A ministerial task team established by the basic education department has recommended that history should be a compulsory subject in South African schools from 2023.
The task team was established in 2015 after there was a “perceived lack of knowledge of the country’s history among learners”. The concern among department officials was that in a society still facing transformational challenges from a legacy of apartheid and colonialism, South Africans students are struggling to fully understand the context in which they live.
The team’s mandate was to decide if it is feasible for history to be made compulsory for students from Grade 10 until Grade 12, commonly known as the further education and training (FET) phase. In the current curriculum, the subject is compulsory until Grade 9. After Grade 9, it becomes an elective option for learners.
However in a report titled “Report of the History Ministerial Task Team”, which was released on Tuesday, the task team said history should feasibly become a compulsory subject in 2023 by replacing Life Orientation. The team came to this conclusion after it spent three years investigating how 12 other countries — including Russia, Zimbabwe, and Rwanda — have taught history in schools.
The majority of countries in both Africa and Europe — much like South Africa — offered history as an elective option in high school.
But the task team has recommended that South African learners would benefit from history being taught as a compulsory subject until the end of matric.
“History education at school has the potential to offer explanatory, analytical and interpretative skills. Ideally, learners have to be capable to assess arguments and develop an ability to construct counter-arguments which have to be synthesised within an historical narrative,” the task team said in its report.
The task team, warned however, that a five-year phase-in period is necessary to allow the department time to prepare to make history a compulsory subject.
“The MTT [ministerial task team] recommends the implementation of a phased approach which would allow the DBE [department of basic education] to plan accordingly and for teachers to be trained and retrained in order to begin the process. Hence this phased approach will necessitate that compulsory history be introduced after five years of careful planning,” the report reads.
History has been debated in both schools and universities for the different ways it can be taught and what the curriculum should include or exclude. The report itself highlights that there are issues with the current curriculum that should be revised.
A new history curriculum
In a reflection of the current curriculum, the task team raised a number of concerns namely gender, the celebration of Eurocentric history and the need for more Afrocentric history.
“The curriculum is very much like the post-1994 sanitised interim-curriculum, in that it is very Eurocentric,” the report says.
On gender, the report finds that the current curriculum has excluded women, particularly black women. When prominent historical figures are mentioned in the classroom, the report notes, they are usually men.
“Little attention has been paid to gender issues and the previous emphasison ‘great white’ men have simply been replaced with ‘great black’ men. Furthermore there is an overwhelming focus on the leaders and little attention is paid to the people, including the ordinary people on the street,” the report reads.
The task team also noted that racial tensions are entrenched in the way learners are exposed to South African history, because the content is not geared towards educating learners fully about the struggle of black people against oppression.
“The content appears to reinforce racial division rather than multi-vocality or multi–perspectives. Black and white histories are still compartmentalised. For example, transformation in southern Africa after 1750 is separated from colonial expansion after 1750. Furthermore, the content reinforces a memory of oppression, not of active resistance or agency,” the report reads.
There was significant pushback by African empires, kingdoms, chiefdoms and polities [sic] against the colonial front, but these are never celebrated, nor are the morefluid relationships, interactions and experiences that occurred in these spaces,” the report states.
While there has been some support for history to be made a compulsory subject there has also been backlash. In 2017, Democratic Alliance (DA) said that making history compulsory would hinder learns’ ability to make their own choices.
“At face value, the DA does not support making history compulsory in the FET phase on the grounds that it will curtail learner choices. Learners are already compelled to take their home language, a second language, mathematics/maths literacy and life orientation in this phase, leaving just three electives,” said Gavin Davis, the then DA shadow minister for basic education.
Basic education minister Angie Motshekga, however, has said that she would support history being taught as a compulsory subject.