On Democracy and Education

October 16, 2008

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would have a field day with this post. If only I could conjure up some of their quotes on the essential tie between education and democracy. I’ll have to keep my eyes open next time I wander around JMU and UVa.

Following up on the fascinating conversation that I had with the Cape Town housing office official and the resulting dinner conversation that Kristin and I had regarding the prospects of democracy and in particular an ANC-led democracy in South Africa. For those who do not know, the ANC is the African National Congress and the overwhelming majority party in SA. It has roots as a party from long before the official beginning of apartheid dating back to the early 1900s, but became the focal point in the liberation struggle and grew in strength during the 1970s and 1980s while it was an officially banned party. There was a political wing and a military wing (started by Nelson Mandela), and once the first democratic elections were held in 1994, the ANC won by a wide margin and has democratically held tightly to power ever since.

Our lunch discussion yesterday dealt with the very mundane but practical question of, “how does one rule a country in a highly technological society and globalized economy, when many of the rulers are illiterate or semi-literate?” A very difficult, if not politically correct question indeed. Apartheid has left many legacies, many of which will not be realized for generations. Biblical notions of reaping and sowing come to mind. One of these legacies is a several generation leadership vacuum. Most of the leaders of the ANC and other members of the liberation struggle were charismatic, passionate and dedicated to an extraordinarily difficult cause. They were not, however, educated to read, write, think critically and logically, etc. The reasons are obvious—they were simply denied access to education as the “Bantu Education” dictated by the apartheid government relegated blacks to an education sufficient for being a servant or performing menial tasks. Leaders such as Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and Tutu were exceptions rather than the rule. Also note, these men were born a generation before the official institution of apartheid in 1948, thus they were formally trained as attorneys, for the ministry, etc. Further, in order to succeed as a black attorney or minister, they had to have an exceptional intellect. In all respects, these men were exceptions even for their own generation, but it was possible for a black man to get an education prior to 1948 if unlikely.

For nearly all black and colored children born between 1948 and 1994, the odds became exponentially more difficult, and thus the reason I asked my host within fifteen minutes of meeting him how old he was and where he was born. He is thirty six. While there are many who gained valuable leadership skills during the liberation struggle with passion and charisma fighting against almost impossible odds, the simple fact remains, there are very few leaders between the ages of thirty and sixty who received more than a passing education—all by design of the government, but not the type of education that Madison or Jefferson would consider essential for a democracy.

Twenty years later when the hangover from the great party know as democracy is beginning to wear off, how do those same leaders sit in board meetings with three ring binders filled with legal documents, afidavits, position papers, contracts and the like make well-informed and thoughtful decisions about how to solve extremely complex social, spiritual and economic problems such as informal settlements, repatriation of land, and racial injustice in a pluralistic society?

Reaping and sowing.


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