John Aitchison and Peter Rule
Prior to the advent of full democracy in 1994, South Africa had little by way of adult
education provision, particularly for members of the majority of the population who were not
considered citizens, senior or otherwise. It might be expected that after the election of Nelson
Mandela as President the situation changed for the better, but, on the whole, advances in adult
education have been somewhat sporadic (Aitchison 2003a, 2003b, 2004; Baatjes and Mathe
2004; Rule 2006) and only in the last ten years have we seen much specific attention paid to
the older citizen.
This chapter begins by providing a brief historical overview of education policy
developments in South Africa related to older adults and then presents two case studies. It
seemed appropriate to examine two contemporary initiatives that cater for older adults at
different ends of the education spectrum, rather than just one, because educational
inequalities are still deeply rooted in South Africa and the educational experiences of older
adults vary accordingly. We therefore focus on the Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign and
the University of the Third Age. We go on to tease out some of the key issues that are
pertinent to the education of older adults in South Africa: access, articulation and target group
In the 20th Century, subsequent to the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and
the gradual entrenching of a racist and segregationist system that took final form in the
apartheid state from 1948 to 1994, education for older people could be found mainly in
religious form and in a more limited way in various non-formal educational and cultural
activities largely directed to well-educated upper-middle class whites. University extra -mural
classes based on the British model were first run in 1889 in Cape Town and other initiatives
were organised by the National Council of Women (established in 1933) and particularly the
South African Women’s Agricultural Union (established in 1931). The University of Cape
Town’s extra-mural activities considerably pre-date that of the other South African
universities which instituted such programmes in the 1970s and 1980s, notably the
universities of Natal, the Witwatersrand and the Western Cape.
By the end of the 1960s the apartheid state had severely circumscribed all sites of
independent “open to all” adult education practice except those provided by the “liberal”
universities which, through their defence of their academic freedom, still held the potential
for limited adult education work (Mackie 1995, p.10-11). Their programmes were initially a
mix of liberal extra-mural courses and those focused more directly on discussion of current
political and social issues. The attendees tended to be older, university educated, white people
though these courses were in principle open to all. (In the 1980s and 1990s these university
extra-mural programmes expanded into dynamic and often politically engaged departments or
centres of adult education involved in community outreach and which later took on
responsibility for teaching adult educators. They also exercised considerable influence on
post-apartheid adult basic education policy development.)
The more immediate origins of formal adult education in South Africa for less well educated
black people began with the development of night schools. Although this is often referred to
as “the night school movement”, it comprised sporadic initiatives which began in the early
1920s and eventually grew into the beginnings of a system in the 1940s. This incipient
system of provision was destroyed by the apartheid government in the late 1950s (until
partially reinstated in the late 1970s). It must be noted, however, that people enrolled in night
schools usually saw their studies as a route to employment or better employment. This focus
on employment-related skills became even more dominant when, post 1994, a new Adult
Basic Education and Training system was built on what there was of the old state night
school system (Aitchison, 2003a).
Adult education under the new democracy
Chapter Two of the new South African constitution of 1996 contains a Bill of Rights whose
Section 29 states that:
Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education,
which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.
The Section also states that:
Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in
public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. In order to ensure the
effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational
alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account equity; practicability; and the
need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.
These important statements are notable in not making any exception on the grounds of age.
The new Adult Basic Education and Training policies post-1995 were very work-orientated
and adopted a competency and standards-based approach with little attraction or usefulness
for older people. This reflected a wider global trend, informed by neoliberal capitalism,
towards instrumental, market-oriented forms of adult education (Baatjes 2003; Arnove,
Torres and Franz 2013). In addition, the state Public Adult Learning Centres (the old state
night schools run in school classrooms after hours) were generally attended by youth
rewriting the Grade 12 examinations they had failed at school and were an unattractive venue
for older people.
The Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign
A change came, at least for non-literate or semi-illiterate old people, with the Kha Ri Gude
(“Let us learn”) mass literacy campaign that started in 2008. After a somewhat abortive
literacy campaign in 2001, a Ministerial Task Team on Literacy developed a detailed
proposal for a large scale campaign to reach some 4.7 million people. Their report had a very
interesting set of remarks about the need to serve older people as well (Ministerial Committee
on Literacy, 2006, p. 17):
There may also be arguments about investing resources in another group: the 1.4 million who are over
the age of 64. However it should be remembered that the elderly in South Africa play a significant role
in childcare and it is important that they help provide a pro-literacy environment to the young.
