Living Learning

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Abalahli baseMjondolo logo

An introduction to the new pamphlet by Abahlali baseMjondolo launched in Pinetown (near Durban) at an event attended by hundreds of people, two days before the ANC militia attacked Kennedy Road.

Submitted by red jack on October 3, 2009

Out of Order: A living learning for a living politics

We are poor, not stupid.
- Ashraf Casiem

The oppressed have been…reduced…to things. In order to regain their humanity they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. They cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings.
- Paulo Freire


In late 2007 the Church Land Programme (CLP) offered Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Rural Network, two poor people’s movements working in KwaZulu-Natal, a chance to each elect two members to attend the Certificate in Education (Participatory Development), a course at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. Abahlali baseMjondolo is a shack dweller’s movement founded in Durban in 2005 and the Rural Network is an alliance of rural community organisations founded in 2006. The Certificate programme is offered by the Centre for Adult Education, and is an attempt to keep open a space within the academy for teaching and learning premised on liberatory assumptions.

Abahlali baseMjondolo organised some very large marches in 2005 and became quite well known soon after it was founded. The movement and its leaders were quickly offered money by various NGOs. In some cases secret offers of personal money were made to the movement’s leaders by NGOs. This money was refused because it was clear that the NGOs wanted to buy control of the movement. However it was decided to accept the offer from CLP because CLP had committed itself to support rather than to control poor people’s movements and because the movements had concluded that, in its praxis as well as its principle, “It is not using the organisations of the people but working with them” “makes us feel as human beings.”

But there was a concern that very often “you get an education to suppress and undermine others for your own benefit.” In the light of this concern it was decided to create a space where the students from the movements could reflect on their experience at the state university and how this related to the popular university created by Abahlali baseMjondolo but shared by both movements. This space was called ‘Living Learning’ and it took the form of a monthly discussion held at the CLP offices in Pietermaritzburg. Mark Butler took notes and after each session they were circulated to all participants to be checked for accuracy. Those notes are now being published in this booklet.

Living Learning is not an academic programme; it is not a university degree – it is a space for reflecting on what it means to be part of two realities that are separate and often opposed. It is the space for trying to ensure that it is possible for comrades to step into a formal university – which is mostly a machine for creating and sustaining inequality – without stepping out of a ‘living politics’. At the end of the year the students from the movements were pleased that Living Learning had remained “a movement rather than an NGO space” and wondered if, after the experiment in bringing the movement and state universities together, it would be worth talking of “achieving the ‘Universal University’ – invading the academic one in order for it to benefit the people.”

At the August 2008 Living Learning session it was decided that it would be useful to publish the notes of the Living Learning discussions. This would, in part, take the form of a report back to the movements that had elected the participants. But it was also noted that “written stuff is powerful” and that, therefore, publishing is “a space to occupy”.This refusal to ‘know one’s place’, to accept the divisions of oppression that divide people into different types and then allocate them different spaces and roles, is very important. In the same month as the decision was made to publish the Living Learning notes, S’bu Zikode made the point about occupying spaces very clearly in the Economic Justice Lecture at the Diakonia Council of Churches:

Our politics starts by recognizing the humanity of every human being. We decided that we will no longer be good boys and girls that quietly wait for our humanity to be finally recognized one day. Voting has not worked for us. We have already taken our place on the land in the cities and we have held that ground. We have also decided to take our place in all the discussions and to take it right now. We take our place humbly because we know that we don't have all the answers, that no one has all the answers. Our politics is about carefully working things out together, moving forward together. But although we take our place humbly we take it firmly.

When the decision was taken to publish these notes, a hope was expressed that this publication would show “that the people and daily life are included by us in our living learning”, that it might also be useful to “generate and provoke debate and discussion”, and while criticism would be welcome, for “those ‘smarter’ people to learn from the ‘fools.’”It was decided to ask three academic intellectuals who had not been part of Living Learning but who had been working with the movements in various ways, to write a 'guest piece' that would include their responses to the work and stress that the movements “do not allow academics and professionals to be on top, but rather to be on tap.” It was also decided that this 'guest piece' would be checked by the participants before the booklet was published.

