Elijah Kodisang* reflects on the Winter School.
Over the last 12 years the Winter School has been an important point of convergence for organisations as a platform for debate, discussion, political theory, skills workshops, networking and building solidarity. The Winter School is also an opportunity for the development of regional solidarity, popular democracy, mobilisation and learning from one another.
The Winter Schools of 2009 and 2010 analysed both the global economic crisis, and crisis of resistance. These themes enabled the School to critically examine why the working class has been unable to defend itself against the decline in its living standards, and in many instances against the closure of democratic spaces in many countries.
The global economic and financial crisis that erupted in 2007–2008, arose from the globalisation of production and finance over the past 25 years. The response of the ruling classes have been to shift the burden of the crisis on to the working class through amongst others; the restructuring of state assets, cuts in public expenditure, increased taxation, privatisation of basic services, attacks on workers’ pensions, other social benefits and unemployment. This in effect has resulted in the consistent transfer of wealth to a tiny elite.
Ruling classes and political elites have used the economic disaster they created as an opportunity to impoverish the working class, and the poor in general. Governments in Europe are still bailing out banks and shifting this debt on to the rest of society.
The working class and the crisis of resistance
While the working class and the poor are forced to struggle under the current economic and social conditions of impoverishment, they have been unable to stop the decline in living standards. In many instances the working class has also not been able to rebuild and replenish its organisations and its resources.
It is important to note that the decline in levels of mobilisation and organising actually took place before the current global economic crisis. Social movements that emerged around 2000 in the region reached their peak, in terms of levels of organisation and mass support, before a period of protracted decline set in. This decline can be seen in the struggle to maintain the Regional Social forum as a vibrant space for movement building.
The new and young leadership thrown up by the social movements did not have time to develop a clear theory about the nature of the present period, and what it means to build an organisation in such a context. The emerging movements have yet to learn how to sustain their organisations in a period of political decline. They have yet to discover a strategy of building a new cadre in this period. For many popular movements there is a strategic traffic jam; the movements have no immediate or medium to long-term strategy of how to turn around the cycle of decline and weakness. At the same time there is rising anger, preparedness to struggle and dissatisfaction amongst the poor.
The Winter School in 2011
The first event of the Winter School was the Conference on Radical Political Economy, hosted by the Khanya Journal, a project of the College. The Conference focussed on the Environment, COP 17 and Resistance. The proceedings and papers of this Conference will form the basis of the last edition of the Journal in 2011.
The Conference had a strong focus on issues of climate change and an exploration of how social movements can be built around issues of climate justice. This informed the Winter School as a whole, including the NGO/CBO Fair, and the Skills for Resistance workshops and the Networks for developing strategies for movement building (see the Programme of the School in this edition). Through the Skills workshops the participants focused on concrete issues facing movement building, such as making a banner for their community struggles, using the law to mobilise and organise people, and using theatre as a means to debate issues.
The Networks firstly looked at the need for clarity of analysis of the current period and the sources of the problem. They then focused on the need for clear perspectives how to re-unite and rebuild the working class, the poor and their allies. They also looked at the need to strengthen its resistance in the context of current challenges. In doing so, the Networks also examined what constituted elements of strategies. In doing so the school attempted to highlight the particular popular education methodology developed by Latin American activist, Paolo Freire. Freire developed the methodology as part of the struggle of oppressed people, of working people, for liberation.
Although discussions in the Networks were initially uneven, once activists grew in confidence, they were generally able to participate and exchange information based on the experience in their communities. There seems to be a significant change in the composition of leading groups within the social movements with new layers of activists taking over organising initiatives in communities but this needs to be followed up more closely. The uneven nature of discussions in the Networks and the fact that many do not have organisations that anchors them outside the school shows the depth of the challenges faced by the new and young leadership of the movements. It is also clear that more consistent political work needs to be done to consolidate the leading groups of social movements.
There was a lot of experimentation with many new ideas and methods in attempting to deal with the political tasks of movement building. The school will need to continue to explore popular education as a method of movement building. We will also continue to explore the meaning of popular education. Popular education moves from a premise that the concrete experiences and material interests of people in communities of resistance and struggle; share a collectively produced pedagogy; and seek to link education with social action. While the 2011 School faced many difficult challenges, however, it is yet another step in building movements in Southern Africa.