The struggle of adult educators in South Africa continues

From left to right:

Ivor Baatjes
Nelson Mandela University
South Africa

Britt Baatjes
Nelson Mandela University
South Africa

Abstract – Professionalisation of adult educators in South Africa has a relatively short history dating back to the mid-1990s. In the South African context, professionalisation is integral to the formalisation of adult education which has taken root in post-apartheid South Africa. Formal qualifications such as certificates, diplomas and degrees, based on national standards registered on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), are key elements of the professionalisation discourse. This article reflects on the professionalisation process in South Africa, and identifies the struggles and limitations which it has entailed. Adult education is a broad term, and here we focus on developments specifically related to the adult basic education programme in South Africa. 

South Africa has a long history of adult education dating back to the “night schools” movement which provided literacy and basic education for adults (Bird 1984; Aitchison 2002; Baatjes, Mathe 2004). Led by the South African Communist Party, this “movement” started with a few community initiatives in the early 1920s, and by the 1940s grew into a system of community-based adult education. When the National Party came into power in 1948 and instituted apartheid, teaching “black” people in any space outside a registered school was criminalised. By the 1960s, the apartheid government had closed down what remained of the night school movement. In the 1970s, in the face of extremely oppressive conditions, there was a revival of progressive adult literacy work and calls for “alternative” education (influenced by the work of Paulo Freire). In the eighties, “People’s education for people’s power” emerged, and an increasing amount of literacy and “alternative” education work was initiated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions (Motala, Vally 2002). These programmes and projects remained small, precarious and vulnerable to state interference, control and suppression. Business and industry also offered small-scale functional adult literacy programmes to workers using programmes designed by NGOs (Baatjes 2008). In 1994, when the Mandela regime came into power, 14 million adults had fewer than ten years of schooling, and more than 5 million of these people had received no formal schooling whatsoever. The National Education Policy Investigation conducted by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1990 suggested that there was a need to recruit and train 100,000 adult educators as part of building an adult education system in the country (McKay 2007).

Professionalising adult education

The first university-based qualification for adults was offered by the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1980. This was followed by a gradual expansion of certified programmes. For instance, the then University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) offered an Advanced Diploma in Adult Education in 1984. In 1985, the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) was established at the University of the Western Cape, where the first certified adult educator training courses for people at pre-university level were started. By 1986, a Department of Adult Education was established at the University of the Transkei, and in 1989 the University of the Witwatersrand set up an Adult Literacy Unit. Students in these programmes were largely activists from civil society – many from Community-Based Organisations (CBOs), trade unions and NGOs. In addition to these formal offerings, many NGOs continued to offer non-formal training to adult educators, and commercial providers (who served industry) also offered training. During this period, many adult educators were trained and then worked as adult educators (some in part-time and others in full-time positions). In post-apartheid South Africa, the ABET Institute, University of South Africa, enrolled its first students in January 1995. It undertook large-scale training of adult educators, using a blended approach of face-to-face and distance learning. The ABET Institute was responsible for training more than 17,000 adult educators (ETDP SETA 2013).

From 1994 onwards, there was much hope that the State would prioritise adult basic education and training (ABET) and create the conditions for, among other things, the professionalisation of adult educators. So, what happened? The 1990s saw the institutionalisation of a state system of ABET. ABET became increasingly formalised, influenced by the curriculum categories of formal schooling, skills-based training standards and qualifications. The National Qualifications Framework (NQF) was set up in 1995, and was introduced as an important mechanism to advance a more egalitarian education system. Its main objectives included to: facilitate access to education and training; facilitate mobility and progression within education, training and career paths; enhance the quality of education and training; accelerate redress against partly unfair discrimination in education, training and employment opportunities; and to contribute to the full personal development of each learner and the social and economic development of the nation at large (SAQA Act 1995). A key feature of the NQF was an attempt to make outcomes-based education (OBE) a central part of the entire education and training system. This has since been abandoned in the wake of large-scale criticism. During the period of transition to democracy, many adult educators argued that the NQF could potentially facilitate the goals of social justice, egalitarianism, redress and empowerment. However, today the NQF as an instrument of professionalisation in adult education has produced virtually no transformative results. A number of scholars have provided critical analyses of both OBE and the NQF which are applicable to adult education (see Jansen 1998; Spreen 2001; Allais 2003; 2007 for detailed analyses). Christie described the NQF as having taken on the shape of “a rigid codified system of control” and being far from a mechanism “of enhancing mobility and flexibility” (Christie 2006: 380). 