Everybody Counts, Everybody Thinks

Many forms of politics are founded on the view that only some people matter. A racist, nationalist or fascist politics takes the view that only people of a certain race, nationality, religion or culture count. In South Africa we know this kind of politics very well from apartheid, xenophobia and recent threats of a return to ethnic politics (what some people are still calling ‘tribalism’). A sexist politics takes the view that only men count. We can recognise versions of this politics in all levels of our society. An aristocratic politics takes the view that only people born to certain families should have decision making power. We know this politics very well from the struggles against undemocratic ‘traditional leaders’. A classist politics takes the view that only people with money count. This is a key moral foundation of capitalism. It measures a person’s worth by their money and fails to recognise the history of exclusion and exploitation that has made some people rich and others poor. By measuring the worth of a person by how much money they have it concludes that the system is just because the rich deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty.

A radical politics is always founded on the view that everyone counts, that everyone matters. The radical demand that everyone be recognised as important opposes radical politics against all forces that want to deny the humanity of everyone. Therefore the desire for unity, for universality, always leads to division and conflict. Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery in America but taught himself to read and write before escaping to freedom, wrote that:

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

This is well recognised in Living Learning where movements are, in the concluding session, thought of as an assegai (spear). Opposing an image of false unity that masks real relations of domination (such as ‘we are all South African’, ‘we are all ANC’, ‘we are all the left’ etc.) creates an image of disunity that matches the reality of disunity. This is not always welcome. One participant reports hearing a priest on the radio claiming that the people protesting in the streets have strayed from God, another reports being chastised for bringing politics, an acknowledgement of the reality of division, into a church. It is noted that: “Even though we remember the words of the Freedom Charter, that ‘the people shall govern’, it is clear that we are not the governors – in fact we are put behind bars if we disagree with what they (politicians and the powerful) want.”

But there is also a divide in progressive politics between those forms of left wing politics that believe that everyone can think and should be listened to, and those forms of left wing politics that believe that the oppressed are not yet educated enough to think their own struggles. Karl Marx saw this division between ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ labour as a hallmark of capitalist society, but it is often repeated in progressive organizations. Sometimes white people have thought that only they can liberate black people from racism, men have thought that only they will liberate women from sexism and rich people have thought that only they will liberate the poor from classism. For a long time it used to be that people who thought that the poor could not think their own struggles thought that the leaders in a political party should do this work – this idea is called vanguardism. This still happens - but these days it is often NGOs that assume that they should think the struggles of the poor. This paternalism can degenerate into the active denial that there could be such as thing as a grassroots intellectual – “some of the NGOs are always denying and undermining the knowledge of the people.” This is often mixed up with racism, sexism and even imperialism. This also happens in other countries. Peter Hallward, a philosopher of the political empowerment of ordinary women and men, argues that in Haiti the left NGOs are the acceptable face of struggle to oppressors because, while they create the appearance of a democratic debate that seems to indicate that the system is fair as it allows for oppositional ideas, the NGOs are not able to actually threaten those oppressors:

Rather than organize with and among the people, rather than work in the places and on the terms where the people themselves are strong...[they]... organize trivial made-for-media demonstrations against things like the uncontroversial evils of neo-liberalism or the high cost of living. Such protests are usually attended by tiny groups of 30 or 40 people – which is to say, by nobody outside the organizers’ tiny circles.

Most NGO politics is supported by governments and big business in order to persuade people to accept their oppression. But even when NGO politics is anti-capitalist it most often takes the form of a small group of professional people trying to persuade governments, big business and international organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations to be kinder to the poor. One problem with this kind of politics is that, despite how anti-capitalist it purports to be, it has no power to force its agenda. It can only ask nicely for favours. Another problem is that it often treats the people in whose name it claims to speak with the same disrespect, the same denial of their intelligence, as the oppressors it seeks to influence. Politics then becomes a debate between competing elites instead of a popular struggle against elites.

This kind of NGO politics is a professional politics and not a politics of ordinary people. It has often happened that when ordinary people have organised themselves and created their own movements, these kinds of NGOs have responded with fear and anger, sometimes even going so far as to side with states and capital against the movements. In South Africa Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign have been attacked by left NGOs using the exact language of the state. They have been declared ‘out of order’, ‘criminal’ and ‘under the control of a white man’. It is unsurprising that the Living Learning delegates have developed a strong critique of NGOs:

The powerful, including some of the NGOs, are always denying and undermining the knowledge of the people. It has become necessary for them to do this and to insist that it is only they who have the real truth, the right analysis, the correct politics – in their minds the poor must be given capacity building, education and training, political education which, of course, they will provide. All of this is to convince the people that they are not able to think and act for themselves. The kind of education and knowledge, the searching for truth that we are doing, is too generous for the powerful. It has no formal ‘syllabus’ except the life and priorities of the people themselves; there is no protocol to be observed except open debate between people as equals. This kind of education and knowledge recognises that, as comrade Mnikelo (Ndabankulu) would say “it is better to be out of order.”

