Global citizenship for social justice: educating higher education students in the global South

From left to right:

Astrid von Kotze
Popular Education Programme
South Africa

Janice McMillan
University of Cape Town
South Africa

Abstract – The Global Citizenship Programme (GCP) is a voluntary learning and development programme run at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. It challenges privileged students to confront their responsibilities as citizens and asks them to consider how they can contribute to addressing the huge inequalities in South Africa. How will they take their place in the world, responsibly and respectful of all living things?  

What is a global citizen? The 2015 Global Citizenship Programme (GCP) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, kicked off with an orientation workshop asking prospective participants to define what they understood to be a “global citizen”. Working in groups, 120 students from six faculties formulated their own definitions: “It begins with the right attitude”, said one group, and others described what this would be: “someone who is open-minded, critical thinking, willing to understand by ‘stepping out of his/her comfort zone’”, “someone who makes an active effort to recognize differences and shows tolerance towards an interconnected community of mutual understanding and equality”. A global citizen would feel “actively responsible for doing her/his part” in the world, on the basis of the belief that “the core social, political, economic and environmental realities of the world should be viewed through a global and local lens”.

Soudien (2006: 114) has argued that in the relationship between education and citizenship we need to both teach young people their history and culture in order to “build their dignity and feelings of self-worth” and provide young people with the “high skills knowledge – the cultural capital – that will enable them to operate within the complexity of a globalised world”. Like others, he has called for universities to play a more active role in building more “civic minded global citizens”.

The GCP is an extracurricular programme providing students with an opportunity to engage critically with contemporary global issues and reflect on questions of social justice.

GC2 students learning on site in Lavender Hill at the community based organisation Mothers Unite run by local women, © Sue Gredley

It is voluntary and not credit-bearing; however, it is recognized on students’ academic transcripts as a UCT short course. Over the past 5 years, around 1000 students representing all the faculties and different levels of study have completed one or all three of the GCP short courses: Global Debates, Local Voices (GC1), Service, Citizenship and Social Justice (GC2), and GC3 which requires students to log 60 hours of community service and write a reflection essay once this is complete. Let us take a closer look at the topics and various modes of engagement in GC1 and the commitment shown by students completing GC2.

Leading for social justice?

The University of Cape Town is arguably the most prestigious and internationally well-known university in South Africa and it attracts large numbers of (middle-class) students from other countries all over Africa (and elsewhere). For some, the idea of a programme to prepare students as “global citizens” might be driven by the desire to improve the university’s global standing within the international competition for post-graduate high-fee paying students; others may be motivated to venture beyond purely academic offerings out of a sense of social responsibility, especially in the face of the rampant inequalities in South African (and global) society. For the programme designers, the GCP is underpinned by the belief that students should identify injustices, recognize their own privilege in being able to enjoy rights and freedoms that are not equally shared by others, and then take their place in the world and try to make a change, responsibly and respectful of all living things.

“I realize that if I as an individual want to make a difference in the world, I have to start by becoming knowledgeable about these issues and be willing to engage.”

Given the above, the GCP is therefore not a conventional academic programme and our experience has shown that students who participate are also not “the norm”. For example, asked what motivated her to enrol in the programme, a commerce student replied: “I am becoming increasingly aware of all the challenges Africa and the world faces and I realize that I am affected by these challenges and the need to have an opinion and potentially take a stand in order to contribute to these situations. I realize that if I as an individual want to make a difference in the world, I have to start by becoming knowledgeable about these issues and be willing to engage.” Similarly, a health science student cited the limitations of the medical curriculum that left him “a little one-sided and lacking in regards to having informed opinions about national and global events, even though in my opinion doctors need to be informed of the environments and powerplays into which they will be placed and have to work”. An engineering student asserted that “civil society and civic responsibility are pillars of any healthy democracy and an engaged citizenry is vital for a just society”. As academic staff involved, we feel privileged to work with such students!

GC1: Global debates, local voices

Global debates, local voices encompasses four themes, or issues, a year. The themes are chosen in terms of their relevance to the overall concern with injustice and inequality: global warming and climate change, wealth, poverty and inequality, development, sustainability, education and war and peace have been the issues so far. Each issue is examined from multiple perspectives in terms of the power and interests that shape it, and students explore the relationship between global and local dynamics before asking: What, if anything, can we do about the issue? Each of the four themes runs roughly over two weeks and students combine online study with two two-hour face-to-face sessions.

