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New Lessons in South Africa’s History

Iain Smith looks at how teaching history is being turned upside down in South Africa today.

Uncertainty in the present about the future ordering of a society tends to destabilise its view of the past. When the legacy of the past is what it is in South Africa, it is not surprising that history as a subject – both in the schools and universities there – is in a state of flux. The writing of South African history has been transformed during the past twenty-five years. The teaching of history in South Africa still awaits its reformation.

South Africa is not unique in being a twentieth-century state constructed out of a region whose most striking characteristic is its geographical and human diversity. The problems faced by those seeking to identify a usable past for the present and future population of this multi-cultural, multi-lingual country are formidable, but they have much in common with those faced in other parts of Africa and the world. What is unique is the attempt by a dominant minority to construct and impose a version of the past fashioned according to the dictates of Afrikaner nationalism. The ravages of this failed effort are to be observed at every level in the practice of history in South Africa today.

One of its most obvious effects is to have given the present, younger, generation something to react against. In conversations with Afrikaner students at the Afrikaans- medium universities, I found a wholesale rejection of the ideologically-slanted and distorted view of South Africa's past which they felt they had been subjected to at their Afrikaans-medium schools. History is not a popular subject in the Afrikaans-medium universities; many students deliberately avoid it, choosing other subjects such as political science. Both Stellenbosch and Pretoria today have only about a third the number of students studying history that they had ten years ago. The Honours classes (i.e. final year specialisation by choice) are very small. The syllabuses are narrow. There is little opportunity for comparative study of other parts of the world, such as Asia or Latin America, where sea-borne trade and empire, slavery, and European settlement also occurred. Even the history of the continent of which South Africa is a part receives short shrift compared to the amount of time devoted to Europe. Volksgeschichte, in the form of Afrikaner cultural history, has a clear place in the syllabus and, in some places, is institutionalised as a separate department.

History is more popular in the English-medium universities, with their more 'liberal' reputation – both in terms of what they teach and how they teach it. Certainly there are more black and coloured students studying it there. These students are eager to explore the history which they have been largely deprived of, until recently, through government control of the syllabuses and examination system. But before they can choose to study it at university, they have first to survive the generally dismal condition of state secondary schooling and the often negative experience of studying history at school. The schools have been repeatedly closed and disrupted; the teachers are demoralised; 'under-funding' is a grotesque understatement, as many schools are totally destitute and without books or even basic resources. A small but growing minority of black and coloured students benefit greatly from attending private schools, inadequate schooling leaves most of them insecure in the necessary reading and writing skills and lacking in self-confidence. Still, history at least appears to be a subject they can tackle at university – whereas the poor maths and science teaching in mast schools rules these subjects out.

At secondary school, students are subjected to an authoritarian 'top-down' tradition of teaching by teachers, often themselves poorly-educated, who know that the emphasis in black schools is not on education, but on trying to pass examinations. Memorising dictated notes and set textbooks and then regurgitating this information, without necessarily understanding or being able to use it, is the norm. I found a depressing continuation of this tradition of 'passive learning' at one of the several township campuses of Vista university, where specially written 'study guides' (which amount to 'set books') are produced for the students to cram and reiterate. In contrast, the 'active learning' methods which are being so successfully promoted at Promat College (an independent, teacher-training institution near Pretoria) are very heartening.

In South Africa, as in Britain the number of universities has increased in recent years, but the immense differences in stature and resources of the various institutions make generalisation difficult. The elite universities tend to regard the newer 'bush' universities as engaged in a different level of activity – though this is probably less true than they think when it comes to first- and second-year undergraduate teaching. The non-residential University of South Africa, with over 100,000 students at any one time, must be one of the largest and most effective 'open universities' in the world. There, English and Afrikaans-speaking historians work – not altogether easily – alongside each other in the largest history department in South Africa.

