FCRJ Podcast › 2: Phumi Mtetwa, JASS

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Episode 2
Phumi Mtetwa, JASS

In this episode FCRJ Director Awino Okech speaks to activist and Phumi Mtetwa, from Just Associates (JASS). The conversation covers feminist popular education, activism and academia, the August 2023 JASS Movement Building Schools, and what’s been cooking in the global body politic.

Interviewer: Awino Okech

Guest: Phumi Mtetwa

Produced by: The Feminist Centre for Racial Justice

Recording, editing, transcription, design: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde

Music: Broken RNB Instrumental by The Audio Way,


Awino: Welcome to the FCRJ podcast, where we discuss topical issues at the intersection of feminism and racial justice, as well as engage partners and comrades on projects we are carrying out together. This is the second in the series of podcasts developed by the Feminist Centre for Racial Justice, which is hosted at SOAS University of London. For more information about the Feminist Centre, please go to our website, 

My name is Awino Okech. I'm the founding director of FCRJ, and I'm excited to welcome our second guest, Phumi Mtetwa. Phumi, welcome. 

Phumi: Thank you, Awino, and thank you to the Centre for creating the podcast and for having us on board.

Awino: So tell me a little bit about who you are, Phumi.

Phumi: I... I guess one of the short descriptions of who I am is I'm the 1986 generation of activists in South Africa, organizing against rent foreign boycotts during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. But broadly, I have been part of many movements really rooted in movement work and logics in the region across the continent, but also globally.

And right now I am part of Just Associates, a feminist movement building and strengthening organization that works in at least 22 countries broadly and deeply in 10 countries, working with women land defenders, LBTQ... really at the intersections of, you know, bodies, resources and, yeah... defending the rights of women.

Of course, as you know, we center feminist popular education as... as an important part of thinking about context, thinking about what must be done, given the context, tooling up for strategies and long term power building, really that is what we largely involve ourselves in on a day to day.

Awino: Thank you Phumi. And I'm aware, of course, the JASS just celebrated its twentieth anniversary, I believe. And moving through what might, one might think of as a new phase of envisioning JASS in the world and JASS as work in the world. So what might you say is JASS's big offer to the world at this moment? And what informs your thinking around your big offer? 

Phumi: I think you'll agree with me that 20 years seems like a short time, but a long time at the same time. There was a moment, I guess, at the founding of JASS, you know, when liberation movements were still happening and we were all excited that we are going to be free. Democracy was going to thrive. And there would be no more struggles, I suppose. And so JASS gets born, you know from that... from that basis of people who were involved in the liberation movements across Southeast Asia, Mesoamerica and Southern Africa, who were thinking what is the best thing like to build knowing that women remain on the margins, right? Patriarchy continues to, you know, to leave so many of us behind. And so in 20 years of JASS, centering feminist popular education, we've seen so, so many changes. 

And you'll agree that as we analyze and read the world today, it feels like we have gone like five steps back, right?... in relation to what we would, we were hoping we would be right now. Of course, it also demonstrates that we've done amazing things to build, but then the right, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism -all of those ills- are now reorganising themselves against all the gains that we've made, which means that it's a moment in which to rethink the strategies we had and to retool.

And so JASS in this moment, of course, still convinced that movements, all movements, have an important role to play because movements part from the place of, "we know the problem; we are organized in ethical and concrete ways to actually bring about the solutions that are necessary for the world that we want to bring that is just, that is equitable", and so on. And therefore, JASS comes into, say, our contribution would be to continue to a company, be part of catalyze, create spaces, co-create spaces where we are able to analyze the moments... whether it's in country, whether it's regionally, whether it's globally with different types - sometimes specific movements, sometimes across movements, across issues- to analyze the moments and therefore you know, with that analysis to be able to think about what strategies are necessary.

And in addition to that, we cannot underestimate that building leadership remains an important part of some of the work that movements are engaged in. And so, through the various ways in our popular education and engaged in engaging in cross movement, cross issue struggles, we contribute in, you know, with the tools that enabled movements to actually work on the strategies. And to, yeah, to keep renewing. 

