Knowledge production in/for action : a case study of Abahlali baseMjondolo Movement.
Social movement struggles have generated an interest amongst theorists who want to contribute to the growing literature about organisations that organise and mobilise in recent years. Amongst these theorists are those who argue that most crucial in researching social movements is looking at learning and theorising within social movements. There is a debate about whether there is in fact any theorising within social movements, or rather external theorists present their own ideas about social movements. This study locates itself at the forefront of this debate with the intention to argue that social movements’ struggles are useful for understanding learning and theorising within social movements themselves. It uses existing theories of learning, in particular Communities of Practice theory, to argue that social movements theorise. The study uses Abahlali baseMjondolo, a social movement in Durban, South Africa, to engage with the question of learning in social movements. I conducted eight interviews with current and former members of Abahlali, looked at documents generated by the movement itself, and drew on my eight years’ experience of working closely with the movement. The study is located within a critical paradigm and is written within the Marxist theory of social movements, hence it sees Abahlali’s struggle as being about confronting systems of power. It is a struggle that rests on issues of equality, justice and social transformation where the rights of being human and rights to place and to a decent life take priority. Critically important is that this struggle is a school through which its members derive new meanings and power to engage their reality. The study shows that this struggle is not elite driven or externally manipulated but that organising and mobilising take place from the ground up. What is striking in this study is that Abahlali’s struggle is part of their practice of theorising. In their struggle, Abahlali have produced a phenomenon based on their lived experience and theoretical framing called Ubuhlalism. However, using the Community of Practice theory, the study presents significant shifts in Abahlali’s practice and theory-making processes over time.