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Research on Education in South Africa

Occasional Paper No. 5

Three Theses on People's Education - by Harold Wolpe

March 199O

Further enquiries about the RESA project can be addressed to:

Harold Wolpe, Thozamile Botha and Elaine Unterhalter, Department of Sociology, University of Essex, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester CO4 3SQ ENGLAND

Occasional Papers are available at a cost of £l (plus postage)


*Three Theses on People's Education Harold Wolpe


The emergence of the slogan "People's Education for People's Power" at the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) Conference in 1986 and the strategy and tactics it embodied, was expressed as a radical redefinition of both tlie content of, and relationship between, the struggle for education and the national liberation struggle.

The specific, concrete terms of that redefinition were only made possible by, and were only appropriate to, the particular conditions in which the education struggle was conducted in the mid-1980's. Those conditions have, however,-changed as a result both of alterations in the balance between state repressive and reformist policies, particularly in the sphere of education;it follows that the content and strategy of the education struggle has to be revised to take account of the new conditions.

However, the conceptions of education, of the connections between education and national liberation and of the connections between education and society which were, implicitly or explicitly, contained within the documents framed by the Education Crisis Conferences, are not merely of transient importance relevant only to a short period in the mid-1980's. The historic significance of "People's Education for Peoples Power" lies in the fact that its specific, situational relevant formulations contained general conceptions which not only challenge all previous conceptions of educational transformation in South Africa but also, in so doing, placed on the agenda questions which must constitute the necessary point of departure for the formulation of new policies and strategies under new conditions.

Yet there are already clear indications that, faced with the complexities of the present situation, the conceptual advances made by the struggle for People's Education in 1985 and 1986 are in danger of being dissipated and blunted - and the government's reformist strategy expressed in its moves, however partial, towards negotiations in the past few weeks, is likely to make even more difficult the task of developing clear strategies for People's Education. For this reason it is of considerable importance that those major tenets of People's Education which are of general significance, should once more be emphasized and their strategic relevance highlighted.

In order to achieve this objective, the paper draws out the major tenets of People's Education through a contrast with, and critical comment on, two alternative positions which are to be found in both the political and theoretical

literature. To sharpen the contrast three different positions discussed are presented in the form of theses on the relation of education to society.

First Thesis:

Education plays the fundamental role in the structuring arid hence the re-structuring of the system of social stratification.

Prior to 1986, although there were ambiguities and differences in formulation, the main claims for African education, whether organized or unorganized and whether liberal car radical, were for: (a) equal access to and resourcing of education for all in South Africa (b) the elimination of racism from the texts and teaching of the entire range of school subjects.

The underlying presupposition was (and remains) that through the provision of education the major inequalities in society can be restructured in an egalitarian direction. Education is, that is to say, the key instrument of social transformation.

The assumption is that equal access to education provides the necessary and sufficient means to equal access to high status, high paid and skilled occupations. In this approach then, the transformation of the stratification system is thought to occur through equal access to educational opportunity.

Concretely in South Africa, from this standpoint, the path out of poverty for black people and the means to equality in the economy, (if not politically) is access to the level, quality and type of education which opens the doors of the occupational structure.

The crucial question which suggests itself, however, is: how is equal access to education to be achieved? Where education Is seen as the major means to social transformation, this question is not and cannot be posed - for to pose it immediately brings to the fore issues concerning political power over education and over resources which are, precisely, rendered irrelevant by the single-minded focus on education, as such, as the instrument of transformation.

At the risk of oversimplification, the comparative empirical evidence is clear: class position structures access to education in 'normal' capitalist societies (e.g. Britain) and in racially structured societies (e.g. USA, South Africa). The intersection of race and class structure educational access - and this is so despite positive state intervention into the educational sphere as such (for example, comprehensive schools in Britain).

In parenthesis, it might be noted furthermore, that the sociology of education and work also shows that even where similar educational qualifications are achieved, nonetheless, access to occupations continues to be determined by the class and racial structures. Thus, for example, in Britain, it is not a first class university degree as such which guarantees access to high status jobs in, say, the civil service, but rather, via the public schools, a degree (even of a lower grade) from Oxford or Cambridge.

