Let's talk about popular education!


This work-in-progress narrative derives from an initial 18-month research project entitled ‘Remembering traditions of popular education’ . It seeks to shed some light on various claims about popular education made by different people and groups in past and present South Africa. The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with over 20 people, asking them to describe how they became activist-educators for social justice and what sustains their commitment; to name some of the influences on their practice; and to offer advice for current activist-educators. At the end, we invite you to contribute your questions and insights as to the relevance of popular education for today and we offer further resources for dialogue.

Here, we cite only a fraction of what experienced popular educators have said, and we offer audio-clips that bring their voices to life. While we also interviewed international practitioners, for now, we focus mainly on South Africans.

Stories of struggle make visible how popular education is closely tied to particular contexts and contingent upon specific conditions. Knowledge generated in processes of popular education primarily serves those who are participants in the dialogues. But it can illuminate how such knowledge becomes useful in the struggle for change and transformation.

Rather than naming individuals, the interviewees in this text are described in terms of their primary activist location because the purpose of this text is not to highlight particular activist-educators but rather generate insights and provoke more questions about popular education ‘for now’.

Why should you read and listen to this?

The interviews offer some insights into popular educators’ stories of struggle. They show how activist-educators derive theory from practice or translate practice into theory. The stories of their practices demonstrate how popular education is both understood and practiced very differently, given diverse contexts, senses of purpose and conditions.

In compiling these extracts and clips we imagine particularly younger people who may ask themselves: what is popular education? What draws people towards the practice of popular education? Why and how is it an important aspect of social action – and what motivates the people involved in it to continue? What can be learnt from these reflections for today’s struggles for ‘the world we want’?

We hope these extracts will offer inspiration for social justice action and education.

How did you become an activist-educator and what sustains you?
What happened to popular education once the ‘anti-apartheid struggle’ was over in 1994?
What inspires or motivates you to continue working as popular educators?
What are the principles that underpin your optimism and hope that `another world is possible`?
So how do we define Popular Education and what is its future?
Do you have advice for popular educators today?


How did you become an activist-educator and what sustains you?↵

For many interviewees, the process began at home; strong role models played an important part. Grandparents committed to PanAfricanist struggles (community educator), an elder brother engaged in political activism (rural activist; worker educator), mothers who openly discussed their political views and convictions (youth worker; worker educator); debates in the home and outings to community meetings, participation in protest actions:

“I remember [my brother] and my mom having the most terrible arguments. My mother was actually quite radical; she was a socialist but they didn’t agree on strategy or tactics.”

Many activists’ direct involvement in politics began when they entered higher education and joined student organisations:

“I was determined not to become part of the system”; (youth worker) “I was involved in the Black Consciousness Movement, that’s how my involvement in the struggle was. And then in 1986 some of us got together to start the Centre.” (peace educator (1))

Often, historic or contemporary leadership figures played an important role: Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, Neville Alexander, Rick Turner and Eddie Roux. The writings of Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X, and feminist writers like bell hooks and Jane Thompson were influential to the thinking. Reading groups on political economy were an important cornerstone:

“[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 through study and debate and research.” (worker educator)

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.” (worker educator )

For others, growing up in the context of anticolonialist struggles and apartheid politics were decisive influences:

“….by the time you are a teenager you have formed certain rights or wrongs about colonial societies, about the right to selfdetermination, about what’s good and bad, and you discriminate in terms of what you think is right or wrong.” (cultural activist)

“…the fact that my family was a mixed family of colour – the apartheid separation was totally abhorrent, a very deep thing because you couldn’t fall in the categories it wants to put you in….” . (community educator)

The entry point into popular education is often described coming from anger and outrage at social injustices. This is well articulated by an economist and priest from Mauritius, who links personal struggle with collective struggle.


For yet others, the ‘awakening’ to popular education happened through experiences with working class people, often through literacy classes:

“...recognising that education doesn’t make you clever and 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 or who actually has the wisdom around here and the analysis, and recognising that I knew very little. So it was a wonderful education for me of ‘wake up’ … So I was learning myself; other people were learning – so at some point you were a student, at some point you were a teacher. ” (feminist educator)

Popular education is generally understood to be embedded in larger social movements; it is the education that ‘feeds’ and sustains movements and ensures that decisions regarding action are not spontaneous uprisings fueled by raw anger alone; but informed by strategic and tactical decisions based on solid ‘reading of the world’.

What happened to popular education once the ‘anti-apartheid struggle’ was over in 1994?↵

One interviewee suggested that the popular education movement in the 1980s ‘rode on the back of the popular movement and as that movement declined so did popular education.’

