History Education and Reform in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Lydia Baek

March 28, 2011


At the beginning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, Archbishop and TRC head Desmond Tutu articulated the necessity of exposing the truth. He explained:

We are charged to unearth the truth about our dark past; to lay the ghosts of that past so that they will not return to haunt us. And that we will thereby contribute to the healing of a traumatized and wounded people—for all of us in South Africa are wounded people—and in this manner promote national unity and reconciliation.[1]

Although the full impact and value of the TRC process is still debated, there is general consensus that it at least allowed for an open, public dialogue about the past and how to move forward as a nation. In order for South Africa to continue to progress and develop as a society, the past must not only be known, but it must also be remembered, so it “will not return to haunt us.” [2]Thus, the remembrance of the past, particularly through history education is important. This paper examines the need for and challenges of history education since the end of apartheid in South Africa and makes recommendations for improvement.

The Potential and Challenges of History Education

According to researchers Cole and Murphy (2009), the “essential goal of education is to transform children into citizens who can function beyond the circle of the family.”[3] This is especially relevant in post-conflict or transitional situations, in which civic engagement is vital to the rebuilding process. Not only can education help prevent youth from being lured into post-conflict violence, but it can also give them an understanding of past events and its resulting societal problems. In turn, youth can use this understanding to effect progress in their society.[4] Thus, in this context, education, and especially history education holds particular significance in the post-conflict period.

There is, however, a flipside to education’s potential. For at times, depending on how the material is taught, history can actually reinforce prejudice and deepen cleavages among people. As Cole and Murphy (2009) point out, history tends to evoke feelings of solidarity among groups. In conflicts surrounding issues of identity, as was the case in South Africa, history can be exploited to heighten tensions and increase already existing divisions.[5] Furthermore, school curriculum, especially in post-conflict societies, can have broader implications than just education. It can be used for other political or societal ends, such as establishing the legitimacy of the new government,[6] making education a tool for political power rather than an institution of teaching and learning. Thus, education can be used for healing and rebuilding, but also for exacerbating hate and conflict.

The History of History Education in South Africa

Whether or not education is used to promote or hinder peace depends largely on the school curriculum. The curriculum will inevitably stress certain themes over others, and give voice to some perspectives but not others. Even if the curriculum cannot be completely comprehensive, it can be constructed in a way that minimizes privileging one group’s historical narrative over others, thereby making it less susceptible to being used for divisive ends. For this to happen, it is essential that the different fragments of post-conflict societies come together to create a common, agreed upon narrative of their nation’s past that they can pass on to future generations. As a report from South Africa’s Department of Education (1995) makes clear:

When all South Africans won equal citizenship, their past was not erased. The complex legacies, good as well as bad, live on in the present. Difficult as it may be to do so, South Africans need to understand each other’s history, culture, values, and aspirations, not turn away from them, if we are to make the nest of our common future.[7]

South Africa’s own experience reveals the various challenges of effectively using history education in a post-conflict context. During apartheid, history textbooks gave faulty (or false?) information that supported white privilege, including the idea that neither white nor black people inhabited South Africa before the other; instead, both groups settled the region at the same time.[8] After apartheid ended, history as an academic subject became largely deemphasized in schools. Although the government cited insufficient funds as the reason for the neglect,[9] scholars contend that the reasons were actually more political in nature.[10] The newly installed South African government wanted to ease tensions between black and white South Africans, and thereby tended to gloss over history education in attempt to foster reconciliation.[11] Polakow-Suransky notes that this underplaying of history in schools stood in sharp contrast to the simultaneous efforts of the government to expose the truth among the general public through the TRC.[12] Even more curious, is that very little of the information obtained through TRC made its way into South Africa’s history curriculum.[13] Thus, there seemed to be on one hand, a willingness on the part of the government to uncover the truth of apartheid times, but on the other hand, a lack of commitment to remember what was uncovered through the TRC.

The new state’s minimal approach towards history education culminated in a shift in the government’s educational policy, known as Curriculum 2005, which was introduced in the late 1900s and fully implemented in 2000.[14] Through Curriculum 2005, the subject of history was reformatted to be part of a wider field of social science and geography. Thus, much was lost in terms of the lessons, values, and substance of history education.[15] Some scholars have suggested that this change came about in part because of bitterness regarding the past. Since many associated South Africa’s history with the narrative of white supremacy that dominated during apartheid, a general disrespect for history after apartheid was not uncommon.[16]<

An even bigger influence for Curriculum 2005, however, was the simple need for the new state to invest in fields that were seen as advantageous for economic growth, such as technology and business. History was seen as irrelevant and therefore, and impractical field of study. Students instead chose to channel their efforts into studying subjects that would help them find a good job and have a better future. Since history was largely cast aside, many schools continued to use history textbooks from apartheid times.[17] Hence, rather than preserving what was learned through the TRC, the little history that South African students learned came from an apartheid perspective.

The South African government’s policy concerning history education again shifted under the leadership of a new minister of education, Kader Asmal. He (she?) promoted a renewed interested and support for history as a subject, but advocated for a narrative of history skewed towards the perspective of black South Africans. Critics have argued that this approach simply reverses the power dynamics and education curriculum that were in play during apartheid.[18] There are also concerns that white students feel estranged by the history curriculum,[19] causing further disinterest and antagonism towards the subject of history. Not only does this endanger history, both as a field and as a shared societal account of the past, but it also potentially exacerbates racial divisions within society.

