Navigating our way: a compass for popular educators by Astrid von Kotze, Shirley Walters, and Thembi Luckett, Studies in the Education of Adults, Vol. 48(1), 2016


In 1976, the year that Soweto school children said ‘enough’ and got shot for rejecting apartheid education in South Africa, Junction Avenue Theatre Company workshopped and performed their play, ‘Fantastical History of a Useless Man’. The play depicted an-other view of history and began with the historical figures of Jan van Riebeeck and Simon van der Stel stepping out of 10 Rand notes, signaling how economics and politics have always gone hand in hand.  It ended with the ‘useless man’ looking back at the violence of colonial history and the deep relationship between wealth, poverty, power and politics. Weighing up different options for playing a useful part in the future of South Africa, the ‘useless man’ decided that building the future would be a project of ‘the broad masses of the people who live voiceless’, and thus, ‘the most I can do is be the least obstruction’. In the background flew a huge banner that spelled ‘revolution’. As it turned out, there was no revolution in South Africa – and the struggle for a distribution of wealth and a radically different future continues to this day.

The desire for something beyond what is, utopian thinking, ignites our hope and longing, as much as our actions. As Bloch (1970, p.88) wrote: ‘Life as a whole is full of utopian projections, mirrored ideals, dream-manufactories, and travel pictures’.  People and events, constantly in flux, in the  gap between what is and what could/should be, offer possibilities for change. On the one hand, we are constantly at risk of falling for the happiness conspiracy suggested in consumer society (Schumacher 2006) – with political demagogues using the same media as the market, for their own ends. On the other, the hopes and dreams are the raison d’etre for popular educators.  Social, economic, political utopias motivate people to act in defiance of material conditions, inspire poets, writers, musicians to innovate. In the name of an-other future people torch barricades and demand a radical scrapping of the entire system, or they work at redirecting resources to generate greater equity.

This paper is based on 18 month research that sought inspiration in ‘traditions of popular education’ in South Africa. The aim of ‘recovering traditions of popular education’ was to resurface forgotten practices, reveal innovations, make sense of how, at different times and under changing circumstances, activist educators (re)invented education for social transformation.  The study set out to re-discover innovations in education from the days of political struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and ascertain which of these might become the foundation for new forms of education that would buttress the embattled fledgling democracy and keep hopes for a more egalitarian society alive.

We begin by outlining the research design and methodology that reflects the contingent nature of popular education, and briefly present the findings from the action research. This leads us to suggest that ‘tensions’ and ‘contradictions’, rather than ‘traditions’, are more helpful to describe popular education over time. We then offer a ‘compass’ as a tool for navigating through different popular education orientations, as they emerge in response to, or in anticipation of, different conditions. Finally, we pose a challenge to steer the path away from a ‘useless man’ inertia towards initiating and/or supporting radical transformation for social justice.

Research approach, design and methodology

In order to have congruence between the means and ends of the research, a participatory research approach (PRA), as defined in adult education literature (for example, Walters 1989), was adopted. This research approach integrates ‘investigation, education and action’. It sets out to actively engage with, and thus influence, the research.  PRA is concerned with the relationship between the researcher and those being researched and has a particular commitment to the educational value of the research process for all participants – it is this specific commitment, which is tied into the ‘investigation and action’ components, that distinguishes it from some other forms of action research.  This aligns with the other purpose of the study: to reignite interest in and active engagement with popular education.

All three of the researchers are engaged, practising popular educators. We have long histories with several of the activist-educators whom we interviewed, or participants who attended discussions and workshops. We acknowledge our `insider` position with the strengths and weaknesses that this implies. Our histories informed the questions and threw light on the data as they emerged.

In PRA, as with popular education, knowledge is co-constructed through dialogue. Both research and education have developed tools and processes that allow all participants to speak and be heard. Importantly, whose knowledge counts and is deemed useful for the purpose at hand, is made explicit in both PRA and popular education. Ongoing critical reflexivity is crucial in design and execution of both popular education and PRA processes.

Thus, the research approach was consistent with popular education itself, with its emphasis on process and collectivity, its constant mindfulness of power relations and the implications for/against particular interests. It was also consistent with the secondary purpose of the research, namely, to re-kindle an interest in and engagement with popular education in South Africa – as  the process opened new perspectives, provoked debate and mobilized people to act more consciously in their practice as educators. (Gaventa &Cornwall 2001)

Multiple data gathering tools were used to ensure access to different languages, cultures and popular knowledge sources in the country. The project began with a ‘mapping’ exercise: delineating institutions, sectors, organisations involved in popular education in the present. In order to ‘map’ current popular education,  we firstly, identified key people and organisations engaged in popular education through a snowballing process; secondly, reviewed existing literature such as promotional, informational and teaching materials, journals, books; thirdly, we interviewed key people in organisations either individually or in groups, using semi-structured interviews that focused on purpose, process and theoretical foundation of  practices; fourthly, we observed education sessions within organisations.