The introduction of the NQF also resulted in an increase in the number of private providers who could register and offer qualifications for adult educators through mechanisms of the National Skills Development legislation, plans and strategies (Department of Labour 2001). The skills development legislation brought into existence 23 Sectoral Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). One of these SETAs is the Education and Training and Development Practitioners’ SETA (ETDP SETA) which, by 2012, had registered a total of 95 qualifications offered by 64 accredited providers (mainly private-for-profit). 2,395 adult educators graduated from these programmes between 2005 and 2012. Very few of the adult educators have enrolled across university programmes in the country. Annual enrolments across public universities ranged between 20-60 students. At present, Community Education and Training Centres employ about 14,000 adult educators of whom, in 2017, 50% had no post-school qualification. Many of the “qualified” adult educators are school teachers with a higher education qualification, but not necessarily in the field of adult education. In general, despite the growth in qualification registration on the NQF, there has been a decline in adult educator training. More recently, the Department of Higher Education and Training declared a new policy for adult education. The Policy on minimum requirements for programmes leading to qualifications for educators and lecturers in adult and community education and training (DHET 2015) signals another attempt to support the professionalisation of adult educators. 

What are the barriers?

It is clear that much has happened in adult education in South Africa in the last 25 years. There have been a number of policy interventions to do with adult educators. Qualifi­cations for adult educators have been registered on the NQF since 1998. There has been a proliferation of providers offering programmes to adult educators under the skills development legislation (Department of Labour 1998: 2000).

One could argue that all of the above is positive, and that by now there should be a thriving group of adult educators and an improvement in the life chances of the marginalised and vulnerable members of society who the adult educators are serving. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although many people have obtained qualifications in adult education, the actual number of adult educators working in the field is in decline. Many adults (who should have benefitted from adult basic education) remain illiterate, and many others who have obtained some literacy skills remain unemployed (the promise of “growth and development” still has not materialised for many). Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.

Firstly, the adult education system remains poorly resourced and has been described as the dysfunctional step-child of the education system. Although the need for adult education is enormous, the budget for adult education has always been inadequate. Little has changed since the mid-1990s when it comes to the percentage of the budget accounted for. Adult education received 0.5% of the overall education budget in 1996. This increased to 0.83% in 1999. 2018 data shows that the budget remains unchanged and that there is no likelihood that it will increase given the current funding model in post-school education and the fiscal constraints of government. The State has also adopted a human capital approach to education, and is focusing heavily on programmes and projects aimed at addressing the high levels of youth unemployment (56%). 

“Despite the numerous policy interventions and programmes, adult educators remain precariously employed, under-employed, unemployed, marginalised and/or excluded.”

A precarious profession

Secondly, the data from various research projects clearly shows that the lack of job opportunities, coupled with undefined career paths, are two critical elements related to professionalisation. Adult educators have for years been locked in conflict with their employer (the State) about poor conditions of employment. During a demonstration in 2017 in the Eastern Cape, Lonwabo Hempe, an adult educator with two qualifications expressed his anger saying:

“We have educators who have been working in the sector since 1994, but they are still employed as contract workers. They don’t have benefits, and if they were to die today, retire, get expelled or even get injured, they would have no benefits at all. Their families will suffer. We even strive very hard to educate ourselves without any assistance from the Government. The 37% is therefore to cater for allowances like medical care, housing allowances, transport and other social allowances” (Chirume 2017).

Early this year (2019), during another demonstration, 64-year-old Tshidiso Phofu, from Sebokeng on the Vaal (Gauteng), who has worked for many years as a contract worker without an allowance and pension benefits, says: “I have nothing to show for my 30 years of service, no medical aid, housing allowance, not even a pension fund” (Marupeng 2019).

