How can History Education Help with Dealing with a Difficult Past? – Part II

This is the second part of a blog post about a study visit to Cape Town, South Africa. It is the third article in a series of reports and blog posts on Dealing with the Past in History Education. The first part of this blog post is available here. For more information about the project, visit the project page: Dealing with the Past in History Education.

Classrooms of Hope

Working with Dylan Wray from Shikaya, a “non-profit civil society organization that recognises the crucial role that teacher can play in deepening and strengthening South Africa’s democracy,” the IJR produced a series of case studies (written by Wray) entitled “Classrooms of Hope: Case studies of South African teachers nurturing respect for all.”

"Classrooms of Hope" by Dylan Wray (image provided by Michael Robinson)

Case Study 3 on Discrimination and Racism is a good example of the tools given to teachers on how to deal with a possibly uncomfortable situation in their classroom. In this example the black students felt that the coloured students did not want to interact with them because they believed the coloured students saw them as “lower class.” The next part of the curriculum goes through what the school and teacher did to rectify this problem, how the students responded to the teacher’s actions, and ends with reflections on the overall issue.

The many case studies in the training provide specific scenarios for new and experienced teachers to work through how best to deal with similar issues that might arise in their own classrooms. This allows the teachers who go through the training to learn, discuss, and debate best practices in dealing with these issues that have their roots in South Africa’s apartheid past. It is by leaning and using these tools that help teachers confront and effectively deal with these issues in constructive ways with their students.

In the conclusion of the “Classrooms of Hope” it states, “We spend a lot of energy trying to ensure that learners leave school as respectful, compassionate and non-racist democratic citizens. Much of the responsibility of this falls on teachers.” This is why teacher Professional Development is one of the key components to successfully being able to answer our core question on history education's role in dealing with a difficult past. Before you teach the history, you must ensure the teachers are well-equipped with the skills, knowledge, and awareness to successfully teach this difficult and recent history.

“We are not doing enough.”

When talking with Dylan Wray, the author of “Classrooms of Hope” and executive director of Shikaya, he laid out the sobering reality of eduction in South Africa as well as teaching history in South Africa. According to Dylan, South Africa graduates 600,000 students annually, but a staggering 1 million students drop out of school before even graduating. Thus, the impact that history education can have on the overall populous is hampered with the large amount of drop-outs who will never receive the history education they so desperately need. Compounding this problem is the lack of importance placed on history education overall in South Africa’s schools.

According to Dylan, history is not a compulsory course in high school but rather an elective course students can opt to take or not take. Dylan bluntly stated, “History is not seen as an important subject. It will not get you a job.” Cecyl Esau, said, “There is a dwindling number of people taking history. How is the younger generation going to learn about the past if the emphasis is only on science, math, and technology?” Therefore, improving the status of history education is just one of the several challenges Dylan, Cecyl, and others are facing in being able to teach all South Africans about their difficult past.

“I think one day there will be a change for the good.”

Change for the good

However, there is some real optimism for the future. Kyle Cameron Kirby, a 12th grade student at Kensington High School, said, “I think one day there will be a change for the good.”
Paola Mwamba followed up Kyle’s comment with, “Not all parents got the education. We come to school we are working and talking with different races. But it is much easier for us than our parents.” The students’ present is much different than their parents’ past. For students like Kyle and Paola, the future of South Africa is one of promise and hope.

District Six

On the last day of our visit to South Africa we visited the District Six Museum. District Six was a residential neighborhood in Cape Town that was designated as an all-white area in the 1970s by the South African apartheid government. This meant that its over 60,000 mostly black residents were forcibly removed from their homes. This traumatic and disgusting event of South Africa’s history is chronicled and memorialized at the District Six Museum.

Mandy Sanger, the museum’s Education Manager, said, “We work with memory in the present. In the present we help people understand how the present is explained by the past. It is nothing natural [as in a natural disaster changing the demographics].” What happened to the people of District Six shows the true inhumanity and cruelty that was apartheid. It is the hope of the museum to have as many school groups visit the museum and participate in its workshops where students confront this difficult history.

