Dalene Swanson

Lessons from the Penumbra: ‘Glocalising’ Critical GCE

On June 17, Dr. Dalene Swanson presented at Bridge 47’s North European Knowledge Exchange Partnership event. Dr. Swanson presented the role of critical global citizenship (education) in fostering alternative futures, the tensions between ‘the social’ and ‘the ecological’, and local and global, and on the need for reflexivity, reciprocity, and glocalising pedagogy and praxis. In her invited presentation, she raised the question of what ‘radical hope’ might look like when we cannot be assured that there will be a future at all, let alone multiple futures. She used performative narrative to explicate these conundrums through dance metaphors in her presentation, Chore(c)ography on the Abyss: Indigeneity, Solidarities, and Dancing the Hope of Possible Futures. We were fortunate enough to be able to interview Dr. Swanson about her presentation. The interview was conducted by Christian Bardales.

Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your academic and professional career?

I was born and raised in South Africa. I auditioned for and was accepted into the National School of the Arts and graduated from South Africa’s premier arts school, specialising in classical dance. After injuring my knees, I then went on to read a BSc in mathematics at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I completed my teaching qualifications there and then started teaching secondary school mathematics and drama in a multiracial private school in Cape Town toward the end of apartheid. I applied to teach in this school because it was multiracial, and because I refused to teach in a government school, all of which were racially-segregated under apartheid. I completed my Master’s degree at UCT at the time when my family and I left for Canada. I lived and worked in Canada for approximately 16 years. I taught in a Canadian school before going on to complete my PhD in Curriculum Studies and Mathematics Education at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. My PhD was entitled: Voices in the Silence: Narratives of disadvantage, social context, and school mathematics in postapartheid South Africa. ( Throughout my working life, I have sought to work toward anti-oppressive ideal. My work reflects my commitment to social and ecological justice. I also focus on issues relevant to democratic education, social justice in education and society, critical global citizenship (education), and critical mathematics education, while attending to the complex interconnections between race, class, gender, ethnicity and culture, and other constructed social differences, as well as the epistemic and ontological basis of various oppressions. These commitments served as a contribution to my research at the UCT, but also my PhD at UBC. I was asking questions such as: What are the experiences of students studying, say, mathematics, while at the same time being socially constructed in terms of some or other form of ‘difference’ or ‘disadvantage’?  As I see it, my research and my teaching practice have always tried to address oppression, inequality and injustice, and promoted anti-oppressive education principles and ethics. By way of decolonising (conventional) social science research approaches, I have also embraced critical reflexive narrative (or what I have also named ‘critical rhizomatic narrative methodology’) and artsbased research methods, and also brought in (African) indigenous onto-epistemologies into my research work, thinking, ‘community engagement’, and personal ethics in a reflexive way – all toward attempting to address oppression and injustice. In my research, I have examined what I refer to as ‘the social construction of disadvantage’ and ‘the pedagogising of difference’ in schools and society.  For my PhD, I went back to South Africa to examine contexts of constructed disadvantage, and have continued in this explorative direction in my research, often bringing arts-based methodologies and indigenous perspectives to bear on issues of informality, poverty, and injustice, and inequality around race, language and gender. After my experience living and working in Canada, I briefly consulted in the Middle East before returning to South Africa to assume a post as professor of educational research. The University of Stirling then offered me a position, and I have been in Scotland for the last seven years.

In your presentation, why do you choose to illustrate your story through photographs?

