Published: 4-01-2012, 14:41

Adult Education and Nation-Building


The late President of Tanzania said in 1976 that, ‘‘Adult education is a highly political activity. Politicians are sometimes more aware of this fact than educators, and therefore they do not always welcome real adult education’’ (Nyerere, 1976). By juxtaposing adult education and nation building, the political dimensions of adult education are foregrounded.

This article privileges experiences particularly in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) concerning adult education and nation building, to act as a lens to illuminate key issues which are also relevant to other regions of the world. The discussion is framed utilizing the following three social purposes of adult education:

  1. Education that enhances strategies which enable women and men to survive the harsh conditions in which they live. Examples of this include literacy, primary healthcare, and some home-craft skills. 
  2. Education and training geared to developing skills for people in the formal and informal sectors that describe education for economic purposes. 
  3. Cultural and political education which aims to encourage women and men to participate actively in society through networks of cultural organizations, social movements, political parties, and trade unions. 

The article begins with a discussion of various understandings of nation building, then moves to a discussion of adult education and nation building within SADC, highlighting universally important themes. This is followed by concluding remarks and suggestions for further readings.

Nation Building

‘‘Nation building depends upon winning popular support for rapid change,’’ commented Lowe (1971). In the early 1970s, 20 years after the United Nations had been established, and many countries had recently gained independence from the colonial powers, there was much interest in the role of education in national development. Developing the nation-state was the primary focus of attention. Over 30 years later, a fundamental political question is whether existing plural states, which make up 90% of the current 180 or so nation-states in the world, would be able to withstand the dual onslaught of ethnic nationalism and global economic integration (Phadnis and Ganguly, 2001).

The nation-state is a legal concept describing social groups who occupy a defined territory and are organized under common political institutions and an effective government. The state exercises sovereign powers within its borders and is recognized as sovereign by other states in the international system. A nation is therefore different from an ethnic group which can be transnational. (Phadnis and Ganguly 2001: 20) A key social construct within the nation-state is the citizen; therefore literature on adult education and citizenship (e.g., Bron and Schemmann, 2001; Korsgaard et al. 2001), can be a useful resource.

Mamdani (1996) provides a very rich analysis of the complexity of how the citizen and subject have been constructed in postcolonial states in Africa, which highlights the bifurcated state between urban and rural, between modern and customary, which is highly gendered, within one hegemonic state apparatus. Oga and Okwori (2005) illustrate the complexities of citizenship in Nigeria where people have stronger affiliation to ethnicity or religion than an imagined community of a nation-state. How citizenship is understood is therefore essential to the discussion on nation building.

Gaventa (2007), as editor of a series of texts on Claiming Citizenship: Rights, Participation and Accountability, points out that there is a growing crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the institutions that affect their lives. In countries, both in the North and South, citizens speak of mounting disillusionment with governments, based on concerns about corruption, lack of responsiveness to the needs of the poor, and the absence of a sense of connection with elected representatives and bureaucrats. The rights and responsibilities of corporations and other global actors are being challenged, as global inequalities persist and deepen. Nation building is therefore deeply connected to notions of democracy, development, and globalization (Korsgaard, 1997; Finger, 2005). It is undoubtedly complex and contested.

The question arises then as to how far people’s struggles for power, through liberation or social movements, can also be seen as part of a nation-building project Or is it a process that can only be led by a legitimate government in power? This question harks back to understandings of development and nation building (Youngman 2000). In this article, the position taken is that there are a range of actors in a society which contribute to nation building and, as Lowe suggests, winning popular support for rapid change. There can be nation building from below, through social movements, and nation building through government interventions. As Finger (2005) points out, formal education for children, is often more tied to the state machinery than adult education which has most often stayed outside of government.

We look at what adult education and nation building means in southern Africa and in doing so elaborate on some of the above points, particularly relating to struggles for democracy and development.

Adult Education and Nation Building in the SADC

Southern African Development Community (SADC)

This section is adapted from an article entitled ‘Adult education in lifelong learning in southern Africa’, by Walters and Watters (2001).

Political and Socioeconomic Picture of the Region

The present global economy is pushing national economies and local industries to compete in the world market. The SADC was formed in 1992 and in 2000 the protocol on trade came into force which is moving SADC toward a free-trade area. SADC grew out of the Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference (SADCC), which had had South Africa as its common political enemy while sharing with it complex historical and economic dependence. The SADCC provided the structure for the countries to organize themselves in geopolitical terms in order to maximize their political clout and minimize their economic dependence on South Africa.

