[This conversation was originally published in part 1 of ‘Narrative Power & Collective Action’, a collaboration between Oxfam and On Think Tanks. All conversations were edited by Louise Ball. Download the publication.]
Phumi Mtetwa works for Just Associates (JASS), a global women-led feminist and human rights network of activists, popular educators, and scholars in 31 countries, helping women leaders to be more confident, organised, louder, and safer.
Narratives are about invisible power: how perceptions, belief systems and ideology shape the way people define what is “right” and what is “wrong”.
What do narratives mean to you?
I was born in a township 45 km west of Johannesburg. I grew up in the antiapartheid movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTI movement, the feminist movement, and really the global anti-capitalist movement.
We might not have called it narratives, but I’ve always been dealing with perceptions, myths, and ideologies that are created to ‘other’ people.
I grew up in a context where perceptions about people were also used to define what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Who was accepted and who was marginalised.
In JASS, we work to understand the role of power in deepening the persecution of female human rights defenders and how narratives shape those power dynamics.
In this work, we convene women, feminists, intersex groups, unionists, and other movements to unpack how power is affecting their lives.
We engage in dialogues that are crossmovement, sector, and geography – where we create safe spaces for people to understand how power is manifested in different contexts.
This includes both formal power, which we call ‘visible power’, and hidden power, which we call ‘invisible power’.
For us at JASS, narratives are about invisible power. How perceptions, belief systems, and ideology shape the way people define what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.
The power to determine what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, is essentially the power to decide who lives and who dies. It’s the power to determine who can access things, who cannot, and who’s voice counts.
We see a lot of strategies that focus on visible power and how it operates: advocacy work, working through the courts, going to police stations, changing a bill, enacting a law, and so on.
And yet the real power is often behind the scenes, behind closed doors, behind the president, behind the parliamentarian, behind the face of formal power.
That’s where other actors, for example, corporations or religious fundamentalists, influence what government defines as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
What this means in practice is working with the movements we support to ensure that their strategies and tactics take into account how hidden and invisible power operate: the norms, beliefs, values, and ideologies that underpin our understanding of ourselves in the world and that are influencing or controlling the policy agenda.
It’s here that we need to do the most work to shift norms and values that underpin policy.
What dominant narratives do you encounter in southern Africa?
In Malawi, we’ve been working for ten years building a movement that is now 8,000 women strong.
It’s a movement of HIV positive women and the campaign is called Our Bodies Our Lives.
We saw again and again that these women were chased out of their villages by those holding formal power. Chieftans would say that it was not worth investing in them, because they were going to die.
Over time, as a group they have been redefining these narratives, refusing to hide and finding their power together. By existing, they are proving these narratives wrong.
We also worked with religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, to propose progressive interventions around HIV, like voluntary testing and counselling.
Changing perceptions is possible, but it takes time.
In South Africa right now, we are seeing the interests of mining companies, government and Chieftans connect, resulting in mining companies being given 200-year leases. Women are fighting to defend their land. But land is power, and in South Africa land is also life. And there is this underlying narrative or idea that a woman has no right to speak about land.
There are stories that seek to exclude women, telling them that their place is nowhere in the brokering of power, in determining livelihoods, nor in talking about land.
In 1996, women won rights in the South African Constitution. We won the legislature, our rights are on paper, but what is happening around the land issue shows you how power really operates. That’s the contradiction in action.
Women have absolutely no place when the government talks to leaders. They are being persecuted because they disagree. They are under attack and have to go into hiding because they are fighting for the land rights of communities.
The narrative is stubborn and sticks. The wins in court don’t matter. Women are being silenced and undermined in their communities.
In many countries across the continent, we see the religious Right pushing their antiabortion, anti-LGBTI, anti-sex-work rhetoric, and governments are buying into it. That is causing people to die or to be stigmatised, marginalised, and seen as second-class citizens, or worse, sub-human.
What can we learn from the movements you work with?
Communities have their own knowledge systems and means of culture production that are critical ways to put forward new narratives, claim space and challenge mainstream conservative narratives that are contributing to oppression and marginalisation.
We see how powerful it can be for movements to look at the world through a power lens. It enables them to think about the power players in relation to their own lives and struggles. This is important because we often do not understand how powerful groups invisibly undermine people’s rights.
We see a great contradiction and tension between the Constitution we continue to uphold, and our inability to operate properly as a non-governmental organisation (NGO). In practice, this means human rights organisations’ wings are clipped and they are less able to protect human rights.
When you place patriarchy, capitalism, and militarisation in a power analysis framework, you see the bigger picture. It’s important to understand how patriarchy, ideas of white supremacy, and capitalism are operating in practice.
We are in another cycle of renewal. It requires us as movements and activists to come up with new tactics and strategies to confront that intersection of power more effectively. Because the reality is that we are being killed by it.
The transformative potential of collective action
The power of movements and the transformative potential of collective power are also really important to understand. This work is about a collective approach and strategies for the common good – we can’t do that alone or as individuals.
Collective power right now also means asking: who did we leave out before? Who was not part of informing the strategies when we won those rights the first time around? So that as we renew, we also think about how we elevate our voices and our collective power to ensure no one is left behind.