Research & Innovation 2015-16 - Page 46

Why democracy should be taught in
South African schools
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.
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.
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 for 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”.
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.
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.
By Ambre Nicolson. Image supplied by the Schools
Improvement Initiative.

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