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way and there are some NGOs that try to offer democratic and respectful support to popular struggles rather then to claim to speak for the poor without speaking to the poor let alone with the poor. Of course when NGOs do decide to support rather than direct poor people’s movements, it is up to movements to determine if the NGOs that choose this path are successful in their work. If the NGOs are not prepared to give this power to the movements then their political integrity must be questioned.

The problem here is clear. The real issue is not whether or not NGOs can make critical statements. As Hallward puts it “the real question, the divisive question, concerns the political empowerment of the people.”In his famous book on the Haitian revolution against slavery C.L.R. James, the great Caribbean Marxist who strongly believed in the political and intellectual capacities of ordinary people, wrote that “It is force that counts, and chiefly the organised force of the masses…It is what they think that matters”.

Material equality is not the only kind of equality. A person can be living in a shack and facing regular fires, mud, rats, long water queues and all kinds of intimidation from the police and have personal or collective dignity. A person can be living on a farm and face exploitation, racism and intimidation and have personal or collective dignity. A person can think in a shack or on a farm as much as they can think in a university. A person can change the world from a shack or a farm as much as they can from an NGO, perhaps even more.

A left politics that starts from the view that everyone matters and that everyone thinks, moves from the assumption of the immediate equality of all people. It sees a world in which equal people live in unequal conditions. A left politics that starts from the view that everyone matters but that not everyone is ready to think takes the view that equality is something that will be achieved after a long struggle. This politics is often able to see poor people as suffering bodies but it often fails to understand that there is a mind in each body. It fails to understand that everyone can think and that dignity requires full participation in one’s own liberation. In Paulo Freire’s way of talking this kind of politics takes poor people as objects who will later become human beings. In South Africa this politics is sometimes mixed up with the racist idea that thinking should be done by white people or the imperialist idea that thinking should be done by people in North America and Europe.

A Living Politics

Quite early in the struggle of Abahlali baseMjondolo, S’bu Zikode developed the phrase ‘a living politics’ to describe the movement’s politics. He has explained that the essential idea is that a ‘living politics’ is a popular politics, a politics of ordinary women and men. It is not an elite politics but a politics of those who do not count. It might seem obvious that any politics in support of the poor should be a popular politics but this is not always the case.

The participants in the Living Learning discussions are clear that here in South Africa “the party politics that we see cannot emancipate us and it is not our politics.”29 Against this they pose ‘Abahlalism’, an attempt to defend a living struggle against the stultification30, here called corruption, that so often follows the ascent to power. The strategy for resisting this corruption of a living struggle is “continuously trying to open spaces for our own thinking and learning and teaching at the grassroots."

Abahlali baseMjondolo have argued that a living politics must be a politics that is carried out where people live, at the times when they are free and in the languages that they speak. It must come from the needs of the people and it must be owned, thought and shaped by the people. It must be of the people, by the people and for the people. S’bu Zikode has argued that when a politics of the poor is a living politics, and when it insists on the immediate equality of everyone and that everyone should have the same right to shape and to share the world, then that politics should be called ‘a living communism’.

Abahlali baseMjondolo have long realised that in order to develop their politics of the poor they would have to think their own politics of the poor. This was taken forward in all kinds of meetings where people can think, together, about their situation and their struggle. After a while the University of Kennedy Road was declared, then the University of Foreman Road and then the University of Abahlali baseMjondolo. The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo has its own structures – the camps, all night meetings, are one of these structures. A delegate to Living Learning reported that the question arose as to why the camps were held and that “The discussion there made it clear that we do it to generate knowledge together – and when we do that, we are also generating power together.”


It is unsurprising that education is a central and consistent theme in this booklet. Formal education in contemporary society is considered to be a means to ‘get ahead’, a way to “privatise” the self by acquiring the skills and techniques as well as the languages and way of speaking to market oneself in a neoliberal economy. Living Learning begins the discussion of education from the other side, grounding it in the lived experiences and concrete realities of people who have been oppressed - excluded, burnt and beaten marginalized in post-apartheid South Africa. In contrast to the hierarchical system and logic of formal education, Living Learning begins from below and develops horizontally. It is learning that demands more than inclusion but requires praxis and the re-thinking of a real and living politics.