I was trying in a sense to ‘decolonise’ and ‘deconstruct’ conference presentations and do something more human and storied; something that gives life to the presentation and brings in more feeling, rather than a ‘Death by PowerPoint approach’. By using those images without needing to mediate them with words, I was trying to present something in a way that was both evocative and provocative. Many images were intentionally contrasting, to highlight those contrasts and be quite ‘shocking’, I would say. On the one hand, I included images of the beautiful flowering geranium plants I love so much, growing in pots in one room of my house in Scotland, contrasted with images of deep informality, insecure dwellings that have been flooded through severe winter storms in the Cape, South Africa. I suppose I wanted to show that within these contrasts we are connected, but also implicated in how others are expected to struggle and be ‘resilient’ (one of the most problematic words in our modern-day development lexicon). One of the research contexts in which I am currently working is the UKRI GCRF Water and Fire project. In this research context, the project is about working alongside residents of informal settlements in co-mobilising local knowledges to mitigate some of the climate change-related disaster risks they face. In these contexts, there is flooding, no toilets, and the conditions in which people are forced to exist is extreme. You need to imagine the impact of COVID-19 and the effect of state regulations, hunger, and so forth, on top of that. My use of contrasting, evocative images without words was to allow people to respond in the way that they chose to emotionally interpret the images and presentation as a whole, and decide what they want to gain from the presentation. My choice to present in this image-rich, narrative style was intentionally provocative to try to evoke different possible emotions and different interpretations from what I was saying. The performativity to the narrative images and the stories was to allow viewers to interpret and gain value from their own processes of critical formulation rather than my directing their thinking in terms of what and how they were supposed to interpret them. I think in being provocative, I was trying to bring issues of ethics, and any emotional responses to those ethics, to the fore, while also allowing for personal interpretation in reference to those images.

Can you tell me the story of some of the photographs?

Some of them were images of the plants in my home, because I love flowers and plants. I set this against the conditions that some of the people we are researching with on the ground in Cape Town are expected to live with. These are the residents, often living in deeply informal contexts, with which we are co-mobilising local knowledges in respect of the disaster effects related to water and fire. What they are experiencing is a completely different lived experience, yet they own such agency and knowledges. The contrasting images provokes us to think about ourselves, our life-styles, our roles in global poverty and disenfranchisement, and our responsibilities to others. One of the images was about a photograph that I took in the Kruger National Park when I was on a previous trip to South Africa and I used that image to tell a story about ‘killing an elephant’. It was a story I told at the January 2020 conference that Tanya Wisely and I organised and hosted at the University of Stirling. I had gone to see this museum in the Park that was actually in one of the bush camps and it told the histories of these elephants and the lives of different famous, tuskers that have died in the Park. A teacher with some elementary school kids came in while I was there visiting the museum. They were on a school outing, and they had to do some learning tasks in the museum. In one section of the museum, the displays explained about poaching and how elephants are killed for their tusks, what happens with the tusks, and how they often are illegally exported to a number of other countries. The teacher was asking her class. “Well, how do you kill an elephant?” She then went on to explain that usually they get shot through the soft patch in the middle of their skulls. Then she said, “Well, why do you think people kill elephants?” And, as I was listening to the discussion with the class, I was waiting for that moment where she was going to say, “Well, why should you not kill an elephant?”, but that never happened. I was of course taken-aback, especially since I love elephants and wildlife. At first, I couldn’t understand why she never taught the line on the preservation of elephants as an increasingly endangered animal. It was one of those critical, reflexive moments (what I have referred to in my research methods work as ‘moments of articulation’). I had to brace myself in the realisation that she and her students came from a very impoverished settlement just outside of the National Park, and that many of the poachers probably came from that same settlement, as well. I was looking at it from a white Western perspective: “How could you want to kill an elephant?” From that local perspective, the extremely high unemployment, the poverty, and the almost non-existent options that people have available to them to sustain their livelihoods and feed their families, meant that they get exploited by powerful international crime syndicates to kill elephants for ivory and body parts. I had to understand it from their lived perspectives. I realised that I was looking at it from a privileged perspective. While I still don't condone the killing of elephants, there's these different realities that we often don't realise are responsible for shaping the conditions by which things occur, and what it must be like to be in a situation where you don't have a lot of choices available to you. I used this photo to ask what kinds of global citizenship we are engaged in and if it is a critical global citizenship or a sort of whitewashed or greenwashed form of global citizenship that doesn't address inequality at any deeper level. These other realities bring to the fore these other knowledges, ontologies and realities that we need to contend with, and be open to understanding. Our responses and actions then need to address oppressions at a structural level.


Can you tell me more about your fieldwork and teaching in South Africa?

