Over the past several weeks, waves of violence have broken out across South Africa, directed at political refugees who have fled across the border from Zimbabwe and immigrants from other African countries. In the desperately poor squatters settlements of the Abahali movement, where many refugees have settled, leaders recognized signs of growing anti-immigrant sentiment months ago and moved rapidly to quell and prevent violence. “No human being is illegal,” read their statement. “Only actions can be illegal.” They determined that people already see squatters in negative terms – “even township people look down on us” – and that they could not afford to further damage their reputations through violence.
The viewpoint and efforts of the squatters testify to their ingenuity and talent. But how did these marginalized people develop the kind of leadership skills that could stop violent demonstrations in a poor township?
Photo posted by Sokwanele on the Democracy News blog.
I would argue they developed leadership, vision, and generosity of spirit through popular education, or self-directed democratic learning which develops the capacities of ordinary people to become architects of their lives and agents of their own development.
Popular education programs, workers education schools, “people’s education,” learning circles, and democratic arts programs have a long and rich history in many countries. In South Africa, popular education was sponsored by churches, trade unions, civic associations, the Black Consciousness movement, and other groups, and was central to the movement against apartheid.
Ironically, popular education has battled to survive in post-apartheid South Africa. Adult education today is excessively formalized and geared to meeting generic standards, much like “No Child Left Behind” has constricted school curriculum in the U.S. There is a growing sense among many people in South Africa that a vital wellspring of democratic life and culture has weakened dramatically in the process.
This was part of the conversation at a colloquium held June 3 and 4 in the township of Gugulethu. The Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) brought together 26 grassroots educators, civic leaders, organizers, and public intellectuals to organize for a new level of connection, self-consciousness, mutual support, and assertive public voice among popular educators in South Africa. IDASA, which now promotes democracy building and public work across Africa, has deep roots in popular education (its book, Living and Learning Democracy: Nonformal Adult Education in Sweden and South Africa, details this history and explains popular education and its impacts).
The other participants and I looked at current examples of popular education in South Africa, including the University of Abahlali, which involves thousands of squatters in 34 informal settlements in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal. This informal learning initiative – a true grassroots university – has emerged from the community organizing undertaken in the last several years by the Abahlali movement, which has fought for land and housing, an end to forced removals, and access to education, water, electricity, sanitation, health care and refuse removal. As people have organized and won tangible victories, Abahlali has impacted civic life, gender relations, and governance, and generated many learning efforts.
“Our struggle is thought in action,” said S’bu Zikode, a participant in the colloquium. “We define ourselves and our struggle.” Zikode described how the squatters were critical of projects that pay people to “think on behalf of poor people.”
Abahlali participants have developed several key concepts, such as “living politics,” which they distinguish from “party politics.” Abahlali participants have raised funds and sent dozens of people to the Durban and Pietermaritzburg campuses of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, working closely with the Paolo Freire Institute. Those taking university courses come back and teach what they’ve learned, with extensive discussion about how the knowledge can be appropriately adapted to squatter communities. The University of Abahlali has many other learning projects, including learning circles and a continuing process of debate and discussion about major issues.
There was a sense in the colloquium that basic “founding principles” could be agreed upon – for instance, the importance of developing people’s civic agency, popular power, and democratic education methods, the connection between popular education and broad social change and transformation, the need to challenge the calcification of formal education, and the need for new alliances to create a powerful voice for popular education. There was also a sense that a renewed movement for popular education might help revitalize the “civic vocation” of teachers, once central to the freedom movement. Next steps include planning and organizing meetings, including regional discussions.
The discussions were inspiring and energizing for everyone. And I felt, once again, how much potential there is for trans-Atlantic learning and exchange among those doing public work.