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Meet Rachel Bukasa, Director of the Black Sash

Helen Joannides

Ever since my work on an archival project for the Black Sash and UCT Libraries in 2007 immersed me in the Sash’s history and legacy, I have been an admirer of their work. So, it was a privilege to sit down for a (virtual) chat with the new Black Sash Executive Director Rachel Bukasa and see the infectious energy she brings to this 66-year-old veteran human rights organisation. 

Tell me about yourself. What was your ‘career journey’ up to this point?

I am a lawyer by profession and have always been that little girl who wanted to do human rights law. I remember seeing the lead prosecutor in the Hansie Cronje trial and she was a woman and I wanted to be just like her! After completing my Masters in Human Rights Law at UCT, I went the corporate route. But my heart was always looking to move into the NGO space and I always volunteered in NGOs like the UCT Refugee Rights Clinic.

My first senior NGO job was as the Executive Director of the Cape Town Refugee Centre. It was interesting engaging at a strategic level for the first time and I learnt valuable lessons about international donors. After a stint in a NGO focussed on literacy in rural areas, I moved on to the Children’s Radio Foundation where we worked to create opportunities for young people across the Continent. I really learnt a lot about the cultural aspect of NGO work in that role. For example, in Tanzania, we realised that girls would never attend training on a Saturday as they had to do chores at home. So, we had to work within that constraint to reach them.

How would you describe your current job in simple terms?

My job as Executive Director of the Black Sash can be simply explained through the Black Sash’s tag line “Making human rights real”. That is what I have to ensure we do. South Africa has the ‘gold standard’ of constitutions and often, the reality in the application on the ground does not live up to that standard. The Black Sash stands in that gap between the ideal and the reality and tries to work with (or sometimes against) government to enforce the rights promised on paper.

What are the key issues you regularly deal with?

The issues the Black Sash deals with regularly are twofold. The first is when people don’t know they are entitled to certain rights. So, that is about education. The second is when people know they are eligible for, for example, social assistance but then they don’t have the means to register online or don’t have a bank account to receive the funds. So that is about helping by removing barriers to access. We also sometimes go the litigation route to affect systemic change.

A recent issue we dealt with was that the first round of COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress grants from government excluded unemployed care-givers. This translated into inadvertently excluding women from accessing relief. We lobbied to change that and we were very pleased that unemployed care-givers, who receive the Child Support Grant on behalf of their children, are now eligible for the latest government COVID relief funds. That was very gratifying.

How do you take care of yourself, while working in such a challenging and demanding space?

Well, my family would say I don’t take time to care for myself! But I am a true crime fanatic so I make time on weekends to shut down and read a crime novel. I would also like to believe I am a great cook! I live vicariously through the MasterChef contestants. My relaxation time needs to be as far from my reality as possible.

I also try to encourage the Sash team on a Friday: “Guys, shut down, Monday’s another day. It doesn’t mean we don’t care but you are no good if you are burnt out”. We really try to do that.

What is the Black Sash’s main focus areas at the moment? What are the main successes?

The Black Sash is focussing on lobbying government for a Basic Support Grant for those from 18-59 years of age who need it. We are celebrating the small victories on the way to achieving this at the moment – the reinstatement of the COVID relief grant; the extension of the grant to unemployed care-givers, and the fact that the Minister can now be held personally liable for legal fees. This is a big step in accountability. We look at these as steps to achieving the bigger goal.

We are also working with SASSA (South African Social Security Agency) in its move to automate their systems. We are for the automation but we know the communities on the ground have not caught up. We are working to help that happen so people who need help are not left behind.

Ideally, we would like all government decisions to come from a human rights perspective and for corporates and banks to come to the table in a more sustainable way.

If you could have a superhero on your team, what would you want their special power to be, and what would they be called?

Someone who could have the power to influence people – influence the President, influence SASSA, influence The Department of Social Development, influence funders (top of the list), and our staff! She would be called “Ms. I” for influence. Everyone would wonder how we are so brilliant that all our ideas come to fruition!

What is your favourite thing about your job?

Definitely working with people who do their job for the love of it first – its heart work not money work! You see really committed people who could be making a ton of money elsewhere but choose to be in the NGO sector.

I also like that you can see tangible changes happening through the work you do. For example, we get a phone call from someone saying thank you for helping them access a grant. Sometimes the problems can be overwhelming but I believe you have to get to the place where you look for the small victories as well as the big ones. Sometimes it is just ticking off one person’s issue at a time. Seeing that immediate change to someone’s life - that is one of my favourite things.

What drew you to the sector? What do you see as the biggest challenges for NPOs generally?

My father is not South African born and I saw him being treated differently. We went to the bank once and he didn’t have the green ID at the time and he got treated badly. That experience made me committed to working on human rights and dignity for all. During my time at the Cape Town Refugee Centre, I also realised that sometimes the NGOs are the only ones standing-up and fighting for dignity for the vulnerable.  

What advice do you have for nonprofits at the moment, who are under considerable strain due to the pandemic?

I see resilience and commitment as a strength of NPOs despite all the challenges. But the challenge is to be flexible in these trying times. My advice to smaller organisations is to work to survive the tough times. If that means diverting what you do slightly to go where the funding is currently, do that. Be a bit flexible. Just enough to survive. You can always come back to your core project or cause. Rather survive than be so rigid that you die out. It matters more to our communities that we survive. Funders also need to be more flexible and we all need to address what people actually need and not just tick boxes.

What about for people wanting to work in the NPO space or just starting out a career in an NPO?

Individuals entering this sector should have realistic expectations that is it emotionally taxing and can be overwhelming. And, of course, you can’t be in it for the money! As I said earlier, there is a long game where you sometimes don’t feel you are always winning as things take time. But you must feed yourself by focusing on the short game – the places where you see the small victories. This sustains you while you work at the longer-term goals.

Where do you see the Black Sash in the future?

I see the Black Sash helping government implement a Basic Income Grant effectively. We would monitor and ensure people are able to exercise their rights as they should be able to do. The Basic Income Grant would mean people have the means to live with dignity. Money allows us to access water, electricity, education. It is a vehicle that leads to ensuring a host of rights.

Is there anything further you would like to share?

I would encourage people to work in the NGO/NPO space. We need people. It is not a scary space or a continually heart-breaking space. Even if you can’t commit for your 9-5, there are many opportunities to get involved - donate time or money (even small amounts). We all need to contribute. People on the ground feel encouraged when their work is seen and supported. 

Helen Joannides

Helen is an experienced museum and heritage professional who offers consulting services in museum education, research, archiving, and training. She has worked for a variety of non-profits over the years including the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Black Sash, and the Desmond Tutu Peace Foundation. Helen is passionate about creating a vibrant, professional museum and heritage sector. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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