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Paulo Freire in South Africa

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Paulo Freire in South Africa


The research done by the Johannesburg Working Group is currently focused on four publications, namely:


Mastin Prinsloo (1987), Conscientization and Praxis: Paulo Runs into Problems, The Kenton Conference, Salt Rock, Natal, November 1987, 369-399


Neville Alexander (1990), Education and the Struggle for National Liberation in South Africa, Skotaville Publishers, Johannesburg


Fhulu Nekhwevha (2002), The Influence of Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of Knowing” on the South African Education Struggle in the 1970s and 1980s in Peter Kallaway (ed.) (2002) The History of Education Under Apartheid 1948-1994. The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened, Pearson Education South Africa, Cape Town, 134-144


Salim Vally (2007), From People’s Education to Neo-Liberalism in South Africa, Review of African Political Economy, No. 1111, ROAPE Publications Ltd, 39-56


What follows is a selection of excerpts from some of these publications that demonstrate Freire’s influence on education and the struggle for liberation in South Africa.




“Perhaps I should just say by way of rounding off this digression that Freire’s method has been co-opted in thousands of different ways in the pursuit of ruling-class, status-quo preserving projects all over the world. This, indeed, is one of the criticisms made against the uncritical acceptance of the Freirean method by various authors”. (p.56)


Nevertheless, Alexander also associates Freirean methods with the “crucial role of Black Consciousness”:


“In South Africa, the discovery of Freire’s method and his concept of conscientisation came at just the right moment, so to speak. Helbig, basing himself on various South African sources, has shown how Freire’s ideas were introduced to the University Christian Movement and through it to SASO in about 1970 by Rev. Collins. Although the government banned Freire’s works, about 500 or more copies of Pedagogy of the Oppressed made the rounds at the ‘bush colleges’ and were eagerly studied by the young activists of the Black Consciousness Movement. In Freire’s works, they saw the mirror image of that which they rejected in the Bantu-Education system as well as the possible way out of the cul-de-sac. Informal courses in Freire’s methods were conducted at these unintended ‘breeding grounds of communism’ (an accusation levelled by Verwoerd and his minions against the liberal English universities in the ‘fifties!) and soon some of the SASO students and others had begun conducting literacy and other conscientisation projects in urban and some rural townships”. (p.57)


“The whole concept of an alternative education in South Africa was deeply influenced by Freire’s visions and methods”. (p.58)




“The history of education under apartheid will not be complete without a proper examination of  both the internal and external influences that informed educational policy and struggle during the 1970s and 1980s. Although the key struggles (such as the African National Congress’ [ANC] alternative school movement in the early fifties) emerged from local conditions, much of  South Africa’s resistance history is influenced by trends in the international and continental struggle for democracy. For example, coming on the cusp of a world-wide radical humanist and often anti-imperialist movement during the sixties and seventies, the ideas of Paulo Freire profoundly articulated with and influenced South African student, teacher and community struggles against apartheid. In this regard, Freire’s key work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, played a seminal role in educational thinking within the liberation movement in South Africa”. (p. 134)


“As in Brazil and Chile, activists in South Africa promoted literacy and the conscientization method not simply with the goal of promoting reading and writing but with the goal of promoting mass participation in the political process. South African activists from both the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the People’s Education Movement (PEM) used the Freirean pedagogy for the politicisation of the oppressed”. (p.135)


“Freire’s pedagogy of knowing came to have a powerful influence on anti-apartheid activists in South Africa. This was so particularly after the English translation and publication in 1970 of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Specifically, it was the University Christian Movement (UCM) and the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) that took up Freire’s pedagogy and his concept of conscientisation for the struggle in South Africa. The banning of Freire’s work by the apartheid government during this period failed to prevent covert circulation of this literature amongst Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) activists in “bush colleges,” the apartheid institutions of higher education for blacks. The work made a large impression on a key activist, Steve Biko…”. (p.137)


“Even after the ban on BCM groups in 1977 other organisations carried forward, in various ways, Freire’s visions and methods of effecting liberatory pedagogy right into the 1980s”. (p. 138)


These organisations included:

National Literacy Co-operative  (NLC) – “an umbrella organisation for most Freire-inspired literacy organisations”.

Learn and Teach (Johannesburg) – “a literacy organisation which promoted critical dialogue for empowerment and published its own magazine from 1979”.