The online study is designed to be interactive and tutors (all of whom are ex-GCP participants) play an active role in dialogue and forum discussions, guided reading, fi lms, podcasts and quizzes. Students begin by examining their own position and practices and then move beyond, contextualizing their insights.

The first of the interactive sessions on each topic is usual “input”: a lecture, a panel discussion, a movie interspersed with discussion. Here, the notion of “subject expert” is still in play, as the sessions provide an introduction to an issue and outline the perimeters of ensuing online forum discussions and further readings and films. Students also acquire the conceptual language they need in order to engage with the theme – an important and necessary starting point as they come from many different disciplines and are often not familiar with the language of social science and political analysis. Tutors monitor, guide and support online activities, asking provocative questions or steering dialogue in particular directions.

“There is a strong emphasis on dialogue as the means to produce the knowledge necessary to critically analyze what appears as ‘normal’ or ‘fixed’.”

Make them join in

The second sessions are designed and facilitated in terms of a critical pedagogy approach; they are highly participatory. This is where students experience radically different modes of teaching and learning from those normally expected and experienced at universities. There is a strong emphasis on dialogue as the means to produce the knowledge necessary to critically analyze what appears as “normal” or “fixed”. Activities strongly engage physical, emotional, creative channels of learning as theoretical concepts are translated into body sculptures or drawings and abstract ideas are visualized or enacted physically.

GC2 students interacting with youth at the community based organisation Mothers Unite, © Sue Gredley

For example, students brought objects considered to be illustrations of “development”. Working in small groups, they collectively produced “mobiles” in which the arrangement of objects and the length of string indicated relations of power. A box filled with materials and tools was introduced as “the bank” from which they could loan the resources for their construction work. At one stage, one group abducted the whole box, to cries of protest. Challenged, they quipped that they were “the World Bank” and hence should own all the means of production…. It was clear that the powerful link between local and global and power and powerless had been well understood! (von Kotze & Small 2013).

To explore the theme of “poverty”, students engaged in role plays for which each had been allocated the role of a particular member of a community. They were tasked with making a decision about a proposed development project – but could only speak if they paid a token. Tokens were allocated unequally, with those members of the community most interested in and affected by the decision having the least ‘voice’ on account of their economic, social and gendered identity. Tempers flared as role players were silenced by their powerlessness. The experience illustrated the effects of inequality and injustice clearly; more importantly, students gained useful insights into, and understanding of, wealth and poverty. As one commented: “I think that if we want to start finding ways of really addressing poverty, we need to start linking poverty and wealth rather than separating them, so that those in power feel affected by poverty and are inspired to act.” In the ensuing discussion, another explained: “The world needs to be made aware that the reason why there’s lots of poor people in the world is not because the environment/nature is unable to provide resources to feed us all but because there are those who are accumulating more than they need/use, so the sooner we work out a way to redistribute the wealth that is already at our disposal, the better”.

GC2 students clearing the garden at the community based organisation Mothers Unite, 
© Sue Gredley 

Importantly, the experiential sessions model more democratic relationships amongst students and students, tutors and teaching staff. Students are here subjects rather than the often taken-for-granted “empty vessels” of academic interactions. They also begin to find their voice as they speak up to be heard and engage vigorously in robust debates. The safe, non-judgmental environment of the sessions, carefully constructed through “climate-setting” activities, allows even shy students to rehearse voicing their views and in the process gaining the courage to openly contribute to dialogues. Furthermore, sessions raise different notions of what constitutes “knowledge” and whose decisions count and to what affect – and often those students who bring first-hand knowledge from poorer backgrounds become the experts in the discourses.

The greatest challenge of the Global debates, local voices course remains the proposed “activation” of students. What does a full-time student / “global citizen” do to enact her/his “citizenship for social justice”? In 2011, GC1 student groups designed small interventions, such as a UCT radio station programme on “war and peace”, a cycling “flashmob” to raise awareness about “green” forms of transport; a coff ee paper cups “garland of shame” to highlight wasteful consumption. While such interventions may not have had a lasting impact – for the GC participants they demonstrated in a small way what is possible, if they work together for social justice!

