Insights on Democracy from South Africa | Facing History & Ourselves
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Insights on Democracy from South Africa

Students consider how South Africa's particular history and culture influence the ways its citizens understand and practice democracy.


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At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

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 multiracial 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 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 was a history teacher in South Africa for more than 20 years. 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

  • How can the elements that make democracy work vary between countries?
  • What are some elements that make democracy work in South Africa?

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-minute class period and includes:

  • 2 activities
  • 2 readings
  • 1 audio

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Lesson Plan


Have your students listen to Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray on Democracy and then use some or all of the below questions to guide a conversation with your students.

  • How does Hellenberg see democracy in South Africa as different from democracy in other places?
  • Why do you think he wants people to expand their vision of what democracy can be?
  • How does Hellenberg judge the health of a democratic society?
  • What do you think the connection between democracy and community is?
  • Try and answer Roy’s question: How do we use our right to speak up not just to speak up for ourselves?

Next, read the following first and second set of quotes about democracy from other South Africans. Use the Connection Questions that follow each set to discuss how the quotations add to our understanding of what makes democracy work.

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