Category Archives: Shack Intellectuals

Living Learning

Click here to download the Living Learning booklet in pdf.

Living Learning

Just two days before Abahlali baseMjondolo was violently attacked in Kennedy Road, the movement was in celebratory mood as hundreds of shackdwellers crowded into the eMmause Community Hall on Heritage Day, 24th September, for the launch of a new booklet, Living Learning.

Living Learning is the collected notes from an extraordinary series of discussions between militants of two key movements in contemporary South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Rural Network. When, in late 2008, they made the decision to publish them, these authors explained that “this Living Learning is a living testimony and a record of how we made reflections and distinctions about what we face in life and in our learning. Living Learning is part of a living politics”.

Living Learning captures some of the best of the life, thought and struggle of these two key South African movements. That the ANC and the police launched a violent coup against Abahlali baseMjondolo in its best known base in Kennedy Road is of course reprehensible and must be exposed and resisted – but it is also perfectly understandable, even anticipated, in the analysis that emerges in Living Learning. In the booklet, movement militants describe this lifelong 'living learning' as:

“a learning that helps us become questioning people – to the powerful, we become suspicious, we become trouble-makers and they do not want us to continue this kind of lifelong learning”.

The movement militants said that this 'living learning' is “is not about heavy things to be learned by us 'fools' from 'smarter' people. Publishing a booklet out of our Living Learning could also be there for those 'smarter' people to learn from the 'fools'.”

The 'fools' had been mandated by their movements to attend a participatory development course at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the Living Learning discussions ran parallel to that course as a movement-directed space for critical reflection. The content and the curriculum is nothing other than the militants' own identification and analysis of the connections between life and struggle; between the universities of movements and of academia. It's publication is a decisive demonstration of the reality and value of the deep intellectual work that informs and shapes the praxis of these movements.

Within the overarching commitment to a movement praxis of “Living Politics”, this deep intellectualism is a popular project not, as is more normal, an elite one that reinforces inequality. The authors themselves note that “there is this assumption… that when you go to the academic university you don't think about what you are learning daily in life, but you are just theorising and talking about the people. Education can sometimes destroy our struggle – when education makes leaders think of the people that they came from as the 'uneducated' ones, those who 'do not understand', those that we move away from. But if this publication comes, it will show that it can be different; that the people and daily life are included by us in our Living Learning, and that the work continues. And this is part of the thinking about bringing the two universities together. Perhaps we can talk of achieving the 'Universal University' – invading the academic one in order for it to benefit the people”.

The Living Learners gave their notes to academics Nigel Gibson, Anne Harley and Richard Pithouse, and asked them to collaborate and write some thoughts about what they read. The resulting piece, “Out of Order: A Living Learning for a Living Politics”, is also featured in the booklet. In their conclusion, Gibson, Harley and Pithouse say they “thank the comrades … who were part of the Living Learning project … for the honour of their invitation to write a piece for their booklet. … 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!”

For the movement-based authors, the booklet is “an invitation to the world to “take your time and read it”, you can learn from it, it is living – not in the distant past. It can generate and provoke debate and discussion, even critique”.

Under the current circumstances, inviting the rest of world to share in the project of 'living learning' is a matter of urgency and practical politics connected with the imperatives of a living politics. The violent take-over of Kennedy Road perfectly illustrates the morbid and stultifying regime of death that passes for 'politics' in South Africa:

“Our country is caught in a politics that often prevents us to search for real truth. We don't say that we in the movements are perfect, but at least we are trying, 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 these gates”.

Mark Butler
2 October 2009.