Policy Brief 20: Building resilient activists and communities

Civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace builders capacitate communities to develop localised, sustainable and equitable solutions to widespread economic hopelessness and poverty. In the face of failing public institutions, corrupt elected officials, and substandard service delivery, local activists are the only actors that many communities can rely on to effect positive change. This policy paper argues that South Africa must do more to build systemic financial and logistics support for local activists, as well as – most critically – help local activists and leaders shore up their resilience.


Civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace builders work intimately with communities that have been ravaged by violence, historic oppression, economic hopelessness, and decaying public services. In the face of such overwhelming obstacles, activists need extraordinary doses of resilience to persevere.

While preventing political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal, deadly trade union rivalry in Marikana, gang-warfare on the Cape Flats, and xenophobic attacks in Alexandra, civic, community and civil society activists have to simultaneously deal with their own personal and public service delivery challenges.

South Africa desperately needs resilient local civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace builders, to empower local communities to overcome hopelessness, paralysis and apathy, and to pro-actively shape their own destinies.

Resilience is variously described as the ability to bounce back from setbacks, to overcome deep-seated challenges thrown into one’s path, and to be able to improvise in moments of terrifying crises, by coming up with innovative solutions (Lévi-Strauss 1966; Moss Kanter 2013; Ovans 2015; Seligman 2011; Snyder 2013).

Diane Coutu (2002), in an article in the Harvard Business Review, argues resilience is the “skill and the capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change”. Coutu (2002) argues that among the key characteristics resilient people possess are “a staunch acceptance of reality; a deep belief, often buttressed by strongly held values, that life is meaningful; and an uncanny ability to improvise”.

Local South African civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders must not only boost their individual resilience, they must also strengthen the resilience of their distressed communities.

Failing public services, broken communities, embedded violence

The South African state is failing, mismanagement is soaring and corruption is out of control (Gumede 2012). Ordinary South Africans are losing faith in the democratic, oversight and protective institutions, such as Parliament, the prosecuting services and the police. There is mass disillusionment in membership organisations such as political parties, civic organisations and trade unions.

Leaders that were trusted before – have let the people down. Many religious leaders, traditional authorities, and big business figures have equally disappointed those looking to them for answers.

South Africa is experiencing a breakdown of democratic rules, laws and norms because leaders ignore them and where corruption has become institutionalised. Families, communities and society are broken by soaring levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment, and where gang warfare, violent crime and political assassinations experienced increasingly in the culture of many local communities.

The impending impact of South Africa’s designation of junk status by rating agencies will worsen South Africa’s current deep-seated economic crises.

In many cases, local civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace builders, are the last line against total community collapse, public and elective representatives’ callousness, and violence spiralling out of control. They provide alternative versions of leadership at the local level that is honest, accountable and consensus-seeking. They personify active citizenship – a concept too often absent in our democracy, yet necessary to hold government, leaders and democratic institutions accountable for their actions, decisions and failures.

They educate communities about their constitutional rights, in order to hold government and leaders accountable for non-delivery and help disseminate information about government and leaders’ wrongdoings, so that citizens can act.

It is very likely that South Africa’s ongoing crisis with failing leadership – from the ANC governing party to traditional democratic institutions – and with public service delivery collapse, is going to continue into the immediate future, until a new credible governing center, either out of parts of the ANC or an opposition coalition, emerge. Sadly, this means that communities will have to increasingly rely on themselves with little hope of credible interventions by the state at national, provincial or local level.

Strengthening the resilience of individual community, civic and civil society activists

Strengthening the resilience of individual civic, community and civil society activists and leaders will prevent communities from plunging into helplessness, apathy and despair in the absence of a functioning state.

What are the ingredients to bolster the resilience of these uncelebrated local heroes?

Fighting injustice should remain a central meaning of their lives (Frankl 2017). They should see the desire to battle seemingly intractable challenges as a moral obligation to their own individual, their families and communities. They must retain their faith, even in the direst situations. They must remain positive. They must try to see setbacks as temporary, and changeable (Snyder 2013).

They should not fall into a victim mentality, even if they are hard done by (Frankl 2017). They should seek pragmatic, practical and inclusive, rather than ideological, partisan or outdated ‘traditional’ solutions. They must leverage the resources at their disposal, even if at first glance it may seem minimal, bare and inadequate (Lévi-Strauss (1966).

