I am really honoured to be invited to share some thoughts with you today, among a community with such a strong history of commitment to social justice. The living history of Claremont Main Rd Mosque’s role in the struggle against apartheid here in South Africa, through to its support for the Palestinian-led Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement are widely-known and respected, near and far. Earlier this year, like many others, I was really inspired by the large numbers of people who took to the streets here in Cape Town in principled opposition to Israeli attacks on Gaza and the ongoing illegal occupation and settlements of Palestine. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to learn more about the current, local work that the mosque is doing in relation to social and environmental justice, in support of farmworkers’ struggles, and to discuss the challenges of deepening solidarity with people struggling against oppression and exploitation in a deeply unequal society, 20 years after the 1994 elections.
While I don’t claim to have any recipes or formulas for building and sustaining struggles for social and environmental justice, I’ll try to share a few ideas about organizing for change and learning collectively which are drawn from both my experiences in struggles –in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Asia-Pacific region and North America – and my more recent work as professor in a Faculty of Education at McGill University. This activist background includes organizing against free market policies at the local level around privatization and deregulation, local and transnational struggles against free trade and investment agreements, support for Indigenous Peoples’ struggles for self-determination, and labour struggles – not least those of migrant and immigrant workers. As I moved into a position teaching at a university I consciously followed in the footsteps of scholars with whom I had worked in movements and community organizing and who have continued to do so unapologetically. My colleague, University of British Columbia professor and activist Sunera Thobani eloquently states her position which I strongly identify with, writing:
I place my work within the tradition of radical, politically engaged scholarship. I have always rejected the politics of academic elitism which insist that academics should remain above the fray of political activism and use only disembodied, objectified language and a ‘properly’ dispassionate professorial demeanor to establish our intellectual credentials. My work is grounded in the politics, practices and languages of the various communities I come from, and the social justice movements to which I am committed.
There are many different traditions of education, politics and struggle. There are many unfinished struggles for liberation at home and abroad, wherever we may live. Like many others I have taken great inspiration from the mass movements here in South Africa to end apartheid. But what happens when those periods of mass popular struggle seem to be consigned to the past?
Without daily struggles, larger systemic change– cannot come about. It is in these daily, local, struggles that people learn, reflect, strategize and act. They build analysis, skills, strategies and a base needed for longer-term, broader change. Adult education scholar Paula Allman insists that “praxis develops through and within the struggles for reform, whether these pertain to issues emanating from the shop floor, the community, the environment or any other site where the ramifications of capitalism are experienced…. These struggles are some of the most important sites in which critical education can and must take place. Moreover, if this critical education takes place within changed relations, people will be transforming not only their consciousness but their subjectivity and sensibility as well.” Perhaps, putting it another way, freedom then becomes, as Angela Davis has suggested, “not a state for which one yearns, but rather an incessant struggle to remake our lives, our relations, our communities, and our futures.”
I think that we need to engage with, value and take seriously the ideas, visions and actions of ordinary people, who are learning, organizing and acting in daily struggles for social change. This does not mean romanticizing or viewing them uncritically through rose-coloured glasses. But rather than coming in from the outside as experts or saviours, whether of the academic or NGO varieties, it is often from listening to ordinary people’s lives and learning from their struggles and from marginalized perspectives within communities and society, that we come to see positions, demands and ideas which name, confront and challenge broader power relations and social inequalities. Engaging with the learning and knowledge produced in these daily, often mundane struggles – whether or not we consider these to be ‘activism” requires reflexivity and a willingness to debate ideas, learn from the past, organize and take action. And above all to listen to people’s experiences.
A critical understanding of history can help deepen and sharpen our analysis of power relations and remind us that organizing and building collective struggle changes things, but that change does not usually happen spontaneously or overnight. Reconnecting with history, and creating and supporting opportunities for younger generations to learn from the experiences and reflections of an earlier generation does not meant living in the past. It is one part of a process of looking back to move forward. Indeed, it might help us to move forward with the desperate optimism which is surely needed to challenge and transform existing power relations and address the causes of today’s ecological, social and economic crises, not just the symptoms. To quote two US feminist scholars and activists, Rose Brewer and Walda Katz-Fishman: “Without a big picture understanding of the state we are in we will never get to where we need to go. Whenever our struggles converged into a powerful movement, it was because people united theory and practice–they acted, reflected, and were intentional about the intellectual and subjective side of the movement as well as the action side” I am struck by the commitment of many friends in South Africa to revisit ideas and resources from earlier periods of struggle to think through their possible relevance to today, and to continue to develop approaches to popular education and community education which rest on the shoulders of the rich and diverse education and mobilization work of the struggle against apartheid.
What people choose to do as individuals and collectively, learning from history and from each other, can influence the kind of future we can look forward to and indeed, shape. People can sometimes be rather quick to dismiss and label ideas and actions that they do not understand or disagree with as “radical.” To be radical means to get at the roots of something. I think it is precisely the kind of radical imagination glimpsed in moments of learning and action and engagement in organizing spaces and activism, including the tensions and contradictions, and the opportunities to reflect on all of this that keep dreams and possibilities for a better and different world afloat. And it certainly should not be a radical idea to acknowledge that ordinary people can think and theorize as they act collectively.
