People's Education for People's Power

‘People’s Education for People’s Power’ emerged as a concept, vision and programme of action out of the education crisis of 1985. It was based on a rejection of Apartheid education epitomized in the ongoing school boycotts of 1984/5, but moved further to envision education for the majority of the people – students, parents, teachers and workers. According to Kruss (1988, p. 9) “Students, teachers, and parents began to question what a different, alternative education system would be like. What would be its underlying principles? What would be its method and content? …”

Student struggles and their rejection of Bantu education in the 1980s became linked with demands and campaigns concerning everyday issues that confronted communities. In this way the student struggles were connected with community, worker, women and youth organisations. Students developed an understanding that educational transformation required societal transformation. After a period, the intensified and sustained boycotts led to concern amongst parents and teachers regarding the future of their children and students. A 1985 Soweto Parents Crisis Committee Conference passed a resolution on the conditional return to school to use schools as the beginnings of People’s Education. People’s Education can be described as “a deliberate attempt to move away from reactive protests around education to develop a counter-hegemonic education strategy, to contribute to laying a basis for a future, post-apartheid South Africa” (Kruss, 1988, p. 8).

Since its conception, People’s Education has been a debated concept. People’s Education is difficult to pin down as it was understood to be part of a people’s process, developing in action rather than conceptualized in theory. Based primarily on the Soweto Parents Crisis Committee Conference of 1985 and the National Education Crisis Committee Conference of 1986, the key tenets of People’s Education can be summarized as follows:

-       Apartheid education was rejected as education for domination.

-       People’s Education was both an educational and a political programme. Education is not a-political: The struggle for alternative education was part of the political struggle for a democratic non-racial South Africa.

-       Mobilization and organisation were considered integrated to developing the beginnings of an alternative education and an alternative South Africa. To this end, People’s Education aimed to:

o   Prepare people for full participation in a democratic society

o   Build democratic organisation to struggle to attain People’s Power

o   Deepen and develop revolutionary organisation

-       People’s Education depended on and promoted the unity of different sectors of society – parents, teachers, students and communities.

-       People’s Education had to be controlled democratically: by and in the interests of the majority of the people.

-       People’s Education extended beyond formal school and university education. It should educate and empower all.

-       People’s education was not neutral – it aimed to instill particular values necessary for building an alternative society e.g. co-operation, solidarity, creativity, critical thinking, active participation and democracy. It was opposed to authoritarian, individualistic, competitive values propagated by the state and capitalism. According to the Resolutions of the National Consultative Conference (1985): People’s Education “eliminates capitalist norms of competition, individualism and stunted intellectual development and … encourages collective input and active participation by all, as well as stimulating critical thinking and analysis” and as Mkhatshwa (1985, p. 14) stated “prepares people for total human liberation”.

-       People’s Education was understood to be a dynamic process, constantly changing and dynamic according to the needs of the people and the conditions of the time.


After the 1985 conference commissions were set up. For example, commissions for People’s English, People’s History and People’s Mathematics were to explore the development of alternative curricula in the schools. The commission for People’s English (1986), for example, stated that English at schools should assist people to “use English effectively for their own purposes; express and consider the issues and questions of their time; transform themselves into full and active members of society” (as cited in Kruss, 1988, p. 26).

People’s Education raised issues still pertinent to today as limited aspects of People’s Education have been implemented in post-apartheid South Africa. For example, struggles for community control over universities, education for all, democratisation of education and the development of alternative curricula are ongoing.


Kruss, G. (1988). People’s Education: An Examination of the Concept. Bellville: Centre for Adult and Continuing Education.

Mkhatshwa, S. Keynote Address. Report on National Consultative Conference on the Crisis in Education, Johannesburg, December 1985.

Resolutions of the National Consultative Conference on the Crisis in Education, Johannesburg, December 1985.


Document Type: 
Conversations with Educators