Part 3: Making sense of ‘solidarity’

If we wish to employ popular education in order to ‘forge solidarity’ we need to have a clear understanding of what ‘solidarity’ actually means. There are many different understandings, ranging from solidarity as ‘humanitarian gesture’ on the one hand, to solidarity as ‘political relationship’, on the other.

The word ‘solidarity’ itself is fairly abstract and conceptual, with different historical roots. If we want to define what it means it may be more useful to think about solidarity in terms of ‘acts’ or ’expressions’ of solidarity.

Here are a few examples:

  • A group of unionized workers at a factory goes on strike, protesting against dangerous working conditions. Other workers at other factories, who belong to the same union, come out on strike, in solidarity. A theatre group acts in solidarity: they make a play that tells the story of the strike. They perform in public places drawing attention to the demands of the workers, and afterwards they pass a hat around to collect money for the strike fund.

  • Students occupy a building vowing to remain there until their demands are met. They organize all-night seminars and discussions. Invited lecturers run the ‘teach-ins’ sessions; tutors offer their services coaching students with their work. An outside group of people prepare and bring food in support of the students and as an act of solidarity.

  • An organization calls for support: they campaign against abuse or for a particular cause and invite you to add your name to a list of supporters on the internet, by clicking on a link.

  • Members of a political party attack the homes of a rival party. Both groups live under conditions of extreme poverty. Already, a number of houses has been set alight in the night, and people have got injured and even killed. A group of middle class women join the households under attack and stay in the homes overnight. Word of this action goes around and it protects them from further attacks. Some people ask: ‘Why do those women do this – it is not their struggle?’

What all these acts of solidarity have in common is that people have a shared belief and they act together in order to try and affect change. All challenge the status quo and confront power. But there is clearly a big difference between endorsing a campaign with a click of the mouse, and putting one’s life at risk of direct attack.

Some people would say that solidarity is simply an act in support of a defined group of people under attack – such as a group of workers, or foreigners, or women. Others claim it is a moral relation that demands active duties in response to an injustice. They assert that we all have obligations to act for the common good – because all people’s lives are interdependent with the lives of others.

How would you distinguish acts of charity, from solidarity? Cooperating and working collectively, from acting in solidarity?

The colloquium on 9,10 June on ‘Forging Solidarity’ aims to explore and clarify various meanings, practices and expressions of solidarity through engaging with a range of case studies from South Africa and elsewhere. It further asks: what is the role of education in these practices and processes?