About Us

'Traditions of Popular Education in South Africa'  is one of the ‘catalytic projects’ initiated by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) and hosted by University of Western Cape. The project investigates past and current popular education in South Africa, linking these to global developments. It began in March 2013 and is now in its third phase, with a particular focus on 'Traditions of Popular Education: Engaging (with) Power".  It is lead by Shirley Walters (Prof Emerita, University of the Western Cape) and Astrid von Kotze (Hon Prof, University of KwaZulu Natal). The project  works closely with colleagues at various South African universities, civil society organisations and social movements.

Brochure 2013: Traditions of Popular Education


In South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s there was a proliferation of community organisations that identified strongly with anti-apartheid struggles, alternative development paradigms and social justice agendas. Most had a recognisable educational component: seeking to conscientise people who often had had limited access to formal education and, at the same time, impart practical skills and literacy. They operated outside of and often in direct opposition to the formal education system. While the formal education system was a reflection of authoritarian and racist relations in which (white) masters were deemed to be the experts inducting (black) ignorant people into Western / European knowledge, popular education sought to recognise and validate people’s existing knowledge and skills.

Along with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) that became the political home of many young people who refused to bow to the hegemonic forces of dehumanising schooling, ‘People’s Education’, a local form of popular education, became a movement across the land – albeit one that operated in the interstices of society often only visible to those who participated. Alongside, and part of the `people’s education movement`, there were many creative community initiatives across a wide range of activities and locations, like religious organisations, trade unions, advice offices, NGOs, schools, universities and other social movements. All were committed to popular or people’s education.

Thirty years later, only those who had been active members of popular movements such as people’s education may have a clear understanding of how they operated, why they seemed to work, and what they failed in doing. With the increasing emphasis on accredited, certificated education and training, few people today, have a notion of what popular education may be about and do not readily associate the values of liberation and humanity with education. Similarly, few have heard of, or read, African and other philosophers and writers such as Cabral, Cesaire, Fanon, Freire, Gramsci, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Sen – some of the people who inspired the BCM, community organisations, trade unions and people’s education. On the other hand, there are new initiatives of popular education, some guided by old traditions, for example, izimbongi performances recognisable in current HipHop groups, and some embracing new forms of technology and social mobilisation.

Project aims

The project ‘Traditions of Popular Education’ seeks to inspire alternative forms of education provision that benefit working class and poor people. It aims to achieve three main things:

  1. Begin to un-cover and re-cover forgotten traditions of popular learning and education amongst different groups of women and men, urban and rural, old and young;
  2. Identify useful popular education models and practices, both past and present that can inform the design of a comprehensive education provision accessible to all people;
  3. Begin a lively and productive dialogue on popular education traditions both inside South Africa, and beyond.

This project is ‘catalytic’ in the sense that it aims to ignite popular educational optimism and hope. Recognising the potential of activities and movements that inspired and continue to motivate educators and learners in popular education alike, it seeks to cause ripple effects in (adult and youth) education, more generally. Given the limited time-frame, proposed activities are designed as ‘ignition’ actions rather than comprehensive / in-depth undertakings. It is hoped they will light a spark that leads to future research and direct provision and the forging of new traditions.

Contact us: info@populareducation.org.za

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Please also see the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences website.