Project design and identification of site for research

This is Deliverable 2 of the WRC project no. K5/2071. It documents the overall project design and project phases as well as how the site of research was identified.

The document reference is: Burt, J; Lotz-Siskta, H; Berold, R & Phiri, C. 2011. Project design and identification of site for research. Deliverable 2: WRC project no K5/2071.

Del 2 project design

Review of social learning literature relevant to knowledge flow in the water sector

This was the first deliverable for the WRC project no K5/2074: Change-oriented learning and water management practices.  It is a literature review of social learning and mediation and their relevance to knowledge flow in the water sector

As we come to grips with the complexity of the relationship between the environment and human development, it is no longer feasible to view learning and management as two separate processes.  The practice of water resource management is no exception.  Practice has shifted from technicist management focused on demand and delivery to integrated approaches coordinating the management of water, land and other resources so as to meet economic and  social needs in an equitable manner and to ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem.

The studies summarised in this literature review demonstrate how social learning has become a key concept in all areas of natural resource management.

The reference for this document is: Burt, J; Berold, R & Rivers, N. 2011. Review of social learning literature relevant to knowledge flow in the water sector. Deliverable 1. WRC project K5/2071

Del 1 review of SL and knowledge flow in Water sector


This is the final report for the WRC research project on Change Oriented learning and Water Management Practices.

This report should be referenced: Burt J.; Lotz-Sisitka, H; Rivers, N.; Berold, R.; Ntshudu, M.; Wigley, T.; Stanford, M.; Jenkin, T.; Buzani, M.; Kruger, E. 2015. The role of knowledge in a Democratic Society: Investigations into mediation and change-oriented learning in water management practices. WRC Report No. 2074/1/13

Final Report compiled 23 March

SAWC Gender and Water dialogues 18th October 2018

This was a special meeting of the SAWC, held the day before the Multi-Stakeholder symposium on Water Governance, where participants from the ‘Citizen Monitoring of the NWRS2’ project would present their case studies and findings. The rationale for this SAWC meeting was threefold:

1) since many of the SAWC coodinating committee and other members were travelling to Goedgedacht for the symposium, it was a good opportunity to hold a face to face meeting;

2) the case studies that were developed through the Changing Practice course, as part of the Citizen Monitoring project, need to be taken up and used within the caucus – this meeting was intended to strengthen that link, and to hand the case studies over to the national water caucus;

3) the issue of gender has been raised at SAWC meetings in the past, and emerged as one of the issues needing careful attention during the Changing Practice Course. Leila Harris, a gender and water specialist from UBC (University of British Columbia) offered to lead a discussion on gender dynamics within the water sector, an opportunity which was welcomed by the SAWC CC.

It was decided to appoint external facilitators, so that all members of the SAWC present could fully engage with the meeting, without simultaneously needing to hold the process. Theresa Edelman and Themba Lonzi, who have many years of experience, were brought in as our facilitators.

The meeting opened with freestyle drumming, led by Themba Lonzi, welcoming participants into the space with energy and passion.

This is a report written by the Environmental Monitoring Group and should be referenced as follows EMG, 2016, SAWC meeting with gender focus. Multi-stakeholder workshop on Water Governance. Goedgedacht, Western Cape, 18th October 2018

SAWC meeting_gender_18 Oct

The Revenge of Dead Thoughts: A tale

The pressure is now on to finish my Phd! I am now writing it up as a series of four papers with interweaving texts. The University currently known as Rhodes holds an interesting workshop on how to write papers. I have not attended it but fellow Phd students have guided me through how the first step is to write your paper as a fairytale or a symbolic story and craft it from there. This is the symbolic tale that emerged when I took pen to paper and free wrote what I wished to say in the first of these papers which I’ve entitled “The Revenge of Dead Thoughts”.

Once upon a time, before we learnt to cognitively separate ourselves from our environments, the way we thought and acted in the world was intrinsically linked to the environment or context out of which we arose. As we walked and talked and thought the landscape, the trees, the sea, the rivers thought with us and talked to us. This has not changed. We still emerge, as physical and cognitive beings, out of the environment we find ourselves in. We are inseparable from this space but we have forgotten this. This forgetful moment has meant that some groups that are more powerful have taken up the space of naming the language of the world. They name it in one way and so, in the process, un-name it and the the way it is. They un-name all the relationships that people, animals and plants have with each other. In their quest for knowledge and power they name a relationship with the world as one of dominance and subservience. Many human religions enabled this and the earth and all non-human relations were renamed as feminine: the tricky, secretive, un-tamable woman who had to be caught, raped and domesticated to enable the new naming of dominance over all that is not human. This was the case with most of the relationships with nature but not all. Some people remained free from this renaming of ‘power over nature’ and continued to sing and chant and name a relationship ‘with nature’ and to embody the mother as all powerful and all loving.

As with all things there is a choice. As the sages say with knowledge comes great power. Each new thing we learn we have a choice of using it to have power over or power with each other. When the nations of Europe learnt to sail in great wooden ships across the sea, they had a means to create a relationship. What they created was a relationship of taming the seas and taming the savages. As they did this it enabled them to name themselves as hero’s and saviour’s that come to foreign lands and redeem the people there whothey named as half-human, half –animal. As they had already learnt to word their devastation of the forests and the living beings within them as ‘progress’ so they could name their relationship with these other Human’s as ‘the half-human’ or any way they wished. Just as they cleared the great forests of their homeland so they could clear this new land of these half human beasts without endangering their soul or their status as hero. And so they named the people and the land and what was unnamed and silenced went underground and remained hidden from view.

Many years later the tale of dominantion and strength began to wane. There was much to explore and to take but what was taken did not rejuvenate. The relationship with earth began to shift because the Earth also names and sings and whispers. Rivers can stop talking ‘flow’ and instead whisper ‘dust’, the earth can stop anchoring trees and instead belch fire and gas. ‘Hard ice’ can turn to ‘talking water’ and changes can happen that are unforeseen. What was forgotten was that even in a relationship of dominance there is a relationship. The oppressed do not stay quiet and silent. They are not dead. They live and breath and fight back. So it is with the relationship with the Earth. It was not, as was thought, a one way street of simply naming and so owning. What was exchanged became integrated and so changed. No one thought about the changes. No one thought about what would change. No one thought about how, if named ‘poison’, we will eat poison. If we sing destruction we will be destroyed.

To begin naming liberation means to listen for the repatterning. By renaming, reorganising, seeing new patterns in the stories and the songs we may start seeing the moments when some words shut down other words, and when some songs outsang other songs. And we may wonder – what have we lost and what have these choices left us with today? What do we do with this song of dominance, this song that has become the white man’s anthem. But no matter how loud and how crafted stories of destruction are told there are always the struggle songs that start booming underneath the earth. There are the dances of defiance that shudder with the Earth and the soft whisperings that remember, that do not forget, that even create. These are the voices that demand that their words will not be buried and the relationships they create with each other and the world can bring about a new way of Being that is both a tale of the great discoverers and the gentle healers. These are the songs that this paper is listening to. These are the dances that this text wishes to understand. This is the strength, the power with and within us all that could mobilise the songs of defiance and make space for naming the world as our friend, our comrade and our home.

On an exposed rock face

It has been a long time since I have written a blog mostly because I have felt so disconnected from the intellectual task of doing a Phd and rather embroiled in a world or my sense of a world that is eating itself. I had a brief reunion with the Phd in August and then a weary fatigue descended and I suddenly could no longer get up in the early mornings to work. The mind fog, the unbelievable tiredness returned and I thought of my friends, like Nick (now in Cape Town) who battle with chronic fatigue and the surrender that it demands.

