Mobilising communities

Can community participation improve education in poorer and rural contexts in South Africa? Is it important that a community participates in school affairs? And if so, what needs to be done to get greater community participation in education? MADUMETJA KGOBE reports on the Community Literacy and Numeracy Group (CLING) study, which probed the belief in community mobilisation and participation, especially in rural and urban impoverished communities.

The idea that community participation is important in improving the quality of education is well entrenched in South Africa and internationally. In South Africa, calls for greater community participation in education emerged in the form of major campaigns led by, for example, the National Education Coordinating Committee in the 1980s and 1990s. These ideas of greater community participation as key to improving education have found expression in major policy statements and debates on education transformation in the post-1994 era.

If community participation is important to improving education, how then do we go about harnessing greater community participation in the context of South Africa, especially in poorer communities? Does such participation lead to improvements as claimed in the broader literature on the subject?

The CLING study

The aim of the study was to investigate whether community participation in education can improve numeracy and literacy in poor communities in South Africa, and if so, how? The study was undertaken in five sites: two in Limpopo (predominantly rural), two in Gauteng (township/informal settlement) and one in the Eastern Cape (rural). Each site had at least one primary and one secondary school (and in some instances more than one) that participated in the project.


At each site, the model for implementing the project included the establishment of a CLING structure as a primary driver for mobilisation for participation education in communities. These structures drew membership from a wide variety of stakeholders within each community and were envisaged to be as broad-based as possible.

Key insights

Research methods: The research employed a number of research techniques, including community mapping, and household and school surveys. These techniques were extremely important in assisting with the profiling of the communities and schools. The information gleaned through these techniques was also used to develop programmes of actions for the CLINGs.

In order to understand deeper issues of mobilisation, the research team the study drew on other participatory research approaches, including giving voice to participants, observing meetings of the CLINGs, running workshops, entering into conversation with teachers and learners in schools, engaging with various community structures, and giving the researchers a glimpse into the issues of mobilisation and participation.

A key lesson from the study was that while traditional techniques such as surveys can be powerful tools in profiling some key characteristics in communities, they need to be used alongside other research methods to capture the complexity and dynamics in communities in which research is undertaken.

Defining a community: Community is often defined as a monolithic structure with certain key characteristics, such as sharing geographic area, culture and language, but the study showed that the concept is complex and cannot be understood simply by reference to language and area. One needs to explore the complex interactions between the internal and external dynamics, politics, economics, ideologies, power dynamics and local priorities of communities in order to understand them.

Community mobilisation: The research suggested that this is a long, complex and difficult process and requires commitment in terms of time and resources. Whereas the project has been operating for almost five years in each of the five communities, greater time and effort is required to ensure ongoing and sustainable organisation and participation in educational matters. Ensuring that various structures within the community participate, both to broaden participation and ensure a legitimate forum for engagement, together with negotiating interests, tensions and other dynamics within communities,  makes mobilisation even more challenging. Specific skills and ongoing engagement are also required to initiate and sustain mobilisation and participation.

Community mobilisation is a long, complex and difficult process and requires commitment in terms of time and resources.

Benefits to education

Towards the end of the project, wider participation of community members in educational activities and discussions was evident across the five sites, where  the following key activities are taking place:

Reading clubs have been established that support mainly primary school learners.  These are run by volunteers and in some instances include parents;

There are campaigns for reading materials across the sites. CLING volunteers and community members are sourcing reading materials from within the communities and elsewhere to make them accessible to learners;

There are campaigns for libraries, and at one of the sites a shack library has been established and is accessible to learners and members of the community;

The CLINGs, in collaboration with municipalities in some sites (in particular the two sites in Limpopo), are providing centres where learners can get assistance with homework.;

There are campaigns to collect school uniforms (Limpopo sites) and to provide support to poorer learners;

There are working relationships among the schools, local education officials and the communities through CLINGS.



The role of community participation in education remains of utmost importance and should be recognised as a fundamental part of democracy. Policies need to value community participation in education, and resources must be invested in mobilising greater participation.

Author: Madumetja Kgobe, Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD), Johannesburg.