11 Jun 2019

Shirley Walters: the power of lifelong learning

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 11 June 2019

The need for ongoing and relevant education has never been more important, particularly in this time of climate crisis, South African activist and educator Shirley Walters says.

“The various transitions we go through in life are essential and with the climate crisis… the transitions are going to be coming at us thick and fast.”

Climate change challenges us fundamentally and our notions of who we are and how we relate to nature, says Walters.

The drought in Cape Town is a good example, she says.

In April almost 5 million people were told they’d have to think about how they use water and how they will need to conserve it in the future.

“We’ve had to learn to develop a completely different relationship with water, whereas we assumed water ran out of a tap, we can no longer necessarily assume that. This is speaking as a middle-class South African. Many South Africans don’t have water running out of their taps, but it hasn’t been deemed a crisis.

“Living through the drought… certainly has helped me, I think it’s helped many people, recognise the links between many things.”

If we look to Mozambique, says Walters, Cyclone Idai has just devastated a city and people are having to learn how to reconstruct their lives from nothing.

“Many of the things we take for granted like livelihoods, electricity and water supplies, are being washed away.

The Climate crisis, if we first acknowledge we have a problem, offers us new opportunities, and everyone has the chance to think about how to do life differently, she says.

“It’s trying to reignite that curiosity and creativity among all of us.”

And because we only learn what really matters to us, adult and community education needs to find a way to connect to what matters to people, she says.

“I think that we have to find ways of communicating with people across all generations around the things that they care about, but at the same time, trying to shift our general understanding of the scarcity of resources and the fact that we have to challenge the economic paradigm within which we’re living at the moment.”

She believes everyone around the world needs to be politically engaged, in order to challenge those that have massive vested interests in the economy as it stands today.

“Particularly for women, you find that women are juggling all kinds of things; running households, trying to earn a living, looking after their children and all the rest of it. The idea of a stable workplace is not really the reality for the majority of people.”

Dr Walters is in Christchurch as keynote speaker at the Adult and Community Education Conference. Walters has worked with social justice organisations for over 35 years in her home country and globally. She was an anti-apartheid campaigner during the difficult, repressive 1970s and 1980s. After Nelson Mandela's election as President she worked for a time in his office. She is emerita professor of Adult and Continuing Education at the University of Western Cape.