 

District Six Museum (Michael Robinson)

The museum struggles with funding and staffing issues. It cannot afford to bring many students from the most disadvantaged schools to the museum, and if they did have the funding for the students, they would need additional funding to have enough staff to run the workshops as well as the museum. For now most of the school groups who are fortunate enough to visit the museum are from the more affluent schools, which have the funding for such field trips. According to Mandy, some of the students at these schools are resistant to participating in the workshops.

The reality is that for some of these students the past is too painful to face. Facing the country’s history as a white South African can be quite difficult, because it can be one of shame and guilt. However, it is with workshops like the ones at District Six and the programs promoted by the IJR and Shikaya that are critical for South Africa to be able to face its difficult past and create an inclusive future for all South Africans.

It has been less than thirty years since the end of apartheid in South Africa, and real change is difficult to achieve in any society. With time and the continued efforts of the courageous people we were fortunate enough to meet and talk with, South Africa has the people, the knowledge, and the dedication to truly become the rainbow nation for all of its people.

Return to the airport.

The last morning, Frank, with his smiling face, is there to pick me up from my hotel to give me a ride to the airport. In the course of my conversations with Frank, I have learned that he has been in South Africa for a little less than twenty years, coming after the end of apartheid from the Republic of Congo. He is married to a South African woman, and they just had their third child two weeks prior to my visit. He sees South Africa as a country of opportunity, a place to make a better living than his native city of Brazzaville, Congo. He owns his own tour company, and he has high hopes and dreams for his future and his children’s future in South Africa. South Africa, as he tells me, has been “very good” to him.
It is right about this time in our conversation, as we are nearing the airport, that Frank stops talking about his future and his family. He points to his left to show me the slums. He said, “This is very sad.” He was right. Seeing the slums for the first time was a bit of a reality check for me. I had arrived a few days earlier at night and did not see the slums. I had spent a day touring the Cape, seeing the beautiful coast and driving through some of South Africa’s more affluent neighborhoods. I had spent the last few days in downtown Cape Town, a bustling metropolitan city like many others I had been in before, but this was my first exposure to seeing people living in slums.
It reminded me of my conversation with Dylan Wray when I had asked Dylan how South Africa was different for his children compared to the South Africa he grew up in. In response he told me what was positive for his children:

My kids go to schools where there is a very good racial mix. My one child is taught by a woman who is a coloured lady. We live in a South Africa where there are protests, and it is legal. We have a judiciary that really works.

My kids are raised today still going to a wealthy school, so their friendships are class-wise the same.

Dylan, also explained how South Africa has not changed enough.

The lady that cleans our house. The gardener that comes twice a week from Mali. The grounds staff… Their (his children’s) interactions of power (with black people) were the same that I had…The Geography hasn't changed. Most black people (that my children interact with) are mainly serving you.

You can drive in Cape Town and back to the airport, leave from this wealth and you will see the shacks….it will look like it did during apartheid.

So as I was getting ready to leave South Africa I was finally faced with its harsh reality: it is a developing country trying to come to grips with its discriminatory racial past while also faced with thousands of its citizens living in the depths of poverty. It is imperative for all South Africans to understand that the scares of apartheid are still very real and shocking. It makes the work of everyone I meet seem more relevant and important.

This is the second part of a blog post about a study visit to Cape Town, South Africa. It is the third article in a series of reports and blog posts on Dealing with the Past in History Education. A report of the visit to South Africa, written by Khaled El Masri, is available here.

How can History Education Help with Dealing with a Difficult Past? – Part I

This is the first part of a blog post about a study visit to Cape Town, South Africa. It is the second article in a series of reports and blog posts on Dealing with the Past in History Education. A report of the visit to South Africa, written by Khaled El Masri, is available here. For more information about the project, visit the project page: Dealing with the Past in History Education.

It is after 9 PM, and I have just arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for the first time. I am met at the airport by a driver that was arranged by my hotel, Frank Mountanda, a smiling, lively, funny, man who also happens to be an immigrant from Congo. As he took my luggage and was putting it in the trunk of the car, I walked up to get into the car, and he started to laugh and said, “You are welcome to drive it you want.” Without thinking I had walked up to the driver’s side of the car, which is on the opposite side of where it is in the United States. I had just done what was normal for me to do, proving that we humans definitely are creatures of habit.