Most of the discussions start from the recognition that “Education is never neutral.” From Karl Marx, the Living Learning participants understand how education and capitalism are intimately connected. It is suggested that “most of what is meant by education is about learning to be ‘good boys and girls’ and taking our place in the system that benefits the powerful without questioning it.”36 The critique of formal education is also given a clear colonial perspective: “People who talk about the story of South African often talk about ‘land dispossession’. We can surely also talk about ‘mind dispossession’.” The Nigerian writer Ben Okri says that ““To poison a nation, poison its stories.” A class, a gender, any oppressed group of people, can be intellectually poisoned in the same way.

In contrast to formal education, the Living Learning participants conceptualize a second kind of education, a “liberating education that starts with the people’s struggles to be fully human.”Yet things are not so simple. There is also a third kind of education that appears progressive because it speaks the language of social justice rather than private profit. But instead of listening to the people, this education aims to discipline communities and even movements to try and teach them to become “stakeholders” in “service delivery.” This approach is often predicated on the assumption that the poor are incapable of thought – “they assume we are empty enough and stupid enough for others to learn what they decide, and that they will come and think for those of us who are poor and cannot think.”

Three key problems emerge from this attitude. Firstly it denies the thinking and experience in communities and movements - “when an outsider comes, with their own language and culture and agenda, they can miss all the ideas that the people actually have.” This is a serious problem because “the people are the ones who know about their situation.”Secondly this attitude often blames the suffering of the poor on their ignorance rather than the system that oppresses them. This emerges very clearly in the discussion about the response of a church to a spate of fires in the Kennedy Road settlement. The fires are due to a denial of electricity to shack settlements as part of the slum clearance project. But instead of facing up to this, the church wanted to teach people who have been using paraffin stoves all their lives how to use the stoves. The third problem is that any assumption that people cannot think for themselves is a form of exploitation that can even become a form of mental abuse:

we have our own ideas, and values and cultures but these are always being undermined and instead, the ideas, values and cultures of those who oppress us are pushed. The makes us, as the poor, to feel that we are not important, that we do not count or matter. This kind of abuse is one that really affects me deeply.

Living Learning also rejects the social scientist researcher’s claim that research is “value neutral” and that the researcher must separate themselves from the research. The goal of such “objective” research is fundamentally at odds with “Living Learning.” For Living Learning research is undertaken not simply to “help” people but to “be on the side of the people” which means, to work to support the process of involving everyone in making decisions about the way forward. Research must therefore be open to criticism by the movements at all stages. In other words, it is the human relationships that are borne of the research which become the property of the community not the alienated “data” for the individual researcher, that matter. Thus “development” must include the people who are its subjects otherwise it simply reinforces objectification and the hierarchies that make up ‘mental slavery’. For example the great Africana philosopher, Frantz Fanon speaks about building a bridge in The Wretched of the Earth. He says that if building the bridge doesn’t “enrich the awareness of those who work on it, then that bridge ought not to be built.” He insists that “the bridge should not be ‘parachuted down’ from above [but] … should come from the muscles and the brains of the citizens.”

Living Learning speaks a fundamentally different language from mainstream education and unless one changes one’s standpoint and “comes down” to the shack dweller and rural dweller meetings, one can’t hear what is being said. The great threat remains of course that once one goes to the academic University, one no longer has the patience to hear. This is what usually happens. The Living Learning participants have gone to the public university with something else in mind. For them reporting back to the communities and listening to what is said there is central. Indeed they argue that the ability to listen to those who are frequently unheard is the sign of a “well-educated” person. And the profundity of the Living Learning sessions that are included here is based in that dialogue. Indeed the brilliance of the discussion is so bright because the participants stand on the shoulders of a mass movement; they stand on the Living Learning that goes on elsewhere, in the meetings, the camps, the protests, the jails. As the participants put it “being well educated has nothing to do with good English or isiZulu, or with using fancy words to show off with. Instead of becoming big, it's about becoming small because then you can be raised by the people who view you and you grow in stature.”

The participants are thus aware of the ways in which the academic university encourages alienation from the movements. Academic universities often encourage an alienating theorization of poor people rather than talking with them. In the context of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa Fanon spoke about “snatching” what militants and others dedicated to the struggle learnt at the colonial universities and putting these ideas and practices in the service of the people. The discussion of the Living Learning echoes this insisting on accountability and the need to bring back to the communities (literally and metaphorically) whatever has been discussed. But the sessions also develop this concept arguing that one can challenge the academic university to become beneficial to the poor. The participants from the shack dweller and rural communities are gesturing to a critique of the Manichean assumption that one cannot be part of the two universities, the University emijondolo and eplasini and the academic University of KwaZulu-Natal. The people have often seen that once a leader joins the university they no longer think about the grassroots, and so the mass of people are rightly cynical. But Living Learning offers a different conceptualization based as it is on the principle of opening new spaces for discussion of freedom. This publication is part of that thinking. It doesn’t solve the problem of creating a ‘universal university’ but it is meant to generate debate among the movement intellectuals and the university intellectuals.

