Profile of Shirley Walters


Shirley Walters is a leading figure in adult and continuing education in South Africa and has been recognized internationally for her pioneering work. She has been involved in popular education and adult education since the 1970s. During the anti-apartheid struggle she was involved with many community organizations, in attempts to deepen the struggle for democracy and lay the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.

Shirley was the founding director of the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) and the founding director of the Division for Lifelong Learning (DLL) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). She has been associated with UWC for nearly 40 years.

Shirley has published widely on issues relating to gender, popular education, adult education, community education, lifelong learning in higher education and education for democracy. She has been centrally involved in the international networks of adult educators through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE), amongst others.


Shirley describes her initial deep transformative experience as an activist for social justice as working on the mines in Namibia. Whilst she grew up in a liberal home, she did not yet carry an analysis of social injustice until working on the mines. She moved to Namibia in 1972, after the mineworker strikes, and was employed by the personnel department to assist in improvement of employee/employer communications.

This was her first experience of listening to the needs and experiences of workers and adults with limited literacy levels. The workers wanted literacy classes in English as part of their political need to connect with other workers’ struggles in the rest of the world. She initiated the setting up of reading rooms at each of the hostels and English night classes:

“We got maps of Africa, we got books, a lot of African writer series books – and so it was very much about night classes and using literacy and language to both meet the immediate needs of the workers, but also to give them a sense of hope.”

Shirley describes the importance of the literacy classes, both in terms of meeting workers’ immediate communication needs and in terms of building hope, dignity and an alternative space to be in the world:

“You can read things and…  feel more part of the world. So I think that’s where the hope comes in. I think also giving people attention … what I was trying to do in those small efforts was firstly give people a sense of dignity. We created these lovely reading rooms with actually really nice books, papers, maps, and it was a space for them to come and not be workers; they could come and just be human beings.”

Shirley learnt to listen and develop a deeper analysis of social injustice. The mineworkers educated her about SWAPO and other liberation movements in Africa. This was her first experience of being both teacher and learner, of a two way learning experience, and a humbling experience in which she learnt to respect the knowledge and experience of those she was meant to teach:

“I think one of the most important shifts in my own understanding was 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.”

Shirley recounts reading Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed at the time, as part of her awakening experience. Freire made sense in a poetic, intuitive way. “It was about injustice, it was about poverty, it was about inequalities, it was about understanding oppression”. Whilst not understanding everything, she developed a deeper sense of oppression and injustice from the book.

Shirley recounts her next formative experience as working for UWC in 1976, employed to do research into the needs for career guidance for ‘coloured’ and black African youth. She worked in poor communities like Heideveld, Bonteheuwel, Langa and Gugulethu, interviewing youth. Here, she had another educative experience, just before the country exploded with the Soweto uprisings, that informed her later work:

“What was again so important for my own education was people saying: ‘Listen, whitey, who the hell do you think you are; what do you think you’re doing?’ The atmosphere was such that people could speak truth. There was obviously a level of confidence … There was something in the air where people's levels of tolerance were just reaching breaking point. And so I am profoundly grateful for the education they gave to me”.


Shirley, along with others, set up an NGO, Careers Research and Information Centre (CRIC) in 1977. CRIC ran for a further 30 years. The purpose of CRIC was to take the idea of a career and shift it away from just a job, to a question of life purpose. Career guidance was used to assist youth in analysing their lives and asking deeper, structural questions about their futures. The intent was to strengthen individuals, so as to strengthen communities to dream, stand up and fight for a democratic future. It was about creating hope for an alternative future in which `race` would not be the primary determinant of one’s life chance’s and to create a collective vision of an alternative.

CRIC worked with people – youth, communities and teachers – from across ethnic, language and class backgrounds and tried to create a new reality in the present. Shirley remarks that “it was a bit in the Gramscian sense of creating the new in the womb of the old.”

CRIC created an opportunity for people to come together across deep divides, to learn from each other. It was a space for community workers to grapple with trying to analyse the world, make sense of the world, and contribute towards a democratic society: “We were running this little organisation with trying to walk the talk of being democratic and struggling with what does ‘democratic’ mean when you’ve only known authoritarianism in your life.” CRIC experimented with democratic participatory methods and popular education approaches, such as codes to analyse power relations. It was participatory in the sense of people coming up with their own curriculum and giving leadership and direction in workshops. There were real attempts to enact democracy in practice.