There are challenges along the way which we need to face. I do not presume to speak about the specific conditions and challenges in your communities and society. But these are both rooted in the specific histories and politics of South Africa but also tied back to global capitalism, and systems of domination which people continue to struggle against across the world, South and North. Neoliberal policies – the embrace of free market economics- has transformed many societies in multiple ways. These have led to privatized water, electricity, out-sourcing, the spread of precarious employment and unemployment and have further increased the gap between the rich and the poor in countries of the South and the North. But as York University’s David McNally notes, neoliberalism was more than just a set of policies imposed from above. It has “also involved molecular transformations at the most basic levels of everyday life. Senses of self, ways of relating to others, and the organization of communities were all restructured. Essential here were the social and cultural processes that eroded older forms of working class organization, spaces of resistance, and solidarities.” Globally, since the 2007-2008 global financial meltdown, many governments have used austerity policies to launch an assault on wages, working conditions and social services while bailing out corporations and banks. These transformations pose serious challenges for collective action, not least for youth–“generation NGO”– for whom models of NGO or community entrepreneurialism is the most visible kind of social engagement on display. This model of ‘civic engagement’ arguably supports and reifies free market capitalism and neoliberal subjectivities. Such activity often claims to be non-partisan, apolitical or anti-political and encourages individuals to adopt these positions. While there are NGOs which do important and valuable work, questions need to be asked about what the spread of NGOs and the NGOization of social change has done to political space and democracy in many countries, and whether they have contributed to, or have undermined, the building of progressive movements and social change.
Sometimes we are invited to think that shopping, ‘liking’ something on Facebook, or clicking on a website or a link will bring about social change. It is true that technology – where it is available and accessible – can have many benefits. But we need to keep claims about its benefits in clear perspective. Social media is just a tool, and claims about its potential use in social change need to be viewed with a dose of healthy caution and skepticism. While there’s something seductive about the idea that we as individuals can make change by one flick of the finger, or that uprisings such as those in the Middle East were organized through social media, history – and our experiences – tell us that change is brought about when people get together, reflect, learn, and act. To do what we can, when we can, where we can. With others.
Where I live, when we go to a store we are invited to believe that the planet’s resources are infinite and that the enormous mountains of packaging we usually have to wade through before getting to whatever it was that we actually bought can somehow be miraculously disposed of without any human or ecological cost.
Not to mention the costs of producing and consuming the product and disposing of the residue. Our personal and political identities have become closely linked to what we buy and where we shop. Consumption has become a substitute for democracy, a replacement for emotional expression, and for political action. The corporate media regularly inform us that the consumer is the driving force of a strong economy. The adverts that we are subjected to every day tell us that consumerism is our duty, our meaning in life.
But from the moment we get up to the time we go to bed – assuming we have a bed to sleep in and some money to our name- we can consume and feel good about helping to save something.
Mass, targeted, strategic boycotts can be effective tools in a broader range of actions. But we need to do more than that. What concerns me about “ethical shopping” is that it redefines and reduces activism as a passive individual activity to be engaged in through consuming or not consuming a particular product. How do these actions advance struggles for the rights of farmers, and workers’ rights to freedom of association? How do individual ‘ethical shopping’ decisions in the North address colonialism, structural adjustment, imperialism, landlessness, or the poverty in the societies in which we live which ensure that only those with enough money in their pockets can afford such items in the first place? Isn’t it ironic that some of the very companies with the most questionable social and environmental records are now telling us how they are at the forefront of social and ecological responsibility and saving the planet?
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano writes: “Experts know how to turn merchandise into magic charms against loneliness. Things have human attributes: they caress, accompany, understand, help. Perfume kisses you, your car never lets you down. Consumer culture has found in solitude the most lucrative of markets. Holes in your heart can be stuffed with things – or with dreams of things, anyway.”
Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford notes: “The idea that consumers can exert significant influence over companies through isolated, one-off purchasing decisions is simply fantastic. Yes, our collective spending power is one of the tools we have to fight for change, but that’s way different from simply setting us loose, one at a time, to go out and spend money in a politically correct manner”. Unfortunately, social and ecological justice cannot be bought and sold as commodities in the market place or cooked up at home like a sack of rice or a packet of sugar.
Despite these challenges–or perhaps in part because of them–the first decade of the 21st century has seen major resistance movements and vigorous organizing for social change in many places, and signs of renewed struggles in other places. Not all of these forms of organizing are visible. Perhaps some of this activity can be explained through the idea that effective collective action is nurtured by what Alan Sears calls the “infrastructure of dissent”. That is to say, a range of formal and informal organizations through which people develop their capacities to analyze and map the system, communicate using official and alternative media, and take strategic action in solidarity with others.
I particularly like African-American historian Robin Kelley’s suggestion about where new knowledge is being produced. He suggests that “the most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism, where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do. Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge.”
In closing, let me reaffirm that people can and do struggle, learn, and educate wherever they find themselves. The forms this takes may change, but the importance of building and nurturing spaces and places for collective action, learning, reflection and intergenerational sharing is crucial to building, sustaining and broadening resistance. A critical eye to history is equally vital, together with an openness to valuing processes of informal and non-formal learning and knowledge created from the ground up–produced from within people’s everyday struggles and experiences. Indeed this perspective is necessary for those who want to link critical knowledge to action and for action to be informed by deeper historical understandings of how and why we are in the state we are in.
Claremont Main Road Mosque has a long history of education and action for progressive social change and a strong commitment to building a fairer South Africa and world. I will be pleased to stay in touch with you and learn how you continue the legacy that you have built here over so many decades.