My research in South Africa looked at issues of race, class, gender, and the social construction of disadvantage in schools. In particular, it examined the experiences of students constructed in terms of racial, linguistic, and cultural differences in learning school mathematics in particular ‘evoking’ contexts. My current research work through the GCRF project in South Africa is not directly related to critical global citizenship education per se, but it has implications for how we do ‘global citizenship’ and global citizenship education. It is really ‘development’ work, even though I don't like the word ‘development’ with all its colonialist connotations, but it's actually working on the ground in attempting to address some of the realities of the majority world, such as complex vulnerabilities to increasing socio-environmental disasters. This project is being funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). It is about global challenges linked to the SDGs, in particular one on environmental disaster risk, and the kinds of experiences that people live through in contexts of inequality and informality while also facing ongoing, climate change-induced environmental disasters. It is about working together with residents living in informality that are vulnerable to repeated environmental disasters. These residents help themselves and their neighbours mitigate these risks using local knowledge. It is about working with residents and their local knowledge through coproduction, rather than telling them how we can solve their problems. They already have knowledge of what and how they are experiencing disasters and what they must do every time there's floodwaters, drought, or rapid fires going through informal and semi-formal settlements. So, it is about co-mobilising local knowledges and seeing residents as participants of policy development. It is about writing policy from the bottom up, and then also developing a democratic framework for how one can engage in disaster risk mitigation with residents of informal settlements and townships and through democratic and indigenous processes. Another thread of my research is on indigenous thought. I have written a lot on Ubuntu as an African indigenous way of knowing or being, or as an onto-epistemology. I have also written on how indigenous ways of thinking can serve to decolonise the uncritical, superficial, individualistic versions of global citizenship (education). I have brought this work into the GCRF Water and Fire project. It allows us to look at indigenous ways of thinking through a bottom up approach to developing policy around disaster risks, instead of treating affected residents as passive, as lacking knowledge, and that it would be acceptable merely to impose policy on them. Well, it would not be acceptable.


Could you tell me more about your work with the UKRI GCRF Water and Fire project and how this relates to GCE?

The UKRI GCRF Water and Fire project came about after I went to South Africa and engaged with different stakeholders, asking various questions like: “From your lived realities, what are the issues for you?”; “What research would be needed to address an SDG-related global challenge or a number of interrelated global challenges?”; “What would that look like?”. Having followed the ‘Day Zero’ discourses in Cape Town, where the city was going to be one of the first major global cities to run out of water, I thought that a research focus related to this issue was going to be one that was very worthy of pursuing collaboratively. This was because it was so relevant and that it impacted on poorer settlement communities differentially. The impact of the drought and water scarcity on marginalised people, compared with tourists or those living in affluent areas, was severe and life-threatening, including their ability to deal with rapidly spreading fire through informal settlements. I already knew that this was a serious issue because its being exacerbated by climate change too. A lot of these issues that were confounding the disaster risks were existing development challenges, like poverty, and factors that keep populated areas informal, but some were directly related to climate issues. There were several communities on the Cape Flats of Cape Town that were experiencing real difficulties in accessing water. Some processes established by the City of Cape Town further disadvantaged them, while Cape Town implemented a series of stringent water-preserving protocols. Some settlements have grown out of the marshland area that is prone to flooding, because there was no available land to build informal dwellings anywhere else. Basically, there is an absence of state support for these resident communities and as regards fire, some of the dwellings have been built out of burnt, corrugated iron recycled from previous fires, and they've just been reused and repurposed to build another settlement in the same place because there is no other land and no other available materials. The residents of these settlements are at significant risk to the disaster-related threats, state violence, crime, unemployment and poverty play a significant, complicating role in how this all plays out as well. It is a complex interrelationship between social and ecological stresses and how those work together to compound the risks. But, it is also what residents themselves do, and can do, in leading a social shift on making change happen from the bottom up. That is what the UKRI GCRF Water and Fire project is all about. The relationship with global citizenship is not specifically about global citizenship education, but we can learn much from these processes and the ways of engaging with people in solidarity to address these complex challenges together. What does it mean to engage democratically? What is key when we talk about critical global citizenship is to ask what the defining features are that make it critical. One of the most crucial issues refers to understanding power relations in respect of local knowledge, and about whose knowledge is deemed scientific or otherwise. Whose knowledge counts? How do we engage ethically? I am hoping that there will be a lot that can be learned from the GCRF Water and Fire project in exemplifying what good critical global citizenship could look like.


