Activist during the apartheid in South Africa
I became actively involved in the United Women’s Organisation (UWO) in 1981 at a time when the repressive ‘apartheid’ regime of South Africa was in full flight. Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations, as it was such a repressive racist system against all black people in the country. UWO was an anti-apartheid organisation which was banned under a state of emergency. In response, we started another organisation, the United Women’s Congress (UWCO) in 1986.
I was a member until 1990 when UWCO disbanded to make way for the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League which was at that time unbanned, when Nelson Mandela and other compatriots were freed from 27 years in prison. The organisational mission of our organisation was ‘to unite all women regardless of education, occupation, colour or religion in common action to remove all political, cultural, social and sexual oppression and economic exploitation’.
While the organisation was non-racial, we supported black African working class women to be the majority in the executive leadership positions. This was because black African women were the most oppressed and exploited. We had an Executive Committee elected at the Annual Conference of members; it was accountable to Council which consisted of the Executive plus three members from each branch. A branch could be established if there were 10 or more members in a geographical area. Given the apartheid geography, where people of particular racial designations were forcefully separated into particular areas, branch memberships reflected the racial and class composition of an area. I belonged to a branch which included mostly young, single, `white`, politically left-leaning feminist university students.
How can ‘white’ people participate in non-racist, non-classist ways?
In the mainly ‘white’ branches there was a contentious, ongoing question about: how could we participate in both non-racist and non-classist ways? We consciously tried to avoid dominating discussions. This was a real issue as our vision of the future was a society in which middle class people would not be accorded a louder voice than anyone else. Of course, we felt that we had to put this ideal into practice in the struggle itself. The role of ‘white’ branches was in fact to be of service.
Our sense of belonging in the organisation was strong. We created firm bonds with members in the black working class townships despite problems such as language difficulties and the very obvious age gap. (We were mostly in our twenties and non-mothers, whilst women from the townships were mostly mothers over 40.) We participated in various organisation-wide actions, including consumer boycotts in support of trade union strike action and opposition to the rise in the bread price. In our branch, we also conducted a popular history project undertaken with the last remaining ‘coloured’ people in the area, documenting their forced removal under the Group Areas Act.
I recall a moment when I was gathering these stories and I got directly challenged by a resident about my right and capacity to undertake the work. I and the team had to slow down and engage in difficult conversations to ensure that all residents supported the project, before proceeding. The resultant popular history booklet was a significant political contribution to understanding Group Areas Removals and was a small compensation for those most affected to know that their brutalising realities were being brought to public attention, and that there were `white` women in solidarity with them.
Race and class were the main differences amongst women in the different branches. All black Africans were working class, and many were unemployed. Many `white` members would hold back on making proposals on policy while being happy to be of service.
This situation illustrated the complexity of the power dynamics. On the one hand, it was an organisation for all women but the issue of power and control was very clear: black African working class women gave direction. Hence there was a form of self-censorship on the part of some `white`, `Indian` and `coloured` women. However, there was also frustration as expressed by one of the `Indian` members who said: “We did not want to only be caterers. We are political beings and we wanted to give political direction as well and not just cater.”
There were many moments of discomfort as we had to work with and against the prevailing constructions and assumptions about racialized colonial cultural forms which reproduced us as bearers of class and race privilege in very material ways. For example, we had access to cars and drivers’ licences; to administrative infrastructures from our paid work; and to more uncluttered time. However, simultaneously, we were feminists fighting patriarchy and aspiring to a decolonised solidarity.
Which future? The three fundamental inequalities
Fast forward 26 years – today we are in the middle of a deep structural crisis globally. As Immanuel Wallerstein, an eminent historical social scientist, sociologist and world systems theorist, argues, we are in the midst of a struggle for the successor to the current capitalist economic and political systems.
The situation is confusing intellectually, morally and politically and therefore fundamentally unpredictable and uncertain. We are all challenged to participate intellectually and practically to find the world system we want. This means engagement in serious intellectual debate and strategies for transition. In addition, as Immanuel Wallerstein has urged, we need to do this `ceaselessly and with a willingness to hear persons we deem of good will if not of our immediate viewpoint’. He also urges us ‘to build alternatives in order to learn sensible and sustainable modes of production’.
As citizens, as scholar-activists, as feminists, as educators, we need to engage practically with others to co-create our futures. We need to grapple with the questions of which future we want for ourselves, future generations, for the planet? Through all of this, Immanuel Wallerstein argues, we must put at the forefront of our consciousness and our action the struggle against `the three fundamental inequalities of the world: gender, class and race/ethnicity/religion’. Wallerstein reminds us that ‘history is on no-one’s side’, and if we want a society that is relatively democratic and egalitarian, we need to roll up our sleeves and make it happen.
So why is solidarity important and what does it mean?
Violence in general and sexual violence in particular is rampant and many communities are war zones. We see wars on our TV screens each night, along with brutal acts of terror or tragic scenes of migrants drowning. At the same time, the `wars` raging in so many local communities are propelled by economic exploitation, greed, drugs, criminality, poverty, climate change, racism, classism and sexism. They have many similar features – but they are not ‘shocking’. They are the norm for the masses of poor and working class people, so they don’t get media attention.
