Africa Contact partnership seminar 2013: Civic Education

One of the important themes that were debated at Africa Contact’s partnership seminar, held in Johannesburg in April 2013, was Civic Education.

Civic Education is one of the cornerstones of the fight for democracy in many Southern African countries, especially in the rural areas where rights-based consciousness is often lacking. The civic educators – who are often recruited to teach in their own communities – are harassed by local chiefs and meetings are prone to police surveillance, not least because educators link the rights of those they educate with democratization and poverty eradication.

Wellington Zindove from Youth Forum (Zimbabwe), Africa Contact’s Bo Karlsen, and the Coordinator of the Foundation for Socio-Economic Justice (Swaziland), Dumezweni Dlamini, all gave presentations on Civic Education that were then discussed by the seminar participants.

Wellington Zindove focused, amongst other things, on the many security issues of doing civic education in Zimbabwe and the apathy of many young people towards the political system.

“If we are to hold a meeting for more than six people we need to inform the police,” Wellington said. “And the authorities will mostly turn down an application to hold a meeting because in Zimbabwe the issue of voter registration [that is one of the main focuses of Wellington’s Youth Forum] is political.”

“Another problem in Zimbabwe is that young people are apathetic. They haven’t seen the benefits of the political process and they are demoralized with the political process,” Wellington said. “But civic education has an important role in educating people.”

Bo Karlsen pointed out that important as education and pedagogy may be in the struggle against oppression, it is not simply a neutral device. “Pedagogy is a political battlefield because it shapes society,“ he said by way of introducing his presentation on Paulo Freire.

“Freire spoke against the banking concept of education where the teacher is the superior person who puts knowledge into people’s head.” In this form of education, said Karlsen, the teacher comes to represent the ruler to whom one must defer. This type of education is therefore more a case of doing or thinking as you are told and not thinking for yourself – hardly a good way to try and instill notions of democracy in a population.

Freire on the other hand argued that for any consciousness-building and subsequent emancipation to take place, education must be based on dialogue and teacher-student equality. “Through dialogue, the facilitator and participants should discuss what the most important problems of the people in the area are and the root causes of these problems,” said Karlsen.

Karlsen then went on to criticize Freire for not focusing enough on how change is to be achieved. “How is it to be applied in the field? The theory only goes as far as the realization that one is oppressed, but one must analyze how to bring about change and then go to the streets.”

Karlsen therefore introduced a new goal for educational practice; “to aim for action competence where the participants are able to act upon their problems. This can fruitfully be combined with a social imagination where the partner not only fights oppression, but also determines what they want instead.”

Dumezweni Dlamini spoke of civic education as a means of empowerment.  “When people are empowered by civic education, they begin to question. And we have reached this point in Swaziland. People have started to question MP’s on issues of democracy and if the civic educators are not democratic themselves people will question them too. Even the community elders begin to support our civic education,” he said.

But civic education has to be linked directly to action. “Things will not change because people have information, things will change when people start to act,” as one of the Foundation’s civic educator’s put it. “We must therefore mobilise people for action, and use concrete examples of hardships to do so. If there is extreme hunger or no water in an area we use this fact as a point of entry.”

During the discussion after the three presentations many reiterated the importance of learning from  practical experiences with civic education. The seminar participants believed that it was important to be aware of the context and to build on existing structures when starting up a civic education programme, and that this could be through dialogue with the authorities or traditional leaders.

Another point that was made at the seminar was that it is important that we share and learn from each others experiences. As Mette from Africa Contact said, “we can learn a lot from the partners about civic education in reaching out to the Danish public.”

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