Elsewhere, contact between the history departments at English and Afrikaans universities is usually minimal, even when they are within easy reach of each other. The staff tend to speak different languages in more than one sense. Little of even the best historical scholarship, published in Afrikaans, appears on the reading-lists at English-medium universities. Few historians there tackle major Afrikaner historical topics. There is no English equivalent to the marvellously talented Karel Schoeman, an Afrikaner who writes history and literature in both languages. Various historical journals publish academic articles in both languages, but there is no equivalent of History Today. The History Workshops, organised at the University of the Witwatersrand by Belinda Bozzoli and her team since 1979, remain a key forum for new academic work, but few Afrikaner historians present their work there.

Different universities tend to concentrate on different things, mostly the local and regional subjects, for which the local archives and other resources are most plentiful. At most of the universities, the staff in the history departments are overwhelmingly specialists in South African history and much recent research and writing makes for lively and varied courses in this area. The history of other parts of the world, and of periods other than the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, tends to be marginalised or neglected. By world standards, the undergraduate history degree-courses lack range. At post-graduate level, the practical difficulties and cost of working in archives away from the home-base tend to reinforce the concentration on regional history. Yet even those lucky enough to win scholarships to do post-graduate work abroad tend to use them to study South African topics.

In British universities, students of history usually have to do some British and European history, but they are also encouraged to study some other part of the world – other areas of Europe, for example, or the Americas, or Africa. In South Africa, l found that self-preoccupation prevails; there is no shortage of South African historians but it is rare to encounter anyone, at Honours level or beyond, who is working on anywhere else. The Africanisation of South African history and the shift away from a white ethnocentric approach to the country's past may be well advanced, but in many universities the history of the region is not yet related to the history of the rest of Africa; except in the most perfunctory way. There are understandable reasons why this should be so – the poor library resources, in all but a handful of places; the cost of new hooks; the isolation of the country in recent years – among them. South Africans are also encouraged in their self-obsession by their mass media – which rarely give any serious attention to even major events elsewhere. It is precisely in such situations, one feels, that history teachers have a special responsibility to open windows on other worlds. In South Africa, the burden of the present weighs so heavily on the study of the past that an interest in anything before 1900 runs the risk of being dismissed as 'irrelevant' and 'ancient' history by the students.

As in the secondary schools, most university students spend a large part of their time being lectured at. Most of the staff I met find this heavy lecturing load a chore and a b ore. The seminar or discussion class, using primary materials, is largely undeveloped. Project work, and many of the other good things which the emphasis on acquiring and using historical skills has brought into the study of history in Britain, are still hard to find in South Africa and would be difficult to introduce without a dramatic improvement in the resources available. Meanwhile, timed examinations, regular testing of 'the facts', and broad- outline courses prevail.

Until seventeen separate Ministries of Education have been replaced by one, overall body, it is difficult to see how much progress can be made towards the establishment of a durable new National Curriculum for schools in South Africa. Recent reports (in 1991 and 1992) by the Human Sciences Research Council on the subject of History seem destined for rapid oblivion. If History proved to be the most fraught subject in the establishment of a National Curriculum in Britain, this is even more likely to be the case in South Africa. The debates at three recent regional conferences suggest that whilst there is considerable agreement amongst those professionally engaged in teaching history with the principles which need to underly the development of a new history syllabus, an appropriate balance between 'compulsory core' and 'chosen options' will extremely hard to achieve in terms of the selection of content – where a real danger exists that flexibility and choice could be exploited for regional, ethnic and ideological purposes. (See: History Matters: debates about a new history curriculum in South Africa, edited by the History Education Group, Heinemann-Centaur, 1993).

There is understandably deep dissatisfaction among teachers with a history syllabus which has traditionally been imposed upon the schools by a political committee. One of the pervasive legacies of the apartheid era is not just that a distorted view of the past was imposed on the schools, but that an authoritarian tendency was manifest on every hand. That there can be different and conflicting views and interpretations about the past was not accepted. Open- ended debate and objective enquiry were not encouraged. History was handed down in a doctrinal way even when a fairly selective use of 'sources' enabled university professors to claim that historical study was 'scientific and objective'. History was also blatantly used for 'nation- building' and to reinforce the views of those in power about the 'right ordering of society'.