As with most South African adult education policies since 1994, even this discourse about
education for older people was mainly about education and skills considered economically or
socially valuable rather than what had value mainly for personal, cultural or leisure use.
The final literacy campaign target calculations included people up to the age of 74 though the
priority age groups were the 25 to 54 and 15 to 19. The demographic information used came
from the national census of 2001 which had these figures for poorly educated older people
(Ministerial Committee on Literacy 2006, p. 141):
Age group by highest educational level: Census 2001
Figure 1. Age group by highest education level
Source: Statistics South Africa (2003).
In the period 2008 to 2013 the state funded national Kha Ri Gude literacy campaign
registered 3 590 942 adult learners (of whom about 90% completed the six month course).
Each year about 40 000 voluntary educators ran the classes (and received a small stipend).
The statistics on the number of older people who participated in the Kha Ri Gude Literacy
Campaign classes indicate that slightly over 20% were categorised as “older learners” in the
years 2008 to 2011:
Kha Ri Gude literacy campaign: older learners: 2008, 2009 and 2011
152 306 (23%)
52 674 (8%)
2 033 (0.3%)
137 841 (21%)
86 473 (13%)
48 636 (7%)
2 732 (0.4%)
Figure 2. Kha Ri Gude literacy campaign: older learners: 2008 to 2011
Source: Kha Ri Gude unit documents
The Kha Ri Gude campaign was designed to improve cognitive ability through its
development of reading, writing and numeracy skills, activities that are known to positively
influence memory and reasoning among older people (United States Department of Health
and Human Services, 2004). An interesting outcome was that there was no significant
difference in the results of older learners on the portfolio of assessment exercises completed
by all the learners.
Other findings, drawn from reports from campaign monitors of their visits to classes, were
that older people found the literacy classes stimulating and engaging, The following are
typical evaluation responses taken from older learners:
Joining a class is interesting.
It is nice to meet other people in the class.
I no longer feel depressed.
I can handle my own pension.
I feel better about myself and am more confident.
I can help my grandchildren with their homework.
I am able to read the Bible for the first time in my life.
I am able to sign my name.
I am not cheated by my grandchildren who have to draw my money from the ATM.
I need to know how to read because I am looking after my grandchildren who are
The attention given to older learners is particularly striking in respect of the disabled (blind,
deaf, physically handicapped and mentally challenged). The campaign made special
provision to meet the needs of adults with disabilities (many of whom were older) by, for
example, developing Braille materials and training Braille facilitators to include the visually
10 882 (40%)
5 553 (20%)
3 414 (13%)
1 915 (7%)
20 790 (29%)
12 253 (17%)
8 086 (11%)
9 414 (33%)
5 510 (19%)
3 694 (13%)
Figure 3. Kha Ri Gude literacy campaign: disabled learners: 2008 to 2010
Source: Kha Ri Gude unit documents
Figure 4. Older adult learning in Kha Ri Gude campaign
Source: John Aitchison: Photograph taken at a Kha Ri Gude class in the Shoshanguve district
on 11 June 2008 with permission of the participants.
Also of note is that more than 2% of the volunteer educators who were above the age of 60.
This literacy campaign received support from the South African Council for the Aged which
was founded in 1956 and now, renamed as “Age-in-Action”, has over 800 NGOs as members
who provide various services to older people. Amongst its aims are “to provide
empowerment programmes for vulnerable and needy older persons visa viz., adult education”
and “to initiate prevention and educational programmes on HIV/AIDS for older persons”
(Age-in-Action 2013, p.1). It helps equip service centres and luncheon clubs running basic
adult education programmes with a basic library kit to be used by members of the
Since 1981 the organisation has advocated for a model for aged care known as The People
Empowerment Programme (PEP) that promoted local responses to the needs of older persons
through actions by volunteers in delivering sustainable services such as providing meals,
home care, home visits, income generation projects and companionship. In the process,
luncheon clubs were developed and promoted. Also, older persons are carrying the brunt of
the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa and almost 19% of all households are run by older
persons. This means that new care and support work has been developed to help the third
generation parents to cope with ever increasing pressures.
