Author Archives: Jane Burt

About Jane Burt

Twelve year ago I started working in the water sector on a Water Research Commission funded project in the Kat River Valley Catchment, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Since then I have been involved in various WRC projects all with a focus on the democratic and sustainability imperatives of the South African National Water Act. My early interests were not only water but a passion for democracy and social and environmental justice. During this first WRC project I developed a deep love and fascination with systems of water, particularly rivers as central to social spaces. Within this socio-ecological space my interests flow around issues of power and learning. My particular interest in learning is the representation of knowledge, the politics of knowing, mediation and social learning. This leads me to investigate all sorts of ways of representing and producing knowledge for change including theatre of the oppressed, creative writing techniques, responsive workshops and web-based tools for social learning and communication. I also devour social science research methodologies that enable me to view and interrogate complex socio-ecological challenges. I am also a mindfulness trainer and practitioner. I believe that we all have a commitment towards doing as little harm as possible. Part of this commitment is working with the forces within us that perpetuate negative mind patterns which directly effect the way we are in the world.

Imperfect Body

In 2006 something broke. A culmination of events – I had bought a house in Port Elizabeth. Drug dealers moved in next door. They housed prostitutes that would scream to be let out during the day then were drugged at night and let out onto the streets. They returned night after night for more drugs.  I reported the drug dealers to the police and so started a fight I would never win. First my car was stolen. The lead drug dealer came to me the next day and said, “We took your car last night to cover the loss of the drugs the police took because you reported us.” I learnt, in my battle with forces I didn’t understand, how deep corruption lies and also how there are some battles that can’t be won. At the same time I watched a dear friend die because our public health service is so horrific. They fed her disprins while she was bleeding internally. Finally my partner, whom I had been with for three years, decided to move on partly because I had become so obsessed with winning a battle I could not win that I became unreasonable, unstable and riddled with anger and fear.  I woke up one morning looked at myself in the mirror and cut all my hair off. I then spent three days lying in front of a fire doing nothing, eating very little. It rained and stormed for those three days. On the fourth day the sun came out. I got up and began to move. Slowly. Then I put music on and for another two days I danced. I bruised my body. I exhausted myself. The dance became a dance I performed publically called “imperfect body”.  I drew on the Butoh style of dancing because it felt right. It was a dance of darkness. The dance also became this poem. I’ve decided to share it because a friend of mine, Bruce Haynes, who has been a poet since he was a young boy, has been exploring through embodied movement and connection to objects and spaces his ‘conscious madness’. He writes, “This time I was dreaming awake rather than awake but dreaming. Awake within the safe ritual space of art or conscious madness”. Imperfect Body was that moment of raw alert, wakefulness held within ‘the safe ritual space of art/conscious madness.’


Her back caves
Loaded and heavy
Close to the earth
Neck collapses
Hair bits trail the ground
Spittle slips the lip
& drops.

In the thumb agony
Pulling outwards away
Sending chest forward
Head extending neck
Pulling the lips
Teeth stare.

Deep, deep in body tissue
Unravels the rage
Stiff the back muscles
The halt of eyes open & rigid
Chest breath & fast.

In the stomach lies freedom
Stretch towards the world
Back arched
V-rib & long
To tip of elongated fingers.

In the breath lies an animal
Small & quivering
Insteps coil
Torso felled forward
Rippling spine.

From head to heart
A sweep
An ache.

The Forest : An Autobiography

A homage to all of those who struggle with past trauma and wish to be free of the internal pain and shame that has weaved itself to our bones. My only way forward sometimes is to think that I am not alone and that there are others walking the world who sometimes struggle as I do. May we all find peace. May we all find happiness. May we know that no feeling, not even the most painful, can last.

Forest: An Autobiography

I Wall

There was a girl.  She had long hair and liked to dance.

She lived by herself in the forest which is an odd place for a little girl to live.  She entered the forest early when her friends were playing in the garden safely secured from outside by a wall.

Living in the forest was comfortable.  Some would say she was lost but she didn’t feel lost.  You can only be lost if you have somewhere to go and she didn’t need to go anywhere in particular so long as she was going. She took paths at random. Sometimes she would go nowhere at all and stand under a huge tree. 

She didn’t meet many people.  When she did they told her that she should return to the safe garden secured from outside by a wall.  Eventually she agreed. But the garden behind the wall, only had one or two trees.  It saddened her to hear their voices in the wind.  She longed to be surrounded by that whispering.

Behind the wall it was nice at first.  Warm and cosy.  It seemed like it should be safe.  She knew she would get breakfast.  She knew where she was going each day.  Her paths where chosen for her:  going to the bathroom, going to the kitchen, the lounge and the garden.  She learned how to expect and how to please and the silence stopped happening.  Then the trees were chopped down and it was a very sad place to be.

She had to stay behind the wall until she was all grown up.  There was no other way out.

II Bark

There was a girl with blonde hair.  She was from the forest.

The little girl met two people:  a man and a woman.

The man loved the little girl but hated the forest with its secrets and its many different ways.  He hated it because he longed to know the forest but was afraid.  The trees whisperings were peaceful but their sounds could tell you the  real source of joy and your darkest fear.  The man knew this.  He also knew that no matter how many times he ran away from the forest, it still existed, growing, being, surrounding.

The woman was too busy hiding behind walls, buildings and structures to want to walk with him.  So the girl was called to accompany him.  She only knew her way and although she tried to tell the man this he still tried to enter the forest through her.  Of course he could not and the more he tried the more the girl withdrew deeper and deeper – hiding – until she slipped behind a tree leaving her body while her soul took refuge deep beneath the bark. 

Stale air and a stifling silence fell broken only by the sudden roar of wind trying to escape her lips. Her body now lived in corridors made of black tiles and pierced mirrors splitting head from neck. Her body, without protection, got torn and pierced by passing people. 

III Roots

There was a girl who grew up to be a woman.  It was a surprise to her because she thought that if she tried hard enough no one would notice her and she could stay a little girl forever.  Then she would not have to look beyond the forest. She could pretend not to know. 

Once the little girl accepted that she was a woman she tried to live a woman’s life.  She began walking through the forest with opening eyes staring at the river that had stopped flowing and noticing the forest growing smaller and smaller.

She said goodbye to the man and the woman and left them waiting for her to come back.  She did not return. 

She wept a lot.  She cried hot tears and they pierced deep into the little girls heart cracking the bark and revealing the emptiness that had become the shell of her voice.  The wind sometimes broke from her lips and the trees whispered their reply.

The woman walks the world.   She loves. Deeply.  She breaks.  Easily.

She is learning that roots do run deep, branches don’t reach the sky.  This is just a brief movement in the leaves.

First written in 1996.

De-humanising the truth

Image: Dr Leigh Price and Dr Charles Chikunda

This week’s piece is an email conversation between myself and my supervisor, Dr Leigh Price.

I am working on the methodology for the historical review I am doing on trans-disciplinarity and emancipation in the earth sciences. I’ve been swinging backwards and forwards between a hardcore Fairclough discourse analysis of key trans-disciplinary papers to a more historically based genealogy as used by Foucault. Doing a geneology has always seemed more in line with what I’m trying to achieve and when I read Foucault’s geneological works I do find them inspiring. What I struggle with is that it is hard to move forward from a historical analysis of what makes the world the way it is when all the truths are seen as subjective fictions. It seems somehow, although I struggled to place how, that we loose our collective agency. I had this same feeling when I was listening to a ZAR podcast with Scott Burnett. The podcast was on White privilege. I found the position Scott takes useful but I found that there was something about his argument that felt difficult if we are to move forward and heal the historical and current effects of White privilege on South African society. His argument was (and this is a very short and sweet summary of part of his argument. Please listen to the podcast) that only Black people really understand what racism feels like and therefore a White person can’t use the argument that they are not ‘racist’ as the subjective experience of racism can only be known by Black people. This argument makes sense but there was a point in the discussion between Scott Burnett and the host of ZAR where his argument weakened which was a pity. It all started to weaken around racism being judged according to subjective experience.  If all that exists is the subjective experience of racism how can we truly know what racism is and therefore remove it from our society. I wondered while I was listening whether Bhaskar’s thinking could help this argument. Instead of just focusing on subjective experience of racism as an indicator that racism exists we could also be focusing on what makes that subjective experience of racism possible. This may move us closer to the mechanisms of racism. In this way the individual subjective experience of racism is an indicator that there is racism in our society which is a sign that we need to look more deeply as to how this experience can exist at all. Finding the mechanism gives us the opportunity of absenting the cause of the experience and so slowly removing racism from our society. Instead of the discussion moving to this point it got a little stuck on how we can rely on a subjective experience as an indicator of racism. Isn’t it all just opinion. Scott referred to the discourse of racism in his talk but the point that the presence of the discourse means that there are mechanisms that keep racism in place was not reached. Rather the debate meandered around the ‘fictional’ quality of subjective experience.

It was with this ‘sadness’ (for want of a better word) when reading Foucault’s work and listening to Scott Burnett’s podcast that led me to send an email to Leigh with the following quote and question:

Dear Leigh

I’m busy working on my methodology for the historical review of emancipation and trans-disciplinarity. I’m still dabbling in geneology and came across this quote from Foucault. What do you think?

“I am fully aware that I have never written anything other than fictions. For all that I would not want to say that they were outside the truth. It seems plausible to me to make fictions work within truth, to introduce truth effects with a fictional discourse, and in some way to make discourse arouse, ‘fabricate’ something which does not yet exist, thus to fiction something. One ‘fictions’ history starting from a political reality that renders it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics that does not yet exist starting from a historical truth. (Foucault, cited in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. 204).”


Leigh replied:

Dear Jane

Sorry to take a while to respond, but I have been a bit busy.

This is a great quote by Foucault. It reminds me of something that Roy (Bhaskar) said but I can’t find the actual quote, something about how the world is different after scientists have made their discoveries. Interesting how Foucault puts the word ‘fiction’ into scare quotes, which is sort of like a double negative (quotes imply that something is not really true, so is a ‘fiction’ a truth?). So he starts out sounding very irrealist, but then seems somehow realist. A much better example of a pure irrealist is Richard Rorty who is very clear that nothing that he writes should be taken seriously or has any truth to it. Actually, now I come to think of it, I did make some reference to this characteristic of Foucault’s writing in my thesis. Although I looked at its consequences – the effect on agency when you take this oscillation between fiction (reality is made up by our ideas – voluntarism) and some absolute reality and apply it to axiology (agency). I quoted McNay who draws attention to this tendency in the writing of Foucault when she explains that his thought vacillates “between the moments of determinism and voluntarism” (McNay, 2000:9). She says:

“The insights in the work on discipline are not fully integrated with the later work on the self and so Foucault can only offer the over-determinist view of the subject subsumed by the operations of power upon the body or the solipsistic outlook of an aesthetics of existence…While Foucault’s work does not foreclose an account of agency in so stark a manner as the Lacanian reification of the phallocentric order, it is seriously limited by its conceptual underdevelopment.”

So, Foucault is more in line with Anthony Giddens, in terms of the consequences of his philosophy for agency, oscillating between determinism and voluntarism. The stratified ontology of Bhaskar, and its implications for agency as expressed in the TMSA (transformational model of social activity), avoids these problems. Notice how Foucault assumes a strong dichotomy between fiction and reality (he also gives us an oxymoron – since his fictions are not outside truth, but the definition of a fiction is that it is not true?). For Roy, with his maximally inclusive ontology, fictions are also real (even though they are not true). Read generously, one might say that Foucault is intuiting the difference between the transitive and intransitive dimensions – epistemological relativism and ontological realism – but his presentation of it is problematic because of his foregrounding of fiction which is what Roy would call unserious. Also, for Foucault, reality renders the fiction true. However, it is not reality that ‘gives’ us truths, it is human beings (nevertheless human beings who try to be faithful to that reality – we have to do some work, be connected to that reality to be able to discover, express, ‘give’ the truths). In that moment Foucault ALSO suggests a de-humanised truth. So we have this oscillation between a completely subjective fiction and a completely objective (de-humanised) truth.
Just some thoughts. Hope they are useful.