What this suggests is that it is completely inadequate to focus on education as a means of social transformation outside of its articulation with other social structures and processes. While the demand for, and right to. education must be a fundamental Ingredient of the struggle for national liberation, (both because people are entitled to it and because it arms the people to conduct the struggle now and to play their part in a liberated South Africa) access to education cannot be achieved through a struggle centering only on education and nor can the use of the skills it bestows, once access has been gained, be achieved by such a struggle alone. That is to say, it is not sufficient to focus on education alone as the path to social change and to equality, since education (in an appropriate form) can function as a means to these ends only under conditions of the social, political and economic structure which enables it to do so.

Clearly, here, it becomes necessary to pose the struggle for education in relation to the struggle for national liberation and the transformation of the social structures which will provide the context for the functioning of the education system.

Second Thesis:

Education is the instrument of social reproduction. In class and racially structured societies the education system functions directly and without contradiction to reproduce the dominant class and racial structures of domination, subordination and exploitation. It does this through ideological and other means (^killing, certification, etc.).

From this standpoint, and in direct contradiction to the First Thesis, education, and hence the education struggle, can have no impact on, cannot contribute to national liberation or social transformation while it exists in a capitalist/racist society. Both because of the power of the dominant forces and because of its structural position as a system for the reproduction of capitalist/racist relations, it functions as a 'simple' instrument of social reproduction. Education can serve to further other, progressive and revolutionary objectives, only after the seizure of power and the destruction of the apartheid, capitalist system.

Here, the education system is deprived of all autonomy and conceived of as entirely functional to the reproduction of the existing system of domination. Hence, no room is thought to exist for contradictory relationships to arise between the educational system and the social system and nor is there, therefore, any space in which to mount demands and struggles within the education system which will have any bearing whatsoever on the radical transformation of education and/or society.

Even more important perhaps, is the fact that from this position, the struggle in and for education cannot directly confront the dominant order which Is conceived of as existing entirely outside of the education system.

This view achieved its clearest expression in the slogan of "liberation first, education later" which was advanced by some (perhaps only a few) activists during the important school boycotts in the first half of the 1980's.

That the school boycotts played a crucial role in raising the tempo and extending the base of the national liberation struggles in the communities is beyond doubt. At the same time, the specifically educational location and direction of the schools struggle was displaced and absorbed into the wider demands for national liberation. Indeed, as the slogan dramatically underlined, the education struggle became subordinated to the political struggle outside of the education system and the project for a transformation of education (as opposed to the reform of bantu education) was postponed to a future national democratic state.

Third Thesis:

This thesis rejects the theoretical notion of the First Thesis which accords transformational autonomy to the education system under all conditions. Furthermore, it rejects the theoretical notion of the Second Thesis which reduces education to the simple functional instrument of reproduction of the system.

The Third Thesis holds that the relationship between education and the social system is not a theoretical pre-given but is contingent upon the concrete conditions of the social formation including the education system itself. As such education may be simultaneously both functional for the system of domination and in contradiction to it. Furthermore it follows, that the education struggle may take on different forms and achieve a different significance according to the concrete conditions, both within and outside of the educational sphere, in which it occurs.

Development of 1STECC policy

It is this insight which (perhaps largely implicitly) informed the decisions of the NECC and which accords them such historical significance.

The achievement of the NECC in March 1986 was to construct a policy which linked three elements:

  1. first it formulated a vision of a future system of people's education. As is well known, the NECC Conference declared that people's education is education that:
    1. enables the oppressed to understand the evils of the apartheid system and prepares them for participation in a nonracial, democratic system;
    2. eliminates capitalist norms of competition, Individualism, and stunted Intellectual development and one that encourages collective Input and active participation by all. as well as stimulating critical thinking and analysis;
    3. eliminates illiteracy, ignorance and exploitation of any person by another;
    4. equips and trains all sectors of our people to participate actively and creatively in the struggle to attain people's power In order to establish a nonracial democratic South Africa;
    5. allows pupils, students, parents, teachers and workers to be mobilized into appropriate organisational structures which enable them to enhance the struggle for people's power and to participate actively in the initiation and management of people's education In all its forms;
    6. enables workers to resist exploitation and oppression at their work place.
  2. second, it recognised that while 'people's education' could not be substantially implemented until a national democratic state was successfully installed, nonetheless the process could begin, and indeed had to begin, immediately.
  3. and third, that the immediate education and skilling of the black people was Itself a necessary part of the struggle to implement "People's Education" and hence was part of the national liberation struggle.

