People’s Education

A Case Study of Alternative Strategies to Impart Knowledge

A case study of alternative strategies to impart knowledge
A case study of alternative strategies to impart knowledge
@Eskinder Debebe, UN PHOTO
June 10th, 2017

People’s Education is an informal collective of activists, teachers, community workers and artists based in Cape Town who are concerned with education in the African context. Through collaboration with like-minded individuals, institutions and organisations, and based on the principle of putting theory into practice, People’s Education is attempting an organic intervention in the culture of learning in a variety of contexts. The informal collective believes education is a social responsibility and a key area for engaged activism. They note that education-centred activism functions as a core component of the broader movement towards ending poverty, inequality and alienation.

Africa has inherited a colonial education system which socialises and conditions fatalism and conformity (Spaaija & Jeanes, 2013). This functions to reinforce pervasive inequalities, of which the continental sense of inferiority constitutes a core paradigm. The education system continues to leave people ill-equipped for the struggle to discard this legacy and focus on the current needs of a fast-changing world.

The collective believes that schools are a reproductive, self-sustaining system, and bureaucracy and unequal power relationships between learners, families and schooling systems perpetrate disempowerment. Social conditions, long school hours and the lack of a learning culture in the society in which the schools exist breed bad educational practices. The gap between those who benefit from the system and those who do not is a haunting one.

People’s Education concerns itself with decolonising education, and sees the application and (re)instatement of African knowledge and knowledge-making practices as a key part of this process. Their philosophy is that Africans need to build a capacity to realise their own solutions to social issues in the local context. As such, the organisation uses African texts, practices and rituals as its starting point.

Taking our cue (and name) from the People’s Education (for People’s Power) Movement founded during and as part of the anti-apartheid struggle (Mathebula, 2013), the collective engages pedagogical sites through community workshops, seminars and workplace study circles. The group has defined its activities as education activism through pedagogies premised on their being “teachers amongst learners and learners amongst teachers.” This praxis is significantly informed by the ideas and work of Paulo Freire (2005, p. 17) who stated:

In order to understand the meaning of dialogical practice, we have to put aside the simplistic understanding of dialogue as a mere technique. Dialogue does not represent a somewhat false path that I attempt to elaborate on and realize in the sense of involving the ingenuity of the other On the contrary, dialogue characterizes an epistemological relationship. Thus, in this sense, dialogue is a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task… I engage in dialogue not necessarily because I like the other person. I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component to the process of both learning and knowing.

The approach of People’s Education is also in agreement with Dr Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (2005, p. 21), who argues that a conscious effort towards a culture of African knowledge making is essential to the well-being of Africans:

What is required therefore is a programme of genealogy that raids the textual and oral archives of our different African histories in order to demonstrate plural forms of existence. By opening up a disruptive collective historical imaginary, we can unlock ourselves from the repressive power regimes of the present, in favour of a liberatory future. Change for the future only begins when we change the way we are able to look into the viscera of our past. We must begin to disinvent the reified traditions that bind us into mutually destructive gender relations. Habit must be rebalanced in relationship to innovation and creativity by searching into the past for alternative ways of being and doing.

The collective is interested in working beyond institutionally mediated ways of thinking and acting on education. They are motivated to create an African education that focuses on where Africans come from and where they now stand, with a view to enabling them to imagine and build towards pluralistic futures.

The “Uneducated” intervention

The first intervention, known as “Uneducated”, took the form of a 15-minute multimedia performance utilising drama, dance, stencils, live drawings and music. The performance sought to explore the role of education in identity formation. The notion is that generic institutional pedagogies (and the inherent power relation between teachers and learners) have the effect of not only prescribing ways of receiving and making knowledge but also restrict individuality and creativity.

"Uneducated" raised debates on what can be termed the "schools for jobs" phenomenon. As social institutions, schools cannot be viewed as separate from the cultural and economic circumstances and objectives of the societies which they (should) aim to serve. The performance also poses a few questions including whether the current mainstream education system can free us as Africans, and, if the education system is so bounded up with neocolonialism, should Africans seek alternative paths to learning and teaching. The approaches they use seem to point towards the need for alternatives. 

The performance was initially inspired by discussions on the nature of the schooling system in South Africa and the need for creative disruptions within and against this structure. Artists and others in the collective then workshopped and produced the “Uneducated” piece, which came to be structured around the three major stages of learning: early childhood, where we begin to conceive of the world, immersed in the family environment; formal schooling, which is often a process of mass regimentation amounting to little more than social control; and academia, within which one may become actively involved in so-called knowledge production.