I replied:


Your emails are works of art. Thanks for insights as usual they help a lot and I am left wondering whether it is worth underlabouring Foucault’s genealogy with Critical Realism or whether to just stick with Critical Realism’s analytical approaches. Am I attached to Foucault simply because I like the word Genealogy and I find his writing style so provocative? I found the quote I sent you a deep contradiction – almost as if Foucault could not let go of truth but he also could not let go of fiction. Both ideas of there being truth and that all is fiction seem like they are a comfort to him but having to hold both of them is discomfort. The way he placed ‘fiction’ in scare quotes seemed almost mocking – like he was mocking himself and so a kind of despair. Maybe it is this despair that leads him to be unserious. I like what you say about how Bhaskar’s stratified ontology and it’s implications for agency. I think I need to explore this more. I read Foucault’s biography many years ago and I often wonder whether his ‘de-humanising of the truth’ was partly because societies position, at the time, on homosexuality and his life choices de-humanised him. By de-humanising the truth was he able to do away with the harsh judgements of his society on his own life.

Can I put your email response to my quote in a blog? I found it really useful.

Leigh replied:

Hi Jane

Please feel free to use any of this conversation in your blog.

Just to add, there is no reason to give up on the excellent aspects of Foucault’s work. This is the beauty of Critical Realism. It is basically just an underlabourer for other methodologies. So, it is just a pity that we can’t go back and say “Hey Michel, you know how you really struggled at times to avoid contradicting yourself? Well, we have a way for you to keep you major insights and not sound like you have lost the plot!”


What I love about what Leigh reminds me of Bhaskar’s work is that even fictions are real which takes me back to Scott Burnett’s argument. The subjective experience of racism as experienced by a South African’s of colour is real even if some may look to argue it is not (objectively) true. And this ‘realness’ is that it is an experience that is present in the world. These real manifestations could be our salvation as it is through an acceptance of the real nature of such experiences and then an understanding of how these experiences have come to be that we can begin freeing ourselves from them. Foucault’s genealogical work asks two vital questions (Tamboukou, 1999, 202):

What is happening now?
What is this ‘now’ within which all of us find ourselves?

If these questions are engaged with seriously meaning that, as Leigh puts it, “it is not reality that ‘gives’ us truths, it is human beings“ (Human beings that are trying to be faithful to reality for it is our connection to reality that enables us to express truths) then we all find ourselves connected to the individual/subjective/collective and real experience of racism or sexism or environmental degradation and it is this connection that makes it possible for all of us to look at how to absent it.

“What is this ‘now’ within which all of us find ourselves?” is the question I will carry forward over the next couple of weeks as I carry on conversing with Roy, Michel, Leigh, Tamboukou and others about  human truths.

Fierce Opposites

I recently returned to the Eastern Cape for a hike that started at the mouth of the Kowie river and ended at the mouth of the Fish River. We zig zagged our way from the coast into the interior and back again tromping through the coastal and riverine forests of the Riet river and canoeing up the Kleinemonde. The final day was a long and hot trail along the coast until we reached the Great Fish. The river that is symbolic of so much of the division that still holds South Africa in its clutches. The British sent their excess populations to South Africa as human fences against the Xhosa tribes. The Fish was the designated boundary over which 100 years of battle was fought. As a white South African I have to continually feel and acknowledge the atrocities of the apartheid regime and the unjust system that inhibited so many South Africans. But what do I do with my British-ness? There are many white South African’s that consciously work with the pains of our history but do the British do so. I was born in England. We left the soggy isle when I was twenty-two months old to come to South Africa. I grew up hearing about ‘home’ as another place far away that we visited every two years. No one ever spoke to me about colonialism and about the horror of the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer war. It was only as an adult that I sat with both the pain of what past white people have done to black people and the pain of what the place that I was supposed to call home has done to all South African people whether they are Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu or Afrikaans. Afrikaans people and ‘Black’ people are asked to forgive and forget. I find this ridiculous. When has the British nation ever said ‘sorry’ or compensated in any way for what has been done? I wrote this poem while staying in the middle of the Eastern Cape bush on a farm just outside Grahamstown in 2006. I was reading Anjie Krog’s ‘The country of my Skull’ and it shook me to the bone. It is not a very good poem but is an attempt to deal with what my ancestors have been responsible for, to exorcise their deeds from me and to claim out loud that the only home I’ve ever really known is the Eastern Cape bush. Doing the ‘Shipwreck Trail’ this December and driving through the potholed roads of the grubby but beautiful Eastern Cape I remembered those feelings.

What can I tell you about this Eastern Cape?
I can recite things to you
Steve Biko
Cradock Four
Tires burning in New Brighton
Cattle lying dead
Frightened, alarm secured, suburban families
Pride-less men
& Silent women
Silent women suffering

I can tell you I come back here again and again
To the aloes and euphorbias
To ride the roads
The tar to the sea
The dirt at the back of mountain villages
To walk the hills, riverbeds and coastlines

I belong here
Where pain and betrayal are matched
By passion and vitality
Here my childhood memories find peace
My wounds have space to bleed
Here amongst the smiles of people
Shadowed by the ghosts of dreams
My ancestors cannot find me
Here there is no more need for hope


A New Year’s browsing of last year’s flotsam and jetsam

A new year begins and the task of doing (and possibly finishing) a PhD continues. Phd students (me being one of them) dwell on the ‘finishing’ of our product. The pressures of everyday life leave little room to engage fully with a PhD as a intellectual project that is centrally positioned. Maybe I should not generalise my struggles so much. Let me say I struggle with this. Maybe it is just me that finds the mind space which the PhD occupies is often thrust to the edges by an overly responsible and anxious mind that prioritises ‘work’  as more urgent (as if the Phd is not also a work). What is it that individualises the PhD project and so makes it seem so selfish? Is it the fact that only I get recognition at the end or that only I stand to be judged at the end as worthy of the ritual that will have me wondering around in an academy gown and hat that is a rip off of the original medieval attire that monks probably wore when education and religion were one and the same thing?

This year I’m making a conscious attempt to change the internal mind dialogue of ‘I must do my work’, ‘I need to make enough money’ to ‘to hell with it let me enjoy this one year of exploration and if it means maxing out my overdraft well so be it. At least I’m lucky enough to have an overdraft.’ I picked rather a difficult year to tackle this project. The Rand has taken a dive and ‘the Rand’ this year is worth a lot less than it was last year. Fascinating how an object, like a R1 can decrease and increase in value while I hold the same object in my hand. Yesterday this much, today this much. Of course the diving rand represents many other conflicting narratives, opposing identities and very real outcomes that will affect many, many people’s lives in South Africa. I thought I would want to write about the Zuma Drama for my first blog of the year but the anger and agitation that engages me in these debates from time to time is sitting in a corner and thinking at the moment. The only comment I have left in me is that I was surprised (why I don’t know) how South African’s so quickly positioned themselves according to well defined political and cultural identities rather than remaining close to what this means in the world by staying close to real events that will result from the actions and decisions taken by our President. The ‘against’ or ‘with’ Zuma became more about where am I positioned and am I rightly positioned than ‘what is right? and ‘who will suffer?’ Can our identities and the way in which we position ourselves to re-live and recreate these identities be separated out from ‘the right thing to do’. I’m not sure. I’d like to think so.  Maybe what ‘the sitting in the corner aspect of myself’ is doing is contemplating how deeply we are historical beings rooted in pasts that enable and constrain us.

There is a Buddhist teaching about karma that speaks about how the higher you are in societies ranks and the more power you have the more chance there is of creating lots and lots of negative karma. One word can have the power to bring about actions that can affect millions of people. How true this is and how many millions of words does it take from how many millions of people to absent the effects of one powerful person uttering a sentence that culminates into reactions of huge consequence. And how the fragile and fickle global economic stage responds to a few words…. just a few words.

And that is all I feel the need to write about the Zuma Drama. Already we have adapted and moved on. Time is so relentless and history gobbles all that we do faster than fast these days.

The New Year is exactly 8 days old. I started it having a panic attack on a plane. Then I got down to carefully trying to place the PhD as a centrepiece in my mind. It is firmly taking root there although is rather small in size and surrounded by the daunting large shapes of other needs, commitments and obligations. These eight days have been focused on trying to gather a few extra funds together to give the PhD a little bit of a financial backing. So far so good. I’ve also started returning to the first phase of the Phd, which still remains unfinished, a review of the lineages of trans-disciplinarity in terms of emancipation and learning in the earth sciences. I spent the week reading old bits of writing like:

“Good stories are meant to be re-told. A story that is only told once is not a good story. It is a bad story, a story without tension or drama or maybe a story that is too frightening to contemplate. We tell good stories over and over again for many reasons.”


“As a social scientist, instead of telling stories of a mythical future, I tell a lot of stories of the past in order to get to the present. It is a social scientist’s task to sift carefully through the many accounts of what has been in order to gain some understanding of what is and, most importantly, what could be. When we, (and I use ‘we’ on purpose here as the story of the ‘what could be’ can never be told by one individual) start venturing into the future I am as close as I can get to my heroine writer, Ursula Le Guin.”


“Research is a slightly blunter voice than the voice of the poet but, like a good novelist, I will also be setting a scene, presenting a dilemma and, starting with the past, consider what this means for the present and our age-long battles for justice. I will be re-telling some fascinating and dramatic stories of emancipation and then reflecting on what this means for some potentially new stories that have recently begun to be told: the stories of trans-disicplinarity, change-oriented learning and post-colonial positioning.”


“Re-telling stories of emancipation may remind us of the purpose of emancipation and the reasons for questioning the production and generation of knowledge. It may remind us of the reasons for developing pedagogies for emancipation that draw on the dialogic (Freire, 2000) and search for a ’third space’ (Bhabha, 1990) of collaborative interaction. It brings us back to the reason why we say that the generation of knowledge is integrally linked to cultural -historical spaces and that ’cognitive justice’ (Vishvanathan,2005) is as vital for emancipation as is an attainment of a human right.”


“Anger, for Freire, is a response of love for to be angry we have to care very deeply about something. Often in my work I forget that beneath all the maneuvering between the need to make a living, the desire to be recognised, the negotiations between different people’s drives and responses there is a deep feeling of love. All the long words, all the ism’s and ‘ologies’ can seem quite dry and sometimes ineffective, maybe even unnecessarily confusing and dense but if we look deeply enough into the roots of these theories and ideas we may find the anchor to an ethical position and often that ethical position leads us back to love. If this is not the driving force or if this strong human condition is denied then, I would argue, we have lost our way.”

I like this last bit of writing because it reminds me that a PhD is or could be an act of love. I was having a chat with a fellow PhD student a few days ago. He’s doing a PhD in English literature. His New Year slogan for himself and his PhD is #hitthegroundrunning2016. More importantly is his re-kindled love for what he is doing. He exclaims, “I’ve forgotten that the reason I’m doing this PhD is because I deeply love Ondaatji’s work.”

I have also discovered that I’ve done quite a bit of work on unpacking Max-Neef’s trans-disciplinary lineage in amongst all the work that got abandoned sometime in October. It has definitely been a week of sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of last year. I have found that I spent quite a bit of time trying to unpack Max-Neef’s position on reason and what this means for emancipation. From the paragraph I’ve included below it looks like I found his position confusing, even disempowering. I look forward to re-engaging in this conversation with him in the next weeks.

“Intuition in the form of a thought process drawing on multiple knowledges that have already been experienced may guide the scientists to consider a hypothesis but proving this hypothesis is always done methodologically based on an ontological position of how the world works. This cannot be replaced with a methodology of intuition. A methodology of intuition may not lead to emancipation but to another form of disempowerment. If we leave our references behind then how do we trace our way back to reality (whichever reality we want to engage with). The reality Max-Neef starts us with is the human world of structure and agency where power is played out and powerful and inequitable discourses dominate. What is needed in this world is people with an ability to know the world as it is, in other words to understand the structures which keep inequality in place and which keep the blatant abuse of the planet in place. The structures I mean are those which lead to an event where a leading climate change scientist breaks down in tears as she describes the fate facing our world due to climate change and still the cogs of the great capitalist machinery move on. In Max-Neef’s strong trans-disciplinarity’ it is unclear how a methodology based on intuition will lead to the kind of emancipatory movements we currently need in the world. His theory is a noble gesture but in terms of learning and knowledge generation for change it seems lacking.”

… and the last few days I went back to Foucault’s Genealogy and attempted another read of Bhaskar’s ‘A Realist Theory of Science’ as a first attempt of articulating my approach to reviewing the trans-disciplinary lineages. To my surprise Bhaskar is easier to read this year and more importantly, as I read the introduction by Hartwig, I felt that stir in me that this work is more than a brain game. The genuine work of a ‘philosopher for emancipation’ as Hartwig called Bhaskar is there. What this means this morning is slightly dulled to me. I’m still too overcome with the divisions in South Africa to consider what is really meant by emancipation. What I am sure of is that it is not linked to identity although our identity may influence the way in which we enact or fight for emancipation. There is no emancipatory identity. It feels more like there is a process of emancipating and I do believe the moment of emancipation – the moment when an oppression is put to rest and something in the world changes. I will end with a sentence I found amongst all the bits and pieces from last year that made me smile. I’ve no idea why it makes me smile nor do I have any idea why I wrote it or what it has to do with what I’m trying to explore but to start the year off with a smile seems a Nice Thing to Do as Winnie the Pooh might say.

