Dr. Diana Garlough, assistant professor of education
QUESTION POSED: This grant was a study of democracy. What are some of your thoughts on what you experienced in regards to this concept? What are the curricular implications, and how will this study focused on democracy enrich/inform/expand your teaching/research here at ONU?
The focus of our Fulbright-Hays Group Study Abroad Grant was to learn more about democracy in an unfamiliar setting in order to better understand our own democracy. To that end, we read and discussed both fiction and nonfiction texts prior to the trip in our training sessions; we continued our reading and discussing during the trip. We also talked to many people we came into contact with as we traveled. Two issues greatly surprised me as we talked with people. The first was that people of all races, ages and economic status believed that life is not better economically in the new democracy. (Apartheid officially ended with the first elections for all South Africans in 1994.)
I have traveled to South Africa annually since 2006, and during those times, I sensed such great pride and hope for the new system of government. Although a democratic republic is vastly different from the tribal leadership that is traditional for nearly 80 percent of the population, people were willing to give democracy a try. But optimism toward the government is waning. A fledgling democracy demands strong leadership, and Nelson Mandelas and Desmond Tutus don’t come along every day. After failed government policies and highly publicized corruption of key government figures, many people I talked with are trustful. Inextricably linked to their worsened economic conditions is the second area of surprise for me: leadership. Most prominent on the minds of the people were the national government figures accused of corruption, but weak local school leadership was also raised.
When I tried to make sense of the less optimistic South Africa I experienced in 2010, I had to remember that this democracy is not even 20 years old. In “people years,” we could expect a young person to make some major mistakes. In “government years,” this brief period is not nearly enough time to strengthen the weak economic conditions for the majority of the nearly 50,000,000 people who live in South Africa. Certainly, education is key to improving economic conditions. Enough time has not elapsed to train the larger teaching corps needed to educate the masses that had previously been undereducated. The teachers of the majority population themselves were undereducated. So mistakes, even major ones, will be made. By comparison to the United States, whose federal republic (a type of democracy) is much more established, most Americans would agree that we don’t have everything right. The people felt free enough to voice their concerns. One of the civil servant unions went on strike. These are both evidence that the people have a voice that they are willing to use. I think both indicate that the people will not become overly complacent and that they’ll exercise their democratic responsibility to vote.
The people of South Africa are resilient. Many once seemed to have no hope under apartheid, but they allowed themselves to hope again. That seems miraculous to me. Now, the entire population will have to learn to be patient when positive change is slower than expected and diligent to continue to work for more freedom.