise our activism in the same way.

In loving memory of Kutlwano ‘Bubbly’ Selaledi.

Dumiso Gatsha, Success Capital Organisation

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