Dust is good for thoughts that have already been thought. It is our job as the living re-searchers to blow off the dust and rethink these great thoughts into a new and different world.”

Finally a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful people from WWF who helped me fathom a proposal for the second case of my PhD.

Signing out from land PhD.


Bhabha, H. (1990). The third space: interview with Homi Bhabha. Identity: Community, culture, difference, 207-221

Bhaskar, R. (2013). A realist theory of science. Routledge.

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

Max-Neef, M. A. (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological economics, 53(1), 5-16.

Tamboukou, M. (1999). Writing Genealogies: an exploration of Foucault’s strategies for doing research. Discourse: studies in the cultural politics of education, 20(2), 201-217.

Vishvanathan, S., & Sethi, H. (1998). Foul Play: Chronicles of Corruption, 1947–97.

Are we just styling?

I wrote this piece over two months ago. I meant to post it but a very busy work period took over and I forgot. A lot of my ideas have changed since I wrote this paper particularly about the work of Santos. I found his work instantly fascinating once I read a paper by him.  I’m going to post the piece anyway as it captures a particular moment when I was in the midst of a crazy-timeframed evaluation and found myself wondering what is this all about, where is all this going, are we caught up in our own intellectual trends? How do we know if we are and how can we see through them if we are? As intellectuals as change-agents how do we keep ourselves honest?  I’ve finished the evaluation now and I do think it was a useful process. It gave me insight into people more than about whether the project we were evaluating was showing early signs of success or not. More than anything I come away from it with the sense that we need more time to pause, reflect, take stock and notice how our interactions with others are spaces that can keep us honest if we have an ear to the ground and the spaces within ourselves to listen. Listening to the stories people tell us of our own actions can be a catalyst for this honesty which makes me a little hesitant about my project thesis. In my first case study I’m working with my own work. It is going to be an interesting practice to listen out for the stories people tell me of my practice and to tell these stories to myself.. 

The place I call my intellectual home, the Environmental Learning Research centre is about to turn 25. Frightening to think that I have been associated with this institution for almost 20 years. Frightening from a personal ageing perspective but exciting and hopeful from another perspective. It is nice to know that one belongs to an intellectual community that is as committed as this one. As a bit of a loner and introvert I don’t often seek to belong but I’m quite happy to say that I have been shaped and continue to be shaped through my engagement with this institution and the brilliant minds that hold it together and pass through it (only to return once again). As a preparation for 25 year celebrations the centre is sending PhD students 10 papers to read. On a first glance they seem very topical. South African Universities are currently being dragged kicking and screaming into a transformative debate. It seemed to start at UCT with the ’#rhodesmustfall’ movement followed by the ’rhodessowhite’ campaign at Rhodes University and recently, in reaction to a documentary on racism and exclusion and Stellenbosch University, ’Where is the Love party’ calling for us to forget our blood stained past and rather party and be happy. A nice sentiment but in my experience a good party was never really driven by anything except a desire to distract myself from the world around me and resulted in nothing but a headache and a false sense that I had a lot of friends that really cared about me. Alcohol can really make a friend of anyone and can be the common denominator that anyone can have in common with literally anyone else.

As a person who is naturally suspicious of movements of any kind I wonder at the new interest in ’cognitive justice’ and post-colonial theory (and this suspicion extends to my own renewed interest). Part of me is horrified that it has taken this long for these kinds of papers to be circulated so vehemently at Rhodes and I wonder are we just styling with the latest trend or is this a fight for a real style democracy? I remember when I was doing my Masters we were arguing for the voice of the South and critiquing the dominance of Western epistemology. When we are in our twenties we tend to be a lot more vocal than later on in life or vocal in a different way. I was not vocal in a sense that I said a lot but I was vocal about my position and my outrage at epistemological dominance. It raged in me like a burning furnace and the furnace sometimes didn’t allow space for careful thinking. Now, later on in life, after I managed to thoroughly burn myself out the outrage is still present but in a very different form. I would like to think it is more compassionate, less antagonistic and more considered but I could be wrong because there is still a burning, raging bonfire of outrage against patriarchy. We talk about the dominance of the West can we also talk about the dominance of the masculine and the epistemology of patriarchy which goes unchecked every god damned day of our lives. I was driving to Nelspruit two days ago for work. Two billboards and a bumper struck me: A big billboard courtesy of Kentucky Fried Chicken advertising a new meal with the slogan ”for mom’s night off.” Shame KFC. Shame!!! Another billboard advertising a sale at a shopping centre with the words ”Wives, your husband called ahead buy anything you want” and finally a bumper stickers ’Wife and dog missing, reward for dog.’ Funny huh! No not funny. Not in the least. So I start my reading of these papers carefully because the silent silence is that male dominance is still at large. That there is also a need to fight for the epistemic position of women and the continually silenced knowing of women everywhere.

The first suggested paper is called ”Epistemologies of the South and Human Rights: Santos and the Quest for Global and Cognitive Justice” (Barreto, 2014). I’m going to use this blog space to free write my response to this paper. A second reading may be more nuanced so please excuse any blundering assumptions or polarised statements. So I start with an apology… mmmm. Maybe because my first reaction to this paper was a slight disappointment. I was expecting something larger, something deeper, something more. . . I don’t know.. different. The words ’geopolitics of knowledge’, post -abyssal thinking’ got me excited but it didn’t last. Maybe because I’m tired, a little disillusioned by BIG FANCY WORDS and even maybe feeling a little disempowered. I’m looking for something to add agency, to breath a fire of action into people, to burn a few bridges maybe. What I found was that (and I could be wrong) western epistemology is still central. The worry still is how to change western epistemology. Maybe I got the wrong end of the stick but a lot of the paper focuses on how Western epistemology needs to change. Why? Who cares if it changes or not? Sure it would be nice but I don’t really care. I don’t want to focus on changing Western epistemology. Why not just ignore it (all this of course goes against my deep belief that we need to consider history but why always the West’s history). I also found the discussion of cognitive injustice a little shallow. I want depth. I want tearing. I want to hear the absences that make cognitive injustice possible. I want to hear exactly what cognitive justice is.. and it is all well and good to dialogue but dialogue demands that an equality already exists. Freire called our attention to this as is represented in my favourite quote if his:

”Dialogue, as an encounter of men/women addressed to the common task of learning and action, is broken if the parties lack humility. How can I enter into dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I enter into dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men/women. . . ? How can I enter into dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in-group of pure men/women, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ’these people’ or ’the great unwashed’? If I start from the premise that naming the world is the task of an elite and that the presence of the people in history is a sign of deterioration which is to be avoided, how can I hold a dialogue?. . . men/women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Someone who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramus or perfect sages, there are only men/women who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2000)

Now I’m sorry if I sound cynical but in my experience there has been little humility from Western intellectuals unless of course they are looking for case studies for their latest pet theory. I often feel that I am some kind of interesting oddity out there at the coalface of experience as it is often referred to. Close to the suffering maybe but not actually suffering myself. The Dalai Lama spoke of this as do many Buddhist teachers when they come to the West. The suffering they find there is seen as petty, internal, personal (Buddhist teachers would never use these words. Their words would be surprised but compassionate). Augusto Boal felt a similar thing when he took his amazing theatre techniques to the West. He created theatre tools for the Oppressed. He called theatre a weapon of the people. The core of all his techniques was for the oppressed to overcome their oppression which was always an external force – a cop, the politician, the corporation. Then he went to Europe and was shocked. There was hardly any external oppression here. The oppression was internal. A core anxiety. A base fear of the individual alone in the world. So he developed a different technique which he called ’Rainbow of desires’ where the dramatic exercises didn’t focus on the external oppressor but on what he called ’the cop in the head’. The thoughts that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not worthy enough. Individualism is the greatest oppressor of all it seems and requires very little force besides the discourse of fear, of abandonment and a thought that I, me, the great ’I’ is of more important than the collective well being of billions of ’others’. How much lost sleep over whether ’I’ am good enough, ’I’ am enlightened enough, ’I’ have reached my full potential. What a load of bullshit! Our worth should be measured according to our collectives. What did Gandhi say? The civilisation of a country should be measured on how it treats it’s animals. What did the activists in Doris Lessing’s famous book ’The Golden Notebook’ say? Something like. . . ”I will not have the civilisation of my country measured by whether the trains run on time.” (Lessing,1973) . Of course I’m being simplistic. Of course there is great suffering in the West. Of course people go hungry but the scale, the scale of it. . .

Maybe I’m tired of talking about the suffering I see every day and in response see the excitement in an academic’s eyes. Before I know it little diagrams are being drawn in the shape of flowers, or pyramids, spirals or circles. Papers are written about the gospel of this latest little drawing and the connections it envisages. If only these diagrams could become what they claim to be. I know they are only tools for us to imagine new ways of being, new ways of relating to each other and maybe they do push the boundaries of our thinking. I shouldn’t be so nasty about them. They are tools of communication, tools of sharing and maybe they even help us build collectives. But when the drawing or the theory or the position becomes more important than the reason why we are doing all of this then I wonder – is there a place for dialogue? Is there a space for really opening our minds to the possibility of new cognition, of new thought? I work on a ’changing practice’ course which is all about dialogue and learning from each other. I can see the benefits of this course on myself, on the people involved. I can see how it is a small, tiny catalyst that can bring people together in ways shimmer on beyond the confines of the few days the participants and I spend together and yet it bothers me that at some point we asked them to be Western intellectuals by asking them to write case studies according to the great case study tradition. Are we giving them a skill or are we inculcating them into a tradition of cognition that may be limiting? I went along with it because I do understand the power that is held in the tradition of a well developed ’case study’ but I still wonder. The aim of the course or the aim of any learning is, for me, to rediscover our natural, innate ability to question and know our world. I am fully with Freire here. For me learning is not only about adding things. It is about taking things away. When I presented the first variation of this course at a conference to a bunch of technicians who looked at me with confused wonder I ended the talk with the following:


Often I hear people saying that those with a limited education cannot be critical thinkers. Every human being is constantly making choices according to their own context and the limitations of that context.

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 help them remove what inhibits their natural ability to question their world.”

Sometime this means removing our inability to use a computer or it could be removing our lack of confidence in our own voice. It could mean encouraging each other to remove the need to write in English. It could even mean realising that the absence that is needed is not with the individuals in front of me but within me or even within structures. What then? What action do we take then to remove what inhibits our natural ability to question our world? There is no knowing what will be needed to be gently and collectively free up the innate human capacity to question and know. This for me is what cognitive justice is all about. Therefore if the structures of western epistemology are not willing to consider the idea that there may be something absent in their thinking besides the case data from the coal face of the South or the East then dialogue becomes nothing more than a parent listening to a child’s anecdotes and repeating them on Facebook for the enjoyment of their adult friends. The relationship is never equal.

This brings me back to patriarchy. A conversation about the inequalities that women experience can’t begin until both men and women admit that a male -dominated view of the world is exactly this – a view of the world through the lens of patriarchy. It is a lens that excludes the day to day experiences of the oppression of women in almost every facet of life. Acknowledging this takes courage as much courage as it takes all white South Africans to admit every day that their privilege is due to the past (and possibly future) oppression of others. No warm fuzzy party of ’lets forget the past’ will remove that. Sorry Stellenbosch Uni I get the sentiment but no fireworks and hugs can remove things that easily. It takes courage to live with this. It takes strength. I would suggest that instead of organising a party you organise a dialogue and if you don’t want to do that do something as simple as when you wake up each morning think with gratitude that your are privileged and consider how, in some small way, you can use the fact that you are privileged to benefit someone else. The propaganda that privilege comes with hard work is a load of stinking hogwash. Face it, my fellow white South Africans we were born into a context that gave us what we have today. Be grateful for it if you’ve got it and use it for some use. This is all I request from men too, that they wake up each morning and be grateful for privileges that have come to them simply by being born a man and then think about how they can use this to break down this ridiculous gender bias. More importantly have the courage to face the violence that goes hand in hand with male dominance and don’t perpetuate it. Guilt is not the answer. We don’t choose the context we were born into just as we can’t choose the time we are given to live. So lamenting and gnashing our teeth is useless as is turning away from privilege and in rebellion adopting a life of suffering. Even the Dalai Lama would laugh at that. We are who we are, when we are. How we are is where our choice lies. I have met men and women strong enough to be this courageous and it is with them that I want to converse. It is to them that I look to for courage and moral guidance. It is with them that I want to re-imagine beyond a north or a south epistemology to a epistemology of being. I am not interested in changing a western conception of rights or a male conception of rights. I’m interested in rights.


