Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Workers' Education and Political Consciousness: A Case Study from South Africa

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Workers' Education and Political Consciousness: A Case Study from South Africa

Article excerpt


Some of the most enduring debates within worker education have revolved around the question, who or what 'teaches' workers? What is the relationship between knowledge which workers gain through their own experience, and that brought by worker leaders, intellectuals or educators? What is the role of the worker educator: to promote a political perspective, or to remain ideologically neutral? These questions have been echoed in many different ways in the literature on popular and radical education. Freire's early writings (Freire 1972, 1974 and 1984) foregrounded the experiences of participants and allocated a 'facilitative' role to the adult educator; later however, in responding to critics who maintained that his early writings failed to address power relations between the educator and learner, he argued that the facilitator cannot be other than ideologically directive, and has a 'dialogical duty' to teach rather than merely 'facilitate' (Freire & Macado 1995). But how, practically and pedagogically, can the educator be at the same time both 'directive' and 'dialogical'?

In a wide-ranging study of popular education in Latin America, Liam Kane (2001: 155) agrees that the 'essence of popular education is that it cannot be neutral'. He argues, however, that:

... herein lies the contradictory role of the popular educator. On the one hand, educators aim to encourage independent critical thinking; on the other, in the midst of a collective investigation into the best way to bring about change, they will endeavour, naturally, to recruit people to their own particular point of view (Kane 2001: 162).

This debate in the popular education movement about the relationship between teacher and learner, like the debate over the roles of leaders and 'shopfloor' activists amongst those seeking sources of union renewal, tends to hark back to classic disagreements over the role of the 'vanguard party', often symbolised by a misleading counterposing of the thought of Lenin and Gramsci. John Holst (1999) critiques those within 'popular education', as well as social democrats more generally, for 'blunting' the fact that Gramsci shared Lenin's view that:

... it was the vanguard party that could overcome the limits of spontaneity; could form alliances with other organisations and classes without losing its revolutionary perspective . and could overcome bourgeois hegemony (Holst 1999: 410).

Holst argues that Lenin's position did not take agency away from the working class, nor did Lenin doubt the capacity of the working class to provide its own leadership and play an active role in the development of the party's ideology. However he maintains that Lenin viewed 'professional revolutionaries'--whether workers or intellectuals--as playing a key role in educating the working class and leading its struggle for emancipation. Holst argues that Gramsci too foregrounded the role of an elite of intellectuals (both 'organic' and 'traditional'), stressing the limits of 'spontaneity' and holding that socialist consciousness comes from 'without' the working class.

The purpose of this article is to explore the possibility of a dialogic relationship between ordinary workers on the one hand, and union leaders and radical adult educators on the other. My own experience of, and research on, the labour movement in South Africa suggests that the issue of the process of working class political education cannot be resolved in the abstract. The limits and possibilities of the role

of political worker educators or intellectuals are set by history and historical context. This is explored in more detail through a case study of a South African local government trade union. The case study provides instances of the roles, both of union educators, and of workers participating in workplace and mass activism, in creating class consciousness. First, however, it is necessary to provide a brief overview of the shifting character of the South African labour movement over the past two decades, and its impact on worker education. …

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