For the first time in my life, last week, I found myself on the inside of a conference being protested – the Sanpad poverty conference in Durban. Invited as a speaker, I had anticipated little less than an academic menu seasoned lightly by some social movement voices. Judging from the programme and location of the conference (the R1000 a night Elangeni beachfront hotel), it seemed as though a number of compromises had already been made in its organising. And, quite a few social movement activists and progressive academics had been part of the organising committee. Imagine my surprise, then, when on the first day I was informed by one of the conference organisers that a protest was being planned by comrades in Durban for that evening’s opening ceremony where the mayor, Logie Naidoo, would be speaking. The plan was to disrupt his speech and insist that he accept a memorandum from protesters. I had planned on skipping the ceremony entirely, but now asked dutifully what I should do. ‘Should we be inside or outside?’ ‘Definitely inside’, came the response, ‘how else are we going to make sure Logie’s forced out? We need a critical mass inside the hall to have an impact’.
At seven that evening, I took my seat in the hall next to comrades from social movements from Johannesburg and Cape Town. As the mayor began to speak, we looked at each other in anticipation. We could hear toyi-toyiing at the door. The organisers were rushing to the back of the hall. Each time the door opened, we caught a bit of the singing and chanting outside. I waited for a shout from inside. Should I start the disruption inside? I decided it was not my place. There were other comrades from Durban in the hall. At the back, three rows of placards silently went up. Still no slogans from inside. The mayor continued to speak. Failing to get past the throng that had by now formed at the exit, I decided to return to my seat and observe what unfolded inside a gathering ‘under siege’. After all, I had been part of many such protests in the past, but had never been able to observe the reactions to them from the other side.
Undeterred by the rising volume outside, Logie Naidoo finished his speech as though nothing was amiss and returned to his seat dignifiedly, respectably, untouched by word or hand. In fact, he received applause for a rather insipid presentation. And every speaker to follow would now have something to open jokingly with – the protest action quickly finding its accepted place in the understanding of civil society that dominated the conference. In such spaces, there was a place for everyone. And those on the podium had had their turn on the side of protest. They had now graduated to policy and the ‘real world’. They understood the position of the protesters and would abide them, but the ceremony would go on. With the intervention of conference organisers, Logie Naidoo graciously met protesters demands and left the ceremony to accept their memorandum. The ceremony concluded, with local artists cruelly subjected to performing the anthems of our modern ‘rainbow nation’ and ‘continent of rebirth’, while pictures of beautifully vulnerable looking women and children adorning African bush landscapes were projected onto a screen behind them. The protesters dispersed, the fine dining offered by one of Durban’s finest establishments would follow. As I exited the hall, the only sign that there might have been a protest was the sudden emergence of numerous security guards around the conference centre.
I soon learnt about the details of the demonstration from protesting comrades who also happened to be delegates to the conference. As we made our way into the banqueting hall together, I learnt that comrades were quite happy with the night’s events as the mayor had indeed come out to accept their memorandum and their issues had made the news. Their target was not the conference as such, but the mayor. I was chastised for not insisting that I be let out of the hall as the idea was to open the back door as many times as possible to interrupt the proceedings with the noise of the toyi-toyi. As we settled down to a three course dinner (including lamb chops and red wine), serenaded by live jazz, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Comrades from Johannesburg joked that the protest had just been ‘part of the programme’. It was time to start partying. ‘Let’s toast to poverty’, said a comrade at our table. We all burst out laughing and clinked away. I guess this was an uneasiness we would all live with for the week.
Over the next few days, struggle would be relegated to the margins. One plenary and a few working group sessions allowing for the experience of struggles of the poor to interact with academic theories and research reports, the voices of social movement activists present at the conference would most often take the form of testimony, attesting to the severity of poverty today, seldom engaging with the statistics and econometric models being presented and affirmed in the many papers being presented, unable to show the effects of struggle on the very nature of poverty and policies designed to address it. The structure of discussions (both in panels and working groups) also worked against any meaningful engagement, debate and production of new ideas through the sharing of information. Instead, academic papers conforming to traditional forms of research and analysis were mainly presented, often not engaging with each other at all but standing alone as positions on the various issues being highlighted in a particular discussion’s theme. The length of presentations and the number of presenters per panel or working group also limited time for discussion and debate, and there was little real engagement with the positions presented. With each academic paper setting itself up to prove an overarching theory, any experiences gleaned through the research process came to serve this end. In the few discussions that I attended, there was little interrogation of the ways in which academia and the discourse of development themselves reinforce and (re)produce the relations, theories and hierarchies that sustain poverty.
