SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

 issue20EditorialReflecting the 2018 History Ministerial Task Team report on compulsory history in South Africa author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand



Related links

  • On index processCited by Google
  • On index processSimilars in Google


Yesterday and Today

On-line version ISSN 2309-9003
Print version ISSN 2223-0386

Y&T  n.20 Vanderbijlpark  2018 



Difficult relationships: how will compulsory School History and an Ubuntu-based curriculum help nation-building in South Africa?



Reville Nussey

Muckleneuk campus, University of South Africa.




Despite South Africa's shift to democracy, there are ongoingdifficulties in relationships both in the broader society and schools. An official response to this situation was the establishment of the History Ministerial Task Team (MTT), which recommended: that history should be made a compulsory subject for learners in all phases at school; and, that the history curriculum should be revised using an African nationalist paradigm, informed by the framework of Ubuntu. This article uses the findings of a research project conducted in history classrooms at three primary schools in Johannesburg to illustrate some of the difficulties in relationships in the history classroom. It argues that compulsory history at school level will not necessarily be a panacea for South Africa's social ills, especially as this proposal has reawakened fears of how history education was abused during apartheid. A strength of the History MTT's report is that it emphasises the importance of multi-perspectives in history, while favouring an approach that uses an African nationalist paradigm, informed by Ubuntu, to assist with nation-building. However, the notion of Ubuntu needs to be reconstituted, and when applied in conjunction with reconciliation pedagogy, it provides an alternative way, during teacher development workshops, for in-service history teachers to reflect on their own residual prejudices about "the other", so that, in turn, they are able to facilitate meaningful changes in relationships in the history classroom. This approach might be applicable not only in South Africa, but also to history teachers in post-conflict countries which experience similar problems.

Keywords: Compulsory history; In-service history teachers; Multi-perspectives; Nation-building; Reconciliation pedagogy; Ubuntu.




Relationships in South African schools in the democratic era have revealed both continuities and challenges, as teachers and learners have grappled with the effects of political and social changes in the broader society on schools (Vandeyar, 2010). The shift to a democratic dispensation in 1994 did not lead to an overnight change in social awareness. There have been numerous examples which show the ongoing social and economic inequalities in South Africa, including overt and systemic racism entrenched in our schools, which continue two decades after the official end of apartheid.

One of the official responses to the ongoing problem of social divisions in South African society was to appoint a History Ministerial Task Team (MTT) in 2015 to investigate whether history should become a compulsory subject in the school curriculum, as "young people do not appreciate our country's history.. .and history is necessary to inspire the psyche of the nation" (Report of the History Ministerial Task Team for the Department of Basic Education [MTT], 2018:8). The final report recommended "that history should be made compulsory at FET [Further Education and Training] phase" (MTT, 2018:130)1. It also suggested that parts of the curriculum needed to change to include "African nationalism [which] is informed by the paradigm of progressive humanism underscored by Ubuntu" (MTT, 2018:46-47).

The idea of making history a compulsory subject at schools as a means towards nation-building has a particularly negative connotation in the South African context (Siebörger, 2016). One of the reasons for this is that during the apartheid era, there was an explicit connection made between history education, nation-building and the National Party. History education was seen as an instrument of propaganda that was used to justify a particular interpretation of the past, namely, that of the Afrikaner nationalists, and the result was history education that focused on an exclusive group and the result was that it "fomented hatred and conflict" (McCully, 2012:47). This has meant that in the democratic era, any attempt to link history education to a particular view of nation-building is viewed with suspicion in South Africa, and the call to make history compulsory in all phases in schools has reawakened this fear (Davids, 2016; Jansen, 2018). In addition, these suggested changes to South Africa's history school curriculum raise the following questions that this article will attempt to answer. First, will the compulsory study of history necessarily change social relationships in the classroom, and help with nationbuilding? Secondly, what role could Ubuntu play in this process? Finally, what are the implications for the development of in-service history teachers if history is made a compulsory subject?


In order to explore possible answers to these questions, this article uses and reflects on some of the results of research conducted in three primary schools in Johannesburg, South Africa during 2009-2011, where a teacher educator observed between eight to sixteen history lessons in the primary school classroom and interviewed eight teachers. One of the aims of this research was to understand whether there were any long term effects on these teachers' practice of having done an oral history task on "Life before and after 1994", which formed the basis of a cooperative learning assignment when they were second year pre-service teachers doing a compulsory history methodology course. This course was part of their Bachelor of Education degree at the University of the Witwatersrand School ofEducation (WSoE). One ofthe aims ofthis assignment was to expose the students to the research process involved in oral history tasks and the pedagogy of cooperative learning. But there was another aim, that is, to address the issue of social divisions among the pre-service teachers that the teacher educator had observed in the lecture room.