Allouche, J., Middleton, C., and Gyawali, D. (2015). Technical veil, hidden politics: Interrogating the power linkages behind the nexus. Water Alternatives, 8(1):610–626.

Barreto, J.-M. (2014). Epistemologies of the south and human rights: Santos and the quest for global and cognitive justice. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 21(2):395–422.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing. Lessing, D. (1973). The golden notebook. 1962. Frogmore: Granada-Panther.

“We are not trained like dogs. We are educated.”

This image is of December Ndhlovu and Patricia Mdluli, water activists in the Bushbuckridge area. They are deeply concerned about the eucalyptus plantations that cover the Moholoholo Mountain. Here they are right on the top of the mountain which is the only part of the mountain free from Eucalyptus trees

..”since learning is human, then every academic discipline…has an implicit theory of learning”(Jarvis, 2009)

I recently set myself a task of revisiting my fascination with the work of Paulo Freire and critically articulating what his emancipatory learning theory has to offer trans-disciplinary research and practice. My interest was in articulating what an emancipatory approach to education means and how this intention of emancipation directs knowledge generation and learning. This includes understanding how learning happens if learning is to be emancipatory. I have two reasons for giving myself this task 1) to clearly articulate emancipatory educational approaches and 2) to suggest what this means for knowledge generation and learning for trans-disciplinary research and practice that has emancipatory aspirations.

I formalised the task around a paper that I said I would submit to the Southern African Journal of environmental education. The deadline for the paper has long gone and I’m still struggling to finish my task. When I submitted the abstract for the paper I had a draft paper in front of me which I thought would only need a few little tweaks before submission but as I have tried to articulate the core argument of the paper I have found myself falling down rabbit holes upon rabbit holes of theory. Each paper I read suddenly sits on top of a silent history of books and papers. The old cliched ’tip of the iceberg’ comes to mind. I find the links. I track the writers theoretical history, their lineage of thinking to find I don’t know enough about what lead them to where they are to make a final call. Often the lines of thought are so intermeshed, sometimes drawing superficially from one discipline and deeply from another. Sometimes the depth of tracking and tracing is mind blowing and other times the lack of clarity and the jumps in argument leave me gasping for breath and wondering whether I am just too stupid to follow what the author is saying or whether that was a serious leap of the edge of a cliff without a rope and a harness.

Okay so I admit it. I’m lost in the landscape of theory. Hang on! I’m lost in the landscapes of theory because when working with trans-disciplinary theory there is no nice delineated discipline and I find myself trying to get my head around an economists view of trans-disciplinarity followed by a biologist, a few physicists and a couple of social scientists from various flavours of social science. So I’ve decided to blog my way through this paper mostly because I need help, I need conversation because there is only so much one brain can take. The task is still set so I’ve decided to try a different tactic and start with investigating one paper and one position and then follow the leads like a good detective or a biographer. I’ve given up on the idea of the paper I was going to write which feels like I’m letting some people down. Hopefully they will forgive me and understand that once lost in the thickets of ’ology’ it is hard to conceive of something so formally structured as a paper.

Before I begin introducing the first super star theory that I wish to write about I thought I would like to remind myself of the ethos of Freire. Paulo Freire is a emotive, passionate writer. He is also a clear intellectual thinker. He embraces the human condition. He embraces, what he sees as the essence of the human condition, the ability to love. His educational pedagogy is all about allowing this ability to love to emerge and drive the curiosity that sits at the root of all learning. Because we love we can get angry at the inequalities around us. Anger, for Freire, is a response of love for to be angry we have to care very deeply about something. Often in my work I forget that beneath all the manoeuvring between the need to make a living, the desire to be recognised, the continual search for funding, the negotiations between different people’s drives and responses – the competitiveness and sensitivities.. the need to own things . . . even words and ideas – there is a deep feeling of love. All the long words, all the ism’s and ’ologies’ can seem quite dry and sometimes ineffective, maybe even unnecessarily confusing and dense but if we look deeply enough into the roots of these theories and ideas (and into our own motivations) we may find the anchor to an ethical position and often that ethical position leads us back to love. Freire never turned away a single person who wanted to talk. Educated, uneducated, poor or wealthy he would drive, fly, walk.. sit under a tree, in a board room, at a lecture hall and share what he knew, encourage and learn. His books are full of moments of inspiration and realisation. How many of us can say we do this as we rush around our worlds?

So I will start my explorations (which I hope will be like conversations) with the trans-disciplinary theorists with a statement: I strongly believe that the work of the people that I am conversing with and getting to know (by reading their papers and considering their voices) were driven by love. I state this because a trip up the Moholoholo mountain (also known as Mariepskop) yesterday with my fellow learners reminded me that as intellectuals and activists the evidence we so carefully look for and articulate is not just bone dry evidence. The search for evidence is motivated by feeling and passion and these statements of feeling are also a kind of evidence. Yesterday I was reminded that when an activist or a scientist looks at a ravaged landscape or river they do so with a breaking heart and with love. Consider this description, by a local activist,  of the Moholoholo mountain which is covered with Eucalyptus plantations that are not being maintained. ”When I first saw this I found it so painful. It reminded me of a poor dog that is covered with ticks drinking his blood and making him sick. This mountain is like a mountain covered with ticks.” Think also about this connection and meaning that the activist makes from a fact ”Each one of these trees drinks 25litres of water per day, that is one person’s human right to water and how many trees are there here – thousands – and how many people in Bushbuckridge don’t even get 25liters of water per day?” (In South Africa the National Water law ensures what is called, the human rights reserve, which reserves by law 25 litres of water per person per day as a human right).

This is why I find the debates that have gone viral about it being wrong for a climate change scientist to should show emotion a ridiculous and a useless distraction. In my experience as an educator we engage with learning and with information with our whole being. When I was teaching research methodologies at Rhodes University I saw how theoretical positions can challenge people to their very core. Their reaction is never just intellectual it is also with feeling that they engage with ideas that can challenge cultural positions of superiority, personal identities and beliefs about the way the world works. It is because of this whole-hearted human-way-of-being that I approach these theoretical discussions with care. Theories and ideas are rooted, alive lineages of thinking that exist within the networks of human and environmental relations. Understanding this, however, does not excuse us from allowing our feelings to drive the search for truth. To feel does not mean we give up our rigourous tools of truth-searching. Feelings are what motivate us and guide us but a feeling cannot replace the methods and tools we use to make truth claims about the world. A feeling always follows a thought, some psychological traditions would argue that a feeling is just the physical sensations that accompany a thought, and returning to the thought with love, respect and careful consideration and critique is, for me, the act of love that a researcher brings to the world.

There is one more thing I need to articulate before introducing the first super star celebrity which I will do in the next blog. I want to remind myself and whomever is reading this that I am particularly interested in three things:

1. emancipation

2. Learning

3. How knowledge is generated, shared and activated (this third interest is linked strongly to the first two)

I’m not going to go into much detail about what I mean by each of these. I’ve touched on some of this in other blogs but as a small reminder. . . and because it always helps. . .

Emancipation is the process by which a person, group, country, landscape is freed from something that is oppressing, harming and inhibiting. This means different things to different people and the act of emancipation has been against different oppressive ideas, systems and people at different times in history. For example, what Hume found oppressive in his time was the freedom from superstitious thought that inhibited the ability of human’s to make valid truth claims about the world. For Marx, oppression was in the form of the people who owned and controlled the means of production and that an emancipation from this would be for the means of production to be for the benefit of all and not just for the ruling class or the elite. In South Africa, emancipation has meant the freedom from an unethical legal, political and economic system that was designed to ensure that one race, the white race, ruled South Africa. The feminist movement sees oppression as the patriarchal system that has been accepted as the norm all over the world and thus allows for the unequal and often brutal treatment of women around the world and in every form of social life. From these examples it can be seen that oppression is not just a physical act of harm. Often the act of harming another is the symptom of oppression. What allowed to that harm to take place can be traced back to an ideology or even an epistemic position of the way we know the world. It comes back to the way we think about and know our world.

Learning is a process by which we understand, question and engage and act with our world. There are many theories about how learning happens both in terms of what goes on on the human brain and how learning is either inhibited and enhanced by our social context. There are two general opposing theories of learning. The one is what Freire calls ’the banking model’ (Freire, 2000). This is the belief that learning and education is nothing more than a knowledge transfer from an expert (be that a teacher or a professional) to a student. The idea is that the student’s head is empty and just needs to be filled with knowledge. Knowledge, in this scenario, is nothing more than content that the student needs to assimilate and then apply. Knowledge is also viewed as neutral meaning it has not value or ethic attached to it. It is also not seen as contextually influenced. Other learning theorists, Freire included, would see this approach to learning as oppressive. For Freire in particular the process of learning through the art of education happens in the world and with the world. Context is relevant and knowledge is embedded within the social world. This means that it is not neutral although realisations can be a truth. How we come to these realisations though is never from a neutral space but through an interaction and relationship with the world.

The purpose of learning for these two approaches is very different. In the ’banking model’ the purpose of learning is to transfer knowledge from one person to another. It could almost be considered a kind of brain cloning. A person’s intelligence is then easy to measure. It is related to how much the person has assimilated. Often this purpose of gaining knowledge is so we can act upon the world. This split between the world and ’me’ is necessary for in order for us to view knowledge as neutral.

When we accept that learning is a social process and the purpose of education is a process of learning to understand, question, engage and act with the world then all relationships change including our relationship to knowledge and to how learning happens. Acting with the world does not only include a transfer of knowledge it includes a process of meaning making with the world and this means with other people and with the environment too. It is a relational exercise where we, if you like, enter into a conversation or dialogue with each other (and this includes dialoguing with those that have spent their life in conversation with a particular aspect of the world, say the hydrology of the river). So learning is a social process but it is not only social in that it happens between people but because it happens between people and the world – the animals, plants, rivers and mountains and our human structures of cities, governments, institutions and knowledge systems. This kind of learning can be emancipatory or it can be oppressive.  Certain people or ideologies can control the mechanisms of meaning making and thus oppress through education. Sometimes, without even being aware of it, our epistemic position can be oppressive such as the position that believes that education is simply a transferance of knowledge from one brain to another. This seems like a harmless belief but it can lead to institutions and structures, policies and curriculums which are developed around the idea that content and facts are all a person needs to bring about change in the world. But who chooses what content and facts are relevant and for whom?

In more oppressive situations, the content and facts that are chosen for our consumption can be limited to entrench a particular world view and a particular power structure, for example the Bantu education system in South Africa was designed to keep black people oppressed and in the position of labourer and worker for the apartheid state (Prinsloo, 2003). The white education system was equally oppressive and was designed to breed obedience, a fear for authority and an acceptance that white and male superiority was the norm. I remember quite clearly, as a child, seeing the boys being taken to the rugby field to march like small soldiers while we, the girls, were taught how to make fondue for our future husbands. We were also taught how to change a tire for when ’our husband’s were away in the army’ and we were left alone to fend for ourselves. There were regular bomb drills at school to prepare us for the possible attack of the terrorists who were depicted as evil, blood thirsty people that would attack innocent children at a drop of a hat.

My final interest is in how knowledge is generated, shared and activated. I’m sure it is already clear that if we believe in the ’banking model’ of education and learning then there is a necessary split in society between the people who know and generate knowledge about the world and those who don’t know and are just consumers of this knowledge. One of the most oppressive acts is when the process of meaning making and of knowing is seen as owned by an elite group. Foucault’s life work was revealing how discourse – the way in which we articulate knowledge – is a powerful form of control. In order to understand the power of discourse we only need to look back to the 9th of August – women’s day in South Africa. It is a day to celebrate the contribution and sacrifice women made to bring about the end of apartheid. It particulary celebrates an event in 1956 when over 20 000 women from all over South Africa marched on the Union Buildings to protest the pass law (all black people needed to carry a pass which maintained population segregation and controlled migrant labour). They sang a song that day ’Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!’(Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock.) and yet how is women’s day celebrated in South Africa today? – with free pedicures for all women going to an Eastern Cape University, discount prices on facials, a fashion award, pink cupcakes and pink champaign. The women that are the rocks have been reduced to a fluffy, giggly pink discourse that sees women as only concerned with getting dressed up and pretty for their men. It reminds me of when I was 14 and learning to make chocolate fondue for entertaining my future husband’s business partners while the young boys of my class marched in the midday sun with guns on their shoulders.