We took advantage of fortuitous occurrences – for example, the evaluative ‘think-well’ of Training for Transformation (TfT), an organization involved in Freire-inspired popular education over forty years, which works in Africa and further afield. 30 international practitioners gathered to reflect on and write about TfT practices; this afforded us the opportunity to both observe their work in process, and interview ten of them. Furthermore, we conducted and filmed an in-depth interview with the two initiators of TfT, Anne Hope and Sally Timmel.

Secondly, two national workshops of popular educators, 23-25 April 2013 and 27-19 June 2014 brought together some 35 and then 25 practitioners working in a broad range of popular education in five provinces of South Africa, each over 3 days. Data were gathered at both, through participant observation, interviews and structured participatory activities.  Furthermore, we facilitated three dialogues with experienced popular educators which focused on definitional issues, the relationship between popular education and the state / the system, and traditions of popular education (this is reported in more detail in Luckett, von Kotze and Walters, forthcoming) Other structured colloquia and workshops with visiting international popular educators provided rich sources of data.

Archives, libraries and collections of  relevant materials, were identified, unearthed and collected. This included books, articles, materials (both printed text, auditory records and visuals) from the past. Many  of the materials  are  uploaded to the website ( for ease of access for others and to invite contributions. We also have a linked an active Facebook page.

To find more in-depth ‘stories’ about popular education practice and to create insight into the lives of people who combine education and organising for change we conducted structured interviews with sixteen prominent practitioners from South Africa, Mauritius, India, Malaysia, Uganda, Canada and the USA. Interviews generated data about the practice, motivation and role of popular educators, and helped to shed light on changes in response to national and global developments.

The PRA helped us to formulate ‘theories grounded in radical commitments’ which in turn shaped and encouraged us to ‘discover things scientifically that more conventional, establishment theories merely serve to hide from sight.’ (Saul 2006, p.110) Like Saul, we affirm that ‘the business of scholars who are also dedicated to activism is, in fact, scholarship’ and that as social scientists we should bring scholarship self-consciously and critically ‘into creative interaction with their commitments and practices’ (Saul, 2006,p.108).

Defining popular education in South Africa

In the last 25 years, numerous attempts at categorizing popular education are testimony to the difficulties of identifying coherent criteria for discerning a consensual understanding of what constitutes popular education. As Crowther (2013) has noted, popular education itself is a contested concept that embraces a whole range of different meanings that change, as we will show, along with the changes in the relationship between the state and civil society – and to the degree that educators have one foot inside, one outside the state (Kane, 2012).

There are numerous ways in which different kinds of popular education have been described and categorized. For example, Magendzo (1990) in his account of popular education in Chile distinguished between the dominant education for social mobility and oppositional education for social mobilization: the latter is popular education aimed at collective action for social reorganization.  Chene & Chervin (1991, p.10-11) of Canada differentiated between l’education populaire  and l’education populaire autonome, that is, education aimed at social transformation and working on the root causes of social problems rather than on their effects.  Rick Flowers (2009), based in Australia, divided popular education into four traditions (without clearly defining what makes them ‘traditions’): working class education in the 18th and 19th centuries, ‘progressive and radical education’ as education by educators who have sought to develop alternatives to dominant / authoritarian education, adult education for democracy in the early 20th century that expressed a concern with democracy and, Freire with his ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’. Interestingly, Flowers did not make mention of an explicit tradition of popular education in support of and engaging with social movements, although this may be subsumed in his four ‘traditions’.

Boyd (2011) in the USA distinguished 5 different ‘expressions’ of popular education, describing them with examples from the USA. Finally, Kane (2012) divided the history of popular education in Latin America into five broad periods of development, with Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed as ‘the ideological backbone’. His history shows how popular education shifted its relationship to the state at different times and in different countries, ranging from opposition to the state to support for progressive movements for radical change – but how it was always firmly related to social movements. South African popular education has similarities with all of these, notably a rootedness in the radical tradition of adult education and a form grounded in the philosophy of Paulo Freire.

Organisations profiled in this research and data from recent interviews, websites or organizations’ documents all articulated a similar understanding of what constitutes popular education. For example, JASS (Just Associates) uses a feminist popular education approach: ‘this entails starting with where women are at, the lived experiences of women, building a safe space of sharing and solidarity, moving from sharing to analysis of power relations, and then acting to build collective agency’. Training for Transformation, as mentioned above, works in a strong Freire-inspired philosophy and approach. Asked, what makes their work ‘popular education’ they suggest its inherently political nature: â€˜TfT is highly political because it’s all about how you are dealing with power and how you are shifting power from a certain level to another level.’ (17.9.2013) Similar to TfT’s strong focus on action, another local NGO, the Surplus People’s Project (SPP) understands popular education to be integrally linked to mobilization and mass action and suggests that this is what distinguishes popular education from other forms of education.

