When we think about the question, “What makes democracy work?” it’s important to remember that not all democracies are the same. In this lesson, we turn to voices from South Africa, a relatively new and fragile democracy, to ask what can make democracy work in countries with different cultures and histories.
In April 1994, South Africans stood in long, snaking queues, patiently waiting to cast their votes in the country’s first ever multi-racial democratic election. South Africans were taking a step into the unknown after decades of white supremacist, authoritarian rule in the form of apartheid and—prior to that—centuries of racial oppression, violence and segregation under British and Dutch colonial rule. While the preceding 46 years of white apartheid rule had created a political and social system of racial segregation, black South Africans had for centuries under British and Dutch rule been denied the democratic rights and freedoms they were now about to embrace. As the votes were cast, South Africans took their first step together into a very new democracy.
An interim constitution laid the foundation for the new democracy, creating rights and freedoms for all South Africans while the new democratically-elected leaders, opposition parties, civil society, and lawmakers began the hard work of negotiating a final constitution. In 1996, South Africa’s constitution was adopted and has—within the last 21 years—become the bedrock upon which citizens have built a stronger democracy.
This lesson focuses on insights about South Africa’s democracy from two educators, Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray. Roy Hellenberg has been a history teacher in South Africa for more than 20 years. He is currently the deputy principal at Durban high school. Dylan Wray is the co-founder and executive director of Shikaya, a non-profit civil society organization that recognizes the crucial role that teachers can play in deepening and strengthening South Africa’s democracy and nurturing a culture of human rights. Together, Roy and Dylan have trained educators and school leaders across South Africa to support the process of transformation.
In this lesson, students listen to Hellenberg and Wray’s conversation about South African democracy. Then they read and discuss quotations from other South Africans, including journalists, artists, and politicians to gain insight into how South Africa’s particular history and culture influence how its citizens understand and practice democracy.