Awino: As you know, the Feminist Centre for Racial Justice is a very new initiative just started a year ago, actually. In September, we'll be marking our first anniversary, believe it or not, time does indeed fly. And one of the commitments really of this centre is to try and bring together regions that have conversations on feminism and racial justice in vibrant and different ways. So if you're thinking about Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and where historically there have been links across context. So if you think about the pan-Africanism movement, pan-African thought, Black internationalist struggles, but where we seem to have lost those connections over time.

But yet, I, I was just in in the Dominican Republic recently for a meeting about a separate matter. And I was struck, Phumi, about the complexities of trying to do transnational work, particularly as it relates to questions of race or even much more specifically on questions of Blackness and anti-Blackness. And so I'm sitting in this moment, wondering what is the advice that just can offer an FCRJ given your view? It's a vast experience of working transnationally about what it means to build together when it appears that you don't know each other. 

Phumi: I am so glad that you mentioned about the centre, really an important part, and you know how much we value JASS, very much, you know, the activist academic contribution to the work that we do. Awino, it's not an accident that we are so fragmented. It's, it seems like this was cooked somewhere. It's not an accident that we, we sometimes feel like we are fragile and we are unable to construct the bridges, even as we know that we need to. Even, nevermind like the Caribbean and Africa, even in our own countries; it's not an accident that we experienced the same oppression, we want to organize on the same issues or cross issues, but that we will find like it very hard for us to come together. 

I think as excluded, opressed, decriminalized, peoples across the world, across geographies, the way in which the systems of oppression has pitted us against each other is exactly the results of why you would find such difficulties, oftentimes than not, in such important ways. Because, you know, we have histories, histories around racial discrimination, exclusion and oppression. We have so many commonalities. If you just think about how Haiti was set up, you know, as an island to actually be the stopping point before we are sold off to the world. If you think about those things, and yet whether it's language sometimes that we use to say we can't build the bridges, or whether the other ways, it's not an accident. 

So I think many of us recognize these things and the complexities around that. And I think that is why, you know, the collaboration between the Centre and JASS comes also as an important contribution of thinking, "how can we go beyond everything that seeks to separate us, but more like create spaces that can enable us to understand the problem?" The problem is deep in its complexity, but to also say it may be so big, but these are the seeds that we are able to plan together to share together to be able to build together. 

And I do think that in such situations where trust even when we didn't know each other, but we part from a place of suspicion, right? What do you want? What are you going to get for me? Why is it that I must show up? So just parting from a place of suspicion is what we first need to work on. And those are important elements that sometimes we may not write about. But in feminist popular education, we are able to feel. And I think one of those important things of creating a space to feel then creates a place to trust, then creates a space to be able to actually give potential to the many important voices in our diversities with our difference with our political ideologies, but that we can come together and actually find a moment in which we can build together. And I'm sure, you know, given where we are going... I don't know from from your from your sense, how do you hear this, and how you feel in terms of like what we're trying to build together?

Awino: I'm quite intrigued by two things that you have said. And, you know, I think conversations like this are often very useful in making sense of some things that might seem or be read as a problem when there are opportunities. 

So for instance, the point that you make around language. We are soon going to be talking about the Movement Building School, where we are going to be working across language. And for those of us who work in particular languages, and in this instance, the English language, it's very easy to, sort of, get impatient with the different ways of articulating and thinking about concepts that don't translate in the same way across other languages, and potentially view that as obfuscation, when actually there is something else quite deep that is happening there in terms of modes of understanding issues. So really, you have offered me something to walk into the process that we will be doing in August in a very, very different way, particularly in relation to language. 

The second point that you raised that I do want to hold on to is the idea of suspicion, because suspicion can be viewed as a negative thing. But it's also -you are inviting me to think about it- as something that is a productive tension. How do we work with that as an immediate offer to then begin to get underneath the skin of what suspicion is about. So really, I do want to thank you for those two offers because they really, really give me a lot to reflect on around the movement, Building School, that we're going to be collaborating on.

