Challenges of the Winter School 2011 – August 28, 2011

KC JOURNAL NO 28 August 2011

Maria van Driel* discusses some of the challenges that affect the organising of the Winter School.

Khanya College’s 12th annual Winter School, held at the House of Movements in early August, was successful despite many challenges. These challenges are a reflection of the socio-economic and political context within which we live, both internationally and nationally. The challenges are also a reflection of the long road that movement-building still has to travel before a strong movement becomes a reality.

Challenges within the movements

Despite the advent of democracy in South Africa in the 1990s there has been an increasing realisation of the need for continued struggle to improve working people’s lives – the need for jobs, basic services, and a general quality of life that includes freedom from all forms of violence. The emerging social movements and organisations within the townships of South Africa have begun to reflect these struggles, albeit episodic and fragmentary since 2000. Although there has been a preparedness of working people to struggle, these struggles have not been harnessed to strategically develop a united vision to advance and interpret the struggle for social justice. In this context the Khanya Winter School has provided an important democratic space for emerging movements and organisations from Southern Africa to clarify political issues, strengthen mobilisation, and build organisations.

However, particularly since 2000, the emerging movements and organisations, have been engaged in internal struggles. These internal struggles are themselves a reflection of the rebuilding of the social justice movement and a new cadre. The difficulties of building a new cadre have been expressed in the high turnover of organisations and activists within the new social movements since 2002, and this has affected attendance at the School and the development of networks and mobilisation.

The College and the challenges of movement building

The college itself does not stand above the socio-economic and political processes that affect the social justice movement. Like the movements, the College has seen its fair share of staff turnover. The majority of the staff at Khanya are relatively young and many do not have the experience of anti-apartheid struggle activism. Although some had not even participated in the Winter School before, they worked hard and assisted the college to ensure a successful Winter School. (See also the Comments from participants on the School in this edition.) Khanya is not unique in this – the social movements and progressive NGOs are also struggling to find their feet in the rebuilding of the social justice movement in post-apartheid conditions. In this context the college understands the importance of providing an enabling environment for the growth of its young staff into a politically strong cadre, and to help this young cadre to find ‘their feet’ politically and organisationally.

Recession and financial independence

A key factor that has affected civil society, in particular non-profit organisations has been the international financial recession over the past few years. This has impacted on solidarity funding, especially from northern countries to organisations such as Khanya College. While this once again raised important issues about the college’s financial independence and sustainability in the medium term, it had immediate implications for the College as a whole, including the Winter School in particular.

In the past, the Winter Schools were events that provided modest accommodation for participants. Further, Since 2002 the School’s movement-building orientation drew on participants from Southern Africa, and this increased the costs of running the School. In 2009 the School was re-organised to be more inclusive and to reclaim public spaces within the city (see article by Bunyonyo in this edition). This resulted in the participation of hundreds more activists in the activities of the School.

Given the financial crisis and its negative impact on funding for civil society organisations, the College had to develop more innovative ways of hosting the School. Moreover, the College had to devise new strategies of resource mobilisations while ensuring that these were consistent with the principles of promoting the political independence of the organisations of the poor. Khanya turned to the local communities and organisations with whom it has worked with over the years for a solution to this crisis.

The beginning of a new model

Given the important role of the School community organisations, including home-based care workers, provided a creative and solidaristic alternative that has made the continuation of the School possible and holds important possibilities for movement-building in future.

In this new model local communities organised accommodation with local families for participants attending the School from out of town. This solidarity is based on local families sharing their RDP houses, garages and other available accommodation. The college provides basic food hampers for the host family together with air-mattresses; and local transport and meals for participants during the day. This has opened up new possibilities for training and political work in general that is not only cost effective but builds solidarity within and amongst communities and the social justice movement. For Khanya this is a concrete expression of movement building that holds within it the potential for mass mobilisation.

One of the important insights provided by this model is how to ensure that communities that Khanya College works with take ‘ownership’ of the programmes hosted by Khanya. To be successful, a programme of solidarity accommodation requires prior political work among communities as well as a change of political culture among activists themselves. It requires that communities and the College are organised, and challenges some participants’ attitudes and expectations about the need for hotel accommodation.

Members from communities that participated in the solidarity accommodation programme met and reviewed this experience of solidarity accommodation for Winter School 2011. The overall sentiment was that notwithstanding a few hiccups and the need to improve organisation, this has been a positive experience and has facilitated communication and solidarity amongst cadres across so-called language and ethnic barriers.

Understanding cadre formation

The School, as a platform that brings together activists from the entire region, provides us with an opportunity to study and understand the processes of cadre formation currently underway. The profiles of organisations and participants who attend the School need to be more consistently monitored to provide insight into movement-building and shape Khanya’s programme work – as well as that of all organisations committed to movement building. For instance, in 2010, a total of 338 activists attended the School’s closed events, and they represented 148 organisations. In 2011, a total of 359 participants (200 women and 159 men) representing a total of 190 organisations attended the School. An analysis of this group shows that women were the majority, consistent with their overall membership of the social movements. The School’s participants were drawn from both the membership and the leadership of organisations.

Much more detailed analysis of the profile of participants needs to be undertaken to deepen our understanding of cadre formation. The School provides a large base to follow-up on organisations and participants, their sectors, their issues and sources for the high turnover or longevity of organisations, amongst others. In future Khanya will monitor the participants and organisations more closely, to understand cadre formation and movement-building.

Popular education

Organising the School using a popular education methodology to ensure democratic participation and responsibility has many challenges. These include the large numbers of participants, space and time considerations, facilitators, course content and materials. Moreover, the participants have different levels of political development and experience, and their organisations are at different levels of growth and development.

Bringing other organisations into organising the School

The struggle for ensuring that communities take ownership of the School and other Khanya events is being extended to other fraternal organisations and sympathisers. Besides the Khanya staff, the School draws on the participation of volunteers and activist educators from the social movements and fraternal NGOs.

The 2011 School also brought Khanya into contact with a range of new organisations and individuals who participated in organising and facilitating capacity at the School. What this showed was that the School, as a public platform, also provides a space for the College to forge new links and alliances. These links and alliances need to be taken forward beyond the confines of the School and into the broader movement building terrain.

In the context of struggles and movement-building we look forward to creatively refining the Winter School together with other activists and the social justice movements.

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