Peoples Education for Peoples Power’: The Rise and Fall of an Idea in Southern Africa

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Post Independence Education

In the last section we have seen that there were alternative systems of education available to the liberated states after independence. However, these were largely ignored and the education systems in post independence states in southern Africa remained structurally very similar to those that already existed and which had long served the colonial regime. At the same time education has been increasingly commodified in each of the southern African countries. This has been exemplified through the expansion of private schooling (Centre for Development and Enterprise, 2010), and the increasing of user costs of education even as schooling is made ‘fee-free’ (South Africa Department of Education, 2003). At the same time there has been a continuation and even deepening of the inherited bifurcated, unequal but parallel public education systems in each of these countries.

Post-colonial Schooling System

The post-liberation period has seen schooling take on an increasingly class (rather than race) character. The children of the new and colonial elites, the bourgeoisie, attend schools with highly qualified teachers, with state of the art equipment and high levels of academic and sport success (Bloch, 2009; Chung, 1988; Zvobgo, 1987). In contrast the peasantry and urban working class tend to find that their liberation involves their children’s access to education being compromised by poor quality education. Teachers are often poorly qualified and are frequently absent, there are high levels of violence attached to the school, and the schools lack libraries, laboratories and computers (Bloch, 2009; Prew, 2003). In short, their experience of schooling and their likelihood of succeeding and accessing a professional or highly skilled job are poor and at the same time the preparation they receive to be self-employed or at least for being useful members of society is weak.

The failure, and possibly the unwillingness, to fundamentally transform the mainstream colonial education systems on taking power is exemplified by the Ministers of Education appointed after independence by the liberation movements. In Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique the post-independence Ministers of Education were arguably political ‘light weights’. In fact in South Africa, Professor Sibusiso Bengu was even of somewhat doubtful party loyalty and his main value to the ANC seemed to be his Zulu origins and his IFP/ANC constituency in a troubled province.7 For whatever reason, it was clear, that the first post election governments across the region were not going to spend a lot of energy on transforming the education system. This was a deep shock to many commentators at the time, particularly in South Africa, as the ANC pre-election statement on education, the ‘A Policy Framework for Education and Training’ or ‘Yellow Book’ (African National Congress, 1994), had put a marker down indicating the ANC’s apparent transformational intentions in the education and training field. The ANC had assiduously researched and defined policy for the education sector, building on the NECC’s National Education Policy Investigation process (National Education Co-ordinating Committee, 1993). The ANC deployed some three hundred researchers across the country to undertake research, which would feed into the statement.

The Yellow Book is the clearest and most well-articulated of all southern African liberation movements’ statements in education at this period. It emphasises the following principles:

  • Integration: Of schooling and training in a single articulated system aimed at transforming the ‘apartheid labour market’ and empowering people to meet their basic needs and democratise society;

  • Free: Education would be open access and free to all for the first 10 years of schooling;

  • Inclusion and Representation: with students being represented at all levels of the system, including higher education, in direct relation to their demographic strength;

  • Skills for transformation: The schooling and higher education system would be specifically tasked with providing the skills needed to drive ‘national and provincial reconstruction’;

  • Social development and economic empowerment: These were to be the key aims of a revised further education and training system which should massify access;

  • Open learning pathways: The curriculum at every level, but particularly at further education and adult education levels, should promote life-long learning and so multiple entry and exit points;

  • Community centred learning: Schools – and particularly farm and rural schools – should be ‘Community Learning Centres’ providing ‘after school activities linked to the social, educational, health and recreational needs of the community, linked to rural development projects’ (p. 103). Adult Basic Education must be ‘linked to broader social and economic development projects’ (p. 88);

  • Curriculum reform: The school curriculum should be reformed so that it ‘empowers learners for social, economic and political participation’ through ‘individual development (moral, intellectual, aesthetic, psychological); knowledge about work; [and] social participation’ (pp. 97-8);

  • Early childhood provision: The focus is on enriched play and activity based curriculum, which builds on the child’s own knowledge and experience in his/her community;

  • Active learning: Teacher training and in-service training needs to encourage active learning through teachers who are ‘competent, confident, critical and reflective’ (p. 51);

  • Development of Indigenous Technology Capacity: Education institutions ‘must ensure that students and workers engage with technology through linking the teaching of science and mathematics to the life experiences of the individual and the community’ (p. 84).

