“Education to us means service to Africa. In whatever branch of learning you are, you are there for Africa” – Robert Sobukwe.

Sobukwe is quoted a lot by many people and this particular quote on education has been on my Facebook and Twitter timelines especially when someone graduates or enrolls at a prestigious institution, like Oxford or Cambridge. I have been thinking lately what the purpose of an education is and how the promise of education can be realised in South Africa, an Africa at large.

Julius Nyerere provides some interesting thoughts on the importance and the purpose of education, especially in a post-colonial society. Nyerere’s philosophy and practice of ujamaa aimed at building African socialism through the liberation and empowerment of rural peasant and the peasant production, instead of waiting for a possible proletarian revolution in the future when a developed capitalist state emerged. I am by no means advocating for socialism, but merely expressing the views of Nyerere and what framework he used especially his philosophy on education.

Nyerere believed that education was a critical vehicle for mass mobilisation, total liberation, freedom, equality and building a human-centered development in Tanzania. For Nyerere, it was important to challenge the relevance of colonial education which sought to maintain the colonial state. Liberation education has contributed to the conversation about the pedagogy of liberation. A UCT lecturer borrowed some of Nyerere’s philosophy when he spoke to students last year during FeesMustFall encouraging them to fight against colonial epistemologies and pedagogy which thrive in institutions of higher learning, especially in South Africa.

So what does Nyerere say about education?

Education for self-reliance:

Nyerere’s educational philosophy can be approached under two main headings: education for self-reliance; and adult education, lifelong learning and education for liberation. His interest in self-reliance shares a great deal with Gandhi’s approach. There was a strong concern to counteract the colonialist assumptions and practices of the dominant, formal means of education. He saw it as enslaving and oriented to ‘western’ interests and norms

Nyerere set out his vision in ‘Education for Self Reliance’ (reprinted in Nyerere 1968). Education had to work for the common good, foster co-operation and promote equality. Further, it had to address the realities of life in Tanzania. The following changes were proposed:

  1. It should be oriented to rural life.
  2. Teachers and students should engage together in productive activities and students should participate in the planning and decision-making process of organizing these activities.
  3. Productive work should become an integral part of the school curriculum and provide meaningful learning experience through the integration of theory and practice.
  4. The importance of examinations should be downgraded.
  5. Children should begin school at age 7 so that they would be old enough and sufficiently mature to engage in self-reliant and productive work when they leave school.
  6. Primary education should be complete in itself rather than merely serving as a means to higher education.
  7. Students should become self-confident and co-operative, and develop critical and inquiring minds.

The educational reforms were met with some successes and some failures. The policies were never fully implemented and operated within a context of severe resource shortage and a individualistic and capitalist understanding of education. However, education in Tanzania used local language forms and had a very Tanzanian flavour.

In the Declaration of Dar es Salaam Julius Nyerere made a ringing call for adult education to be directed at helping people to help themselves and for it to approached as part of life: ‘integrated with life and inseparable from it’. For him adult education had two functions. To:

  1. Inspire both a desire for change, and an understanding that change is possible.
  2. Help people to make their own decisions, and to implement those decisions for themselves.

There have been many instances where I have asked “When am I ever going to use this” when being taught something in class and I think that Nyerere answers this question of the purpose of education in Africa so adequately.

Lwazi Lushaba challenged students last year that they should come to institutions of higher learning to get a degree, buy a fancy car and house and think that is it. He argued against how the commodification of education has led to seeing our education merely as something we can exchange for money. Our communities, country and continent need our education to solve the problems that continue to hinder us from developing and being self-reliant.

I think the promise of education for me is being able to see research done in universities move beyond the university space and affect policy, conversations and ultimately lead to the betterment of all South Africans and Africans.