A teacher embraces a pupil at Ogwini Comprehensive High School in uMlazi. Picture: Philani Magwaba

Teachers have a crucial role to play in bringing about social cohesion in the country, writes Yusuf Sayed

The year 1994 was deeply important for South Africa. It ushered in a democratic society committed to the eradication of racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination. It brought political change that promised the building of a rainbow nation committed to the ideas of equity and redress. There have been many accomplishments and significant changes in the past 22 years.

But recent events have raised questions about how far the country has come in building a united non-racial society. Some have been negative and divisive – racially offensive, derogatory comments by individuals. Others, like the student protest movements, have opened spaces for debate and got people thinking about issues of curriculum change and decolonisation.

Racial talk and identification remains a concern in everyday social life. Different groups of people distrust one another and continue to associate with others according to previous racial categorisations. The apartheid past casts a long shadow on the future.

To shake it off, South Africans need a deeper understanding of what social cohesion means and how it can be attained. Research my colleagues and I recently completed shows how important it is that teachers are provided with support to infuse their work with the principles of social cohesion.

The Department of Arts and Culture defines social cohesion as the degree of social integration and inclusion in communities and society at large. It also refers to how much mutual solidarity finds expression among individuals and communities. In the South African context, social cohesion is about social integration, equality and social justice. It requires the promotion of positive relationships, trust, solidarity, inclusion, collectivism and common purpose.

Concerns about social cohesion have manifested in various ways. The government has hosted summits on the subject. It has drafted a social cohesion strategy and appointed advocates to champion social cohesion. There's also been work in the education sector: the Department of Basic Education has launched a review of textbooks to identify instances of discrimination and bias.

It’s important such work takes place in the education sector. Equitable, quality education plays a crucial role in building a nation. South Africa’s education system is anything but equitable. Research shows that in 2013, 87 percent of white pupils and 73 percent of Indian pupils were attending the most well-resourced public schools. Only 6 percent of black pupils were enrolled in these schools.

The drive to understand how an equitable education system and social cohesion go hand and hand is what prompted our research. It was conducted by the Centre for International Teacher Education at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, in collaboration with the University of Sussex in the UK. It’s part of a larger study of various countries and explored how teachers were given the space to become agents of peace and social cohesion.

We argue that social cohesion should be understood in relation to achieving durable social justice, eliminating all forms of inequities and disadvantage.

We discovered that teachers need far more professional development, policy direction and support to ensure that social cohesion is realised in classroom teaching and learning.

Many policies since 1994 have been designed to empower teachers and improve their skills. But the area of social cohesion and teachers’ critical role in its promotion hasn't received enough attention. As with so many other areas of education, impressive policy goals have not been translated into reality. Their realisation has been undermined by, among other things, poor intergovernmental co-ordination and collaboration, and a lack of implementation, clarity and support.

Co-ordination is especially complicated in the education sphere. Contrary to what's outlined in the constitution, national and provincial Education Departments often take up different responsibilities in different ways and often interpret policy goals differently. This has been seen, for instance, in how different provinces implemented their curriculum overhaul in 2009. Such diverse interpretations have important implications for the changes that the policy in question aims to bring about.

Another issue that's important for building social cohesion is the curriculum and textbooks. Curriculum reform has been an important area of change since 1994. The right curriculum can help lay the foundations for a democratic, open and united society.

Our research found significant omissions in the existing national curriculum when it came to issues of equity and social cohesion. An important example is found in life orientation. Social cohesion – discussions about living together with people from different cultures, for instance – forms part of the subject. But the curriculum is so overcrowded that there's no real space for such discussions to happen in a meaningful, ongoing fashion.

There's also a real danger that with so many demands on the national education agenda issues like social cohesion are often devalued or not readily promoted. Schools tend to focus on "priority" subjects like science and maths. They often ask why they should waste time on issues such as social cohesion

Actually, issues of social cohesion need to be integrated effectively across the curriculum. This can happen by, for instance, ensuring that African texts and authors are positively represented in textbooks. It could also take the form of removing discriminatory bias – such as an example from a textbook that appeared to blame rape survivors for their ordeal.

High quality and continuing teacher professional development matters, too. Various universities with different cultural histories often rub up against students’ diverse racial, class and gendered identities.

They also strongly shape how student teachers think about the contexts they are set to enter. There isn't a consistent approach to how trainee teachers learn about social cohesion.

Those who educate teachers need to support and challenge student teachers. They need to provide content knowledge and stimulate them to seek knowledge, while exposing students to diverse ways of teaching and different social contexts.

Those who educate teachers must pay better attention to how student teachers are empowered, offering them a variety of teaching approaches and tools that will allow them to engage productively with pupils and promote social cohesion.

Overall, the research revealed that promoting social cohesion through education requires context specific, proactive strategies that address the historic and structural drivers of inequality. More specifically, it requires the political will to support teachers so they can acquire the knowledge, skills and disposition to become agents of peace and social cohesion.

Teachers and schools can only do so much. As long as the school system's outcomes continue to be bifurcated and unequal, and societal inequality widens, social cohesion may remain elusive. Peace will be tenuous and conflict will continue to loom.

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* Yusuf Sayed is the South African research chairperson in Teacher Education, director of the Centre for International Teacher Education and professor of International Education and Development Policy at the University of Sussex and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. He leads the research project, Engaging teachers in peace-building in post-conflict contexts: evaluating education interventions in Rwanda and South Africa, which is funded through the ESRC-DFID Pathway to Poverty Alleviation Programme.

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