Young people give us hope for a better future. Take for instance Cape Town’s commonPROPAGANDA. This non-profit youth collective brings together diverse communities and creates spaces – where arts, academia, and activism meet – for the fostering of creative and critical thinking skills to inspire social responsibility and political participation.
Jason Hartzenberg started CommonPROPAGANDA as an Instagram page in 2020 to share his thinking about building community, collaboration, rethinking education, and critiquing history with his peers. “I wanted to create this space where we could come together and discuss these ideas and issues, begin to think of ways to organise ourselves, and come up with solutions,” he says.
The ideas had been simmering in his head since his high school years. He recalls his questioning the status quo when he was in Grade 10, noticing the fault lines in the education system and dreaming of alternatives. Jason says:
I was politicised by the music I was listening to, which is why I am still passionate about the arts – it allows you to question the world around you and see the world differently.
These reflections were compounded when he studied sociology at university in 2019 and learnt about social theories that gave words to his lived experiences. “I learnt more about history and colonialism and created linkages between the concepts I was learning and my own experiences growing up on the Cape Flats and seeing people become subject to drugs, gangsterism, and dropping out of school – this whole matrix is a living legacy of these histories,” he says.
“I’ve always been thinking about how I could create communities of empowerment for myself and others,” he says. It was his decision to drop out of university that propelled him into action. “I left with the challenge to create an alternative system that I could access and which would allow me to still learn at the same depth as I was learning at university. I wanted to decentralise these spaces and bring academics out into the world so that everyday people could engage with them,” he says.
The name CommonPROPAGANDA is a combination of two topics that captured his interest – the commons and propaganda. “The commons had a powerful effect on me because it allowed me to imagine what an alternative world might look like – where we are sharing resources instead of commodifying them. And propaganda appeared a provocative way of spreading the idea of the commons,” explains Jason.
What started as an Instagram page to share readings about African independence and socialism evolved into a reading group for people to discuss radical texts and political events and offline safe networking spaces. Their first networking event was held at Surplus, a radical bookstore in Woodstock that is home to anti-Apartheid activist, Andre Marais’ collection of books (many of which were banned in the Apartheid years).
Jason regards Surplus as one CommonPROPAGANDA’s homes. “If we know more about our political, and socio-historical context, our change-making efforts can be more effective. We better understand where we fit into this change, because we are all tied to the heritages and histories of our ancestors,” he says.
This cross-cultural and interdisciplinary approach is central their inclusive and creative solutions. Recently they teamed up with London’s The Earth Issue, a creative agency committed to environmental and intersectional activism, and the sustainable fashion brand Loutre.
Together they created a capsule T-shirt collection that symbolises ideas and shared beliefs across disciplines. The making process was transformative. “The collaborators met some of the communities with whom we are connected. We went on a walk at Princess Vlei with Denisha Anand, spent Human Rights Day with the Liesbeeck Action Campaign, held a community of philosophical enquiry into sustainability and community, and organised the screen-printing workshop to print the T-shirts,” Jason says. The collection is helping to raise funds for CommonPROPAGANDA’s future events.
Another standout event is the recent film they produced in collaboration with academic and cultural theorist, Astrida Neimanis. In its first iteration, commonPROPAGANDA created a video, as a response to Shell’s proposed seismic blasting, that included a sample of Astrida’s voice. After Astrida watched the video, she approached commonPROPAGANDA to collaborate with her on an audiovisual accompaniment to a talk for the Biennale of Sydney.
The process of working with Astrida disrupts the traditional knowledge-making process by using art as a medium make complex ideas more accessible — commonPROPAGANDA’s ultimate mission. And so it became a much broader affirmative statement on water and the ways its fluidity connects and soothes us.
Above all else, CommonPROPAGANDA is an experiment with and for alternative ways of being, learning, relating, and creating. It is an opportunity for young people to create living examples of the things they wish existed in the world.
“I never create ideas and impose them on others. Instead, the ideas emerge from whoever is there, and then we run with them. This openness to collaboration with anyone who has an idea is aligned with our ethos. This makes the space accessible to everyone, their networks, and communities,” Jason says. And, as their youth network grows, these collaborations, experimentations, and interventions will continue.
Perhaps this radical empathy, rebuilding relationships, and dedication to getting to know one another on a deeply fundamental level is exactly the kind of activism we need. Creating kinder futures begins with how we imagine them. For this future to be inclusive, just, and learns from the mistakes of the past, the imagined vision needs to include a multiplicity of dreamers – the youth included.
- Images supplied by Jason Hartzenberg
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