A result of this oral history and cooperative learning assignment was that it started a process of breaking down social barriers among the students, and between the students and the teacher educator. It also led to a research project, which aimed to understand what had changed and why, as well as the development of a conception of a reconciliation pedagogy. By following a few of these pre-service teachers into the classroom once they became inservice history teachers in the intermediate phase primary school classroom, the following research questions were posed: Did the doing of this oral history and cooperative learning assignment at university have any effects on these teachers' practice once they were teaching in their own history classrooms? Secondly, what were the challenges and successes for in-service teachers adapting the university assignment to their primary school classrooms? Thirdly, what did the classroom observations reveal about the state of social relationships in history classroom at this level (Nussey, 2012)? For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on the third question, as a previous article (Nussey, 2017) has dealt with the first two questions.

This research was conducted prior to the call to make history compulsory throughout the school curriculum, but it raises important issues, which sheds light on whether the compulsory study of history necessarily affects relationships in the classroom in a positive manner. All the teachers in this research studied history at tertiary level as a result of a compulsory history methodology course. History, as part of social sciences, is a compulsory course for all learners in the intermediate phase at schools too. But the examples used in this article will focus on the teachers' interactions with their learners during the classroom observations, as a way to highlight some of the issues with social relationships in history classrooms.


Data collection and research methodology

The research sample was the result of purposive random sampling, as former history pre-service teachers from the WSoE who were now in-service history teachers at primary schools, were contacted and requested to participate in this research project. Ethical clearance to conduct this research was granted by the WSoE's ethics committee, the Gauteng Department of Education and principals of the schools. Furthermore, all the teachers volunteered to be part of this research project, which focused on the teaching of oral histories in the classroom. The sample consisted of six white teachers and two black teachers. While the majority of the learners were black at schools A and B, which were public schools, at school C, an independent school, there was an even mixture of black and white learners. Two of the schools were located in the northeastern suburbs, and one in the southern suburbs of Johannesburg.

As a direct observer in the classroom, I recorded my observations in a journal, and also interviewed each of the teachers using semi-structured, open-ended questions. These questions drew on the teachers' experiences in the present and past regarding issues such as, the use of oral history in the classroom, as well as their conceptions of identity and how they perceived relationships in their classrooms. The main focus of the project was on the teachers, so no follow-up interviews were conducted with the learners.

Each teacher was sent a copy of the transcribed interview for their comments or to allow for further clarification, so "member checking" (Harper & Cole, 2012:1) was used. Finally, the journal observations and transcribed interviews were coded thematically, then analysed according to a qualitative framework as part of a narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connolly, 2000). While this is a small research sample, this qualitative research allows for a snapshot into some primary school history classrooms with regards to the state of relationships in this context.

Most of the teachers claimed that relationships were good among their learners and also between themselves and the learners in the classroom. Some of my observations supported this view of harmonious relations in the classroom, although there were numerous incidents that challenged this claim too.


Critical incidents and interviews2

These critical incidents (Tripp, 1993:24) contested the teachers' views that relationships were good in the classrooms. They occurred during the classroom observations while the learners were discussing the results of their oral history interviews about life during apartheid with the teachers, and were raised with the teachers during their respective interviews.

At school B: a critical incident happened when a white boy shook his head to indicate a negative response when Kagiso3, a black teacher, requested volunteers to read their oral histories aloud. During an interview, I discussed this incident with Kagiso, and he explained that the reason for the boy's reaction was due to the derogatory content in his interview, and not that the boy felt shy to read it aloud. It appeared that either the boy made the choice to be silent rather than offend his peers or that he was scared to share his interview. The reason for the latter choice might be that he feared a negative reaction from his peers.

This critical incident showed the importance of being aware of the hurtful effects some of the oral histories could have on relationships, but it also showed the importance of a teacher creating a safe space in the classroom. While it might be argued that the teacher should respect the learner's choice to remain silent (as the teacher did in this case), a counter argument is that the silence about this past needs to be broken, so that a critical discussion takes place about what is being passed on via the oral histories. One of the reasons for this concern is that oral history tasks can be used as a vehicle to pass on trauma and prejudices between the generations (Hoffman, 2005; Jansen, 2009). There needs to be a process to address the way prejudices and trauma inform oral histories, so that these issues can be made explicit and dealt with as they arise.