SADC is comprised of 14 countries, which vary in population from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has 62 million, to Swaziland which has just over a million inhabitants. Another four of the countries have populations of 2 million or less: Botswana, Lesotho, Mauritius, and Namibia. Many SADC countries still rely heavily on agriculture. Only Angola, Botswana, and South Africa have less than 10% of their production coming from agriculture. Five countries, Malawi, Mozambique, DRC, Tanzania, and Zambia, obtain more than 20% of their production from agriculture. It is one of the least urbanized parts of the world and only Angola, Botswana, and South Africa have urban dwellers in the majority. Economic performance is dominated by that of South Africa, which represents more than 70% of the combined sub-regional gross domestic product (GDP).

Commonly used indicators of poverty reveal that SADC members are among the poorest countries in the world. In 2005, the average human-development index for the region’s countries was 0.54, while the SADC website reports a 2003 GDP per capita of US$1062. This compares unfavorably with the world average in 2003 of US$5822 and the average for Western Europe, for example, of US$30 449. The per capita income per person in the DRC in 2006 was only US$128 per year, which makes it one of the poorest in the world.

There are a few countries which have a relatively high GDP per capita for developing countries. The 2003 SADC figures put Mauritius at the top with US$4522 with South Africa and Botswana having above US$3000 per capita per annum. But even in these relatively well-off countries, there is major inequity between the rich and poor. The SADC Regional Human Development Report of 2000 states that 30% of SADC population live in abject poverty while 30–40% of the labor force is unemployed or ekes out a living as subsistence farmers.

The life expectancy is very low in most SADC countries, for example, Swaziland where it is just 31 years and Botswana where it is 35 years (2004 figures. The terrible human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) pandemic is pushing the life expectancy even lower. The infant-mortality rate is as high as 260 in Angola and 205 in DRC per 1000 live births. Again, this compares unfavorably with, for example, Japan at 3.2 or the United Kingdom at 5.3.

Although still experiencing difficult economic situations, most SADC countries have adopted macroeconomic and social policies aimed at improving regional humandevelopment performance. In order to achieve this, several governments spend around 20% of their budgets on education and almost 5% on health development.

This sketch provides a picture of a region that has a very wide spread of developmental needs, including adult education. The countries of SADC are peripheral capitalist economies and the development of adult education has been shaped very directly by this, including the macropolicies of international development agencies and the socioeconomic realities within each of the countries. (See, e.g., Torres, 2004) These in turn have sometimes spurred local people on to finding alternative approaches to development.

Social Purposes of Adult Education in the SADC Region

Most of the countries of the region have experienced major political and economic upheavals in the last 50 years. During this time, all of them went through, more or less, traumatic processes of decolonization. The last five countries to gain independence were Mozambique in 1976, Angola in 1975, Zimbabwe in 1980, Namibia in 1990, and South Africa in 1994. All five of these countries experienced extended liberation struggles. All of the countries in the region went through processes of reconstruction and development toward building new nations in about the last 50 years.The approaches adopted by the different countries were shaped strongly by dominant development theories of the time which reflect particular ideologies and material interests (see, e.g., Youngman, 2000).

In order to give a sense of the fragmented and contested nature of the role of adult education in nation building, illustrations are provided, falling within the three major social purposes: survival; economic development; and political and cultural development.

Adult education for political and cultural development

As adult education is integral to social processes, it is not surprising that it gains in prominence at heightened political or economic moments through actions within the state, civil society, or the private sector. In the past, most governments have invested minimally in adult education with their emphasis on schooling. At the point of political independence, adult education became significant. For example, after the historic transition in South Africa to democratic governance in 1994, adult education was highlighted particularly in relation to redress for black people, economic development, and the growth of a democratic culture. Adult basic education was declared a presidential lead project but was to be dependent on international donors.

Another example is taken from Mozambique. The watchwords of Samora Machel, the late president of the newly independent Mozambique and head of the liberation movement, Frelimo, were ‘‘study, produce, and fight.’’ These were taken as serious marching orders in preparation for independence and a broad, popular literacy movement emerged throughout the country (Marshall, 1990: 83). Popular education involved mobilizing human resources for creating the new Mozambique and literacy was part of the dynamizing groups set up in most villages and towns. A national directorate of literacy and adult education was set up in 1976. Since those heady days with the systematic destructive power of the apartheid state in South Africa, state-sponsored adult education all but disappeared in Mozambique between the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Since then, according to Mario and Nandja (2006: 192), there has been a process of rediscovery and rescue of adult literacy and education, with there now being an average rate of illiteracy of about 54%, with rates in rural areas and among women being disproportionately high.