The South African Reflect Network(SARN) defines its work as‘a learner-centred approach that tries to build active participation, democratic spaces, critical reflection, and the powers and capacities of the poor to bring about social change. Popular education challenges the status quo.’ The Children’s Resource Centre(CRC) understands popular education as

‘creating an environment for socialization and learning – it is not about imparting knowledge and skills. An environment for the co-construction of knowledge is collaboratively created.  (…) Popular education is understood as having an emancipatory intention, drawing on Freirean conscientisation processes and Gramsci’s idea of the creation of a socialist person.’  (16.5.2014)

The more recently established Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training(CIPSET) strives to build ‘individual and collective capacity to question, name, reflect, analyse and act in the world’; it sees education as ‘a democratic process that takes place in groups. Its relationships are based on co-discovery and learning’, and views popular education as ‘a catalyst for liberation and social transformation, because it builds an awareness of the structural forces of power that shape our lives. Popular Education leads to collective action for social change and progressive alternatives.’

Generally, there appears to be consensus on popular education being concerned with conscientisation (in Freirean terms, learning to read the word and the world) and action (confronting hegemony and working for transformation). Key elements articulated about what differentiates popular education from community or non-formal education, are (i) it challenges the status-quo (but not necessarily the ‘capitalist system’), (ii) it believes in the co-construction of knowledge, (iii) the role of popular education is to conscientise towards social action.  This understanding overlaps substantively with the definition of popular education put forward by the Popular Education Forum for Scotland:

Popular education is understood to be popular, as distinct from merely populist, in the sense that it is rooted in the real interests and struggles of ordinary people; it is overtly political and critical of the status quo; it is committed to progressive social and political change. (Martin 1999, p.4)

Yet, a more in-depth investigation of the actual practices of organisations reveals great differences in positions with regard to the relationship to the state; short or long term orientation; processes relating to enactment of participation; and the relationship of educators and participants to producing really useful knowledge. If we accept that all popular education is an expression of, response to or anticipation of particular historical conditions within geographical contexts it is not surprising that there is variation in the praxis. In other words: new times call for new strategies and practices. There are constant innovations and experiments that reflect or anticipate changing dynamics of power, technology and other issues.

As Luckett, von Kotze and Walters (forthcoming) show, popular education in South Africa has emerged as a fluctuating, changing practice that resists easy categorization into ‘traditions’ demonstrating how, ‘Popular education is a construct which emerges out of particular, cultural and material conditions.’ (Steele, 1999:95) He has shown how it is always contextual and contingent, appearing in different forms at different times and places, constantly reinventing itself. ‘What is more, it can be a deeply ambivalent formation: managed from above as an instrument of control or forged from below as an agent of emancipation.’ (Steele, 199, p.95)  Similarly, feminist popular educators Manicom & Walters ( 2012, p.2) have pointed out how ‘a deeper appreciation of the complexity and difficulty of change, the elusive resistances, unsettling ambiguities, and unruly emotions that attend feminist praxis’  is necessary if we want to better understand  processes of learning and claiming agency, mobilising and organizing.

Current practices and the voices of older, experienced educators, whose commitments to radical transformation have not wavered, alerted us to a set of tensions and contradictions that are evidence that popular education is constantly in flux – responding to and ushering in new directions.

From ‘traditions’ of popular education to ‘tensions and contradictions’

As in the past, there are currently organisations and people committed to popular education in South Africa. Yet, the majority of practices have taken on a different orientation and purpose, partially reflecting global changes and constraints. In particular, the ‘each one- teach one’ and ‘all for one and one for all’ dimensions informing some past education practices in political struggle seem to have been ‘reinterpreted’ or forgotten in favour of a personal-political outlook. It is this shifting orientation and our disquiet about what appears to be a lack of clear standpoint for structural rather than just personal transformation informing practice that was the start of further investigative analysis of the tensions amongst various expressions of popular education.

Tension 1: Between personal development and radical political purpose: social mobility or social mobilization?

Working with people who may undermine their own ability to identify and produce the knowledge and skills necessary for engaging in political and educational tasks is a challenge for educators. Even if they initiate the identification of risks and social issues to be addressed at the grassroots, the ensuing dialogue must encourage the emergence of organic intellectuals – rather than continue the hegemony of expert knowledge transmission – and draw on both the feelings expressed in narratives, and the intellectual element of ‘knowing’. In practice, the tension is often expressed as sharing experiences in what may appear blind uncritical acceptance of what is said in order to valorize participants’ own feelings, on the one hand, and critical questions and analysis oriented towards understanding ‘false consciousness’ and imagining what might be, on the other.

Popular educators feel pulled between empowering the self  and building collective consciousness. A feminist educator interviewed suggested (28.4.2014)

“If people are going to be able to be agents in their own world, they need a sense of self … Some of it might be able to be responded to in popular education and some will need deep therapy and whatever else. Because you can just get buffeted by whichever wind is blowing. And if you don’t recognise your own hurt and your own pain and your own ‘stuff’ that you’ve been through and ‘give yourself a break’, allow yourself to acknowledge what you need to work on in order to, in a way, feel more self-confident, acting collectively is difficult”.  