To clarify, what is the fire component to the project? Is it just bushfires or does it incorporate larger societal problems?

The rapid fires that go through the township areas can burn dozens of homes to cinders in a very short time. These open fires can be caused by somebody dropping a match, unattended fires from open cookers, or several other accidents within densely populated areas as well as from local bushfires. South Africa is an extremely hot, dry country, particularly in summer months, and because of climate change, it is becoming even hotter and drier at an alarming rate. South Africa is considerably more vulnerable to climate change than many other countries as a result. There is an extremely high prevalence of fire, particularly in the Cape where, every few years there are devastating fires, not only in informal settlements, but in pristine bush in surrounding areas too. It is a combination of all these factors and the lack of water and access to water that exacerbates these risks. I have heard stories from one of our participant organisations working on the ground, about a family where one resident told the story of how his pregnant wife and whole family died in a fire because the neighbours didn't have any water to share with him to douse the flames. So, these things are all interrelated and it compounds the effects of drought, lack of water, and the question of who gets the available water is part of that.  The issues are also of informality, lack of infrastructure, and a state that is ineffectual in being able to provide for its citizens.


During your presentation, you spoke of the Chris Hani assassination and the effect that had on your multi-ethnic classroom. You referenced this in relation to what you referred to as “chore(c)ography on the abyss”, the unknown tomorrow. How does this reflect on our current moment?

I told that story because I was trying to express through story a way of contextualising what it feels like to have to consider an ‘unknown tomorrow’, when you don’t know whether there will be a future to consider at all. The interpretations of the metaphorical stories and the ethic behind them are broader than what I was trying to explain when I was teaching in Cape Town. I was a young teacher when that assassination occurred, As a result of that shocking assassination by two individuals belonging to a far-right, racist organisation, South Africa teetered on the brink of political chaos, with the threat of significant unrest and loss of life. Chris Hani had been the charismatic leader of the South African Communist Party since 1991 and was an incredibly significant liberation figure. After Chris Hani’s assassination, the President of South Africa at the time, F.W. de Klerk appealed to Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison in 1990 and had the gravitas and respect of the people, to go on television and calm the nation. This happened amidst significant strife, uncertainty, and fear of not knowing what was going to happen. What was on everyone’s minds and in their hearts was whether South Africa was going to overcome this adversity or collapse into a bitter revolution. Through story, I was trying to convey what it was like to teach under such political uncertainty and in a state of not knowing if South Africa and its youth were going to have a future at all. Having to walk into a classroom and look into the eyes of young children, one’s own students, who were afraid and looking for reassurance from me; who were asking me what I thought was going to happen, was an experience I don’t want to ever have to relive. This was especially so as I had no answer for them. I was also afraid and I just didn’t know what was going to happen. These were children from across the racial spectrum with different relationships to this incident, and for whom the incident posed different possible outcomes for them and their families. I was not able to promise them that there necessarily would be a better future. I was not able to say “Don't worry, it's going to be okay”, because I was not sure then whether that would become true or not. I used this narrative as a metaphor for how we think about unknown futures, and what ‘radical hope’ might mean in this context. We always think that we will overcome adversity, but we cannot presume that we will; we cannot presume that there will be a positive future, or a future at all for that matter. So, the question might be: How we do Critical Global Citizenship Education while also not knowing that we are going to overcome our climate change crisis, the inequalities, and the current destructive, global political system. It is not a foregone conclusion that we are going to prevail. So, what does it mean to be hopeful in such a situation? How is it the kind of hope that isn’t just papering over insecurity; that isn’t perpetuating false hopes? How can it be meaningful hope or radical hope? For me, Hannah Arendt's work, is all about action. [She talks about work, labour, and action, but it is only action that can renew the world]. You cannot be hopeful without the necessary action that makes possible that which we hope for. The responsibility to make hope possible is action, politically responsible action. And, at that moment, when I faced my class after the assassination and before Madiba spoke on TV to calm the nation, I did not know whether South Africa was going to be okay. I did not know if we were going to have a positive future for the students in my classroom. It is fortunate that the country managed to overcome that particular hurdle, and soon after, the stage was set to open up possibilities of a new hopeful non-racial, future for South Africans through democratic elections that took place in 1994, which I am very proud to say I took part in. But, you know, there were those days during the end of apartheid where it could have gone the other way. So how do we teach when we do not know whether we are going to prevail over adversity or not? We do not know if we are going to completely destroy our Earth through gratuitous capitalism, greed, and extreme inequalities, and whether it's going to become so unstable that we aren’t going to make it either as a species or whether even the rest of our ecological systems are going to survive. We may be facing catastrophe, apocalypse, but how do we address an apocalyptic future without hope that is real and meaningful? I suppose that is what critical GCE is about. It is not just about being hopeful, without any effect behind it, because I think a lot of our teaching and schooling is like that. The kind of change necessary and the extent of change needed requires a considerable amount of hard work collectively before we can even begin to be hopeful. It requires engaging openly with ‘difficult knowledge’ too (to coin a very effective concept from Deborah Britzman). I think that is what critical GCE should be about: How do we need to think differently?; How can we work together in solidarity and collectively to make change possible in order to make an alternate world possible?


