Street Law’s “Democracy for All”

Street Law’s “Democracy for All”


Problems and Purpose

In response to growing concerns over ethics, institutional capacity and poor governance in South Africa, Street Law, a global non-partisan and non-profit organization, implemented a ‘Democracy for All’ civic education programme to teach high school students and adults “the principles of democracy.” These principles include how government works in a democracy, checking the abuse of power, citizen participation and elections ( “The goal was and is to teach non-lawyers, especially high school students, their legal rights and to empower them to become active, informed citizens in their society” (O’Brien, 1).


Street Law aims to educate young people about law and government through developing classroom and community programs (Street Law, 1). The organization is comprised of tens of thousands of lawyers, law students, teachers, and high school students. These individuals have a goal of advancing justice by empowering people with the legal and civic knowledge, skills, and confidence to bring about positive change for themselves and others (Annual Report, 3; Street Law, 1). With programs developed in more than 40 countries throughout Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, Street Law was first established in the United States with the idea of developing a practical law curriculum that could be taught through interactive methods (O’Brien, 1). In order to have a significant impact on a large number of students, they initially targeted high school students by educating them about their rights through training secondary school teachers (Ibid). The program was implemented in various settings; after instructing high school students, Street Law later offered classes in two Washington, D.C. prisons (Ibid, 5).

The first program Street Law implemented outside the United States was established in South Africa in the 1980s and 90s. The founders of Street Law believed that through supporting the inclusion of marginalized groups and building civic skills and conceptions of democratic citizenship, their program would help reduce corruption (Krawczyk and Sweet-Cushman, Understanding Political Participation, 137). Street Law’s organizers believed that the skills and knowledge gained from participating in Street Law’s programs would ultimately increase the accountability of public servants and political leaders.  

Many civic education programmes have taken place in Africa before Street Law’s “Democracy for All” program. The Kenya National Civic Education Programme, Peace-Building and Citizenship Education in Angola and Support to Civic Education Project are just a few of the civic education programmes in the region. Despite the presence of numerous civic education programs, Street Law’s program(s) differs from others because it was initiated in South Africa after the organization’s success in the United States. Because of Street Law’s previous experience, the organization had time to re-think their practices before implementing it in South Africa. 

Organizing Entities and Funding

Street Law was first established in the United States by Edward L. O’ Brien, three law students, and a law professor at Georgetown University Law Centre in 1972 (O’Brien, 1). It was created at a time of social unrest with a purpose of trying to impact society by targeting failing students; “the idea was to develop a practical law curriculum law students could teach” (Ibid, 1). The organization’s introduction to South Africa was the first time the program was established outside of the United States. This led to difficulties for the organization as the charged political climate in the Apartheid period indicated possible government barricades (Ibid, 6). However, the successive debut of the program in South African law schools in 1986 resulted in almost universal acceptance (Ibid, 6).

To acquire funding, O’Brien and McQuoid-Mason, a professor at Griffith University, approached the head of an all-white Association of Law Societies in South Africa (Ibid, 6). O’Brien and McQuoid-Mason told the association that if they wanted to be relevant in the new South Africa, they would be better off if they did something good in the old South Africa (Ibid, 7). “The Law Society head saw the point and funded a pilot project which started at only a few high schools: two black, two white, one Indian and just one law school… the association and the Ford Foundation later helped expand Street Law to 17 law schools” (Ibid, 7). Thus, without the Law Society, Street Law would have probably had a great deal of difficulty with funding.