The word "habit" is an interesting word. Its meaning is simple enough: it is something you regularly do that is often times hard to give up or change. It is needing to brush one’s teeth every morning before work, biting one’s finger nails, smoking cigarettes, or benignly walking to the wrong side of the car. Habits are not inherently bad; many are good, but they are most certainly difficult to change. We get used to doing a thing, and it becomes common practice. It is just what we do.

What if you grow up in a society where the social norms dictate that you separate yourself from people who look different than you, perhaps a place where white people don't use the same public buses or bathrooms as black or colored (mixed-race) people? It is just normal life. How does a society go from changing the mindset of its people so that one group is not superior to all other groups? This has been the challenge of South Africa since ending apartheid— institutionalized racial segregation laws and practices— in the early 1990’s.

While I was visiting the South African Jewish Museum, I talked to Roz Von Zaiklitz, one of the museum’s tour guides and experts, as she reminisced about a story when she first came to South Africa from nearby Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). While standing in front of a sign on the wall entitled "Facing Reality," she tells the story of when she was a young student, barely 18, waiting for the first time for the bus in Cape Town. When the bus stopped in front of her, she did what she always did back home, she started to board it. However, the driver stopped her and said, "Sorry but my job is more important to me than letting you get on this bus." Roz was confused by the driver’s reaction, because all she wanted was to ride the bus to the university. She then saw the driver point to a sign. It said in Afrikaans, "SLEGS NIE-BLANKES," or in English "Non-Whites Only." Roz was trying to board a bus for non-whites, and this was against the law in apartheid South Africa. This was her welcome to South Africa’s reality.

Years after trying to board that bus, in 2000, Roz was standing in line with other museum employees at the opening of the South Africa Jewish Museum. They were in line to welcome their guest of honor, Nelson Mandela, as he was there to officially open the museum. Roz recalls how excited everyone was to meet the great Madiba, the name South Africans use for Nelson Mandela. She said, "We were all crying and smiling" to meet this "larger than life hero" of South Africa.

This brings me to the purpose of the trip to South Africa, which was to interview several South Africans in order to gain some understanding of the important role education plays, particularly history education, in helping the people of South Africa, young and old, deal with the difficult past of living in a post-apartheid South Africa. Joining me on this task was Khaled El Masri, a history educator from Lebanon. Our job was to pose the question, "How can history education help with dealing with a difficult past?"

Our first stop was the IJR, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, where we had the pleasure of working with and interviewing Cecyl Esau, Senior Project Leader for Building Inclusive Societies, and Lucretia Arendse, Project Leader for Education for Reconciliation.  Both of them work in IJR's Sustained Dialogue Programme. Essentially, their jobs are to put into practice the essence of our proposed question. Their work / projects revolve around dealing with South Africa’s difficult past and how to bridge the divide that apartheid created between people of different races.

"Make way for the uncle."

In our first conversation with Cecyl Esau, he relayed a recent story of himself visiting the market. Telling his story, he started by clarifying what he meant when he said "Black South Africans." He stated, "When I say black people in general, I mean black Africans, and coloreds, and Indians." He said in the past "we (meaning Black South Africans) were not spoken of with familiar terms."

I wasn't quite sure what he meant when he said "familiar terms," but as he continued with his story it made perfect sense. While walking through the grocery store he recalls a white mother telling her white daughter to "make way for the uncle." The term "uncle" is used as a respectful term for older South Africans. In the past a white person would almost never have referred to a black person as "uncle." It would have been, in Cecyl's thoughts, too "familiar."

It is not just young white mothers with children changing attitudes toward blacks. According to Cecyl, older whites will now make "small talk," whereas in the past they would be more likely to ignore the black person standing or sitting next to them. Cecyl ends his story saying, "There is some movement when it comes to making overtures to other people, unlike under apartheid."

