On April 15, 2021, Myo Myo Aye, a prominent labour rights activist, was taken from her office and taken to a police station for interrogation before being transferred to Insein prison.
An interview with Ronald Wesso
Mariela Arce and Manuela Arancibia connected with Ronald Wesso over Zoom to discuss his expertise and understanding of Feminist Popular Education (FPE) in Southern Africa and gather insights for JASS’ forthcoming new FPE Guide. During the chat, Ronald shared his personal journey with FPE, provided historical context and a current overview of FPE in the region, and shed light on the ongoing evolution of FPE as a political and pedagogical tool for transformation.
Mariela: Tell us a bit about your history. How did you end up in popular education?
Ronald: My first experience of popular education was actually as a high school student when I was about 16 years old in the 1980s. What’s important about that time is that Apartheid was still very strong in South Africa. And yet, at the same time, there was a clear sense that the system was being challenged, and that this was not going to stop until the system was defeated. As high school students, we became involved in that struggle. We participated in boycotts and fought the police in the streets and attended meetings and learned about politics.
The interesting thing about my experience is that the people who led popular education at the time were also my teachers. So, the distinction was clear from the start. One form of education happened in the classroom where teachers, both men and women, were dressed in formal clothes and taught subjects such as Mathematics and English and Geography. And we called them sir, and ma’am, and so on.
But then they invited us to meetings and spaces which they gave names like History Society, Student Forum and even Hiking club because it was a very repressive environment. In those gatherings, we would discuss the politics and struggles of the day. Suddenly, they were dressed in t-shirts and jeans, and we called them by their actual names or comrade Mariela, or such.
For me, it became very clear that that popular education was something quite different from the education that the system was offering, because in the process, it was made clear to me that actually, popular education exists in opposition to that system. When you do popular education, you’re actively resisting the education that the system is trying to force on you and to ultimately overthrow the system. Since then, I became an activist.
Mariela: Do you identify as a feminist popular educator or popular educator?
After school I became a nurse and a union activist, and later, worked for NGOs who were specifically focused on popular education. What was interesting about my popular education experience thus far was that while we supported women’s liberation, it wasn’t the central issue that brought us together. We were fighting issues such as apartheid and capitalism. We believed that these fights include women, but that they were not about women per se, and that women’s liberation would be achieved through these broader struggles. So, you saw yourself as progressive and supportive of women’s liberation, but you didn’t see yourself as a feminist because the starting point was not women’s liberation, it was black liberation and workers’ liberation.
For me, that change came at a very specific time when I started working closely with feminist comrades and feminist groups organizing communities against neoliberal privatization and outsourced cleaning workers. In those struggles, and from that experience, I began to understand that women’s liberation, firstly, is not going to happen automatically. If you are saying, let’s fight for black liberation, or for workers’ liberation against capitalism, there needs to be a specific fight for women’s liberation, which is why feminism is important. Secondly, without that fight, the others are not possible. So, the struggle to liberate women and to overthrow patriarchy is not an add on to our main struggles; it’s actually the main struggle. This dramatically changed my perspectives and how I understood popular education.
So, I am a popular educator that can share my knowledge about a lot of other things, but I’m not a feminist educator. I’m a feminist in my politics but I am learning about feminism from women. When I work with comrades like you, I’m not there as a feminist popular educator in the sense that I’m there to teach feminism; I’m there as a popular educator, but we work within a feminist popular education framework.
Mariela: The difference you are making is very important. Let’s go deeper. How does popular education differ from feminist popular education from your experience?
Ronald: For me, the starting point is the nature of patriarchy. Patriarchy is so powerful and embedded in everything we do, that if we don’t take a feminist position to resist and overthrow it, it becomes the default position. So, if you think of popular education, it is a progressive liberating endeavor. If you think about people coming together as workers fighting a capitalist corporation, or communities fighting repressive or neoliberal governments, that’s a progressive thing. But in that struggle, if you don’t make overthrowing patriarchy part of your starting point, then you’ll find that the system is so powerful that in that struggle, there will be patriarchal practices, relationships, behaviors and people. So, feminist popular education is actually about making the overthrow of patriarchy the starting point, and a whole range of things flow from that, because it forces you to think in a different way about almost everything. And all of that now has to be thought through the lens of pushing back against patriarchal norms, institutions, and practices. For me, that is the difference between feminist popular education and popular education. Both are progressive, but feminist popular education is about the starting point of women’s liberation from patriarchy.
Manuela: How did popular education play out in the region, and how has feminist popular education played out in the region?
Ronald: While we cannot generalize about the region, there are common trends in the way that popular education and feminist popular education developed in the region.
The starting point in understanding the region, I think, should always include the way colonialism conquered and established itself here. After the military defeat of the indigenous people, the colonists established a system of white supremacy and extreme forms of racism, which were built into the fabric of the newly established societies. The key political agent of this white supremacist, racist institutionalization was the nation-state. However, this nation-state also created the platform for contesting the system, so that the movements that rose in opposition were themselves organizing on the basis of the nation-state—making them nationalist movements.
The African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa, which is now the government here, is the oldest one and started in about 1912, five years before the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution created a global geopolitical struggle known as the Cold War, and these movements tended to align themselves with the Soviet Union. It’s very important to understand the nature of these movements because they not only aligned themselves to the Soviet Union, but they modeled themselves on the governing party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. So, they had a combination of Marxism and nationalism as an ideology. And this was also combined with a very authoritarian political practice and ideology. Therefore, they saw the party and the party leadership as the embodiment of the nation, and the authority that everybody else must submit to. These movements all became strong from 1912, after the Russian Revolution, through the 1930s and the 1940s, and of course, in the 1970s and 1980s, some of them started to take power in their countries. And even though the regimes that they established were not exactly modeled on the Soviet Union, the party practice was.
