New Lessons in South Africa's History

By Smith, Iain R. | History Today, July 1993 | Go to article overview

New Lessons in South Africa's History


Smith, Iain R., History 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 most 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. …

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