So I surrendered (with difficulty). I stopped forcing myself to rise up at 3:45am and slept until 6. I stopped working over weekends and instead took to rock climbing and spent my weekend days in the gym, with Donavan and Taryn, getting over my suddenly discovered fear of heights. We then took the real mountains and I rediscovered that deep peace of being in high places and looking down into valleys and across the infinitely diverse rock faces. I felt rock beneath my fingers and remembered my earlier life where I would escape from all conversation and all stress by clambering up mountains alone, not following any paths just setting my eyes on the top and making my way there through the bush and the rocks. I remember one particular mountain that I scrambled up, on a farm near Cradock in the Eastern Cape, where I ended up crawling on my belly through the undergrowth on a steep slope. This was not rock climbing it was a reckless clambering, squeezing and scratching up the backs of mountains instead of up their sheer rock faces.

I carried on reading a bit. Not much as my eyes and mind would get too tired after a day of work to read other words and other ideas. I did start randomly exploring the revolutionaries. I got tired of reading about the great men and started looking for great women revolutionaries. I made a list:

Aung San Suu Kyi
Rosa Parks
Tawakul Kormon
Corazon Aquino
Phoolan Devi
Angela Davis
Golda Meir
Vilma Lucila
Janet Jaga
Nadezhda Krupskaya
Harriet Tubman
Constance Markieviez
Petra Herrera
Lakshmi Sehgal
Sophie Scholl
Blanca Conales
Celia Sanchez
Kathleen Neal Cleaver
Asmaa Mahfouz
Vilma Lucila Espin
Camandante Ramona
Maria Nikiforova

And I promised them that I would pay them  allegiance and I would find their words and their thoughts somewhere in the world. I’m still doing this. Some would say this is a distraction from the Phd – just get it done Jane – but how can I leave this silence and not find some way to hear the women who gave up their lives to fight for justice especially as I witness the women on the Changing Practice course that in their villages and homes are doing the same thing now.

I also read ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Che Guevara. One of the good looking hero type men. I’ve always wanted to read this book. It was both humorous and familiar. It is a story of a young man going on an adventure. Roughing it because his young body can and yet that saturation into the world gives him a perspective that can never be taken away. He describes the poor folk of South America, the women in their shit infested skirts. I remember in particular his description of the mining towns so like the one’s in South Africa.

…the couple who were heading for the sulpher mines in the mountains where the climate is so bad and the living conditions so hard that you don’t need a work permit and nobody asks you what your politics are. The only thing that matters is the enthusiasm with which the workers set to ruining their health in search of a few meager crumbs that barely provide their subsistence.” Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

I remember my own journey’s: working in the Kat River Valley when I was 20 years old and how, coming home, I’d lie in the bath and sob uncontrollably so hit by the contradictions of working in an area where water was so precious and where children would shy away from my white skin with fear. I remember traveling up East Africa on public transport, hitching rides at the side of the road and being squashed for hours in buses hunching their way through dusty roads. I would feel the air crushed out of me as another person was forced into the bus and the uncontrollable shared dance of the passengers as we swayed as if one body with multiple legs and rocking heads. A naïve young white woman thinking she was on an adventure until, hallucinating with fever from dysentery that I caught on a train that stopped in the middle of nowhere for three days, I felt how some people would never be able to comprehend the gaps, no the caverns between those who have an economic access that is unprecedented and those who survive and whose means of survival is continually threatened. When I go back to what is perceived ‘normal’ for my middle class society the stories I would tell would be just stories. Just battle wounds of a young woman on an adventure. The emotional pain of the contradictions of this experience is inexpressible. It is still like this today except there are now additional stories and memories and fragments. I can see Che telling these stories as an outsider-insider-never-completely-insider and how this separation is both an agony and, behind the words, relief. But the agony is what drives something else, a small feeling that something else is possible. Che writes about this shift, this moment when he knew he would never forget:

He meets a man who could be a vision of his own future. A man that abandoned his own culture and his own place in society and took to traveling until his bones could travel no more. In a moment he summarized his life’s learning for Che and Che took these words into himself and took up the mantel of the dying man into his own life.

“The future belongs to the people, and gradually, or in one strike, they will take power, here and in every country. The terrible thing is that people need to be educated, and this they cannot do before taking power, only after. They can only learn at the cost of their own mistakes, which will be very serious and will cost many innocent lives. Or perhaps not, maybe those lives will not have been innocent because they will have committed the huge sin against nature; meaning, a lack of ability to adapt. All of them, those unable to adapt – die cursing the power they helped, through great sacrifice, to create. Revolution is impersonal; it will take their lives, even utilizing their memory as an example or as an instrument for domesticating the youth who follow them. My sin is greater because, I, more astute and with greater experience, call it what you like, will die knowing that my sacrifice stems only from an inflexibility symbolizing our rotten civilization, which is crumbling. I also know- and this won’t alter the course of history or your personal view of me – that you will die with a clenched fist and a tense jaw, the epitome of hatred and struggle, because you are not a symbol (some inanimate example) but a genuine member of a society to be destroyed; the spirit of the beehive speaks through your mouth and motivates your actions. You are as useful as I am, but you are not aware of how useful your contribution is to the society that sacrifices you.” An unknown, dying man recorded in Ernesto Che Guevara

Che, in his mind responds: “But despite his words, I now know.. I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky that I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon, and consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls in my hands… I steel my body, ready for battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.” Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries.

And he did just that until his body was broken and we are left to pick over his bones and consider whether he was the true liberation hero or a lost man who defied his civilization and made the mistakes which led to the death of the not so innocent. Whatever our verdict there is one thing that stands out and that triumphs – he believed that humanity could be different. He believed it could be more loving, more equal, more just.

In my mind I cannot let go of the contradictions of our time and this life. Some are able to live with these contradictions or live relatively comfortably with them. I have been cursed to wrestle with them and they embody me and flood me. I have never felt the blood thirsty call for battle nor do I feel that this time is the next battle ground although it may be as our earth becomes defiled by the half that will have it all. For me it has not been a battle of bodies on bodies, it is a battle of the mind and of the spirit which manifests in an exhaustion in my body. It is a battle for sanity in, what seems to be an insane world. It is at times when this internal, continual sense making needs to be still and I need to relinquish the role of serious adult in a serious world and abandon the serious tasks of acting as and becoming a professional, well educated being. I then, if I’m lucky, return to spaces where words create metaphors and images and lines and marks on a page. Like shapes in rocks they have no definition, no shape, no content and yet are satisfying. It is only here that there can be some integration as I look back over this year with my list of women liberators reverberating in my head. Paulo Freire writes:

“The more we become able to become a child again, to keep ourselves childlike, the more we can understand that because we love the world and we are open to understanding, to comprehension, that when we kill the child in us, we are no longer.” Paulo Freire, We make the road by walking.

Maybe this is what happens then. To stay open and childlike means to let go of the roles that society prescribes of ‘professional’, ‘learner’, ‘teacher’ and to rather swim in the vulnerabilities and weaknesses and openness of being human in this time. This means, right now, resting in the exhaustion of my own body while in the sea of chaotic contradictions in the world and the gentle innate compassion of the mind – to know it is okay to love and hope and feel too much and to fail. It is okay and imperfectly human to feel fear when on an open and exposed rock face. Can a PhD come to fruition and a professional life emerge from this space? Does it matter?

“..if I do not love the world if I do not love life if I do not love people I cannot enter into dialogue.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Opressed

Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?