There were different traditions and influences within the CRIC community. Some were part of Black Consciousness traditions, ANC traditions, more liberal traditions, feminist and liberation theology traditions. The Black Consciousness Movement was growing and encouraging black people to think and do things for themselves. There was a sense of experimentation and trying different ways to bring about some kind of change. People were continuing to read Freire, liberation theology and pass books around that were banned. CRIC was part of a network of organizations, including SACHED, Black Sash, Community Arts Project, the Christian Institute, and Black Consciousness self help projects.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Shirley’s work focused on education for democracy – to prepare for a new democratic society. During this time she was involved in the UDF, United Women’s Organisation, the Women’s National Coalition (WNC), Grassroots Newspaper, and was founding director of CACE and DLL at UWC. During this period, Shirley connected with people who had been doing solidarity work in Southern Africa and in Latin America, from a left perspective but as activists, feminists – all coming out of Marxists traditions of one form or another – but all of it connecting to a belief in a deep democracy.

Shirley recounts a moment of popular education in practice when the South African Domestic Workers Association asked her to come and run a session for them on Gramsci. She remembers really taking very seriously the importance of theory and a recognition by the domestic workers that one cannot change the world if one does not understand it and have a theory of change. For Shirley, it was a coming together in a very authentic way because she was not telling people, rather they were inviting her into their learning space.

With the WNC, Shirley was involved in survey of opinions in shopping malls across the Western Cape, to gather people’s opinions about women’s rights. The WNC published a booklet of opinions from women of the rights they wanted within the Constitution. Here was an attempt to build a future participatory, democratic society.

CACE was established at UWC in 1985. It involved training, research, networking and support for adult educatorswho were located within poor, working class communities and linked to the democratic movement. The development of CACE was seen as a base from which to train adult and popular educators and produce materials.CACE ran a number of formal certificate programmes and developed materials – often for study groups in rural areas. Their work was infused with the methodologies and principles of popular education.CACE also ran workshops on gender and race – trying to name and bring to the fore that which was not being named in the movement for democracy.

Shirley continued to fight for access to learning for working people through the establishment of the Division for Lifelong Learning at UWC in 1999. Lifelong learning is a philosophy and an approach, which encourages and enables lifelong learning that is related to the needs of the majority of poor and marginalized communities. The concept challenges the function of a university by placing the economic, cultural and social needs of communities at the centre of the university and imagining education as a life-long, life-wide and life-deep process embedded in an ethical project.


Shirley emphasizes the importance of ‘the heart’ of popular education as well as a spirit of tenacity to keep going despite the trials within the constant striving for social justice. 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 myself.”

Popular education is far more than a methodology or just an educational practice. It is work that deals with our whole beings and our different life journeys:

“It’s not a small matter to work with people's sense of well-being and their sense of dignity and respecting themselves. And different people will be at different parts along the trail. So when I think of the hurt and the damage that’s been done to people and continues to be done whether it’s through violence of any kind, there’s a huge amount of healing work that’s necessary.”

Often the popular education work is about encouraging a sense of self-confidence in people in order for them to be social agents and participate in determining their own future:

“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.”

Popular education is about allowing people to bring their whole selves into spaces and encouraging the development of such. Often it is about disrupting spaces to make them more heartfelt, more interactive, more playful and creative.


Shirley characterises the values of popular education as relating to furthering social justice. It is about encouraging people to participate as fully as they can, with their heads, hearts and their hands, in whatever contexts and situations people find themselves.

It is about challenging inequality of different forms and building respect and dignity for all people: “it’s encouragement of the dignity and respect that comes with the challenging of the different hierarchies of power within a given context. And it might look very different and you might have very different opportunities at different times.”

Further, popular education carries an ethics of truth and honesty: “there are no quick and easy solutions”. There are no short cuts. Popular education aims to build critical thinking and people’s capacities to effect change and build hope for an alternative:“encourage people to be agents working towards a more just and more equitable society, together with allies; at least hold out the hope that that’s possible”.

This is to be sought and fought for in whatever spaces one finds oneself – the taxi, train, university meeting etc. Thus it is a disposition and approach to the world. An educator activist interacts with the others by encouraging, probing, pushing and expanding people’s horizons.Shirley describes it as:

“A sensibility; it’s a way of being in the world … we are all living in extreme – well, some people in much more constrained circumstances than others, so how do I analyse? If I’m in a relationship with someone who’s beating me up, what do I do about that? – as micro as that might be or in an organisation like a university. People may be becoming authoritarian so what am I going to do about it? How do we analyse processes? It’s about a sensibility, which encourages the striving for social justice together with others. My liberation is tied into the liberation of others – I am invested personally and politically”.


“Academics”. Mail & Guardian. 2005.

“Shirley Walters”. International Adult and Continuing Education Hall of Fame. 2012.

Shirley Walters, interview by Thembi Luckett, April 28, 2014.

Volbrecht, Terry & Walters, Shirley, “Re-imagining a Picture: Higher Education in Lifelong Learning”, Adult Education and Development, no. 55 (2000).

Document Type: 
Conversations with Educators