These are just a few small indications of the positive strides made in South Africa in the past twenty years, but the work Cecyl, Lucretia Arendse, and all the others at IJR do on a daily basis helps to ensure that these small, positive stories translates to a more "fair, democratic, and inclusive" society, as their vision statement states.

Woundedness

One part of Lucretia Arendse’s work deals with creating curriculum for teachers to use in order for them to have these difficult conversations with their students about the apartheid past. The purpose of such lessons is the hope that it will help with achieving the IJR’s mission of promoting reconciliation and applying "human-centered approaches to socio-economic justice."

Teachers need to ask themselves: "What wounds are you carrying that make it difficult for you to be accepting to the other?"

While presenting to teachers, Lucretia and others from IJR became aware that the teachers themselves found teaching lessons about apartheid and reconciliation to be difficult and emotionally challenging. Since most of the teachers grew up in an apartheid South Africa and knew first-hand the cruelty and injustice apartheid inflicted, many of them simply did not have the ability to teach to their students what was meant to seek reconciliation.

Lucretia Arendse of the IJR (Michael Robinson).

Lucretia recalls what teachers would tell her, "We can't give what we do not have."

Lucretia then posed the question, "What wounds are you (the teacher) carrying that make it difficult for you to be accepting to the other?" In order to teach reconciliation, teachers had to face their own "woundedness." Teachers would need more specific training on how to go about dealing with the difficult issues they would face in their classrooms. They needed to practice scenarios that they would face and possible solutions they could enact.

Walking with anger

It is not just teaching teachers in order for them to teach their students. The reality in South Africa is that the student’s parents have the same difficulties and challenges that the teachers face in dealing with their own wounds attributed to the apartheid past. As Lucretia Arendse stated:

There is that inter generational trauma that is passed from parent to child and you wonder why children are prejudiced? How do you, as a school, get your parents on board to come along side you…you are teaching one thing in the classroom and they go home and parents are teaching them another thing.

Create an awareness.. you need to get your parents involved.

Creating a school culture where parents are an integral part of the learning process is not as easy as creating curriculum for teachers. It will require structural changes in school districts and schools to find ways to best meet the needs of their diverse student populations. It will require school leaders and community leaders to work together to find ways to bring all stakeholders together in ways that will help all involved deal with their difficult past so that the future will be one of corporation, mutual respect, and peace.

Lucretia Arendse answered our question on the importance of history education this way:

We have to understand where we come from in order not to go back there. If you are walking with anger or you are walking with shame as a white person then how does that transfer to children. This has to be taught in all subjects. We want learners to understand what was the past, an inclusive perspective of the past.

The past in South Africa just cannot be forgotten or ignored. It is the past that impacts their present and continues to frame their future. For South Africa to reach the reconciliation, hopes, and dreams of the rainbow nation it must be with confronting the difficult history of the past with tough courageous conversations in the schools, in the homes, and in the communities.

This is the first part of a blog post about a study visit to Cape Town, South Africa. It is the second article in a series of reports and blog posts on Dealing with the Past in History Education. A report of the visit to South Africa, written by Khaled El Masri, is available here.

Dealing with the Past in History Education: A Study Visit to Cape Town, South Africa

This report of a study visit to Cape Town, South Africa, is the first in a series of reports and blog posts on Dealing with the Past in History Education. An in-depth discussion of the visit to South Africa, written by Michael Robinson, is available hereFor more information about the project, visit the project page: Dealing with the Past in History Education.

On March 1st, 2017, Michael Robinson and I arrived at one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town, South Africa. This visit was meant to start our study about peace making in one of the model countries, “Dealing with the Past in History Education”.

My first day wasn’t very fruitful. Our contact, Mr. Cecyl Esau, and I were shocked because our first interview was canceled by a voice note after we had waited two and a half hours for the representative of Robben Island to attend the meeting, which was prescheduled by Mr. Cecyl. This limited the study visit to one interview, and we missed important information about how Robben Island was transformed from a prison to a peace figure.