Now, why is that important? Popular education was seen as a threat by these movements because popular education has a very particular understanding of agency and authority. Whereas the movement saw the party and its leadership as the owners of authority and agency, popular education saw local communities and local people as the basic agents of liberation and the authority to which activists should answer. You can immediately understand that there was conflict around this. But popular education grew very strong at a particular moment where these movements were weak in South Africa, so they could not just suppress the popular education movement.
So, what did they do? They tried to co-opt it by saying “we are all for popular education”, but actually, in the way that they practiced popular education, they changed the understanding of agency and authority to align with what these liberation movements wanted. From the 1970s, it became an internal battle in the popular education movement: Do we stick to the original principles of popular education, particularly in how we understand authority and agency to be rooted in people and their local communities and organizations? Or what we call popular education is actually more like what we then call political education, where people are educated in a political line that comes from the top of these movements? And that conflict fought out throughout the 70s and the 80s. And when feminist popular education came, you can imagine how the conflict escalated, because feminist popular education not only held that the party was not the sole owner of authority or/and agency, nor were local communities, but women were too, women in their local communities, women in their households, and women just going about their business.
So, this was a historic battle in the region. And it’s still ongoing on, but it doesn’t play out in a simple way of popular educators against party educators. It’s often an internal battle, because what these movements did is they infiltrated the popular education movement, and they then imposed their methods of working and thinking on the movement, so that, in the region, you have to be very careful when people speak about popular education. You have to ask them what kind of popular education they are speaking to. And specifically, who is in control of this popular education? Is it the central leadership of the union, of the party, of the NGO, of the movement? Or are the participants themselves in control of this education? And their answer will tell you where they stand on this divide. You can guess on which side I am in the battle. But actually, my side is losing badly. But the fight is still on, we’re not giving up.
Manuela: What are the risks that we are facing for this work? And what are some of the challenges?
Ronald: I think with any revolutionary endeavor or project, broadly speaking, you risk co-optation or repression, because that’s the strategy that the system uses to undermine any challenge that it faces from the people, from the oppressed. And the way it plays out in popular education is exactly the same. There is an embracing of popular education, of the name, the symbols and the language even. But in that embracing, the content is actually lost and undermined. And it plays out quite concretely. Like, you asked about my experience, I’ve been fortunate to have experience in a quite a wide range of contexts.
One important node of the popular education base of the popular education movement has been the trade unions in the Southern African region. And the way that it played out is that the trade unions embraced popular education because popular education assisted workers to mobilize, to reach that collective psychology of resistance that allowed for the growth of the unions, which happened spectacularly in the 70s. But that very growth of the unions created a platform for power for the top leadership. And everybody kind of knew that popular education played a big role in building the union movement into the strong movement that it was at the end of the 70s and into the 80s. So, they couldn’t come out and say “Thank you for your service, but we now want the power for ourselves, so no more popular education”. They couldn’t do that, because people had too much respect and love for popular education. Instead , what they said “yes, the union will now do popular education, so we will appoint educators and pay them a salary”. But the content of that education and its outcomes were now no longer controlled by the workers who were in the education. It was controlled by the union leadership because they paid the salary of the educators and the educators were accountable to them. So, it was still called popular education, but the power dynamics had shifted fundamentally in that the agency and the control over the education were no longer in the hands of the people who participated, the workers.
Another key institution in South Africa that was a base for the popular education movement was the churches. The Catholic Church was a big one and so was Protestant churches who drew on liberation theology that was coming out of the civil rights movement in America. When the churches also formed an important base, the same thing happened in that the church bureaucracy and the church top leadership increased their control to use the organizations and movements that were built through popular education as a base for their own power. And in doing so, they co-opted popular education and changed its formation.
So, what we have now in the region is there’s a lot of officially popular education programs, but they’re not actually true to the principles of popular education, they’ve been co-opted. The ones who are stay true, who educate in close proximity, close cooperation, and in support of communities in struggle, face the risk of repression and being dismissed from the jobs or being targeted – if they are women especially with insults and smear campaigns, threats, violence, and assassinations. And you know that better than me, so I won’t go into the details.
Mariela: It’s a challenge for us here to keep in mind that women’s issues are not isolated, but rather interconnected with the issues faced by the entire country. As such, all national issues are also women’s issues. How do you view this connection in the political aspect of popular feminist education?
Ronald: I think it’s a tactical issue. For me, the issue in principle is clear—struggles are intersectional because the system is a total system that oppresses all of us in different and similar ways. But the way that feminists organize and do popular education is not just about that. Feminists should strive to work intersectionally and should be in the lead of broader movements. Whether it’s issues that concern workers, communities, or the environment, feminists should be there and should be leading that.
But this doesn’t depend on feminists alone, it also depends on the attitudes and responses of other activists. And if those attitudes and responses are extremely patriarchal, to the extent that feminists can only be there if they are quiet about feminism and about women’s struggles, then it makes it very difficult, almost impossible for feminists to integrate feminist popular education and their organizing in an intersectional way with other movements. In those conditions, then, it becomes important to keep the feminist ideas alive, to keep feminist organizing alive, to keep feminist popular education alive by organizing women and focusing on women, and creating strong spaces and organizations of women, and using that as a platform to engage other movements. And it’s that engagement that may open spaces for working in a more united and integrated way.
Special thanks to Kay Stubbs for translating this interview