There is a danger that, in the future, these deeply- embedded authoritarian tendencies will not only continue, but be put to different purposes. The record with regard to the teaching of history in the rest of Africa (indeed, in much of the rest of the world) during the past thirty years is not encouraging. In South Africa, even those supposedly in the vanguard for the reform of the teaching of history along loosely 'liberal' lines can be less than reassuring. At the recent conferences, the view that history should be used for purposes of social engineering was clearly articulated. One leading spokesman argued that 'the entire school curriculum needs to reinforce the development of a core-culture, and promote commonality on the basis of which we identify ourselves as South African or Azanian. On the other hand we must accommodate diversity which we cannot deny, otherwise it will take its revenge on us. But we must get away from the paradigm of separate cultures interacting with each other'. One of the aims of history teaching, it was stated, should be 'to inculcate a love of the values of non-racialism, democracy, solidarity with the oppressed, etc'. This is ominous. One may applaud the civic values to be encouraged in the present and the future, but is it really the task of history teachers to be prescriptive, to establish what is, and what is not ‘politically correct', and to use the past so blatantly for present purposes?

One of South Africa's leading political analysts, Heribert Adam, has recently challenged the view that although the deep divisions and cultural diversities in South African society have to be grudgingly admitted for the present, the aim should be to do away with them and move smartly towards a 'one nation' future. On the contrary, he argues, whereas all distinctions according to race, and all allusions to race must be eliminated from the public realm (that, after all, is essential to dismantle the entire edifice of apartheid), cultural differences need to be not just tolerated but acknowledged and cherished. Multi- culturalism probably offers the best framework for the development of non-racialism. After all, 85 per cent of the world's present states are multi-cultural. Nationalism is particularly unsuitable as a mobilising ideology in such states because it has an appalling record with regard to the exclusion and maltreatment of minorities – and, in South Africa, of the majority of the population. The failed attempt of Afrikaner nationalism to provide a framework for their future should have taught all South Africans their lesson.

What post-apartheid South Africa needs is patriotism not nationalism. Where the latter tends to be exclusive (and can become murderously so), the former is inclusive of all who inhabit a common patria. The ANC is not an African nationalist movement but is, and always has been, inclusive of all who live in South Africa. Nor should it be assumed that 'modernisation' results in the elimination of cultural differences and an end to ethnic conflict. The best safeguard in deeply-divided, multi-cultural societies such as South Africa is a decentralisation of power, the institution of checks and balances against what has been a tradition of undemocratic and authoritarian government, and the recognition that regional and local identities are realities which need harnessing instead of being antagonised by the state. Recognition of this need not mean that the 'group' and 'own affairs' thinking of the apartheid years should be extended into the post-apartheid era.

There is much in this, it seems to me, for those seeking to fashion a future school history syllabus to bear in mind. South Africa is and always has been a multi-cultural and multi-lingual area. Many of its cultures have been deliberately marginalised in the teaching of its history and now need to be included in it. These cultures are not static and primordial but ever changing social constructions which continue to act as a focus for feelings of loyalty and identity which are increasingly plural. In South Africa, a sense of belonging is often intensely local or regional and so is a sense of history. A pluralism of perspective is essential if school history is to be genuine history and not just propaganda dictated by the government. The only real defence against the misuse of history for propaganda purposes is in the teaching of historical skills. A good history curriculum must aim for a balance between local, regional and world aspects as well as a readiness to acknowledge that there is no single 'correct' view of the past. South Africa is but one of many states in the world which contain within them several different cultures. These states seek to engender feelings of loyalty to a common patria amongst their members, and they require their citizens to he equal before and obey common laws. But they may not embody all or even much of their members' identity. That remains in the private realm and may, for most individuals, he made up out of a plurality of units of belonging. The South African state is such a recent and artificial creation – and has such a dire record of exploitation and oppression – that it understandably attracts few positive feelings and mostly negative ones among much of the South African population. Arriving at even a bare minimum of common symbols (e.g. a flag, an anthem, and public holidays) as foci for a common loyalty will not be easy. There is not yet a South African nation, although most of the inhabitants of the South African state are happy to think of themselves as South Africans. That, at least is a beginning with regard to the future. As for the past, surely it is the particular job of those who teach history to show present-day South Africans where they have come from?

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