The youth worker responded unequivocally:

“The opening up of South Africa to the outside world was very damaging in ways that people had no defense against the `marketeers` and what they were going to push down our throats, quite literally”. He suggested the openness to the international world “just individualized everything’ and `the enemy was now much more complex” (youth worker).

All interviewees agree that in the second half of the 1990s there was considerably less funding for this work and it lead to a decline in popular education. One claimed that funding was denied when organisations were not “ towing the line, not towing ANC's line – and funders were directly told not to fund us anymore” (women’s activist). Another interviewee suggested that educators often became too wedded to a particular way of working with the movement, and as the movement got institutionalised so some popular educators got institutionalized. He describes this move to inside the system as a loss of integrity: a “layer of people who were absorbed into the state, maybe with good intentions to change things ” (community educator).

A feminist educator suggests that the “marginality that insanity on the edge when you’re pushing something that isn’t mainstream agenda enough” also had something to do with the decline.

The community educator describes how, over the years, particular forms of popular education have been appropriated by the rich and powerful through funding agencies. He outlines the debates “ of inside and outside,... what do you support and what do you oppose” and how the question arose of whether people who were just beginning to govern should be attacked in the same way as popular education had done in the past? Thus, the mid 90s were a confused period when many exactivists and educators were not clear how to support a democratically elected government and yet be critical of it. He proposes there was a degree of resistance to people wanting to continue popular education; they said “ look, liberation has been achieved ”. Yet,

“Those of us who believed in an anti-capitalist movement felt that the movement should continue because we were still trapped within the capitalist society, felt we should continue when others had now positioned themselves very differently, and even disagreed with the agitation” (community activist).

What inspires or motivates you to continue working as popular educators?↵

Most interviewees agreed that they are sustained by two things: firstly, people, and secondly, their belief that “an alternative future is possible” .

Reflecting on what keeps her going, the cultural activist describes the resilience of refugees, women, and youth, in particular:

“I think what keeps me going is the stories of the people who just manage every day in their lives. (…) It’s people that make me see myself in them and be able to say the way I feel and the way that I still do things, there’s nothing wrong with it. (…) So the young people give me a lot of hope because they are always eager to learn, they’re always eager to go out and work” (cultural worker).

The community educator clearly emphasises the importance of believing in an alternative:

“For me the belief that there is an alternative and that it’s going to be both through sacrifice and struggle, and that there’s an inner and as you get inch by inch or centimeter by centimeter, in the direction where you’re finding people starting to see – you’ve taken off the blinkers – that’s the inspiration that keeps you going, I think. “

Similarly, the cultural activist observes ongoing restlessness, turbulence and rising discontent as indicators that change is possible. His optimism about possibilities for something new has kept him going.

This sentiment is reiterated by a Canadian social movement scholar who was interviewed. He emphasizes that a strong political commitment to contribute to change and the belief that this commitment has to be sustained through upheavals and setbacks is what sustains the social movement scholar.

Similarly, the peace educators refer to the need to continue the struggle that was started in the past. The response from young people to their programme instills in them a belief that their work is necessary.

What are the principles that underpin your optimism and hope that `another world is possible`?↵

Interviews revealed a remarkable consensus regarding the importance of integrity: popular educators must live the values preached, that it is not enough to speak about beliefs and values such as solidarity, democracy, nonsexism and nonracism, but that these have to be lived in everyday practices. Many shared the view that a popular educator must be a living example of `the new socialist person` through even the smallest everyday interactions.

“there is critical self-awareness, the importance of being “very self-aware; aware of one’s own politics, aware of the choices that you’re making …” (worker educator)

“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 feel more self-confident. … The painful contradictions of having a vision of an alternative and living a life filled with class, `race` and other divisions, requires one to be “able to live and work with the contradictions” and have “some sense of groundedness in oneself.” (feminist educator)

This self-awareness calls for qualities and actions such as the following:

Finding a balance between tensions

“I think for me the biggest task is to find a way of reconciling often quite contradictory roles of being facilitator but being leader, and of being a listener but also having a voice. I think that’s the most difficult task and there isn’t any recipe for it … look for those balances because being a popular educator is being caught between conflicting demands; understand what they are and try and work between them and find a balance.” (worker educator)

Respect for ordinary people’s experiences and knowledge

“I suppose the kind of absolute key principle I always have is respecting the knowledge that ordinary people bring with them or believing that they bring knowledge with them”.