The initial influx of money did not ensure sustainability. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) came in with seed funding, but when democracy came to South Africa, they pulled out. Fortunately, eight of the 17 law schools were willing to continue the Street Law program and incorporated it into their curriculum and budget (O’Brien, 14). This is important because it highlights that many of the schools wanted to continue implementing the program despite funding issues. In other words, after seeing the implementation of the program, they wanted it to continue and were willing to provide the funding for it. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

At the inaugural Street Law program at the University of Natal, there was a lot of interest and enthusiasm stemming among South African law students and high school students in this teaching (Ibid, 7). Regarding the number of participants, McQuoid-Mason used law students in large numbers, e.g., 100 a semester, to help educate the high school students. He subsequently convinced 17 of 21 universities across South Africa to introduce Street Law programs in their curriculum, and these 17 schools sent law students out to teach (Ibid, 7). Because it was unlikely that the South African government would allow Street Law to be formally incorporated into their schools, they decided to approach the principals. Principals had the flexibility to start non-formal educational programs, who then helped begin the Street Law classes (Ibid, 7). McQuoid-Mason worked to expand the program to 17 universities; he strived to reach as many students as possible and is responsible for hundreds of law students enrolling in the program. In most instances, as a sort of incentive, the students received course credit as compensation for their efforts (Finkel and Ernst, 342). “The student trainers provide civic education instruction to pupils in grade 11 and 12 in high schools across the country. According to Street Law figures, it trains on average over 16,000 high school students annually using 400-500 trainers” (Finkel and Ernst, 342). The number of individuals that participate highlights the impact such a program can have. 

Methods and Tools Used

Street Law is fundamentally a civic education programme - typically known as “activities designed to promote political knowledge, engagement, and support for democratic norms and values among ordinary citizens” (Finkel, 168). Because of their potential to strengthen democratic political culture, these education programmes have been gaining momentum in the Global South. However, a popular question emerges: “Are individuals in emerging democracies more likely to embrace democratic values, to learn basic knowledge about political processes, and to engage in politics in response to donor-sponsored civic education programmes?” (Finkel, 168). The debate on the outcomes of civic education entails a diverse study; there are numerous studies that look into the different approaches and outcomes of civic education programmes. However, as research about civic education becomes more and more prominent, important links have been found between basic civic education and civic attributes (Gatson, 264). 

Street Law's implementation of civic education used interactive methods to teach the curriculum including engagement tools and techniques such as role-plays, use of small groups, and mock hearings. By engaging and relying on participatory methods in their teaching of civic education, the founders hoped it would result in participatory democratic outcomes.  

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

In order to get their civic education programme going, Street Law published a book in the form of five booklets on topics such as “Introduction to South African Law, Consumer Law, Family Law, Welfare and Housing Law, and Criminal Law and Juvenile Justice” (Ibid). The organization tried to make these booklets as user-friendly and interesting as possible by includingillustrations and cartoons to appeal to high school students. After the publication of these books, they recognized that they did not take into account issues of human rights; this recognition resulted in Street Law’s program “Human Rights for All” (Ibid, 9). Human Rights for All was a book that called for a debate on many controversial topics such as the legitimacy of the death penalty; this is an example of the interactive methods Street Law “used to elicit both sides of an issue” (O’Brien, 9). However, the book was not a big seller and was discontinued in South Africa although later used and adapted for many other countries.

Although the “Human Rights for All” program was not successful, Street Law later implemented “Democracy for All" - another highly interactive civic education campaign. To put this into perspective, some of the first interracial workshops ever held in South Africa were under this organization. An example of an interactive method was when individuals learned about confrontations with the police. “When the black students did their role-play, they had the police beating up the students. When the white students did the same role-play, the white students and police were very polite to each other. Students always brought their life experiences to Street Law” (Ibid, 8). This is important because it takes out the opportunity to criticize the program on the basis of it being impactful. By having an atmosphere where individuals can be honest and discuss real-life situations, it highlights that the program made them feel comfortable to share the information they did. 

In regards to the actual program and the material involved, “the program contains several topic areas, such as law, human rights, and general principles of democracy, each of which has its own student manual providing guidelines for how the subject matter should be taught, along with suggestions for ‘interactive classroom activities’ such as ‘case studies, role playing, debates, field trips, games, group discussions, opinion polls, mock trials, ranking exercises, and participant presentations’” (Finkel and Ernst, 342). In addition, given the interactive method the program used the curriculum was created with an emphasis on role-plays, use of small groups, and mock hearings. The topics discussed were: democracy, how the government works in a democracy, checking the abuse of power, human rights and democracy, elections, and citizen participation (O’Brien, 10).