Analysis of the Theses in relation to People's Education

From this summary, the following contrasts between the thesis of People's Education and the first two theses can be drawn out:

To begin with, as against the First Thesis which claims an autonomous role for education itself as an instrument of radical change. People's Education asserts that the transformative potential of education can only be realised If and when appropriate social, political and economic conditions are in place. Hence, the struggle for education and for social emancipation must be conjoined and this must occur in two ways: (i) through the coordination of organisations and campaigns in the two spheres and (ii) through linking demands for education, training and skilling with the demands for the democratic control and content of People's Education as outlined above.

As opposed to the Second Thesis which denies any possible value of struggles within education prior to the installation of a democratic state, People's Education asserts that spaces exist now within the education system which enable forms of struggle to both for national liberation and "for People's Education to be carried on.

That is, more concretely, essential to the NECC's position was the contention that, in order to ensure that education does not become merely a means of individual advancement or serve to reproduce the social system through a reform of the existing educational institutions, two conditions had to be met:

First, a struggle had to be initiated to change the content and local control of education in accordance with conceptions of people's education.

Secondly, those struggles and the educational structures created in the course of struggle, had to be linked to the broader political movement for national liberation. This policy was embodied in the slogan of "people's education for people's power".

It is well-known that in 1986 the NECC defined two major or objectives: first, the democratisation of the school structures through the establishment of elected ~8KC's and scHobladnrinistratiohs consisting of teachers, parents and students; second, the n. ire or less rapid displacement of bantu education teaching -through the g adual introduction of radically revised syllabi starting with History, Engli: i arid Mathematics. It is of great importance to place these decisions in thv context of the development at the time, of structures of people's power in the omrnunities. Although the partial 'reforms' which could be implanted in t ntu education would be of value 'in themselves' the fundamental point is that t ey were intended to be the outcome of a political process, in particular, tht. assertion of people's power in the sphere of education. It is precisely the ; .sertion of structures of people's power which made possible these moves fc people's education and which would have given the achievement of changes in I, uitu education their specificity as expressions of people's power and not merely as reforms.

The central point of this, for present purposes, is that the provision of education was not only to change in content but was also to be linked to the transformed political and administrative structures in education and to the political organisations conducting the struggle.

Although the students returned to the schools in large numbers in January 1987, before action in support of these objectives could be properly organised the state extended its emergency powers and the military and police occupied the schools and the townships. Leading members of the NECC were imprisoned and subsequently the organisation itself was virtually banned. It proved very difficult to pursue the struggle for people's education as had been planned - at least, other than the preparation of a History text book. Thus the programme of action formulated by the NECC to exert people's power in education and to provide education through the implementation, in however partial a manner, of the conference decisions, was blocked by the repressive measures taken by the regime.

As a consequence, trie question was posea airesn 01 now tne eaucauon a was to be conducted under the new conditions'?

One possibility was to revert to struggles outside of the educational institutions as in the period of the school boycotts. Indeed, the boycott continued to be deployed in different areas from to time, but the new forms of state repression based on the army and security forces and built around the networks of the National Security Management System (NSMS), coupled with the banning of major organisations, put in question the viability and appropriateness of a general boycott. In any event, the boycott would have once again resulted in a separation of education and political struggle by abandoning the education of the people.

If the strategy of the boycott (Thesis Two) has not won the support of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), a new adherence to the FtrstThesis has emerged.

That is to say. a strong tendency has emerged to equate access to 'good1 education, to the universities, to skills (such as reading and writing) with 'People's Education'. Similarly, 'action research'as a means whereby progressive teachers become aware of the dynamic of the teaching process and are thereby, it is argued, able to effect ideological transformations and, hence educational transformations in the classroom, has come to the fore. (See. for example. RESA conference papers by D.Johnson: 'People's Education and the Politics of Writing', and M.Walker: 'Classroom Action Research - Gilding Gutter Education or Transforming Teaching?'. March, 1989). The implication of this Is that social transformation has turned inwards to the educational process as such, divorced from its location in the broader, dominant social structure.

An impetus has been given to this approach from a different direction. It has been argued (See RESA Conference paper by Ivan Evans: 'Black Academics, White Academics and Universities in South Africa', March 1989.) that In much of the literature on education, the importance of the national question has been lost - that is to say, the Importance of overcoming the structural inequalities (particularly in the production of intellectuals) has been neglected.

Clearly, as has already been pointed out in this paper, the struggle for education is an essential ingredient of the national liberation struggle. Nevertheless, this objective has to be put in the context of the arguments that have been posed in relation to Thesis One.

