Understanding The Politics Of Representation in Practice: Two Reflections on Positionality in Movements for Change

By Asanda Ngoasheng and Kirsten Pearson

We are the co-directors of the Centre for Dialogue and Community based in South Africa. We came together as social justice activists, sharing the belief that dialogue and community building are part of what is needed to help solve some of the world’s most pressing socio-economic issues. We are middle class women of different race groups in South Africa, who are constantly challenged by our different identities and the complexities they represent. As women, we are disempowered by our status in a patriarchal society, but being middle class means we are empowered by our economic status. Our embodiment of different race groups also complicates the picture as we have to be aware of being in spaces where we hold privilege, and in ones in which we don’t.

Our work constantly forces us to engage with the ways in which intersectionality plays out at different times in different places. We constantly have to think about when to speak up and when to keep quiet, allowing other voices in the room to be heard. When working in academic and government sectors, we respectively have attempted to engage with the concept of missing voices, and build platforms for narratives absent from these sites to be heard; however, we encountered many obstacles. We both left our spaces of comfort – as a full time academic at an institution of higher education and as a deputy director in government – because we realised that the work we were doing at these institutions was limited by structural inequalities which left some vital voices out. After leaving, we had to challenge ourselves to build new methods of engaging community and think of ways to bring excluded voices into our work. 

In what follows, we reflect on our individual and shared experiences of the politics of representation, with respect to navigating power differences within activist movements. As the intention of this blog is to reach our collaborators, who often work well outside the realm of academia, we have chosen to write this piece using a tone that replicates our style of activism, one premised upon accessibility. 

Asanda: Challenging institutional hierarchies in the academy 

I was one of the founders of the Decolonising the Curriculum movement at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). This movement was a response to the call by #FeesMustFall activists for everyone to re-think the university and curriculum development. Students across the country were protesting against institutional culture, values and structures that are racist and sexist, colonised curricula, and expensive fees. They called for a new culture, values and structure of higher education that was inclusive of all students in spite of their race, class or gender. The movement started in South Africa but later spread across different continents – globally. 

I was a lecturer who supported the student movement and wanted to co-create the curriculum with students. However, I realised that the culture, values and structure of the university system was not built for student participation in curriculum development and research. Students were considered to be recipients of knowledge and never as creators of knowledge. 

Subsequently, I worked with a group of academics on a research project that sought to bring student voices into curriculum development. The project started off well with energised students, lecturers, and academic developers taking part, but we soon encountered stumbling blocks.  

These made us realise that, as a team, we had not fully thought about what was required to deconstruct power dynamics between students and academics (beyond helping academics to see students as holders of knowledge). We had not thought about the financial implications of seeking to create equality between students and academics. For example, we had to attend a national conference away from our institution and realised that student conference participation was determined by their supervisors. Students do not have standalone travel budgets like academics. Student travel budgets are also linked to the student’s thesis topic so students would have to be travelling for a conference on the subject they were studying to be funded. Our topic was about co-creating the curriculum together but our students were from the engineering department, so the supervisors didn’t see any correlation between the student thesis and the work we were doing. Our solution to the travel access inequality was having our student partners create videos which we played when they couldn’t attend workshops or conferences, allowing their voices to be presented even if they were not physically in the room.

The project also emphasized the importance of thinking through the physical spaces of interaction, as meeting spaces send messages about who holds power. Certain spaces send opposing messages to different people. We came to realise that the meeting venue we chose set the tone for how power was distributed. We could not use coffee shops to meet as students do not always have access to funds for lunch meetings like academics. The distance students had to travel for the meetings also had to be considered as they could not always afford the petrol required for travel or afford enough petrol to travel long distances for project meetings. Our solution for this was to think about our meeting venue choices more carefully and pick venues that would best accommodate the student research partners.

We also realised in the process of abstract and journal writing that students did not have the academic writing experience we had assumed they had. We organised in-person collaboration sessions to write our journal articles and book chapter so that we could share important skills and ideas at all times. For conference workshops we also shared our facilitation skills to our student research partners, as they didn’t have any facilitation experience before our project started. 