A community worker (29.5.2014) echoed this sentiment:  â€œCreating a space for people to identify their full potential is the key (…) create the spaces and other things will happen. (…) Transformation does not happen if it doesn’t happen here [points to herself and chuckles] – you start by yourself.” And: “you can’t change people if you don’t change”.

Popular educators are in tension between supporting and building what is often perceived and expressed as a lack in confidence and self-esteem with the responsibility to challenge and potentially shake long-held beliefs in the interest of constructing radical alternatives to the status-quo. This is the proposition put forward by a worker educator (15.4.2014)

Radical education encompasses a radical political purpose, analysis and reading of the world, starting from ordinary people’s lived experiences. It is very much a kind of combination of working from people's experience but working with a set of key political economy concepts that the facilitators feel that workers need to engage with.

Learning and knowledge creation for radical change occurs through organising, action and in struggle – it is not simply the result of ‘sharing’ personal experiences and valorizing them through consent. This was asserted by the worker educator:

[Knowledge] arises out of activism and struggle, but it also arises out of study and particularly collective study … the really, really useful knowledge is theoretical and it’s critical and it’s conceptual, but it has to have that connection with the real experiences of people, otherwise it’s just terminology floating up there. And I think it’s produced in struggle but as well as in and through study, debate and research.(15.4.2014)

Crowther and Lucio-Villegas (2012, p.62) have usefully drawn on Gramsci to illuminate the role of intellectuals and educators in struggle:

The relationship between the popular educator and the intellectual is a critical one for the emergence of a persuasive hegemony sufficiently robust to challenge common sense. Social movements do precisely this, but the problem, as Harvey (1971,p.418) highlights, is that single-issue movements fail to cohere into a joined up alternative which can mobilise mass support.’

This tension between divergent concepts of change targeting primarily the individual or the collective is often expressed in the tension between social mobility and social mobilization. According to a labour rights activist (27.9.2013) the first hurdle is “to get people to recognize that your individual lived experiences, whatever issues, is not an individual problem but a common collective problem”. This was echoed by an economist-activist (28.6.2014) ‘one of the most important aspects of meetings, of training, is how much do people feel they are linked with each other when they come out of the training, – because you can’t do that alone – you can’t face the unexpected alone, you really need that link’. How to achieve this is expressed by Ferris and Walters (2012) in working with HIV and AIDS, when they argue that it is important to move beyond the binary of `either / or’, to the ‘both/and’ of the personal and the collective.

This view is shared by the labour rights activist (27.9.2013) who emphasizes the need for moving from the personal to the public:

“Engage people so that they can relate ….by connecting what they are concerned with and bringing it together with the collective … there must be some moments where there is an attempt to help people to socially analyse … to see the issue beyond the individual as part of the societal … and then trying to develop a strategy of action … building baby steps.”  

She strongly believes educators need to facilitate this shift: “It is ok to cry and acknowledge it but then how do we move on and what do we need to do about it, to move on”. 

The economist (28.6.2014) describes this shift less in terms of a tension and more in terms of a movement.  According to him this movement requires careful attention to issues of power – and not simply individual, personal power:

‘When I talk to you about suffering of people, why do you jump into those overarching theories and then you trivialise people ‘s suffering. That’s our temptation on the left that you have overarching explanations. So how do we avoid trivialising people's suffering? So ‘powerful knowledge’, for me this is key. At a certain time a partial knowledge becomes ‘full knowledge’ because of the powerful person using it. ‘

The well-articulated tension between different concepts of what constitutes the personal and political, as it relates to theories of social change, therefore continues to be reflected in this research.

Tension 2: Between participation or non-participation with the state

In 1999, Martin (1999, p.7) noted the importance of recognising the ‘ambivalence of popular education’s relationship to the state’. Citing a number of examples that illustrate the role a state plays in relation to its citizenry – whether repressive, authoritarian, predatory, or more open and supportive of citizens’ initiatives, he demonstrates how ‘popular education is essentially the educational dimension and the educational resource for the ‘popular movement’, the movement of the poor and dispossessed.’  Thus, ‘as the role of the state changes (…) so new spaces for popular education are opened up in the reconfigured relationship between the state, the market and civil society.’ (ibid p.8) Similarly, Crowther  (2013, p.262) has asked what the prospects are for popular education in the context of the state today: ‘Since the original formulation of the in and against argument in the 1980s we have seen significant changes in the relationship between state, civil society and public spheres, which have important consequences for educational engagement.’  In 2014, the Malta Popular Education network (PEN) conference brought together popular educators from different countries and Mae Shaw and Jim Crowther (2014) presented a  ‘helpful framework for action in the context of the paradoxical times in which popular educators currently work’. Differentiating between strategic participation or non-participation with the state they juxtaposed a range of actions such as participating strategically by ‘making structures work more democratically and effectively’, or not participating by ‘providing convivial, open, inclusive democratic educational spaces’ for dialogue to affect change.

