Civic Education: Building a Future Where my Democratic Right Matters

Student politics shape how students view themselves and how being a ‘comrade’ means everything to those who indulge themselves in the relentless call of student politics. Student politics is seen as the pathway to national politics, and having recently graduated from a Higher Learning Institution (HLI), whenever there was a student gathering (dominated mostly by black students), we would be told that we are the next breed of leaders to lead this country.

Living in a democratic state, people have a choice who to vote for; which is referred to as the ‘people’s government’. Governing bodies are made up of political groups which campaign for these positions at regular elections, which are tabled in our democratic calendars. People have the right to participate as political candidates who stand for similar and at times differing views. This is also true for campus politics. However, these relations lead to differing levels of intolerance/conflict. This has implications for the course of democracy in HLIs. At times this is driven by external politics that are then fused into the learning institutions’ political arena.

There have recently been serious cases of violent confrontations in the institutions of higher learning as students from different political formations square off at Student Representative Council (SRC) elections. These incidents add no value to our democracy. In fact, they tend to discourage free and fair participation in political processes and lead citizens to entertain the notion that those who end up being ‘elected’ under such circumstances have doubtful legitimacy (du Plessis, 2010).

This article looks into the theory and practice of participatory democracy, conflict resolution and political tolerance, with a focus on the political systems within youth groups, and an emphasis on HLIs. This article will evaluate the political scene in HLIs, looking at the maintenance (or lack thereof) of the general principles of democracy, which include the concepts of participation; equality; tolerance; accountability; transparency; regular, free and fair elections; the acceptance of the election results a multi-party system; etc.

Theory and practice of participatory democracy

Participatory democracy can be understood as a form of democracy in which citizens are actively involved in the decision-making processes of government at different levels - on issues that interest or affect them, and on the basis that mechanisms and platforms will be in place to facilitate this. After nearly 20 years of democratic rule there is still a select few that make and pass decisions on behalf of the greater body of citizens. This is sometimes referred to as ‘participation through representation’. But was this the participatory path envisioned by the ‘fathers and mothers’ of our democracy? This is also true within higher learning institutions were youth political organisations go head on to win the votes of students, so as to be their ‘representatives’.

Professor K. Kondlo views the term participatory democracy, as big and fashionable but not necessarily as sacrosanct as many may believe. Participatory democracy is not totally inclusive as its proponents may have us believe. However, if we look at the trends of the electoral multiparty democratic system that is present in South Africa, it would be fair to argue that there is a substantial amount of participation that happens in the South African political arena.

According to Kondlo, the involvement of many different parties in the South African political scene, the positive responses to elections and the perceived fairness of the electoral procedures, are a collection of attributes that we can accredit to the leadership we had as a country in the developing stages of our young democracy. This strategy of practicing democracy is, or should be, mirrored into the democratic political systems of HLIs.

The presidency report (date not given) simplifies the theoretical basis of participatory democracy to the formal introduction of electoral democracy in 1994. They refer to this as the development of a ‘tentative multi-dimensional participatory democracy’ that had been positioned within a base framework of constitutional and electoral democracy. This democracy was spread out through a relatively wide range of initiatives that introduced multiple levels of engagement between government and citizens. Also according to the presidency report, these forms of engagement impacted on most of the phases of political and policy decision-making.

According to E. Fakir, by definition, participatory democracy is neither direct nor representative. He explains this by indicating that participatory democracy does not mean that every citizen must be involved, to the extent that everyone is asked to vote, in every decision. The question then becomes, who are the individuals that are fortunate to participate in decision and policy-making as the presidential report alluded to?

The other side to Fakir’s argument could be that it does not mean that the opportunity to be involved in governmental decision-making is made obvious by the fact that one has been elected in a process of free and fair elections. For example, I often hear people complaining or passing comments that as citizens we do not elect the ‘man’ that holds the highest office in the country, but rather we vote a party in, that then elects a party president, who then automatically assumes position as the country’s ‘number one man’ (a President by default, if you would have it). In essence we do not have an adequately theorised notion of participatory democracy. What we have are models of institutionalising platforms, modes and systems of participation. Propositions in this regard are preliminary and tenuous.

Fakir further said that participation cannot happen if those who have the power, the influence and are dominant, those who have access to the means to perpetrate violence; if they cannot accept, contend with or argue against views different to those of their own.” Fakir further explained that, “A culture of tolerance involves debate and dynamic exchanges of opinions and arguments, whereby people can learn from others, get closer to the truth, and benefit from a vital public life.” As for T. du Plessis, “Developing a culture of tolerance is a long-term undertaking that removes the roots of intolerance and is necessary for the democratic process.”

Political tolerance

When it comes to politics in higher learning institutes, one needs to bare in mind the notion of political tolerance. According to Fakir (2010),‘political tolerance’ and ‘participatory democracy’ appear to be unrelated issues, but in his view, one cannot happen without the other. For him these two (political tolerance and participatory democracy) are quite intimately related. He further argues this by saying that it is not possible for people to participate in a society and its affairs in the absence of a degree of tolerance, i.e. tolerance is a precondition in order to make participation possible.

Fakir (2010) also explains that political intolerance is engendered by a willingness to restrict the rights of a disliked person or group-based merely and solely on their differing views, not on the harm that they might be perceived to cause. Intolerance creates an inhibited society, which narrows citizen’s perceptions of politics and shapes their subsequent behaviour. Just like at the University of Zululand where the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) aligned, South African Students Democratic Movement (SADESMO) banned certain individuals from participating in campus politics because they had publicly voiced their grievances with the IFP. Having political tolerance allows for the participation of individuals that do not share the same views and have different opinions.

