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Baby steps to decolonise schools

It’s time to decolonise the school curriculum, officials in the department of basic education have told Parliament.

Presenting a progress report on the curriculum and assessment policy statement (CAPS), Suren Govender, the department’s chief director for curriculum, told Parliament last month that the curriculum has to be decolonised.

“For example, the way in which history has been written suggests that Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls but, in fact, it existed and people lived there long before Livingstone arrived,” he said.

Last year the concept of decolonised education was thrust into the limelight during student protests at institutions of higher learning.

Govender told the Mail & Guardian that the issue came up during discussion on the progress report. He said the department did not have a specific policy on decolonisation, adding: “Neither do we have in our policy documents a definition for it. But the whole issue of decolonisation is implicit in the principles we have been using from 1999 to develop the curriculum and to review and revise it.

“There’s definitely a need [to decolonise] and we started to address that need as early as 1999 when we started decolonising the very first curriculum we had, Curriculum 2005.”

He quoted the example of the history curriculum, saying that it had been changed.

“That’s part of the decolonisation, correcting the presentation of knowledge and the exclusion of knowledge and information. If you look at history textbooks prior to the 1990s, you would not see the struggle for freedom, the liberation struggle.”

A task team was appointed by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to look into what constitutes history and what aspects of it should be included in the new syllabus. The team has finalised its interim progress report and was in the process of handing it to Motshekga.

Said Govender: “We have done so much to decolonise history but we don’t feel our job is done. Our history is divided into South African history with an equal emphasis on European history and international history. As part of the decolonisation process, some of the critical questions we could be raising would be whether we should move away from focusing on European history and move towards Asia.”

Plans to decolonise the curriculum, which have been earmarked for implementation between 2020 and 2030, include:

• The introduction of Kiswahili as an optional language for study after school hours;

• The introduction of indigenous knowledge systems and practices;

• Extending the policy of teaching pupils in their mother tongue from grades 1 to 3 to grades 4 to 6; and

• Making history compulsory at schools.

He said issues up for discussion on English literature included whether the emphasis on Shakespeare should continue at schools. “For how long will we continue using the drama that comes from England when you do have dramatic works by local writers?”

There could also be the option of allowing schools to continue studying Shakespeare’s plays as well as a choice of studying a play by a local writer or a writer from Africa. “We haven’t taken any decision but these are up for discussion that have to be considered in the future.”

Language remains central to any shifts in the basic education curriculum. Govender told Parliament that teaching learners in their mother tongue was important, adding: “The [department of basic education] is approaching it responsibly where pilots are underway and material is being tested.

“The workload of teachers, the problems in rural schools and the inadequate teacher-pupil ratio is acknowledged.”

Zola Wababa, director of the University of Fort Hare-based isi-Xhosa national lexicography unit, said any move to decolonise the curriculum had to include the promotion of indigenous African languages as mediums of instruction.

Nomalungelo Gina, chairperson of Parliament’s education portfolio committee, welcomed the idea of introducing mother-tongue instruction in grades 4 to 6 and the first step was to make sure that the incremental introduction of African languages at schools was achieved.

“For example, we don’t have enough teachers for Venda and Xitsonga. Let’s first introduce African languages incrementally.”

Naledi Mbude, director of the language in education policy unit in the Eastern Cape education department, agreed, saying: “Currently, we have a curriculum that is based primarily on a Eurocentric model. Even the language used in the teaching of that curriculum is mainly English, which is not spoken by the majority.”

Wababa, who was a member of the research group responsible for drawing up the incremental introduction of African languages strategy that is being rolled out at schools, said the current curriculum was “too Westernised. We need to blend it with African thoughts of doing things.”

He cited as examples “knowledge of some of the herbs we use to cure diseases as well as the kind of food we eat as Africans to neutralise diabetes”.

“Children should also learn about African beliefs and cultures such as a cow being slaughtered to accompany the soul of a person who dies. Children should be allowed to debate about African and Western beliefs.”

The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on education, Gavin Davis, suggested that the curriculum should be distinctly South African, reflecting the country’s “rich experience and diversity”.

“The department has not made it clear at this stage precisely what decolonisation of the CAPS curriculum entails,” he said. “Once we have this clarity, we will be in a position to express a view on the department’s plans.”

Davis also welcomed the idea of indigenous knowledge systems and practices being taught alongside other types of knowledge systems. “It is important for learners to emerge from school with a full and rounded knowledge of the world around them.”

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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