Among the organisations that include older adults are a number of specialised societies
(art/history/ecological/fitness, etc.) in the larger cities that tend to be dominated by retired
well-educated middle class people. In addition, a remnant of the universities’ extra mural
programmes, such as that of the University of Cape Town’s Summer School and the
Lifelong Learning KwaZulu-Natal) are patronized by many older adults. The University of
the Third Age, to which we now turn, also caters for many of the specialized interests of
The University of the Third Age
There is an extensive international literature on the University of the Third Age (U3A), which
had its origins in Toulouse, France in 1972 and has spread to countries all over the world
(Findsen 2005, Huang 2006, Formosa 2010, 2013). The South African version of U3A took
root in Cape Town in 2000 where it received a very enthusiastic response and has grown to 8
000 members in six branches in and around the city. The Central Cape Town branch alone
has 1 500 members. It spread to other centres and now has approximately 11 000 members
across 26 branches (U3A South Africa, undated). It has a decentralised structure and is run by
local branch committees elected at annual general meetings, with meetings held at private
homes, church or community halls, or local libraries.
While the Kha Ri Gude campaign caters for non-literate or low-literate older adults who are,
as a result of South Africa’s apartheid history, predominantly black African, and located in
townships and rural areas, the University of the Third Age focuses on an entirely different
demographic: predominantly white middle- and upper middle class older adults no longer in
full-time employment. This constituency lives in the suburbs of the larger urban centres such
as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, as well as in smaller towns known as preferred
places of retirement, such as Howick in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and Hermanus,
Knysna and Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape. U3A branches emphasise in their
documents that membership is open to all persons interested in supporting its objectives
“irrespective of religion, culture, race or educational background” (University of the Third
Age Port Elizabeth undated, p. 1). However, the location of activities and transport
difficulties mean that, in effect, membership tends to be middle class and “lily-white”, as one
committee member put it, with some exceptions in Cape Town. One branch exists in the
traditionally “Coloured” (mixed race) area of Athlone, and a new branch has been started in
Gugulethu, a black African township (Interview CT1 2014).
Although different U3A branches formulate their aims in slightly different terms, there are
three main foci. The first is around learning and “intellectual stimulation”– encouraging
members to share their knowledge with others and learn from others. The second, arising
from and embedded in the first, is social and concerns providing social contacts for its
membership. As one committee member put it, “To provide continuing education, stimulation
and companionship (our emphasis) for the retired people” (Interview CT1 2014). For some
members this is the primary motivation for joining, especially those who have been widowed
or whose children live far away. As a committee member put it, “The name is a little bit off-
putting for some – more ‘learned’ than it is. In actual fact, here [Durban] the aim is more
social, getting to know people and trying to learn new things” (Interview D2 2014). The third
is an advocacy aim and asserts the ability of older adults to continue learning: “To refute the
idea of intellectual decline with age” (University of the Third Age Port Elizabeth undated, p.
1). U3A thus views older adults in terms that are very different from those of contemporary
stereotypes: active, intellectually and socially engaged rather than passive, intellectually and
physically declining, and isolated. This resonates with the international emphasis of U3As in
“contributing strongly to the ongoing construction of societies where people age positively”
(Formosa 2013, p. 234).
U3A’s approach in South Africa resonates with a liberal humanistic view of learning as
valuable for its own sake. This contrasts with the instrumentalist, market-oriented emphasis
of much adult education provision. However, there is also a strong social learning element in
which the experiences of older adults are valued as resources for collective engagement and
learning (learning and interacting with others). It also aligns with a lifelong learning
perspective: that learning happens throughout the lifespan and does not necessarily decline
U3A activities also differ from one branch to another but there is a common core of
intellectual and social activities. The intellectual activities include once-off talks or courses
delivered by current or retired academics or “enthusiastic amateurs” on particular topics, such
as history, art appreciation, literature, languages, creative writing, current affairs and new
communication technologies. Often members themselves are encouraged to give talks or lead
courses on topics that they know about; for example, a retired jeweller running a course on
gemstones. Social activities include physical exercise such as guided walks, circle dancing,
yoga, craft activities such as crocheting, sewing and knitting, and social gatherings such as
picnics and lunches. U3A also organises tours to places of interest such as factories, museums
and botanical gardens, as well as longer trips to game reserves and Boer War battlefields, for
A typical U3A learning event would involve a guest speaker making a presentation on a topic
of general interest, often using a computer presentation or other visual media. This would be
followed by some time for questions, usually of clarification. There would not typically be an
in-depth discussion or debate on the topic, and one member described the level of
engagement as “university lite”: “People don’t challenge, they don’t like argument and
challenge. It’s all very polite and civilised”(Interview D1, 2014). This would be followed by
refreshments and socialising.
The annual membership fee is low in all branches. In Cape Town, for example, current fees
are R40 (US$4) for those with e-mail and R60 (US$6) for those relying on ordinary mail.