Respect for 'ordinary' working class people’s knowledge and experiences is connected to the belief in ordinary people’s capacities to be agents of change: “People miss the importance of the change agency of … ordinary people, that struggle has been going on for centuries essentially”.

“It was on the (Robben) Island 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.” (children’s activist)

Thus it is the task of popular educators to build and deepen this capacity for change; to raise the level of consciousness:

“Through our adult education programme we need to be more aware because for lots ‘each one teach one’ is just a slogan, it doesn’t have deep appreciation of ordinary people, the majority of people, they are change agents, they have always been change agents … what the political movements have done is to give content to that” . (children’s activist)


“Don’t take your own role too seriously; you are not the kingpin and there are many other things that people will learn from and you have to actually connect with those things; not see your own work and what you’re doing as the centre of it all. See your own work in perspective against all the range of ways that people are experiencing and learning … a principle of humility.” (worker educator)

Making connections

The need to

“ find the link between your own experience, your own life and the struggle you are involved in”. (economist-priest)

Another connection is that between the present and the past:

“Because you cannot talk about issues of neo-liberalism and all the institutions that promote it, if you don’t talk about why it happened. Slavery and colonialism are things you can’t wish away; it’s not going to go anywhere. And when you analyse deeply (which we do in every one of our courses no matter how short) then it makes some people uncomfortable. It gives other people a feeling of emancipation that this continent is not the dark continent and it’s full of hope – that it raises in them something that a) I can go out, I can still find that light, I can do it; I come from a stock that is strong that have come a long way. “ (peace educator 2)

“And the difference between a welfare type of organisation and us is that we see ourselves as a liberatory organisation. So whatever we do is based on dealing with the root causes of oppression and how you can contribute to transforming and changing the situation, not really just to hand out type of thing.” (peace educator 1)


The worker educator reflects on the responsibility of a radical educator which is to “own your position, at the same time..[to] work democratically with that”. She adds that in the practice of educating “there's a huge amount of learning and circulation of knowledge happening which is beyond you” .

So how do we define Popular Education and what is its future?↵

Having listened to experienced and committed popular educators working in past and present South Africa we ask: How do we define ‘popular education’? We see that there are various principles which underpin popular education – these include commitment to action to challenge injustices; creating solidarity through individual and collective confidence to act; the acknowledgement of the importance of learning from theory and from history to understand the root causes of issues; starting from where people are through acknowledging the wisdom and experience people bring to a situation; using methods which engage the heads, hearts and hands of participants.

The interviews with practitioners reveal a tension between a political vision as to what popular education should be and actual practices as part of progressive social movements.

The education rights activist explains the roots, different forms, structures and sites of popular education. Key traits emerging include: participants are working class who share experiences of oppression; the education is political, seeking to address oppressive relations and conditions, and the process is very varied, drawing on a range of different approaches.

Another example of popular education practice is popular theatre as a vehicle “to scratch people's brains”, as the cultural activist puts it.

The peace educators speak about the importance of identifying the root causes in their work to address issues in the present. For example, where does neoliberalism come from? We have to address slavery and colonialism – the root causes of the `peacelessness` we have today. Here too, 'Belief in self' is a principle – sometimes linked to the ideas of black consciousness.

Participants at a 2014 National Popular Education workshop suggest that in the years that followed 1994

“Neoliberalism has become the mainstream. State aggression has increased again. There are more popular education organisations and more tools, but also less collective focus and less united action. There are competing theories: there are fewer organisations sharing similar ideologies.”

Asked where is popular education heading, they replied,

“In 2014, we stand at `the delta of deceit`. This is marked by individualism and individual interest; it is also manifest in acts of violence, such as Marikana.’ At the same time social movements are growing as dissatisfaction increases”. (PEP Report 2014)

Many of the popular educators whom we interviewed have been activists and educators for decades. They are still committed to popular education as essential to bringing about social change:

“I think popular education is regaining in popularity again because it’s a generative, it’s a rebellious movement, it is an edgeplaying thing, something that develops on the fighting edges, and we need it again now to speak back to current hegemonic discourse here or whatever”. (women’s activist)

“… the stories of hope come not from you but from people out there. (…)”

“The other thing about future popular educators is that if there’s going to be a new education system, it has to break the monolithic Viking model; the university as a space from which you launch out to gather data, to process and sell data. If there’s going to be an alternative it has to be bottom-up, so popular educators create experimental sites for what that alternative might be. And then it is the only hope for moving away from the old social work model of fixing the wound or taking care of the scar, of helping people to adjust, of helping people's families to come together and we ask the question, ‘What for?’ So that’s very important.” (cultural activist)