What grade nines make of 10 years of democracy

09 February 2006

Associate Professor Rob Siebörger of the School of Education and his Postgraduate Certificate in Education history students surveyed grade 9s in a range of southern suburbs high schools earlier this year as part of their coursework. The two-part pilot survey examined attitudes towards South Africa, and the students' understanding of issues in the national election.

Results showed that the students were very positive about what had taken place in the country. Their responses showed a strong identification with South Africa. Eighty percent felt positively that South Africa was a better country. There were similar or more positive responses to the questions on support for national sports teams; whether they felt proud of South Africa and whether South Africans supported their flag and national anthem, with no marked differences in schools, races or gender.

The issue of whether apartheid had ended or not was much more contested, with almost half the pupils agreeing and half disagreeing. The nature of the response to the demise of apartheid was elaborated by questions on whether South Africans got on well with each other and whether people of different races mixed much. Although only 26% said "Yes" to getting on well, 52% agreed that they thought so. These figures were exactly reversed on a question of whether races mixed much, a finding that would be interesting to test in schools in other parts of Cape Town.

A question about whether most South Africans have the same feelings about what has happened revealed an awareness that, although people might mix with each other and get on fairly well, they have not had, and do not have, common experiences. Sixty-five percent felt that they did not share similar feelings about what had happened in South Africa. There were very few differences between schools on these measures, though the more integrated schools were more positive than others that people in South Africa mixed often.

Students were asked to rank important events in South Africa during the past 10 years, to see the extent to which pupils would place sporting and other events above the constitutional and political ones. Responses were again strong and consistent. Seventy eight percent placed the transformational events at the top of their lists, with slightly more than half choosing to put Nelson Mandela as president at number one, while the rest chose the new constitution. Whites were less likely to choose the constitution and more likely to pick Mandela.

There was a wide range of answers to open response questions on "What is the best thing about South Africa for you?", "Apart from Nelson Mandela, who is the South African you most admire?" and "If you could send a short message to President Mbeki about the country, what would you say?".

For 35% the best thing about South Africa is the natural beauty, climate and nature. Forty two percent wrote equality between people, human rights and the way the country had transformed. The answers were overwhelmingly positive. The question was one of the few where there was a significant gender difference, with girls choosing natural beauty more frequently than boys, and boys choosing sport more often.

The most popular South African apart from Nelson Mandela was Charlize Theron (20%), a choice of more girls than boys and also of more whites. But, as with almost every popular name mentioned, there was some support for her across all races. Next most popular was Mark Shuttleworth (10%). He was particularly admired among boys. Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk were the only other individuals who stood out. As a group, sportspeople were as popular as Shuttleworth, while African leaders were almost as popular. Musicians were scarcely represented at all, a pattern that would probably change with a different demographic sample. Reasons given for selection almost unanimously reflected the inspirational nature of the person. Eighteen percent declined to name a South African they most admired, some explaining that that they could not think of one, and one respondent declaring that "All South Africans suck!".

The messages to President Mbeki were as conscientiously completed. The range covered was extremely wide. Again, there were very few differences in gender, race and schools. The most common message was of encouragement to the president, suggesting that he was doing a good job (22%). The rest of the messages drew attention to what he should be doing better and 10% stated specifically that he should be keeping his promises and wasn't doing enough. Among those that could easily be categorised, 20% mentioned poverty and housing as urgent needs and 5% each pointed to the importance of action on HIV/AIDS and crime. Six percent asked that reverse apartheid and affirmative action be ended. Only 2% devoted their messages to job creation.

To test their understanding of the election issues, students were asked questions about eight different election posters that had been displayed in their area. There was a fairly high level of political literacy, in that half of the students could correctly supply the names of the political parties from their acronyms, while a further 18% had one error. Boys were significantly better at this than girls. A commentary on this result is, however, that the questionnaire was also completed by grade 7s at two feeder primary schools, whose equivalent results for the question were marginally better and their boys' performance was even better than their girls'.

Students were also asked to give reasons for what they regarded as good or poor posters. Here they were much less successful in providing coherent explanations, though half could provide good or adequate reasons. Girls were more successful at this, and these results showed some significant differences between schools.

The survey finally attempted to provide a measure of the extent to which the students were able to interpret the meanings of the posters and to analyse the information on them. This revealed that it was unlikely that more than a third of the students could interpret the message on a given poster, and very few, if any, could provide an explanation of all eight posters. Interestingly, one of the grade 7 classes performed best out of all schools at this.

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