Civics academy: an idea whose time has come

Mamphela Ramphele
Mamphela Ramphele

Post-colonial Africa has struggled to live the dream of democracy that so many of its sons and daughters fought, lived and died for. Much of this failure lies in our neglecting the basics of transition from oppressive governance to free democratic systems governed by our Constitution.

That we as Africans – and more specifically, South Africans – imagined that we could make a smooth transition from being subjects of oppressive indigenous systems of governance, colonial conquest and apartheid to becoming active citizens of a constitutional democracy was ill-conceived.

We have grossly underestimated the investment that needs to be made to enable us to move out of our comfort zones, and embrace our rights and responsibilities as citizens.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of our Constitution and the inauguration of our first president. Over the past 22 years, we have muddled along as a nation venerated for having chosen to reconcile and promote unity in diversity.

The missing link has been the acknowledgement that such a brave journey would take a willingness to acknowledge past wounds and commit to a process of healing, which would include a commitment to socioeconomic restructuring and investment in programmes of education for democracy.

Such programmes would enable the embracing of a value system allied to our constitutional democracy.

We have paid a heavy price for the neglect of civic education in our transition to democracy. Established democracies have understood the importance of not only educating their citizens technically, but also infusing ethics into good citizenship.

Germany – after World War 2 and the horror of the Holocaust – committed to educating its citizens never to repeat the travesty of that past. Scandinavian countries made this an integral part of their education system, as did the US.

The tragedy in the Northern Cape in 2013, when children were denied education by their parents, who had an axe to grind with unaccountable government officials, comes to mind – as does 2015, when residents of Malamulela in Limpopo refused to be integrated into the Makhado Local Municipality, which they regarded as incompetent. They made their district ungovernable until they secured its separation.

In 2016, Vuwani’s residents are adopting the same tactics of destroying public property, in the form of schools, to force the government to accede to their demands.

At the heart of the problem is the people’s sense of alienation from their heritage. They still see public property as government property, not their own as citizens.

Ungovernability – learnt from the anti-apartheid struggle – seems to achieve a lot more than peaceful protest, in their experience.

This perception is strengthened by the distance that our closed party list system of proportional representation has created between the voters and their representatives. Citizens feel powerless to influence public policy. Their voices are ignored in many instances, so violence becomes their weapon.

The Civics Academy, a partnership led by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and sponsored by the Hanns Seidel Foundation, has piloted an open source online educational programme accessible to everyone to learn about our constitutional democracy.

The programme includes dialogue forums targeting 15- to 25-year-olds – a growing constituency – at high school and tertiary level, as well as those who have dropped out of the education system.

The academy can only succeed via partnerships with stakeholders. Government could use the life orientation part of the school curriculum to get learners to familiarise themselves with the principles and values espoused by our democracy as an integral part of their personal development as citizens.

The private sector also has an obligation to ensure that employees are familiar with our constitutional principles. Personal development at all levels should embrace the values of our Constitution as a foundation for better corporate relationships, team building, good governance and ethical leadership.

Trade unions and civil society organisations, including faith-based groups, have much to contribute to, and benefit from, a Civics Academy process.

With our society being eroded by behaviours at variance with our human rights values, each of these civil society groups should have an interest in enhancing their constituencies’ capacities to function effectively as political and moral agents.

South African youth who have engaged with the Civics Academy are excited about the chance to rebuild the country of their dreams, and are committed to working as active political and moral agents to build a just society they can be proud to lead.

We need to broaden its reach to the millions of citizens desperate for a future they can believe in. It is up to all of us to mobilise the resources to link with the Civics Academy and make it an integral part of our transformation to a sustainable democracy.

We have the resources to make civic education a success. What is needed is political will.

We have shown our capacity to rise to the occasion many times when opportunity knocks. This is one such moment.

Ramphele is an active citizen


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