Theirs is a useful list of possible actions –and one that demonstrates the problems confronting current popular education in South Africa: to work within the state, for example by using its institutions  - like the Constitutional Court – to challenge non-delivery of citizens’ rights, or, like many social action groups, to stay in opposition and act through direct confrontation. Other groups and programmes highlight the importance of working on different levels simultaneously and engaging multiple strategies, tools and struggles, at different levels.

Since 1994, when the first democratic elections brought in the ANC-lead government, this ambivalence towards the state, and, indeed, the system of capitalism, became very evident. (See Luckett, von Kotze & Walters, forthcoming). In the tension between ‘push’ and ‘being pushed’ some educators focus on trying to affect a strategic shift in institutions, working from within to push and re-shape what they find, or identifying gaps to use institutional interstices to further what they see as the political purpose of popular education. Others enact a clear political agenda: the raison d’etre for their work is the recognition that the material reality, the whole system needs to be transformed and this cannot happen within the institutions of the state.  While some educators agonise over when, and how hard to push beyond the familiar, how much discomfort is enough but not too much, others believe that the `cause` warrants radical action and `no push is too hard`. Whatever the decision, believes the worker educator (15.4.2014), messages must be unequivocal: ‘as a radical educator you actually do have to take political responsibility for your own position’.

When it comes to the political economy of the state as part of global capitalism, positions are more clearly drawn. A dialogue between local and international popular educators (9.2.2014) gave rise to the question whether all popular education, by definition, must be anti-capitalist. A community activist made it clear:

‘The real tradition for me has been the radical tradition in the interests of the working class and poor people’, and hence, ‘those of us who believed in an anti-capitalist movement felt that the movement just continues [post-1994 South African democratic elections] because we were still trapped within the capitalist society, felt that we should continue when others had now positioned themselves very differently.’  

Similarly, working within a higher education institution does not change the radical purpose: ‘I do feel what I want to achieve in my work is critical consciousness, is an ability to critique capitalism and the status quo and gendered power relations … and the turning people towards organisations, that the solution doesn’t lie in whatever change of heart they may have, but in a collective solution … allowing people to see things differently, imagine a different future’. (Worker educator, 15.4.2014). 

The question arose whether capitalism could ever be commensurate with social justice and hence the central purpose of popular education: Is it possible to have a progressive popular education that supports capitalism? How can such education be ‘popular’ in the sense of being in the interest of oppressed people and nature? Capitalism thrives on inequality, therefore, working for justice and equality through education cannot be commensurate with capitalism. Thus, if we accept that capitalism is the global economic system and that it is inherently patriarchal reinforcing daily gender-based inequality and violence, how can popular educators not define their practice as anti-capitalist?

How popular educators respond to these questions reflects, in part, this second tension.

Tension3: Between epistemologies: whose knowledge counts?

The book of feminist popular education (Manicom & Walters 2012, p.11) that reveals in multiple ways how knowledge is produced, not discovered, is testimony to gendered imbalances of power and the ‘politics of voicing and listening’. A cultural activist (4.4.2014) emphasizes the importance of the recognition that popular educators themselves have a lot to learn “about co-production of knowledge and moving in millions of ways from the Viking model of extractive knowledge production”. How do they learn that?  “It was on the Island (Robben Island, the prison) that I first hand came to experience what is seen as an academic qualification [versus] socialization in struggle … we realized workers have a lot to teach”, said a children’s rights activist, outlining his belief in ordinary people, that ‘they are teachers already and carry useful and valuable knowledge with them to be shared with others’ was an important starting point for him. (16.5.2014) A feminist educator described the process of ‘…….working on the mines, realising that I could learn a huge amount from these men who’d never been to school. So that was a fundamental shift in my understanding of power relations of who actually has the wisdom around here, and the analysis, and recognising that I knew very little in many instances’ (28.4.2014).

While all popular education arguably begins with a notion of collective knowledge construction through dialogue, this does not always translate into the reality of practice. The purpose of South African study circles, for example CALUSA (Cala University Students Association), is conscientisation leading to transformation.  As a former educator explained, political education was “to equip youth with ideas that we would use to think about a different society”. (11.6.2013) Educators often operate with clear didactic processes. Here, participation is not ‘co-construction’ of knowledge but par-taking in what could arguably be termed ‘banking education’, as the educator has a powerful role as leader and teacher of texts considered to be important in education for change. Similarly, social movements in pursuit of the solution of immediate problems often take ‘short-cuts’ and transmit information deemed to be necessary for members’ engagement in public struggle- without leaving much space for critical engagement.

The tension of what and whose knowledge counts, when and where, is one that is alive amongst popular educators. Knowledge is not always created through action, and analysis of that knowledge does not inform decisions towards new forms of action. (Gaventa & Cornwall, 2001, p.75-6) The sometimes acrimonious debates around what and whose knowledge counts have been described at various times as ‘knowledge wars’ (Fenwick 2010)

Tension 4: Between short-termism   and longer-term social transformation

The presence of many older ‘weathered’ popular educators, still engaged in their work, attests to the presence of ‘revolutionary patience’. Feminist liberation theologian, Dorothee Soelle (2003), coined the term "revolutionary patience" to describe an attitude, a mindset, a complex virtue that holds in tension a sense of urgency consistent with the size of the problems we face and a resilience that meets setbacks and defeats with both the hope and determinism to remain in the struggle for the long haul. Some of the organisations we researched have been around for over 40 years – their commitment to land reform, community activism, social justice is unwavering. All of these are in for the long haul.

