The website South African History Online gives a succinct account of how the June 16 1976 uprising “profoundly changed the sociopolitical landscape in South Africa.
“Events that triggered the uprising can be traced back to policies of the Apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953.”
I am aware that it is two months too early to start discussions around the commemoration of the 1976 massacre of black school children during a protest march in Soweto, now apologetically called National Youth Day. The marches were sparked by the apartheid government forcing Afrikaans to be the medium of instruction for black children.
But there is a reason for this early take on the Soweto massacre: we will soon be celebrating Freedom Day on Wednesday, 27 April 2022, the day on which we will commemorate the first democratic elections held in South Africa on 27 April 1994.
As we move closer to Freedom Day, the South African government has conceded that “although we have made remarkable progress since 1994, the spectre of inequality, poverty and unemployment remains one of the most glaring impediments to South Africa’s goal of national unity and social cohesion”.
The next major national commemoration will be that of the so-called Youth Day on 16 June. The common thread between these two events on the national calendar is FREEDOM. Are we free – or are our children free from the issues they marched against and sacrificed their lives for?
A year ago, in discussing the plight of African children and the Soweto Uprising in Daily Maverick, I wrote: “As if running from apartheid brutality was not enough, South African children and youths still have to run from the hardships visited upon them under the democratic government, whether it is being forced to learn Afrikaans or study under trees or in dilapidated school structures.”
The June 16 uprising dealt with an issue of great sociological interest – the curriculum. Those in curriculum studies will tell you that curriculum is the content of schooling, or what is learned in the schooling environment. But curriculum goes beyond that and has more significant consequences from both its socialising or de-socialising nature, depending on how it is constructed or how you look at it.
The Soweto massacre dealt with the de-socialising nature of forced language requirements in “Bantu” schools. This was and remains a polarising historical event in South African curriculum development. The compulsory teaching of Afrikaans to black learners was both a factual and an ideological battleground.
I do not think that anyone can dare argue that it is no longer a battleground unless you have been living somewhere under a rock sheltered from the discourses on the issues of language in school and curriculum transformation in general.
Decades after the massacre in 1976 – and precisely 28 years into democracy – black children are still forced to study Afrikaans until Grade 12. The use of the word “forced” may appear very strong, but that is exactly the reality – the school subject choice dispensation does not allow them the freedom not to choose Afrikaans.
Strange though, as democratic South Africa is characterised by ongoing debates on curriculum transformation at institutions of higher learning, particularly concerning the issue of language. And also by significant court judgments involving language requirements at universities (notably Chairperson of the council of Unisa v AfriForum  ZACC 32 and; AfriForum v University of the Free State  ZACC 48); and the provisions of section 29 of the Constitution that, in part, states that “everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable”.
Curiously, this transformation trajectory and debates at universities are not in tandem with the environment at the basic education level. This, in my view, is the worst disservice any country can do to its young generation and the most fallacious example of curriculum transformation. Humanising education and curriculum transformation should be underscored by, among others, inclusiveness.
Unfortunately, whatever is regarded as reform in basic education as far as the language issue goes, and in particular forcing black learners to do Afrikaans, tells a different story. The basic core education curriculum, in my view, still exhibits in some respects Bantu education accoutrements that disadvantage black learners.
Though my opinion started focusing on the continued forced teaching of Afrikaans to black African children – a subject many black parents find as difficult as learning French when it is not spoken at home – it calls for a larger national discussion on proper curriculum transformation in schools.
Addressing curriculum transformation at universities while leaving schools behind is foolish and useless.
The debates on curriculum transformation must start at the basic education level, or must run parallel with basic education and tertiary education. Questions relating to how and what our learners are taught at schools must be confronted, and hard decisions must be made when it comes to influencing and trimming the content of some subjects.
Basic education in countries like Canada has made great strides concerning curriculum transformation and truly enlightening subject content, even more so than some South African universities have done.
For example, Toronto had a Grade 11 history class on genocide and, as one of the set books, learners were given “Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide” by Barbara Coloroso. Learners in Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I was very impressed that learners at that level are exposed to texts on bigotry and racial stereotypes, perhaps because I only read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a prescribed book in one of my law studies.
I must end this contribution by an acknowledgment that educational reforms and curriculum transformation have been a much-publicised priority in South Africa since 1994.
The following questions must be asked: Are these educational and curriculum reforms necessary for diversity, inclusivity and reinforcing faltering national unity and reconciliation?
Have these reforms and transformation initiatives at schools been applied to the curriculum to incorporate black African perspectives?
Have we confronted issues of white privilege and anti-racist pedagogies to bring about multicultural education? DM