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Updated: Jul 13, 2021

“The education struggle is a political struggle in South Africa. We are fighting for the right to self-determination in the education sphere as in all spheres.”

- Zwelakhe Sisulu, NECC Conference, 1986

This is Part one of a 2-part article recognising South Africa’s 24th Freedom Day by reflecting on the place of school-based struggle in the fight against apartheid and questioning where we are now in the achievement of education rights from a rural learning perspective.

Zwelakhe Sisulu, a young intellectual leader in the United Democratic Front (UDF), spoke the above words during a National Education Crisis Committee Conference (NECC) in 1986.[1]

Addressing over 1500 assembled delegates, representing student, teacher and parent organisations, Sisulu explained the idea of “People’s Education for People’s Power.” This had become a rallying cry in the anti-apartheid struggle at a time when education was seen as central to the pursuit of an equal, open, and democratic South Africa.

Today, commemorating Freedom Day, we supposedly live in the country those delegates hoped for. However, the continued marginalisation of learners in rural schools suggests that equality and freedom are far from realised. What’s more, we must ask ourselves if “People’s Power” is still present in the way we face the on-going education crisis today.

Historic mobilisation around the idea of democratic “People’s Education” grew in the 1950s as a reaction to the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and escalated following the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Originating with students, the struggle against unequal education policy soon expanded to include communities more holistically, drawing the older generation in as they became increasingly concerned about their children’s future.

The NECC sought a more constructive solution than the “immediatism” that had emerged in student protest and culminated in the slogan “Liberation Now, Education Later”. Worried about a learner generation sacrificing their own futures in the belief that revolutionary victory was imminent, the NECC proposed student-teacher-parent structures that could develop alternatives to the oppressive government system without students having to forego their education completely.[2]

Creative tactics included crowd-sourcing funding to remunerate democratic “People’s Teachers,” researching alternative curricula in “People’s English” or “People’s Mathematics”, and promoting Student Representative Councils at every school.

Working against an education system designed to keep the black population subservient, People’s Education structures worked towards a new conception of “Education for Liberation”: education in the service of the people, not imposed on them from above, but allowing them to command their own lives.

Strict principles of People’s Power guided their actions. This is captured in the following statement by Sisulu (1987):

“To be acceptable, every initiative must come from the people themselves, must be accountable to the people, and must advance the broad mass of students, not just a select few. In effect this means taking over the schools, transforming them from institutions of oppression into zones of progress and people’s power.”

Celebrating Freedom Day 32 years after that conference, and 24 years into a new democratic dispensation, one would be hard pressed to speak of a rural school in the Eastern Cape as a zone of progress or power. While many principals and teachers continue to fight for improvements, they are up against massive challenges with little support. Inadequate infrastructure, overcrowding, safety concerns and a lack of teachers are just a few of the difficulties faced.

Even more concerning is that the issues here seldom receive broad public attention until it is too late – until a child drowns in a pit latrine on school grounds. One cannot help but wonder what happened to the mass movements that once rallied around education as central to our collective freedom (to be continued…).

Look out later today for Part 2 to this article, looking at the education right in post-1994 SA.

[1] Sisulu, Z. (1987) “People’s education for people’s power” Issue: A Journal of Opinion Vol 15: 18-29.

[2] Thokozani Mathebula (2013) People's Education (for People's Power) - a promise unfulfilled South African Journal of Education vol.33 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2013

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