IFWEA affiliate StreetNet celebrates 20 years in 2023. We spoke to founder Pat Horn, based in Durban, South Africa, about the inspiration for starting the organisation, and she shares her experiences and learnings:
You are the founder of StreetNet, together with founding administrator Nozipho Lembethe. What was the inspiration for starting this organisation?
I worked in the emerging trade union movement in South Africa from mid-1976 – 1991, with a five-year break from the end of 1976 to end of 1981 while I was banned by the Apartheid government, developing a trade union movement under worker control as a space for developing democratic working-class leadership. During that time I was in trade unions in male-dominated industries, and noticed that most women workers were not even in industries which were unionised. In 1993 I spent 2 weeks with the Organising Deptartment of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) in Ahmedabad, which I found to have a similar bottom-up approach to organising to the one we had been developing in South Africa. It was an eye-opener to realise that workers in the informal economy could also be organised, and I realised that we needed new kinds of worker organisations which were an intersection of the workers-controlled trade unions and feminist workers’ organisations led by strong working-class women’s leadership, also in South Africa.
There were some three years or more of preparation and research, before StreetNet was launched. Could you tell us a little about this please?
The preparations included three regional workshops – in Lima, Peru, for Latin America; in Patna, India, for Asia; and in Accra, Ghana, for Africa. Each of these regional workshops was attended by potential members of StreetNet, and care was taken to ensure a majority of female participants in each, in recognition of the fact that the majority of street vendors and informal traders worldwide are women. There were three key questions which needed to be explored and debated in each region, in order to determine how the new organisation should be structured and regulated.
Question 1 – How to secure and maintain strong women leadership?
The trade union movement of workers in the formal economy provided a living example of how NOT to do things in this regard. With the exception of specifically all-women unions, including the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, trade unions were better-known for failing to live up to even relatively tame gender equality policies, and for sustaining robust levels of patriarchal domination – even in unions whose women members are in the majority. Quotas for women’s participation as a mechanism to address this were not popular in the trade union movement. But at the same time, there was a dearth of alternative strategies actually making a difference. So the initiative for the establishment of StreetNet International sought to establish a new precedent.
As a start, the convening of regional workshops with a majority (or even equal number) of women participants established a level playing field for the emergence of a good decision in this regard. Robust debates took place in each of these regional workshops – and in each, independently, the consensus reached was for a 50% quota for the MINIMUM level of women’s participation at all levels of the organisation (which is different from 50-50 participation by women and men) to be made constitutionally obligatory.
The StreetNet International constitution was accordingly drafted with the 50% quota principle embedded in many different clauses of the constitution, to ensure very thorough implementation.
Question 2 – How to deal with political parties?
The phenomenon of politicians using street vendors as voting fodder every time elections are approaching, is one of the oldest stories there is. Long-established organisations have many anecdotes about this, while some of the newer organisations still get excited when approached by politicians offering to help or “partner” with them. This means that any organisation of street vendors and informal traders needs to have a very clear political policy, adopted democratically and then diligently and uniformly implemented. This is particularly important for empowering the organisation and its members against the use of divide-and-rule strategies against them which are so popular with politicians and authorities.
When this theme was debated in three different regions of the world with three different kinds of political cultures, again the outcome in each regional workshop was very similar. In each case it was agreed that while every organisation affiliated to StreetNet International would be relatively autonomous, the author of their own organisational constitution and policies, including their political policy – StreetNet International should maintain party-political neutrality and would not be free to engage in any party-political affiliation or relationship, even (and especially) with a political party linked to one of its affiliate organisations.
This meant that StreetNet’s future engagement with political parties for the purpose of advocacy and influencing laws and policies would have to be done without entering into any institutional relationship with such political parties, maintaining very clear partisan boundaries.
Question 3 – What should be the role of NGOs?
To the average lay person, this may seem like a non-issue. There are many NGOs who offer services and technical support to street vendors and informal traders. This of course is a good thing. But what is not such a good thing is when the representatives of these NGOs start to compete with street vendors and informal traders for leadership positions in a democratic membership-based organisation. In the short-term, if NGO representatives, with their superior technical expertise, were to be free to compete with ordinary street vendors and informal traders for election as leaders, the likelihood of succeeding in building strong working class leadership in the sector becomes very slim. But the need of marginalised constituencies for such expertise, as well as the financial resources which often accompany it, gives rise to the temptation to succumb to some level of dependence (at best) or even patronage (worse) which sometimes sees NGOs affiliate to grassroots organisations and end up running them. So there was an extremely robust discussion on this issue in each of the regional workshops. In the end, each of them drew the same conclusion, that StreetNet International should partner with NGOs, especially service organisations, but NOT accept them as affiliates. Accordingly, the constitution was drafted to accept only membership-based organisations of street vendors and informal traders as direct affiliates with rights to nominate their members for election to leadership positions.
Worker leadership is not built overnight, and most organisations take a few years to build up strong worker leadership. StreetNet International was being established as an organisation of workers in the informal economy, according to the principle of democratic worker control. This meant that the leadership which developed was being deliberately shaped to by workers from this sector of the informal economy – and ensuring that at least 50% of them would be women leaders from the sector.
You had experience in the formal economy as a trade unionist, before. Could you please tell us about this period?
