The Ecumenical Service for Socioeconomic Transformation (ESSET) is an independent ecumenical organisation that works for social and economic justice and transformation against the systematic exclusion and exploitation of the poor. In 1996 ESSET was founded and registered as a Section 21 company with a mandate of challenging the churches to be more involved in the work for socio-economic justice but also building the capacity of the same churches to do this work as desired. Instrumental in its establishment was the South African Council of Churches (SACC), and a number of other ecumenical organisations such as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT), Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa (EFSA), Ecumenical Advice Bureau (EAB), Christian Citizenship Department of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and the Interdenominational Committee for Industrial Mission (ICIM).
Mission and Vision
ESSET’s vision is to realise a transformed society that promotes a just socio-economic system prioritising the needs of the poor. Its mission is to advocate for social and economic justice by accompanying and acting in solidarity with the struggles of the poor that are acting in resistance to their marginalisation and oppression. Our mission is based on an understanding that the current economic system is premised on the basis of exclusion. As an organisation committed to socioeconomic justice, ESSET’s role goes beyond mere poverty alleviation programmes that only deal with symptoms of unjust systems. Its work instead is about striving for the transformation of socio-economic processes, systems and structures that undermine the life and dignity of poor people. Further, our work is informed by the theological values of the preferential option for the poor, solidarity, democracy, respect and equality.
ESSET’s core programme
ESSET’s core programme is called Accompaniment. Accompaniment is founded on the preferential option for the poor, meaning that it allows ESSET to work with people’s power and respects strategies for action identified by the poor. In this way, Accompaniment enables the agency of the poor to inform ESSET’s own praxis and agenda in different ways. It involves intentional journeying with the people who are already initiating and acting in resistance to the dominant forces and systems that work against them. Accompaniment consists of four main processes. These are Immersion, Facilitation of learning processes, Building Solidarity, and Documentation and Research.
ESSET’s Processes of Accompaniment
Immersion is characterised by engagements with formations of the poor through conversations, reflections and dialogues. Engagement helps to get understanding on how the formations of the poor are being affected, to strengthen their strategies of engagement and promote and protect their rights to democracy. Of critical importance is reflection on emerging alternatives from the formations of poor that promote their interests and demonstrate their sovereignty towards a just economy.
Facilitate Learning processes
In line with ESSET’s praxis, learning processes is offered according to the specific need identified by the active formations of the poor. ESSET sees emancipatory learning as facilitated learning processes aimed at enabling critical analysis and thinking by those involved in various struggles for life and socio-economic justice.
Building solidarity entails building connections and networks among formations of the poor locally, nationally and internationally. This consists of multiple strategies such as exchange visits between various formations of the poor, exchange of information and strategies, joint reflections and campaigns. This for ESSET is done in respect of people’s agency and solutions to their struggles. Building solidarity also involves mobilisation of solidarity from churches & ecumenical organisations, social movements, academics and other social justice practitioners and organisations.
Documentation and Transformative Research
Lastly, ESSET sees research as a tool to serve the interests of those who suffer injustices to improve the conditions of their existence and advance their liberation processes. ESSET prefers transformative research emerging from and informed by the formations of the poor’s lived experiences, knowledge and analysis. Thus ESSET does research through listening, reflection, and learning with and from struggles of the formations of the poor. This entails documenting and sharing people’s struggles, analysis and stories from their actions of resistance.
Impact and contribution to society
In its early years, ESSET focused its work at increasing the economic literacy of church leaders and various stakeholders in the church so that they could better engage in lobbying and advocating for the upliftment of the excluded and the poor. This focus saw innovative training methods and resources developed; cutting edge research and analysis that fed into numerous submissions made; and extensive networks established with various agents in civil society locally and internationally. The impact of this work was seen in various ways. ESSET has been consistent in participation in the People's Budget Campaign on behalf of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) which is an opportune space to link the church, civic leaders and government to engage on economic policy. Over the years we were also vocal on Macroeconomic Policy issues and even went as far as commissioning and publishing a research on Clothing and textile industry. Other research documents and publications published includes; Jubilee 2000 (Apartheid debt), Kgokagano, HIV/AIDS etc. ESSET facilitated the participation of civil society organisations during in WSSD in 2001 and active in lobbying for Basic Income Grant campaign.