Regarding history education, Asmal himself has said the following:

There should be no attempts, and we should guard against any attempts, to airbrush… any of the realities of our past. We cannot wish away our history like the French who refused to teach about the Commune of Paris for thirty years, or like the Japanese who until recently obliterated from memory the brutalization of Nanking and the abuse of comfort women…[20]

Although in practice, Asmal seems to prefer a black account of history, he acknowledges the need for an honest, balanced confrontation with the past. The tensions among different groups in South African society, most notably, but not only, between white and black populations, continue to persist and hinder the nation’s ability to reconcile and progress as a unified people. The institutionalization of racism through apartheid influenced the internalized identities of each group, making one group feel superior and the other inferior. This, in turn, affected and still continues to affect today each group’s ability to be productive citizens.[21] Thus, the apartheid of the past continues to influence society today, even years after the system dissolved.

A Shared History and Recommendations

In order for the effects of internalized racism to be effectively addressed, the past must be truthfully and fairly analyzed and remembered for a society to see the influence of racism and work to get rid of it. Hence, preferring one group’s narrative over another is counterproductive to reconciliation and healing. Rather than choosing between historical narratives, South Africans must work together to create a new textbook that includes the many different historical perspectives. This way, students will gain exposure to other sides of the conflict, instead of hearing only their group’s portrayal of the past. A shared historical narrative may initially fuel conflict between the various historians from each group trying to create the text, and, especially if the scholars disagree, the text may not be entirely cohesive. Still, exposure to different perspectives will help students think critically about the past and decrease the chances of continued tension between the groups. A common history is not a comprehensive solution to the problems of racism facing South Africa today. However, it is a significant first step for citizens to expand their understanding of themselves, explore the existing tensions in society, and develop a way to move forward.

If South Africa were to develop a shared history, it would not be the first nation to ever have done so. Shared narratives have been created between Germany and Poland, and between Israel and Palestine, among other examples. Common issues that are encountered in these efforts to reconcile different perspectives of history include serious differences in historical accounts. For example, substantial differences between Israeli and Palestinian scholars kept them from creating a single, agreed upon account of the past. Instead, Israelis and Palestinians simply placed their accounts side by side in a single textbook. The differences can be quite striking. For example, the Israelis refer to the 1948 war as “the War of Independence” whereas the Palestinians refer to the same event as “the Catastrophe” and each side’s narrative views the event in a manner consistent to how they labeled it.[22] The varying accounts is admittedly not convenient, however, it may help foster the critical thinking and analytical skills needed for students to think about their past and its implications for their present situation and future direction as a society.

A greater problem regarding joint narratives than different accounts of the past is that teachers as well as students may reject the curriculum. If teachers and students reject the other narrative as “propaganda,”[23] then it will not be taken seriously as a point of view and will ultimately not achieve its educational purpose. Even if teachers support the joint narrative, they may be unprepared to constructively deal with student opposition to the material. Thus, it is important not only to have textbook reform in schools, but also to provide teacher training[24] to introduce teachers to the material, give them effective teaching methods appropriate to the material as well as advise them on how to handle potential challenges that they may encounter in class. Finally, the subject of history must be given greater emphasis and legitimacy in the school system. Although the government has taken some steps in this direction, it must do more to encourage students to place more value in history. As Polakow-Suransky points out, “… rewriting textbooks is only half the battle; making sure that students actually have an opportunity to read them is another story altogether.”[25] Since history often gets overlooked compared with other, more apparently practical subjects, a more fundamental change in the school system and the value it places (or does not place) on history needs to occur. Along with textbook revision and teacher training, students need to be convinced to take the classes.

Mamphela Ramphele plainly asserts the legacy of apartheid and its continued effect on South Africa today. She says:

The ghost of racism should be acknowledged by name. Not in an accusatory manner that may trigger defensive denial, but in the same way in which families come together to acknowledge mutual hurt and make amends. Ghosts need to be appeased and turned into acknowledged ancestors. Ancestors bring blessings and protection to the present and pave the way to the future.[26]


This paper examines the need for and challenges of history education reform in South Africa and makes some recommendations for change. Although history education is only part of a larger picture of transition into peace, it plays a significant role in helping people understand the perspective of others, the various interpretations of the past and their implications for the present. An inclusive approach to history is not necessarily an easy task, but it is an important one for healing from a violent past and moving on to a more peaceful future.

[1]Tutu as quoted in Ramphele, 2008, p. 46.

[2] Tutu as quoted in Ramphele, 2008, p. 46.

[3]Cole and Murphy, 2009, p. 1.

[4]Smith, 2010, p. 13. 

[5]Cole and Murphy, 2009, p. 1.

[6]Jansen, (1999), p. 58.

[7]Department of Education, 1995 as quoted in Volmink, 2008, p. 192.

[8]Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 2.

[9]Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 2.

[10]Jansen (1999), Polakow-Suransky (2002) and Engelbrecht (2008) are among these scholars. 

[11]Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 522.

[12]Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 3.

[13]Pingel, 2008, p. 194.

[14]De Waal, 2004. p.4 

[15]Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 3.

[16]Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 6-7.

[17]Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 522.

[18]Engelbrecht, 2008, p. 522-523.

[19]Cole and Murphy, 2009, p. 3.

[20]Asmal, as quoted in Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 15.

[21]Ramphele, 2008, p. 73.

[22]Steinberg and Bar-On, 2009, p. 107.

[23]Cole and Murphy, 2009, p. 2.

[24]Cole and Murphy, 2009, p. 2.

[25]Polakow-Suransky, 2002, p. 12.

[26]Ramphele, 2008, p. 79. 

Works Cited
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textbooks after Apartheid. South African Journal of Education,28, 519-541.
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