In his report to the inaugural AGM of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (South Africa) on 20 October 2012, Martin Jansen said that active membership of the Cape Town branch of the PSC (SA)—known for most of its history as the Palestine Solidarity Group—had not really grown over the years. Younger people have come to PSG/PSC meetings recently. But they soon stop coming and lose contact. This raised the question of how to get young South Africans involved in solidarity with the people of Palestine—a cause that often seems to them remote or intractable or ancient.
I’m prompted to respond to this question because I’ve been involved in the University of Cape Town Palestine Solidarity Forum since early 2010, and I’m aware of how different its organizing style is from that of the older PSC (SA). The UCT PSF style of organizing emerged partly in response to the needs of young people and partly at their initiative. (The group of 15 or 20 that discussed the formation of UCT PSF in 2010 was about equally divided between staff and students. Its first committee was dominated by staff. Since its launch in August 2010, the vast majority of its membership has been students. Its committee now consists entirely of students.) It’s possible that the older organization may be able to learn from the younger.
Of course, the question of how to involve people of any age in Palestine solidarity is not simply one of finding the right organizing style, if indeed there is such a thing. Policies deliberately aimed at achieving demographic balance or proportionality—whether of race, gender or age—can easily lead to results which everyone experiences as contrived and frustrating. What we should aim at is enabling people who are willing and able to make a contribution to the Palestinian cause to do so in the ways that match their abilities and circumstances, help them to grow politically and personally and contribute to a strong and focused movement.
UCT PSF’s style of organizing
UCT PSF experimented with different ways of organizing and continued with those that worked best for all concerned. The fact that we were based at a university—and in practice almost all of our work has been on Upper Campus—was clearly a major difference between our membership and that of PSC, for example. Despite differences in context, it’s worth outlining the four main features of the organizing style that UCT PSF developed.
1. Limit meetings to no longer than one hour: This has been our practice both for meetings intended to take decisions and for meetings intended to address and inform a wider audience. Sometimes this one-hour limit was imposed on us by the availability of the venue we had. But when we could have kept the venue for longer, we stuck to that limit out of consideration for people’s time; if we asked them to come to a meeting, we felt we owed it to them to make sure that decisions were taken within the time-span they expected, or less. We finished ahead of time if we could.
We found that other benefits came from sticking to this one-hour limit, especially when we had to take decisions at committee meetings or general members meetings. There was less time for name dropping or retrieving obscure details; instead we had to decide what point we wanted to make, and make it clearly and concisely. We avoided repeating what someone else had said, or giving a summary of what points we agreed or disagreed with. We became quick to recognize when there was division or confusion on a specific issue and then to defer discussion until we had time to deal with the issue thoroughly. We learned to refer practical issues to smaller groups to decide, rather than letting them take up everyone’s time. There were always issues we didn’t have time to resolve, but we almost always made progress. When a meeting is productive, people come back to the next one.
There were rare occasions when we couldn’t get done in an hour. When we saw that was becoming likely, and the venue was available for longer, we would pause briefly—about ten minutes before the hour, say—and decide whether to continue for a further fifteen minutes. But we only did that if everyone present was able to stay past the hour. And we would then stop at the end of the additional fifteen minutes.
Public meetings always concluded within the hour as well, except for a few occasions during 2012 when we had high-profile speakers at events held in the evening. Although they were longer, we followed the same principle of trying to respect people’s time by sticking to the schedule we announced at the outset.
2. Give priority to broad discussion over presentations, especially when taking decisions: In public meetings, with an educational purpose, we have always allowed for discussion from the floor without making that the main part of the meeting. About half of the meeting time was usually taken by presentations, and the speaker (or speakers) would respond to questions or arguments after that. But at committee meetings or general meetings of UCT PSF members, called to take decisions, we worked very differently.
Our practice at members’ meetings was to have no more than one speaker from the podium, speaking for no more than about ten minutes, and speaking mainly with the aim of framing the question properly, so that others could respond. There was time for everyone to contribute during the remaining 40 or 50 minutes. If there was a longer agenda, both the introduction and the other contributions had to be even briefer. Because the meeting was structured in order to respect the time and contribution of those attending, they respected the time and contribution of each other. That is, people learned to limit their contribution without being told to do so; I can’t remember anyone being cut short at these meetings.
After our public launch, we took a decision affirming the equal right of all who attend our public meetings to speak from the floor, whether they support our aims or oppose them. At times some of our comrades struggled to respond to Zionist arguments or resorted to name-calling. But we consistently made clear that supporters of the Palestinian cause had to be able to argue their case convincingly.
3. Use the Internet as the primary route for distribute documents, not email or meetings: After the very first meeting held to discuss whether there was a need for an organization dealing with Palestinian issues on UCT campus, we established a website where we could post agendas, proposals, minutes, reports, etc. There is no way to ensure that everyone has read the documents posted. We didn’t assume that everyone had done so; we just made it clear that they were available. We could convey the gist of the document briefly at the meeting, but we never read aloud or (even more mind-deadening, in my view) used Powerpoint. If it was important for people to have a specific text in front of them, we would usually make a photocopy of no more than a page.