The fact that most countries in the region have undergone radical political change in the last 50 years implies that there have been high degrees of political activism and education at different times. From the 1960s, Namibians and South Africans built powerful democratic movements of citizens, both inside and outside the countries, which created alliances of socialist revolutionaries, social democrats, and social reformers. Creative informal and nonformal education was integral to these movements which involved thousands of community-based organizations which were forged into the democratic movements. (Walters 1989) There was rich learning through social and political action as people strove to build a new nation from below.

The struggles for people’s democracy in the mid-1970s in places like Angola and Mozambique had been overshadowed in the following 15–20 years by civil wars spurred on by the apartheid regime and other international interests. Many of the gains hoped for in education, health, social welfare, and economic development had been decimated. In Angola alone it is reported that over 500 000 people had been killed since 1989 and 3 million people became refugees (Oduaran 2000). The DRC too has recently emerged from a devastating civil war. In the region, while people’s movements for democratic social change have engendered innovative responses in some countries, in others, many millions of people are confronted with the struggle for survival from poverty, war, and disease under the most trying conditions. Not all people’s movements are necessarily positive; some are mobilizing children and adults for participation in violent crime and war. Literature is not available on what educational efforts are occurring within these situations but there are no doubt activists working to bring about peace and reconciliation on the one hand and activists training new recruits for violence and war on the other (see, e.g., Thompson, 2000).

Adult education for survival

One of the greatest educational challenges facing SADC presently is the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic. The region has the highest incidence in the world. Thousands of people are dying of the disease. It is having substantial effects on the economies as it is the working adult population which is most vulnerable. The estimation is that there were 12 million AIDS orphans in Africa at the end of 2007 and estimates are that currently the higher education population in South Africa is 22% HIV/AIDS positive.

There have been various strategies developed over the last 15 or so years to counter the pandemic. It is primarily a sexually transmitted disease which is exacerbated by poverty. Educational processes are called on which challenge deep seated cultural, religious, ethnic, gender, or class attitudes and behaviors. In many societies, there are cultural practices that propagate the spread of the virus through promiscuity.Women are most at risk as often it is men who have multiple partners. The power relations between women and men make it nearly impossible for many women to insist on safe sexual practices. Some people predict that until women are empowered and gender relations are more equal, it will be extremely difficult to stem this tide.

Educational programs are being orchestrated in some countries through the health ministries, but this is seen to be inadequate. In South Africa, departments of education, labor, welfare, and health are working together. There are over 600 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working to counter HIV/AIDS. Some workplaces have begun running education and counseling services for workers. There is a growing awareness that all sectors of society, working with people of all ages, must join together to educate about HIV/AIDS. At the World Aids Conference held in Durban in July 2000, 13 000 scientists, activists, educators, development workers, government officials, and health workers, all came together to share research, information, methodologies, and policies. There were discussions, debates, information, and papers disseminated on a daily basis through community and national radio, television, and newspapers. It was amassive and impressive public educational process.

The growing campaign is being interpreted and taken forward by a very wide range of interest groups with different values, for example, rurally based indigenous healers, rural and urban women’s groups, youth groups, religious and community organizations, and educational institutions. They are using different approaches, from ethnocultural, to feminist, to popular, to spiritual, among others, to organize awareness-raising, skills-training, and organizationaldevelopment strategies.

The responses to HIV/AIDS provide excellent contemporary examples of adult education for survival which involve most sectors of society and which draw on multiple pedagogical, organizational, and developmental frameworks simultaneously.

Adult education for economic development

In a region with such high unemployment and levels of poverty, economic development is of paramount importance. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs states that unemployment in the region varies from Namibia at 34% (2000) to Madagascar at 4.5% (2003. An independent assessment puts the rate in Zimbabwe in 2007 at 80%. A 1998 SADC report estimates that 30–40% of the labor force of SADC are either completely unemployed or are eking out a living as subsistence farmers. The same report indicates that less than 50% of the labor force is women. In the last 20 years, numerous adult-education programs focused on skill development have been embarked on by SADC countries in both the formal and informal economies.