On our second day, March 2nd, my colleague Michael and I conducted our first interview with Mr. Ceycl, Senior Project Leader for Building Inclusive Societies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR). We had a beautiful and detailed introduction from him about South African history and the huge shift from the apartheid to democracy. He talked about the efforts given to ensure that these changes were made. One of the most beautiful examples of Mr. Cecyl’s interview is detailed in Michael’s blog report, which talks about a lady who told her daughter to make way for the uncle.

After this interview Michael and I went to the South Africa Jewish Museum and Holocaust Center. The museum is located just across the street of IJR. We took a small tour, trying to find something that could have been related to our visit. For me it was my first time ever being this close to the holocaust tragedies. After our self-guided tour, we met Roz von Zaiklitz, a guide from the museum, and she shared with us her story in South Africa, which can be found in Michael’s blog report. It is a very interesting to read.

When our break was over we went back to IJR to meet with Lucretia Arendse for a half hour. It was a very good interview; Michael wrote about it in his blog report. Lucretia is the project leader for education and reconciliation to promote peace education in South Africa. Her team develops history resources about the transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy. Their work started by looking through the history curriculum and trying to find out what was really working in the history classrooms and what acts of discrimination were happening. They also examined how they were dealing with what was happening in the classrooms, and if the teachers had special methodologies of their own to deal with discrimination. After starting this project with the cooperation of UNESCO, they were triggered by the following question: As a teacher, when he/she steps into the classroom, how will he/she teach while having to deal with his/her own wounds?  This raised another difficulty, so they decided to create a workshop to train teachers on how to deal with these wounds in the classroom. Lucretia thinks that people who are working are doing an excellent job, but still, when they look in social media they find out that they have more work to be done.

In the Afternoon of the same day we met with Mr. Dylan Wray, the executive director of Shikaya. Dylan introduced himself as a former history teacher, who then quit teaching to start writing history curriculum and training history teachers on delivering it in ways that allow children to leave schools as active, democratic, and caring citizens.

He also clarified the aims of the project, which are meant to allow teachers to teach about the apartheid to those who lived the apartheid. In spite of his efforts, he mentioned that there are some difficulties and challenges facing his project. One of these difficulties is that in some schools, teachers are assigned to history teaching. This makes training the teachers in some ways difficult, since they are forced to teach the subject. Another challenge facing him is that students drop out of schools in large numbers, and Dylan thinks it is hard to reach them to ensure they’ll become active and compassionate citizens. Feel free to read the nice passage Michael wrote in his blog report on this topic, especially the part which talks about “classes of hope”.

When the meeting with Dylan was over, Michael and I headed back to our room where we made a deep reflection on our day, and we both agreed that we had good interviews including the unscheduled one to the Jewish museum. We thought we had a good idea about the efforts the NGOs are trying to put into dealing with the difficult past or into the development of history teachers and resources.

After our reflection, it was the time to discover the natural beauty of Cape Town so we visited one of nature’s wonders, Table Mountain. I think anyone would regret visiting South Africa without going to this beautiful site. There one can discover the beauty of the place and the peace it gives to the soul.

3rd of March, 2017, was a new day with a different schedule. It was the time for the team to visit a school. Our major goal was to get interviews from history teachers and then students. We wanted to discover what is taught in history classes, and how history teachers are helping to face the difficult past. These interviews will give us clear ideas and answers from people who are directly concerned with history education.

We were close to not being able to conduct the visit, especially after the delay of the official approve to our school visit request. But luckily Mr. Cecyl received the permission to visit one of Cape Town’s high schools, Kensington High School. It was around 20 minutes’ drive to the school, and were sad to know that we couldn’t stay more than an hour and forty-five minutes in total. This time frame was very challenging for us to get good interviews from students and teachers, before we were scheduled to do the other visit of the day to Robbin Island.

Getting back to the Kensington High School visit: I had this feeling that the school’s principle and history teacher didn’t have any idea why we were visiting the school. They thought we want to monitor a history classroom and get ideas about the teaching methods and strategies used for history teaching in South Africa.

So after spending some time viewing the lesson; which gave us some ideas about the history teaching there, we asked the teacher if it would be possible to interview some of the students and then himself. He agreed to our request, and three of his students volunteered for the interviews. A fourth student, Paola, asked us if she could join in, and she got our permission.