Each Living Learning session begins with a discussion of what the participants have found most interesting and relevant, connecting learnings and questions that arise in everyday life, in movement struggles, and in the academic course as well. Over the year one can see how this simply mechanism has developed into a rich discussion of connections. In the discussion of freedom and education (April 2008) they take a step back and connect some of the “big system” - education, religion, economy, government - that “try to keep us silent.” Since these structures are powerful, and since struggles and movements often corrupt the living politics that made them, it is only by “continuous try[ing] to open spaces for our thinking and learning and teaching,” namely continuously making connections—always connecting on a human level—that real alternatives can develop. Thus Living Learning is alive or it is nothing. In other words, if Living Learning simply became a slogan or rhetoric it could also be corrupted, turned around, and used against the movement.

They say:

Now, because I have been to the University, that I know everything – NO! We must not allow for the ordinary people to be made to feel discouraged. For us who have been at the course, what is important is the relation with the ordinary people ... We have not learned to use aggressive, bombastic, or fancy English words to make the people feel like they are less. Rather, we want to practice what we preach and to connect all the things we are learning with the real struggles and issues of the people here.


A key theme that emerges from the Living Learning discussions is that of the intellectual work that must be done to oppose oppression.

The Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci argued that as we learn to accept domination, we learn hegemony. Hegemony is the process by which “educative pressure [is] applied to single individuals so as to obtain their consent and their collaboration, turning necessity and coercion into ‘freedom’.” This is why Steven Bantu Biko famously wrote that “The most powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed.”Ben Okri was thinking along similar lines when he wrote that “reality is also a battle of contending dreams...we live inside the dreams of others. We might be imprisoned in them.” But although hegemony by definition is always dominant, it is never either total or exclusive. This is something that Gramsci emphasised - that hegemony has to be constantly remade; partly because it is constantly challenged. For Gramsci there are two types of struggle. One is when the oppressed do direct physical battle with the oppressors and try to seize control of the means of physical domination – the state and its police. The other is when both oppressors and liberators battle to have their ideas become dominant – to make their ideas the ‘common sense’. He thought that because states don’t have the resources or political legitimacy to always be violently intimidating everyone, progress can also be won by shifting the 'common sense' in wider society. This is the battle of ideas.

When movements are criminalised, and the police and local party structures prevent free political activity, the main struggle is often just to defend the right to exist. But once the state and local party structures have been forced to recognise the movement’s right to exist it becomes possible to focus more fully on fighting the battle of ideas in wider society.

In the Living Learning discussions there is a critical understanding of the way civil society (NGOs, churches, education, and even spatial planning) - backed up by the potential force of the state - colludes to keep people oppressed. Here, too, is a cogent argument of how this can be contested; how hegemony can be ‘unlearned’, by acknowledgement of what people already know, because they have lived it - “We see that education is mostly used to control people and keep power for the powerful - but we can disrupt this.”

The reflections on hegemony developed here are not limited to the state. The churches are also subject to critical scrutiny:

Christian education has not been neutral either. When some of us support the movements’ struggles in church, others are saying “No, we don’t get involved in politics” - but this is just supporting the status quo and it shows how we have been domesticated through our religion too. This kind of domestication teaches us to accept that how things are in the world is somehow natural, or how God planned it - so that the people feel they cannot act to change things.

But the comrades in the Living Learning space didn’t only develop a critique of how oppression shapes our common sense about the world. They were also clear that the poor must fight to challenge this common sense and to reshape it in a way that recognises the humanity of everybody:

it is necessary to fight so that education, development, even religion, come to be dominated by the poor...Wouldn’t it be an important contribution to let us as the social movements to learn and teach at the grassroots; creating forums of living learning that would be helping the people to learn that they are not free.

There is a degree of optimism about progress made in the battle for hegemony: “Another achievement is that we have managed to educate so many other organisations, ecumenical structures, NGOs and so on about a living politics. We have also succeeded to get rid of those who have been trying to use us and exploit us.”

