As an undergraduate anthropology student at Hartwick College in New York more than 20 years ago, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) profoundly shaped my understanding of how racial capitalism is designed to systematically perpetuate poverty and inequality. Freire’s literacy and development campaigns in Latin America were centered on the idea that popular education and participation must be embedded within the knowledge systems of the oppressed. The links between popular participation in governance and Freirean thought, however, are rarely given adequate attention. My book The Participation Paradox: Between Bottom-up and Top-Down Development in South Africa (2023) demonstrates how Freirean-Marxist thinking associated with anticolonial resistance of the 1960s and 1970s has been watered-down and depoliticized by neoliberal discourses of local ownership, empowerment, and popular participation.
It is no accident that the language of participation, once associated with socialism, self-determination, and indigenous control over a nation’s resources, was adapted to suit the economic and political interests of the Washington Consensus and World Bank, which sought to “roll back the state” and enforce structural adjustment programs. The World Bank’s major publication, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? (2000) was based on material gathered in 23 countries with 60,000 respondents. The book was a plea to those in power to place the historic victims of development in the driver’s seat. To put it another way, for development to be successful the poor and marginalized must participate in decision-making that affects their lives. Who could be against the idea of listening to the most vulnerable? But the paradox is that the call for inclusion is part of a broader strategy of exclusion. Within this framework, the poor’s voices should be heard and amplified but they should not seek to obtain any form of substantial authority that could challenge the hegemonic order.
Participation:The New Tyranny? (2001) which I came across as a postgraduate student in Development Studies at Witwatersrand University, was among the first major publications to systematically question whether the international proliferation of the idea of participation paradoxically served to legitimate the interests of those in power. The ideas in this book were persuasive to me and many others at the time who wished to come to grips with the myriad ways in which people living in poverty were trapped not because of their own doing, but by systemic relationships of power. Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation took the debate a step further by suggesting that although participation is prone to manipulation and can lead to the imposition of plans from above, it is also a process that is contested from below. I was attracted to this volume since, like Freire, it argued that despite oppressive conditions, people nevertheless have the capacity to liberate themselves. Participation: From Tyranny to Transformation was among the first to make a careful distinction between institutionalized forms of participation and non-institutionalized forms—something that the literature tends to obscure more generally (in favor of institutionalized forms, those which are relatively controlled from the top-down or what may be called state-centric).
In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) jettisoned the “people-driven” and redistributive Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) in favor of neoliberal or market-oriented policy which perpetuates rather than challenges the status quo. The Participation Paradox: Between Bottom-up and Top-down Development in South Africa explores the dialectical relationship between the state and popular resistance in the post-apartheid period by drawing from a case of an exceptionally militant and class-conscious community called Thembelihle, an informal settlement in the southwest of Johannesburg. Mobilizing in the absence of a national counter-hegemonic movement, grassroots militants must negotiate with those authorities who create the very misery that they seek to challenge. The book suggests that in the lead-up to the 2024 national elections, it is likely that the threat to the ANC of losing votes alongside the disruption of everyday life through protest, occupations and boycotts will, as it did previously in Thembelihle and elsewhere, have a major effect on how this party and former liberation movement organizes itself. Grassroots movements and activists will likely need to reimagine their relationship with the state and other powerful actors if they are to avoid revisiting another 30 years of racial capitalism under the façade of listening to the voices of the poor.