White Teachers/black Schools: Stories from Apartheid South Africa

By Wieder, Alan | Multicultural Education, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

White Teachers/black Schools: Stories from Apartheid South Africa


Wieder, Alan, Multicultural Education


At the beginning of 1999 when I arrived in South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in its final stages. People throughout the country had testified to the atrocities of the apartheid years and there was a great feeling of possibility. Voices of people who were traditionally silent were part of public discussions and there was hope for a new South Africa. My colleague and friend at the University ofthe Western Cape, Peter Kallaway, author of Apartheid and Education, I one of the most cited books on apartheid education, suggested that I work on an oral history of teachers who taught during the apartheid regime.

I took up Kallaway's suggestion and spent the year working on an oral history project with apartheid era teachers. I interviewed over 40 teachers who taught during apartheid in the Western Cape, a province that includes Cape Town and surrounding areas. Included in this study were teachers from each of the four government designated racial groups-african, coloured, indian, and white. It should be noted at the outset that these were the designations of the government and they are important to understanding the horror, human sacrifice, and bravery that encompassed apartheid South Africa.

It is also important to understand the demography of both the country and the province. While the vast majority of people in South Africa during apartheid were african; in the Western Cape almost 60 percent of the population was coloured. My interviews with teachers were representative of the racial make-up of the Western Cape. Coloured, white, african, and indian teachers were interviewed. Included in these interviews were five white teachers who taught in coloured and african schools. Their stories as teachers will be described and analyzed within the context of apartheid and education in South Africa.

Methodological Considerations

As noted above, the five teachers whose stories are part of this essay were among over 40 teachers who were interviewed for the original project. Interviews were conducted at schools and homes and ranged in duration from one hour to three hours. On some occasions there was the need for follow-up interviews. Each ofthe teachers who spoke with me was given full transcripts and each person had the opportunity to make corrections where there was an error or a misunderstanding. In the case of the five white teachers included in this essay, there were two follow-up interviews where the teachers expanded discussion of their teaching life. The other teachers provided some clarifications.

Interviews included minimal standard questions. When I contacted the teachers by phone I told them that I wanted them to tell me their stories. They were to decide what was important-it was their life as a teacher. I did ask questions about each person's motivation to teach and I asked each teacher to set up a timeline so that there was a chronological order to their life as a teacher. For the most part, however, the tone was teachers telling me their stories.

There are more theoretical questions that are part of the oral history methodological literature, both globally and in South Africa. Issues ofhuman interaction, memory, race, class, and gender have been discussed at great length.2 I address these issues in the final chapter of the larger study, Teachers with the Fighting Spirit: Voices from Apartheid Classrooms.3 One issue that is particular to this study is the issue of insider/outsider research.4 This too has been debated and there are positive and negative aspects of both kinds of studies. Insider research is sometimes limited because the researcher is too close to the topic of study and can't stand back to analyze. Conversely, outsider research has the danger of missing things because they are alien to the researcher's understanding. For instance, as I conducted interviews there were phrases that were foreign and had to be explained. I didn't know that a "chalk-down" was -a teacher slow down or day strike. …

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