Defend Truth

Opinionista

Teach your children well, their father’s hell, did (maybe) slowly go by

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Leah Nasson is a Canon Collins scholar pursuing a PhD in Education at the University of Cape Town. She holds a BA (Hons) in History and Italian, an MA in Italian literature and a PGCE, all from the University of Cape Town. She currently works as a curriculum specialist, and served as Head of History at two independent schools over the course of her teaching career. She is on the editorial board of the journal Yesterday and Today and is a member of the executive board of the South African Society of History Teachers. Her research interests include teacher identity, social justice and the role of the state in the construction of national histories.

What do we tell our children, now that history happens at home? Do we look them in the eyes and tell them that 27 April marks the day that all South Africans, regardless of their race, became equal? Do we, who still bask in the sun of sustained privilege, continue to invoke the iconography of the Rainbow Nation?

Freedom Day in the times of a Covid-19 lockdown. The irony should not be lost on us. Not only has the necessary imposition of strict regulations to counter the spread of the pandemic led to the suspension of civil liberties, but the disproportionate burden that the measures of the past two months have placed on the lives of the poor and historically marginalised calls for deep national introspection.

The virus doesn’t discriminate, they say. But neoliberalism does. And surely now, when the headlines are about the hungry and the homeless, it is time to accept what has for years been a hard and inconvenient truth: the democracy that we celebrate on Freedom Day contains more fiction than it is fact.

What, then, do we tell our children, now that history happens at home? Do we look them in the eyes and tell them that 27 April marks the day that all South Africans, regardless of their race, became equal?

Do we, who still bask in the sun of sustained privilege, continue to invoke the iconography of the Rainbow Nation — the new anthem, the World Cup and the spirit of forgiveness? Do we laud Mandela and De Klerk for showing reconciliation and unity, paving the way for the “miracle” that was the aversion of civil war? Perhaps, some of us might think, it might be best to leave FW out this time. Our “woke” kids might challenge us (was it a real apology in the end?) and besides, it’s best to leave that debate to the history teachers — we can’t cause conflict in the house. And then, if our children happen to ask us, do we blame corruption and State Capture for the fact that some (most) people can’t afford data and devices, and live in structures that we call shacks?

Some of us might look towards a matric history textbook, having grown tired of the screen. There must be a quick summary page at the end of a chapter, like the ones we remember from our youth:

“The short- and long-term consequences of the First World War”. Neatly packaged (perhaps there’s even an easy-to-memorise acronym), we search for the answer which we know, maybe, deep down, to be true: the decision to embrace the principles of the free market in the “new” South Africa has perpetuated structural inequality and reinforced the mechanisms of social and economic exclusion which predated 1994. It could be simplified — it’s a bit long for a bullet point — and it would need some explanation. But at least it would be there, written in black and white, belonging to “the past”, absolving us of the present.

You’ll find that there is no summary page, no table of “short and long-term consequences of apartheid”. It’s not in the syllabus. In fact, or so the Grade 12 syllabus would have us believe, South Africa emerged as a democracy due to the spirit of compromise shown by key individuals — our current president among them — and the willingness of Mandela and De Klerk to reach a negotiated settlement in the midst of widespread violence.

Shortly thereafter, the introduction of a new flag, the new national anthem and the 1995 Rugby World Cup represented the reconciliation that the majority of South Africans had always hoped for — barring, of course, a couple of marginal rightwing fundamentalists and maybe the odd member of the IFP.

Year after year, Question 5 — an essay — in History Paper 2 asks students to critically discuss the reasons for which South Africa peacefully transitioned into a democracy, and managed to come to terms with its past.

It is a foregone conclusion: according to the state curriculum, by the end of the 1990s, South Africa had already come to terms with its past. Matric learners may be invited to “critically discuss” or “evaluate” a statement (implying higher-order thinking), but the memorandum remains the same.

 

It is not easy to teach apartheid. It has become even more difficult to teach the transition through the lens of rainbows, restorative justice and reconciliation.

 

There is no space for courageous learners to interrogate the assumptions upon which the question is based: leave this discussion in the classroom, I used to say to my class — often in a hushed voice — and whatever you do, don’t write about it in the exam. And so, while the Fallist movement brought universities to a halt, and Mandela the saviour became Mandela the sell-out, my purpose as a professional to teach for high results trumped how I viewed my purpose as a person, which was to uphold the principles of a socially just society, and to question the authority of knowledge when I know it to be untrue.

As a teacher, I was complicit in enacting the desired outcomes of the education policy reforms of the transitionary period. The emphasis in education on skills, “objective” standards and norms, achievement levels and assessment which accompanied the adoption of a neoliberal economic framework has resulted in a distorted conception of what it means to be teaching history in the “new” South Africa.

Among the more affluent, the social and cultural capital that accompanies wealth in our society is not only an advantage when it comes to catchment areas, language policies, class sizes and the accessibility of a Google Classroom. In the world of achievement levels and rubrics and in which essays can be bought, learnt by rote, regurgitated and resold, a healthy bank balance and good connections become highly valued assets. This, surely, is not what education in a democracy should resemble.

It is not easy to teach apartheid. It has become even more difficult to teach the transition through the lens of rainbows, restorative justice and reconciliation. And indeed, the greater the historical distance, the more challenging it has become. It seems counter-intuitive. The further away the past is from our present, the easier it should be to interpret.

You’d imagine that we could apply the same principles of historical analysis to apartheid South Africa as we would to, say, life in East Germany during the Cold War. Yet we can’t. To do so would be to suggest, as the Grade 12 syllabus would have us believe, that we have come to terms with our past. But for as long as the state expects history teachers to objectively deliver the Rainbow Nation narrative as an uncontested truth, for as long as our textbooks glide over issues of structural inequity and for as long as we, the beneficiaries, perpetuate our own myths, it will be more than just the surface of our hands that need sanitising in 2020. DM

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