Two weeks ago, I visited Johannesburg, South Africa. My partner was speaking at a conference organized by Animal Rights Africa (“ARA”), and so I jumped at the opportunity to join her. Traveling half way around the world for a five-day trip seemed slightly ludicrous to me, yet there was no way I was going to pass up the chance. Boarding the plane, I didn’t know exactly what to expect on the other side.
To say that this trip changed my life would be a gross understatement. The people of ARA were so generous and thoughtful, and learning about their campaigns was eye-opening. Though they have been working on wildlife issues for quite some time, they are beginning to up the ante of their farm animal advocacy. Following the conference – which focused on reforming animal protection legislation (check out South Africa’s animal law statute, which notably is much better than most of our state anti-cruelty statutes) – I had the opportunity to talk with members of ARA about some of Farm Sanctuary’s recent victories and current campaigns. I also discussed what a huge fan I am of social networking as a means to reach the masses.
Since ARA is a fairly new organization (though it is a conglomeration of three long-standing animal organizations), discussing farm animal advocacy with its members – and the immense potential to create change – was exhilarating. To learn about its victories and visions for change, and to feel its electricity, was truly awesome. Extraordinarily, just before we arrived, charges had been brought against a major egg producer for allegedly cruelly discarding male chicks. This cruelty, and the people challenging it, reminded me that animal rights is a universal issue.
South Africa knows this all too well. Perhaps the most moving aspect of my trip was my visit to the Apartheid Museum. To think that just a few years ago, apartheid was the norm in South Africa, is astounding; to experience the lively, diversified city of Johannesburg as it is now is like nothing else.
Prior to my trip, I had a vague-to-mediocre knowledge of the history of apartheid. After my trip, I questioned myself repeatedly: How did I not know more? Those were the very words I asked myself when I first learned about animal cruelty. The comparison shook me; then, it empowered me.
This experience left me with hope for the animal rights movement. Just less than 20 years ago, South Africa was a country full of nearly-incomparable, state-enforced racism. Through political activism, apartheid was overturned and a new era began. The entire country underwent a gestalt shift, and “normal” became redefined. But since the early post-apartheid days were full of lingering violence, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was assembled in South Africa, and through discussion and mediation, much was resolved. Discussion and mediation. Imagine that.
Of course, South Africa still has problems of Herculean proportions (such as, needless to say, the AIDS epidemic, continuing social inequality and the alarmingly high crime rate – at least in Johannesburg). But in many ways I think this country can teach our country many lessons in terms of achieving social change, lessons that we can plug into the animal rights movement.
One of the activists whom I had the honor of meeting was David Bilchitz. David is a walking example of the importance of shedding light on the intersectionality between social justice causes. Not only has he been instrumental in the campaign for civil marriage for same-sex couples (yes, gay marriage is legal in South Africa), but he has also devoted his life to working on both human and animal rights issues. (Check out his book, Poverty and Fundamental Rights: The Justification and Enforcement of Socio-economic Rights.)
(Poverty and hunger, of course, deeply afflict South Africa. Though world hunger is obviously an extremely complex issue, one proactive way of making a difference is to go vegan, since so much land on this planet is inefficiently and irresponsibly used for growing feed for animals. This blog delves into that issue nicely.)
Two other ARA activists I met while in Johannesburg were Michele Pickover (author of Animal Rights in South Africa – a must-read for any animal advocate), and Zelma Opland, psychologist-turned-activist-extraordinaire. It’s important to note that the animal rights scene in South Africa is much more diffuse and sparse than here in the U.S. Many times when conversing with these folks, I realized that this must have been what it was like to talk to Gene Baur in the mid-80s. These phenomenal individuals – and the many others I met there – are the vanguard of the South African animal rights movement.
I want to say that I left South Africa with new friends, but the truth is, these activists were my friends before I even got there. The animal rights community is a very funny place. The Sister Sledge song, “We Are Family” comes to mind. Somehow, when you’re fighting the same fight, you are automatically connected – even when you differ about tactical strategies and ideas.
My short trip to South Africa left me with big hopes. Change is possible; we just need to create it. So … Join Farm Sanctuary’s Advocacy Campaign Team. Get in touch with Animal Rights Africa. Involve yourself with groups that fight poverty and AIDS. Whenever possible, speak up for farm animals in these different circles. Find and form coalitions. Embrace the community that is all around you.
In the words of Nelson Mandela: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”