Education as such does not guarantee a radical political involvement against the system, just as an oppressive form of education does not guarantee conformity as proved by the Soweto uprising in 1976. The issue is how to win the demands for education and to ensure the production of a revolutionary intelligentsia at the same time.

In 1986, as has already been pointed out, the development of the instruments of teaching people's education was inextricably tied to the struggle in the bantu education system. The development and testing of new means of teaching was part and parcel of an overall struggle to bring about structural changes in bantu education in line with the development of people's power.

The inclusion of new syllabi and texts in the private and bantu education schools may be a forward step to the extent that they are an improvement on existing syllabi and texts, but, once again, it is essential to recognise the political limitations of such developments, even where these materials conform in content to People's Education. First, the inclusion does not take place through struggles involving collectives of teachers, parents arid students. Second, in this situation, the improved means of teaching are simply accommodated within existing structures and do not present themselves as an element in the creation ojfa radical alternative. In this sense, there is a danger that they take on a narrow, reformist connotation.

What is noteworthy is the attempt of some of these schools and the funding agencies to appropriate the concepts of people's or alternative education and to redefine them in a way which stresses, virtually exclusively, the upgrading of educational skills. That is to say, changes in content introduced by these schools are claimed to be an implementation of people's education. But, apart from the fact that these changes are simply 'topdown^and managerially instituted, they have not been linked to political structures and objective's" iri a way which would ensure their transfonnatory role.

It is this aspect which tends to be overlooked by those elements in the democratic movement who see the private schools in particular, given their claims to 'alternative* education, as sites within which elements of people's education, insofar as these are concerned with skilling, can be introduced. Thereby, the argument goes, the struggle for people's education can be continued in a new way. Once more, however, the context is all Important.

If the above analysis is correct, then it follows that, strategically, the struggle for education has taken a step back to the pre-National Education Crisis Conference position in the sense that it postpones the task of transforming the education system in the image of people's education until the apartheid system has been displaced by a national democratic state. It does this by identifying the acquisition of skills and professionalisation with people's education.

Theorising People's Education

One further issue poses Itself. Not only has education as a technical and professional process come Increasingly to the fore but the further theorisation of people's education has also become a central concern.

To a large extent these concerns have become the province of'professionals' as a theoretical and technical process, and to that extent they have lost their mass base and their explicit link with political mobilisation and organisation.

Be that as it may, an important question is: what is the object and role of the further otheorisation' of people's education?

It is no doubt the case that the statement of these general principles which were quoted above (which are much more concrete than earlier Freedom Charter or black consciousness formulations) could be improved upon and added to,i-iy, for example, by way of propositions about teaching methodologies in people's education. But it is essential to recognise that People's Education is riot a theoretical concept capable of being refined and made ever more rigorous by means of a process of theoretical abstraction. On the contrary. People's Educ ation expresses an ideological and political conception of what the function and functioning of education should be in a democratic society

There is. of course, room for a consideration of what the content, practices and organisation of education should be in order to achieve these ideological/ political goals under determinate conditions of the social formation. Hov/ever, the efficacy of education can only be tested i.hrough a continuous review by the participants of its concrete content, practices and organisation.

It ;j clear that, under the conditions of increased state repression in the education sphere which occurred from 1985, the concrete testing of People's Education became virtually impossible, hence the tendency to turn, instead, towards its 'theorisation1. By contrast, as has already been suggested, the strategies to reform both bantu education and private schools, facilitated and encouraged by the massive input of funding agencies into education and braining both inside South Africa and byway of overseas education, tends to lead to the equation of People's Education with little more than 'good' educational provision. In either event, what tends to be under-emphasised is the politics of the educational struggle.


How under the new conditions, can the strands of people's education be reconstituted in a way which will permit new forms of action? The central question is: given state policies, what strategy can be deployed to ensure that education in state and private institutions does not result in individualised adaptation to the system but occurs in a manner which will lead simultaneously to the education and skilling of the people and to their integration into the process of social transformation?This process to produce an educated population should take place in advance of national liberation.

One part of the answer lies in the construction of teaching programmes which, in one way or another, are conducted in close collaboration with the political organisations. The Community Education Resources (CER) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) provides one small example of this possibility. (See the RESA Conference paper by Catherine Kell: 'Developing the Unity of Research, Teaching and "Extension Service" Work in a Resources Project at the University of Cape Town', March 1989).


(This paper was originallyheld at Mazimbu in Augustpresented at the Workshop on People's Education 1989)