First we asked the students why learning history was important to them from their own perspective. They thought that learning history would teach them about their past, where they came from, and how they become who they are.

Then we asked the students what the word “apartheid” meant to them, and they replied that some of the people were still segregating others by their color. They thought that all people are equal and it isn’t fair to judge others because of their color.

We asked them about history education and if it is helping to overcome this racism and segregation. Paolo, one of the interviewed students answered that it actually did help, qualifying his answer by saying that the help is mostly directed to the students’ generation more than their parent’s generation, because the students are going to schools and interacting with others.

After that we started interviewing Mr. Shaun Rossou, the only history teacher at the school. He shared his feelings and memories from when the apartheid was over. He still remembers when Nelson Mandela was declaring the beginning of the new era for South Africa. He also talked about teaching of the apartheid in the history curriculum.

Students learn about the apartheid in different grade levels, but most of them work on projects about the apartheid as grade nine students. They have to work with their parents or close friends who lived during the apartheid and get their perspectives about one of the apartheid’s laws. And due to the fact that parents are becoming those who didn’t live during the most “brutal” part of the apartheid laws, as he described it, students now are working with their grandparents or other elders who lived during that era. Some of them came back with their grandparents pass book or “Dom Pass” as they called it during the apartheid. The “Dom pass” was to be carried by all non-whites, and the non-white individual with no pass would get into trouble.

This was our last interview at the school. We wished we could be there longer, but it was time to visit Robben Island.

Standing in a long line to take the boat to Robben Island, Michael and I were excited to get there and witness the history of this memorable island. The whole trip took us less than five hours, but to be honest it was worth it.

On the island there were buses waiting to pick up the tourists to start a guided tour showing them the different sites such as prisons, churches, schools, and the high commissioner residency.  For me the most emotional site was the prison, through which I went on foot. A former prisoner narrated his story of his time on the island. He shared stories of the prisoners and himself and how they were treated in savage ways. He also told stories of how the jailers tried hard to separate them from Nelson Mandela by cheating the system. In spite of all of this, when everything was over and a new system was born, the prisoners had to forgive those who treated them badly and had to live with their oppressors to build a new era for South Africa. This shows how big their hearts were, and the honest efforts they were making.

On the way back we stopped for some lunch at the sea line, and then we got to the hotel to evaluate our day. We came to the conclusion that the Robben Island trip was an excellent one, though it would have been better if we could have met some of the former prisoners in person, or if we had had a personal guide to share with us the success story of this island being turned into a peace model. Regarding the school visit, we both agreed that it would be better to visit more than one school from different sectors or towns as well. We thought that perhaps these visits would provide us with different narrations from different perspectives. At the end of this day, the best lesson I witnessed was that of the brave forgiving heart. It was the time to get ready for our next day visit.

District Six was our last destination on that study visit to South Africa. We met with Ms. Mandy Sanger, the museum’s Education Manager, who introduced Michael and I to the museum’s brief history of the district and its peaceful message, which Michael included in his blog report. Mandy shared with us how people were forced to leave their homes and their properties. Beautiful pictures are hung on the museum walls showing real sites from the old district before it was declared a white area. Mandy thought that the most important purpose of the museum was to educate people, and mainly students, about what the apartheid was so they’ll never go back to it. The museum continues to provide workshops, discussions, conversations, and other methods for delivering or sharing stories about the apartheid with museum visitors.

We also met Mr. Joe Schaffers, one of the museum educators. Joe was born in Bloemhof Flats, District Six. He lived for 28 years in the district before being moved out of it because he “didn’t qualify to live there anymore” as he said. He gave us a brief testimony for what he witnessed at that time, concerning himself and his neighbors.

After this visit was over we headed to the hotel where Michael was traveling from that day and I was staying for the next day.

This report of a study visit to Cape Town, South Africa, is the first in a series of reports and blog posts on Dealing with the Past in History Education. An in-depth discussion of the visit to South Africa, written by Michael Robinson, is available here.