This blog has been taken from a monthly report on the Changing Practice course which has just started in the Olifants catchment. The first ‘working together’ session was held in Emalahleni – yes, that town that you pass through on the way to the Kruger National Park. It seems like a pretty insignificant town sitting, in what has been entitled by some over zealous marketing department, as the ‘cultural heartland’ of South Africa. If you look more closely you will notice that situated around Emalahleni are mountains of coal, coal mines and the large Eskom power plants. It is known as the Witbank coal fields and it is this area that feeds electricity to South Africa. So as you sit in Johannesburg, sipping on a craft beer on this gentle Friday afternoon maybe spend a few moments thinking of what makes all of Johannesburg possible and who is paying the price.

One of the people paying the price gave this blog it’s title, ‘Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?” She is one of the participants on the Changing Practice course and works for a community based organisation that is trying to hold mining companies responsible for the mess they leave behind them and the communities they devastate. She, along with one of her comrades took the Changing Practice participants on a ‘toxic tour’ of the Emalahleni where we witnessed informal communities, that were supposed to be relocated years ago, existing on top of old mines. Every now and again a shack will disappear into the earth. We witnessed a mountain high pile of coal dust, around which another community lives. We climbed to the top of this vicarious pile of coal, picking our way carefully through the shifting surface. Around us women and young children, some no older than 3 years old sifted the coal dust looking for big enough pieces to take home with them to cook food and heat their shacks. Our guide, with a deep sadness on his face, told us how the people that try and find coal on this illegal heap of coal sometimes find the earth breaking away under them, they sink and drown in the coal dust. We then drove down a road between a big smelter and heard how the smelter dumps it’s waste on the road between the smelter and the township that exists under its shadow. During the rainy season all of this waste washes down into the tributaries of the Olifants river. An old lady bent double on the road searches for bits of metal amongst the waste in the hope of being able to sell it. Another visit past another huge, abandoned coal waste dump. We all sat looking at the stream of acid mine drainage meandering down the hill to the communities and river below. Our guide again took us past the coal dust mountain to a enlarged hole in the ground. As we came closer we started coughing, our eyes watered. Some stopped walking bent over coughing as the fumes became stronger. There were no gates, no boundaries to keep people safe from these massive holes in the ground out of which fumes belched. Some of these caverns were still on fire sending sleepy flames above ground. At the end of this tour all of us had sore throats, streaming eyes and headaches. We had only spent a few hours in the communities that live on the edges of this ‘Mordor’ and yet many people are abandoned to live their lives in this wasteland. Is it worth it, the sacrifice of so many lives, so many children? I can’t believe it is. I can’t believe that the majority of us would believe that anything is worth this. There was an anger in me that I still can’t find words for after this visit, an anger that does not burn but is heavy, immovable and drenched in coal dust.

Below are further reflections on what we experienced during our time together as we explored what it means to Change Practice.


The theme of the first module is ‘investigating context and practice’. The workshop introduces community organisations to what this means at a personal, relational and structural level. This is done by weaving between personal experience to local contextual experience to what this means more broadly for the work of an activist within the current national and global context. There is also a strong focus on what practice and context means materially – as in how does it manifest in relation to the environment and the real outcomes context and practice have on human and non-humans.

As with all the previous Changing practice courses, the learning approach and pedagogy is transparent and the course begins with a dialogue about learning, knowledge and education. We share how the course has been designed as a transformative learning process within an emancipatory pedagogy. We also explore together what it means to learn and our own personal experiences of learning – both positive and negative. These experiences are then related to the kind of learning the Changing Practice course wishes to initiate. Some of the learning experiences that participants shared were painful and demeaning and the conversation soon progressed to considering how learning is not a neutral process but can be designed to be emancipatory or to perpetuate power imbalances and inequality. This is equally so with how we consider our relationship with the environment. The view of nature as something to dominate can be reinforced or challenged through an educational process.

From the previous course we realised that participants have often experienced varied degrees of trauma because of the nature of South African society or in their work as activists. For this course we wanted to consciously acknowledge this and introduce simple processes that could be healing and are, at least, relaxing and centring. We were hoping to do this through a healing process known as ‘working with the elements’ but unfortunately Jessica Wilson, who is trained to run this process, was unable to attend the course due to an illness. Instead we introduced what is known as healing relaxation exercises where participants are encouraged to centre themselves in their bodies and learn to bring themselves back to the present moment. We introduced it as an opportunity to become aware of our inner environment. By noticing our inner environment we begin to see our reactions and responses to our outer environment and each other. On the second day we started off with this practice. Participants were unusually receptive to the practice and found it hugely beneficial.

The rest of the second day was spent exploring context and practice by starting with participants sharing their pre-course assignments which introduced their ‘Change Projects’ to the group. This was followed by an introduction to context and practice and a dialogue about what these concepts mean if we consider our own work contexts. This included some exercises of practicing exploring context and practice. An additional session was added to the day because during the pre-course assignment presentations participants started to see links between their Change Project and others in the group. The after hours session explored these connections and also gave the group more time to give each other advice and contact that may be useful to them.

The morning of Day 2 was a field trip which CULISA and Action Voices organised. It was an opportunity to again practice observing and questioning context and practice. The field trip was called the ‘toxic tour’ and was a shocking experience for all involved. Although extremely difficult to witness everyone expressed how important it was to have experienced it as it showed them the top of the catchment and the horror of what happens here which should the a concern of everyone in the Olifants. We ran a healing relaxation session after the tour as many of us felt overwhelmed by what we had witnessed.

We then moved into a brief dialogue on climate change where participants were asked to consider how they contribute to climate change and how climate change affects them. The intention of this was to both situate climate change within our own lives as well as get a sense of the groups perceptions of climate change – what they understood and what was confusing for them. Most of the group understood the basic facts about climate change. There was  a discussion about what climate change meant in the context of African spiritual beliefs. What was most apparent was a deep sense of disempowerment around climate change, not so much in terms of knowledge but a feeling of not knowing what was happening, what negotiations were being held and how ordinary people and civil society is involved in these negotiations and decisions. Listening to the dialogue there was a sense, from the group, that there are organisations and governments are making decisions which are not communicated to civil society nor do the participants know what platforms exist (if any) for them to participate in. It is the power dynamics of climate change and questions about who makes the decisions and negotiates on behalf of South African citizens that concerns participants.

After the climate change dialogues we ran a gender dialogues using the Freirian fish bowl approach. The question posed to the fish bowl was: how does gender impact on your change project? The participants quickly went to the core of how gender inequalities were experienced in their own lives and in their communities as well as how culture and religion exacerbate gender inequalities. Some strong patriarchal narratives also emerged which were deeply upsetting to some of the members of the group. The dialogues were very challenging for all of us including myself.  It surfaced the perceptions of the group around gender roles and stereotypes, how these manifest on social structure and touched on some deep experiences that the women held of being both dominated and excluded because they are women. Dialogues also started emerging around how women are the most vulnerable when it comes to environmental degradation and climate change although most of these conversations were started by men and in an objectified way whereas the women in the group wanted to keep the conversation at the raw edge of what it meant for women, and particularly the women in this room, to be discriminated against particularly when it came to their desire to be change agents in the world and to participate in, and lead, movements. The implicit violence that sits within the relations between men and women emerged through the dialogues leaving us all shaken. To move the dialogues out of speech and into our bodies we ended off the session by each one of us making an image of how we felt right now. These images were powerful, painful and challenging which some people expressed as being ‘louder than words’. When doing image work there it is very difficult not to be direct and mostly honest. Words can be curated across timeframes (we can use words to distance, other and objectify) whereas the body can only express exactly what is happening right in the moment. We can also, as participants, hear the body more clearly than when we listen to words which we are already forming counter arguments or agreements to. Listening to images forces our speech to be silent and for us to listen to the gestures that are performed in the space in front of us.