Other organisations, arguably also often lead by ‘old hands’ in activism and popular education, have shifted their focus to tackling immediate problems on the ground; they aim for results not just ‘in my lifetime’ but within reach. Writing about popular education more broadly, Choudry (2012, p.142) contends ‘that the dominant tendency of many development and advocacy NGOs is to compartmentalize the world into ‘issues’, and ‘projects’, and the practice of an ‘ideology of pragmatism’ which entails an unwillingness to name or confront capitalism directly.’

Fighting for the distribution of anti-retrovirals (ARVs), the social movement Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) began by using strategies that engaged the state directly – using the country’s Constitution as a basis for battles fought in court – while at the same time mobilizing large numbers of people to ensure that the imperatives around HIV and AIDS would be in the public domain, loud and clear. This tension between short and longer-term orientation plays itself out mainly in the choice of strategies. With these, the role of education shifts – often from a broad political consciousness-raising around material conditions and their underlying causes to distributing information and holding meetings around specific short term issues which are of immediate concern.

A compass for  popular educators

Popular education is not static but different practices at different moments in time and in different places anticipate and respond to changing pressures and imperatives.  Speaking about popular education in Latin American countries, Kane (2012, p.73) identified three tendencies in the late nineties and early twenties:

One seemed to abandon class struggle as an old-fashioned concept and concentrated instead on the issues of democracy and citizenship, with new actors and spaces; another remained concerned about class and structural change but tried to develop its practice by opening up to new issues and ‘subjects’, as well as learning from past mistakes; another chose the practical route of just continuing to work with oppressed groups in the belief that appropriate ‘paradigms’ would emerge in the process.’

In order to try and capture the shifts in and different ranges of popular education in South Africa, we devised a ‘compass for popular educators’. A compass is a tool for navigating; it offers a frame of reference that assists users to orientate themselves and ‘find their way’. Similarly, a moral compass is a belief system that functions as a guide for actions: like the needle of a compass certain beliefs indicate the direction to take. Looking at current popular education practices in South Africa this compass is a ‘thinking tool’ that allows us to make sense of competing, often contradictory, claims of popular education. How is this compass constructed?

The graph below illustrates the compass:

The cardinal points of this compass reflect competing tensions: the vertical coordinates denote position: the ‘north’ point signals within/participation with the state while the southern most point signals outside / in opposition to / non-participation with the state.  Horizontal coordinates indicate orientation: the western point indicates immediate or short-term orientation, the eastern point longer-term purpose, including an orientation towards sustainability of the planet earth.

The top /northern half is more concerned with individual change or a transformation of self, while the bottom / southern half targets system change through collective transformation. Another way of describing the diverging orientation is that the top is social mobility-oriented, which may be described as ‘accumulative ascent’; while the bottom half is orientated to social mobilization – often requiring ‘revolutionary patience’.

The western, left, side denotes issue-based or issue-responsive education, with primarily individual action between the north and west coordinates and collective action between the west and southern coordinates. The right, or eastern side denotes education targeting primarily system-change, with the north-eastern coordinates aiming at system reform, often effected by individual action, while the south-eastern coordinates aim at system transformation brought about through collective action.

The coordinates create four quadrants, differentiated by varying notions of participation, purpose and power. While all aim at ‘the public good’ and support a participatory approach, not all recognise the need for addressing the power-imbalance between educator and learner/participant in order to effect substantive transformation, and they differ in terms of their orientation and position with regards to the state. The tensions outlined above are reflected in the quadrants – as will be shown below.

For the purpose of description we will label the four positions as follows: north-west; popular education  for empowerment; north-east: popular education for systems change; south-west: issue -based popular education; south-east: popular education  for emancipation.

Popular education  for empowerment

Inglis’ (1997, p.4) distinction between empowerment and emancipation is still useful here:‘Empowerment involves people developing capacities to act successfully within the existing system and structures of power, while emancipation concerns critically analyzing, resisting and challenging structures of power.’  Shorter term orientation that does not overtly challenge state structures but works within them is education primarily targeting individual transformation with the (express) hope and belief that this ‘changed self’ will be confident and ‘capacitated’ to act for the good of others– in whatever area of education/ activism s/he works. This outlook is consistent with ‘education for individual empowerment’. The political dimension considers the personal to be political and thus leverages education at that level (first). Typically, the process has a strong emphasis on participants sharing personal experiences, at best recognizing commonalities arising from a common base – but often the reverse happens: social problems are individualized and, diagnosed as individual deficits such as a lack of self-confidence, motivation or discipline,, addressed with ‘life-skills’ training/coaching.  