This is an example of how a discourse is perpetuated. What has changed about societies view of women since I was 14? How is this knowledge of women generated, shared and activated in society over and over again?

If we view knowledge as existing outside the networks of social interaction and being then we also ignore that knowledge is generated, shared and activiated in many different contextual settings and in many different ways Visavanathan (2005) calls our attention to the cognitive injustice of development programmes and how they don’t acknowledge the powerful and inventive knowledge creation of all people within their own contexts. This is what Freire was meaning when he said we enter into dialogue with people and we can only do this if we understand that the person or people standing in front of us is as able to generate knowledge, to make meaning of their world as we are. This is one of my favourite Freire quotes:

”Dialogue, as an encounter of men/women addressed to the common task of learning and action, is broken if the parties lack humility. How can I enter into dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I enter into dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from other men/women. . . ? How can I enter into dialogue if I consider myself a member of the in- group of pure men/women, the owners of truth and knowledge, for whom all non-members are ’these people’ or ’the great unwashed’? If I start from the premise that naming the world is the takes of an elite and that the presence of the people in history is a sign of deterioration which is to be avoided, how can I hold a dialogue?. . . men/women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. Some one who cannot acknowledge himself to be as mortal as everyone else still has a long way to go before he can reach the point of encounter. At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramus or perfect sages, there are only men/women who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.” (Freire, 2000)

We can’t learn from people if we don’t listen and dialogue and this means not only listening to words but to context, culture,identity, motivations and positions. Consider this: On the way up Moholoholo mountain I was interviewing the same man that made the statement about the mountain being like a dog full of ticks. I was asking him about a course we are running called ’Changing Practice’ which he is attending. He was explaining why the course was different from other courses he has attended. He compared it to a programme that he is part of which is exploring indigenous knowledge where ’we meet for dialogues, not training’ he said. ’Your course is very similar to this one.’ he said, ’We are not trained like dogs. We are educated.’


Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Books: London

Jarvis, P. (2009).  Learning to be a person in society: learning to be me. In Contemporary theories of learning edited by Illeris, K.  Routledge: London

Prinsloo, J. (2003). Schooled inequalities: A comparison of the language syllabuses for English, Afrikaans and Bantu Languages of the 1970s. Journal of Education, 30, 58-79.

Visvanathan, 2009. Knowledge, justice and democracy.

Considering the emancipatory researcher: Part 2

Three stories of emancipation

All the comments you have made relate to the theory I’m going to share with you now. I’m going to try and keep this presentation brief and please stop me if you have any questions. I’ll try not to get too involved in all the jargon as well. Please remind me because I’m deeply immersed in my Phd as you are probably deeply immersed in all your studies and the jargon tends to fall out of my mouth sometimes without me realising I’m doing it.

something.001So forget about the title at the top. What is more important than the title is the picture which I thought is a nice representation of the way we often work. We work in these silos. We have City Varsity at the bottom and up arising out of it are the different disciplines, the different silos. I particularly like this photograph because it was taken in Johannesburg and beneath that taupaulin of the City Varsity is the slum of the city. So there is the University almost covering the slum of the city with their silos of knowledge rising to where I don’t know. It is a picture that captured my study for me and this is just, if you are at all interested, the main question of my study: “Does Trans-disciplinary research enable emancipatory research and change orientated learning?”

Participant X: Is it mainly in South aFrica?

The study is based in South Africa. The first part of the study is an international review so it will be looking at the big theories of trans-disciplinarity: systems thinking, complexity theory, Bhaskar’s critical realism and integral theory. The purpose of this review is to try to understand what lenses they bring to emancipatory research, if any. Then the study will be focusing on South Africa and focusing even more on the water sector. Water is a very powerful hub around which to ask questions of oppression and equity.

For the academics amongst us there are three concerns that have come out of, or lie at the heart of trans-disciplinarity and you will probably recognise some of these concerns from your studies:

That research is applicable to the problems of everyday people and everyday situations in a very complex world. A lot of comments you’ve made show how complex this world is, how complex our society is and how it has got to be so complex. I can also hear that you see the that the role of your research is to help us understand how we have got to where we are. The main thing here is that there is this shift in focus in research. Before the aim of research, particularly science-based research, was to generate knowledge. This aim, it was claimed, was value-neutral.Now there is a shift in the trans-disciplinary circles to say ‘no, producing knowledge is not enough.It is more important that knowledge is applicable to the everyday lives of people.’ Now the purpose of research has been questioned and debated for many years but mostly within social science and the humanities. The emergence of trans-disciplinarity is characterised by a main stream questioning of the purpose of all science based research.

Another thing that comes out of the literature on trans-disciplinarity is we are no longer in… and I think this is where the scientists among you are wanting to move into the social sciences because you are trying to address this…. is that science tends to generate knowledge by looking at a closed system and water is not part of a closed system so suddenly we are having to look at different types of methodologies to address an open system.

And then the final point to emerge from the trans-disciplinary literature is the ability to synthesis all these different knowledges. It is enough to drive us insane. Not only are we dealing with the disciplinary cross overs, and this is the point that you made, but we are also dealing with knowledge that exists in different contexts and cultures that is validated in different ways to the way disciplinary knowledge is validated. ‘Truth claims’ are often made based on different criteria. This makes the trans-disciplinary space a contested space. So, we are not just trying to synthesis the different disciplinary knowledge that we have at Universities, trans-disciplinary researchers are also acknowledging that knowledge exists in everyday life and how do we bring that to the table and how do we also work with that knowledge to bring about transformative action. We want to transform things, we believe that trans-disciplinary research can transform things but to do that we need to acknowledge that there are many other knowledge systems. There are many other ways of knowing and naming the world and that is really where, for me, the core debate around emancipation lies, “who names the world, why do they name it that way, and who benefits? These three questions become key. It means that knowledge production or knowledge creation is not a neutral activity and that embedded in all our knowledge systems are discourses that are political because knowledge and power are deeply interlinked. This applies to all knowledge, not just academic knowledge. You made the point about the power of the media to control the way we think about things. So when you are doing your research, even if you are doing a science study, you can consider “I am naming the world, why am I naming it this way and who benefits if I name it this way.” Even if that is all you do when thinking in terms of emancipation for your study it is worth while.

Okay so these three points introduce the possibility of trans-disciplinarity possibly being an emancipatory science. Whether it is or not, I’m skeptical and I’m always skeptical of new approaches. So you can see the things you were mentioning before I started talking are captured here.

A personal consideration of emancipation

I’m not going to go into these slides in too much detail. I was going to share with you how my interest in emancipation came about. I’ll do it very briefly as I think it is more important to show you how, what you have already spoken about, fits into the theories that I’m talking about.

This slide is linked to a google site which I can’t open here as I don’t have internet connection but google ‘1988 in South Africa. The reason I chose 1988 is because I was a young teenager then and it was in that year that a political awareness arose in me. There was a sense that I was living in a lie of a country this thought was triggered because a young boy was shot by our neighbour. He was the same age as me. He was 14 and he had broken into a car and the guy who lived next door had shot him in the back as he ran away and killed him. I could not accept this. It absolutely shocked me as a young child and it started me reading all sorts of things. Luckily I had the opportunity and access to different view points because my parents were British so I got to go oversees and I was exposed to what people were saying about South Africa. Luckily I had another discourse to help me understand a very shocking situation that I was struggling to make sense of.

The first time I voted was obviously 1994. I was very, very excited about contributing to this new South Africa. After my Masters I worked in a rural area in the Kat River Valley. Some of you may have read some of the stuff that came out of that by Nicole Motteux and Kate Rowntree. The research was focusing on this idea of participation and engaging people in capacity building activities. The project was driven by the idea that people must participate in the decisions around water resources and water needs to be accessed in a democratic way. Capacity building was seen as way of bringing people power, emancipating them, leading them towards a freedom that, once capacitated, they would be able to take for themselves. I also come from a psychology background. I studied psychology at an undergrad and honours level so I really believed that if people could heal internally and if they could generate their own internal knowledge they would be able to bring about their own emancipation. I realised, through this project that I was wrong.

What if I told youWhat if I told you that trying to eliminate poverty through education is bull shit?

This was a huge shock for me. It was through my experience of working in the Kat that I realised this. We put a lot of work into building the capacity of people which included working through the pain of living through apartheid. Then we realised that, as you and you said, we exist within a society that has these strong structures that an individual has very little power to change alone. It made me reflect on this wonderful quote by Malcolm X “Only a fool would let his enemy teach his children.”

And that is something to bear in mind: knowledge is not neutral, science is not neutral, education is not neutral. They are are discourses and they give across a particular position. So if we are going to have learning to emancipate, what kind of learning? If we are going to have research to emancipate, what kind of research? These are the kinds of things that people are questioning. We can’t take for granted that education will automatically lead to emancipation. We can’t take for granted that the knowledge generated by research will lead to emancipation?

Three stories of emancipation

Paulo freirePaulo Freire and education as emancipation

Now I’m going to tell you three stories of three people that made emancipation their life work. The first person is my favourite, Paulo Freire. He is the one that developed the diagram I spoke to you about. He was born in 1920’s and worked in Brazil. He re-claimed education as emancipation and he did this in two ways. First of all he said that the aim of education needs to be emancipation so he asked the question “why we are educating?” He writes very beautifully. He is like a poet so if any of you enjoy good writing you will love the way he writes. He wrote” are we educating for people to just become a work force or are we educating people to become mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, fighters, people that can stand up for things, people who can have passion?” So he was acknowledging that the way our learning and our education is often framed is to keep capitalism going and to develop people to have the skills to be a worker and if you look at the way South African education has changed over time you will see this is very much the case. In the past we had different education systems depending on your race. Each one was developed to keep people in their particular place. Now we had outcomes based education which became driven by a neo-liberal agenda.

So Paulo Freire questioned the motivation for education very deeply and he developed methods and methodologies to be able to fight against this and one of these was that he really believed education and learning was about dialogue. I believe the roots of social learning could be traced back to Paulo Freire. Many social learning theorists do not acknowledge this. He was one of the first to talk about education as dialogue and to link education to a political goal. He also said that educating is not just ensuring that people have access to knowledge in their own language but that learning is linked to the way people live their lives. The learning and the knowledge we generate is linked to our lives and unless we acknowledge the lives that people are living and are willing to hear their stories about the lives that they live and include our stories in that there is no way that we can actually share knowledge. He is not a difficult theorist to read. I would really recommend you explore him because he is not only relevant to education, he is relevant because he gives us a way to generate knowledge and critique what we know democratically.

He also spoke about the idea of false conscious. Critical consciousness and false consciousness. Critical consciousness for him was the ability to name the world so who is naming our world and I’ll put this slide up: “Are we in danger of becoming the rich man’s news?” 


Who is naming the world? That was your comment about the newspapers. Believe it or not this is an actual advert. I could not believe it. I thought it was a joke when I found it but it is an advert by the Los Angeles Herald saying ‘Check us out we are a better newspaper because rich people are reading us.” It is just hilarious but it says something, are we just the news that people sit and read and how are our lives being portrayed in that news? So Freire was also big on the discourse. This is not just language, say isiXhosa or English, discourse is the way we describe and make sense of the world from within a particular culture or discipline and is our way of making sense of the world part of the influential discourses or not. And that is quite a big question.

One other thing about Freire is he split false consciousness into two kinds. We can all suffer from false consciousness. The one way he would say is when we think we don’t have agency. Not having agency means we feel we can’t act. Freire would say he would come across people who had so much suffering in their life that they could not see their suffering and the cause of their suffering. They could not see their suffering was caused by society. They would think it was caused by themselves or something greater than themselves such as fate. They would not be able to name it’s source. This is what Freire called magical consciousness. People will say it is just the way the world is. It is fate. It is the way it is. There is nothing we can do about it. For example, money makes the world go round. This is just the way the world works. It is the way it is. The caste system in India is a another good example of this. It is our karma to be poor and it happens in Christianity as well. We can say this suffering is God’s will. I don’t believe a God would let people suffer from poverty. I don’t believe in that kind of God. So that is the magical consciousness. Life is so hard and I try and explain it in some other way. There is a higher force that is making my life like this or it is just the way the world is.

