Dreaming is an act of emancipation

The featured image of this post is a picture taken in the Vaal.  The two women, Nomasomi Mjacu (Eastern Cape) and Patricia Mdluli (Mpumalanga) are water activist participants on the Changing Practice short course. They are renaming the world through their investigations into water security for food security (Nomasomi) and the effects of plantations on the practice of traditional healers (Patricia).  Although they live kilometres apart they have formed a strong friendship and solidarity. 

I haven’t written my blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for some big ah-ha moment when all the meandering thought processes that are circulating through my life come together and make sense. I’ve had a lot of input over the last month. I presented to the trans-disciplinary group at Rhodes University on emancipation which was fascinating. I spent a week at the Education Department at Rhodes University where Phd students from Rhodes interacted with PhD students from Sweden. I also was lucky enough to have my friend and one of my PhD supervisors, Leigh Price, come and stay with me for a while. I have also been reading a lot of Paulo Friere (Freire and Freire, 2004; Freire, 2000; Czank, 2012) which has led me to reading Peter McClaren’s (McLaren, 2001, 2003) work which has led me back to Marx. Although I have always respected Marx’s writings I have not really engaged with his work directly. Now I feel that there is a need to return to him just as I am returning to Freire. What is more and more clear to me through all these interactions and reading is that emancipation and an end to environmental destruction will not come to fruition while our institutions and social structures (and that includes our institutions of learning) are caught within the immoral, social relations of neo-liberal capitalism.

I have also returned to the idea of hope through reading Freire and works around Freire (Freire and Freire, 2004). In my early twenties I was filled with this hope and then a deep seated cynicism set in. A feeling of defeat. My work turned to critique of the present and the past (and in some ways is still caught here) and I forgot how to dream of a better future. There are a complicated mix of reasons around this loss of dream. Definitely personal life circumstances lead to a desire (and I use this word intentionally) not to dream or hope for a future better than this one we have. All the literature talks of how a loss of hope or a(n) aversion to aspire to a future is a common result of a tramatic event and yet I do not think this is the only thing that prevents me. I have a bit of a bulldog attitude to life so the personal traumatic events would have not been enough to stop the dreaming of a better world.

I sometimes wonder if being a South African has something to do with it. South Africans all live with trauma. Mass, national trauma puts our whole nation in a position of defeat. It is hard to imagine and dream of a better world when we are still reeling from the trauma of our past. White South Africans also live with guilt. Come on let’s face it. How can white South Africans not live with, if not guilt, then regret? This is my confession. I was 21 when Nelson Mandela become president. It was the first time I could vote and I was very proud to vote in a ‘new’ South Africa. I wanted to be part (o)f this new space. I didn’t want to be associated with the apartheid that I had been brought up in. Becoming an adult meant for me that I no longer needed to associate myself with (the) racially unjust country I had grown up in. But one cannot just shrug off one’s ’whiteness’ and I don’t mean ’whiteness’ in terms of colour I mean whiteness in terms of the privilege that comes with being born into, or having ancestors who were born into an imperialist country. I also mean the ’whiteness’ of the previously oppressed that adopt the behaviour of oppressors and perpetuate this suffering. My Grandparents were working class British stock. They did not have much. My father’s generation was the first to break through into the middle class. He was the first of our family to get a degree. I am the first and only member of my family to have a Masters degree. I have never had to understand lack or poverty. (M)y parents, as children, have had to understand and live with both. So one could argue then that being ’white’ does not necessarily mean privilege. Many people in Britain and America suffer many hardships regardless of what colour they are, but regardless of the hardships my family faced within their own country, their country is a powerful, global power aligned with other very powerful global powers. These global powers have pillaged the world and these governments have aligned themselves, not with democracy, but with Capital. At this global scale, no matter how you look at it, ’whiteness’ is synonymous with oppression.

