This is an ongoing and new series devoted to the South African Secular Society (SASS) and South African secularism. The Past President, Jani Schoeman, and the Current President, Rick Raubenheimer, and the current Vice-President, Wynand Meijer, will be taking part in this series to illuminate these facets of South Africa culture to us. Rick and Wynand join us.
Here we talk about capacity building.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We’re going to be dealing with capacity building in terms of people and institutions. What are the ways in which, without necessarily focusing on partnerships, SASS has been able to capacity build and institution building?
There is a low staff number across many secular organizations. This is particularly true in the African region. How is this a problem for SASS? What have been some discussion points in terms of dealing with it?
Rick Raubenheimer: We have an Executive Committee of 4 people. None of us is paid. Two people on the Ex. Co. changed in March when we changed the committee.
Where I think we are building capacity is in the marriage offices and the aspirant marriage offices because we’re making part of their conditions of becoming marriage officers, firstly, paying membership fees and, secondly, taking part in the general meetings that we have once per month, preferably, they would take part in the meetings or meetups in their particular area.
That’s given us a larger pool of activists. Although, they are not particularly active. Wynand?
Wynand Meijer: Yes, I would agree with the points that Rick has highlighted. We strive to build a community as such. We try to engage the community by online activity, whether Facebook interactions and things that we post on our social media but also in our Telegram group.
People can chat interactively with each other. It has grown quite nicely. I think we are in excess of 96 people in there. That is national. When possible, we, also, try to have the people meet in person – get away from the keyboard, from your little safe space, and get out and meet people.
It is part of having an online and in-person presence for them to see other people in the group in person.
Jacobsen: What about institution building, basically the infrastructure? How do they build that up not necessarily online?
Wynand: I think there is a need for finance. Having financial resources to our availability, as Rick did mention, it is having marriage officiants as paid members to help with cash flow. However, I do not see that we can start a brick-and-mortar building within 2 months’ time from now.
It is a very gradual process. People are also not very engaging if we have volunteers come with us. If there is no money involved in it, then people think, “Why should I use my money to go there?” Rick?
Raubenheimer: Yes, we do have a bit of trouble involving events. The meetings are fairly well attended. The ones at my place, in Johannesburg, tend to be falling off in numbers. Wynand’s place is growing more and being better attended.
Yes, I think that is partly because, in his area, people tend to be more religious. When they are atheists there and find an atheist group, they tend to give it more value. Whereas Joburg is more liberal less religious.
So, perhaps, people feel less need to create a community or find one. It is perverse really [Laughing].
Meijer: Looking at establishing a stronger footprint, it is one reason why we have looked into engaging other groups who have a similar, secular outlook as well. In trying to tap into that and create more awareness, it is just another way that we are trying to gain more influence, so that we can further the cause.
So, we can get to the point of being a household name in a few years’ time. However, it is slow and steady as a process.
Jacobsen: If you look at Humanists International, they have affiliates. If you look at the Secular Student Alliance, they have student groups on campuses. Of course, those are varying kinds of focus for the SSA.
There are a bunch of groups like that at the small level and some at the medium level. They have proxies place all over their various locales. Could something like this be something for SASS – finding people who are good in SA in getting things done and hosting the community, and then becoming groups in those areas?
Wynand: Again, I feel the resources, the human resources, is limited. We are a small group doing small things. It is not a lot of room for delegating. A lot of the time we have to spread ourselves thin to reach all of the other areas.
Raubenheimer: Yes, we, as far as we can, are doing what you have outlined in terms of the marriage officers forming the core of the groups in the various areas. For example, I am thinking of Gail in Makhanda.
Our most recently qualified marriage officer is in the Western Cape. We don’t have anybody in KwaZulu Natal yet. That’s the more easterly coastal province. We don’t have anybody qualified in Gauteng either.
Although, we had a bit of setback in the last two weeks when I found out that all of the marriage officers, which was 3 of them, who had written exams that were being marked had failed. The good news is that they can re-write as long as we re-apply for them.
Then they can keep writing until they pass. However, we had hoped to have more qualified by this time.
Wynand: I think another thing that makes this more difficult for marriage officers is that it takes a long time to get certified. You set a date, take an exam, get feedback about rewriting or not. It can take 3 months or more, easily.
It is not a quick turnaround time either.
Raubenheimer: Currently, it is worse because the person who deals with this at the Department of Home Affairs has been going on seminars associated with them amalgamating the three or four different marriage acts that we have in SA into one.
It means that she has been spending time out of the office and not getting around to her regular work. Which means, the things like getting the letter for the exam from them has stretched from an intended 6 weeks into an unintended 8 weeks.
Jacobsen: What are some positive trends?
Raubenheimer: Atheism is definitely on the rise. Our marriage officer web page appears to be wonderfully popular. Unfortunately, it happens to be among theists. Wynand added a feature that people have to rate themselves on the Dawkins scale.
We would not accept anyone more theistic than an agnostic. He turned off the feature that blocked them. I have turned down about 7 theists in the last 2 or 3 weeks.
Raubenheimer: He has now reinstated, thank goodness. Thank, Wynand. So, we got a decent one today, which I still have to reply to.
Wynand: Another positive is the Telegram group, our chit-chat group. If you just leave it, and don’t look at your messages, you can get 100 or 200 messages by the next day of people engaged in conversation.
It is definitely a positive. When you look at people engaging in the conversation, it is different people in the conversation who are active. It is busy as well. I would see this as a positive of that activity as well.
Raubenheimer: Of the 96 members, I just saw somebody signing on now. There are about a dozen contributing on a regular basis. Then there are others without work or lives who contribute frequently.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rick and Wynand.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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