The other false consciousness he called ‘naive consciousness’ and he said that was when people thought they were so superior to reality that they imposed their meaning of reality onto it. So they can make it up as they want it to be and obviously that relates a lot to the more privileged amongst us. If you look at TV, I mean I love the example of soap opera’s. Soap opera’s often present that superior view of the world, this is my reality. The wealthy rat bunch. We are all hanging out sleeping with each other or whatever we are doing. This is the real world and if you are not experiencing it, well you just haven’t got there yet. So people will view the world through their lens of privilege and feel they can impose this experience of the world onto others as real. People that do this are acting as if they are superior to reality and so can bend what is real and what is true to their experience. Weird. We can’t be above what is real. We are part of reality. We are part of the world. Freire would say that people who suffer from naive consciousness need to re-become part of the world and see reality as it is. 80% of the people in the world live in abject poverty. That is the truth. If we are not living our lives according to that truth we are living in a naive consciousness.

bhaskarRoy Bhaskar and emancipatory science

Roy Bhaskar. This is shifting slightly. Roy Bhaskar took another direction. This is interesting for you guys who are more in the academic masters, PhD level. I don’t recommend you start getting to know Bhaskar’s theory by reading Bhaskar to start with. I recommend you read Leigh Price. She reinterprets his work beautifully in a way that we can better understand. She is a scientist herself, an ecologist, so she also has a wonderful way of writing that is accessible to scientists and social scientists.

Bhaskar came at this emancipation question from this idea that the way in which we understand how knowledge is produced isn’t emancipatory. It is oppressive. This is a very interesting take and highly philosophical but it does have some very good things to look at because it makes us question our own way of doing research and it makes us question whether we are doing research for emancipation. Now I am still struggling to understand what he says so I will just give you a general idea of what I understand. His theory is a critique, not only of science but of social science as well. He thinks we have lost our way philosophically. He traces the mistakes in the philosophy of science back to David Hume who was a philosopher in the 16th century and whose ideas form the basis of our scientific method today. Hume, could have been an emancipator and this is what I find very, very interesting. He may have looked at the world around him and it was at a time when the church had a lot of power and they controlled through superstition. Freire, if he was alive then, may have said that the Church suffered from ‘naive consciousness’.The Church imposed their idea of the world onto the masses and controlled them and can imagine a Hume that could not stand this. He could see that people were suffering because of the way the Church was treating them. It was a time when the Church owned most of the property and the majority of people were peasants. It seems like Hume was a very passionate man that wanted to change the way people understood the world so they would be empowered. So he basically said that the only way we can know anything is if we actually see it so there no such thing as miracles, there is no such thing as superstition. His theories go further than that because ultimately he believed that nothing existed but let’s not go there now. He may have been trying to emancipate people with this statement. He was definitely trying to change the way we viewed knowledge and the production of knowledge. But of course like many methods… it was good at fighting that particular oppression but unfortunately led to another kind of oppression. This is where Bhaskar comes in and he says ‘of course there is more than what we can just see.’He would say that what we see is just an indicator of what is really happening. He called these deeper causalities generative mechanisms. So because of these generative mechanisms there is the potential for certain things to happen in the world and those things can manifest as empirical fact but they may not and that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. So when you are looking at the reasons why things are not working maybe because society is based on inequitable principles, policy has developed in a particular way. There may be all sorts of different reasons why things are happening the way they have. Bhaskar has challenged us to acknowledge that and given us a lot of conceptual tools to try and get to generative mechanisms and actually in a very, very creative way which he calls retroduction which means we can logically look back and say how did we get here. Freire does the same thing. He says the first step to emancipation is considering how did we get here and then how do we imagine a new future. Bhaskar also talks about re-enchanting the world. So that would be his critique of how knowledge is produced. It is a little more difficult to grasp and I haven’t explained it well here but it is worth looking into.

something.013Visvanathan and cognitive justice

Visvanathan expresses a position that a lot of you will be able to relate to. He is an Indian academic and activist and he has this term called cognitive justice. The way we know the world is based on who we are and it is also based on the context we come from and it can’t be separated from that. So you can’t transpose one knowledge system onto another. It is not saying that there isn’t a truth. It is just saying that in the process of coming to a truth you can’t impose a way of knowing the world. All systems of knowing are not the same and we need to recognise that otherwise we are falling into the trap of normalising western knowledge systems. Visvanathan argues that the only way to work authentically with different knowledge systems is through dialoguing and realising that the way that you actually know is part of your being. He even goes as far to say that it is part of the environment you are in. You and your knowledge cannot be separated from environment.

Participant X: What is the paper?

It is a 2010 paper and he talks about his ideas in relation to the Bhopal Tragedy which killed many people. He poses the question, ‘was this a disaster of the gas explosion or was it a disaster of science in not understanding people and their context.’ The Ebola tragedy is another example. I don’t know if you have read about the mistakes made when addressing the Ebola epidemic. People went into communities to identify people that are infected and put them in quarantine but they arrived in these remote communities dressed in these weird suits, walked into people’s houses and took people’s relatives away. People started hiding their sick relatives and not telling the health workers about the ebola cases. Some even started believing that it was the Europeans in their strange suits who had bought the sickness. Health workers thought the Ebola virus was under control and in actual fact people were just saying ‘I don’t want my relative to be taken away by these strange people in these white suits.’ So that is an example of how people are not acknowledging the knowledge and understanding of people in their environment and then adapting methods to engage with them in a way that makes sense to them.

Visvanathan describes the critique of development work as voiced by grassroots movements. “It is a human rights issue because development projects marginalised and cannibalised the cultures of local people.” He is saying development projects came in and marginalised people even further. The Ebola tragedy is an example of this in some way. Visvanathan argues, “There is an need for a science which sees nature as more than an object, an experiment or a resource but as a way of life and where nature is more than a mode of production, it is a mode of thought.” I love this quote. So nature and the way we are in nature is a mode of thought. It is the way we think and the way we know.

something.014So I’ll end my little session with this which brings us back to South Africa and Steve Biko who said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. When we are engaging in research and education we need to ask ourselves, is our research addressing this? Is it freeing minds from the oppressor or further entrenching this grasp. The Oppressor does not necessarily have to be a person it can be a system of knowledge. It can be a political tool. It can be an economic tool. For me, this is always the question, if the mind of the oppressed is not with the oppressor how much can we do and I do get the point that one of you made that we may never reach equality in an exact sense but I do believe we can reach some sense of emancipation.

Some discussion

Participant X: You started with the example of the Kat river and what happened there so with this other knowledge, for example what Visvanathan is saying, how would one do that differently? How would one do Ebola differently?

Jane: I’ll speak about the Kat example. My blind spot there and the blind spot of the theories we were working with was that we underestimated the power of structure so we were working with empowering individual people instead of also realising that we and people exist within a much more powerful and a greater structure that has an impact on everything that we do. So it was understanding where the problem lies which may be what Bhaskar gives us.

Participant X: So what you did could disempower communities because it gives them a sense of potential power when it is not there so it is almost like a personal agenda of trying to deal with guilt in order to empower other people when in fact it could lead to disempowerment.

Jane: Yes that is it exactly. So offering people a sense that ‘oh if you participate in this catchment forum you’ll be able to change decisions around the way water is allocated’ when that may not happen because there are other structures at play and the Catchment Forums exist within these broader structures and can only be as powerful as it can be within these broader structures. If our objective is to change the way water is allocated in this country we may find that actually we are dealing with very, very different instruments and that this particular Catchment Forum may not be the right platform or that the interests of the members is something else, say water service delivery. We also can’t expect an informal organisation to take on the responsibility to change the allocation of water in South Africa. This means dealing with the history of South Africa and with strong economic positions. Bhaskar has this lovely way of looking at social phenomena according to all these different layers from the personal to the global scale. Reality is not just my reality. I know we wish it was. We all have a self centred sense of reality but what we are trying to do is understand collective problems, structural problems. something.017We are trying to understand that issues don’t only manifest at the level of the individual. Issues are multi-scaled. There is the individual in relation to others, the individual in relation to community and then the country which is where the big structures lie – the structures of government, the structure of schools, law, the economy. Then you have the geographical and historical layer which has an equally powerful impact on people’s ability to act and change, for example the way we manage water in Limpopo would be very different to say how water is managed down by the coast. The geographical context has huge impacts on how we deal with management and water allocation. In the Sunday’s River the water is pumped from the Orange into the system and this has implications. We can’t understand our problem unless we understand that. And then there is the global level such as partriarchy, capitalism. Big, big systems in place in the world. So understanding these layers and where the problem lies is important. We may not be able to change some of these but we may be able to tweak at the problem at the community scale or at the national government scale or we may be able to help the individual be more resilient to the context they find themselves in. This is the work of the psychologist right? They don’t focus on changing community structures or national policy, they help the individual to cope with the context they find themselves in. For me it is about being quite practical and saying what can we change and what can’t we change? I will struggle to change patriarchy in my lifetime but I can engage with it at this level in my own life and with the people around me. It’s knowing at what level you can work and also knowing the forces that influence and effect that scale of working that may inhibit or enhance people’s ability to bring about change.

Participant X: From what I’m thinking…. an individual’s desire to change things it not necessarily the way to go there may be other ways of thinking about things and that the relationship between the self is part of it in terms of…. I’m wondering where complexity comes in because complexity for me holds that uncertainty where it is not quite understandable but we are diving into it. It is not always necessarily the right thing to do but it is something, it is doing something which is better than nothing or do we keep on making it so much worse? I’m not sure. Maybe both those things.

Jane: I always go back to Bhaskar. Bhaskar would say that if we find the generative mechanism it will lead to a particular outcome so if it doesn’t we know we haven’t. Complexity theory I have a bit of a problem with as certain theories within the big group of complexity theory can be quite relative so uncertainty gets linked with ‘anything goes’. Of course there is uncertainty there always has been but we can make a decision and choose to act based on careful thinking and the best knowledge we have to date. Uncertainty doesn’t excuse us from being rigorous and thorough. If you adopt a view of ontology that is not relative then it becomes possible to work towards understanding the generative mechanisms of a particular phenomena without making the mistake of positivism. What does this mean? It means that a reality exists but we can only know it through human interpretation such as language. This makes the meaning of what is real relative to context, history, culture and experience. So you can’t say that poverty is relative, poverty is real but the way we understand poverty may be different depending on our different circumstances. Bhaskar argued that we can find the generative mechanisms that create the way the world is right now. We could work at identifying the generative mechanisms that allow poverty to be in the world and then work at removing them. This is what we are doing all the time.

Participant X: What do you mean?

Jane: The way we experience poverty is socially constructed so I experience poverty differently to you but the fact is that there is poverty in the world. That is not socially constructed. This table is here. There is no ways we can say it is a social construction but the way we understand this table, we can construct that in different ways. We have meaning making processes that are socially constructed but our knowledge of the world is not the world. The world exists independently of our knowledge of it. Bhaskar would say there are certain things they make certain things happen. There is a causality, there something that generates something that generates something else but it is very hard to get to those things and we will never get to all of them but we will notice, if we look hard enough. If we keep going back and looking at what has happened we may find a reason why and we can ask ourselves, what if we could take that mechanism away, what would our world be like?

Unless you know your context you can’t even know what the problem really is but we need to understand context at different levels of scale. It is the same for education. You can’t say I’m going to do this training course with somebody unless you understand their context and are designing educational activities that fit that context. Often people think that learning is about going into a situation and giving people knowledge. Education is meaning making so you make meaning with people together – social learning. I would say that unless you understand what people hold – and not only the values they hold around knowledge but the values they hold about what and how they learn…. so often people think that people learn in the same way like we are learning like this but people may learn in a very different way. The study we did around rain water tanks and learning showed us that people learnt more from talking to each other informally over the fences in the garden. Some people in the community had been on a training course but they shared what they had learnt through example – by showing and talking informally.

Participant X: In fact you have already leading me to what I want to comment on. I have always read African researchers and African sociologists. The reason why I say that is because I have interacted with quite a lot of sociologists and anthropologists who are friends of mine and in most cases, in theory they rely on a theory that comes from a very different context from the USA or America or London. So is this not intellectual laziness when we are relying on foreign theories to explain local contexts? You may say you want to adapt it but theories do not necessarily recognise the context that we are talking about because the theories have their own personal history which influences their value at that time.

Jane: I do think that we rely too heavily on theories that are generated externally from our own context. It doesn’t necessarily mean that these theories do not have some value but they may not have the value that is generated from what is known as grounded theory. This is not saying that someone coming from London does not see something that we may not see or the other way around. They may but there are great thinkers in Africa and in South Africa. Often when I have been overseas to conferences the comments that have been made about African, South American or other less developed countries’ research is that it is very rich because our research traditions tend to be more applied research. We test and generate theory in difficult and complex contexts and this gives us an ability to be constructively critical, even about the role of research and how we do research which can enhance particular theoretical positions and develop new ones. If this is true and our strength is in applied research then we should be proud of this and make an effort to share our work as much as possible amongst ourselves and further afield. That is why I returned to Steve Biko at the end because I think there are a lot of South African writers who have a lot to say about education and working with each other.