At school C, another critical incident occurred when a few boys taunted another as a "Bushman" after he reported that his father said only a few young people went to school, because most were traditional and chose to go hunting. Joyce, a white teacher, dismissed the incident as an "inappropriate joke", although she did not "think it was a racial thing because they're all black". There is an ongoing debate as to what to call the indigenous first nation in South Africa: "San" is a term favoured by most historians, although "Bushmen" is being reclaimed as a positive term by some leaders and individuals within these communities (Hromnik, 2007:22). But the use of "Bushman" is still controversial, and it was used in a derogatory way by the boys. Joyce's view that the incident was not "racial" on the basis that the boys involved were "all black" was debatable, because there was a negative reference to difference in the original remark. In addition, this incident illustrated prejudice among these learners, as well as lack of awareness on the teacher's part.

During the class observations and interviews, some of the teachers' choice of words to describe "the other" also showed a lack of awareness. For example, at school C during Robyn's lesson, she described black people as "people of colour", which changed to "African" and then to "non-white". When questioned about the use of the term "non-white" during the interview after her lesson, Robyn responded that she did not want to "insult any of the children in my class ... and to make them upset". Yet, she acknowledged that she had changed words to describe black people during the lesson, although she had not "thought about" it before.

The term "non-white" was a blanket term used by apartheid authorities to refer to black people, whereas the term "black" was defined by Bantu Stephen Biko, a Black Consciousness leader, as referring to all the inhabitants in South Africa who were legally discriminated against by the apartheid regime, and who rejected this discrimination (Biko, 1971). This was an explicit rebuttal of apartheid's racial categories, namely, where black people were divided into African, Coloured and Indian, and Biko's definition regarding black people has continued to be used in South African discourse. There were many teachers in this research who used the term "non-white" without any awareness of either the historical origin of the word or how inappropriate its continued use was in a democratic present.

The above incidents reveal that there is a strong link between the difficulties in relationships in the broader society to those inside the classroom, which is hardly surprising, as a classroom can be seen as a microcosm of the broader society. But these incidents also showed contradictions between how the teachers saw their relationships with their learners and what their actions and words revealed. The words used to describe "the other", especially by the white teachers, demonstrated a lack of awareness of their own prejudices. There are a number of possible explanations, such as, these examples are evidence of a "hidden history curriculum" (Hues, 2011) at schools, and the continuity of white privilege (Conradie, 2015; Ellwanger, 2017). This situation is complex: it seems that there is an ongoing discomfort around racial identity in the present, based on what happened during apartheid, which needs to be addressed explicitly if there is any possibility of fostering positive relationships in the history classroom.

Teachers' backgrounds and attitudes

The teachers who participated in this research grew up during the last years of apartheid, and the majority of them attended schools that were desegregated. But this contact between the different races as children did not necessarily mean that the teachers were unaffected by the language that was used to construct racial identities during apartheid. This observation challenges "the most widely accepted theory of positive intergroup relations, namely, Allport's (1954) contact theory" (Slavin, 1985:11), namely, that if diverse groups come into contact with one another, then "relations between members of groups who have not previously interacted will improve following direct interpersonal interaction" (Miller & Harrington, 1990:48). It also appeared that most of the white teachers' attitudes (as reflected in the language they used) did not shift substantially once they returned to schools as adults and taught classes that consisted of mainly black learners.

Walton (2013:1181) has suggested another possibility to explain these "contradictory attitudes", which was based on her research with learners and inclusive education. She argued that these "contradictory attitudes do not have to be explained away, but can be understood as young people expressing both a "discursive commitment to equality" (Young, 1990:124) and a "residual prejudice" (Fricker, 2007:39) that prevails in society." The contradiction here is between holding a genuine belief in equality for everyone, yet simultaneously harbouring a prejudice, which operates below the surface of one's awareness, and comes from the broader society. I have no doubt that the majority of teachers I observed were committed to fostering positive relationships among their learners, and between the learners and themselves. As Robyn stated, it was not her intention to "insult any of the children in my class". Yet the examples from the critical incidents and interviews with the teachers suggested that there are underlying problems with relationships in the primary school history classroom.

Compulsory history education and teacher development

These examples from the classroom observations and interviews showed that the studying of history by these teachers at tertiary level did not necessarily have much effect on changing their attitudes. Weldon (2010) has argued that South African history teachers need to address how their personal bio