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Why democracy should be taught in South African schools
14 April 2016

Research has revealed that South African learners born after the end of apartheid, the so-called ‘born-free’ generation, are less supportive of democracy than their parents or older generations in comparable studies. Worryingly, only 60% of students believed that democracy is always preferable, and only 45% said that it is important for them to live in a country that is governed democratically. However, the same study has shown that civic education has an important role to play in encouraging a ‘demand for democracy’ among South African youth.

South African school children

Interestingly, once factors such as economic background, family situation and gender had been controlled for, the results showed that race was not a determining factor. Rather, the most important influences were found to be linked to education: the depth of the students’ knowledge of democratic processes, the degree of discussion and debate encouraged in the classroom, extracurricular activities, and their expectations of their future prospects for education all affected their desire to live in a democracy.

The survey, conducted in 2012, involved 2 500 students from 45 high schools in Cape Town, who completed a survey measuring their political attitudes and activity. Students responded to questions about their civic engagement, such as whether they would consider themselves likely to participate in a peaceful protest march, work for a political party, or contact a local official on an issue that was important to them. The survey also measured their support for democracy, asking whether they would support or disapprove of South Africa being governed by one party, coming under martial law, or returning to “the old system we had under apartheid”.

According to Robert Mattes, professor of political studies and director of the Democracy in Africa Research Unit and lead researcher on the project, the study “sought to establish the relative impact of socialisation and education on young citizens’ political values and activities, and the extent to which schools can impart a critical, engaged democratic citizenship, despite the ongoing vicissitudes of unemployment, political divisions and social uncertainty”.

Mattes concluded that “the extent to which Cape Town’s youths learn basic facts about the political system, develop an appreciation of the necessity of active, critical and lawful citizenship, and understand the importance of political procedures and institutions to democracy – all factors presumably affected by schools and teachers – makes them far more likely to demand to live in a democracy”.

So what kind of practical things can schools and teachers do to help their students develop an appreciation for democratic processes, and civic engagement in general?

Greater knowledge of politics leads to positive attitudes towards democracy

The research showed that 90% of students knew which political party controlled the national parliament; but that only about one-half of the sample could correctly identify the purpose of multiparty democracy (52%), an example of discrimination (51%), elements of the Bill of Rights (41%), which political party created apartheid (36%) or an instance of non-democracy (33%).

However, knowledge of what constitutes a democracy was shown to be the single most important determining factor influencing students’ attitudes. “Students who know more about politics, both theoretically and practically, are likely to have read and heard more about democracy and about government in general, to have thought more often about history and politics, and to have taken part in more discussions and debates about the pros and cons of various ways in which governments are organised and run,” explains Mattes. “This greater interaction with political ideas is likely, we believe, to result in more positive judgments about democracy, and correspondingly, more negative views about autocratic forms of governance.”

While students’ family situations may play a role in their knowledge of politics and governance, these results make a powerful argument for ensuring that high school students are exposed to civic education classes.

Extracurricular activities can help to foster active citizenship

Of the students who responded to the survey, 45% had participated in field trips to Robben Island, 39% had visited the District Six Museum, and 38% had visited Parliament. Such extracurricular activities, along with participation in activities organised by NGOs and community organisations, was shown to have a mostly beneficial impact on students’ anticipated participation in democratic processes.

Teachers’ openness to discussion in the classroom makes a difference

The survey also showed that students learn about democracy “simply by the style by which teachers run their classrooms, and the extent to which critical engagement is supported in the learning process,” says Mattes. “Importantly, however, it is not the total amount of classroom discussion that makes a difference, but the way in which the class is run.”

Students were found to be more approving of democratic processes when teachers allowed students to discuss current events, debate among themselves and with the teacher, and present multiple sides to an issue.

In this regard the survey showed that some Capetonian teachers are doing a good job – but there is room for improvement:

“Approximately one-half of all students said that they felt they can respectfully disagree with their teachers (54%), and that their teachers present several sides of issues when explaining them (47%). Four in ten say their teachers encourage them to make up their own minds (42%) when discussing political and social issues. However, just one-quarter say that students often spontaneously bring up social or political issues during classroom discussion (24%).”

The success of a democracy depends on the vigilance of its citizenry. As those active citizens who fought apartheid grow old and die, it will be up to the new generation of citizens to safeguard the country’s hard-won democratic freedoms, explains Mattes. For this reason it is vital that the South African curriculum includes a greater focus on understanding democracy and promoting civic activism.

Story by Ambre Nicolson. Photo of South African school children by flowcomm, accessed via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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