Freedom (& UnFreedom)

Abahlali baseMjondolo, now working together with allied movements like the Rural Network, famously holds a heretical ‘UnFreedom Day’ event every year on the national public holiday Freedom Day – the anniversary of the first democratic election in South Africa. The 2008 press release for UnFreedom Day is included here. It is a remarkable document in many ways not least because, although it makes some clear demands like ‘Land and Housing in the Cities!’ and ‘Bottom Up Democracy not Top Down Rule by Councillors!’, it clearly commits the movement to a collective, bottom up and dialogical process of reflection on the question of freedom. This is radically opposed to the state’s practice of bussing people into stadiums to be hectored and lectured by big men on platforms.

The idea of freedom is central to Living Learning. An idea of freedom becomes necessary because of the daily situation, the daily emergency, of millions of shack dwellers and rural dwellers in South Africa - the fires, the lack of toilets, the violent evictions, the harassment from farmers and the police and so on. The quest for freedom is the human response to this situation; it is a situation that demands freedom. This is uncomplicated. It is a question of straight forward logic – this world is unviable and therefore people must rebel: “Our world is burning and so we need another world.”

It is also noted that “there is a difference when the poor say another world is necessary and when civil society says that another world is possible. We conclude to say that it is the formations of the poor and the grassroots that are the agency to make this other world come – not civil society.” This fits well with Freire’s argument that only the oppressed can humanise society.

But how to rebel, and what to rebel for are more complicated questions. The nature of freedom is also a complicated question. The answer developed here is that freedom is the self-organization of the shack dweller and rural dweller struggles, the insistence on their own agency and intelligence—as force and reason for the reconstruction of society—that gives content to freedom. Freedom “will come from becoming masters of our own history; professors of our own poverty; and from making our own paths out of unfreedom.”It is this vision of freedom as collective empowerment that transforms the struggle into one for a whole new society. There is a clear recognition that freedom is not merely a change in the relationship between a community and external forces like state, capital and civil society. Freedom is also an internal practice. For instance one participant observes that:

In many organisations previously, there was a tendency where certain people, especially women, were being undermined. At least now it is good to see women in both our movements emerging as some of its strongest leaders. They are not threatened or intimidated by anyone – even women leaders in the Rural Network are not threatened by an inkosi (so called ‘traditional leader’): if they know what they must say is good and true then they will say it. Also in Abahlali, I feel so proud in my heart to see the strength of women comrades – they will challenge anyone!

There is a complete absence of the dogma that continues to turn much of the left into a mirror image of what it seeks to oppose. This is a critical, democratic, open-ended and praxis-based vision: “We don’t say that we in the movements are perfect, but at least we are opening these gates; at least we are on a right path to search for the truth. We have a deep responsibility to make sure that no-one can shut the gates.” It stresses that collective reflection on the experience of oppression and resistance is essential to that praxis: “Our experience in life and in the movement means that we must always remain open to debate, question and new learning from and with the people.” The point is not to tell the people what to think but to create spaces that can enable people to discuss how and why they are not free. The notion is dialogical rather than hierarchical, and relies on the “damned of the earth” speaking for themselves.

This idea of freedom is posed against “the state’s logic of freedom” which is limited to “voting and some bits of service delivery here and there.” However it also becomes clear that many NGOs and human rights organisations which, often against direct requests from the movements, reduce their struggles to ‘service delivery protests’ as if their struggles were only demanding greater technical efficiency from the current system. The participants are clear that: “our ideas about freedom go much further and deeper than the way our struggles are presented when they are described as ‘service delivery protests’”. They insist, against the stunted and anti-political language of the NGOs and human rights organisations, on the right to define their own struggle and to do so in explicitly political terms.


There are many important ideas in this booklet, such as the critical importance of language,58 that we have not engaged with in this section. But we do hope that we have drawn some attention to a number of the key ideas. We thank the comrades from Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Rural Network who were part of the Living Learning project in 2008 for the honour of their invitation to write a piece for their booklet.

We would like to conclude our contribution by noting that towards the end of 2008, Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Rural Network joined with the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and the Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg to form an unfunded national alliance of poor people’s movements – the Poor People’s Alliance. The movements and their alliance face all kinds of challenges and the future is not, at all, certain. But Living Learning, along with various other records of the intellectual work done in the movements – press releases, films, essays, songs, speeches, interviews and files and files of meeting minutes, and so on - makes it is very clear that the movements have laid an excellent intellectual foundation for the next phase of struggle. If, as the radical French philosopher Alain Badiou argues, “a struggle prevails when its principles are clear” then the movements are in with a fighting chance. We salute them. Qina!

Nigel C. Gibson
Anne Harley
Richard Pithouse