For the last four months I have lived and worked in Cape Town, South Africa as part of a ‘work-based learning placement’ for the Masters course in Participation, Power and Social Change at IDS (MAP). I am one of eleven Masters (MA) students scattered across the globe who are currently trying to undertake action research or learning projects to further our understanding of concepts of power, participation and social change.
I think the emphasis is on ‘trying’. Many of us faced challenges setting up action research inquiries or learning circles in new contexts; others struggled to keep focus on learning amidst the rush of action. Soon we shall each attempt to synthesise these experiences into a coherent, reflective paper. Wish us luck!
My focus has been on understanding the concept of democratic mediation. Those interested in social change have done much work to unpick the concept of power and reinforce its importance. In my interactions here, however, I see that our usage of terms and ideas can stick in unhelpful characterisations. Recognising it is useful to see power as everywhere, located in interactions, we still talk of ‘powerful’ or ‘haves’ opposed to ‘powerless’ or ‘have-nots’. We talk about ‘uppers’ and ‘lowers’ in different situations; really, are these identities not far more fluid and dynamic, changing over time and with different interactions? As a young British woman linked to a prestigious institution, interning at an activist organisation in Cape Town, am I powerful or not? Perhaps a better question is, ‘how am I powerful, in what situations and through what interactions?’
We often talk about power structures. This can be helpful: if you are in a position of relative powerlessness, this can expose the structural nature of your situation. You might then express your sense of powerlessness better, or start to explore how to work around those structures. It is important to recognise structural inequalities where they exist.
Yet this language obscures the dynamic nature of power – that relationships of power are affected by the interactions of various individuals, as they are by societal structures.
Previously I mentioned the situation of asylum seekers trying to access documentation at the Home Affairs Department’s Regional Office in Cape Town. With regular police checks on people who look foreign, and the risk of deportation, detention or fines if papers are not up to date, documentation is central to the lives of people seeking sanctuary in South Africa and other migrants. I have focused in Cape Town on understanding what happens in the spaces around the Home Affairs Department: where desperate individuals jostle with middle men, security guards and government officials – and others, such as myself – to get inside the office and leave with up-to-date papers.
Cradled by two oceans, Cape Town is surrounded by incredible marine life. In the aquarium you can see a controlled example of the vibrant kelp forests. Sharks, fish, kelp, sea urchins and phytoplankton jostle and feed off each other. Through my supervisor’s support, I started to see all the complicated, ambiguous interactions outside the Home Affairs Department as an ‘ecosystem’. Each element is sustained by and sustains each other, even if an individual aims to get out of that situation, or exploit someone in it. Each new interaction changes dynamics. Everything changes when a diver with a camera drops in, scattering fish and bringing curious sharks closer. I think I might be a remora, a fish that sucks onto another, swimming behind it.
You can take the metaphor too far. For me, it revealed something important about what was happening at Home Affairs. People’s interactions with each other were situated in a context that constantly changed through these interactions. Power dynamics were fluid. What seemed central was democratic mediation. Relationships appeared predicated on an individuals’ ability to provide access to something: a corrupt Home Office official; an extension to an asylum permit; inside the building; information about changes to policy; the wider public; or money. I was embedded within this ecosystem. A relational view of these interactions, recognising their complexity, allowed me to make better sense of what people were doing and saying.
For me, the concept of democratic mediation has been a ‘lens’ to shed light on these interactions. If I were to continue working as an activist to challenge injustice in the asylum system in South Africa, I am convinced that this understanding would allow me to design better strategies to increase people’s access to documentation and hold public actors to account. It would enable me to appreciate how any intervention exists in a complex, changing ecosystem, requiring a flexible approach. It would ensure I see everyone I interact with as an agent in this system, and understand how different actions can take someone from ‘powerful’ or ‘powerless’ towards mediating others’ access.
I have been fascinated by how an in-depth look at a particular situation, and my role within it, has revealed aspects of concepts I understood theoretically but not experientially. This action research placement has an invaluable opportunity to take concepts of power, participation and social change out into ‘the real world’. For me, the familiar context of social action around the asylum system and new situation of South African society, community and politics heightened my learning. I can’t recommend enough the experience of this MA as a way to deepen knowledge and learning. Only, maybe don’t ask me that in a month’s time, when the paper is due.
Jessica Kennedy is a student at IDS, currently undertaking the MA in Participation, Power and Social Change.