Now, one of the things that I was quite intentional about in thinking through what a centre of this nature would offer that other centres are not necessarily doing -and I'm not thinking about it just thematically or issues, but also in terms of its methodological orientation... the people it sets to bring together- was that I wanted to bridge that divide between the academy and "the world"... I'm going to call it the world. And you know that I have a history as a as a professional activist, I'll put it that way. So the academy was not always my home and I came into the academy much later. So there's something for me that's also about my past, my history that I'm seeking to find a place for in this current moment.

So Just Associates for me then became a very important anchor partner, largely because of what I feel as some of your very powerful methodological interventions. And I wonder if you could share with us about how JASS has thought about feminine feminist popular education and your power framework as really one of your strongest offers to the world, both conceptually and methodologically. 

Phumi: I'm so glad... I will know that you raise also your trajectory as an activist because I didn't meet you when you were in academia, right? I met you and we were cooking other works, like, over the years, and it's so important that you also come in with that experience, you know in the work that you are building in the centre. 

Now, you know, we have a platform called where you will find like, almost like a chunk of the methodologies that JASS has developed over the years, that's kind of like some of like the big, big methodologies. Of course, what feminist popular education does is you have to, as a facilitator in co-facilitating, like, adapt it to the context, to the people and to sometimes... it's like a constituency. You know, women were living with HIV are all women living with HIV. When you do cross movement, you have to think about the different movements and so on. And so really one of the things Paulo Freire missed was the women and the feminist approaches, right? And always, like, believing that women have the answers. And our role is really to kind of like a company to help surface both the understanding, the deep comprehension of what the problem is, where the possibilities and solutions may lie, and actually how to build towards them.

So you mentioned the power framework, both the negative power and the transformative power. Which really the negative power enables us to read the world and to think that, "where do we put our energies, when everything needs our energies?" So visible power tells us in the way in which we can reach today that power doesn't lie in the people we vote for, isn't it?... doesn't lie in the people we elect, and so on. And therefore, if we think about, you know, some of the issues that convene us also for the School around the increasing might of the anti-Right movement, the power frameworks helps us to see exactly how hidden and invisible power, you know, play a particular role in the way in which it's, it's shaping most of our lives.

And of course, historical -the systemic part- we have so many legacies as Black , indigenous... you know, the Roma people, and with migration and asylum issues... we have so much that even if there's good policies in place around, you know, how structural violence can be addressed, it's so endemic, right? It's so deeply rooted in that history. And the power -the negative- you know, analyzing the negative power helps us to see, in order to shape our strategies. To inform the how, why, and then the who in terms of building leadership. And when I think about the transformative framework of power is that, no one can do this on their own, right? The large part of it is that we have to build collective power in order to face the multiplicities of systems that oppress us. And that is really, in the many things that you will find in We Rise, whether we're talking about analyzing a particular situation, whether it's fighting for water, or whether it's fighting against the military, but you know, using a tools that are rooted in feminist popular education that helps us to unpack and that's enabled the building of collective power. 

And in the same way, I mean, I'm keen also to hear more from you of how the centre has been, you know, bringing anti-Blackness, in a continent like this, and also what we are thinking of why a pilot in Latin America in this moment when we know the need is so much and that it could be useful on so many sides of struggle.

Awino: Thank you. Thank you so much, Phumi. I would argue that as, as an African and as somebody who has been deeply committed to the idea of the transnational, it would be too easy to go to Nairobi, Kampala or Johannesburg to host an Africa pilot Movement Building School. And to attempt a pilot in a region that would stretch us conceptually, to deepen our understanding of the region is what this pilot Movement Building School adjust, which is happening at the end of August is about. It's an intellectual stretch. It is a stretch for us to understand regions that we are deeply curious about. Regions that we know that are have had strong intellectual histories in relation to work that we are interested in. But regions, which I would argue, and I'm certain that somebody might challenge me on this, don't know us too well. Those of us who come say from the African continent, right? 

And so there's a bit of a challenge that we're seeking to bring into the space to begin the process of bridging, to root ourselves in the region, broadly called Latin America, and we're only bringing together 15 activists. It's a pilot. So even as we say, regional as we say say region, those words must be read very loosely, right? This is an intervention that seeks to understand what's happening generally to understand those histories and begin to stretch everyone towards thinking transnationally. 

