Sheree Bega explores whether history should be made compulsory in school.
Professor Noor Nieftagodien saw it happen to his own son. Halfway through high school, somewhere in the thick of the unjust machinations of the apartheid regime, his history class suddenly bored him to death.
It didn’t matter that his father was a self-confessed history boffin. “My son enjoyed it up until a point and then he got bored. Even though he liked learning about apartheid, he felt it was overdone.”
Nieftagodien encounters similar wariness from his first-year university students at Wits University. “What the high school curriculum does is discourage rote learning. It is more about the repetition of content, so they do apartheid in different grades.
“We do get this among students who come to university who, rightly or wrongly, express strongly that one thing they don’t want to do at university is learn about apartheid again.”
That’s one of the reasons that although Nieftagodien professes that “history is the most exciting subject in the world”, he doesn’t believe it should be forced on young people. “I’m worried if we make history compulsory, it may turn them off.”
But the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) disagrees. Schools, it believes, must provide compulsory history lessons to produce patriotic young South Africans, who can appreciate the “road we’ve travelled as a nation” and who are willing to contribute to building the “developmental state we envisage”.
And Sadtu wants to reconfigure the school history curriculum to teach the country’s youngsters how the past has shaped present realities.
“If Sadtu is opening a discussion about what is being taught in history, I think we can welcome that,” says Nieftagodien, who is the South African research chair of local histories, present realities, and the head of the history workshop. “We need to ask how we can make history as exciting as possible and relevant for young people.
“We need to do the hard work collectively, as lecturers, officials and unionists, about how to improve the curriculum. We have to acknowledge the curriculum has changed fundamentally over the past 20 years and is infinitely better than it was under apartheid.
“But this doesn’t mean we can’t improve it, and that there can’t be a regular review of textbooks and pedagogy.”
He cautions, however, against ANC-driven storytelling. “Under apartheid, history excluded the majority of people and it didn’t tell the history of the liberation movements. Our history now needs to reflect that and, in fact, it does. But what we need to be careful about is the idea there is one right history. What history is about is a critical interrogation of the past.
“We must try to avoid putting our history in a political straitjacket. Our history is about more than political struggle, as important as that was. We can teach our young people the history of culture, of music, cities and migration. Africa has a history of urban settlement going back 1 000 years.
“Wouldn’t it be great if our young people could tell us, even in the most superficial way, aspects of the history of Uganda, Senegal, Egypt or India or of youth movements and women’s struggles? Surely that will be a far more exciting, well-rounded history.”
For Mugwena Maluleke, Sadtu general secretary, the proposal is about presenting the “real and rich” history of South Africa. As it is taught now to high school pupils, the offering is diluted and lukewarm.
“The present objectives of history are vague and can’t impact on the behaviour change of children. Mandela is presented as a teddy bear, a person who was never militant or radical. You are only shown the reconciliatory Mandela, post- 1994. That terrorist Mandela is not known or why he was regarded as a terrorist. This is not helping me as a young person to grow and develop. It is hiding history. History must be balanced.
“I can’t understand why there is only a Eurocentric approach to solving problems. There is always this view that just Africans were fighting, but Europeans too were engaged in centuries of war.
“We need our history to talk about the pre-colonial era with the reason of understanding how African societies were structured, how they were living together and resolved conflict.”
Sadtu’s rethink includes what he sees as an over-emphasis on the role played by some of local history’s earliest and most well-known figures like Vasco de Gama and Jan van Riebeeck. The former maths teacher knows he can’t totally erase the colonial from school textbooks.
“Look, Jan van Riebeeck is part of history,” he says. “You can’t really cut him out.
“But the view that our history only started when he arrived in 1652 or when Vasco de Gama arrived at the Cape in 1497… The manner they are presented in our classrooms is about white domination. This undermines African people.”
Before the arrival of Dutch settlers, African communities owned land, herded cattle, farmed and were part of sophisticated societies.
“We want a balanced history to help us understand ourselves better. This must be a South African history, an African history, not a Eurocentric history that perpetuates the subjugation of African people.”
He is adamant: “History that undermines other cultures must get out of our history books.”
There are too many whose roles have been ignored and downplayed by official chroniclers.
“History must tell us who Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and King Shaka were and what contribution they made, irrespective of whether they were black or not.
“You have to look back and ask what the contributions of King Moshoeshoe and Simon van der Stel were.
“Ours is an African history. There must not only be concern on Vasco de Gama and Christopher Columbus. We can’t have 60 percent foreign history.”
After ongoing talks with Sadtu, the Department of Basic Education is now examining changing the history curriculum to reflect elements of local history that have not received the recognition they deserve. Housing Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is also championing Sadtu’s proposal.
She argues that “a people without knowledge of their past history, origin or culture is like a tree without roots” and cites how proud Americans are of being American, sharing a common heritage that binds them as a nation.
Maluleke says globally, history is being seen as a nation-building tool. But for too long it has been sidelined like an ugly stepsister, as youngsters are wooed by the more popular subjects of maths and science.
There is more to the subject than an encyclopaedic knowledge of dates and reciting endless essays. History teaches its pupils to become critical thinkers, analyse and interpret – and to protect a collective memory.
“Cuba has made history compulsory,” says Maluleke. “In 2012, Nigerians were debating a bill ensuring secondary school history was compulsory. In Italy, in England, they are beginning to debate this.”
“We need more social sciences. We are not teaching our children to be objects, but human beings,” he says.
Nieftagodien agrees. “For a long time, the focus on the curriculum at high school in particular has been centred on how one can make young people employable.
“I’m all for maths and science, but what that discussion misses is that we need to develop well-rounded open-minded critical thinkers.”
But the DA’s Annette Lovemore, its spokeswoman on basic education, may as well quote Mark Twain, who famously recited that “the very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice”.
“The National Party ensured that the history syllabus covered history that was relevant to its political, ideological agenda. This history should not be allowed to repeat itself,” she cautions.
Omar Badsha, who runs South African History Online, arguably the biggest heritage project on the continent, with close to five million visitors to its website, also argues against history, falling prey to its makers.
“If history is used for political purposes, it can have a negative effect on nation building. Any history curriculum cannot encompass everything. There will always be contestation.”
The popularity of his website shows there is a great deal of interest in history. “Remember, schools are not the only places people learn about history.”
But before we even talk about making history compulsory, we don’t have enough history teachers, there are not enough graduates coming out of our universities and not enough schools providing history yet we have had some of the biggest history projects like the TRC and the Land Restitution Programme. Why is this not being translated into the classroom?”
History provides the spinal link to the past, present and future, says Nicholas Wolpe, the chief executive of the Liliesleaf Trust, the heritage site in Sandton, and that’s why it must be compulsory.
Wolpe cites how two born-frees asked him what he did for a living. “I started by asking them whether they had heard of Rivonia. They looked at me with surprise and confusion in their eyes and said: ‘Of course, the road.’
“Despite the fact we are only 20 years old, we as a people and country do not appreciate the collective dedication, commitment and self-sacrifice made to bring about the freedoms we as all South Africans enjoy and are benefiting from today.
“We are not only losing our liberation struggle history, we also allowing and permitting our rich, diverse tapestry of our collective history to crumble and fade away,” says Wolpe.
History, offers Maluleke, can be used to help stem school violence and to better understand the economics of poverty in South Africa, where most of the unemployed are African.
He says history can heal: Being face to face with the brutality of our recent past can help prevent the “ticking timebomb” of restless youngsters “who do not know where they come from”.
“They are angry young people who become angry adults, who can throw the country into a civil war. They don’t know that we came from a burnt country already. We extinguished those flames and we don’t want to go back.”