Shirley Walters

“The skills you need to change a country (and the world)”

Interview by Johanni Larjanko


Shirley Walters at a conference in Hamburg. © UIL

Shirley Walters is the founding director of the Division for Lifelong Learning at the University of Western Cape in South Africa. A Professor of Adult and Continuing Education since 1986, She has published widely on issues relating to gender, popular education, community education, lifelong learning in higher education, learning regions and education for democracy. She sits on the Board of ICAE (The International Council of Adult Education)


Back in the 70s and 80s, how did you prepare for a time after apartheid? What kind of skills and competencies did you think would be necessary?

There were a number of different ways in which it was being understood. There were many of us involved in civil society organisations and in university-based adult education departments very involved in the anti-apartheid movement. We were supporting local communities as they were struggling for their rights. We did that in various ways. I have been involved in the University of Western Cape for 30 years. UWC was known as the “struggle university”. A lot of our Adult Education programmes and processes were very embedded within the social movements. I remember a conference we held in 1989. Now, we had no idea, as we do now about all the things that were happening behind the scenes. You know, where the government had been beginning to have discussions with Mandela and others, people both inside and outside the country. We had no idea just how soon it was going to come. So at the conference we were beginning to think of the future. People dared to ask what we were going to do once we got into power. What were we to do about HIV/Aids. This was just a moment in time where I and my colleagues recognised the shift in assumption. We weren’t necessarily always going to be in opposition. Now people dared to imagine that something else might happen. At the same time there were increasing numbers of think tanks from the late 80s to the early 90s. They were largely driven by the ANC in exile and looked at the kind of policies that would be appropriate. There was a lot of investment by activists and scholars in trying to imagine what a new policy framework would look like. This involved the Congress of South African trade unions, various social movements, people in universities.

There was a shift in the early 90s to a feeling of “Ok, so what might we want?” There was a lot around adult basic education. We recognised that adult education in general had been seriously neglected. There was a hope that literacy and adult basic education would begin to be recognised as an important part of the reconstruction of South Africa. A lot of energy was put in by various people to these discussions and debates. There was also a lot of lobbying, and attempts to clarify what we thought, interchange with international colleagues about what we should be looking to for the future.

There was a hope that literacy and adult basic education would begin to be recognised as an important part of the reconstruction of South Africa.

Building Utopia

In those discussions about the role and place of adult education, skills and competencies, how much was it about making sure the country could function in a more equal way, and how much was it about the possibility to build something completely new, a new society, another world?

We were a number of people with quite an utopian thinking. There was a certain degree in which people said we need to do away with what we know, and build something new. There was a lot of discussion and debate around how you would get the private sector and government to pay for work related training. We were trying to find ways to get more money into the system. This is when the skills fund was started, the taxing of workplaces and so on. In retrospect, I can see that we were connecting for example with the whole debate on a national qualifications framework in countries like Sweden, Germany, New Zealand or Australia. Those were all new ideas to us, although they resonated with what people were trying to accomplish in different parts of the world. A lot of energy went into trying to imagine what the implications of some of those ideas might be.


Her passion and commitment has touched the lives of many people and helped create more understanding and awareness of lifelong learning world wide. © UIL

Until we had the debate on a National Qualifications Framework, nobody had really consciously discussed what a qualification is and who gets to decide that. In these debates people began to see that qualifications are socially constructed. Up until then they had just arrived, from Pretoria. It was like a black box of qualifications.

The move to make the process much more transparent and to co-construct qualifications was a really important shift towards a much broader understanding of the politics of knowledge. At the time we weren’t fully aware of what we were involved in, but we knew we wanted to move away from the previous, completely authoritarian method.

When things go wrong

We ended up developing what many considered an incredibly complex and bureaucratic system. We set up various communities of practice. If you argued there should be a certificate on gender-based violence, a group would be set up under the South African Qualifications Authority. The group would co-create a certificate on how to counter gender-based violence. This led to a proliferation of qualifications. I think this was the pendulum that swung. We ended up swinging almost too far. We had hundreds and hundreds of qualifications that had all been developed very democratically. Then we started looking at the take-up of these qualifications. The institutional capacity to actually present these qualifications, and so on. There was not the same amount of energy put into building institutions which could actually take up the qualifications. So we got a heavy system that most people found very confusing. There has been a simplification process going for the last 12 years to make the system functional. Initially there was a huge pull that could have changed how we understand qualifications and supported all kinds of participation, but it didn’t. The institutional base wasn’t there.

"We ended up developing what many considered an incredibly complex and bureaucratic system."

A lot of people got involved in trying to understand what on earth this transition from opposition to power meant, how new policy could be made, what skills leadership required. All of that takes a long time. We were very skilled at being in opposition, but not necessarily very skilled at being in power. So we had to learn. The shift came at a price. A lot of civil society organisations lost their momentum, and the membership base was lost in the transition. There was no more money to support them. Once we had the new government, many of our former comrades resisted support for civil society. There was an understanding that the government should provide. There were competing notions of what the state was, and what it should do. We lost a lot of our interesting and progressive ways to deal with society, for example regarding literacy. It is only in the last 5-10 years that people have started to reassert some of those understandings. We see that the government is not providing. So we need to find different ways of recapturing our old ideas. People in South Africa are increasingly saying that we can’t rely on the government alone.

People in South Africa are increasingly saying that we can’t rely on the government alone.


Shirley Walters is awarded a 2016 Honorary Fellow at UIL in Hamburg. © UIL

Literacy, reading and writing

Then there is also our understanding of what we should do. The debate on literacy is often simplistic, and measured as literate vs. illiterate. In reality that issue is much more complex.

Oh yes. Because I have been a gender and feminist activist for a long time, I consider literacy to be contextual. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Literacy gives women the opportunity to get out of their houses, and be with other women. This social context gives them confidence and so on. Reading and writing is but one part of it. When we formalise this into a system of adult basic education with qualifications we notice that the uptake is very limited. Our second chance system does not reach the poorest of the poor or the people with the least education. In my opinion we haven’t made progress as a society, in our understanding of literacy. It is still quite basic.

Our planet is heating up. Social, economic and gender inequality and injustice still prevails. What do we, as a species, have to do to make another world possible?

We need systems change, not climate change. If we take the example of climate change it is usually addressed in a narrow and technical manner. There is a heavy emphasis on technology, and not on people. We have to intervene quite assertively and rethink quite radically some of the dominant paradigms. Take a look at the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). One of them mentions the aim to reach a financial growth of 7% as a notion of what kind of world we need. If we don’t start rethinking that as a cornerstone of our discussion, I think we are in deep trouble. What does a sustainable growth paradigm look like? Is it measured by GDP? Is it measured by the Happiness Index, or something else? This is what we need to discuss. We need a radical rethinking of the world we are living in if we want it to be here for generations to come.