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects


Street Law is effective in the sense that it is relevant and sensitive to the needs of the time and people; Street Law achieves this by continually engaging with people, “thereby being in a position to hear the needs of the time and people” (Mahlangu, 108). Finkel and Ernst, through a study to see how effective civic education programs were, found that although there was “considerable variation in the success of the implementation in terms of both students’ frequency of exposure and the types of teaching methods that are employed in the classroom”, students who participated were more likely to have basic political knowledge Finkel and Ernst, 342). For example, they were able to correctly name South African political leaders and were knowledgeable of the South African constitutional structure and they were more cognisant of their own political interest, media exposure, family political participation, and family political discussion (Ibid, 358). However, there were no real influential attitudinal effects that came from participation. Attitudinal effects are important because they impart values and political orientations, which ultimately influences an individual’s decision to participate in local issues (Ibid, 358). 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Mahlangu proposes that Street Law is more of a social movement than an academic exercise as it emphasizes rights and awareness. It has been noted that the existence of poverty is the absence of all rights. Although this may seem slightly radical, this notion is still highly correct. Poverty leads to an absence of fundamental rights and reduces and diminishes an individual’s enjoyment of life. From this perspective of emphasizing the awareness of rights, Street Law can be a strong proponent and can be the initial step in securing fundamental rights to individuals who are deemed insignificant to society. Mahlangu specifically states that “the emphasis of Street Law should be providing legal advice to indigent people at a pre-legal clinic level, thereby opening up the doors for the law to be equally enjoyed by all. The best means of achieving this objective is by establishing a society of law students, committed to teaching others about legal topics which affect them in their daily lives” (Mahlangu, 108). Mahlangu’s perspective brings light to how implementing such a program helps fight fundamental problems in developing countries such as poverty and worldwide hunger.

Street Law’s “Democracy For All” program was effective because it was able to target a wide population while educating them about basic civic education. A positive outcome of participating in Street Law’s program was that students were more politically aware. However, this being the case, no real attitudinal effects came out of it. Such effects are important because they impart values and political orientations that influence individual participation in local issues. More research needs to be done to understand the effects of Street Law in more depth.

Although it is unclear as to whether any of the outcomes were participatory in nature, the participatory innovation in Street Law’s “Democracy for All” program was the interactive method used to educate the students. Their interactive teaching methodology has since been implemented in law school classes: “Some law professors who became involved in Street Law began to use methods such as small group work, role-plays, debates, and mock trials within regular law school classes. Some law students began to question why their law professors were just lecturing when more exciting interactive methods were available” (O’Brien, 15). By implementing a teaching methodology that differs from traditional lecture-like styles, students became more engaged and simultaneously increased their basic political knowledge. As Mahlangu states, such a program helps fight significant problems such as poverty and mass hunger that plague the developing world. 


Secondary Sources

Finkel, S. E. (2014). The Impact of Adult Civic Education Programmes in Developing Democracies. Public Administration and Development, 34(3), 169-181.

Finkel, S. E., & Ernst, H. R. (2005). Civic Education in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Alternative Paths to the Development of Political Knowledge and Democratic Values. Political Psychology, 26(3), 333-364.

Mahlangu, M. (2008). Street law and its role in ensuring accessed to justice and furthering of the South African democracy.

Sarkin, J. (1998). The development of a human rights culture in South Africa. Human Rights Quarterly20(3), 628-665.

External Links

Official Website:

Facebook Page:

Street Law Learner's Manual (open-access):

"The Genesis of Street Law in South Africa" (David Jan McQuoid Mason):



South Africa



Mittwoch, Januar 1, 1986
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