GC2: Service, citizenship and social justice

The GC2 combines 10 hours of community service (self-organised by students) with guided facilitation and critical refl ection through face-to-face and online learning activities. The main “text” for the course is the voluntary service experience of the students. Through a process of rigorous critical refl ection, students are encouraged to unpack and interrogate their service experiences in order to understand both the service as well as their own roles and identity more critically. In developing the curriculum for the GC2 course, we had asked student leaders about some of the questions they face in their community service to help shape our course design. Included were:  

  • Understanding “service” paradigms e.g. charity vs. social change 
  • Power relationships and insider/outsider identities 
  • Can students really serve/are they just perpetuating inequality? 
  • How do students work with very diff erent/unequal communities? 
  • Community assets and needs 
  • What impact does this service work have on identity and citizenship? 
  • Service and social justice 
  • Developing capacities for critical reflection

GC1 students engaging in the climate change debate on UCT campus, © Sue Gredley

Drawing on these discussions, the course is divided into themes: self and service; service in contexts of inequality; paradigms of service; development; challenges facing organisations in development; service and citizenship; and sustaining new insights. To complete GC2, students have to attend facilitated workshop sessions on each of the themes as well as submit three blogs and two longer refl ection pieces about their community service experiences.

The sessions are small group-based reflections aimed at “learning to serve”. Students are asked to talk about their own intentions and motives for doing service. We provide short discussion pieces e.g. blogs, which provide a critical look at service and these are used to assist in the refl ection process. When we look at the issues of community, we ask students to consider their power and privilege relative to communities in which they serve. One of the key sessions on the course explores different paradigms of service, asking questions about the form service can take. We position “charity” and “social justice” as two forms of service and ask students to debate these (via concrete examples) and then position themselves in relation to this debate. We try to raise an awareness that that even if students feel more able to engage in charity forms of service while coping with the demands of their degree programme, they must enter the service relationship “deeply” aware of issues of power and inequality that position them vis-à-vis the communities in which they serve.

To disrupt the student

As in the GC1 course, the GC2 course aims to create a safe space for exploring complex ideas. Students at times find themselves ‘disrupted’ by the ways in which we get them to challenge service and related issues; however, when we get to the final session on ‘sustaining insights going forward’ this disrupted, new and more critical understanding of service is one of the biggest takeaways for students. As one Humanities student refl ected:

“I think the problem with assumptions is that they’re often subconscious. You act on them without realizing that you actually even hold these assumptions. Until I started GC, I never realized that I had a deep underlying assumption that through [my volunteer project] we would be able to fix something. I assumed we had the power … I never thought of myself as patronising, I consciously tried to treat learners with respect and I believed in mutuality … I used to think about the service I was offering as I think about all other services in everyday life: as a product being sold. [I now understand that] we don’t just give a good; we give of ourselves. More than that, we learn together. We learn how to understand a complex society, formed by a past that we were not part of. We learn to respect, to listen, to see with another’s eyes whether we’re the volunteer or the learner…”

The expectations of universities

In these times when universities are under pressure to become training institutes for a global workforce, a focus on the public good is a welcome exception. The GCP enjoys the support of university leadership and students – it is one initiative that resists the reproduction of a financial elite. Instead, it re-instils principles of civil rights and human decency. As we remain collectively uncertain about how to engage with the huge environmental changes upon us and the enormous economic – political changes necessary to ensure survival, GC students have one small advantage: they have learned to work together and listen to radically different voices, and they know that producing the knowledge and skills needed to “learn our way out” requires education beyond conven tional institutional forms. As a civil engineering student commented: “GC has allowed me to re-examine where I see myself within the world and critically evaluate the ideas I have about development, and those we so often unjustifiably see as the ‘Other’ when we think about such engagements. It has challenged this thinking and subtly appealed to my sense of humanity, leading me to resist a gung-ho approach to issues of social justice.”


Soudien, C. (2006): The city, citizenship and education. Journal of Education, Vol. 40. Pp. 103–118.

Von Kotze, A. & Small, J. (2013): Dream, believe, lead: learning citizenship playfully at university. In: Clover, D. & Sanford, K.: Lifelong learning, the arts and community cultural engagement in the contemporary university. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press. Pp. 29–42. 

About the authors

Astrid von Kotze, PhD, is a community education and development practitioner in the Popular Education Programme in working class communities, South Africa. Previously, she was Professor of Adult Education and Community Development at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Since 2010, she has co-conceptualised, designed and facilitated modules of the UCT GC1 programme.

9 Scott Rd
Observatory 7925 Cape Town
South Africa

Janice McMillan is Senior Lecturer and Convenor of UCT’s Global Citizenship programme (GCP) ( Janice joined UCT in 1994 and focuses on community engagement. Before joining UCT, she worked in the nonprofit sector. Janice has a PhD in Sociology with a focus on service learning and community engagement.

University of Cape Town
Global Citizenship programme
Centre for Higher Education Development
Room 7.38.13 PD Hahn Building
North Lane, Upper Campus
Cape Town
South Africa

Adult Education and Development


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