You don't fool us with your history plan, Minister

Ideas

You don't fool us with your history plan, Minister

No matter how much she denies it, the aim of compulsory history is to get rid of critical citizens

Columnist

Ms Baartman teaches a Grade 11 history class on early slavery in the Cape. After taking her class on trip to the Iziko Slave Lodge the pupils are taught skills for analysing original manuscripts, which they have in hand, depicting the lives of slaves in the colony. They not only learn about the political economy of slavery in the 17th century (big picture) but also the connection to ordinary slave lives within that system (the many small pictures). In small groups the pupils identify the different classes of slaves, including free and baptised slaves, and what social and economic purposes were served by such division. Later the pupils are shown the movie Krotoa and are required to write a critical essay on how slave lives are depicted in this movie. For the end of the semester, the pupils are taught and required to use slave records to trace through names (like April and February) the history of one slave family over time. The unit concludes with a discussion on modern-day slavery and the continuities with slavery in the past.
Minister Angie Motshekga was understandably defensive in launching the Report of the History Ministerial Task Team Report at the end of May. The plan to make history compulsory in senior high school was not ruling party propaganda, she insisted, before anyone even asked. It was not political expediency, she continued. This effort was “in no way an attempt to rewrite history for the ruling elites”. If you believe such nonsense you deserve to have compulsory history shoved down your throat. This is pure, propagandistic, ruling-party nonsense.
Forget inclusivity, let alone truth, in content or symbolism. The large photograph on the front cover of the Ministerial Task Team Report betrays the official lie that this process will “guide us towards a History that includes all of us”. That cover photo projects a picture of black African youth in traditional clothing doing a traditional dance. It’s about Angie’s people not about Indian, coloured, white South Africans. Black nationalists are no different from white nationalists—their goal is to impress their version of history on the people in the same way that they will not rest until every major airport is named after an African nationalist. The white nationalists named Cape Town airport after the scoundrel DF Malan; the black nationalists will almost surely rename it after one of the Mandelas. To hell with the rest of the population: this is their time.
Forget a nuanced account of history that includes critical stories about atrocities committed by liberation movements in the otherwise noble quest for freedom. No, the enemy comes in one form, as the minister let slip in a grammatically clumsy paragraph that was intended to make the counter-point: “The apartheid rulers will henceforth be presented as folk devils.” If Angie Motshekga is to be believed, that this attempt to make history compulsory throughout school is not propaganda, then South Africa will be the first country on the planet not to use historical narratives to shore up the regime in power.Why compulsory history now and not in 1994? Quite simple. The idea of forcing every senior pupil to do history first emerged in 2012 when the government was under duress. Then President Jacob Zuma was in full sway raiding the state. The police had just killed 34 miners at Marikana and seriously injured 78 more. The 2012 World Report on South Africa lamented corruption, growing social and economic inequalities, and partisan appointments at every level of government. And a third of South Africans were unemployed in that year even as reports came in of a school system in rapid decline. This was the ideal time to inculcate into the minds of innocent youth what the minister at the history launch called “values, attitudes and behaviours that contribution to nation-building …” In other words, to breed patriotic followers not critical citizens. Which is also a good time to remember Samuel Johnson’s quip, that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
At least the Rwandan government was honest. It completely obliterated the teaching of history in schools. Their notion of “a usable past”, as historians call it, was to pretend there was no past. Why dredge up for learning the horrific genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of Hutus? South Africans will not be spared this last trick of Angie Motshekga’s reign as minister.
In the end, the practical problems of teaching history like Ms Baartman will collapse the system. Roughly 6,484 history teachers graduate each year — there are more than 26,000 schools — and more than half of those are from Unisa which means they have not had the rigour of face-to-face teaching and supervision. The notion that critical teachers can be “trained” to teach like Ms Baartman, even with much more money and obliging schools of education from our universities, is to deny the current malaise in the education system and the repeated evidence from studies that show our model of teacher-training is not working.
What the minister should be doing is ensuring every school pupil can read and do mathematics. That every preschool child has access to quality education. And that the 500,000 youth who drop out in the school cycle between grades 2 and 12 are kept in school. Either that, or we’re all history.

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