South Africa has a multiparty democracy in which citizens have the right to choose which political parties they want to support. “An opposition is not the enemy” said Mashupye Kgaphola (cited in the Sowetan, 2010). Political intolerance discourages citizens from practising their democratic right to vote without fear or prejudice. The Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) has been known for political tensions that manifested themselves during SRC elections between SADESMO and ANC-aligned South African Students Congress (SASCO). Kgaphola said the MUT, like a few other South African universities, had been put under pressure to adopt some form of a ‘choiceless singularity’ which has been the cause of in-fights between political constituencies. Kgaphola’s observation indicated that these divisions within the educational institute sometimes spilled over the perimeter of the university.

This then led the MUT to spend its time defending its political standpoint, as if that had something to do with the main business of the institution, which is to educate. He said in 2010, during the campaign for national and provincial elections, the university made the news because of a political standoff between rival student organisations (Sowetan, 2010). This is a reflection of a politically intolerant climate (Kgaphola, cited by Sowetan 2010).

Conflict resolution

Conflict resolution involves a wide range of methods of addressing sources of conflict - whether at the inter-personal level or between states - and of finding means of resolving a given conflict or of continuing it in less destructive forms than, say, armed conflict (Roberts and Garton, 2009). Processes of conflict resolution generally include negotiation, mediation, diplomacy and creative peace-building. Also according to Roberts and Garton, the term ‘conflict resolution’ is sometimes used interchangeably with the terms ‘dispute resolution’ or ‘alternative dispute resolution’. The concept of conflict resolution can also encompass the use of non-violent methods such as civil resistance (also often called non-violent resistance) by a party to a conflict, as a means of pursuing its goals, on the grounds that such means are more likely than armed struggle to lead to effective resolution of the conflict (Roberts and Garton, 2009).

Civic Education: a focused agenda

Afesis-corplan has started a civic education project in response to numerous requests received over the past few years to mediate in political standoffs between youth political formations. What has become obvious over the past few years is that political differences among party political organisations infiltrates through to student politics. The civic education project aims to bring young people together to plug the gaps and to participate actively in student politics but in a harmonious and responsible manner.

Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape has been under the spotlight for reasons not favourable for the reputation of the University. These dents in the reputation of WSU have often been seen as purely administrative, forgetting that WSU has also been under scrutiny for its student governance issues. Campus-based SRC’s from the four campuses of WSU (East London, Queenstown, Mthatha and Butterworth) report to a single institutional SRC. It is difficult to describe the SRC as representative, because when elections have not been held regularly as stipulated by regulations and when office bearers appear to advance external political party interests rather than those of enrolled students and where the SRC relates and reports more to non-student formations than to the student body, there is a concern for the political climate of such an institution. Another legitimacy challenge faced by the SRC occurred when students held strikes without the SRC’s knowledge and participation.

On 13 December 2011, Professor Lourens van Staden, who has been appointed Administrator for Walter Sisulu University (WSU) by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, as stated in the Government Gazette, No 34718 of 31 October 2011, issued a memorandum regarding the state of student governance at WSU. This follows a state where for two years the university had not held SRC elections. Student governance at the university had been suspended and a new framework was created for an interim student governance structure. The memorandum regarding this matter stated that student governance at WSU had for some time been unstable, with huge and serious risks for the institution. An incomplete and fragmented SRC constitution further contributed in promoting the culture of instability within student formations.

The courts of the land had also been involved in the attempts to resolve differences and conflicts within these formations. Compliance with court judgments and rulings on some of these matters was also not adhered too. The need to urgently review and stabilise student governance has become very critical if WSU is to rise to the call of its national mandate and mission. According to a new member of the interim student governance structure, Mbongeni Mtsolo, final year Education student at the Nelson Mandela Drive campus in Mthatha, “The student body is fully behind Professor Van Staden and he has their vote of confidence, following the implementation of this structure”.

The WSU is one of the major Universities in the province and provides a higher education opportunity for more than 26000 students. It needs the assistance of as many external stakeholders as possible, including Afesis-corplan’s Civic Education Project, to see it through its turnaround strategy.

The project is not just focused on rectifying the ill trajectory of democratic principles within HLIs, but also focuses on the lack of political awareness and involvement among the youth. This is more of an issue among the ‘so-called’ bourgeoisie generation that could not care less about the political climate of South Africa. Civic Education needs to also work through this political ‘apathy’ in order to ensure a future where our democratic rights are upheld. If we look at the reality out there, the governance of this country does not lie in the hands of academics, but in the hands of those who are politically inclined. Therefore to ensure that HLIs produce well rounded academics that are politically responsible and involved, civic education needs to be adopted as part of grooming tomorrow’s leaders.

- Penelope Lindokuhle Vellem is an intern at Afesis-corplan. This article first appeared in the July/August/September 2012 edition of the Transformer.


- Presidency report (undated)
- Kondlo, K. 2010. The Role of the Youth in Participatory Democracy. A Paper Presented At the 2nd Quarter Seminar of Afesis-Corplan in East London, 16 July
- Fakir, E. 2010. Political Tolerance in a Participatory Democracy, An address during the Afesis-corplan 2nd Quarter Seminar, July 2010.
- Du Plessis, T. 2010. The Role of the Youth in a Participatory Democracy: A Summary of Seminar Proceedings. Afesis-corplan East London.
- Mdletshe, C. 2010. Chancellor’s plea for political tolerance at varsity. The Sowetan live: plea-for-political-tolerance-at-varsity
- Roberts, A &Garton, T. 2009 (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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