Within the context of globalized economies, economic development and adult education, or adult learning, have become more urgent and complex. Within the debates on globalization are debates about the importance and the role of information communication technologies (ICTs) in economic development. Africa is the most poorly serviced continent in ICT. Africa, with 14.2% of the world’s population, has only 3.4% of its Internet users. South Africa has the most users in SADC, but is fourth on the continent after Nigeria, Morocco, and Egypt. This is seen as another major barrier to Africa’s development and one which will lead to even greater inequality both within the continent and between Africa and other regions.

The type of adult education for economic development that has occurred in the last 20–30 years within SADC can be differentiated again in terms of competing interests. For instance, the economic-development projects for women have often been within a modernizing frame which has not challenged the sexual division of labor or attempted to transform women’s subordinate positions.

Adult education for economic development occurs most frequently in large companies in the formal sector and for employees at the middle and upper levels. This is a worldwide trend which most often favors educated men and is reflected in the SADC region as well. This is likely to continue as, within the dominant neo-liberal framework, the globalizing economies require flexible, welleducated workers. As Stromquist (1998) suggests, it also requires uneducated workers to service the professional classes and hence the low priority given to literacy in the region despite government rhetoric.

The SADC is trying to position itself in the global economy. The discussions and debates about adult and lifelong learning are shaped directly by this. A key question is what is the primary objective of economic development? Is it to be globally competitive? Which is the predominant view? Or are there alternatives as argued by Klein (2007) and others? Within SADC, these are very pertinent and hotly debated issues within organizations of state, civil society, and business. Adult education is implicated in these debates and political contestations.

Adult education within lifelong learning

The discourse of adult education is being challenged by that of lifelong learning. Lifelong learning has entered the education and development debates of the region, as elsewhere. Education policy documents in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, for example, all refer to lifelong learning as a goal. The contestation over lifelong learning for what among and within the different sectors is ongoing (see, e.g., Walters, 2006).

The shift in the discourse of adult education to lifelong learning may signal shifts in understandings of relationships between individuals and the nation-state; between individuals and their identities as national, regional, or global citizens. Lifelong learning most commonly relates to the need for continuing education and training for global competitiveness. It may reflect the weakening of the nation-state and the increasing requirements for transnational and global relationships between the local and the global.


Experiences in SADC have shown how adult education gained in significance both during the struggle for and at the time of independence, with the formation of the new nation-state. Adult education was identified by social movements struggling for liberation in order to mobilize and prepare citizens for rapid change. It was also identified by new governments as necessary to mobilize and (re) shape citizens for their roles and responsibilities in the new society. The utilization of informal and nonformal adult education, within movements, helped to prefigure the new state. It was intimately connected to contestations concerning social and economic development, including notions of democracy and citizenship. Most of the SADC countries had leftist movements (i.e., Marxist, socialist, or social democratic) involved in the national revolutions. South Africa’s apartheid government, in turn, played a catalytic role in the 1970s and 1980s in providing a common enemy, against which regional governments and liberation movements struggled. Solidarity among countries against apartheid was therefore an important element of citizenship of the region.

At independence, each of the governments projected adult education as an important part of their reconstruction and development of their nation state. However, few resources were invested and adult education and training has been dispersed among civil-society organizations, workplaces, and various departments in government. At the time of independence, adult education had a powerful symbolic purpose but it has not necessarily translated into systematic programs for the adult population. After the novelty and excitement of the birth of the new nation, adult education has settled back to being barely visible, but is integral to new social movements who are continuing to contest power relations in the society, and notions of citizenship, whether shaped by gender, race, class, geography, and physical ability; or specific crosscutting issues, like health or criminality.

The discussions on adult education and nation building show that they cannot be divorced from understandings of democracy and development, within local, national, regional, and global contexts. This means that nation building is intimately linked to notions of citizenship, which, on one hand, are determined through the legal frameworks of a country. On the other hand, citizenship is often contested by social movements, political parties, or other social structures, as its interpretation reflects the power relations in the society. Nation building can therefore be driven by state structures or it can be driven from below. Adult education, whether informal, nonformal, or formal is interwoven into political, economic, and social processes, which comprise the nation-building project at particular historical moments, in specific contexts. In the twenty-first century, with nation-states losing their predominance as defining economic entities, it is hard to hold the question of the relationship between adult education and nation building for long, before questions of the specificities of the local, regional, or global shout for attention.

S Walters, University of Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa

© 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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