Steele (1999) has pointed out that education has become increasingly instrumentalised and oriented towards short-term and under-resourced vocationalism. Education for empowerment is inspired by the dream to ‘climb out’ of present miseries and embark on a better life – the image often being one of a staircase leading towards the (sun-)light.  Stromquist claims  ‘While women’s empowerment recognizes the fundamental role of individual agency and collective agency, it is sensitive to structural conditions that work as impediments to the transformation of gender relations. (Stromquist 2014 p.12)

However, popular education for empowerment runs the risk that participants do not make the connection between self and others and fail to use their newly ‘empowered’ status to assist others for change. ‘This weakens the capacity of subaltern groups to achieve solidarity, organization and collective resistance.’ (Crowther, 2013, p261)

Popular education  for systems change

After the first South African democratic elections in 1994, when the erstwhile liberation movement, the African National Congress, became the government of the day, many popular educators decided to work within the system trying to help change policy, structures and decisions from within. Engaging, for example, with education policy bodies and/or institutions they infused progressive ideas into old systems, introduced  PRA strategies and attempted to shape the long-term future of education provision in the country. Others realized the opportunities within the nooks and crannies of institutions, often working in the interstices in ways that challenge political and ideological hegemony. In this way they used their base strategically to advance movements and actions ‘outside’ the system.

The curricula are often a mix of expert knowledge and experiential knowledge: for example, there is consultation with participants in the design and format of courses run through universities – however, accreditation and formal recognition still put pressure on officially certified programmes and this severely limits possibilities of collective knowledge construction and action.  As Crowther  (2013, p. 267) warns, unless there must be a ‘commitment to engage with the deep well of knowledge and experience of ordinary people – the victims rather than designers of the present day economic calamity (as) their knowledge is essential for socially just solutions ‘.

The cultural activist who works ‘in the system’ interviewed (4.4.2014)  echoed this belief; his hope is sustained by  the stories ‘from people out there’, and that change and difference will come from them. Hence, there is a need to move away from ‘the old extractive model of knowledge production’ towards a co-production of knowledge.

Popular education for system change, thus, can combine participation and critique of the system. However, the overt danger of working within state structures is becoming compliant and being co-opted by dominant agendas.

Issue-based popular education

Firmly in opposition to the state and working outside formal official structures and institutions, many organisations engage in ‘direct action’ and run education sessions as part of campaigns: this is education for social mobilization.  Their purpose is usually to address an immediate short-term issue that has arisen within specific communities or constituencies, for example, ‘the right to know’ or ‘violence against women and children’. The message is usually straight-forward, unambiguous. The education is a necessary component of mobilization rather than a deeper study of underlying causes.

Messages are often ‘delivered’ in declamatory style despite claims to the contrary; while critical questioning or challenges are invited they are rarely forthcoming – often, because time has ‘run out’. In many ways this is functionalist, instrumentalist education that serves the interests of immediate action for particular change.

Curricula are designed by experts within the organisations and informed by clear ideological standpoints, and knowledge is rarely-co-constructed. Of all the popular education practices these are the most active, public, confrontationist – and often the strategic campaigns are supported by large numbers of people and ‘noisy’ voices, which are successful in achieving their short-term goals.

The image that popular education for mobilisation conjures is that of a loud-hailer: calling people to join the struggle. The hope that sustains action is firstly, winning, and secondly broader changes that may flow from victory.

The risk of issue-based activist popular education are uncritical followers with a shallow understanding of how issues relate to a bigger picture; participation for a cause, that has energy but lacks depth and is threatened to peter out. It can however provide a basis for inducting large numbers into being active citizens who become ever more radical.

Popular education for emancipation

Inglis (1997, p.13-14) has distinguished education for empowerment from education for emancipation thus:

While empowerment is focused on creating self-confidence, self-expression, and an interest in learning,  ‘education for liberation and emancipation is a collective educational activity which has as its goal social and political transformation. If personal development takes place, it does so within that context.

Practices that position themselves critically and in antithesis to the state and the capitalist system, with an orientation that goes beyond individual life-spans and includes long-term responsibility for both future generations and the survival of the planet, are in the fourth quadrant.  Education for emancipation has a strong organising component; it speaks to collective learning through /in action and, contingent upon particular contexts and moments in time, adjusting its strategies to the particularities of conditions. 

This is education for development – but while development has come to mean ‘progress’, synonymous with  ‘growth’, especially in neo-liberal times, here the meaning of development is closer to its origin: the latin dis+voloper = undo + wrap up; ‘develop’ hence means unfold, unwrap; making visible.Emancipation (in the original sense of the word: to emancipate is to set free from slavery or restraint) is the ultimate goal.  Freire (1972, p 33) refers to decodification as ‘the operation by which the knowing subjects perceive relationships between the codification’s elements and other facts presented by the real context – relationships which were formerly unperceived.’ Here, education is a co-construction of knowledge where everyone is at different times a teacher and everyone is a learner (i.e. upsetting the hierarchical order of expert and layperson).  By removing the swaddles and affording insight into the conditions and relations that have been presented as ‘normal’, people begin to name how things came to be as they are, and what might be necessary in order to change them. Unmasking the workings of power, interest and control allows participants to begin to chart their way out of conditions of oppression and plan alternatives. This is what Freire called education as the ‘practice of freedom’ . 