Sex education project and workshops

In 2014, working alongside Greatmore Studios, People’s Education embarked on a project concerning sex education in the contemporary African context. This endeavour started with a series of art-centred community workshops, two of which were held in Cape Town and the third in Grahamstown as part of the National Arts Festival. These are viewed as steps towards a working methodology for self-learning among Africans. The key questions are: How are Africans talking about sex with each other? What are we talking about when we talk about sex? In what ways does this talk serve to inform our ideas of sex and sexuality? Art has the capacity to break down barriers and create common spaces.
It allows people to say things that they would otherwise struggle to communicate and brings forth potentialities for public access to and engagement with these more embodied forms of knowledge.

Using workshops as an approach allows People’s Education to reinvent teaching and learning. They constitute a methodology that speaks to the process of knowledge-making and are well suited to a project seeking to engage people on a subject as sensitive and central to the human condition as sex. Facilitators and participants jointly determined the objectives and intended outcomes of the project. This dynamic took shape as part of our emphasis on interactive and participatory knowledge-making. Our intentions were not to transmit the dos and don’ts of sex but, rather, to cultivate an open dialogue about sex and sexuality.

A central belief of People’s Education is that we live in a highly sexualised society which is simultaneously characterised by stigmas and conservatism. The collective is concerned with how this affects society’s sexual education. The enquiry is centred on how children are being taught about sex, and whether or not we can borrow and improve on existing practices within the mainstream curriculum, as well as engage these practices. Key questions raised are about how parents engage their children in sex education, and if these are effective in the contemporary African context. The idea is to find the best ways to engage with youths on such an important subject as sex, and how to ensure children get the right messages that allow them to live and experience healthy sexualities. How do we spread such engagements? Furthermore, would a healthy society not be one in which people of different sexual orientations talk openly about sex without the pervasiveness of heteronormative ideas?

Other workshops were held for members of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and at the Harare Academy of Inspiration, a Khayelitsha-based public arts initiative. Several film projects and community-based activities are ongoing.

Nomfundo’s study circle

In collaboration with Labour Research Services, People’s Education is concurrently running study circle sessions at Braid Excellence, a hair salon based in Mowbray, Cape Town. Known as Nomfundo’s study circle, this project seeks to nurture a culture of learning and community building in the workplace, engaging Africa as both place and subject. Dialogue and the sharing of personal experiences have constituted a core part of this process.

Recently, the project has focused on making a short documentary film about the processes the study circle sessions are engaged in. Using other films and discussions as intertextual References, and with a keen emphasis on beauty, identity and remembrance, the film is intended to explore the following two-part question: How are the study circles realised, and what are some of the observable processes? Part of the approach is to allow the participants (workers and clients at the salon) to take part in the film-making process. In many instances, they are the ones asking the questions and holding the camera.

At this stage, we are looking to broaden the scope of this project by, for instance, bringing other salons around Mowbray into the conversation.

African Music Workshop Series

Another one of the collective’s ongoing projects is a workshop series on African music as it relates to education and knowledge in the contemporary setting. The series involves participatory workshops, screenings, listening sessions, performances and more. It is essentially a response to the lack of study and active engagement with African music, given our musical legacy and the role it plays in the everyday lives of Africans. The key questions in this initiative are: What is African music? Can we talk of it as an exceptional type of music? The latter question speaks to, among other things, issues of modernity and hybridisation. What are the implications of westernisation and other processes of cultural change for the ways in which music is produced and consumed in Africa and by Africans? Can we talk of the African musical world as existing beyond continental borders and/or among diasporic or non-African identities? The idea is to reflect on the role of music in our everyday lives as well as in our spiritual lives. Music has the capacity to unlock the imagination and unleash its power, heal trauma and resolve issues of the self. We embody and inhabit our ancestral forms through music. We are aware there are numerous existing pan-African popular music genres. These have their own genealogy, history of interaction, influences and cross-pollination. The collective is interested in exploring how to dig deeper into these through conversations, how to delve into their message and popularise African music in its richness.

People’s Education explores how music can be an educational tool and a tool for positive change. They note that, while a number of musicians have brought forth a very clear political message, there are more subtle ways in which music may constitute a transformational or revolutionary idea. Kwaito is illustrative: the attitude of “Pantsulaness” is transmitted to the youth, not only through the lyrics or semiotic message of a song, but also by way of the feeling and beat of the music.

Along these lines, People's Education is interested in the concept of music and sound as a language of its own, as a mode of knowledge and knowledge-making, and how to harness these paradigms in the struggle for the liberation of our people. This includes exploring the possibility of bringing African music praxis into the formal classroom. If we cannot formally pedagogise and institutioanlise African music, how can we strive towards a decolonised and pluralist music learning and teaching space? What is the value of maintaining the formal structure?

The “Free Space” intervention

“Free Space” is a pop-up intervention, an open platform for interactive and spontaneous expression. An area is designated, art materials are provided, musical instruments, props, costumes and other means of performance and/or creative engagement are made available. Participants are encouraged to “do something” – anything – so long as it is not harmful, and does not derail the process. These sessions are aimed at the general public, foregrounding communal modes of creativity, by which those who are customarily excluded from the “Arts” (as an elitist space) become co-creators. There is an emphasis on breaking intergroup boundaries, such as the audience/performer relationship, and the facilitator/participant dynamic.