What do you think a positive outcome of this could be?

Now, what we can do is make it possible for young and older people, through intergenerational collaborations, to make change happen by fostering ways of being informed so that we know what the actions are to make possible, effective change, but to do so by working collectively in a democratic way. This is so we do open up alternative futures; so that we do make possible conditions leading to greater meaningfulness and hopefulness; so that we do open up ‘ecologies of hope’ that allow for meaningful change that can happen through our collective actions in true, meaningful solidarity with each other.


You have mentioned that the Rhodes Must Fall movement started at the University of Cape Town years ago. What does this show about global connectivity in relation to the decolonising movement?

The Rhodes Must Fall movement in the UK (particularly in Oxford) has only recently made national headlines in the way it has since the death of George Floyd in the US, but it started in South Africa on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus back in 2015. Despite a new democratic constitution for South Africa, which is amongst the most democratically ‘progressive’ in the world, we still live with the legacy of apartheid. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign was part of a decolonising or anti-colonial movement started by students on the UCT campus, before spreading. On the campus, there was a Cecil John Rhodes statue as he had ‘bestowed’ the land on which the university is built. Students at UCT asked, “Why do we still have the statue of a colonialist on this campus”?  The Rhodes Must Fall movement emerged, and the statue was later removed. There was extensive student action and it spread to several other South African universities. The slogans started to encompass other socio-political issues, namely “Zuma Must Fall”,  “Fees Must Fall”, even “Science Must Fall'', as it became a youth movement across the country. A recent BBC news piece relating to protests at the University of Oxford about a Rhodes statue there did not identify the origins of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. There were scenes of protestors holding up “Rhodes Must Fall” banners, yet a complete erasure of the history behind it, and the global interconnections, no acknowledgement that it originated at UCT. It was ahistorical. It was a continuation of colonialism. So, in other words, the Global South can never ever lead or be perceived to lead on anything, even if it is social justice change. It is those kinds of injustices that abound. These were students leading the way from the Global South, but the questions that arise from it are whether people are going to be open to views from the Global South; whether the Global South can lead on ways of changing the world, on opening up those possibilities for meaningful hope. We are going to have to think completely outside of our current systems. Gratuitous capitalism cannot carry on propping up dysfunctional systems, and in the same way, colonialism cannot carry on in this way, generation after generation. This systematic dysfunctionality has really been exposed in recent times. When is there going to be proper recognition that the South can actually lead on these things, or is it going to keep on being erased from history?


How do you think you've implemented GCE in your work over the years?

