Educate for democracy in Africa


Throughout history, humans told stories to make sense of and give meaning to who they are and what they might become. Africa has always been a kaleidoscope of storytelling, echoing through the dark night sky as rhythmic bodies sway to the emotion of the land.

Much has been written and recorded about Africa — from Joseph Conrad’s unsettling Heart of Darkness to Karen von Blixen-Finecke’s romanticised memoir, Out of Africa — in which the African has been caricatured into what others have desired him or her to be. In turn, history reveals that Africa has often been debased to what it should never have been — as encountered in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat or Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.

These and many other writings prompt important questions: What does it mean to be African? What does it mean to live on the African continent? Is being born and living in Africa what accord Africans their citizenship? Is stating that we are African the same as stating that we are African citizens?

In our recently edited anthology African Democratic Citizenship Education Revisited, we, together with colleagues from other African countries, endeavour to address some of these questions in relation to notions of democratic citizenship education. Focusing on countries that have an allegiance to democratic citizenship education, this collection of essays tries to show that African democratic citizenship education can work and an Africanised notion of this concept can only benefit educational pursuits on the continent.

Notions of democratic citizenship are seemingly inextricably embedded in particular sets of rights — meaning, that for citizens to lay claim to citizenship, they have to have a sense of their social, political and legal rights. This particular understanding begins to explain the ongoing calls for democratic citizenship education. Conversely, therefore, the argument could be made that, if citizens are unaware of their rights, they, seemingly, would not be able to lay claim to their citizenship.

The latter is certainly the view of Carolyn Logan and Michael Bratton, who argue in their Afrobarometer Working Paper (2006) that the problem with citizenship in Africa is not that Africans are not actively involved in their respective dispensations but rather that they haven’t claimed democracy. In this sense, they maintain that “People in African countries may have begun to transform themselves from the ‘subjects’ of past authoritarian systems into active ‘voters’ under the present dispensation. But at the same time, they do not appear to fully grasp their political rights as ‘citizens’, notably to regularly demand accountability from leaders. As such, most African political regimes have yet to meet the minimum requirements of representative democracy.”

We might concur with the argument that perhaps the greatest challenge facing democratic citizenship education in Africa is not the absence of democracy but rather the absence of accountability pressures — not only in relation to voters but especially on the part of those in power.

When we reflect on South Africa, we can certainly see tragic evidence of not only an also unclaimed democracy by the majority but unclaimed lives because the plight of the historically dispossessed remains unrelieved. Seemingly, although South Africans might have succeeded in transforming themselves into active voters, their lives remain untransformed. But we would question whether understandings of democratic citizenship can only be couched in relation to political and legalistic contours of what it means to be a citizen.

Part of what makes conceptions of democratic citizenship education so multifarious and complex is that its dynamism or fluidity is manifested in how it is interpreted and lived. In other words, although notions of democratic citizenship might emanate from legalistic frameworks and political manifestos, it is lived and made visible by human interactions, deliberative engagement, regard for the other and compassionate action. In taking into account the deep intricacy and contestations that infuse democratic citizenship education, this anthology has adopted an at once attached-to and detached-from gaze at manifestations of citizenship in Africa.

In this sense, although the various authors in the anthology write from particular worldviews, which might signal levels of attachment to this or that African identity (of which there are many), they are nevertheless detached from the (im)possibilities of democratic citizenship education in Africa. This detachment stems from a recognition that, inasmuch as Africa has the potential for democratic enactments, it equally has the (im)potentiality (not to reach its full potential) not to do so. And inasmuch as we need to find reasons for Africa’s (im)potentiatility, we have to pay equal attention to the (im) potentiality of democratic citizenship education.

The main arguments in this anthology make clear that the recognition of rights and responsibilities, coupled with an emphasis on deliberative engagement among citizens, can be considered as apt ways in which an African notion of democratic citizenship can manifest in educational activities. Even though a recognition of rights and responsibilities, together with an allegiance to deliberative engagement, might not be uniquely African, democratic citizenship education can most appropriately be realised in relation to its connectedness with experiences of people on the continent. Our potential critics might correctly assert that almost half (if not more) the countries in Africa have been subjected to military dictatorship, which implies that many Africans still yearn for democracy.

But democratic citizenship education enveloped by an Africanness has the potential to manifest in practices on the continent. By Africanness, we refer to notions of identity, a recognition of the inherent struggles of Africa and a desire to remedy and move beyond our subjugation. Perhaps highlighting the successes of African democratic citizenship education in certain parts of the continent might just be the way to address the malaise about its implementation in many countries where autocratic rule prevails. This should not be seen as a denouncement of indigenous communal African practices but rather as an acknowledgement that acting democratically and exercising an African citizenry might be achievable.

Professor Nuraan Davids is chair of the department of education policy studies in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University. Professor Yusef Waghid is distinguished professor in the same department

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Nuraan Davids
Nuraan Davids is professor of education in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University.

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