The Yellow Book is remarkably coherent, considering that it drew from “trade unionists, teacher and student activists, researchers, academics, officials from the old education departments...(and) leading educationists in South Africa and abroad” (Centre for Education Policy Development 2003: i). It presents a broadly progressive vision of transformational education and training which draws from both the mainstream school tradition and the liberation movement tradition. The aspects which were new to the South African system and drew on liberation, progressive and Socialist thinking include the focus on community based learning, curriculum reform to empower learners, developing skills specifically needed to transform the society and economy, and on teachers encouraging children to think for themselves and problem solve. Previous curricula for black education, according to Nkomo (1990), had explicitly aimed at the economic and social repression of the majority population. The Yellow Book also includes some principles of the traditional indigenous education experience by drawing on indigenous technology along with community education which taps into the strengths and traditions of rural and peri-urban society.

However, within two years of the Yellow Book being published the South African Schools Act (Department of Education, 1996) was promulgated. It had the effect of institutionalising the status quo with emphasis on schools being able to set their own policies and fundraise in their community while being governed by a School Governing Body with majority representation from the parent body. Although it created the space for progressive pro-poor funding mechanisms to be put in place (South Africa Department of Education, 1998), given the past skewing of funding towards former white schools and the relative wealth of their communities, the pro-poor funding norms (South Africa Department of Education, 2003) and even the fee-free education introduced in 2007 for schools serving poorer communities, have failed to correct historical inequalities between schools.

In South Africa there has been little attempt to build on the legacy of people’s education, EWP or the SOMAFCO experience. A few private and trade union related institutions such as Khanya College continue to provide a small number of youth with a political and developmental education which is broadly in line with peoples’ education, or ‘education for liberation’ ( However, the very isolation and distance from the mainstream system of these progressive institutions illustrates the extent of the ruling elite’s rejection of these models. This development led van Rensburg (1999: 68) to ask,if the radical approach to education and training by the ANC in exile was lost in the baggage of the exiles coming home ... What did happen to the idealism, reform and revolution?”

Zimbabwe was more serious, on the surface, about pursuing a Socialist path at independence, so it is worth pondering on what happened in that country in the post independence period. Following independence Zimbabwe’s government launched the Zimbabwe Foundation for Education with Production (ZIMFEP) (Chung, 1988; Jansen 1991). In 1980 ZIMFEP created 8 schools across the country each one with its own farm. These were announced as pilots for a new national system based on the liberation schools, scientific Socialism, and the concept of Education with Production. Its genesis came through a hybrid of three main strands drawn from Chinese and North Korean Socialism, the regional concept of Education with Production, and liberation schools. The ZIMFEP schools were meant to teach the skills of literacy and numeracy, development science, political economy and debating, and EWP, alongside undertaking farming, as well as providing jobs for their graduates through generating cooperatives. However, the other 6000 schools, which were conventional primary and secondary schools utilizing the ‘western’ model, predominated. No new ZIMFEP schools were opened after 1980. Over time ZIMFEP schools were marginalised, under-funded and were mainly used to show international solidarity visitors that the revolution had not died and that Zimbabwe was serious about following a scientific Socialist route. In fact they illustrated, through their very isolation, the opposite, and that ZIMFEP’s “experimentation ... has so far had little impact on the mainstream of education ... (it) will remain a counter-culture’ (Chung, 1988: 128-9).

Even attempts in Zimbabwe at introducing reforms to make the curriculum reflect scientific Socialist societal aspirations, particularly through integration of manual and academic education, foundered by the early 1990s. Jansen’s (1991) five element framework posits that a Socialist curriculum aims:

  1. To develop a socialist consciousness among students;

  2. To eliminate the distinction between manual and mental labour;

  3. To adapt subject matter content to the indigenous cultural context;

  4. To foster co-operative learners and productive development strategies as part of the school curriculum;

  5. To increase opportunities for productive employment (Jansen 1991: 79).

Although Jansen (1991) claimed to see most of these elements present in at least one syllabus in Zimbabwe (that for Political Economy) and in EWP, these initiatives did not last into the 1990s.

In the other countries in the region any vestiges of the liberation schools are just that, remnants of the historical struggle. Even EWP, whether set within a radical Africanist political discourse, as in Zimbabwe, or a more mild one at its zenith in the 1980s in Botswana, is rarely talked of today.

The mantle of radical education reform has been revived in recent years by mass social movements, such as the Global Campaign for Education and Equal Education, which grew out of the Cape Town townships as a student led protest movement ( In South Africa there is some lip service paid to liberation modes of education thinking. For example, alternative forms of education have reappeared under the banner of ‘People’s Power through People’s Education’. These are influenced by educationalists who were prominent in the late 1980s education discussions, such as Graeme Bloch and Salim Vally. However, the links to liberation education are tenuous and the drive is much more global than local. It is worth noting that the attitude of the post liberation governments to social movements with an education agenda is one of suspicion and concern. It appears that any form of peoples’ education or mobilisation around education is now seen as dangerous, often by the same people who promoted these principles only a short time ago.