As a young twenty year old my desparate attempts to shed this whiteness lead me to read Paulo Freire and Marx and to attempt to live into their approaches. It also lead me to participatory methodologies. The naive desire behind my adoption of participatory methodologies was to develop platforms for those who have been oppressed to speak. A possibly unrecognised motive was white guilt. I’m not saying that the motivations of all white people are suspicious. What I’m saying is that if one looks at the rise of participatory methodologies carefully it is without a doubt that they arose out of sudden realisation by white people and white nations that ’we don’t know what is best for ’those’ people after all.’ It was that shocking self-realisation that the solutions we are imposing are causing more problems and may not be the right solutions after all.   The way forward was more foreign investment, more schools, hospitals, good roads and economic growth and yet it didn’t work. For example, plantations were planted on mountain slopes which turned to mud baths during monsoons flooding out villages and killing countless people. Faced with disenfranchised, colonised countries Western Governments and organisations had but one solution.  The one  that worked for them.  More often than not  the solution was Capital – and so a deeper colonisation began. Waking up from this delusion happened in some corners of the West and led to the rise in Participatory approaches and Critical theory and the ’novel’ idea of involving people in their own development became a full on methodology. Of course this idea of involving people who had not been involved appealed to the twenty year old me looking to shed her whiteness. The problem is that involving people is not the only answer to oppression. Oppression is oppression because something has been taken away from people. We can’t remedy this by adding something even if this something is a platform to participate on. The remedy lies deeper than this. It lies in removing the very thing that inhibited people from being who they are and living the lives they wished to live in a way that is not harmful to others. This can’t be rectified only by those who have oppressed because their way of being in the world is as an oppressor. Their way of seeing the world is as an oppressor and now I will change that pronoun to MY way of seeing and naming the world is as the offspring of an oppressive nation and as a member of a group of people who oppressed the majority of people in South Africa. I cannot remove my ’whiteness’ because I cannot take away the context into which I was born.  I cannot whitewash my history.

This does not mean that I must then sit back and lick my privileged guilty wounds. No! This is where my re-reading of Friere and those who write about him is once again inspiring me to dream. I have been born into the culture of the oppressor but I have also been oppressed as have all of us. As a woman I know what is is like to be excluded, abused and undermined. I have been born into a world where what is male is what is normal and male dominance is the discourse that is sold to us so completely that it is taken as common sense. I have less economic power in this world simply because I have been born a woman. I have less political power in this world for the same reason. When I was younger some men did not even respect my body as my own. It was seen as an object, a possession to be grabbed as a male right.

Paulo Friere himself was born into a middle class family. He writes in his book ”Pedagogy of Hope” (Freire and Freire, 2004) that he never wanted for anything. His world was very different from the world of the people who had to take on the inequalities of society into their very bodies, and yet he speaks of a moment when he too felt oppression. He had left his country to do a lecture tour in America. At breakfast one morning, Friere and his wife sat in a restaurant waiting to be served. No matter what they did, no matter how they asked they were systematically ignored simply because of who they were. They did not fit into what was the right kind of person here. They were not worthy of attention. Even worse they were made to know this completely.

If (these are) the many shades of oppression then what is my position as a white South African female? My role is not to rename the world for others as my predecessors have done, nor is my role to remain silent. This would be a form of self-oppression and just another form of guilty behaviour. The answer then is simply what Freire has been demanding, to side with the oppressed. To bring my privilege of years of education, of a well-fed body and a nutured mind into service. I cannot abdicate my ’whiteness’ because I cannot remove myself from my history, but I can dream a new future and this is where my ’whiteness’ can be laid to rest. It can be dreamed away by those that have been oppressed by it and I can join in that dream and add my voice to it. This may be what it means to name a new world together and I think this is what Freire means when he says to fight against oppression is an act of love because those that are fighting their oppression are offering those of us who have been born into a history of being an oppressor our freedom too. We are being given the opportunity to be renamed. Why we all don’t embrace this opportunity with all of our being is the sadness. An understandable sadness because before we can be renamed we have to name where we have come from and into what moment in history we were born. To name our histories is not the confessional of the guilt-ridden. It is a step towards what Freire calls ’critical consciousness’ Czank (2012). Critical consciousness requires a rigourous reading of the world in order to understand how things have come to be through history and how this history has produced the material an symbolic layers of human life. This is how we can name our ’whiteness’ and so move beyond it.

I suppose the crux of my learnings over the last few weeks is that the naming of the world is not a moment of despair, it is the moment when we open the spaces up into which we can begin to dream again. I have realised that to not dream is to side with the oppressors, to give up hope is to side with the oppressors.

A few days ago it was the anniversary of Chris Hani’s assassination. He dreamt a great dream and renamed a world without whiteness.  ”What we need in South Africa is for egos to be suppressed in favour of peace. We need to create a new breed of South Africans who love their country and love everybody, irrespective of their colour.” – Chris Hani


Czank, J. M. (2012). The critical epistemology of paulo freire.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Freire, P. and Freire, A. M. A. (2004). EPZ pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. A&C Black.

McLaren, P. (2001). Che guevara, paulo freire, and the politics of hope: Reclaim- ing critical pedagogy. Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, 1(1):108–131.

McLaren, P. (2003). Traveling the path of most resistance: Peter mclaren’s pedagogy of dissent [electronic version]. Professing Education, 2(1):2–9.

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