English Language/Literacy Project (ELP)

Use, Speak and Write English (USWE)

English Resources Unit, the Durban-based labour commission (LACOM)

South African Council of Higher Education (SACHED)

Eastern Cape Literacy Project (ECALP)

Rising Sun – and organisation “used mainly by African Independent churches”.

LM Literacy Foundation – an organisation catering “for Zulu migrant workers in Soweto”.

Adult Learning Project (ALP) – an organisation “involved in community-based literacy work”. (p.138)


Nekhwevha goes on to note how the Azanian Peoples’ Organisation (AZAPO) complemented the work being done by the organisations listed above. AZAPO was strongly aligned with the BCM. (p.138)


From the above, one of the lines of enquiry for the Johannesburg Working Group is to investigate whether there were non-governmental organisations  (NGOs) and groups offering arts education programmes in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s that were aware of and informed by Freire’s methods. At this point of our research we can surmise that the following organisations were involved in teaching and learning that either directly, or indirectly, employed Freirean methods:


The Curriculum Development Trust (Johannesburg)

The Imbali Visual Literacy Project (Johannesburg)

The Community Arts Project (Cape Town)

Funda Community College (Diepkloof, Soweto)

Sibkwa Arts Centre (Benoni)

Fuba Academy (Johannesburg)


The above is certainly not an exhaustive list and will continue to expand as our research continues.


“At a consultative conference on education on the 28th and 29th of December 1985, the idea of People’s Education for People’s power originated. A  student leader, Lulu Johnson…confirmed the general acceptance of Freire’s conception of education. He said: “those who learn must teach, and those who teach must learn”…”The concept of People’s Education for People’s Power is clearly based on Freire’s notion of education for liberation”. (p. 140)


Criticism of Freire’s ideas have emerged in the work of a number of South African scholars:


“ Critics include Richard Levin (1991) and Mastin Prinsloo (1991). Levin is skeptical of the utility of  the concepts “the people” and “the community” in the discourse of education for liberation. He argued that these are imprecise terms that only gained prominence as a reflection of generalized hostility towards apartheid. Once the apartheid state was overthrown, Levin argues, these concepts would lose their utility in the struggle against capitalism because the groups subsumed under the rubric of the of the term “the people” were by no means objectively united. “The people,” Levin argues, constituted a loose and fragile coalition of groups whose class interests set them in opposition to each other.  Prinsloo, on the other hand, is critical of the tranformatory potential of the entire Freirean educational project because these pedagogical programmes have not been tried and tested within the formal state schooling system. He further maintains that the fact that Freirean literacy projects operated ouside formal schooling and hat Freire’s ideas have only been utilised in the context of resistance discourse against state educational establishments means that they do not adequately grapple with the question of taking control of the education system”. (p.142)




“A significant influence on and the forerunner to the People’s Education movement of the eighties were the ideas and methods of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire”…”The appeal of Freire’s pedagogy to educational activists and theorists resided in the fact that:  (p.41)


“Freire’s anti-capitalist social theory accorded with the experience and the insights at which the liberation movement in South America in general and the educationists in it in particular had increasingly arrived at;


The situation out of which Freires’ pedagogy has been formed resembled

that which existed in South Africa’s ghettos and homelands;


Freire’s pedagogical method of combining education/culture with conscientisation and politicisation accorded with the BCM and was subsequently adopted by the broader liberation movement”.(p.42)

  • Working groups: Johannesburg
  • Media type: Text document (web)
  • Author: Andrew, David; Plessie, Puleng; Hlasane, Rangoato
  • Date: 2017-10-01
  • Source: Preparation Vienna Festival
  • Comment:
  • Place of production: johannesburg
  • Places mentioned:
  • Names mentioned:

1 One comment

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    Patric Tariq Mellet February 16, 2020 12:44

    I am a great supporter of Freire's work and indeed a beneficiary of his influences involving conscientisation and on education in production here in SA and in the Botswana Brigades.... having first left school early into factory work as a teen. But it is wrong to think of the ideas of conscientisation and education among workers and the educationally deprived as imported and absolutely associated with Freire in AA. From the 1930s the Night Classes movement was established by the CPSA and the National Liberation League and it lasted into the 1950s when repression got the better of it and its champions. The Night School movement did a lot of what Freire did but did not necessarily have the educational theoretical framework that he offered. I have been lucky to have known some of those communists who were teachers in the Night School movement which provided the forerunner seemless cross-over into the re-dmefgence of night class and literacy education in the late 1960s and 1970s. By the time I ldft school into the workplace with a poor education the Young Christian Worker movement saw us engaging in self-help education inspired by Freire.