I have always been involved in anti-racist, anti-oppressive research, and I have had a strong ethical and academic commitment to social and ecological justice. That has been the predominant focus of my research. It's also been an orientation to my practice, teaching, and my teacher education practice as well. Back in 2004, I was involved with some colleagues who were leading on the development of a transnational, transdisciplinary course on global citizenship at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. The concept of ‘global citizenship’ was relatively new at the time. The course was the first of its kind and while hosted by UBC, it was offered through Universitas21 consortium of universities, with universities across the world participating. We also had facilitators from different parts of the world. Some of the focus areas on the course were things like, multi-nationalism, supra and super nationalisms, multiculturalism, global health, global poverty, the role of the media, and environmental sustainability. Students were also called to action to address injustices in their respective local communities, with an eye on how these relate or are complexly interconnected to global systems of oppression. Students were asked what they were going to do to enable positive change within their local communities. Students were having conversations and critical debates about these issues with peers from all over the world, in real time and asynchronously. They were having conversations about these really deep issues related to the current global condition, but looking at the impact on local communities. It is about glocalising pedagogies and praxis. So, I often use that concept in my own research and writing. I have written about that and the course in a chapter entitled, Parallaxes and Paradoxes of Global Citizenship, but also in other articles as well. The notion of ‘glocalisation’, thinking globally and acting locally, speaks directly to the interconnections between ‘the global’ and ‘the local’, as with issues like global poverty, which has local realisations. The course had 12-weeks of modules. The last module referred to questions like: ‘What are you going to do with this new knowledge?’; ‘What is your call to action?’; ‘How can you think of ways of undertaking critical global citizenship activism that is not just individualistic or tokenistic?’; ‘How can you start to address significant global issues, but from local perspectives?’ So, that course and my involvement in it served as the major push towards my continued involvement in and commitments to critical global citizenship education.


What has been the greatest benefit in your participation in the Bridge 47 project?

I think it has been the wonderful people. I think it has been the sense of solidarity. When we hosted the conference at the University of Stirling, one of the contributions I was able to make was around the tensions between the social and ecological in respect of the justices, and the implications for GCE. This was taken forward as a theme in the second Copenhagen conference, which was discussed further there, which we asked Dr Karen Pashby to speak on, and she did such a fantastic job of it. The UKRI GCRF Water and Fire project addresses how social and ecological stresses are complexly entangled, and it highlights the tensions between them. These tensions are also found in sustainable development, global citizenship, and hence between ‘critical global citizenship education’ (CGCE) and ‘learning for sustainability’ (LfS) as well. Another theme that came out of the Stirling conference was the question of alternative futures, which I spoke on at the Copenhagen conference, as well as the concept of glocalising pedagogies, which I have written on in my own work. Making possible alternate futures through indigenous thinking and other reflexive and democratic ways of engaging is important to critical global citizenship. I was able to contribute from the first conference towards the second conference in that way. I think that being able to make those contributions and hearing other people's contributions around such important concepts as solidarity (and Dr Su-ming Khoo did a fabulous presentation on this too), as well as the levels of debate and how deep some of the critical conversations became, was of benefit to me and I think may of the participants. It was also bonding. It was also good to feel part of a group of people committed to CGCE, and wanting to engage with the tensions, conundrums, and contradictions. I think that Bridge 47 as a network is well positioned to promote critical global citizenship education. There's enough of these discourses on global citizenship that are at best tokenistic, individualistic, or soft and superficial, but I think Bridge 47 engages practitioners, teachers, academics in a way that invites you into deeper conversations and you can become motivated toward action around more critical perspectives. I think that is great, and these are the kind of people I want to stay in conversation with, and that is the kind of project I want to be involved in. It is a real honour to be part of these initiatives. 

About the Author

Dalene Swanson

Dr Dalene Swanson is a senior academic at the University of Stirling. Her research commits to social and ecological justice and anti-oppressive ideals in ‘glocal’ contexts. She holds expertise in critical global citizenship (education); critical mathematics education; democracy; indigeneity, especially Ubuntu; and alternative onto-epistemologies. She also embraces reflexive/rhizomatic narrative and critical artsbased methodologies by way of decolonising ‘established’ social science research methodologies.  Dalene is the Principle Investigator on the UKRI GCRF Water and Fire project, and sits on the international advisory board of the UNESCO Chair in Democracy, Global Citizenship, and Transformative Education. For more on Dalene’s work, see: