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Civitas presentation 27May09



 Education for Democratic Citizenship in Complex Times: A View from a Global
                               South African City

Dr Aslam Fataar
University of the Western Cape
Email: and

Presentation at the Center for Civic Education: Civitas International Programs;
World Congress on Civic Education, 29 May 2009, Cape Town International
Convention Centre, Cape Town

Thank you for the privilege of addressing this conference. I attended the Civitas
conference in Budapest, Hungary, 2004. I did work for Civitas, Cape Town, via
the Western Cape Education Department.

I acknowledge Civitas’s commitment to democratic citizenship work in education.
I remember fondly the animated debates I had with American participants in
Budapest about doing civic education work globally on the one hand, only to be
contradicted by the brutal logics embedded in fighting an unjust war in Iraq on the
other. The Americans I spoke to were disgusted at this obvious conflagration
and the impact it has on democratic educational work.

The war in Iraq is now drawing down, and one pleads for the ending of all unjust
wars, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the killings in Darfur, Sudan, Palestine,
Myanmar, Columbia and the Democratic Congo, low level wars on the streets of
our cities, and the violence embedded in the exclusions that accompany the
myopic politics of dominant sectors in all societies.

Civic education work is work of the mind, work of connection, interaction, and
dialogue. It thrives in enabling socio-cultural and political contexts, and it is to an
understanding of securing such contexts to which I dedicate this presentation

What are my claims in this presentation?

I offer you a perspective from a global African city, a city that is busy defining its
democratic character out of a history of segregation and racism and the
imperfections, constraints, and creative possibilities that inhere in the current

Cape Town, I want to suggest, is alive and on the make, chaotic and creative,
always responding with energy to the complexities that it contains. Education
plays a very important role in the make up of the city.

It is not unlike any other global city that is characterized by urban complexity. It
is not unlike global Chicago that has addressed it urban blight over the last two

decades, through massive gentrification, with its middle class enclaves along
Lady Shore Drive, and its racialised black ghettos on the south side, out of sight

Cape Town is not unlike the city of Mumbai, where the complexities of urban
living space affect the school going opportunities of poor kids; where class, caste
and religious affiliation determines whether you either have access to a school or
have to live on its squalid streets, uneducated.

Cape Town is also not unlike cities in Europe such as London’s East End, or
Holland’s Amsterdam where the specter of the immigrant challenges the very
definition of ‘Europeanness’, and the official approach to the ‘migrant other’ from
India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Somalia, is one of alienation and marginalization,
where schools are provided that cater specifically to the ‘migrant other’.

Cape Town is also not unlike Cairo and Lagos where the explosions of people in
these cities put the city’s resources under strain, creating widely alternative ways
of making a living, of surviving, adapting to conditions of deep impoverishment.

These cities, Chicago, London, Mumbai, Amsterdam, Cairo, Lagos, and Cape
Town, are rapidly decomposing in light of the compressions of time and space, a
key feature of globalization.

People live in city contexts where the state’s power has diminished considerably.
The weak state struggles to intervene in the lives of the urban poor. The middle
classes jump into the gap left by a receding state. They mobilize their money to
insert themselves into enclaves of the city, protected from the marauding beats at
the gate, in gated communities, in military type vehicles, and in schools that find
ways, supported by the state, to include and exclude.

And, so the question for democratic citizenship education revolves around how
we think and do education in these new exclusionary contexts. How do we
challenge the way living spaces are organized and schools are used to augment
these exclusions? And, how do we provide democratic pedagogical spaces to lay
a foundation among young people for productive democratic living?

The specificity of postapartheid Cape Town

Urban life in Cape Town is characterized by the complexities associated with the
onset of post apartheid democracy on the one hand and global socio-economic
cultural influences on the other. People from all over Africa and the Middle and
Far East have found their way into South African cities. Many of our schools are
resounding with different languages: English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, a nd a creative
mix of these as kids begin to explore linguistic and other relational interactions.
But, increasingly, we also hear French, Senagalese Wolof, Portuguese, Arabic,
German, Mandarin and Korean in the schoolyard.

The predominance of English is both strategic: every kid can or aspire to speak
some English. But English as the language of modernity and schooling is also
deeply exclusionary. Persistence with English as language of instruction
hampers cognitive development and in some cases, as in the case of recent
refugee kids at some schools in Cape Town, the kids simply don’t understand the

The economic dynamics of Cape Town have been re-arranged along similar lines
compared to other global cities. The clothing, fishing and construction industries
have been downscaled. Formal employment has fallen rapidly and informalised
economies have sprung up all over the city. Formal unemployment has reached
dramatic proportions in the poorer parts of Cape Town where folks make
desperate livelihoods. They eke out a living off the state’s welfare system,
informal economic activity and the increase in the illicit criminal economy.