The final day started with a check in session where we touched base on how we all felt after the very intense gender session and field trip of the previous day. What was apparent and surprising is that the group had formed a very strong bond by going through a very honest and challenging experience together. The interactions were grounded and real. We ended our check in by getting an object from the external environment that represented our vulnerabilities as change agents and how the group can, in solidarity, respect and be gentle with these vulnerabilities.


Brief notes from four provinces

Two and a half weeks ago I set out on a work trip that took me from the province of Mpumalanga, across to the province of Limpopo, back to Gauteng, down to the Western Cape, across to the Eastern Cape and finally back to Mpumalanga again. This was the second time I took the bus instead of flying as part of my personal commitment to reducing CO2 emissions. It makes the journey long but there is something that feels right about the time taken to consider distance. There is a camaraderie when standing in a queue waiting for the bus with mother’s and children carrying their food and purchases from the big city back home. On the trip down to Cape Town a man upstairs managed to down a bottle of whisky and was half way through his second before the manic bus host noticed. In line with the bus companies policy the manic bus host tried to evict him at the next garage stop. He refused to be unclamped from his whisky or his seat which resulted in the police being called. At 2am in the morning I peeped through the curtains and watched as a very vocal young man jovially pranced off between two overweight policemen. The manic host decided that it was this was an important moment. He turned on all the bus lights and with eyes darting from one corner to the next,  gave us a long lecture about alcohol and bus trips while waving the half full bottle of whisky that he eventually managed to pry from his intoxicated passenger. Taking the bus is a long and very grounded experience.

Below are some brief notes from the four provinces I visited and the work that I did there:

Limpopo Province:

Getting enough work this year has been a challenge with contracts being delayed and potential work drying up like mist on a hot day. I was utterly relieved to get a small contract with my friend and colleague, Lindie Botha. She has been working for a particular organisation for years using her organisational development skills to enable staff to manage and monitor their own programme. This time she was asked to do a summative evaluation of the programmes last 5 years. The intention was to approach the summative evaluation in a different way. Usually summative evaluations tend to focus on the numbers – how many, how much – Lindie wanted to dig deeper and move from just looking for systematic results to looking for the systemic that could tell us more about the kind of change the programme has managed to catalyse in a community which has been devastated by HIV/AIDs.

The Highveld Bushveld is beautiful this time of year and our driving chatter was often fell into silence as both of us breathed in the landscape. It has been a long time since I have done work in the health sector. Way back in the early 2000’s when HIV/AIDS was part of your work no matter what you did I helped direct, workshop and produce theatre for development pieces that were performed in villages and at festivals. The narrative then was ‘AIDS Kills’. I remember that for one play that I had small role in, we hired a coffin from a local undertaker and all the action of the play took place around this strong symbol of death. Now, because of the great work of the treatment action campaign, HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence nor is it such a cultural taboo. Today people live long healthy lives with HIV/AIDS and the attention has shifted towards compassionate treatment and care for communities.

The work of this particular NGO is astounding. Grounded learning action I would call it where facilitators, some of whom have lived through the shadows of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, have become inspirational figures of survival and hope. The organisations work looks at HIV/AIDS systemically and tries to address all the many back lash effects of the epidemic on the communities it works with: orphanage, child based care, farm worker care and education, home care, radio stations, working with churches, traditional healers… their web of care reaches right over all the role players in the community. Their ethic is one of care first. In amongst this awesomeness is the dark face of NGO work – funding drying up, personal wars at the highest level, miscommunication, ego’s. The NGO had to retrench 42 of their staff in December because of a lack of funding due to tensions between the original founders of the NGO. Other tensions seem to be because of a clear lack of understanding of the context that NGO’s work in in South Africa. For example, getting an Memorandum of Understanding from a local government department is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish and yet for people based in England the inability to produce this document is read as incompetence. As this unfolds the last surviving 18 employees have taken a 50% salary cut and face possible dismissal in the next couple of months.

As I listened to the stories of their work I was struck by how deeply the ground staff understand the practice of learning and mediation. More so than any graduate of education or development studies would ever understand. Lindie and I came to understand their approach as ‘informal but structured’ a balance that most educators or NGO workers do not get right. They describe it as follows:

“The approach in the beginning was too formal we started using informal approaches. The formal approach we were introduced to was to bring pamphlets. We gave up on this and we just started talking to people in a normal way. We knew the procedure of how to run a session formally but we didn’t do that. We just greeted people as our friends, we started conversations that made people open up and we were able to learn that these people need options and then we were able to give them options. We did not come to them as if we know better than them. You need to prepare though. People can see that you are prepared. If you are not prepared you end up doing things that don’t help so you need to be structured but engage in an informal way”

Johannesburg, Gauteng

A surprise phone call from the Centre of Environmental Rights and I found myself doing a morning facilitation session for the Mining and Environmental Community Network. This is a group of inspiring people who have gathered together to try and collectively push back against the horrific effects of mining on communities and the natural environment (See the Centre of Environmental Rights publication ‘Zero Hour’). The first part of the workshop was spent listening to the group highlight the major challenges in their areas. It was heartbreaking to hear about the illnesses, disease and suffering that mining has caused and how little is done to alleviate this suffering. In the short time I had with this deeply inspiring group we worked on how to split up the impacts of mining from what causes these impacts. We then discussed how the aim of the group is to focus on the causes: to understand them deeply, to be able to record them and argue for why these causes lead to the impacts that they feel in their everyday lives. Finally we explored what we can do to address these causes or issues. The group then made a decision on what they would collectively focus on as a group. What struck me after this workshop was a conversation I had with a friend. She said she wants to be able to do more than be paid to do research. I was immediately struck again by how different parallel and not integrated processes of response have developed in South Africa and they do not meet. This woman wanted something more hands on, more direct to work with. The mining and environmental community network needed more powerful platforms and better evidence to make their cases. The fact that this passionate woman and these networks have never crossed paths remains one of the tragedies of our work as change agents in the world.

Cape Town, Western Cape

A trip down to Cape Town to work with the Environmental Monitoring Group, AWARD, the South African Water Caucus and previous participants of the Changing practice course. This was such an inspiring and moving engagement that I’m going to struggle to pull out a single kernel of reflection. The whole experience seems to have sunk down deep into my Being while I wait for a quite moment to contemplate and consider what the engagement actually means for transgressive or transformative learning processes. What did strike me was how we ‘secretly’ drew on Bhaskar’s lamination of social life for the course (See blog on ‘Considering the Emancipatory Researcher’). All this means is that the course was designed in a way that acknowledged the individual as emerging from a social structure and that the way towards strengthening agency is to see our own lived experience within the lamination of social life and so lift the embedded and embodied life into the world of structure, such as policy. This was a discussion that emerged from the Solidarity symposium I attended last year. It emerged in relation to the student protest movement and how the movement seems to be stuck in personal experiences of oppression. The desire is to move beyond the personal while still deeply acknowledging this suffering. I do feel that the Changing Practice course that we have collaboratively developed over time holds a key to this expressed stuck space. I think one reason for this is that some of us have started to engage with Bhaskar’s critical realism and the philosophical clearing of the rubbish of Western Philosophy that he has done is now starting to gently emerge in our practices. To quote one of the participants of our workshop who was also a previous participant on the course in response to a question of whether the case studies mean anything outside the local context.

“If it was not for the bigger policy focus of the course and the link to the South African Water Caucus we would not have engaged government and it would have just been a research process. The bigger picture of policy forced us to step back and look at what our experience really means. The Change projects needed it.”

Another two key moments was being able to articulate that the curriculum design and curriculum implementation are also ‘social processes’ and to notice how the participants had not only learnt how to do action research as activism but they had also internalised the principles of social learning and of learning as a process of change and thus activism. This is astounding.

