Shirley Walters – Professor Emerita of Adult and Continuing Education and founding Director of Division for Lifelong Learning at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa and PIMA President
“We may be in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat!” was the assertion from a community activist from a working-class area in Cape Town. We are all under `lockdown` during Novel Corona Virus pandemic – the virus does not differentiate between rich and poor, women or men – we are all vulnerable to COVID-19 which may cause ill health and possible death.
To keep safe, we are told to practice social distancing, wash hands frequently, and wear face masks when we leave home. For the middle classes, the instructions are relatively easy to follow. For poor and working-class people, who are by far the majority, they are ludicrous. How can you keep social distance when 6 of you live in one room, or if you don’t have access to running water in your home, but you share a communal tap with 20 other families? How can you stay locked up in your modest home with no food to eat, or if you are enduring gender-based violence?
The pandemic, as with most crises, exacerbates the inequalities in society. The millions of people who live from hand to mouth under ‘normal’ circumstances are now desperate to feed their children and themselves. The schools and universities are still closed – to continue education in some form, digital solutions are found. This is a response that again serves the middle classes – those who do not have electricity or access to computers are left out. Inequalities become gaping chasms.
Within the crisis, with the extent of injustices and inequalities being revealed for all to see, a new social awareness arises. There are many examples of acts of human solidarity. One example is Cape Town Together, formed as the pandemic was emerging. Public health doctors, who had experience in the containment of the Ebola virus, asserted the need for an organisational structure that would mirror the Novel Corona Virus – it must be adaptable, invasive, quick-footed, non-discriminatory, learn on the job, be ahead of the game, continually develop ……. They recognised that COVID-19 combined with the lockdown would have serious impacts on every family in every community and that the most vulnerable people from poor and working-class homes especially would struggle.
There are now about 200 self-organising Community Action Networks (CANs) across greater Cape Town as part of the network. The CANs are encouraged to form partnerships across socio-economic areas so that middle- and working-class communities mutually support one another. The philosophy which underlies the network is that this is not charity but social solidarity – it’s in our collective interest to keep one another healthy. The network provides information, training materials, and resources to assist people to self-organise. Much of the organising has to be virtual through the use of WhatsApp and other social media. There is cross-generational learning as a CAN may have 18 to 80 years olds working together. Besides learning how to fundraise, how to communicate within the CAN and across CANs, how to distribute the food and other goods, how to continually plan and adapt to changing conditions, there are opportunities organised by Cape Town Together coordinators for learning across the network through weekly co-learning events using Zoom technology.
Within the broader context and in collaboration at times with Cape Town Together, there are a host of regular webinars on issues relating to food security, climate crisis, and the relationship to COVID-19, water and COVID-19, inequalities across sex-gender, class, race, etc. Adult learning and education (ALE) pulses through the veins of Cape Town Together and is critical to its success. It is a COVID-19 university!
While many of us are appreciating the richness of the learning opportunities within the crisis, as we do what we can to keep ourselves safe (and `sane`!) and lessen the burden of others through social solidarity, I am constantly aware that, “We may be in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat”. The cleavages of social class, which closely mirror ‘race’ and sex-gender inequities, are glaring.
In addition, as an older person, I am aware of age differences. As someone who has been involved in community organising in various ways, over 40 years, I have to acknowledge that the experience of organising remotely is taking its toll. I am ‘not in the same boat’ as someone younger who has grown up imbedded in the virtual world, who is adept at the use of social media and ever-changing technology – it’s exhausting and I long for a ‘digital technology’ free day!
We are at a time when interrelated social, economic, health and ecological crises are coming at us thick and fast – whether drought, bushfires, heat, floods, hurricanes, pandemics……Learning how to mitigate these crises and to improve responses to them to minimise the fallout is essential. A lesson we are learning in Cape Town from the severe drought and the COVID-19 pandemic is that ‘we may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat’. This has implications for communication, mitigation, response and recovery strategies. As ALE is necessarily part of all stages of living in and beyond a crisis, this lesson is critical for us too as adult educators.