Although we did not get everything right, this experience did bring home the need to think through all power relations and structural inequalities that different stakeholders face in co-creation contexts. The experience also emphasised the importance of understanding the politics of representation and power as a dynamic and changing entity that could leave one with power in one situation and powerless in the next.  

Kirsten: Corporate power vs. the people – A reflection on representation of people’s needs in government projects

I am an activist in public finance and socio-economic rights, but previously worked at an agency of South Africa’s National Treasury. When a public servant, I wanted to better understand the communities we were mandated to serve. In my department, we formed a learning network in order to achieve this. We aimed to build local networks that could support inclusive economic development. The network was made up of government officials, civil society activists, entrepreneurs, corporate players, and community leaders. At the learning network we regularly created platforms to educate all participants about different policies we were developing, and in global best practice for building local economies. We also created opportunities for all to visit project sites, communities,  and business-incubators. 

While running the network, we found that it was a challenge within institutional structures to get approval for expenses that would enable non-government officials to attend. Although the network gained a good reputation, sometimes invited participants were already disillusioned from previous negative experiences of working with government officials. For example, invitees from non-profit organisations would highlight that in some instances government’s public participation processes are regarded by communities as a rubber-stamping exercise rather than genuine engagement and that certain development projects, had not been to the benefit of communities. We had to be very intentional about not creating expectations that we could not fulfil. We also had to find ways to actively improve our practise based on insights gained in the network. We also learnt to listen to both what was said and ‘unsaid’ and constantly check how power dynamics were impacting different stakeholders’ ability to participate. 

We made use of facilitation techniques such as the World Cafe method as it allowed all voices to be present. This method allows for different participants to host a table each which leads to changing leadership. It also allows for different tables to tackle the same topic from different angles or different topics per table. Its facilitation styles prioritises hearing all voices of people present in the room. A group of regular attendees organically became the leadership of the network and would encourage others to attend. We emphasised excellence in our practice, and this drew people in. For example, learning network members who worked at Statistics South Africa were amongst the hosts of the first ever United Nations World Data Forum, which was held in Cape Town, South Africa. We also actively encouraged people to leave institutional titles at the door which allowed for some deconstruction of hierarchical structures. However, we were not always able to achieve a level playing field 

We understood that the location of the meeting venue would determine who could attend so we rotated the workshops between spaces and provinces. This allowed for cross-pollination of practice, as people would come to learn about best practices in the host city and go back to their city and give feedback to their peers, allowing them to think about what to implement in their city.  Travel costs unfortunately prevented some members from participating so we had to rely on technology (Skype or web streaming) for remote attendance. We also thought carefully about our venue choices and as far as possible, and chose to use university venues, government meeting rooms and project sites instead of hotel venues. This experience highlighted the importance of thinking through all potential obstacles to full participation to allow for as wide a range of representation as possible.

Concluding Thoughts

We both have improved our knowledge of how to navigate the power we do have with awareness, while simultaneously attempting to deconstruct the power that we don’t have. Deconstruction can be difficult and requires vulnerability and strength. As activists, we get a lot of rebuffs from people who are in positions of power, and get challenged -especially in male-dominated environments. It becomes important therefore to make connections across the boundaries of representation, between the ‘representer’ and ‘represented’.

In this work it is critical to be self-reflexive, intentional and hyper-aware of your positionality at all times. We are constantly engaging with our practices and the potential harm we may cause daily, and attempting to enact mitigation strategies. We regularly have difficult conversations about power dynamics, representation, feminism and social justice with other activists across the race, gender, age and class spectrum. Structural inequality and poverty in South African society is entrenched, so we have to grapple with it. Perhaps most important are the rules of engagement we created and constantly tweak which support these difficult conversations and also hold us to account. We don’t have all the answers and have not figured out the best way to deconstruct power and prevent the erasure from dialogue of those we represent.

Asanda Ngoasheng is an academic and education activist, based out of Cape Town South Africa. She is currently exploring the link between academia and community. She is also a research associate at the University of Sussex’s Rights and Justice Centre. 

Kirsten Pearson is an activist and development practitioner. She currently coordinates the Budget Justice Coalition, based in South Africa. 

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