Sahra Ryklief

South Africa

sahra pic select

Sahra Ryklief has served on the IFWEA Executive Committee since 1995, most recently as Secretary General from 2007 until 2023. In the first section of a two-part interview with Sahra, she speaks about her early roots – and why she is passionate about lifelong learning:

Sahra Ryklief’s passion for learning and education, particularly grassroots-based adult education, was sparked at an early age with her love of reading, whilst growing up in Belthorne Estate, Athlone in Cape Town, South Africa. “I was a sociable child, but my real activity was reading,” Sahra recalls with a smile. “I literally read the whole children’s section of several libraries in the surrounding neighbourhoods where I lived, and used to wangle concessions from my parents and teachers to let me read more.”

Sahra finished school at a young age -16 – in 1973, because her father had enrolled her early, due to her prodigious reading. She then began what was essentially a “dream job” at Grassy Park library in 1974, first as an assistant librarian and later, after obtaining her library diploma via correspondence, as Chief Librarian. “I was the eldest of four children, I was responsible for going to work, and it made a lot of sense for me to apply to the library service. At that time, Grassy Park had one of the biggest libraries in the Cape, servicing a community of around 60 000 people.”

A library for the community

During her 14 years at the library, Sahra says she “turned it into a Community House” (referencing the iconic building where the IFWEA Secretariat is based, and where many progressive activist organisations have made their home). Not only did she encourage cultural activities, such as starting a drama club which would perform at libraries around the Cape, but she also implemented an in-house training programme, which she designed, to support unqualified Black library assistants working for the Divisional Council of the Cape, serving the peri-urban areas of the city. She created the curriculum for this programme and trained numerous urban and rural librarians through this initiative and via on-site training at Grassy Park. She also organised a variety of outreach activities with an anti-apartheid focus, including film festivals and poetry exchanges. “I was starting these projects at a time when reading circles and plays formed political vehicles for people who were politically conscious,” Sahra says, and they were very popular.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s also Sahra co-ordinated an underground library of banned political literature stored in various “safe houses”; and managed a group of underground couriers who distributed political literature banned by the apartheid government to study circles and groups of activists in the greater Cape Town area. These guided reading packs featured discussion questions and summaries.

More involved with work/education that was overtly political

It was a natural step, then, for Sahra to start working at the Trade Union Library, based at Community House. “I wanted to be more involved in work/education that was overtly political. I started off with a half day job, three days a week, and built up what became the Trade Union Library and Education Centre (TULEC). It wasn’t very big, but it had a really eclectic collection of books, and was the place where you educated yourself to be a trade unionist of note,” she says.

Sahra also concentrated on her own education, winning a place at Liverpool University to do a Masters degree in Political Science in 1995/6. She says she came back to a changed country – post 1994 – with the ANC in power and “the start of a neo-liberal onslaught against education – it was clear something had to happen,” says Sahra.

The Trade Union Library and Resource Centre merged with the Labour Research Service (also based in Community House), with Sahra as Director. “It was interesting, because the library was regional, but the LRS worked with the national offices of the trade unions , so it took  some engagement to reach concensus,” Sahra reflects.

She adds: “My strategy during this period was to build a sound and sustainable institution that could withstand the ebbs and flows of the national trade union  leadership’s strengths and weaknesses, continuously  en-skilling new generations of researchers, educators and  organisiers in the labour movement.”

After 18 years with the LRS and TULEC, Sahra took up the position of General Secretary of IFWEA, a position she has held until December 2023. Her role has been to bring together a global network of NGOs and education institutions engaged in workers’ education and research in trade unions; communities and educational institutions. Concurrently, she has designed education and research proposals for global projects and supervised and mentored the educators and researchers in their implementation.

“I come from a background where education was truly valued. My community understood education as more than just learning letters – it was culture, debate, and dialogue. My grandparents were domestic workers and cleaners. My father and my mother, the next generation, were a teacher and a shorthand typist. If you wanted to get ahead, you were pushed and you were praised – not just for your own advancement, but for what you did in the community, says Sahra.

“There was a link between upward mobility and education – but I rejected the upward mobility part at a very early age,” laughs Sahra. “All my life I have favoured and encouraged those spaces providing informal, continuous education – it is where I was more comfortable, due to my own learning process.”

Her years as IFWEA General Secretary have been marked by a successful emphasis on global co-operation between worker educators and researchers, to advance the frontiers of knowledge, methodology and practises. There has also been a marked growth in IFWEA affiliates from the global South.

As was obvious from Sahra’s emotional farewell ceremony as she stepped down from her position as IFWEA Secretary General at the International Conference in December 2023, her presence at the helm – and in the middle – of IFWEA operations has made a huge impact. Thankfully, she will still retain contact with IFWEA and share her vast experience in a consultant capacity.