Older Features

An archive of features about Popular Education

The story of Maria and Marius: a South African story of domestic abuse

A play made and performed by a group of women from Delft, members of The Women’s Circle and participants in the Popular Education Programme

Maria and Marius in love

Once, there were two young people, Maria and Marius, who fell in love with each other.  But they lived in an environment that was extremely violent: drugs and gang-wars, abuse of all kinds kept people indoors, for fear of being attacked. Yet, soon the ugliness of abuse in the streets and neighbourhoods penetrated their home and relationship, and they began to fight.

Seeking work

Feminism on the internet: a workshop hosted by Women'sNet and Association for Progressive Communication (APC): 21-22 November 2016.

Image: ICTs for Feminist Movement Building Activist Toolkit (Source)

In our uneven society, how has the internet been created and how is it shaping us? This question was interrogated at a workshop titled Feminist Principles of the Internet and ICTs for Movement Building hosted by the Association of Progressive Communication (APC) and Women’sNet (held on 22 and 23 November 2016). Today, the internet offers vast access in terms of resources, news, opportunities and networking - to those who are connected. However, many are not able to access internet due to a lack of infrastructure, unaffordability of data, language barriers or the tricky task of sifting through the enormity of information for action. Just like in the real world, gender (and other oppressive structures) determines access differentially, often with violent and discriminatory effects for women or non-conforming genders. But, as in the real world, there is hope and the possibility to work against this.

Some questions posed were: Who controls the internet? How does the internet control us? How do we stay safe and help others to feel safe on the internet? How has the landscape of activism changed as a result of the internet? Are we more connected or more divided as a result of the internet?  

Language and power in spaces for educating: Co-constructing understanding(s) of terms


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (1986) writes about his colonial school in Kenya in the 1950s. At this school, if anyone was caught speaking a language other than English, they were made to wear a wooden frame around their neck which read, ‘I am a donkey’. Today in Cape Town we hear of students being ‘de-merited’ at some schools for speaking isiXhosa in the playground – a language prominently spoken in the Cape. Historically and still today, language has often been used in formal educational contexts to control and oppress. What are we teaching when we punish people for speaking their home language? Amongst other things, we are dismissing a culture and suggesting that only certain cultures align with what we think of as `education`. We are a multi-lingual society, with 11 official languages, but we are still to develop methodologies which enable everyone to be understood, feel included and ‘at home’, whether in formal educational spaces or informal meetings. How can we challenge domination through the way we use language when we communicate?

Exploring and tackling racism: A compilation of popular education activities

Artwork by  Pawel Kuczynski

In his novel, Astonishing the Gods (1995), Ben Okri described the effects of racism as ‘invisibility: the main protagonist is introduced as having been born invisible. His mother, too, was invisible, ‘That was why she could see him.’ What may appear as magical is, in fact, rooted in very tangible evidence:

‘It was in books that he first learnt of his invisibility. He searched for himself and his people in all the history books he read and discovered to his youthful astonishment that he didn't exist. This troubled him so much that he resolved, as soon as he was old enough to leave his land and find the people who did exist, to see what they looked like (p.3).’

He travelled for seven years, and his quest was 'for the secret of visibility'.

Currently students who demand radical changes in curricula have picked up on this: how come, they ask, we (Black, often working class) and our reality is not to be found in textbooks?

Practice, pedagogy, power: Shaping and strengthening popular education in South Africa through street theatre

Last year, a project known as 'street theatre as popular education' was undertaken by Traditions of Popular Education in collaboration with the Popular Education Programme, August –December 2015, in Cape Town. The project was both a popular education and a research project: firstly, it undertook to teach members of the public in economically and socially poor areas about Tuberculosis (TB). The play addressed issues of stigma and focused on the politics of TB – who is infected mainly, and why? It asked questions such as ‘why is there no appropriate medication for children with TB? ‘How can we activate pharmaceuticals to invest more into research on TB treatment?’ and ‘How best can all of us support people infected in the interest of us all?’ Secondly, the project documented and critically analysed conditions that need to be created so that performances can reach people who would not otherwise engage in popular education. It asked questions about the nature of plays and performances and the possibilities of affecting change in members of the audience. Finally the project looked to answer the question: How can street theatre contribute towards generating public dialogue around current and topical issues? Read the detailed report here.

Women march on

Sixty years ago, on 9 August 1956, 20 000 women from all walks of life, marched together to the Union Buildings in Pretoria from Johannesburg in protest against a new law that would require black African women to carry passes. The pass laws prescribed who could enter, live and work in certain areas. Usually it meant that black African men and women had to carry a pass on them at all times and could be picked up and thrown in jail if they did not have a pass.  (Read more on the 1956 March here). The march was a significant event which showed women across all apartheid race classifications, in solidarity with black African women. It demonstrated women’s collective power and determination to resist injustices together.  After 1994, the 9th of August become National Women’s Day, a national day to celebrate women’s contributions to the social, cultural, economic, political, spiritual life of the country. So what are women ‘marching’ for 60 years on?