Despite the numerous policy interventions and programmes, adult educators remain precariously employed, under-employed, unemployed, marginalised and/or excluded. 

Thirdly, we argue that it is important and necessary for adult educators to build organisations. There have been numerous attempts over the years to organise adult educators into professional bodies – a testament to the sector’s resilience and refusal to give up. Amongst the earliest attempts was the establishment of the National Literacy Co-operation (NLC) in 1986. When the NLC closed in the mid-1990s, it was replaced by the Adult Educators and Trainers Association of South Africa (AETASA) and, less than a year after its closure, the Adult Learning Network (ALN) (2002) emerged as a new body focused on adult education and its educators. Following this was the formation of Khanyisel’Abantu – An Association for Adult and Youth Education and Training (2012). All these organisations were important initiatives, but due to insufficient resources, or ineffective organisation and mobilisation, they have been unable to sustain themselves. More recently, the Community, Adult and Worker Education Network is being established as part of the National Research Foundation’s South African Research Chair Initiative. Part of the work of the Chair is the development of scholars and activists in community and worker education.

Let us build a union

Fourthly, the unionisation of adult educators has also been a difficult struggle. Although South Africa has a history of strong unions, the main educator unions representing educators have not played a prominent role in mobilising adult educators as part of their membership. This is partly due to the fact that many of the adult educators are members of teaching unions, as they are school teachers and work as part-time adult educators. In addition to this, despite the policy interventions, many jobs for adult educators remain largely precarious. They rarely find full-time work, and have to “make do” with being part-time or casual workers without any benefits or job protection. The South African ABET Educators Union (largely Eastern Cape-based) was established specifically to support adult educators in their struggle for decent working conditions and salaries. It remains small, and currently has approximately 3,000 members.

Fifthly, as indicated by the most recent research on community and vocational education, large numbers of adult and community educators working in non-formal spaces of learning are involved in a variety of socially-useful forms of work (Baatjes 2018). These educators work in a variety of sustainable livelihood projects, and may not regard themselves as adult educators in the formal sense of the term. Many of these educators do not meet the requirements to access university-based qualifications, yet they play important roles in the projects and programmes in which they work. These educators are often excluded from the State’s national skill development programmes. If the only meaning we assign to being professional is to have the “correct” piece of paper, then what are we saying to and about the many educators who teach adults meaningful and valuable things in meaningful and valuable ways, but lack this piece of paper? Professionalisation in its common sense “may create a narrowly-conceived field of practice that excludes and marginalises diverse voices and approaches to adult education” (Merriam, Brockett 2007 quoted after Bierema 2011: 31).

The good fight

Professionalisation remains an important issue for adult educators in the South African context. We suggest that the State has an important and ongoing role to play in creating the conditions for the professionalisation of adult educators. Given the enormous challenges in adult and community education, a range of strategic occupations in adult education needs to be established, including those related to policy making, research and development, pedagogical practices, community work and many more. With the dawn of new policy developments in adult education linked to the recent White Paper on Post-School Education and Training, it is imperative for adult educators to re-think more carefully the professionalisation of their vocation and to explore the best approaches that could produce better outcomes. Doing so will require building bridges between the current divides of the formal and non-formal, the qualified and the unqualified, rural and urban and other disciplinary boundaries that exist within adult education. What is desperately needed is a cadre of competent and committed adult education practitioners and organisations that can be sustained for future generations, working in solidarity to create a more equal and just society.


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About the authors

Ivor Baatjes is Director of the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training (CIPSET) and co-host of the NRF SARChI Chair in Community and Worker Education, Nelson Mandela University.


Britt Baatjes has a background in adult and community education, including teaching, curriculum development and writing of materials in “plain language” versions. She is a freelance researcher and teaches part-time at the Nelson ­Mandela University in Education and Development Studies. Her research interests include the theory and practice of “work”, non-formal education, informal learning and eco-pedagogy.


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