Tagged onto a series of ‘poverty and …’ discussions, social movement experiences and the lives of poor women were erased from the majority of papers, presentations and discussions at the conference. Appearing almost as an afterthought in the programme, social movements and women (and gender issues more broadly) were explicitly included only as appendages to the main discussions on poverty. Behind this separation of issues and conceptualisation of the programme is a more dangerous approach to the organisation of debate and discussion in society – one that confines intellectual engagement and practices to academics, allowing ‘the poor’, ‘the activist’, ‘the social movement’ agency only as givers of value to theories produced on their behalf and/or in their interest. In this understanding, activists and community members can speak only of ‘their experiences’ and not to any of the research and theories being produced about them. Experience is also not seen as ever being productive of knowledge or theory. Instead, experiences need ‘theoretical translation’, and this task is restricted to the academic. To include social movement voices, then, a panel was set up entitled ‘the experiences of social movements and poverty’. With the exception of the panel on ‘politics and poverty’, in which the big men of the movements were given platforms to play to their crowds, no social movement activist sat on any of the other panel discussions or working group panels unless s/he has also worked in some kind of academic environment. The discussion on ‘social movements and poverty’ was led by a comrade working in an ngo working with movements. And women were, naturally, to be discussing ‘their issues’ in a small group tucked away in a small room talking about ‘the feminisation of poverty’.
Asked to write a paper on ‘the feminisation of poverty’ by Sanpad almost six months ago, I had decided to work through the topic with a group of women comrades in Orange Farm, a place I have had a close relationship with since 2000. Through a sharing of our different life experiences, we were able to interrogate some of the main ideas (re)produced by the mainstream discourse of ‘the feminisation of poverty’. In our discussions, we also developed a critique of the ways in which mainstream processes of research and writing about poverty and their prioritisation of women as ‘the poorest of the poor’ work to silence the voices of poor women (and men) and facilitate policy targeting that provides minimal levels of intervention in the lives of the poor on the part of the state, donors, and the private sector, allowing them to claim that they are addressing poverty in tangible ways when they are really just ‘letting themselves off the hook’ by denying their role in perpetuating the underlying causes of poverty (which are undeniably gendered). Two of us were allowed to present the paper in Durban. While we were hardly able to get through a quarter of our ideas in the time allotted to us, we were able to spark some interesting discussions about, among other things, the nature of the conference itself and the ways in which research (particularly academic research) entrenches differences and hierarchies that prevent those directly affected by poverty from having a voice in the mainstream discourse about poverty. This related not just to the issue of women, but to the poor in general. It is disappointing that the richness of the arguments made in our session did not have any resonance within the conference as a whole. It is also sad that our critique of the gendered mainstream discourse around poverty did not find space within the broader conference as I believe that it is an important one to be accepted and responded to by those who claim to be working in the best interests of the poor.
More importantly, I believe, we were denied the chance to show a different way of approaching intellectual pursuits about poverty, a method that challenges the belief that activists cannot engage in theoretical discussions and that intellectual engagements are the sole preserve of academics.
As we found each other in the massive hall on the occasion of the last night’s social event, we joked, as comrades from Joburg, Cape Town and Durban, that we had enjoyed a holiday together thanks to Sanpad. Later that night, full on sushi and drunk on savannahs and wine, we finally found our voice, taking over from the boring band hired to play cheesy covers with our toyi-toyiing. ‘From Cape to Cairo – Azania’ we sang determinedly against the hotel security adamant on reminding us that we were ‘in a hotel’ and eventually sending us all to bed under threat of calling the police.
In the closing session of the conference, organisers congratulated each other on their ability to include so many different people and groups. Social movements were thanked for bringing ‘colour’ to the conference. And, I guess, given the nature and role of Sanpad, the conference had served its function – bringing together a number of ‘experts’ in the development sector to share their research and thoughts on poverty. How it had done this, however, says a lot about how all of us think about our different roles in society and our relationship to intellectual pursuits. By accepting the form of the conference and each of us playing our designated roles in its delivery, we were again falling into the patterns of engagement set up for us as ‘academics’ and ‘activists’, the former allowed to produce intellectually, the latter providing the ‘practice’ to go with the theory. While holidays in Durban might be nice, I think it is time for us all to start thinking about different practices amongst us as we try to shape our ideas and other weapons for the fight against poverty.