Grahamstown, Eastern Cape

I finally ended up in Grahamstown for the Environmental Learning Research Centre’s Critical Realism School. I arrived tired and pretty exhausted from my two long bus trips and the fatigue of being in so many different contexts in such a short time. Work pressures were also mounting and as much as I tried to ignore the demanding emails the stress became to much and I decided to leave early. I often struggle with purely academic activities. My legs get jumpy. This was a special event though as my friend and Phd supervisor, Leigh Price, was there. As she spoke I was struck by how the critical realism concepts now seem part of my body and my being in the world. I still need to hear them again and again to articulate my practice but the difficult words and complex concepts are only necessary for this articulation –  the work, the practice is being integrated. I presented on my work with WWF – South Africa and my attempts to use Bhaskar’s lamination and theory of agency as a guiding framework for a realist evaluation to make sense of a 15 year long body of work. I loved presenting it and felt a warm gratitude towards Bhaskar for the hard and difficult work he did to give us the intellectual tools we need to do this work. When I came home I had a 3 hour conversation with the manager of the programme that I was working under. It was an invigorating conversation as we worked with what the research had unearthed and took this forward into our understanding of practice. Hopefully I will be able to share this research more broadly once I have integrated this final feedback.

I also final understand the TINA compromise: – the TINA compromise is what the Changing Practice course is trying to address and it is what activists around the world are responding to. When a theory is out of sync with reality it causes suffering and yet often the ideas are still acted upon and impact our lives even though our lived experience shows that these ideas or theories perpetuate inequality and injustice. Our role then is to carefully name this disjuncture as a collective and act against it together because often these theories are very strong and stuck. An example that came to my mind while listening to Leigh was the wonderful work that the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance have done though their Change project. They named the way some water users, like spiritual practitioners, are excluded from catchment management forums and, they argue, from policy. The Department of Water civil servants responded that spiritual practitioners are included in policy under ‘recreation’ and they are more than welcome to participate in forums. The reality is, however, that most forums have been appropriated by large scale users and the view of water as a resource leaves no space for spiritual practitioners view of water as a living and healing being. The Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance along with the South African Water Caucus keep naming this disjuncture between the so called progressive policies and the experience of ordinary South African’s.

Now I am back at home and I can once again focus on the Phd a little every day. It still feels completely overwhelming but as each day goes by I get a little closer to letting it go….

It is no good being free, if others suffer: exploring agency

This post is dedicated to the late Akong Rinpoche who still teaches me and to the brave young South African women who saw the moment and acted to make sure we did not forget.

I took a month off work in July to work full time on my PhD. I spent the first two weeks frustrated and unable to find a way into the theory. Then I remembered feedback given by a fellow participant at a research school I recently attended. She wrote: “I really think if we want to be transformative, we have to look at the approach we take to transformation, because we can bring transformation, but will it be the needed transformation? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible for one to realize the value of transformative/ or transgressive/ or just learning in general if you can’t relate to it through personal experiences and beliefs. Of course we can theorize, but that only produces intellectual property, which is useless to the people that need sincere discussion and engagements.” This made me think of a time when I felt I had no agency and how I relied on my personal experiences and beliefs to get through this time. These thoughts helped me break through my block and start writing.

At the end of the month I felt that nothing that I wrote could be used for my PhD. This made me very disappointed but then I considered that this first attempt at writing may have been a very important process of starting to weave the text. What I share below is a small extract from what I wrote during July. It documents my explorations of the agency of the Self or as Bhaskar calls it, the stratified, embodied personality within the four planar Being.


A few year’s ago I got ME and for three years I was unable to work. When the illness was at it’s peak I was unable to get out of bed. I could not understand conversations and making a cup of coffee was a task that took enormous effort. I lived off my savings and ended up broke living in a friend’s house and barely being able to afford the basics. The one thing about not being able to work, socialise or even have a longish conversation with a friend is that the identity of ‘me’ erodes. There was no ‘work Jane’, ‘no socially connected Jane’ and not even a Jane that could make her own food effectively or drive a car to go the shops to buy the food. What this means is that I lost, what I considered, my agentive power in the world.

The one thing that kept me going through this time was a Buddhist meditation practice called Ngondro. Ngondro is called a preliminary practice. My Buddhist teacher, Rob Nairn, called it a B.A for Buddhists. It consists of five steps. I have only done the first two. The first practice is a practice of contemplation. These contemplations are called ‘thoughts that turn the mind’. For many days I sat and meditated on precious human existence, impermanence, karma and suffering. These thoughts may seem morbid but they are very liberating and agentive. I find these contemplations a useful way in to contemplating what it means to have agency in the world in relation to Bhaskar’s resolution of the dualism between structure and agency: the four planar being (Bhaskar, Dannermark, & Price, in press) and particularly the agency of the embodied personality being ‘I’, the agent that acts.

“First meditate on this precious human body
So hard to attain, so easy to lose
I shall make this life meaningful”

When contemplating precious human existence I turned away from thinking about my pain and suffering to thinking of the context I have been born into and all the privileges that it brought me. I also thought how others do not have this context of privilege, that the day we are born is not a neutral day but a day where we are born into a history of anothers making and from that day forward we have choices of what we do with that history. Bhaskar would consider this moment of entering into the stream of life as a moment to that explains the relationship between structure and agency (Bhaskar, Dannermark, Price, in press). The individual, this I that I am, and what I can do with this ‘I that I am’ is born into a structure. Therefore structure always comes first. This does not mean that we don’t have maneuvering power within this historical space. The choice is whether we reproduce history, context and structure or transform it. Within this contemplation of precious human existence I included a contemplation on what I had done with my choice and what I would like to do if I recovered.

Words that have histories
jane caroline

words that have histories.
words that are soaked in disappointment,
that have scars.
words that when spoken do not come out smooth and clipped
stumble as the tongue collides with the palate
words that could glow and open the chest
words followed by other words
from the left and right hand side of the brain
conceptual towers and bridges and gates and
locks and bars
sentences in mazes
long passageways

Words that have histories
Words that hold theories to hide pain
whispered under the breath
heavy with thought
past images and objects
Clear cut dry concepts
Sharp enough to wound

Words that have histories
Can they be spoken anew?
Can they be light and fresh?
Saying, hearing, soft and tender
Words whispered
Into that cavernous space

Second, the world and living beings are impermanent
Our lives in particular are like water bubbles –
Who knows when we will die and become corpses?
Since Dharma will help the, I practice diligently.

The second ‘thought that turns the mind’ is impermanence. In the belly of my illness noting that each thought, each moment fades to be replaced by something else was both terrifying and liberating. We die, we rot and our flesh is eaten by other Beings and so life goes on. At the edge of this knowledge lies a Self that does not need a ‘work Jane’, or a ‘car driving Jane’ or even a ‘Jane that has friends’. The Jane here is slightly intangible but nonetheless an existence. Bhaskar calls on us to understand our agency as being more than our personal actions in the material world but as the actions that we take within ourselves and the actions we take with others (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015). When the ego is not so tight and when the needs of ‘me’ are as intangible as the wind what is there but the sound of breath coming in and out and so the sound of all breathing.

jane caroline

The vivid one of mishka dog pressed against my leg 3 days before she died
And the dead pale hue to Bulelwa’s skin as I kissed her goodbye
And the brilliant light of dancing or that song
The memory of that song that was sung as I hung out the door
And the brazen hot jazz and the cobbled streets
And the pot holed streets and the bridges
And the churches
And the building where Marie Antoinette learned she was to die
And the statues to wars
And the statues to pride
And the glass stained windows of light
And the laughing people by the roadside.
And the men who mark me out as I walk
And the smell of coconut and fresh fish on the sweating night air
And the fear of leaving
And the fear of staying
And the delirium of fever
And the fire pain in my head
And the chants of the monks as an eagle flies into the sun
And the screams in the street
And the memories of silence
And the stark white snowed mountains
And trees that have memories that arch upwards and dig down
And each tear that is chosen as each thought that is not
And each moment breathing

Third, there is no freedom at the time of death.
In order to take control over karma,
I give up misdeeds and always do virtuous acts
Thinking thus, I examine myself every day.