The depth and breadth of inequalities around the world are pervasive. This is a matter for us globally with 1 per cent of the world’s richest having 43 per cent of the world’s wealth. There is growing consensus that one of the major causes of violence is inequality, not poverty.
Systemic, interpersonal, cultural, economic violence separates people from one another. A necessary response to the alienation, competition and separation is to re-build cooperation and connection. If we want ‘another world’, we need to counter the forces that drive us apart in order to build forms of community; forms of situated solidarity.
It is these imperatives that lead me to ask how can popular adult education assist us to find ways forward and what can we learn from our own experiences of struggles? So when I look back on the example of women’s organising 30 years ago in apartheid South Africa, what insights do I glean for today?
Lessons learned for adult education: Three key moves
I offer three `moves` that have emerged through my collaborative, reflexive work with Shauna Butterwick. These are (i) stepping forward, (ii) standing with, and (iii) staying connected. I will elaborate what I mean. These moves are not separate. Rather, they occur simultaneously and are mutually reinforcing.
‘Stepping forward’ refers to those moments, which we sometimes plan carefully and other times are spontaneous; we speak out, stepping forward to disrupt and challenge gender (or other) oppressions. The move, in some instances, involves taking a leadership role. We may be in a meeting where we recognise that certain women are not being listened to, or the men in the room have taken her words as his own (i.e. ‘her words on his lips’) so we interrupt and draw attention to this fact.
The second move, ‘standing with’, is about actions/moves that support other women (or other marginalised people) as they step forward to give leadership. This may mean encouraging and supporting less experienced or confident colleagues or students to take the lead in meetings, projects or community organising. In this move, we bear witness to, support and stand alongside others as they take the lead to provide critical analysis and outline actions to be taken. It is, to a certain extent, about middle class, more experienced educators and activists recognising the conditioning which fuels our impetus to speak for others.
The third move is about ‘staying connected’ while getting out of the way or moving aside. There may be a student ‘sit-in’, for example, where there are demands for the curriculum to change. We see what we can do to assist, by bringing food or whatever else may support the success of their action. Staying connected is centrally about being in relationship and working to build solidarity across divisions organised around class, gender, race, age and other social locations.
Both stepping forward and standing with require an understanding of how the location of the speaker is always epistemically significant. That is, who is speaking matters in relation to the knowledge being shared and how it is valued. It reflects to some extent, a feminist standpoint that sees those on the margins or in lower positions of hierarchical power relations as having a clearer vision and understanding of injustices as well as their remedies.
Staying connected is more of an overarching ethical stance that points to solidarity – it is ongoing. It is about middle class (often `white`) activists being available and in support and doing so in public ways thus, at times, taking risks in their solidarity.
It is important to assert that a feminist decolonising solidarity, as we were struggling to achieve in women’s organisations in South Africa, is not only a vision for a future. It is also enacted in our everyday moment to moment engagements as we work across differences of race, class, sexuality, ability, religion, age, language etc. It requires forms of `radical vulnerability’ which involves grappling with the material and symbolic politics of our own social locations. Sensitive negotiations that explore experiences and interpretations create possibilities for shared yearning and dreaming. Building trust and accountability through radical vulnerability attends to emotions and the felt sense of social structures, ideologies, histories, and political indeterminacy. It is a politics without guarantees. Radical vulnerability involves being open to ‘the Other’. Within relations of decolonising solidarity, being taught by the other, making mistakes, getting feedback, are key.
In our organisation, an area which we were not able to embrace as fully as we could in an ideal world was the building of common knowledge, across generations, about the present and future society. as we were necessarily working in clandestine conditions. Deep and sustained democratic practice, including dialogue and self-reflexivity, are required to build common knowledge about the present and future. The lack of these deep discursive intergenerational, pedagogical spaces, where hopes and dreams can be co-created, perhaps contributed to the limitations of the freedoms that were won in South Africa in 1994.
Educating towards more democratic, egalitarian futures
In UWCO we lived the paradox of striving to build a strong, non-racial, non-classist women’s organisation, while ‘standing aside’ so as not to replicate class and race privilege. One way that we managed to ‘step forward’ was through branch-based project work which more easily allowed full participation without ‘self-censorship’. The strong sense of belonging amongst members, across our deep differences, suggests most of the women shared a radical vulnerability and were prepared to ‘stay connected’ with one another, regardless of these differences. The glue was the shared political motives of fighting apartheid and ‘building the new in the womb of the old’.
Pedagogies of solidarity are essential to our day to day organising and educating towards more democratic, egalitarian futures. We all need to learn individually and collectively to overcome the three fundamental inequalities of the world – gender, class and race/ethnicity/religion – through knowing when and how to (i) step forward, (ii) stand with, and (iii) stay connected. These require us to be radically vulnerable and be open to build common knowledge across generations about our futures which develop connection and collaboration across deep social and economic divides.
It is learning to work with people who are not necessarily like us – it is learning to be radically vulnerable through love and courage – it requires our organisations, classrooms and movements to create pedagogical spaces where we can practice our passions and our patience as we make the path by walking together.