Participant X: I have a problem here. Our education systems in Africa are patterned after our colonial masters which is absurd. Really. We have a problem with job creation. That is our problem in Africa. People do not have jobs but no one is addressing these issues.

Jane: You should read a paper called ‘Globalising knowledges‘. It looks at three people that have explored this concern that you have that education systems are developed as if we all grow up in a European context rather than education systems developed that respond to the context we belong to. The writer draws on a case study from South Africa,Tibet, Venezuela and India. You are right. The way an education system is structured has as much to say about the dominant values of the ruling group as it has about the knowledge that is held within education systems.

Participant X: The whole eduction system is still designed incorrectly. It hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years and it has been designed to get 18th century workers to work.

Participant X: This is what comes to mind for me when comparing the experiences that I have had coming from poverty stricken parts of the society and then improving as we get education, as well as my experience in 1987 when I went overseas for the first time. I was at Leeds University and traveled to London and places like that. We left here with the impression that everything was a mess in South Africa but when we got there we saw their mess there. There was an area that was called district six where people from outside Bangladesh an other areas had flocked into the UK. They were living in this district six and they were not employed and they were living from prostitution to the extent that when their girls get of age they have to go and take part in the prostitution so they can bring home money for their families. In 1993 I was at Canterbury Church Christ college and there I saw what we thought was so bad in South Africa. We had been liberalised from apartheid and we were there because we thought they were improving our education and improving our lives and maybe we would go back with something better. But for me it was not better because they didn’t care for us as people they just came for lectures and left and if we meet them outside they don’t even look at you. So maybe each person has his own reality or whatever they want to interpret.

Participant X: If you go back to what Steve Biko said we gain all the values and all the realities of taking the country further because if we cannot have a day, we won’t have a night so that is how I see emancipation. If you need to see everyday then you must have a dark night so the best way to balance it is to know you have to pass through something before you get something. Even our education system, it can be an experience of growing the reality of how can we build up the future from our collaborative past and our past experiences.

Jane: A personal example of retroduction. The other comment that you made reminds me.. maybe it will help us with our dilemma. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from there are some generative mechanisms that create society that way everywhere so in a sense we have situations here and we see the same situations oversees, how are these being created because if we can find it here it will probably also apply to a certain extent overseas.

Participant X: Do you believe that diagram you drew is applicable to every society?

Participant X: The levels start differently. There may be triangles at different levels and society poverty in Europe.. well it is their perception of it and the workers, on an absolute scale, may be better off than the bottom scale in South Africa but still.

Jane: Poverty is also more than just a lack of wealth.

Participant X: The exercise you did, someone mentioned is this for a South African context, I don’t think it is. It is very socio-economic context. South Africa yes, the divide is on race because of our history, but if you are here from another South African country and you come from a more middle class sort of more privileged background it doesn’t matter if you are black or white, a middle class perception is similar. It is applicable everywhere.

Jane: Yes, the questions are biased towards socio-economic status. If I had asked different questions about different values maybe there would have been a different pattern in the room.

Participant X: I want to contribute to the very bottom stratum of the pyramid – though these people are sustaining the entire society they are unaware of it. They are dehumanised to an extent that they are not even aware if it.

Jane: And when they do become aware of it?

Participant X: Yes, like last year and the mine workers said, hey we have had enough of this nonsense, we are not going to work and everybody was up in arms saying the South African economy was collapsing.

Jane: This is what Freire would call the magical consciousness where you are not aware of your value, your agency in society. His education system it is all about this … a dialogue with people to realise their value and that they have as much right to name the world as anybody else.

Okay we are running out of time. Let me just make two points. All of you are working in a trans-disciplinary space and this means knowing how your research is contributing to a broader question that you are all trying to answer. If you are trying to answer the question of water security, for example how do make sure that all people have access to water equally then knowing at what level your research is engaged e.g community level of policy level, will help you contextualise your research and make it more meaningful for the people that you are working with. You may be addressing a problem at many different levels of course but if you could articulate this to start with and show what your question wishes to investigate at these levels then it helps other researchers see their work in relation to your own. For example, Participant X’s work is a psychological study. She is investigating this through expressions of the body. Now some of you may think this has nothing to do with your work but if you view Participant X’s work within all the level’s of a social phenomena then you can see that her work is addressing the very important level of how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others. A lot of you have spoken about how oppression affects us on a personal level. This can inhibit our ability to access our agency. One of you said that people don’t realise that they do have agency. Participant X’s research is addressing why people may feel they have a lack of agency at a personal level. This is an important aspect of answering the big question ‘how do we make sure that all people have access to water equally?’ A very scientific study may seem like a waste of time to social scientists who are working at the level of changing policy but if we can understand that this research is looking at the ecological level and that this may give evidence for researchers wanting to have an impact on policy then there are huge links between this work and work at a policy level. We should work at seeing the connections between our work. This does not mean that I now need to become an ecologist as well as a social scientist. It just means that I am able to place, say Participant X’s work, in relation to my own and understand how it is contributing to the bigger question we are all trying to answer.

The other point I wanted to make relates to Participant X’s point that we feel like we are caught up in these structures and how do we bring about change if this is the case. These are my thoughts and don’t know if I’m completely off the path but there seems to be two kinds of research that we can do if research is to contribute to change. The first type of research helps us understand the context that we are working in this includes the biophysical and the social context. A lot of science based studies sit here as well as social studies that critically analyse social structures, agency and phenomena. The point of this research is to understand and question what is happening. We can do this ourselves or we can do this in collaboration with others. The second type of research is about researching how change happens. This type of research investigates the research approaches, methodologies and methods that we use to try and change the world. An example of this kind of research would be an action research project that is investigating a particular way of dealing with a situation – say a study investigating adaptive management in a CMA. The research is investigating the methodology and method of adaptive management as an approach for bringing about change. Social learning is another approach. Many researchers say they are using social learning in their research but what about investigating the implications of using social learning for change? How does a social learning orientation to research or to practice actually enhance emancipation? People could also investigate social movements, educational movements, institutional arrangements and management systems, all of which are developed to bring about change. This helps me to also understand my role in a big trans-disciplinary project. This is what is wonderful about trans-disciplinarity – I don’t have to do everything – so your research may be understanding context and providing an answer to a particular understanding and somebody else may be taking that understanding and thinking about how we bring about the change. Of course the challenge of trans-disciplinary research within the academy is that we are still rewarded for our own personal contribution rather than the contribution we make as a collective. This creates tensions because it almost forces us to protect our little back yard of influence. But we are the ones that can change this. We are the ones that can look at our own agency within the institution of the University and be creative about how we represent the contributions of the collective and assess the individual’s contributions within this. It may mean not having your name in print but the groups name in print which for academics is a big deal. I must admit I’d kinda like it. I don’t enjoy the competitive feel between researchers and the publishing game. I feel it blocks our ability to be more creative, more responsive and less antagonistic about our disciplines and positions. But until the reward system changes it is hard to say to anyone that they should give up on that form of recognition. It is about identity I suppose. What do we identify with? Our progress as an intellectual, our organisation we work for or do we identify with our role in bringing about change in the world? Of course all these identities can be mixed up together but which one do we cultivate the most. If it is the latter, we may go unrecognised at an individual level but the rewards at the level of the collective may be far greater. So you can see thinking about emancipation also means thinking about your own position in the system – if we don’t want to be academics that look away we may find we also need to challenge the current way academics are rewarded for their work and question what reward matters to us.

Thank you.

Considering the emancipatory researcher: Part 1

A few months ago I was asked to hold a workshop for the Trans-disciplinary group at Rhodes University. This group was started by the Institute of Water Research, Environmental Science and the Environmental Learning Research centre under a trans-disciplinary project on water security. The group has grown to include other Departments at the University. It is also attended by members of a community-based organisation called ‘Water for Dignity’.

As I was exploring what emancipation meant in learning and research I decided to present the little I knew and start a discussion about what it would mean to do emancipatory research. It was a fascinating engagement and I learnt a lot. I’ve decided to blog this interaction as it shows two things: how students and community members are thinking through these issues and, how, as novice researchers, it isn’t easy facing the fact that we live in a world defined by inequality. As researchers we and students we have a choice to make about our position in relation to our own lives and the life we want to live as active citizens and scientists in the world. I’ve not included people’s names except my own in the transcript.

It is a long piece I will blog this piece as part one and part two.

Introducing ourselves

Jane: Can you give me your name and a very short sentence about your research so I get a sense of how you fit into the whole trans-disciplinary thing. If you are part of a bigger project let me know what that is. Also add one thing about yourself that you feel the group doesn’t know, something that has meaning for you. For example if I was going to introduce myself I would say “I’m Jane. My study is on trans-disciplinarity and emancipation and I have a great interest in Tai Chi.  When I have spare time I like to practice Tai Chi both as a philosophy and as an exercise.”

My name is X. I’m a Master student in my second year of my Masters. I’m working in a larger research project called the ‘Towards a new paradigm” project that Tally Palmer is running. I’m in the Makana case study and I am working very closely with the Water for Dignity community based organisation. The study is about looking at how a citizen-based research partnership can lead to improved water service delivery in the Makana Municipality. Something that you don’t know about me maybe is that I’m a keen vegetable gardener and my cherry tomatoes are looking amazing at the moment.

I’m X. I’m doing research on a systems thinking approach and the integration of ICT’s in the local municipality. I haven’t quite figured out how my research is trans-disciplinary research but I’ll figure that out along the way. I’m not a very social man. The only time I get social is when I play soccer.

Hi I’m X. I’m doing research on land formation, perception and change and technology.

Hi I’m X. I’m working on ecological risk and working on the social aspects of it as hard science alone cannot solve the problem so we need to involve social scientists. One thing that people don’t know about me is I am a musician. I play guitar and piano. I cannot dance.

Hi I’m X. I’m from Working for Dignity where we have a citizen based research partnership. Most of our focus is on Grahamstown East where we are trying to make the community more active around basic access to water under the South African constitution. What you don’t know about me, I love fast cars.

My name is X and I’m a teacher and pastor and I have just joined Khulumani (Water for Dignity) so I am the new face. What you don’t know about me is I am a grandmother.

My name is X.  I’m a masters student at the IWR and I’m working in the Sunday’s River Valley coming out of a project that was with SANPAD and I’m looking at how access to land and water over time has impacted current use. One thing you don’t know about me is that I’m part of a group, we’ve been together since I was 12 and we sing and dance.

I’m X and I’m looking at whether a body based psychological approach has a place in dealing with water and inequality. I’m looking at the cultural relevance of training in the UK and bringing this into a South African context. You probably do know this about me, I love the sea.

My name is X. I’m looking at the management and decision making in water supply and development in South Africa and I also fit into the ‘Towards a new paradigm project’ in the Olifants river catchment. One of my main study sites is there. Something about me you don’t know, I enjoy surfing but I’m not very good at it.

I’m X. I’m in my second year of Masters. My project is linking ecological uncertainty to decision making. I think it fits into a Trans-disciplinary type of approach in that I’m trying to take the decision making from centralised authority and bringing more community based decision making into that in water resources management. We are trying ways of integrating different decision frameworks that are already out there with communities.

My name is X and I’m doing my Masters and I”m looking at an introductory approach to the introduction of government for water service delivery. Something you don’t know about me is I love to cook and I actually think I’m very good at it.

I’m X. I’m lecturing in ICT. Something you don’t know about me is I am a mother of two.

Introducing emancipation and oppression

Jane: This is a bit of a mixed session. I am going to present a bit about what my study is but mostly I see this as a place where we can explore these ideas of emancipation and trans-disciplinarity. It is quite surprising to be here again because actually Georgina Cundill, do you know her, well we were tasked to start this group by Tally. So I remember the long discussion we had at the first meeting about why we actually wanted to get together every single month and the thing that came out the most strongly was this real desire to share and learn from each other. There was a strong sense of this being a social learning space in itself – some of you have mentioned social learning. So I don’t know what it has become but it is quite nice to come back into it as PhD student and as someone who is also working as a practitioner and whose now also researching this group in a way. My study is looking at trans-discpinarity and I’m using some of your projects as case studies to see how trans-disciplinarity is emerging in practice and what are the problems and difficulties that people are struggling with.

