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….

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