Here are some examples of the ways women are ‘marching’ under new conditions to create another different, more just world:

  I write what I like - the cover

Brief report on Colloquium on Forging Solidarity: Southern Perspectives of Popular Education, 9 - 11 June 2016

Image caption: Solidarity Mural

(Hosted by Traditions of Popular Education Research Project, University of Western Cape, supported by National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) www.populareducation.co.za)

Some fifty people gathered at the colloquium which was held at the Sustainability Institute, Stellenbosch. Participants came from different organisations, including academic institutions, government, social movements and NGOs, from as far away as Chile, India, Senegal and Canada and as close as Delft, Khayelitsha and Grahamstown. They brought with them focus, energy and willingness to be creative, and a commitment to engage with critical questions both on a one on one basis, around tables, and in plenary sessions.  The aims of the colloquium were to grapple with the central theme and in the process give food for thought to 20 people who are contributing chapters to a book of the same name. Presentations were made, in the main, by contributors to the forthcoming book.

Tablecloth image - solidarity in different languages

Part 3: Making sense of ‘solidarity’

If we wish to employ popular education in order to ‘forge solidarity’ we need to have a clear understanding of what ‘solidarity’ actually means. There are many different understandings, ranging from solidarity as ‘humanitarian gesture’ on the one hand, to solidarity as ‘political relationship’, on the other.

The word ‘solidarity’ itself is fairly abstract and conceptual, with different historical roots. If we want to define what it means it may be more useful to think about solidarity in terms of ‘acts’ or ’expressions’ of solidarity.

Here are a few examples:

  • A group of unionized workers at a factory goes on strike, protesting against dangerous working conditions. Other workers at other factories, who belong to the same union, come out on strike, in solidarity. A theatre group acts in solidarity: they make a play that tells the story of the strike. They perform in public places drawing attention to the demands of the workers, and afterwards they pass a hat around to collect money for the strike fund.

  • Students occupy a building vowing to remain there until their demands are met. They organize all-night seminars and discussions. Invited lecturers run the ‘teach-ins’ sessions; tutors offer their services coaching students with their work. An outside group of people prepare and bring food in support of the students and as an act of solidarity.

Part 2: Exploring ‘Solidarity’

Every year, the Popular Education Programme (PEP) organizes and runs a National Popular Education Development (PED) workshop. In October 2015, the theme of that workshop was ‘Building alliances, forging solidarity’. In the course of the 2 days we experimented with a range of PE processes to help us explore the meaning (and implications) of ‘solidarity’.

Participants were social and educational activists many of whom are engaged in social movements and practical every-day struggles affecting working class people. For them, questions of solidarity are everyday concerns as they strive to make collective working for change more powerful.

Here, we present three of the tools we used to further explore ‘forging solidarity’. You may want to try and use these in your work!

Defining ‘solidarity’ – a conceptual exercise

Ask participants how many and what languages they speak. Break the group into small groups ensuring that you have at least 3 different languages in each group.

Task 1:

‘Translate the word ’solidarity’ into as many languages as you can. If there is no one word, describe the meaning using many words, images, metaphors etc

Task 2:

Describe how the meaning of ‘solidarity’ differs from the meaning of ‘unity’ (and other words)

Part 1: Forging Solidarity - Southern Perspectives of Popular Education, 9-10 June 2016

Freedom Day (27 April) in South Africa is a good day to launch our count-down to the colloquium.

We begin with the ‘Solidarity Song’ by Bertolt Brecht, arguably one of the greatest writers and playwrights of all time.  His ‘southern perspective’ was to side with the dispossessed and oppressed - but also his belief that songs, poems, plays that speak out against oppressors are powerful acts of defiance!

Bertolt Brecht:  Solidarity Song

Peoples of the world, together
Join to serve the common cause!
So it feeds us all for ever
See to it that it's now yours.

Forward, without forgetting
Where our strength can be seen now to be!
When starving or when eating
Forward, not forgetting
Our solidarity!

Black or white or brown or yellow
Leave your old disputes behind.
Once start talking with your fellow
People, you'll soon be of one mind.

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.