Why the Liberators became Converts to Neoliberal Education

For the liberation movements in Southern Africa, with their professed Socialist and progressive ideologies, education was presented as the vehicle for social and economic transformation on taking power. However, there is almost universal agreement that education has failed to play that role, and that decades after independence southern African states still have academically oriented, iniquitous, bifurcated systems, which have changed little since the colonial period. As Samoff (1991) states,

Schools continue to identify, segregate and socialise the elite of the next generation ... with few exceptions they have not, however, created the new person, the visionaries and architects and carpenters and masons of social transformation ... nor have they become the foundation for constructing the new order (p. 21).

There are two main explanations that dominate the post-colonial discourse as to why the new education authorities after independence perpetuated the academic and divisive colonial education systems they had inherited rather than transforming them for social, economic and political reasons.

The first, which draws on a left-wing analysis, maintains that the liberators were never truly committed to a Socialist or even socially progressive transformation of their societies. This discourse maintains that the leaders of the liberation movements used education as a convenient base on which to build popular commitment to the struggle (Mugo, 1999; Astrow, 1983). This failure to establish an alternative progressive or transformational education system can be explained in a number of ways. A Marxist interpretation would suggest that there is an innate contradiction between what Lenin called ‘bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries’, (Astrow, 1983: 215) claiming to be fighting to establish Socialist systems in dependent backward capitalist environments. This historical anomaly was clarified when the national petit bourgeois elements leading the liberation movements took power and set about making things as comfortable as possible for themselves, as Marx and Lenin both predicted (Astrow, 1983). This would explain the perpetuation of the dual education systems with highly differentiated outcomes and the failure to implement EWP or any other transformational element of liberation education. This position argues that it became increasingly clear that the class interests of the national petit bourgeoisie were in direct contrast and conflict with that of the proletariat and peasantry. Hence, as Zvobgo (1994: 95), a Zimbabwean educationist notes,

Far from becoming an instrument of economic engineering and social cohesion, education has continued, under African rule, to promote social class structures inherited from colonialism and to enhance the economic advancement of a few privileged citizens.

If we follow this argument then we conclude that the leaders of the liberation movements cynically used the promise of educational transformation as a hook to bring the rural and urban poor into the struggle. Once that had been achieved the professed aim of using the education system to drive Socialism, national development, social and economic transformation and improvement were quietly dropped.

The second explanation, which more closely reflects the predominant nationalist view, is that circumstances forced the hand of the liberators and left them no policy option but to follow the neo-liberal consensus, and that even if they had wanted to follow a Socialist model there was no existing one to draw on for inspiration (Samoff, 1991). The most benign analysis would suggest that the liberation movements were guilty of poor post independence planning and naivety in believing that the established education system would roll over and let itself be transformed. This discourse argues that on gaining power the liberation movements faced many nodes of resistance to change – from parents (both black and white) who defined school success purely in academic terms and so resisted any form of vocationalisation of education that EWP promised, to sabotage by civil servants of plans to implement changes and the innate resistance of schools and the education system to any form of change in their bureaucratic operations. To tackle this resistance, the liberation movements would have needed to plan the post-independence system carefully with a clearly defined alternative education and training model and been prepared to make radical decisions on structures, access and redress to ensure equal access for all children to a transformed system. SWAPO, with Swedish aid, managed to develop a small number of independent boarding schools inside South African occupied Namibia (Sellstrom, 2002), however these did not present an alternative ideological model. ZANU arguably planned better than most of the liberation movements for the post independence system and created a School of Administration and Ideology in Maputo to train middle level administrators. However, it was only established months before the 1980 election, as were the ZIMFEP schools in the liberated areas (ZIMFEP, 1991), so they had little impact. In South Africa the National Education Policy Investigation and the Yellow Book processes in the early 1990s created an alternative foundation for the education system but this was not implemented in a concerted fashion so also failed to dent the hegemony of the neo-liberal reality.

Even if planning had been better the impact of the hegemonic hold that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and the push towards Education for All held over the international education arena would have been hard to resist. This is particularly so as the donor funding for education over the last twenty years has been predicated by a requirement to respond positively to these international imperatives. This would have made it difficult to use education as an ideological base from which to transform the societal values and economic structure (Chung, 1988).