Art teaching practice interventions

Together with Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA), People’s Education is running an intervention around secondary school art teaching practices. Many state schools in the townships are seriously under resourced. This is particularly true where the creative arts are concerned. It is often the case that there are no trained art teachers and/or the required art materials. This project emerged in response to these circumstances and is intended to investigate and implement innovative ways of dealing with them.

The main approach here is to adapt “Free Space” as a classroom methodology. In terms of its potential as an educational tool, particularly with regard to senior phase high school students, “Free Space” offers three significant functions. Firstly, it constitutes a safe and playful environment in which pupils are encouraged to be creative, and practically apply what they have learnt in art, dance, music and/ or drama class. Along these lines, it serves as a means of evaluation and reflection. Secondly, it demonstrates and relies upon the power of art and art-making as mechanisms of social cohesion, while highlighting the role and importance of community. Thirdly, “Free Space” carries important life lessons and may be linked to subjects like Life Orientation. In these ways, the practice may be employed as a means of integrating various subjects, to the extent of reinforcing learners’ understandings of certain interrelated ideas and disciplines. For instance, historical learnings may be brought to life in the form of dramatic re-enactments.

This approach reconciles “free activity” and the current assessment methodology whereby evidence of ability on the part of the learner is required. The key is the development of an understanding of the role of art in life. It is simultaneously a means of expression on the part of the individual, a means of intervention and reflection on one’s condition, a form of communication for ideas and opinions, and a means of agency in society. A sober engagement with art in its context is envisioned through this process. A space where these and other theoretical and philosophical questions can be examined freely is essential to this leap in cognition. The learner’s capacity to meet the required insight, contextualisation and other rubrics is thereby facilitated.

Being an unstructured method, “Free Space” can assist teachers in addressing learner diversity, pace and method of instruction, as well as the needs and learning style of individual learners. It inverts the structure of assessment such that pupils can participate and demonstrate their potential more fully.

People’s Education has established a yearlong programme with Mfuleni High School, where facilitators (artists and educators) go in several times a week, working in collaboration with teachers, to bring the intervention’s objectives to life. This is our first intervention in the formal learning space.

Land and farming education

The land and farming project is still in the planning stages. It is a collaborative between People’s Education and Wynberg Organic Urban Farms. Essentially, the land and farming project is an education programme focussing on practical farming skills, distribution, marketing and a diverse array of pan-African teachings. Here, we are concerned with the land, its use and its ownership. The intention is to nurture a culture of sustainable land use as a solution to the many economic problems faced by Africans in the urban context. This will involve building a community of skilled producers with independent resources.

A core part of this project will be the process of popularising farming as an alternative for urban youths seeking employment. We are challenging the norm whereby young people tend to seek certain types of employment. Farming is presented as a viable and attractive alternative. People’s Education and Wynberg Organic Urban Farms want to engage in dialogue on land and organic farming, looking at issues of land and landlessness, emerging organic markets, the ways in which we can start to reclaim and make use of space towards a more progressive future, and the dichotomous notion of the urban world as isolated from rurality (and vice versa).

It is envisioned that this conversation will involve art-centred workshops, where participants develop ideas and express their impressions on the question of land through visual arts, performance, poetry and so forth.

Lessons learnt

Voluntary work can too easily be swallowed up by broader societal processes. Collectives often play a fundamental role in activism, and so it is important that they remain resilient in the face of the many challenges they are bound to encounter. For the majority of those at People’s Education, this is the first time they have critically engaged with learning in an informal social context. They find themselves developing a collective methodology through experiential learning, where all activities are subject to critical reflection at the levels of coordination, strategy, pedagogical practice and content. Over the past two years, People’s Education has realised that individual demands always need to be negotiated and worked into the collective space. It is also increasingly clear that, while they are determined to expand the impact of their work, the scope of activities should remain organic. This can be stated simply as, “Do what you can, when you can”.


  1. Bakare-Yusuf B (2005) Visceral development: Toward a genealogy of habit, gender and transformation. Paper presented at CODESRIA Gender Symposium on Gender Alternatives in African Development: Theories, Methods and Evidence. 27-29 October, Cairo.
  2. Freire P (2005) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International: New York.
  3. Mathebula T (2013) People’s Education (for People’s Power) – A promise unfulfilled. South African Journal of Education, 33(1): 1-12.
  4. Spaaija R & Jeanes R (2013) Education for social change? A Freirean critique of sport for development and peace. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 18(4): 442-457.

About the author(s)

Evan Abrahamse was born in Cape Town and raised in Zambia. He is a veteran of uMkonto We Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, and a former trade unionist. Evan is currently an activist for alternative education practice and is part of the People’s Education collective.


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