In Conversation about civic education with Civics Academy 

Civic education and participation is an important part of any democracy. Oftentimes though it is not given the importance it deserves compared to other aspects of democracy. One organisation trying to change that is Civics Academy

Civics Academy is a non-profit online educational project based in South Africa. It was initiated and run by the German Hanns Seidel Foundation. The Daily Vox team had a question-and-answer session with Uta Lehmann, project coordinator for Hanns Seidel Foundation, managing Civics Academy. 

When did Civics Academy start and what was the primary thinking behind starting the program?

The initiative was started in 2016 with the first videos being produced on relevant topics of civic education. During the first year Civics Academy was introduced to different civil society partners active in democracy education/youth empowerment.  The project was also launched at the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), with Professor Thuli Madonsela as keynote speaker and strongly supported by the CEO of the NMF Sello Hatang. The aim of Civics Academy is to provide anyone and everyone with the tools they need to be active and responsible citizens.  

What does Civics Academy do? 

In short, Civics Academy offers free video and audio content as well as other learning resources aiming to inform and to strengthen democratic values and responsible citizenship. As such Civics Academy covers educational content related to democracy, governance, elections, political parties, the justice system, the Constitution, local government, economics, civil society and human rights. Via our social channels we also try to actively promote civic education. Civics Academy is therefore a resource for every organisation or individual to promote civic education or educate him or herself. 

How would you define civic education and its current state in South Africa?

Successful democracies depend on the active participation of informed citizens. Civic education aims to inform and empower citizens to fulfil this role. Civic education provides us with knowledge, for example knowledge about our rights and responsibilities as people and on the roles and functions of government institutions and parliament. This knowledge empowers us to claim our democratic rights, as well as demand good, democratic governance from our elected leaders. That means that civic education shows us what we can do to protect and support our democracy.


The state of civic education in South Africa

The overall objective of civic education is to promote active and responsible citizenship. But active citizenship is not only about having rights. It is also about living up to our democratic responsibilities. 

If you look for example at the local government elections last year. 12% less voters cast their ballot compared to 2016 resulting in a total voter turnout of only around 30%. This is of course a worrying signal for a young democracy as South Africa. With our Civics Academy we work for example a lot with young people trying to empower them to become active citizens. I would argue that the low voter turnout should not only be interpreted as that young South Africans are not interested in politics or don’t understand politics. What we observe in our capacity building activities is that a lot of people are frustrated with the parties and maybe even with the state because they experience no progress in their quality of life. 

We all need to realise that young people in particular have the difficult task of defending and developing the political achievement in South Africa’s young democracy and they need to encourage and foster youth participation in political processes. 

But also, we need to up our game in terms of civic education, so that the youth feels knowledgeable and empowered to participate in democratic processes. And we need to understand: Knowledge is one thing, but we also can’t expect the youth to be active citizens when some don’t even have and never had jobs or any other development opportunities. If you are busy hustling to get food on the table, to support families you don’t have the time or the nerve to educate yourself on civic and political processes. Therefore, we strongly believe that sustainable economic development has to go hand in hand with civic education. 

Civic education, to know your rights and responsibilities, to understand what it means to live in a democracy, to vote and to actively participate in your community needs to be taught and promoted from the early years of life. This requires a collective effort from all sectors of society including our policymakers in government, our teachers at school, the private sector and our families at home.

Can you tell me a little about the work being done in terms of the content, courses and resources?

Since 2016 we have produced more than 50 videos and podcasts and other educational resources like teaching and training material and online courses on topics relevant to South Africa’s constitutional democracy, democratic values and responsible citizenship. The content is offered as open access material via the Civics Academy Website as well via our YouTube channel. 

Civics Academy collaborates and engages with different educational and government institutions, youth initiatives, local government as well as the broader public. 

We also run educational campaigns on different civic educational topics on social media such as twitter, facebook. This year we ran campaigns with live events around Human Rights and the role of civic education in South African schools. 


How Civic Education Can Ensure Youth Democratic Participation

What is the latest course about? 

Our new online course on “What is Local Government?” includes 11 modules focusing on specific topics. For example municipal structures and services, the role of a municipal councillor, local government budgets and how to participate in municipal processes in South Africa. Each module starts with a short animated video clip which presents the topic. After watching the video participants are invited to complete the multiple choice quiz and test their knowledge. Upon completion of the course they receive a certificate by Civics Academy/ the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

Why is the latest course important and what will people get out of it?

Active citizenship should not be reserved for election seasons alone. It is our democratic responsibility to continuously educate ourselves on the structures of our government, what it does for us, and how we can engage them.

Local government is often overlooked in conversations about governance, yet it is the sphere we interact with the most in our daily lives. In this course, participants will gain insight into municipal structures and functions as well as the role they play as active citizens.

Since the launch on 6 June 2022, more than 300 people have enrolled for this course and 26 have already completed all 11 modules and received their certificates! Participants can go at their own pace and can also engage with each other and with the team of Civics Academy using the discussion platform. We hope that with this course we can contribute in a positive way to the challenging environment many stakeholders face on the local government level. 

Lastly, what’s next in terms of growth for the academy?

The attention Civics Academy and its content generates is increasingly high at the moment, we receive requests for collaboration and exchange on a daily basis. This is a great encouragement but we also need to stay humble in regards to what we can achieve and deliver. We need to manage expectations. Civics Academy is a small initiative. Until recently colleagues working on the Civics Academy were also involved in other projects implemented by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. It is a team effort. 

Only since a few weeks ago have we have dedicated staff looking after the Civics Academy. At the moment we are in the final stage of signing an Memorandum of Understanding with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) on an extensive capacity building project in preparation for the 2024 national and provincial elections. The project entails 2-day train-the-trainer workshops on different civic education topics for more than 500 local electoral project officers in South Africa’s 9 provinces and will take place between August and October. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.