Importantly, their actions should be value-based. The democratic constitution, laws and rules should guide the values framework (Gumede 2012). They should adopt, what Steven Snyder (2013), the author of Leaders and the Art of Struggle, calls a growth-mind-set – the idea that one’s abilities, skills set and intellectual prowess are not fixed, but can grow over time.

They should seek support, collaborate with others, and strike alliances to reach common goals. They should leverage all skills, institutions and resources in their communities – in support of delivering to their communities.

Emotionally charged, divisive beliefs must be replaced with ones that are evidence-based and embrace diversity and local investment (Pfefferbaum, Reissman, Pfefferbaum, Klomp & Gurwitch 2005). Local activists and leaders should strive for life-long learning, whether in the classroom or in the school of ‘life’. Reinventing oneself is crucial. So too is having a sense of humour. Refreshing oneself physically, spiritually and mentally through exercising, cultural activities and reading is important to retain a sense of balance.

Strengthening community resilience

Researchers Michael Ganor and Yuli Ben-Lavy (2003: 106) aptly describes community resilience as the ability of communities to “deal with a state of continuous long-term stress; the ability to find unknown inner strengths and resources in order to cope effectively”. They argue “community resilience is the ability of a community to stick together and to help itself as a group, as well as the families and individuals in its midst” (Ganor & Ben-Lavy 2003: 106).

The US-based Community and Regional Resilience Institute (CRRI 2013: 11) defines community resilience as the ability of a community to “limit the impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution and growth in the face of turbulent change”.

Many of South Africa’s previously disadvantaged communities in townships, informal settlements and rural areas suffer from chronic long-term stress caused by the service delivery failure, systemic violence and apartheid-induced trauma (Sonn & Fisher 1998; Ahmed, Seedat, Van Niekerk & Bulbulia 2004). This has led to a culture of political, criminal and social violence, juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, gangsterism and xenophobia (Gumede 2012).

Furthermore, overwhelming disillusionment in failed former trusted institutions – whether political, religious or traditional leaders; parties, civil society organisations and democratic institutions, have added to community-stress.

How can civic, community and civil society activists, leaders and peace-builders, build the resilience of the communities they work in, given broken communities?

Activists will have to establish credible communication channels about the state of the community, the challenges, the resources, services and skills available in the community (Ganor & Ben-Lavy 2003: 106).

Most importantly, they must use the available resources in communities, government and community organisations – churches, schools, hospitals or local business.

They must build coalitions for common goals within and among different groups, sectors and organisations within communities. The different civil society and community groups and associations in communities must form coalitions aimed coming up with collective responses to community troubles. They must form development coalitions between local government, civil society and local businesses.

They must also use all the skills – which are often hidden – available in their communities.

Activists must also organise community volunteers and support groups to help whenever there is a community emergency. Communities must also use local resources, institutions, whether churches, schools or municipal halls, to stage their own cultural, sports and community support events – to help build community solidarity, spirit and togetherness.

Communities will have to establish an emergency response team, consisting of the key civil society activists and groups, local law enforcement and public officials. They may also have to explore organising a hotline system, whether through low-data message systems, WhatsApp or mobile phone, to galvanise a response to local emergencies and build trust.

They must form community monitoring and evaluation committees to hold government delivery sites accountable. Community members should sit on such monitoring and evaluation committees, playing an oversight role over service delivery in schools, police stations, hospitals and national department delivery sites, such as Home Affairs.

They should mobilise communities to participate in and influence ward committees, which is supposed to enhance local public participation, but which has widely failed to do so. They must also get local communities to participate in determining priorities in municipal budgets.

In cases where hard-pressed parents with school-going children cannot sit on school governing boards, they must get community representatives to do so, even if such members do not have children or their children are grown. School should be used better: community members could, for example, introduce extramural events at schools. This could include overseeing learners doing their homework, providing supervised sports training or practising cultural activities. Communities must explore establishing community media, produced by locals, as was the case during apartheid.

Credible, alternative community leadership is crucial when the mainstream leadership has lost all credibility. Local activists should provide alternative grassroots leadership by inculcating new democratic values, culture and ways of behaviour, including shaming women abusers, chauvinism and public and elected representatives who act with impunity. They must continue to mobilise local citizens to protests in peaceful ways against lack of public service delivery, rising corruption and mismanagement.

They must establish social enterprises that guarantee the provision of quality public services, in the absence of a functioning state. Such community social enterprises should become the black economic empowerment partners to business. Government, corporate and public organisations must buy from such community social enterprises through its preferential procurement system for black-owned companies.

