Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC)

The Co-operative and Policy Alternative Center (COPAC) was formed in 1999 as a grass roots development organisation. It began with the aim of contributing to bottom-up processes of development in post-apartheid South Africa in response to persistent poverty and inequality in South Africa and the failure of capitalist modes of production and distribution. COPAC thus orientated itself towards capacity-building amongst poor, working class communities to enable “self reliant, collectively driven, sustainable and participatory development”. It was initially established as an association and in 2001 it registered as a not-for-profit section 21 company.


COPAC’s vision is “Building human solidarity to sustain life”. COPAC aims to develop a co-operative movement in South Africa and to promote alternatives to capitalism that meet the needs of workers and the poor. A co-operative movement is about building a counter-power to capitalism based on different values and principles, such as solidarity, sharing, mutual care, democratic control, collective agency, creativity, and environmental conservation.

Target participants

COPAC works with many partners – its target participants are working class communities and social movements, such as Masibambane Unemployed Project and Unemployed People’s Movement. COPAC has also partnered with Trade Unions, other NGOs and government departments.

COPAC works mainly in Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. An example of COPAC’s work is its assistance in the establishment of the Eco-village in Ivory Park.

Focus areas

COPAC undertakes advocacy, policy development, research and education work.

COPAC’s educational work focuses on building capacity and collective agency.

COPAC undertakes education on topics such as:

  • Problem-solving leadership;
  • Financial management and income generation;
  • Running and sustaining a co-operative based on workers’ democratic principles;
  • Building activism on the solidarity economy;
  • Food sovereignty.


COPAC has set up a number of Solidarity Economy Education-Communication Cooperatives (SEECC). These are local education centres run by the communities and COPAC plays supporting role.

COPAC’s educational approach, through these cooperatives, focuses on building capacity and critical consciousness. The development of critical consciousness is understood as a process of:

  • Starting from where people are at and their everyday experiences and problems;
  • Moving to developing a collective structural analysis of the causes of poverty/unemployment;
  • Building self-confidence and collective confidence to a point where one is able to undertake collective action towards finding a solution to the problem(s);
  • Reflection on action and revision of action if necessary.
  • Constant question-posing by the facilitator to problematise assumptions and deepen understandings and active, participatory learning.

Capacity development is seen as part of building confidence and tools to overcome problems. This includes leadership skills, reading and writing skills, financial management and worker management of co-operatives.

Tools and processes

For COPAC, an important educational process is that of building working class leadership and problem-solving. This process/cycle is outlined as:

Identification of a collective problem(s) and a collective vision of an alternative;

  • Possible solutions and strategies;
  • Selection of solution and strategy;
  • Action;
  • Reflection.

COPAC has developed activist guides on the solidarity economy and on food sovereignty. These guides are workshopped with participants and include the development of movement building tools such as:

  • Organising;
  • Designing a self-management model;
  • Developing vision and objectives for the co-operative;
  • Developing a guideline for membership rights and obligations.

COPAC draws on a number of tools, including social media in the form of twitter, facebook and whatsapp. COPAC also produces a community newsletter, through which communities and activists can think about new possibilities, learn from international experiences, be exposed to different resources, and through which organizations in the co-operative movement and outside can share lessons and experiences with each other.

COPAC also draws on creative tools such as photography, in which members of co-operatives are encouraged to document their own experiences culminating in an exhibition and reflection on the photographs.

Understanding of popular education

Popular education is understood in opposition to the banking method of education, which reproduces structures through hierarchical processes of learning and positioning the learner as inactive and ignorant.

In contrast, popular education combines doing and thinking, it is active learning in a democratic space and often combines education with production (mental and manual labour). Popular education focuses on Why and How (in whose interests and by what means) rather than on What, thus developing critical, active thinking. Popular education responds to the context and the needs and interests of the collective at hand.

Influences for COPAC’s popular education work include Freire, Rick Turner, Steve Biko, Dora Tamana, and the work NUMSA undertook in the 1980s with retrenched workers.

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