Date added: January 12, 2018

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In South Africa, community advice offices (CAOs) have historically played an important role as intermediaries for community issues and in efforts to increase accountability. CAOs are non-profit organisations that offer free legal and human rights information, advice and services to local communities, particularly poor and marginalised groups. Since the end of apartheid, their role has changed and their funding has been cut, with some turning to state service provision, potentially compromising their social justice role. Yet CAOs remain a well-known and trusted body for local people to raise issues through.

This practice paper focuses on the experience of the Free State Housing Campaign, run by a group of 22 CAOs across the province, which aimed to improve people’s access to housing. The campaign came about through a Making All Voices Count scouting process, which convened the 22 CAOs. The CAOs received an innovation grant to design and launch a housing campaign to tackle their most pressing problems.

The campaign adopted a participatory action research approach as a fundamental way of working and achieving its goals. It also received an embedded practitioner research and learning grant from Making All Voices Count, to enable a process of evaluation, reflection and learning, rather than simply focusing on achieving the stated campaign objectives.

The key themes in this paper include:

  • participatory action research as a way to strengthen voice and build activism
  • the challenge and potential of community-led activism in the current neoliberal context
  • building women’s leadership in a patriarchal context
  • lessons for donor agencies about supporting grass-roots campaigns towards accountability and good governance.
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