Transition – moving from the known to the unknown – is never easy but, necessary if an organization wants to position itself to respond to emerging social, economic, political, environmental, and institutional challenges. And, if 23 years of democratic transition in South Africa has taught us anything, it is that change is not only about “what” needs to change but, also about “the why” and “the how”.  For change to be accepted and embraced all three need to be interrogated and clear before one can transcend the fear of the unknown that accompanies transformation. The Masifundise Development Trust (Masifundise) stands squarely in this space – transitioning into a new space – as 2017 ends and a new year hovers on the horizon.

Changing focus, direction, or institutional form is not new to Masifundise, an organization with a long history and a tradition of adapting to changing social, economic, and political contexts when needed.  In its first period of existence (1980 to 1999) Masifundise provided adult education and literacy support to the Black population of the Western Cape. With the arrival of democratic transition in 1994, this area of its work became increasingly obsolete, forcing Masifundise to revisit its vision and mission. This resulted in a new vision, strategic direction and focus – working alongside small-scale fishers in the Western Cape excluded at the time from the ambit of new fishing legislation in the late 1990s.

By 2001, Masifundise had transformed and repositioned itself as the only development organization working in this niche area and, in 2004, registered itself as an independent trust to support small-scale fishing communities in mobilizing, lobbying, and advocating for legal recognition and sustainable livelihoods through social agency and self-organization. During its first phase as the Masifundise Development Trust (2004 to 2012) Masifundise, in alliance with Coastal Links, a movement of small-fishers from 16 coastal towns in the Western Cape, and their partners, actively mobilized and advocated for the inclusion of small-scale fishers as a legally recognized category of fishers in the Marine Living Resources Act (MRLA). A 2007 Equality Court Order instructed government to amend the MRLA and, develop a small-scale fisher policy. Five years later (2012), when government adopted a Small-scale Fishers Policy (SSFP), crafted in partnership with Coastal Links and Masifundise, Coastal Links transformed itself into a national body with a footprint across all four coastal provinces – the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

This marks the next phase in the organizational history of Masifundise (2012-2017) – its expansion into all four coastal provinces, a unique institutional arrangement between itself and CLSA, in which Masifundise acted as both a support and secretariat to CLSA as they collaborated on a mix of strategies – lobbying, advocacy, protest, and publicity – to translate the paper rights promised in the SSFP into tangible rights, with socio-economic benefits, for fishers across the four provinces. Both CLSA and Masifundise found themselves challenged daily to find the space for manoeuvre within a post-Apartheid paradox, framed and driven by a neo-liberal political and developmental agenda, that demanded simultaneous protest and participation with government. And, straddle institutional lines (identity, roles, responsibilities) between the social movement (CLSA) and NGO (Masifundise) that by 2017 had become incrementally blurred.

In 2017 Masifundise entered a phase that can be characterized as one of deep reflection and strategic review. The catalyst for potential change was driven by three separate but inter-linked external evaluations (February-August 2017) that investigated and assessed Masifundise’ operational (internal) systems, external programmes, methodology, and governance, against the backdrop of a rapidly changing and dynamic political, social, and development context. All three independently recommended organizational areas of change, the most radical and far reaching one being a recommendation that the time had come for Masifundise and CLSA to disentangle themselves institutionally, to free both up to reposition themselves, grow, and collaborate, as independent but longstanding social partners, to address and embrace emerging challenges and opportunities facing them in a dynamic fishing and development context in South Africa and, globally. It was time for both to move beyond the known to the unknown.

Since September 2017, Masifundise has been engaged in a deep and intensive reflection and learning process to discern “the what, the why and the how” of transitional change. With the facilitation and support of an external consultant and “Change Agent” all aspects of the organization – identity, vision, mission, areas of intervention, ways of thinking and working, operational systems, governance, legal form, and strategic partnerships, including its close working and institutional linkages with CLSA – are being systematically scrutinized. Alongside this, new ways of thinking and working in the field are being tested for relevance and potential impact. Deep debate, strategic discussions, and reflections with staff, CLSA members and strategic partners, have started to clarify what needs to be done – vision, mission, focal areas for intervention – as well as “the why”.  The most difficult part – “the how”- remains an ongoing question and a process that will continue into 2018, involving numerous conversations and meetings with CLSA, the Board, staff, and a range of diverse strategic partners.

 While a lot remains unknown, three things have become crystal clear: there is an ongoing need for both an organization like Masifundise and a strong and self-reliant social movement like CLSA – to face and embrace emerging challenges and opportunities facing the fishing sector in the present and the future; that implementation of the SSFP has only just started and has a long way to go; and, that its future direction and work (the unknown) will be built on its long legacy of activism, work, and relationships in the small-scale fishing sector and coastal communities. In other words, while a lot may change, some things will continue and, Masifundise’ commitment to the sector and strengthening of its social movements, especially CLSA, remains unchanged.

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