I just want to tell you briefly why emancipation is important to me and it sort of relates to some of the things you have said. When I was 24 I came across a guy called Paulo Freire, who was an educator, and I’ll talk a bit about him today. Please stop me if something does not make sense. There was a diagram that was introduced to me when I was doing my Masters that completely changed my way of thinking about research and education. I’ve tried to find this diagram everywhere so I could share it with but I couldn’t.  It was a triangle and at the bottom there were pictures of a whole load of people with their backs bent over some of them crawling along the ground looking very sad, holding up society. These people were bearing the brunt and the weight of the entire structure of society. Then there was another layer of people who were standing upright but their backs were still bent and they were slightly happier but not much and they are still holding society on their backs. And then there was the next layer of society. A very interesting layer this group. They seemed to be standing competely upright. They were quite free. They have the movement of their bodies. Their hands are up above their heads holding up the last layer of society and interestingly enough they are looking away. They are not looking up at the top layer of society nor are they looking down at the layers of society that they are standing on. They are looking away from the pyramid/triangle all together. And right at the top of this triangle there is one guy sitting on a very fancy chair with aeroplanes flying up here that belong to him and big houses. One guy sitting at the top. This bottom layer is the layer of workers.  don’t know if any of you have ever checked out what your status needs  to be for you to be in the top five percent in South Africa. All of you here are in the top five percent of South Africa just by the very fact that you are at Rhodes University. Most of you here anyway. The majority of South African’s are down here in the bottom layer and are actually the ones that are keeping society going. They are holding the entire weight of society on their backs and yet they are the ones with the most problems and suffering the most from having to carry that weight. This bottom layer makes me think of the mines in South Africa. The next layer are people like the teachers. People that are doing jobs where their bodies are not so physically involved in those jobs.They have got enough money not to worry about certain things but it is a struggle. The third layer is made up of the intellectuals and academics, and this is what really struck me you would think this group of people would not be looking away, they would not be looking out into the distance and they wouldn’t be holding up above their heads the fat cat at the top.

This diagram represents the drive behind Paulo Freire’s theory and made me realise that as intellectuals we have an obligation, a deep obligation to not look away. In some cases, in society, it has been the intellectuals that have suddenly said ‘no ways’ and they have stepped outside the triangle and what has happened is that the level is not there and it collapses. So this diagram struck me deeply and it is what has carried me. I have been privileged enough to get an education so I sit in the third level and it is very important for me that this level is not perpetuating this triangle. So that is just to give you a little bit of a background into the big question, “What is the role of research? What is it doing in our society and what is the role of education?

You know emancipation is this wonderful idea. We want to live into an imagined world, into a world where we think that life will be better for all of us and often it is a world that we haven’t attained yet. We have not reached it. Right along side the idea of emancipation is the idea of oppression and oppression is this sense of wanting something that already exists. Often, when we feel oppressed it is because we can see that other people have something that we don’t. For example, I was listening to a talk yesterday by a Swedish lady. She was describing how the generations of women in her family had different educational opportunities. Her great-grandmother who had no education as a women, her grandmother only had three years education, her mother managed to get a masters later in life and the speaker is a PhD. So it shows that at some stage women were not allowed equal access to education in comparison to men. In South Africa we had whole races who were not allowed equal access to education so oppression for me is something that we don’t have but we see other people getting it.

Step forward, step backwards

I’d like to play a game with you and then I will present to you a few ideas about where my study is going. They are very new ideas. They are unformed so feedback would be great. After that I would like us to basically explore emancipation ourselves according to what we know about ourselves and our own research. Let’s see if we can come up with an understanding about what we are doing and how it fits into this bigger picture of having a society goal of emancipation which I think is really a goal of trans-disciplinary research.

So for this game. It is very simple. Basically the game acknowledges that we all arrive into a world that is already formed. For example, I was born in the 1970’s. I was born into apartheid. I could not choose not to be born into a country with apartheid. So we are born into the world and we are born into the way the world is. As we grow up the context that we are born into often provides us with opportunities but it can also make it more difficult for some of us. There are some people whose life circumstances have led to privilege and there are some people whose life circumstance has lead to more struggle. This is not a judgement of the individual.  It is accepting that the context that we did not choose has an impact on our lives. When we are working towards emancipation we are trying to change the contextual circumstances of people to be more equitable.

The game works like this: I read out a sentence and if it is true for you, you take either a step forward or backwards depending on the instruction that comes with the statement. If you feel uncomfortable about responding you don’t have to you can just stand still. The way it starts is that we all start with equal footing so we all start in a long line and then I will read a sentence saying step “forward if…” or “step back if. …”. You will suddenly start seeing a whole dynamic unfolding and it will shape the history of our country, it will shape the history of our gender and the history of this group. So let’s see how it goes. So we try and do this game in silence.

“Step forward if…”

We all start in a long line so you are all on equal footing to start off with.

Step forward if your family owned their own home

Step back your parents did not graduate from school

Step forward if anyone in your family is a doctor, lawyer, teacher or any other professional.

SB: If you are black, Latina, Indian, Asian, Arab, or Middle Eastern descent.

SF:If you are a man

SB:If you have ever been denied a job or paid less for comparable work or had a less qualified man promoted over you because of your gender.

SF:If you grew up with people of colour or working class people who were maids, servants, gardeners or baby-sitters in you house.

SB:If you are a survivor of incest, rape, or abuse.

SF:If you studied the history and culture of your ethnic ancestors in school.

SB:If you were raised by someone other than by both of your parents.

SF:If you have ever written a letter to influence the outcome of a political decision.

SB: If anyone in your family has had a problem with drug or alcohol abuse.

SF:If you ever worked in a job where people of a different colour held more menial jobs, were paid less or otherwise harassed or discriminated against.

SB: If you ever felt an opportunity or experience was closed to you because you didn’t know how to speak, dress, or act.

SF:If your family had more than fifty books in the house when you were growing up.

SB:If you have ever felt judged or uncomfortable because of the size, height, or shape of your body.

SF:If your family told you that you could be or do anything that you choose.

SB: If your family taught you that police were people to be feared.

SF: If you were taken to art galleries, museums, or plays by your parents.

SB:If, as a child, you were ever hungry or worried that there would not be enough food.

SF:If you ever attended a private school or went on a school outing.

SB:If your family was ever forced to move because they could not afford to pay their bills.

SF:If you grew up expecting that your family would pay for your education

SB:If you or any member of your immediate family has ever been on welfare.

SF:If you believe that police would help you in an emergency.

SB:If you or any member of your family has been incarcerated for reasons other than political activism

SF:If you ever inherited, or expect to inherit, money or property.

SB:If you have ever lived somewhere that didn’t feel safe.

SF: If you or one or both of your parents are or were members of unions.

SB:If you have ever hesitated to reveal your or your family’s religious tradition.

Now look around the room and then in silence sit down and for five minutes write down, ‘what does this mean to me about emancipation?’ You are not going to share this with anyone so write whatever comes to you.

You can finish off the sentence that you are writing. Can I ask if anyone has any comments about the exercise?

“What struck me was how different social groups had different access to power and I think the ruling elite in society and their position in society is only possible because there is an underclass. This is what keeps them in power. I was just thinking about the Russian Revolution and it was exactly like that. You had some people looking out, intellectuals, those that were below the Tsar and they were looking away using the workers at the bottom of the pyramid to get themselves to the top of the pyramid. It is two sides of the same coin really, oppression and emancipation.”

“You don’t realise it but those in power use systems to fool people. Like the ANC uses the SABC to promote itself or the newspapers. So they put out propaganda and they have these agenda’s and they sell these ideas and the working class are too busy worrying about people coming from Zimbabwe and stealing their jobs instead of questioning the government. So the media sells them what they should be thinking about and why they should be thinking about it.”

“We often catch ourselves saying ‘we are giving power’ or ‘we are teaching’ and that’s the same rather than facilitating a realisation together. This is where trans-disciplinarity comes in as you are generating multiple views without saying this is the good way to go. It is giving weight to different voices and then out of that, well that is how I see trans-disciplinary, then coming up with an agreed knowledge.”

“It can also be trans-disciplinarity bringing things together and enabling various sectors of society to understand like if you were to go to a community, say you wanted to go into decision making. But in certain communities where you have engineers and traditional leaders you need to be able to deal with different levels of understanding when dealing with different sectors of society so trying to come up with a way to help everyone understand what you are trying to do so like working with different languages.”

“Looking at the diagram I think what do we do with the million mandates? It is like looking at all these people that are carrying the weight of society but taking it to the top, to the president or whatever, it seems like all the trouble is coming from there. Those mandates they are all for the man at the top so it becomes difficult. After doing this exercise I realise there will be gaps if you look at the diagram. The big gap will be trust. If you want to build for emancipation then there is the need for trust. For the people at the bottom there is a big gap and that is access to knowledge and the translation issue. There is also the problem that the people at the bottom layer will look up at the man at the top layer and they make comparisons and see the differences and then the trust is gone. It is not just the language differences. They act differently and speak differently to them and with those differences you will not get trust. We need to shape the diagram into another form then we can work together.”

“I think through the exercise we can identify two things. There are those that are born into privilege and there are those that are born into struggle and then it is hard for those that are born into struggle to catch up. The reason is that if you are born into privilege you are not starting from the beginning. You start from somewhere very, very higher than someone that is born into struggle. So when he gets to where the privileged started from he is already tired. So can we ever achieve equality in society? I think no. We may try to work towards it but its realisation will remain out of our grasp. Then if I come back to this concept of the pyramid I think we have to view it from different lenses, the one is the political lens the other is the economic lens. One may want to say that the president sits at the top of the pile but it is economics which really put him there so politics and economics don’t care about the social justice in our society.”

“I found it a very painful exercise. It brought up a lot for me. I feel I want to say a lot of things and will let them come. So looking at it from a South African perspective and I’m aware that there are people here from other countries so it would be good to hear their sense of it and also to hear how they related to the words you used. And then what do I do with this? What do I do with this information in myself and of course it is something I have to live with all the time and we live with it in this department in terms of who is studying here and who is coming from the outside, who is administration, who cleans here etc? So for me my sense is that the supposed bottom class is actually very rich in itself potentially. But what about cleaners from Rhodes? Why can’t they be educated and learn about history and be interested in poetry for example and get access to it so that it is more than just an education institution for students which is a very privileged space to come from and to be able to study from your twenties for example. But the staff that support this institution don’t so I’m not sure if we can turn it all around and go we are re-shaping society. I don’t know if that is possible but how do we work with what we have got. So how do we speak to the cleaner here in a way that shows kindness and understanding and care for the work that is done. Because the fundamentals is we couldn’t be sitting here talking if the floor was dirty for example, if these tables hadn’t been cleaned or all the things that happen that have value so it is really about what we value. It is as if that is less and as if what we do now is more because we are thinking.”

“I will just say what came to mind about emancipation and oppression. With oppression things that came to me was cruelness, degrading and unfair, bullying and something that maybe, for me, was pushing to want to be better so that we can lift the other people up. And emancipation I thought freedom, understanding and being positive and being free. Sometimes with freedom they think they can do anything that they want to do and that for me is what creates different types of classes: higher class, middle class, low class.

“I was thinking about it. Something that came to me is that there are different types of emancipation. When I was thinking about it, my parents come from the second tier of the diagram but now I qualify to be part of the third tier and even though I am in the third tier there are things that have seeped through from the second tier like my parents made provision for me to break through into the third tier. So I think that even though I am here there are different types of emancipation, even as you go up there is still emancipation issues that you have to deal with.”

“Education is not necessarily a good thing. You can learn a lot about very little.”

Jane: Well thank you. Revisit this exercise as much as you want to. It is quite a powerful thing to look at and a lot of you have already touched on what I am going to speak about so I feel I don’t really need to say much at all. What I hoped the exercise highlighted is that the structure that we are born into is already made so often we think that if we just empower the individual then emancipation will happen but that is obviously not the case because the structure itself is faulty. The structure itself is not built on an equitable basis.

Your point about it is not just being a difference in language, it is the difference in culture and institutional cultures and the way things operate at that level. Somebody made a comment about media and the power of media and that it creates our understanding of the world and how that can limit us in being able to see our position as a free person. We can often see ourselves as an oppressed person because of the way that the media represents us. So all these things are all valid points. Your point that it is not just a societal thing it is a very personal thing that happens to us and it happens right here in our spaces. That is also very powerful and in our research it is happening all the time in all the different kinds of engagements that we are having with everybody. There are these levels of questioning:’Is this an emancipatory space that we are creating?’. Even if you are a physical scientist you are thinking about the knowledge you are creating and how that knowledge is going to be used, how is it produced? It brings up all these kinds of questions and that is really what the focus of my study is, trying to understand what those questions are and the difficulties when grappling with the questions of what makes research emancipatory. 

End of Part One

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.