A remarkable history of popular education: Learning through the story of two feminist activists from South Africa

The research seeks to shed light on the (radical) non-formal educational work that operated outside of and often in direct opposition to the formal education system in apartheid South-Africa, pre-1994. The formal education system was a reflection of authoritarian and racist relations in which (‘white’) masters were deemed to be the experts inducting (‘black’)ignorant people into Western / European knowledge. Popular education sought to recognise and validate subordinated people’s existing knowledge and skills and the socio-cultural contexts that gave rise to innovations and strategies of survival.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many creative community initiatives across a wide range of activities and locations, like religious organisations, trade unions, advice offices, NGOs, schools, universities and social movements offered popular or people’s education. Training for Transformation, founded by Anne Hope and Sally Timmel, is one of these.

Street Theatre for Education Project

Street Theatre for Education Project

In the first phase of the ‘Traditions of Popular Education’ project we had invited the Jana Natya Manch street theatre group from Delhi, India, to tour various communities and sites in/around Cape Town, and to run a workshop in street-theatre making for interested parties. It became clear that there is a great potential for street theatre performances to attract attention, to conscientise and activate a broad public.  A specific pedagogical undertaking of the second phase of the ‘traditions project’ is to explore arts-based practices following the model of the community-based street-theatre experiences of 2014 and early 2015.

The Street Theatre Project (STP) 2015 has a dual purpose:

(1)education and activation


Education and activation

Experience has shown that performances in public spaces and places reach audiences that would not otherwise engage in and with popular education. The same audiences may not have had much exposure to drama and theatre and the joy of public story-telling! Street theatre can be a useful and engaging way to raise critical awareness of and build insight into issues affecting working class people with the aim to stimulate public dialogue and action for change.

IX World Assembly, International Council for Adult Education (ICAE)

Adult Learning and Education to Create the World We Want

11-14 June 2015

Every 4 years ICAE has its Assembly to assess the state of adult education in civil society and to elect its new executive. This year it was held in Montreal, Canada. Here is the new executive who consists of the President, Sandy Morrison, New Zealand, 4 Vice-Presidents, one from each region, the Treasurer and Additional Members, plus the Past President and the Secretary General. Three members are from Africa – Aminata Boly, as Treasurer from Burkina Faso, Shirley Walters as Vice President for Africa from South Africa, and Valerio Ussene, Additional Member from Mozambique.

The Assembly started with a very informative, popular education tour of Montreal, focusing particularly on the history of immigrant communities. This was conducted by a civil society organisation and it helped the many visitors to Canada to catch a glimpse of the complex, rich history of the city and of Quebec, which is primarily French speaking, with the rest of Canada speaking mainly English. (French and English are the two official languages of Canada.)

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:

Exciting Popular Education Programme 2015!

The Popular Education Programme 2015 builds on previous experiences and insights. Through its dialogue and workshop series, the youth course and specifically designed work with organisations the programme targets experienced and new educators working in NGOs and grassroots organisations. All participants must have a belief in and passion for education as a vehicle for change and transformation.

Popular education is different from formal education:

·      It begins with the everyday life and concerns of participants.

·      It leads to actions for change.

·      It explores alternatives to the present system

·      It analyses issues of power, inequality and injustice.

·      It encourages active participation 

The Dialogue Series

The popular education ‘dialogues’ take our previous work with ‘popular education practitioner circles’ a step forward. They aim to further develop a cadre of experienced educators and introduce the popular education approach to new ones. There will be 10 ‘dialogues’, each approximately 3-hours long, on the last Friday of the month. They will revolve around specific topical issues, designed collaboratively and facilitated by experienced popular educators.  

The Workshop Series

Now out! The Victoria Mxenge Housing Project: Women Building Communities through Social Activism and Informal Learning by Salma Ismail (2015)

At the beginning of South Africa’s democratic change, in 1994, the Victoria Mxenge Housing Project was founded by a group of 30 women who lived in shacks on the barren outskirts of Cape Town. These women had come from rural areas and were poor, vulnerable and semi-literate. Yet they learned how to build, negotiate with the government and NGOs, architects and building experts, and form alliances with homeless social movements locally and internationally, in India and Brazil. The desolate piece of land they occupied is now a thriving, sustainable community of more than 5 000 houses.

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? …”

Reflection on JANAM Visit (27 Oct to 10 Nov 2014)

One of the proposed aims of the ‘Traditions of Popular Education’ research is to advocate for popular education:  expose people to what it feels like to participate, and stimulate them to think and act on their insights.  We believe that popular education is much more than a methodology or set of tools – it is, grounded in ordinary people’s everyday experiences and struggles and strongly underpinned by values of equality and justice and hopes for a radically different future.

On 27 October, six members of the Indian street theatre company Jana Natya Manch  (Janam) arrived in Cape Town for a two-week tour. They had a busy schedule of performances and workshops, and they gave all their energy to what became memorable occasions for all who participated.