The third thought that turns the mind is Karma. This is little understood and the Buddhist teachings go that if one was to understand Karma then this would be enlightenment but they say that about all the thoughts that turn the mind. Karma means action. I don’t understand the intricacies of the Buddhist philosophy of Karma. What I understand is that we have a force of action in the world and that there is a choice each moment as to how we use this action. Action for Buddhists doesn’t start in the world, it starts in our internal being. If there is right action within us then there will be right action in the world. This makes me think of Bhaskar’s quest for an ethical philosophy where he argues that a correct way of seeing the world will lead to the correct way of acting in the world (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015). For Bhaskar this ‘correct way’ is by challenging the ‘epistemological doctrines’ that are in the world today and that inhibit radical change. For Bhaskar this happens in two ways: firstly, that epistemology and ontology are conflated and secondly that Western philosophy’s ontological position is incorrect because of the first mistake. In the second movement of critical realism, dialectic critical realism, Bhaskar names another mistake in Western Philosophy, that reality can only be spoken about in terms of positive qualities and that negative qualities (gaps and absences) are not spoken of. For Bhaskar this means that there is no possibility for real change as if reality only exists of positive qualities then change means a distribution of these qualities and not an absenting of these qualities or the filling of gaps.

As Buddhists contemplate Karma we often think of the things that inhibit us from being a kind and compassionate person. What are the habits in the mind that obscure the Self that is naturally at one with the world. The way we go about working with these habits is by absenting them and we do this by removing what is not who we are or what we don’t want to be. In Buddhist practice the aim is not to add to your personality or to add thoughts or new habits to your mind. The aim is to negate, take away and destroy that which is not Self. This philosophy accepts that Self is completely fine just the way it is. There is nothing that needs to be added to it. What needs to happen is for things to be taken away. Things that have no place and bring no happiness. This ability to remove is where agency begins. This ability to identify with what you are not, or when a structure or a relationship is not okay is the first moment of transformation. Bhaskar talks to this when he speaks of education. The point is not to add, the point is to engage with what is already present and remove that which blocks an individual or a group from engaging in learning(Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015).

After the first iteration of the Changing Practice course I was reflecting on what it meant to be an educator. One of the mentor’s had made me angry by saying that some of the course participants do not have enough education to engage in critical thinking. I disagreed and argued that critical thinking did not depend on how many degrees you have. Later that day I was having tea with my good friend Robert Berold and he said ‘it is not what we add, it is how we, as educators, assist our participants in taking away the obstacles to learning.’ This lead to this core statement which expresses the ethos of the Changing practice course.
“A lack of critical thinking is not a sign of a lack of education, rather it is a sign of mis-education. The course does not attempt to teach people how to be critical but to remove what inhibits their natural ability to question their world.”(Burt et al., 2014)

Karma and action do not, however, stop in the mind but extend into the world, into the spaces between ourselves and others, into the institutions and organisations and cultures through which we move and in relation to our material world.

For Ilyo, soon to be born
jane caroline

in her womb
you lie
mostly silent
an imminent tingle

when I saw your mothers belly
in the parking lot of the BP garage
wrapped up in that black and white dress
she wears so well
I wanted to kneel down to you
and tell you of the human world
you will be entering

sometimes it feels like the slime here
cannot be cleared
each day a a cut-up sliced half life
a harsh stuttering hicc-ed up
shadow of inner-murk
in some places thin & taunting
in others thick enough to choke

the shape of animal forms
run beneath the surface
a challenge of limbed chase
and victory
raw taste & sounds
breath dominates
hot & wet
life & death are sharp edged lovers
in fired wanton freedom

for a brief moment
raindrops are whole & immaculate
trees have unique shapes & voices
and hold the form of joy

I’m not sure I’m qualified to welcome you
I have to admit that I am almost depleted
from a life of human interactions
from my own internal action
but I sense the awareness
of atomized space in me
ancient beyond time
of which you are still
almost suspended

my rattled vehicle
crest hills this dirt road
and I’m eyeing an image
stretched mountains holding
slate-grey shards of water
a blue cloud scuttled sky
one instant a loerie
all green and red and blue
glistens it’s flight path
in front of me

this the the colour of life
the sculpture of this ancient
crushed & human tortured landscape
covered scars in careful green & rust and bruised blue
an earth-wound
hard & beautiful

what I am trying to say is I am told
we are impermanent forms of eternal presence
if you find the way to Being in this life
you will birth your own freedom.

Fourth, the places, friends, pleasures and riches of samsara
Are always stricken with the three sufferings;
They’re like a feast before being led to the execution
Cutting the ties of attachment, I strive and reach enlightenment

The final thought that turns the mind is on suffering. There is an assumption that Buddhist practitioners have a very negative view of the world because we contemplate suffering. This is not so. The contemplation is about understanding the deep causes of suffering so that we can remove them and be happy. The start is to understand what causes suffering in the Self. As one of the great teachers, Minjyor Dorje writes, “Most definitely everyone experiences suffering, dissatisfaction, and anguish. But actually people do not investigate the underlying causes of these feelings or what perpetuates them, and most importantly, they do not investigate how to bring them to an end. People spend a lot of effort trying to avoid unhappiness – not facing it, not transforming it, but only trying to make it go away.”. This often makes me think of human beings approach to climate change. We have all the knowledge we need to know why the world, and thus people suffer and yet we don’t want to face it, we don’t want to transform it, we just want to make it go away. Naomi Klein gave a talk this year as part of the Edward Said series, she commented that people, especially people in the West think that technology is going to solve the problem of global warming. Scientists are even investigating the possibility of dimming the sun by creating the effect of a volcanic eruption so as to block on the light. What people don’t consider is these actions, although they may solve the problem, don’t necessarily solve the problem for all people. In fact for some countries the dimming of the sun will create more problems. For each solution, Klein argues, there are the unseen that then suffer. This means that we are not facing the cause of our suffering completely, we are just wanting the problem of climate change to go away. As Klein argues so articulately, the problem of global climate change is linked to a problem with our social and economic systems that are based on racial discrimination and patriarchy. Until we address these systems as causes of our suffering then we have not transformed our suffering we have simply turned away from the causes of our suffering. Some of us don’t want to change because the current system of inequality benefits us (Klein, 2016). If it is not climate change it would be something else because the fundamental values of our society have not shifted and those that benefit are happy to sacrifice both places and people for this benefit without realising that in the end, we all suffer.

As Freire clearly stated: It is not just the oppressed that suffer, the oppressor also suffers at the hand of his own oppression (Dardar, 2014).

Like Bhaskar, Buddhists believe that the human being is fundamentally completely fine and that we are all naturally compassionate. What stops this natural compassion is a delusion or, as Freire would call it, a false consciousness, of the way the world truly is. Bhaskar would link this delusion to a false ontology such as believing that the world can be reduced to constant conjunctions or simply a projection of the minds discourse. Freire would see this delusion as hiding from the truth of oppression, in the case of the oppressed this would be a false consciousness of seeing oppression as a natural order and as being the will of God or as simply the way of the world. For the oppressor the delusion is believing that the world and all the people in it are simply a projection of the middle-class way of life and value system. This is the right way and all other ways are just not there yet. Both of these positions are delusional and only once we learn to read the world and know it for what it is, in other words see the truth of why we suffer and make other people suffer, can we all be free(Czank, 2012). This is why facing up to priviledge or discrimination, although hard, is also freeing as it frees us from our false understandings of the world and allows us to engage in the world as it really is.

