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School textbooks present Mandela as ‘messianic myth’

The “mega myth” of former president Nelson Mandela as “messiah” and saviour is actively being strengthened in school history textbooks through misrepresentations and silences on the icon’s political role in South Africa, an ex-University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) student told a Durban conference on Thursday.

“Misrepresentations allow Mandela to be credited with an exaggerated importance in the historical narrative and to bolster various idyllic representations of him,” Adrian van Niekerk, said presenting his Master’s thesis at the South African Education Research Association 2014 conference.

Van Niekerk analysed three grade 12 history textbooks whose names, he told the Mail & Guardian, he could not reveal but which he said were “very popular”. He did his research last year and submitted his thesis to the university in April this year.

“All criticisms of Mandela, all his flaws which made him human have been silenced.”

He said Mandela was credited in the textbooks with convincing the ANC to suspend the armed struggle “when in fact it was Joe Slovo… who broached the issue with the ANC’s national executive committee”.

“Mandela is represented as having a policy of reconciliation, when in actual fact it had long been the policy of the ANC”.

There were many silences in the textbooks on what some considered Mandela’s flaws such as his “unilateral decision to enter negotiations with the apartheid government” which United Democratic Front leader, Allan Boesak, “heavily criticised” because “there was no greater sin than not consulting your colleagues (Sampson, 1999)”.

The “poor” response of Mandela’s government to Aids as well as his connection to violence was not mentioned.

“Although the Shell House massacre [1994] features in all the textbooks under study, Mandela’s role in the massacre has been ignored.”

Because of these misrepresentations and silences, the textbooks are therefore successful in presenting him as fostering a “messianic myth” about the former president.

He has been represented like this because South Africa was looking for a new national identity, based on a ‘new history’ with new heroes”.

“Post-1994 the ANC has used various nation building exercises in which Nelson Mandela has been a key player”, van Niekerk said.

But these constructions were “concerning”, he said, because textbooks are a powerful tool in the classroom; many teachers “follow them by the letter”, and they are the only history book many learners will read.

“When I did this I was very worried because Mandela is up there… [but] we want to see… the man, not the myth. Mandela as a youngster actually stole cattle, he wasn’t always the leader he became, he had a bad temper… his contribution was massive… [but] we have to give him his humanity back,” he told the conference.

In the following session Carol Bertram, a senior lecturer in the school of education at UKZN, said, “there has not been one published study on how teachers use textbooks”.

“You have this Mandela myth… how do teachers teach about this?”

She, with another lecturer from the same department, Johan Wassermann, gave a presentation on studies that analysed history textbooks in South Africa.

There were almost no studies done on this topic in the seventies and eighties but as Apartheid ended “there was more confidence to critique the dominant Afrikaans history in textbooks”.

“There has been a huge increase in textbook analysis that has been published in accredited journals from 2000 onwards… There were nine studies published between 2000 and 2009, and eleven in the last five years. This increase since 2000 is probably linked to the revision of the South African curriculum and an interest in analysing what history textbooks would look like in the ‘new’, democratic South Africa,” he said.

Bertram said the focus in these studies was mostly on nationalism and race.

In terms of the topic of nationalism, earlier studies analysed the “absence of black nationalism” in textbooks and in recent years it had been about the “lack of Afrikaans nationalism” in textbooks.

The Times reported in June that the South African Democratic Teachers Union wanted history textbooks to be rewritten to include less about European history and more about local struggles

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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