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.

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