The so-called de-materialization of the global city, of re-arranged work, rising
unemployment, squalid working conditions associated with jobs in the tourism
and services industries, has come to define life and schooling in the city.

Fear of violence and crime characterizes life in the city. People live in the ‘heart
of fear’. They develop vigilante structures and community policing forums to
protect themselves from marauding gangs. Religion plays a powerful role in
mitigating the worst consequences of social and physical violence. Schools in
the poorer parts of Cape Town are caught up in these ephemeral and somewhat
desperate circumstances.

I have done most of my research in urban impoverished township spaces. I have
come to understand how schools struggle in these spaces to establish viable
educational environments. I’ve observed how teachers are mired in the social
pathological spill over into schools and the difficulties associated with teaching
hungry and traumatized children.

One of the key conclusions I’ve come to is that the reach of the postapartheid
state, via its education and other social welfare apparatuses are tenuous.
Schools and teachers are overwhelmed by their contexts. They seem to be
responsive to the children’s welfare concerns. Educational processes are thus
tenuous and one dimensional.

There are, however, well functioning schools in these townships, that have
established very productive connections with the broader community, able to
mobilize their physical and education resources to mitigate the worst impact of
their environments. These schools hold lessons for us all. They show how to
position and protect the importance of education in circumstances where their
importance is not always apparent. Research has shown that progressive
teachers and dynamic and engaging school leaders are the key variables that
secure conditions of learning in these schools

Race and Post-race in the city’s schooling processes

I want to suggest that there is a qualitative implosion at work in our
understanding of the links between education and broader community
development. This implosion is related to the complex and changing contexts of
education, of which the African global city is an example. The Deweyan notion of
education for democracy has been imploded. Gone are the days where
education is tied to the village, neighborhood, or township. In other words,
education has become unhinged from the locality-bounded community.
Education for democratic citizenship must take into account of the very
complicated citizenship processes of which it is a part.

The key questions that arise are: what does democratic education mean when
kids go to school outside of their communities or places of living and what does
education for democratic citizenship mean in the vastly more complex world than
the one Dewey lived and wrote his seminal works on education and democratic

Let me quickly sketch three markers of race that have co-constituted Cape
Town’s schooling landscape. Each marker represents the outlines of a dialogical
encounter with the city, of people living in and creating their lives in specific
contexts. Education played a key role in these contexts.

a) The first marker is what I’ll refer to as the entanglements and
disentanglements of race, which took place in the middle to late 19 th century.
The basis of schooling in Cape Town during the colonial period around the mid
19th century was initially framed by an enlightenment approach. It was the time
of the abolition of slavery, and elements in the colonial government were keen on
modernizing the city though education. The colonial government then decided to
subsidize education, mainly church – based schools, where the city’s kids of all
races, about 20% of them, attended mission schools.

The school system was raciali zed or segregated by the late 19th century as South
Africa moved into its industrial phase. The nature of the political economy of
mining had a dramatic impact on the colonial form. Schools began to take on a
racial type of organization by 1890 and by 1910 the patterns of racial separation
of kids in schools was secured. White kids went to better schools and Coloured
kids went in much fewer numbers to poorer schools. There were very few black
African kids in Cape Town’s schools at the turn of the 19 th century.

b) The second marker around race and schooling happened after the declaration
of apartheid in 1948, but more particularly during the 1960s. As suggested
earlier, racially segregated schooling was secured by 1910. The 1960s period
witnessed a process of cleaning up the apartheid city from the ‘decontaminated’
black body. People who were living in and around the city, around the mountain,

were forcibly removed to live on the Cape Flats, a vast uninhabitable land mass
beyond the mountain.

Schooling for non whites was now meant to reproduce an ideology of
segregation among different race groups, but far away from whites who were
getting a first world quality education. This dynamic would later work decisively
in on the post apartheid school landscape in Cape Town. Rigid spatial separation
was secured under apartheid and schooling had a racially separatist ideological

Life in the poor quality non white schools on the Cape Flats nonetheless found
democratic expression, contradicting the belief that the ideological mal-intent of
apartheid’s architects would necessarily curtail democratic expression. People
found ways of establishing viable educational spaces in inhumane living
conditions. The progressive improvement of communities was tied to the ways
people accessed and made the apartheid school work for them, although
systemic malignancy spawned a devastating educational legacy, of generally
poorly resources schools, and under-educated communities, who were meant to
provide the cheap labour for the city of Cape Town.

