Beginning with the Youth Summit on May 21, 2012 and ending with the OpenForum Summit May 22-24, 2012, the African Foundation of the Open Society will welcome activists, businesspeople, academics, and policymakers from throughout the African continent and around the world will convene for an unprecedented conference about “Money, Power, Sex and the Paradox of Unequal Growth” in Cape Town, South Africa.  Ebony talks with Mazuba Haanyama a Program Associate for Special Projects with the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) about this historic event and how Africa and people of African-descent are leading the charge for global change.

EBONY:  Could you tell us about OSISA and the four Open Society foundations?

MH:  The Open Society has many foundations around the world including the Open Society Institute in the United States, but there are four African foundations.  OSF SA (Open Society Foundation for South Africa) was the first African Open Society foundation and then OSISA (Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa), OSIEA (Open Society Initiative for East Africa), and OSIWA (Open Society Initiative for West Africa) soon followed.

We, OSISA, do not conduct operations in South Africa as there is already the South African foundation (OSF SA) instead we focus our efforts in 10 countries in southern Africa:  Angola, Botswana, DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  In addition to coordinating the Open Forum 2012, we have several programs, such as HIV and AIDS, Language Rights, Education, Gender/Women’s Right, LGBTI Initiative and more that our website details.

EBONY:  OpenForum 2012’s theme is entitled “Money, Power, Sex and the Paradox of Unequal Growth.”  Why did OSISA choose to address such timely and even controversial topics?

MH:  That’s a good question.  Initially the theme was “Elections,” but that seemed to narrow.  We wanted to bring together different kinds of people interested addressing inequality.  Therefore, we found a way to convene a gathering provides the space to talk, deliberate and reflect on a variety of inequality issues, many of which cover OSISA’s areas of focus. The participants are all working for a more equitable society, one where people live their lives free from discrimination and with their basic needs met. The OpenForum gives us the space to think about and talk through how we can achieve these goals. “Money, Power and Sex“ seemed to be an appropriate and exciting way to tackle the idea and realities of many inequalities.

EBONY:  “Money, Power, Sex” is definitely a great theme and a memorable one at that! In reference to the “Money” portion of the theme, OSISA’s website talks about how the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are rising in power and seem poised to “take over” the future of development.  What could the potential of South-South development, trade, and capital mean for the continent?

MH:  South-South exchange is important, but I am not sure if trade and capital in fact help the people it is supposed to.  We come from similar backgrounds (though very distinct) and perhaps we need to better understand our various contexts to know more.  I think the OpenForum will provide an opportunity to share our experiences. For example, awesome and really innovative ideas about communication and exchange being born in southern and eastern Africa and this summit will be a time to share ideas and see how we can learn from one another.

EBONY:  What about the use of “Power?”  In the U.S., many of the images of Africa we receive are depicted as downtrodden and even patronizing, what do you think of the role of media and the power of the African continent has in controlling/directing its own image(s)?

MH:  We know the power of media possesses, but I care less what people’s ideas of Africa are than I care about whether I see myself portrayed in my local media. My point being, even if Africa is demonized as the “exotic,” untapped resource, it does not matter unless we see ourselves that way. It is important for us to produce our own stories, in fact it is imperative we do so.  Photographers like Zanele Muholi who is documenting the lives of black lesbians across the continent is mind blowing and the plethora of African feminist bloggers is so cool!

We are writing ourselves into a history that thinks it can ignore our voices and for me that is more important than what someone who doesn’t live here or isn’t invested in African lives thinks or says.

EBONY:  Africa’s self-image is indeed important, particularly in respect to how money and power impact on development inequality, but what about “Sex?” How do you think sex plays a role in unequal development?

MH:  Well it depends on how you understand sex right?  We have used sex as a means to talk about sex, definitely in ways that are interesting and important, hence the plenary session “The Politics of Sexual Pleasure.”  But I also think we wanted to talk about “gender,” “sexualities,” and the spaces between the women’s rights movement and the LGBT movement particularly in Southern Africa.

EBONY:  It seems like there’s a lot the creativity and dialogue around issues of “Money, Power, and Sex” are being pushed forward by youth.  Could you tell us about the OpenForum’s Youth Summit and what we can expect?

MH: I’ve been involved in creating a youth-focused strategy primarily because I think (institutional) power sits predominantly with older people and that we should be thinking of how to engage and talk to youth.

We really fought for a political space in which young people could convene and talk about stuff that matters to us.   More than anything, I want the Youth Summit to be a critique of traditional ways of understanding development, democracy, and social change and I really hope that is what it will be.  But I also hope people will come and engage and jump on the opportunity to write, record, and reflect on the experience.

It is not everyday you can be in the same space with so many cool people from around the world.  I mean Staceyann Chin is performing, which is just nuts and awesome!

EBONY:  The event truly sounds like an incredible meeting of minds.  What can we do to support OSISA and work on the continent?

MH:  There are going to be so many conversations happening so even for those not attending I would say, follow the conversations there will be live streaming and follow the conversation on Twitter through the #moneypowersex hashtag.

Jamila Aisha Brown is founder of the social entrepreneurship HUE, LLC and a participant in the Youth Summit and OpenForum.  To learn more about HUE, LLC and her experience as an OpenForum participant follow @hueglobal on Twitter.