Over time ESSET was asked to rethink its strategy in line with its commitment of the preferential option for the poor. The preferential option for the poor suggests a different way of working that is premised on immersion in people’s struggles. In relation to this, ESSET was found to be speaking of, researching and advocating on behalf of people it had no direct relationships with. It was thus asked to deepen its strategy by immersing itself in the struggles of the poor. Journeying with the formations of the poor in their daily struggles would thus inform further advocacy actions. ESSET has implemented this approach of work through accompaniment and standing in solidarity with those that are in the periphery of our society. In 2006 as part of the Know your Rights project, we conducted workshops in various municipalities that were marred with protests by formations of the poor. These generated heated debates on lack of basic services such as housing, water, immigration, unemployment and issues of informal trading. At the end of the project, the informal trading sector requested ESSET to walk with them in their struggles. ESSET realised that the struggle of the informal traders was in-line with its quest to fight for a just socio-economic system prioritising the needs of the poor hence it then made commitment to accompany them.
An evaluation of ESSET conducted in 2011 highlighted ESSET’s strength in being able to facilitate unity among formations of the poor it works with. Among these are informal traders, who work in a sector that is inherently competitive, ‘individualistic, profit-driven and conflictual. A National Informal Traders Task Team (2008), Gauteng Informal Development Association (2011) and Women Informal Traders Forum (2010) were formed, which now have links to regional informal traders’ organisations. Further, a South African Development Community (SADC) Solidarity Network of Traders has been formed in 2011. This was aimed at uniting traders as they advocate for their issues and fight for their recognition, dignity and life. Just few months after being established, the network ran a SADC campaign against sexual and economic violence of informal traders. Participating countries in the campaign included South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
ESSET's work has gained considerable recognition both among churches and civil society generally. The struggles of informal traders are now getting attention from a number of institutions such as Khanya College, Genderlinks, The Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Government is also beginning to recognise the informal trade as a powerful sector that cannot be ignored anymore. Some of the key highlights around this include:
There have been major shifts seen in the democratisation processes of some of the struggles we were work with. ESSET believe that formations of the poor are the agents of their change. This has to be seen through visible actions by those involved in struggles. This has been evident through the continued eruptions that were witnessed amongst the various struggles. The rise of women in the struggles of informal traders is a major achievement that has seen a shift away from domination of men in the sector. A dedication of International Commonwealth Day by the Gauteng Legislature in 2011 to honour women informal traders as agents of change in society bears testimony to this;
Other than informal traders, ESSET’s work has led to connections of solidarity among the communities it works with. One of these is the Cloverdene community in Ekurhuleni, which consist of more than 100 families that was evicted from the land they occupied for years. Due to the pressure put on the Ekurhuleni municipality the community won its battle against their eviction. The community have since been allocated a new land to settle in. ESSET engaged in various initiatives with the community in this regard. These entail mobilisation of churches to stand in solidarity with the community; writing of petitions and publicity work;
ESSET has developed working relationships with a number of churches who are showing commitment to issues of social and economic justice. This has helped to raise the attention of the Church to the concrete struggles of the poor. In the process, it has increased the Church’s understanding of the praxis of struggling with the poor. While this is done in concrete local struggles, the impact is at times seen through the denominational life of some churches. In 2011 the General Assembly of the Uniting Congregational Church of Southern Africa took a decision to adopt some formations of poor people that ESSET works with;
- In Limpopo, ESSET has also been able to built connections between Maile and Giyani communities who have now agreed to form a rural network to fight their struggles. The Maile Community that has been accompanied by ESSET for years in their struggle to have a bridge and clean water taps, eventually had erected water taps last year.
ESSET's praxis requires staff to be present in poor people's struggles. With its small staff compliment, it is not possible to maintain presence in all local struggles. Given this limitation, ESSET needs to find creative and realistic ways of maintaining presence in ways that are meaningful. Further, as we work with marginalised groups, some of them tend to put self interests ahead of the broader collective struggles. Leadership of these groups are particularly prone to this shortcoming.
By journeying with formations of the poor and allowing their struggles to shape our work, ESSET’s conception of development work has been challenged tremendously. In the process we have learned what it means to work with people in ways that respect both their struggles and strategies, whether we agree with those or not. We have been challenged to work with poor people by giving away our own power which is always a hindrance to emancipatory praxis. As we did, the formations of the poor we work with gained power and self -confidence to lead their own struggles.
For more about the Ecumenical Service for Socioeconomic Transformation, refer to www.esset.org.za.