/ 7 June 2019

Make democracy come alive at schools

(John McCann)
(John McCann)


Questions I am repeatedly asked since South Africa’s sixth democratic election are: Why did students seem to be apathetic about voting? Why did they seem to take their democracy for granted? And why did young people in general seem to be disinterested in participating in their own democracy?

During a radio interview, I was asked why schools are not providing civic education, and what more schools should be doing to advance democratic citizenship education. Although these are reasonable questions, I am not so sure that they are well informed by what is properly understood by democratic citizenship education, or civic education, or why students and learners might be described as apathetic, when their perceived apathy is measured only against their low voter turnout.

The claim that democracy is made evident through the right to vote is not a new one, and there is an argument to be made for voting as an act of a representative voice. I started to think about why a university student, or a grade 12 learner (who is 18 years old), might be moved to vote, other than an expression of a right.

You see, it’s fine to ask why students or citizens are not voting, but then a few follow-up questions are: What are they voting for? For democracy? An enactment of responsible citizenship? What does this mean? Why would young people feel the need to vote, when neither democracy nor citizenship is visible to them?

I can’t dismiss a nagging sense that it is not so much that young South Africans are not laying claim to democracy, but rather it is that democracy has not laid claim to them.

Schools are already expected to teach civic education. The national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (Caps) syllabus could not be more explicit in its prescriptions for the cultivation of critical-thinking, responsible, respectful, informed, tolerant and actively participating learners, and hence citizens. It is very clear in its propagation of the principles of social transformation, human rights, inclusivity, environmental and social justice, and valuing indigenous knowledge systems.

In turn, Caps is supported by a range of teacher-geared policies to advance democracy, social justice, equality, nonracism, nonsexism, ubuntu (human dignity), an open society, accountability (responsibility), the rule of law, respect and reconciliation, as reflected in the following three documents: Manifesto on Values in Education; Values and Human Rights in the Curriculum: A Guide; and Building a Culture of Responsibility and Humanity in our Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers.

But it is important to bear in mind that these are prescriptions that ought to be taught. Whether they are being taught, and whether what is being taught is being learnt, are two separate questions. For now, both these questions might be bypassed by asking, first, how prepared and, second, how willing our teachers are to teach democratic citizenship education.

We know it’s great to have policies and frameworks — they serve the purpose of strategy, vision and hopefully, accountability. But, we also know — no more so in politics and education — that policies can at times be mere suggestions, which are ignored rather than implemented.

The reality is that although due attention has been given to equipping teachers in embarking upon curricular reform, no questions have ever been asked about the capacity or capability of teachers to teach children about what it means to act and participate in a democracy. Why do we assume that teachers, who have come through apartheid schooling, and who only ever learnt with children who look like them, are now suddenly equipped to know how to speak about diversity, racial integration and regard for the other, let alone work with such concepts and such diverse learners?

Not only have there been large-scale assumptions that teachers know what it means to teach democratic citizenship education, but there remains an unequally uncontested assumption (at least in terms of South African policy) that citizenship and civic education can indeed be taught.

What meaning could teaching about transformation, social justice, equality and nonracism possibly have for learners when these abstract concepts are not their lived experiences? Schools, as we are reminded on an almost daily basis, can be enclaves of dehumanising, othering, humiliation and exclusion inflicted by learners and teachers alike.

The point remains that if we are going to ask young people to vote, then we have to be able to offer them something in return. And “the return” has to be in terms of an everyday life, for the simple reason that citizenship extends way beyond the formal political domain or the formalities of voting.

Citizenship is embedded and made visible in how people give meaning to life on the personal, the interpersonal and the sociopolitical levels. Young people traverse numerous spaces and relationships and what these spaces and relationships entail depends on social and economic capital, which they might or might not have.

This means that although some of our young people encounter the privilege of a democracy the majority do not. It is neither evident in their overcrowded and under-resourced schools, nor in their makeshift homes, where prospects of change evaporate with the unrealised hopes of too many young people.

If we are going to ask young people to vote, then we had better be able to show them what democratic citizenship means. Children, as teachers and parents would know, seldom learn by listening, they learn by seeing, observing. As such, they need to see and live in the conditions of democratic citizenship. And because the social and living conditions of the majority of South Africans are so far removed from the promise of this democracy, it does become the responsibility of schools to provide the spaces and relationships necessary for young people to aspire, and realise their potential.

This means less concern with teaching frameworks and policies, and more attention to providing the contexts and conditions for the nurturing and thriving of diversity and mutual respect for all.

Citizenship education cannot be limited to cognitive and theoretical considerations; citizenship education has to be alive and lived if it is to have any meaning. If we are going to ask young people to vote, then they have to know that having the right to vote is just one aspect of being a citizen, and that what citizenship means is having a sense of belonging, inclusion and recognition, and self-worth.

For now, it might be best to turn our collective attention to what it means to be in a democracy and to be a democratic citizen. It might be better for us to focus on creating and sustaining the principles and conditions of democratic citizenship, so that the next time we ask young people to vote, they would already have done so, not because it is a hard-earned right, but because they can see the hope within themselves.

Nuraan Davids is chair of the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University. Her research interests include democratic citizenship education, Islamic education and gender issues