Power to the People

Sadi Motsuenyane

South African government leader promotes Coady philosophy

Sadi Motsuenyane grew up watching her parents and grandparents use the resources they had as rural farmers to make a better life for their families.

Now, as chief director of community development for the South African government, she says her philosophy is shaped by the struggles endured by her family during apartheid.

“I remember waking up one morning to see flags located around our property. The homeland government was going to take much of our land. My father rounded up some friends, took the flags down and burned them. He said ‘This is land I bought, and there is no person going to take it away from me.’”

Her grandfather bought land before the 1913 Lands Act prevented black South Africans from buying property. Eventually though, the family was forcibly relocated to the Lichtenburg region, where her father and uncles bought large tracts of land and began their own development, building shops, churches and schools.

“We were far from town, so we had our own cottage industries, with an orchard and vegetable patches. Mother made jams, even soaps. My father was a blacksmith and wagon maker, and he used those skills to build and repair tractors for himself and other farmers. But he also worked as a court interpreter, and that’s when he learned about the value of education and new opportunities that I was able to take advantage of.”

Sadi's father built and repaired tractors for himself and other farmers

It’s been 20 years since the end of apartheid. But change in a nation of 53 million people comes slowly. Poverty and unemployment are critical challenges. The unemployment rate hovers around 23 per cent. That figure does not include people who’ve given up looking for work altogether.

“The new democratic government inherited the legacy of the apartheid system,” she says. “It tried to help the disenfranchised, but there were unintended negative consequences. Many services, such as welfare grants, were based on needs, and ended up doing very little to reduce poverty.”

Motsuenyane says people became dependent on government to provide an income. It’s why the current administration has laid out a vision of empowering South Africans to champion their own development, using tools like asset-based community development (ABCD).

“During my research I found this concept of the leaky bucket, showing how communities can discover the power of using resources they already have to become more prosperous. That, in itself, made so much sense to people here because in South Africa we have this expression: ‘It’s only a mad person who would go to the river and fetch water with a leaky bucket.’”

A few years later, Motsuenyane had just delivered a presentation at a workshop in Cape Town when a Canadian participant rushed up to her and said the concept was exactly what his institution had been teaching since 1959. It was Gord Cunningham of Coady International Institute.

Mobilizing Assets for Community-Driven Development - class of 2014

In May of 2014, she found herself in Canada, this time with with Cunningham leading a certificate program about how communities can discover their strengths. While in Antigonish, she was able to share stories with colleagues from Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Nepal and China.

“I am anxious to go back home for several reasons,” she says, flashing her broad smile. “First, I have seven grandchildren who are waiting for me. And then my department will begin to roll out further ABCD training. We’ll start small, with about 90 community development practitioners, eventually going across the nation. And I also have plans to work with about 50 cooperatives throughout the nation.”

Motsuenyane says just as her own parents defied the oath of apartheid, people can be empowered to overcome challenges.

“My own family history has been about using what we have to create a sustainable livelihood. That experience is why I am so passionate about my work today.”