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Erasing history: eight years after apartheid, school segregation persists and history is out of style. (South Africa in Focus).

On January 29, 1995, the Washington Post devoted its front page to the newly integrated South African schools. Comparing this event to desegregation in the U.S. South in the 1960s, the Post wrote with admiration, "Not a politician has stood in the schoolhouse door. Not a national guardsman has been summoned. Barely a ripple of white flight has materialized. January is back-to-school month in South Africa...and the quiet has been thundering." But that silence would soon be broken.

Although schools are now nominally open to all, many whites and wealthy blacks are fleeing to private "independent" institutions and wealthier public ones. And while the apartheid legacy of racially segregated and stratified education has now given way to the new ideal of equal educational opportunity for all, most high school students--whose earliest memories include Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990--know virtually nothing about their country's troubled past. The government is finally beginning to address this rampant historical ignorance after years of looking the other way. But early predictions of success for their idealistic program, like the Post's declaration of educational harmony, may be premature.

White Flight

The quiet country town of Porgietersrus became ground zero in the battle for desegregation in South Africa when Alson Matukane, a black official from the provincial government, attempted to enroll his children in the all-white Potgietersrus Primary School on January 11, 1996. Matukane and other black families were turned away by angry Afrikaner parents who argued that integration threatened to undermine the school's rich Afrikaner cultural tradition and linguistic autonomy. The case was left to the courts, and on February 22, 16 black students were escorted into Potgierersrus Primary under the protection of a Supreme Court order and a phalanx of policemen.

However, only 20 of the school's 700 white pupils chose to join them. And the Afrikaner parents protesting outside began to plan a private school for their children.

While integration of public schools has progressed at a steady pace since 1994, many white parents, like those in Potgietersrus, have removed their children and sent them to private "independent" schools. Old-fashioned racists see themselves as "protecting Afrikaner culture." The more liberal justify their decisions based on what they see as "rapidly dropping educational standards," often a euphemism for "black."

Either way the result is clear. According to the Department of Education, in 1997 only one percent of public schools remained all-white. However, that same year 68 percent were all-black, and only 28 percent of schools could be described as "integrated."

While black access to formerly white schools is ensured by law, white flight from those schools has become an equally prominent feature of the South African educational landscape. According to an Education Foundation report, the enrollment of black students in public schools increased dramatically, from approximately 8 million in 1991 to over 10 million in 1997. But this 24 percent increase was mirrored by a 21 percent decrease in white enrollment.

The transition from the apartheid-era Bantu education ideology, explicitly designed by H.F. Verwoerd to keep blacks from ever glimpsing the "greener pastures" of white South Africa, to an equal access system has been fraught with complications. The influx of an undereducated population into schools that were designed to exclude them has not gone smoothly. Illiteracy rates are high and education levels often do not correlate with age when privileged white children and poorly educated blacks are thrown into the same classroom.

And then there is the issue of curriculum. In a country where schools were for so long designed to enforce and perpetuate the status quo, revising the curriculum to reflect a democratic multicultural ethic has been no easy task. The original post-apartheid blue-print for a national curriculum is perhaps best known for its progressive language policy, which upended the apartheid-era Afrikaans language requirements that led to the infamous 1976 Soweto uprising and replaced them with recognition of 11 official languages.

The Past is Another Country

More significant was the new curriculum's approach to history. The subject was diluted into an all-purpose mishmash of geography and social sciences, which stripped it of its hard content. Critics of the immediate post-apartheid government have attributed this to a deliberate suppression of historical consciousness to promote national reconciliation.

Bryan Rostron of the New Statesman (UK) argued: "The danger is that we are being asked not just to forgive, as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu urge; but also to forget." June Bam of the University of Stellenbosch put it in starker terms, characterizing the situation as "a betrayal of democracy and transparency through conspiracies of silence, collective lies, denial of conflict, and the promotion of tunnel-vision consensus.

University of Cape Town professor Rob Sieborger, a leading advocate of revitalizing history in the schools, explains that years of propagandist history mandated by the apartheid government led many to disdain the subject altogether. When the ANC government took power in 1994, many believed that it was "better not to have history at all than to have that kind of history again," said Sieborger. As a result, history began to slide.

Dwindling enrollments have prompted some schools to drop history as a subject altogether, and many other schools have seriously curtailed their offerings under the rubric of history.

Teachers and students alike complain that new textbooks, presenting a fresh new perspective, have been slow in coming. The decline has been most serious in Afrikaans-language schools, because no new textbooks have been published since 1994. As a result, in one town in the Orange Free State -- the rural Afrikaner heartland of the country -- only 3 of 24 schools offer history through the senior (matric) year.

The need to rewrite and resurrect history has recently become a priority of the Department of Education under the leadership of former history teacher and new Minister of Education Kader Asmal, who has launched the ambitious "South African History Project." The project, led by erst-while government critic June Bam, is funded by a $500,000 Carnegie Foundation grant: its goal is to resurrect history to the status of a compulsory subject. Speaking to an audience of illustrious anti-apartheid heroes, renowned academics, and many journalists, Asmal insisted that "the production and study of history is of inestimable value in teaching us about the relevance of the past, and its bearing on the creation of a more liberated present. We should guard against any attempts to airbrush our of our historical consciousness any of the realities of our past."

As promising as this sounds, Asmal and Bam still must contend with many obstacles. Persistent segregation complicates the teaching of history, as curriculum becomes increasingly dependent on local views and preferences. In Pretoria's Afrikaans schools, even the most progressive teachers fear that angry white parents, some of whom served the old apartheid state, will complain about content. Moreover, the lack of funding to purchase new textbooks has left many students mired in the lies of the past and teachers scrambling to create their own sources.

South African teachers no longer have to deal with fears that informers may be lurking in their classrooms, waiting to report them to the Special Branch because of what or whom they are teaching. But the country has far to go in integrating and equalizing schools. Hillview High, a newly integrated school on the outskirts of Pretoria, may be a good place to start. There, history teachers were shocked to find that most of their students, 70 percent of whom are black, did not even know who black consciousness leader Steve Biko was.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a writer at American Prospect magazine, spent two months at University of Pretoria in 2001.
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Author:Polakow-Suransky, Sasha
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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