‘The past,” Faulkner famously wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Across the country, young South Africans have been expressing a similar sentiment. From #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall to #EndOutsourcing, they shout that they are not quite free and that the past is not gone.
Maryke Bailey, an educator, believes that good history teaching provided at least some of the protesters with the critical thinking skills necessary to join these movements (“History is our schools’ power tool”). My research in two former Model C schools leads me to question that assumption.
In 2010 and 2011 I conducted daily observations in 17 history classrooms as young South Africans at racially diverse schools were taught the history of apartheid.
I also interviewed 160 of these pupils and 10 of their teachers. I found that pupils were being taught about the past in ways that were not relevant to understanding current systems of racial inequality.
Educators wove a narrative, which I call “both sides of the story”, into their teaching of apartheid history. This narrative suggests another side to apartheid: rather than being merely a story of black victims and white oppressors, it is also a story of white victims and black perpetrators. This blurs the racial coding of victims and perpetrators and sidelines discussion about beneficiaries, leaving the structural dimensions of apartheid invisible.
If race does not denote victimhood or culpability, then pupils are less likely to make racialised claims about the continued effects of apartheid on their lives. Furthermore, by focusing on individuals and their choices, teachers muted discussions about the privilege and disadvantage allocated to individuals by racial grouping.
My study revealed that teachers feared that learning about apartheid could cause conflict in their classrooms. One told me that the purpose of teaching about apartheid “is to use the wrongs of the past to try and unite the kids. I think if you get the kids to understand why we’re teaching apartheid in the first place, and you show the involvement of all the races in all the different sides, then I think you have managed to teach it properly.”
Teachers did not pull these narratives from thin air. They remind one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where nation-building myths said we all, black and white, suffered because of apartheid. By focusing on individual perpetrators of human rights violations from across the political spectrum rather than social structures, the TRC also created a moral equivalence between apartheid’s enforcers and its resisters.
Like the educators in my study, the TRC tried to create a boundary between “then” and “now” while trying to suppress divisions between “us” and “them”.
These narratives are powerful. If we disconnect the past from the present, we also delegitimise claims-making. Such logic surely underpinned Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s declaration last year that black South Africans under the age of 40 should not be eligible for free housing because they “have lost nothing” as a result of apartheid.
An educator told me that, if the apartheid section is “not taught correctly, it can lead to more division [in the classroom] … But if it’s taught correctly, it should not do that. It should do the opposite.”
At schools, it did indeed do the opposite. Black students were less likely to label their experiences racist and reproduced aspects of “both sides of the story” in interviews.
Four years later, across university campuses, members of this “born-free” generation have boldly challenged the idea that we have dealt with the past. One placard summed it up best: “Our parents were sold a dream in 1994,” it proclaimed. “We’re just here for the refund.”
These students debunk the notion that 1994 was a break between past and present. They point to the continuation of a racialised system of advantages and disadvantages. And they cause conflict – with university administrators, the state and other students.
When people make connections between past and present, there is the potential for conflict. But conflict also does things. It makes fees fall, or at least freeze. It ends outsourcing. It forces a national conversation about race. Denying the effects of the past may suppress conflict, but it also legitimates an unequal status quo.
How did young people learn to make these connections? I am not sure. For those educated in former Model C schools, I do not think they learned to do so explicitly in history class. Instead, I think their lived realities provided the raw material for their historical consciousness.
For black students, these realities include having their very experiences and perceptions invalidated and de-legitimised as they fail to produce what Eusebius McKaiser calls the “racism receipts” demanded of them in white-dominated spaces. But perhaps Bailey is partially right: maybe history classes provided young people with critical thinking skills. And maybe they used these skills to challenge the very history lessons that taught them to ignore the past.
Dr Chana Teeger holds a National Research Foundation postdoctoral fellowship in the University of Johannesburg’s sociology department and a PhD from Harvard.