You have pointed out quite clearly that our challenges today are transnational in nature. But the connections, the movements, the resources, the actors are global in nature. The demand of this moment is that we must pay attention to the local specificities. But always think about the transnational possibilities for both building solidarity and connecting that solidarity to broader action. So really, that is it. For me personally, it's a stretch. I want to stretch myself. I want to see what else I can learn and explore through this School. 

Phumi: It's amazing. I am so excited about, you know, what we are going to be able to do. It's a pilot, of course. There's so much interest, just looking at the amount of people who've applied. We have the daunting task of just selecting, you know, the 15 that we said we would select. But also I think in that is also, you know, a message to us that there is a need for such spaces, for such schools, even though it's, it's in Latin America. Some of the applicants are based in Portugal. Some of them are based... you know, have that transnational nature of living because they ask. They come from Latin America, but of course, some of them live in Africa, in Europe, in the US, and so on. And so this is also going to be interesting in terms of, like, the richness that's going to be in the room in terms of both the understanding of the manifestations and also what people have been doing in relation to movements. Because, you know, one of the things we said is that ideally people are rooted in movements or work with movements in one form or another, and it's different because movements are under attack. We are being criminalized as activists, right? 

What does it mean to work on these particular issues that have that historical, you know, heaviness? Right now, if we see just like, you know, the continuous shooting of black people, Brazil, you know, the US and so on, that there is still a commitment to work on this despite that. And I think some of the commitments, you know, people are already making before even the School start to say, "this is what I want to do after the School in relation to the work that I'm doing". It's quite an invitation. And I think, Awino, you will agree that some of us -especially me as a Southerner- there is a sense of being domesticated, right? We have to break that, like we say, like we cannot just read the world -I mean, we struggled with reading Zimbabwe and Mozambique- we have to break those things that we can organise locally, but think also, you know, why it's important because the enemy is moving everywhere. And therefore we have to be organized enough to understand why and how, so that we are able to do the work that needs to be done.

Awino: Yeah, you're absolutely right. There's something you said earlier that reminds me of a statement a colleague mentioned reason recently, which is that, the region is always elsewhere, right, which is that the diasporic connections, you know, you might have, come from one context, but you come from that context via many other places, and that we must not always be too beholden to the nation state or specific locale as a way of understanding experiences. 

So in closing, Phumi, what is the one thing that you're excited about for Mexico? Beyond the food. 

Phumi: Beyond the chili. I am so excited about the people that we will have in the room. I'm excited about co-facilitation team, which is going to stretch us as a co-facilitation team in turn, right? You know, being able to design a curriculum that enables us to actually meet the participants where they are, so that we are also able to co-create a space of mutual learning. I am excited also, you know, that even if it's a pilot, there is already... we have hopes beyond the School, right? In terms of, like, what what we will learn and how we are able to take it forward. And above all, I'm excited that we are able to create this space. Honestly, I think that just as a beginning, we are able to create this space to think together and to actually think about, you know, bringing different people and learning and so on. It's going to be exciting. I'm looking forward to it. End of August in Mexico, we have almost all systems almost ready to go! 

Awino: Systems almost ready to go, absolutely. And I really just do want to emphasize the gift you've given me today, which is how to reframe how one thinks about trust building; how to reframe how one enters spaces and organizes them in ways that enables folks to come in with all of the existing challenges that are informed by deeply harmful experiences from the past systems that are organized in ways that are designed to attack specific groups of people. And so suspicion, trust building, working across languages is something I'm quite keen to think about differently as I walk into Mexico. So thank you for that gift, Phumi. 

Phumi: Wonderful. And thank you for, you know, you create these opportunities for us to always keep finding each other and keep cooking amazing work. And I really look forward to more collaborations with the Centre and that, one year: many more years, because so much needed. Thank you, Sis. 

Awino: Thank you so much. Folks, look forward to the third episode in the series in a short while. Take care. 

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