Democratic intent in South Africa found resonance in the activism of black
students who led concerted anti-racist campaigns during the 1970s and 1980s. In
some instances young students took over schools for months, wherein they
established educational experiments in alternative democratic pedagogy.
Student activism was a crucial part of the anti apartheid struggle that brought the
apartheid government to its knees by the late 1980s.

These kids were reading radical pedagogical texts. They established dialogical
educational spaces, giving birth to democratic possibility and the role of
education in cultivating grassroots participative democracy. Theirs was a vision
based on social justice, equality and respect. Surely, recuperating democratic
educational possibility must be founded on mobilizing the vision and praxis of the
young students of the 1970s and 1970s.

c) The postapartheid turnover: The rigid racial boundaries began to come down
at exactly the same time as the world and South Africa began to experience the
impact of global developments and pressures.

Rigid racial separation was now replaced by the fluidities of postracial mobility.
People were now on the move and on the make. But what can we observe about
people’s behaviour in the city 15 years into the postapartheid period? What
democratic possibilities inhere in this period? And, how can education for
democratic citizenship play a role in constructing inclusive and socially just urban

Students are moving across the city in search of quality schooling, on the
perception that 1) the best schools are in the former white suburbs, 2) the worst
schools are in the non-white parts of the city, and 3) the state has not enabled
schools in the poorer areas to establish a development platform for quality

Let me risk being a bit theoretical at this point: I want to suggest that the
community school, the school nearby, around the corner, whether in the suburb,
the inner city, or the township has taken on a repelling popular image, shunned
by those who live in its immediate surrounds.

In contrast, the school elsewhere has become desirable. We now know from
tangential studies that about 60% of urban kids don’t attend the school nearest to
them. In other words, they actively evade the school nearby, informed by the
manufactured desire for the school elsewhere.

What I label as ‘school choice displacement’, is a reference to the choice of
school removed from the home, whether on the other side of the township a mile
away, or on the other side of the city 100 miles away.

This connects with an understanding of how people live in the city, how they
acquire their sense of self, how institutions such as schools acquire their sense
of self or institutional identities, which inform how these schools are read,
understood and accessed.

How people choose to access a particular school, whether in the suburbs, across
town, or on the other side of a township is the function or outcome of readings of
self, of what we become in the institutional environments and arrangements of
the schools we choose.

‘Kids on the move’ is based on particular readings, particular scriptings encoded
in the geographies of the city, it material surfaces of inscriptions, of the ways
space positions and influences people’s ‘urban becoming.’

These displaced school choice patterns have been creating an affective
disconnection borne of a disjuncture between the kids’ places of living and their
spaces of schooling. Kids now develop the cultural literacy to navigate
disjunctural spaces, i.e. in the space of the school and the space of the home,
and a third, if one considers the space of traveling across the city.

Families and children try to figure out all the time what subjectivities they want
their kids to take on. They make highly atomised calculations in which the choice
of school is paramount. I would argue that these choices must be understood in
light of the post apartheid city’s unfolding schooling geography, of a city and its
people on the move; searching for geographically coded positioning.

Once those children end up in their schools of choice, whether in the townships
or the suburbs, the schools mostly work to assimilate them in their hegemonic
ways of being without any substantial adjustments in their cultural repertoires.
Experiences of inclusion are thus simultaneously accompanied by experiences of

By way of conclusion, it is these inclusion and exclusion cultures that a
democratic educational emphasis must problematise. Teachers must be
capacitated to move from a simple emphasis on quality as measured in school
results, to fundamental questions about their school’s hegemonic assimilation
platforms. Schools must work much harder to include the racial, ethnic, and
gendered other into their school identities. Teachers must connect with the other
in their classrooms, valorize and work with their identities, and provide
conversational spaces for creative and productive new citizenship forms in the
complex cities.

Schools must establish dialogical spaces aimed at generating robust urban
literacies among kids, which will arm them to live with moral purpose and
productive possibilities.

In stands to reason that we require a politics of challenge in the global city that
targets the state and its institutions to become more responsive to the demands
of ordinary people who require humanitarian conditions of living.

The educational or pedagogical task is fundamental to democratic possibility.
Democratic citizenship education should aim to provide the conceptual and
intellectual capacities required for complex living in the 21 st century.

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