The use of the Internet was absolutely essential to ensure that meetings remained relatively short and that everyone had a roughly equal opportunity to contribute to discussion. It also enabled us to limit the use of email and cell-phone messaging to avoid imposing on our comrades. Both of the websites used so far by UCT PSF have allowed us to send email to an email list. We’ve limited these to relatively short announcements and tried to avoid multiple reminders of the same event. My own view is that the best practice is to send out one notice per event and no more. Reminders can easily become an irritation, and those who don’t diarize the event the first time won’t necessarily do so after the second or third reminder.
It’s also made it possible to target email, so that it goes to the people directly involved and not necessarily to the whole membership. In this way, we can distribute readings to a discussion group or discuss meeting times within working groups organizing a specific event. In all of this, we’ve strongly discouraged people from using the “reply all” function of their email, unless it is clearly necessary to do so. We’ve also removed people promptly from email lists if they’ve asked us to do so. Apart from being a basic courtesy, this also gives people the option of joining again later rather than being kept away by fear of incessant and unnecessary email.
4. Decide on a programme of activities on the basis of who is willing to organize them; establish working groups to deal with organizing specific events, rather than discussing details within the whole committee: UCT PSF began as a group of 15 or 20 people meeting to discuss its aims, focus, format, etc. We formed a committee of seven or eight members before its launch and the committee has remained around that size then. Although the committee had overall responsibility for the UCT PSF programme, our aim was always to involve as many people as possible in initiating and organizing specific events.
To do this, we encouraged people to take responsibility for projects which they were enthusiastic about, and made such projects dependent on there being enough support to go ahead with it. In a sense, this process reversed the traditional order of organizational priorities. Instead of first deciding on a specific project and then asking who would the work involved, when a project was proposed we would begin by asking who was sufficiently committed to do the work involved and then decide on that basis whether or not to go ahead with it.
Generally, such working groups consisted of two, three or four people, with one of them (often a committee member) as convenor. When they were bigger than that it became harder to arrange for all of them to meet. As they were taking on the work, other members of the committee did not try to second-guess them or force them in a specific direction.
The reasoning behind this way of organizing was that there would always be more that could be done to promote the Palestinian cause than we, with our limited resources, could actually get done. There was little to be gained by arguing with each other about how we would like things to be done, if we were not willing to do it ourselves. Unless we wanted to put our energy into these internal conflicts, our choice was between having an event organized in a way that was different from we would have done it or not having an event at all.
It’s possible to imagine situations in which opposing sides would have preferred not to have an event at all, but I can’t think of one that didn’t take place for that reason. Instead, by allowing people to organize things in the way they preferred, rather than following generally agreed forms, we learned constantly how many ways there were of doing things and found a steady source of inventiveness. Somewhat to our surprise, an event like a relatively simple slide-show could arouse eager engagement. My own view is that our weakest events were those in which we followed someone else’s requirements—for example, when participating in a national or global event, using materials provided by a different organization. Creativity can be sparked, but cannot easily be transferred.
In describing these four features of UCT PSF organizing style, I am also trying to convey a specific ethic that was implicitly conveyed and encouraged through it. I won’t try to make that ethic more explicit here, save to say that it did not focus on duty and self-sacrifice, but rather on making yourself part of a larger community of struggle. As we tried to treat each other in this way, it also became easier to treat our Zionist opponents on campus with a certain degree of forbearance and good humour, listening to what they said and then replying rather than relying on stereotypes. It helped us to understand that the struggle for Palestinian freedom is not a sectarian struggle, but a struggle for social justice which impacts crucially on the future of all humankind.
I think it would be generally agreed that building a global movement in support of Palestinian freedom depends crucially on the energy and idealism of young people. But it also seems to me that involving young people may not be a priority for each individual Palestine solidarity organization, even if it is a priority for the movement as a whole. If PSC has not grappled with this question until now, this may be a sign that it is not a priority for them.
It may even be a sign that it is too late for PSC to make it a priority. After all, a handful of twenty-year-olds may have been more at home when the core membership was ten years younger and less set in their ways. Even if this is true, this need not detract from the value of the work done by an organization dominated by older people, as long as they understand their relation to the movement as a whole. It may still be useful to describe the experience of UCT PSF. Even if it’s decided that it is not relevant to PSC, it may contribute to the self-knowledge which is a crucial part of understanding our political role within a larger movement and deciding how to do justice to it.
I’ve not written only with PSC in mind, but with a broader concern for concerted solidarity across different generational styles. Just as older generations within the movement should rely on the energy and idealism of the younger, so younger generations need to learn to draw on the experience of the older. By learning from each other, different generations may also learn important lessons in certain humility. We, the older generation, were formed politically by different circumstances, and the habits that resulted sometimes seem outdated today. But the circumstances of today will not last forever.
1 November 2012