Members also pay a nominal fee per event such as R5 (US$0.50) to cover costs of
refreshments. Despite these low fees, a committee member reported that some pensioners
could not afford them and so fees were “quietly waivered” in such cases. There are no
membership requirements related to educational level and no assessment or certification of
Judging by the proliferation of branches and increase in membership, U3A appears to have
been very effective in meeting the needs and interests of older, mainly white middle class
adults in South Africa. This was corroborated by interviewees – one committee member
reported a number of members saying to her, “Gosh, it’s made such a difference to my life
having these activities to attend” (Interview D2, 2014). This can be attributed to a various
factors: the range of activities (intellectual, recreational, social); the low fees; local control
and initiative attuned to local circumstances; and the emphasis on learning for its own sake
without the pressures of assessment. Despite these positive factors, both the U3A and Kha Ri
Gude cases indicate a number of problematic issues for the education of older adults in South
Commented [j1]: “lite” was the intended spelling and may be
less open to misinterpretation than “light” which might be read in
the sense of enlightenment.
Africa. It is to these that we now turn.
Whether an older adult is able to benefit from learning opportunities in South Africa depends
largely on where they are located and what transport is available at what attendant cost. Kha
Ri Gude has wide coverage, but for those who are not in walking distance of a venue,
transport might simply not be available. As indicated above, U3A branches are located
mainly in middle class suburban areas, which means that they are not easily accessible to
older adults living in townships or rural areas. Other factors limiting access to U3A activities
include language – English as the predominant U3A language of learning excludes non-
speakers of English (only about 10% of the South African population have English as a
mother-tongue) – and cultural ethos: the middle class westernised ethos of U3A activities
might not easily accommodate people from different cultural and class backgrounds.
Although Kha Ri Gude has made efforts to include adults with disabilities, such as provision
of materials in Braille, the wider social barriers to persons with disabilities, such as unsuitable
transport and inaccessible venues, limit participation.
South Africa does have a huge distance education university, the University of South Africa,
currently with over 300 000 registered students per annum, which is open to older adults.
People over the age of 23 may gain entrance without the normal full matriculation
Unlike U3A, the Kha Ri Gude campaign does include an assessment regime. However, Kha
Ri Gude does not in practice articulate with the existing Adult Basic Education and Training
(ABET) system of provision through Public Adult Learning Centres (themselves recognised
by the state as somewhat dysfunctional and currently subject to major policy changes). This
means that, when an adult has completed the Kha Ri Gude course, there is no easy channel of
progression into an ABET course. One of the problems with this is that newly literate adults
need to practise using their literacy skills, otherwise there is the danger that they will lose
them. If adult learners cannot progress to higher levels of learning, there is a chance that they
will regress to previous literacy levels. Without articulation with a national adult basic
education system that actually welcomes and accommodates newly literate learners (and
particularly older ones), the longer term educational efficacy of campaigns like Kha Ri Gude
is brought into question. Though South Africa has a national qualifications framework and a
policy of lifelong learning which in principle allows for easy access to learning, articulation
between qualifications and the recognition of prior learning, in practice the rhetoric of
lifelong learning is much more prominent than its implementation (Aitchison, 2004).
Target group coverage
Our study indicates that adult learning opportunities do exist for older adults in South Africa
at either end of the educational spectrum: basic literacy and U3A (which, although not
university-equivalent, assumes an “educated” membership) and suchlike. What is missing is
provision for the “in-between” group of older adults – those who have a basic education but
are not necessarily suburban and/or middle class. While public adult learning centres do
provide education beyond basic literacy, they are increasingly dominated by young adults
attempting to complete their Grade 12 qualification. Churches provide various learning
opportunities in the form of bible studies and courses which include older adults, often in
leadership roles, and this is an area that requires further research. However, besides this
spiritual/religious learning, the “in-between” opportunities are scarce, and the development of
an authentically inclusive learning nation in which older adults are learning citizens would
requires further attention.
Education for older adults in South Africa has largely been neglected until the last decade or
so. Two initiatives, the Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign and the University of the Third
Age, accommodate older adults at either end of the education spectrum. However, these
initiatives are restricted by issues of accessibility and articulation. In addition, there is limited
educational provision for the “in-between” group of older adults with some education. The
promise of South Africa’s Constitution regarding the right of everyone to basic and further
education is, despite some promising developments, yet to be fulfilled for most older adults.
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D1, Durban Branch U3A, Member, interviewed at home, 14 February 2014.
D2, Durban Branch U3A, Publicity, interviewed telephonically 5 March 2014
CT1, Cape Town Central Branch U3A, Chairperson, interviewed telephonically 5 March