A Review of the ‘Catalytic Project’

We looked back on the first 18 months of this research project into ‘traditions of popular education in South Africa’ in 2 stages: first, we complied with funders’ expectations and formulated a report just as soon as the ‘social forum’ was over and Janam, the street theatre group from India, had departed. Secondly, a few weeks and many walks and dialogues later, with some distance to the year and the (imposed) urgency of formulating a continuation of this research, new insights and questions emerged.

We begin the new year, 2015, with a few of our insights gathered through the research.

We invite you (All of you!) to respond and contribute to a dialogue on popular education: challenges for the (immediate) future! You can do so through ‘contribute’ and we will upload your comments.

Researching traditions of popular education in South Africa [1]

The reference group had suggested we work backwards: so, like Benjamin’s angel, we situated ourselves in the here and now of popular education and then charted a flight backwards hoping to find the springs of actions.

These are 10 of the insights that emerged:

  1. References to popular education on the internet abound; it appears to have gained new currency – and this presented the challenge of what to leave out, and what to include. We resolved to be inclusive, to begin with, yet guided by our definition of popular education as education that is rooted in the interests and struggles of working-class people; overtly political and critical of the status quo and committed to progressive change. 18 months into the work we can assert that one of our aims has surely been achieved: there is now a much more vigorous, critical and contested dialogue on popular education than before.
  2. There are many different manifestations of popular education. They range from education for individual empowerment and social mobility of people, to education for social mobilization where collectives drive action based on common imperatives; there is popular education that seeks to change the system from within, and popular education that takes a strong anti-system position and ferments action often informed by an idea articulated by vanguards of the movement.
    All organisations and people articulated a similar understanding of popular education as education rooted in the interests of (oppressed) people, education that combines learning with action, education for social justice. However, within these broad commonalities, there are decisive differences.
  3. Rather than ‘traditions’ different popular education endeavors are best described in terms of ‘tensions’ – and not just those between claims made and practices enacted, between theory espoused and theory in practice. Popular education work reveals ideological differences and political disagreements. The primary tensions are with regard to the position in relation to the state and the system (of global capitalism), and between individual and collective. We note that over the years, there has been a considerable shift from education for mobilization, to education for social mobility. Who is addressed by your practices: primarily the individual (with the purpose of personal development and advancement), or the collective (with the hope of action for changes that will make a difference for all)?
  4. Popular education that forms part of social movements runs the risk of banking: there is the temptation to ‘deposit’ information as a fast efficient way of transmitting lots of ideas and data. Despite the claim of a ‘bottom-up’ approach participants, here, are sometimes treated as the proverbial ‘empty vessels’. On the picket line (or whatever form of action is taken) participants may not be able to clearly articulate their struggle and thus educate others. On the other hand, the conviction that various forms of critical dialogue are the only way to produce radically alternative insights and knowledge often leads to a kind of paralysis with learning not leading to action. While participants may emerge with a well-articulated critique of the status quo they are less able to translate this into appropriate strategic and practical action.
  5. Rather than traditions, what emerged are ‘trends’. There are clear ‘red threads’ that run through the years into the present, and some of these are interwoven in intricate patterns of cooperation, solidarity and support underpinned by a strong set of beliefs and values. We will make these visible in a forthcoming article on the ‘time-line of popular education in South Africa’, in 2015.
  6. A compass is the metaphor that suggested itself for describing the trends and tensions. Popular education is embedded in the dynamics of ever-changing context, and given the huge changes in South Africa and globally in the last 45 odd years it is not surprising that there have been shifts, the greatest of which, arguably, is the shift from the collective to the individual. Even radical education based on materialist analysis has drifted away from an anti-systemic, collective approach towards targeting individuals (not necessarily against the system or even anti-capitalist) – with the hope that, once transformed, they will turn their attention towards the common good. This analysis is outlined fully in a forth-coming article (watch this space!)
  7. Within the trends, there are strong legacies, held by both people and organisations (in a national workshop in 2014 these were described as ‘currents’ converging and diverging in a river). Given the cutting of financial (donor) support after 1995, the ups and downs of membership-based organisations, the great (but maybe not radical enough) changes in our context, it is incredible to marvel at the ‘long-breath’ of organisations such as ‘Training for Transformation’, ‘Umtapo’, ‘Surplus People’s Project’ who have all survived and are still strongly active! Future investigations must throw more light on what keeps them going – where others disappeared and transmogrified into other kinds of organisations.
  8. We have interviewed a range of popular education activists both in South Africa and beyond and have been moved and inspired by their tenacity, their hope in alternatives to the capitalist system, their energy, their willingness to sacrifice for the greater good – and their humour! Here is where the strongest commonalities emerged. Irrespective of particular ideological beliefs, nurtured in struggle – in the Mass Demoratic Movement, labour, culture – often at great risk to their own health and wellbeing, they persist in their work as educators, organisers, advocates, activists. Many are still active in the same organisations for the past 30-40 years. We asked them what fires them on, what fuels their passion. The stories will be edited and made available as inspirations for others, in 2015.
  9. There is a dangerous de-politicization of education with the new emphasis on community colleges. The vocational function threatens to (again) shove the importance of critical and analytical skills out of the way as these colleges may claim to support ‘popular education’ but turn out to be little more than re-vamped adult learning centres. Rather than seeing cohesive communities as a value and an alternative future opposed to capitalism, community appears little more than a geographic location for the new centres and colleges. This research set out to identify models that may inform the workings of community education / multi-purpose centres that work in the interests of local communities. But developing critical, creative, analytic citizens is not the aim as much as offering skills in the hope of economic upswings.
  10. Theatre – especially theatre out in the public, like street theatre – is a wonderfully exciting and all-embracing tool for popular education. The visit by ‘JANAM’ from India was an inspiring and inspirational event for many who participated in one of the community-based performances. It showed us how much potential there is for bringing public issues like abuse, exploitation and violence against workers into the open and begin conversations towards what can be done to address them.
  11. There is still a lot of work to be done: both in terms of research and in terms of educational work. We have begun networking with others who are inspired by a vision of a radically different future, locally and internationally. It raises some important questions: How do we put aside political differences around the interpretation of particular radical theories and ideas so that popular education can grow into a movement that strengthens organisations/social movements? How do we convince policy-makers and people in positions of power that it is in the interest of a democratic state to have well-informed and critically conscious citizens and that popular education has an important role to play in creating such a citizenry?  What must happen so that contradictions become the vehicle for a movement forward – and not the morass for getting stuck? How do we turn the needle of the compass to communal struggles for collectives, to social mobilisation for justice for all, and not just individual advancement/development?

We hope this project will continue so that the stories of popular education can inspire young people and future generations! We welcome all activist/educators to be part of building and shaping this project in the year ahead!

Re-Membering Traditions of Popular Education: towards comprehending and informing community education policy and provision

February 2015


[1]In the end, we were constrained by juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities and our physical location. The data on the website attest to this: there is an (over-) emphasis on what’s happening in the Western Cape and in urban areas – something to be addressed in the future! In the future, the project still needs to go further in terms of its historical research, e.g. case studies like LACOM and explorations of deep oral traditions in rural areas.