Now as educators and researchers do we not see these forms of suffering everywhere in the way humanity holds onto old structures and in the way humanity perpetuates a status quo that is unjust? As educators do we ask our learners to either learn how to continually turn away from suffering or do we learn together how to face it and thus transform it? Since I have been doing research the focus on contextual work has grown and grown. This shift has been greatly encouraging as it says that in the world of research there is a wish to know the world as it is. With different research tools and processes researchers set out to read the world as best they can and so face up to what causes our collective suffering.

In the footsteps of Olive Schreiner
jane caroline

She did not walk alone in the veld
The footsteps of the dead tracked her
The actions of the brave living drove her
The gentle wind of compassion
Purified her dark and coarse lesions

She was not alone in knowing
The agony of uncompromising life
Of knowing the dry places
Festering with poisonous insects
And maggot-ridden corpses

Out of which arises
A single rock koppie
Reaching into a stark blue sky

I want to tell one more story from my life as a Buddhist practitioner before I move into the narratives of the intellectuals who are read and spoken about within the walls of the Universities that I learn with.

When I had recovered from ME enough to begin working again. I was confused. The three years of serious Buddhist practice made me think that my time in the world of action was over and that I should give up that life and simply learn to be with my own confused mind and help people to be with their own minds. I had been offered a job at an NGO far away from where I lived but I was slightly afraid to go back into the world of action where I was never quite sure whether my actions were beneficial or harmful. I wrote to my root Guru and asked him what he thought I should do. This may seem strange to people who are not part of the Buddhist education system. I have had many friends say, how can you give up your agency to another human. This is not what a relationship with a Guru is about. Akong Rinpoche was a man of immense compassion and insight. He knew my struggles and he knew my potential. I trusted him and it was this trust that lead me to ask his opinion. For me, to be able to trust in one single human being in the world is a powerful force of agency.

I truly believed when I sent the letter that the reply would be to do retreat, teach mindfulness, withdraw from the world and yet what he wrote back to me was exactly the opposite. He argued that, for me,  working towards the care of water was by far more beneficial than retreating. ‘Your life will be living the Buddhist principles’, he argued, ‘water will overcome thirst and hunger in other beings.‘.. that is your Dharma.’ What this taught me is that an ethical path cannot be separated from the world. Maybe at some point in humanity’s history there was a space in the world to withdraw quietly into contemplation but it is not this time. To be true to my path as an earthwalker it is time to continue walking, to endure what that means and live the Dharma that this time asks me to live.

I have started writing about agency, which is the core exploration of this study, by engaging with a body of knowledge and practice that is core to my being and that is not often spoken of in lecture halls to demonstrate a few things.

To honour the call of a fellow participant who recently attended a research school with me that to know transformative practice we need to be able to relate and narrate our own transformation.

That transformative praxis or transformative agency is more than our actions in the material world and it is more than working with our internal mind states. As Bhaskar argues we cannot ignore the intransitive dimension and ‘collapse the human being to human action and collapse the different aspects of the material world to the level of events’ (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015, p. 40). There is more at play here.

It is a desire to address, what Klein calls, ‘a failure of narrative’. She argues that the narratives we have told ourselves for decades such as the narrative of growth have failed us and we have nothing with which to replace them. I would agree and also argue that we do. Within each of us is a rich array of narratives which tell a different story to the displaced and violent tale of modern capitalism. Whether the spaces are open for us to tell these tales in many different spaces and so create moments of possibility remain to be seen but it is one of the intentions and desires of the educational work that I have been involved in. Part of the role of the 21st century educator is to create the spaces for fully embodied, knowing people who can bring all their life experiences to the path of learning and change.

Finally, it is an attempt to demonstrate that the meaning and knowledge that drives our actions is a rich weaving of knowledges, experiences, structure and intent. As Bhaskar so clearly describes it “if we look at agency itself this is a most marvellous thing. It depends on a process of intentional causality and agency occurs typically when we intend to do something for a reason. What we have when we are trying to understand social life in the first moment of stratification is to see action in terms of reasons. And then the second moment of stratification is to see how structures and structural change give agents reasons for doing things. That is a typical stratification of action moment.” (Bhaskar, Roy and Scott, 2015, p. 38)

Naming ourselves so we can name the world

I recently attended a conference on popular education entitled ‘forging solidarity’. Popular education has been around since the 16th century. Popular education is not adult education or informal education it is a form of interaction that sits at the crossroads between politics and pedagogy. The aim of popular education is a collective liberation against oppression or to put it another way a conscientisation of individuals and groups who are working together to transform society.

Paulo Freire, a 20th century educator, is most well known for his contributions to popular education and how the educational process can be designed to be liberating both for those that are born into an oppressed group and those that are born into a group that oppresses. What I love about Freire’s ideas is that emancipation is only possible if both the oppressed and oppressor need to be liberated from that which perpetuates unjust practice in the world. This unjust practice is possible because of the way in which we internalise ways of being that enable us to see ‘the other’ as less than us. It is also made possible through the competitive desire for ownership of the means of production and thus the wealth that is gained from this ownership. To justify this ownership, oppressor communities need to create myths of being and acting in the world which make it possible for oppressive practices to continue. One such myth is that everyone has an equal chance of gaining wealth and it all comes down to how hard one works. Another myth is that Western races are ‘more advanced’ in terms of cultural, political and economic structures and this is the reason for their progress and dominance in the world. All that has really happened is that Western structures have been able to institutionalise unjust practices that are now taken as ‘normal’ and ‘right’. The way forward is the myth that less advanced nations to simply catch up. This is obviously not going to solve the inequalities in the world.

What I found very intriguing about the colloquium was not only the diversity of work that is happening in popular education and how the political pedagogy is still (and probably always will be) emerging but also how individuals within the group acknowledged the presence of oppressive structures. This was done by acknowledging their context or should I say the context into which they are born and now live. This is important as the context we are born into may not be the context within which we now live. This has definitely been the case for me at least. As Bhaskar argues, when it comes to structure and agency, structure always comes first. We are born into a context and a historical moment that we have no choice over. What we do within this context and historical moment is where our agency lies. Freire speaks of agency as conscientisation that is both personal and collective. This continual dance between what the context of oppression and the context of the oppressed was very apparent at the colloquium as was the way in which people tried to personally deal with this.

It was a common practice for presenters to start their presentations by either owning their experiences of oppression or confessing their oppressor status. For example, acknowledging that “I have been born into an middle class family from a high caste.” or “I am a black woman who grew up and knows the experience of poverty” or “I am a black academic who has struggled to make it to this point and has to continually fight against the unseen structures of patriarchy and racism in Universities which are environments that make me feel excluded.” This made me think about the conscientisation process and what it means to own an oppressive experience and then see this as an identity or to confess to having grown up in an oppressor context and acknowledging the advantage this has given one. I began to think of how I would engage in my own ownership and confessional process.