In 1976 I started by running literacy classes for workers in the emerging textile and chemical workers’ unions in Durban, and was asked to train worker leaders who were going to leave their factory jobs to work as trade union organisers. When some of our trade union colleagues were arrested in relation to one of the political trials going on at the time, I was thrust into becoming a trade unionist myself, working with the shop stewards’ committees of the organised factories. We spent a lot of time being chased by the police and angry employers when they saw us at their factory gates. After my five-year banning order from November 1976 to August 1981, some labour law reform had taken place and I went to work in PPWAWU (Paper, Wood & Allied Workers Union) of FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) where I learnt how to do collective bargaining in the Zululand and Southern Natal regions, and how to organise and manage large strikes. Just before the.launch of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) at the end of 1985 I moved to CWIU (Chemical Workers’ Industrial Union) where we did the same kind of work and I was put in charge of the coordination of the petroleum sector, and also the coordination of the CWIU’s anti-Apartheid disinvestment campaign.
One of the foremost guiding principles of StreetNet has been how to maintain women’s leadership and avoid traditional male domination in trade unions, especially considering that vending is an informal economy sector that is predominantly female; can you please give some examples of how this has been practically applied?
StreetNet has a constitutional provision for a 50% MINIMUM quota for the participation of women at all levels (NOT a 50-50 rule) towards the achievement of a gender division which is representative of the basic membership in this sector, which has always been strictly implemented, since Day 1. However, this milestone has not been achieved without fierce struggles against repeated attempts during the more than 20 years of StreetNet’s existence to undermine this policy and practice.
Every StreetNet activity is led by women and 50% or more of the participants are women – negotiations skills training, leadership training, exchange visits, etc. Women leaders are mentored to strengthen their skills once they have been elected. As a result a visible level of strong women leadership has gradually developed.
The strongest attack against the policy of women’s leadership in StreetNet, in 2007, brought the organization to its knees and almost destroyed it. After a successful defence, there have been several further attempts over the years.
Finally, in October 2016, StreetNet completed its Fifth International Congress in Delhi. For the first time in the fourteen years since its launch on 14th November 2002, an African woman President was elected.
However, the questions remain – why did it take 14 years for an African woman President to be elected, in a democratic global organisation representing street vendors and informal traders from the Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe – the majority of whom have always been women, and the majority being from affiliated organisations in Africa? And who were the men behind her? And what were they hoping for?
Another aspect has been an emphasis on the organising being “bottom-up”, and from the Global South to the rest of the world. Why are these important factors?
1) Bottom-up organising is the best way to build democratic worker organisation under workers’ control – and this is detailed in the attached Founding Resolution of StreetNet on Class & Gender Organisational Policy.
2) Starting StreetNet in the Global South as a deliberate policy to pre-empt the domination by the Global North that we had seen in the international trade union movement and the International Labour Conferences, created by the fact that the international trade union movement was shaped according to the needs of the industrial working class which originated in the Global North. Since the informal economy is not well understood in the Global North, it made more sense to start an international organisation of workers in the informal economy in the Global South where larger proportions of the working class are in the informal economy, and develop the founding policies and practices there.
How important is worker education within the organisation – and what form does it take?
Initially worker education was part of the task of organising, and all organisers were tasked with doing worker education as the need arose. It was so important that it was integral to the organising process. All organisers had to report on the education and capacity-building they were doing to facilitating at a distance for the affiliates they were responsible for. Participatory education methods were organically developed, as were the materials which were used. After 2010 one of the organisers was designated to be responsible for coordinating the workers’ education which was being undertaken and/or facilitated by all the organisers. Eventually StreetNet had enough resources to engage a Workers’ Education officer.
Over the past 20 years, what have been the standout challenges you have faced?
Over the 20 years from 2000 – 2019, we faced the following challenges:
– trying to move to financial self-sufficiency;
– resisting repeated attempts to undermine the policy of women’s leadership and a gender balance reflective of the gender balance in the sector as a whole;
– internal democracy deficits in some affiliates, such as:
- Leaders who act as sole spokespersons for their organisations;
- Gatekeeping by affiliates’ leaders;
- Tardiness in convening elective conferences as constitutionally required;
- Appointment of leaders instead of democratic electoral processes;
– many street vendors, especially those who have more entrepreneurial aspirations, are caught in what is sometimes called a “petit-bourgeois dilemma” of not really being sure whether they want to be in the working class or the bourgeoisie (middle class);
– periodic attempts from within to capture the organisation (both its strategic direction, i.e. make it into an entrepreneurship development project – and/or its resources/funds)
Over the past 20 years, what have been some highlights?
Over the 20 years from 2000 – 2019, there were the following highlights, among others:
– accreditation by the ILO to the International Labour Conferences from 2004 onwards;
– strong relationship of solidarity with the international trade union movement including national trade union centres, GUFs, ITUC, WFTU and regional organisations such as OATUU – built jointly with SEWA in alliance with Ghana TUC, Nigeria Labour Congress, CROC Mexico and HomeNet Thailand through the ICC (International Coordinating Committee on organising Workers in the Informal Economy) from 2003 until 2012;
– grassroots engagement with social movements around the world through participation in the World Social Forums in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011;
– World Class Cities for All campaign from 2006 – 2016;
– Street vendors organising waste pickers in Africa project from 2009 – 2011, which laid the basis for the waste pickers’ organisations which subsequently emerged and are now in the African bloc of affiliates in the newly-formed IAWP (International Alliance of Waste Pickers).