At best, as Scathach (2011) has suggested, people’s analytical understanding of  how unequal conditions are sustained and reproduced go hand in hand with also wanting to act on that understanding:

Consciousness and the will to act are acquired simultaneously and are facets of the same process. In order to build a political awareness, learners and educators need to participate in a mutual process of unpacking each others’ ontological assumptions.”

The hope that sustains educators working in popular education for emancipation is the belief in a radically alternative world. The risk that lies within this quadrant is two-fold. One the hand, as history has shown and borne out by interviewees, educators (and participants) run the risk of personal attacks, incarceration, even death; on the other hand is the threat of inertia. Being forever watchful, critical and questioning decision-making is long in coming and actions are negotiated and renegotiated – leading to paralysis and at times non-action.

Navigating our way: popular educators using the compass

Popular education in South Africa is a ship rocked by the waves of change in the vast sea of injustices and oppressions, blown by the winds of conflicting demands made by state and the market and peoples’ hopes and convictions for an alternative. We offer the compass as a thinking tool to help reflect on our praxis and navigate and steer our path. As popular educators we need to be very aware of the importance to keep track of how our politics impact the choices we make within the maelstrom of contradictions and tensions. On the one hand, we are leaders, on the other listeners; we are both responsible for initiating potentially unsettling, disturbing processes, and for fuelling action that may have consequences beyond our reach.

We can use the compass to ask ourselves questions such as: Have we drifted towards individual empowerment akin to Silver’s (cited by Flowers, 1965:236) popular education that aims at pacifying the masses by producing men (sic) with particular skills for particular jobs and positions thus maintaining an unjust system? Or are we still putting our energies into a popular education that encourages people to analyse and oppose exploitation, sustained by the imagination for alternatives to the status quo? Are we keeping alert to the dangers of cooption – an easy downfall given the appropriation of radical language by neo-liberal politics – designing pathways within the system that may benefit some and leave the majority out, battered by storms and cold?

Given the winds of change – those that blow us as much as those we fuel - we must consider ‘appropriate balance between equality and freedom’ , weighing up the possibilities and communities’ capacities in relation to their aspirations and the actual reality in which they and us are embedded. As we have said, popular education is contingent upon context, and there is no one recipe for creating  â€˜the conditions of grassroots intellectuals to become popular educators.’ (Cultural activist, 4.4.2014)

If we take the revolution that Junction Avenue’s ‘useless man’ announced for the future to mean ‘radical transformation’, it is yet to happen in South Africa. This is where the role of radical popular education, or popular education for emancipation comes in. Crowther  (2013, p.268) has warned, ‘conflict, antagonism, distrust and fear amongst marginalized groups are barriers to solidarity’.  Popular education can play an important role by both creating awareness of how the interests of the powerful are served by disunity, and opening spaces and supporting processes for building solidarity in action. Furthermore, it can

serve as a prefigurative experience of the type of social relations that would lie at the heart of a transformed society- relations, moreover, that would also be integral to the process – the struggle – that will be necessary to create that society. It is through the process of struggle that women and men, and children too, will create their social relations and thus themselves as a necessary and fundamental requirement for building a new social order.” (Allman 2001, p.163)

Social justice requires us to identify clearly and express explicitly our common interests. For this, it cannot rely on individuals as agents of change.  The mass democratic movement’s strength in the eighties and nineties lay in the very clear target of a commonly defined enemy. The ever splintering and fracturing opposition groups that fight each other for scare resources and are unable to put aside small differences in order to make connections and build progressive alliances prevent the formation of strong solidarity, from the ground up, and the forging of a social movement for transformation.

Mark Heywood, well-known activist from the Treatment Action Campaign has  pointed out, ‘the starting point for a freedom fighter must be certainty; certainty about good and evil, right and wrong, who is the oppressor and who is the victim. So, far so good! But for many of us, this evolved into certainty about ideology and the organisations we believed espoused that ideology. (….) When a freedom fighter is fixed on the difficult road ahead, and particularly if that road is a burdensome and hard one, certainties that morph into ideologies cause us to stop looking at what is going on at either side of the road. We miss the changing landscape.’ (

‘Squeezed between the ‘rock’ of the market state and ‘the hard place’ of civil society the task of popular education is increasingly difficult and increasingly urgent.’ (Crowther, 2013, p.269) We offer the ‘compass’ to assist popular educators to navigate their/our way towards radical alternatives. This requires a long-term plan enacted through a range of tactical and strategic actions. But, first and foremost, it needs a strong common vision. Utopia is not a place and time but a process of becoming. (von Kotze, 2013, p.111) Let us continue to make it by walking ‘the long walk to freedom’, together.


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