I can claim oppression as a woman in an overly hyped masculine society and I can confess to being born to a father and mother that had made it to the middle class by abandoning their home country to come to South Africa during one of the darkest years in Apartheid’s history – 1976. At home they were not part of this class. I can acknowledge that growing up white in South Africa in the 80’s gave me an education that was much better than any of my comrades of colour and I can also say that I experienced the horror of being sexually abused and bullied by male students. I can say that my father, due to scholarship he won for his university education (his parents were not wealthy and unable to afford tertiary education at the time) and his determination to succeed in a foreign country meant that most of my tertiary education was paid for. I am the first person in my family to get a masters (and hopefully Phd) and this is probably due to the South African priviledges I grew up with. I often wonder if I would have received such a good education if my family had remained in England. I can also say that it is due to my fathers savings that he was able to accumulate from his many years of work as an engineer that I am now able to own a house with my partner. My father covered the deposit on the loan of the house. It is these generational payments that have made it possible for me to find work. It is also the colour of my skin that makes people react to me in a different way and open up doors that would be closed to others. So interestingly I was not born into a community of oppressors but, to some extent, a community that was oppressed as my father’s family were working class Liverpudlian’s struggling in the aftermath of World War two. I was, however, transplanted into an oppressor community when the education my father fought so hard for landed him a job in South Africa.

I will always remember wanting to treat a Xhosa friend to a meal at a restaurant. My Xhosa friend introduced me to a isiXhosa dance group called the Masande players when I was 20. I became a member and danced with them for about four years. What he did was more than give me an opportunity to perform he gave me an opportunity to enter a world that was closed to me. He offered me a friendship that was more than a personal sense of compassion for each other. He also offered me the opportunity to be more South African and to learn what it meant to be part of the oppressor community in the context of a South Africa crawling out of apartheid . His only surviving parent was an alcoholic and so during his matric exams I offered him a space to stay so he could study. He suffered for this because this was in the time when white people were not trusted. His association with me led to his family consulting with a sangoma and putting a curse on both of us. I do not understand this and still don’t but I still have the letter he wrote to me before he left town telling me that he was in danger and so was I. He advised me to leave town too but I was not a believer nor did I understand the nature of what was happening in his life. This was all still foreign to me and still is which shows how some doors are still closed to me. But I am getting side tracked. When I offered my friend a meal at the restaurant he became uncomfortable. He nervously looked at the menu and eventually said, “would you mind if we rather buy food for the same amount as this meal at checkers. Then I can share it with my family and it will last longer.”

I have been contemplating is how the ownership of oppression is the ownership of an experience of oppression first and then a slow and often painful process of understanding the underlying causes of this oppression. Freire would call this learning to read the world and therefore understanding how oppression can even be possible. For Bhaskar this is going beyond the empirical or events (the experience of oppression) to understanding the causal mechanisms of how the event and the results of the event could have happened to begin with.

But do we do the same when we confess to being born into a community that oppresses or into a culture of people that are oppressors or into a country that legislates oppression? Do we rather start the other way around and instead of ‘owning our labe’s confess to the structural labels of the oppressors?– I am middle class. I am white. I am man. I am from the first world. I am heterosexual. Why don’t our confessions also start with the experience of being born into oppressor status? This made me think of how it does feel to own oppressor status.

This morning, while I meditated, I conjured up a moment of exclusion, a moment where my privilege was so apparent and I sat with the feelings that arose. All I can say is there was a sense of my chest collapsing inward on myself. I wanted to withdraw, be small, tiny, insignificant. Things were crawling inside of me. My eyes could not look straight but darted around. When I think of a label for this feeling the only one that comes to mind is shame coupled with a feeling of helplessness. There was no agency. There was not a feeling, in the moment, that I could do anything but stand there shameful and helpless. This feeling of having the status oppressor or privileged, if we want a gentler word, makes me understand more than anything that structures of oppression trap all of us, oppressor and oppressed alike. Which reminds me of a very important conversation we had at the popular education conference around why do we act in solidarity or what is this thing we call solidarity which I suppose is asking, is it possible for solidarity to exist between the diversity of our collective experiences of living in this world? Some people spoke of ‘a responsibility’ and others of ‘the struggle to be’. There was a lot of talk about what it means to stand up and stand down, to give space and to leave space. The comment that struck home the most was a comment made by an comrade from India who pushed away the word ‘responsibility’ as if it stung him. No, for him the act of solidarity came from an understanding that even the most privileged are not free in the enactment of oppression. It is not a responsibility to align oneself against oppression it is the core of our humanity that makes us do so because once we understand that we are trapped, closed off, reigned in from experiencing each other and the world then we know there is no other choice but to fight oppression in every which form we find it. This then is the act of love and first and foremost it is an act of self love. If I truly love and care for myself then an opppressor status is unthinkable. To not challenge this and question this is an act of hate towards myself and an acceptance of the prison it puts me in.

Liberation is an act of courage as it means a continual working with contradictions that are both internal and the contradictions that manifest in the external world. As Peter Park remarks in a conversation with Freire, “The structure is one thing, and how we live is another. Daily, we speak the language of racism. We speak the language of sexism. We speak these ideologies in our body language and the ways in which we live and interact with others. So unless we change the way we live, from the inside out, just talking liberatory education or progressive politics is not going to be enough.” (Dardar, 2015, 149).

Freire replies that the progressive movement will not be enough to change a society that is oppressive. The internal work is important but there is also an acknowledgement that the structures that are in place sometimes inhibit us so much that change is not possible. He speaks here in relation to schools and universities and countries, particularly the United States. He argues that ‘internally, there are mechanisms that are set up unwittingly, that stand in the way of practicing progressive education. It’s not because they are bad people, but the traditional structure to which they adhere interfers.” Therefore it is vital that we reach out to others through a willingness to dialogue with the oppressing-oppressive contradictions that emerge in our very being and acting in the world.

I recently went to another academic event, the transgressive research school. There was an opening here in the academy that I have not seen before and a willingness to dialogue. For me it was a welcome surprise as I am very cynical about the current status of the university. For another participant it was experienced very differently. She saw it as a silencing, elitist space that spouted words with very little connection to action and experience. Maybe she saw the ideologies and positionings that we held in our body language and in the way in which the school was educationally structured with too much focus on concepts and models and not the lived, thinking and feeling experience of oppression. She spoke out against this which has placed us in a space or possibility of dialogue.

It also made me contemplate another way of thinking about working together towards liberation which Leigh Anne Naidoo raised at the popular education conference. She spoke of time travel and space travel and how, for some the history of struggle is over and the need for protests is gone whereas others are still living that history and are still moving in spaces where no liberation has occurred and the struggle for liberation is very real (Naidoo, pers comm, 2016). For me, who has a history with the department who held the transgressive education research school, the workshop was exciting, different and opened up new spaces that have not been present at the university for as long as I have had an association with it. For my fellow participant who is new to this space and has a different history to me it was experienced as silencing and arrogant. As educators then who want to engage in the transgressive space we need to learn to time travel and to space travel to open up moments of dialogue (Naidoo, L, pers comm, 2016). We also need to reflect on our own histories and spaces and whether within the movements we make and words that we utter speak to only our space and time or can cross over through space and time and blend a union across difference.

Academic research is often on ‘the other’ which our fellow participant of the transgressive research school clearly identified. She said that she did not hear our stories, the stories of the people in the room. Maybe by labelling this space transgressive the organisers, possibly without knowing it, have invited in some meaningful and possibly uncomfortable conversations. Maybe it is a process of turning the mirror on academy and, on all of us that are associated with it, and watching our gestures and our enactments of meaning. Maybe we need to think of how we would introduce ourselves into these diverse spaces and whether we need to own our experiences of oppression and also our experiences of oppressing. If we remain here for a few moments with deep discomfort we may be able to approach our theories of change differently. We could engage from a place of knowing each other not as people seeking to own identities or attempting to lay them down but people that are trapped together and hold between ourselves an equal opportunity of moving towards something new. As Freire states: “…our movements of awakening to critical consciousness or ‘the breakthrough of a new form of awareness in understanding the world is not the privilege of one person (or one institution – my addition). The experience that makes possible the ‘breakthrough’ is a collective ‘experience’ (Dardar, 2015, 81).