Conclusion: The Death of the Idea?

The ‘idea’ was that liberatory education or ‘people’s education for people’s power’ would be the lever for the transformation of the colonial societies that the liberation struggles in southern Africa were fighting. The liberation schools, developed during the struggle, generally exhibited a progressive, and in some cases an overtly Socialist, engagement with the education of guerrilla fighters and their children in their camps and liberated zones. Many of these schools drew on traditions of pre-colonial community education as well as consciously developing EWP, teaching Marxism and explaining the armed struggle, and teaching learners to be conscious, politicised citizens empowered to transform the economy and society. Other schools, in particular SOMAFCO, grappled with these approaches but increasingly provided a conventional education allowing its students access to universities anywhere in the world. It failed to provide a comprehensive Socialist or even progressive alternative model to the ‘western’ schooling system predominating in South Africa. Other liberation schools also failed to create a comprehensive alternative progressive education model.

The failure to develop comprehensive Socialist education systems in advance of gaining power may be rooted in the limited nationalistic self interest of the liberation movement leaders who became the new ruling elite or the lack of a clearly defined Socialist version of the ‘western’ education system. The key differences between ‘western’ schooling systems and those that prevailed in the Soviet bloc, was in spirit, purpose and access rather than in form. Soviet schools looked like ‘western’ schools, children dressed in uniform and were taught by adults in age-groups – it was hard to see the difference. Capturing and implementing the difference when faced with all the other challenges would have been difficult, although those tasked with transforming the colonial systems after independence argued that they had transformed these systems, with open access, revised curricula, elements of EWP, and so on. However, it is now acknowledged that these changes did not amount to transformation and the prevailing ethos and purpose of the colonial education systems survived the political changes largely intact with the consequent failure to meet expectations and the development needs of the newly independent states. This situation was compounded by the dismantling of the twentieth-century Socialist states in the early 1990s, as South Africa and Namibia gained independence and as Mozambique and Angola finally achieved internal peace, and the increasing hegemonic status of western neoliberal education systems. Both these processes meant that presenting an alternative education system intended to achieve Socialist transformation would have appeared to international observers, funders and even citizens as counter-intuitive and anachronistic. The result would have been the drying up of external funds. None of these states following liberation wanted or could implement such a programme of education transformation and so these societies remained largely untransformed.

It seems therefore that the liberation movements’ belief in education’s role in social and economic transformation mutated, at least ideologically, into neo-liberal orthodoxy with a determination to use the education system to generate skills to meet labour market needs and an instrumentalist national development plan, rather than being the key to transforming the societal and economic order in the countries they had liberated. The revolutionary rhetoric used during the struggle, which promoted education as a key to achieving ‘people’s power’ and generating the ‘new person’, was quietly set aside. As a result, progressive liberation type schools, where they survived, became marginalised political showpieces.


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1 ZANU - Zimbabwe African National Union; MPLA - People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola; FRELIMO - Front for the Liberation of Mozambique; SWAPO - South West Africa People’s Organisation.

2 The ANC’s attitude to Socialism has always been equivocal. While it drew inspiration from the Socialist bloc and many of its cadres were trained there, Thabo Mbeki could still state strongly in 1984, ‘The ANC is not a Socialist party. It has never pretended to be one, it has never said it was, and it is not trying to be’ (Gumede 2005:123). Mandela makes this same point in his autobiography (Mandela 1994). However a key partner of the ANC, the South African Communist Party pursued a Socialist agenda and had an important impact on the thinking within the ANC, in its schools and among its cadres.

3 Father Mkatshwa was a leading member of the internal ANC and United Democratic Front and became deputy minister of education after the 1994 election.

4 ZANLA, or the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army was the military wing of ZANU, the Zimbabwe African National Union.

5 It was named after a young ANC student leader and martyr, Solomon Mahlangu, who was executed by the Pretoria regime in 1979.

6 Generalisation about ‘African culture’ is dangerous as it stems from a colonial era conflation of African cultures, but it is still common in the literature, which further tends to reflect a tendency in educational institutions to present African culture as ‘devoid of any epistemological content’ (Odora Hoppers, 2001: 75)

7 The IFP or Inkatha Freedom Party was the ‘ruling’ party in the KwaZulu Bantustan and so is seen as having supported apartheid. However in 1994, in order to hold the election the ANC brought the IFP into government. Bengu’s past in both the IFP and ANC and his Zulu and academic background were thought to have led to his appointment as a Minister, in what was seen as a symbolic gesture to the IFP by the victorious ANC.

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