How business can strengthen community resilience

South Africa’s business sector must also more imaginatively strengthen struggling communities, through financially supporting genuine capacity programs, providing corporate welfare to communities in their catchment area, and buying goods and services from community-based organisations. Corporates can adopt poor schools, provide teaching tools, mentor, internships, sponsor sports and cultural clubs and events, and establish food gardens. Corporates must make such community-based enterprises their black economic empowerment (BEE) partners, rather than partnering with token politically connected political capitalists.

Corporates can teach, foster and support community entrepreneurship. Corporates must champion alternative forms of BEE, which provide assets, business opportunities and technical skills to more people. Furthermore, corporates must do more to ensure black beneficiaries – many who are now destitute – who contributed to pension funds during the apartheid-era, receive their rightful pension fund contributions from the unclaimed pension fund surpluses.

What can privileged individuals do to strengthen resilience?

South Africans of all colours with financial means should show greater social solidarity with historical disadvantaged individuals and communities. Skilled South Africans who want to could help in poorer communities. Retired professionals could teach in black schools, communities, from mathematics to rugby skills, or mentor a child in Soweto, Alexandria or Khayelitsha. For example, if they are medical doctors, they can volunteer their services, or if lawyers, can provide legal help to vulnerable individuals and communities.

They can pay for the education of the children of their domestic worker. Privileged individuals could give their domestic workers industrially useful practical skills – driving, first aid or vocational training. They could adopt a child’s education in the township or adopt a township family – through regularly helping.

Privileged schools can adopt/twin with poor township school, with teachers from the well-resourced teaching at the poorer school, and richer parents volunteering at the poorer school. Former pupils of embattled township schools, residents of neglected townships and informal settlements who are now financially well-off must contribute to their old schools, townships and informal settlements, whether mentoring, sponsoring poor children and families and giving access to their networks.


The ANC alliance that has been the governing centre of South Africa’s post-apartheid dispensation is collapsing. This has unleashed a period of increasing state failure, mass disillusionment, and paralysing uncertainty. The turbulence will continue until a new governing centre is reconfigured from either parts of the ANC or a new opposition coalition.

Communities themselves will have to “find unknown inner strengths and resources” (Ganor & Ben-Lavy 2003: 106) to cope with the uncertainty at the individual and community level. This will mean that civil society, civic and community activists and leaders will have to, at the local level, provide alternative leadership.

Ordinary citizens will have to step in and contribute where they can – supporting vulnerable individuals, families and communities, showing active citizenship. Resilient activists and communities are the bulwark against these turbulent times.

 Selected Bibliography

Rashi Ahmed, Mohamed Seedat, Ashley van Niekerk, Samed Bulbulia (2004). Discerning community resilience in disadvantaged communities in the context of violence and injury prevention. South African Journal of Psychology, 34, 386–408.

Community & Regional Resilience Institute (2013) Definitions of Community Resilience: An Analysis. CARRI, Washington DC

Diane Coutu (2002) How Resilience Works. Harvard Business Review, May


Viktor E. Frankl (2017) Men’s Search for Meaning. 4th edition, Beacon Press, New York

Michael Ganor and Yuli Ben-Lavy (2003). Community resilience: Lessons derived from Gilo under fire. Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Winter/Spring, 105–108.

William Gumede (2012) Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times. Tafelberg

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) The Savage Mind. University of Chicago Press.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter (2013) Surprises are the new normal. Harvard Business Review, July 17


Andrea Ovans (2015) What Resilience Means and Why it Matters. Harvard Business Review. January 5


Betty J. Pfefferbaum, Dori B. Reissman, Rose L. Pfefferbaum, Richard W. Klomp and Robin H. Gurwitch (2005). Building resilience to mass trauma events. In L. Doll, S. Bonzo, J. Mercy, & D. Sleet (Eds.), Handbook on injury and violence prevention interventions. Kluwer Academic Publishers, New York.

Martin E.P. Seligman (2011) Building Resilience. Harvard Business Review, April


Steven Snyder (2013) Why is Resilience so Hard? Harvard Business Review, November 6


Steven Snyder (2013),  Leaders and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, New York

Christopher Sonn and Adrian Fisher (1998). Sense of community: Community resilient responses to oppression and change. Journal of Community Psychology, 26, 457–472.

*This policy brief is a follow to the Peace-builders Convention, hosted by Freedom House on September 9 in the Gariep, Free State.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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