Defend Truth


Debunking myths about South African history curriculum


Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. She has been involved in various education-related projects, including some sessional lecturing and delivering professional development programmes.

To make sure that a popular debate about the history curriculum and its Eurocentrism is informed by facts, I have created a cheat sheet for those interested in what the official government curriculum actually states.

I’ve heard some rumblings about changing the current history curriculum (again) and making history a compulsory subject up to matric (although I won’t go into that issue here). Sometimes the calls have been less specific to history and have been limited to the general transformation of the school system, but the implication is around history teaching and learning. Reasons for concern about the current education system sometimes stem from the idea that the youth do not know their own struggle heroes because the “education system is Eurocentric” and “promotes white supremacy”.

I’m all for a debate about whether the curriculum is Eurocentric or not, but it must be based on facts. I’ve heard people lament that African and South African history and events are not taught at schools, and that the curriculum focuses on European or Western history. From an official standpoint this is simply not true. It would be easy to direct people to study the curriculum itself, but let’s be realistic, few people will do this (even, apparently, when they make sweeping statements about the curriculum and the need for transformation).

To make sure that a popular debate about the history curriculum and its Eurocentrism is informed by facts, I have created a cheat sheet for those interested in what the official government curriculum actually states. Below is a summary, taken from the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, of the topics and themes that need to be covered by all schools that follow the policy statement (all state schools). The topics are for Grades 4 to 9, the years when history is compulsory at school.

Photo: Page 17 of the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement for Intermediate Phase Social Sciences.

There are 24 themes that kids need to cover in six years. In the curriculum, each theme is allocated about 12 hours per term (although in reality most kids probably get less than this). In order to analyse how much of the curriculum focuses on South African and African history, I’ve divided the themes into the following categories:

South African history:

  • Local history
  • Hunter-gatherers and herders in southern Africa
  • The first famers in Southern Africa
  • A heritage trail through the provinces of South Africa
  • An African kingdom long ago in southern Africa: Mapangubwe
  • Democracy and citizenship in South Africa
  • Colonisation of the Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Co-operation and conflict on the frontiers of the Cape Colony in the early 19th century
  • The Mineral Revolution in South Africa
  • Turning points in South African history: 1948 and 1950s
  • Turning points in South African history 1960, 1976 and 1994

Broader African history:

  • An ancient African society: Egypt
  • The kingdoms of Mali and the city of Timbuktu in the 14th century
  • The scramble for Africa: late 19th century (it can be argued that this is studied from a Eurocentric point of view)

European-based themes with their direct impact on South Africa

  • Explorers from Europe find Southern Africa (main focus is on developments in Europe)
  • The Industrial Revolution in Britain and Southern Africa from 1860 (half the topic is given to the impact mining brought to different societies in South Africa)

Broad or global themes, which include European history as well as a particular reference to South African or African history

  • Learning from leaders (the focus is on Mandela and Ghandi)
  • Transport through time
  • Communication through time (looks at San communication as an example although the focus in European communication)
  • Medicine through time (includes a study of indigenous healing in South Africa and links between “holistic and Western forms of healing”)

Eurocentric themes with little or no reference to South Africa in the curriculum

  • The Transatlantic Slave Trade (focuses on the experience of slaves in America)
  • World War One
  • World War Two
  • The Nuclear Age and the Cold War

More than half the topics focus on South African and African history exclusively. Where South African history focuses on colonialism and apartheid, it tends to look at the impact colonialism had on indigenous societies, slaves and indentured labour, as well as case studies of resistance to colonialism and apartheid. It certainly does not approach it from a white supremacist stance. Where European events or global themes are studied, these are directly related to the impact these developments had on South Africa or draw on South African examples in the case of broader themes. Exceptions are the last four themes: the World Wars, Cold War and Transatlantic Slave Trade.

There is so much that we could add to the curriculum to diversify it. European events are certainly prioritised over other African, Asian or South American events. But one of the recurring criticisms of the current curriculum is that it tries to cover too much in too little time. Teachers rush through the content in order to make sure all the boxes are ticked, so will not be too quick to add anything without knowing what you would take out.

Of course, the above summary is only looking at what should be covered according to official policy. The situation on the ground might be very different with some schools perhaps omitting topics, or emphasising certain topics over others. This could be for a variety of reasons such as teacher content knowledge and confidence, access to resources, poor planning, unforeseen disruptions or a conscious decision to focus more in-depth on certain topics in order to provide a richer educational experience. We also can’t account for how the curriculum is being approached by individual teachers.

We also need to consider how history is being taught at schools. Just because something is in the curriculum doesn’t mean it is being learnt. We tend to forget that we can’t get functional literacy and basic mathematics right. Why should we assume that we are getting history teaching right? We can flood the curriculum with apartheid Struggle history in every grade, give learners lists and lists of Struggle heroes they need to know, but it won’t change the way teaching and learning is currently happening until we improve the quality of teachers and the resources available in every school. So don’t assume that just because kids don’t know their Struggle icons that it is because the official curriculum promotes white supremacy or Eurocentrism. It might be indicative of a deeper issue in our education system that won’t disappear with a new curriculum.

Finding out why there is a lack of sound historical knowledge among the youth in South Africa is imperative, but we need to be careful in assuming that by changing the curriculum we will improve knowledge of history. Debate needs to be informed by what the curriculum actually states, and should factor in the manner in which knowledge is transmitted in schools. It might be very fashionable to call for the transformation of education, history education in particular, but let’s be true to the discipline of history and base these calls on detailed factual knowledge and critical analysis rather than vague populist impressions that serve to promote personal political agendas. DM

Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. During this time she has been involved in various education-related projects on a freelance basis.


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