To understand SA's History Curriculum change in Democracy, lets first look at this change during Transformation by Maluleka Paul, 15 January 2015,

15 January 2015

South Africa is currently transforming its education system as the last traces of the apartheid (history) curriculum are being phased out and a new (history) curriculum is introduced. This article seeks to critically discuss the political imperatives that influenced (history) curriculum reform in the transition from apartheid to a post-apartheid South Africa, drawing from Cole and Barsalou (2006) who argue that “in societies recovering from violent conflict, questions of how to deal with the past are acute, especially when the past involves memories of victimisation, death, and destruction so widespread that a high percentage of the population is affected”.

It is then fitting for this article to first start by defining the concept of ‘curriculum’ and ‘transition’, since the question it seeks to address is centred on these concepts. For many ordinary South Africans (some teachers included) a curriculum is a document drafted by curriculum experts appointed by the government, which they ought to follow and to a large extent not question. This narrow view of curriculum is dangerous on their part because it gives the state the power to impose their ideological beliefs on the masses and at the same time legitimise its power in governance. However for Carr (1998) a curriculum is more than the content or subject matter that is taught in schools, but also involves teaching methods, learning objectives, classroom organisation and assessment procedures. He further argues that curriculum plays a significant role in social and political spheres of a society in inducting learners into the culture, practices and social relationships of their society. This in many words means that a curriculum is a contextualised social process.  

On the other hand a ‘transition’, according to Jansen (2007) “is the movement from one kind of political regime to another kind of political order”. In the South African context it would mean moving away from apartheid (racially defined) system to a more democratic (racially inclusive) system.

Drawing from the above definitions of curriculum and transition, surely to a certain extent the political imperatives that influenced history curriculum reform in the transition from apartheid to a post-apartheid South Africa could be justified, right? Given the political context the country found itself in and the desire to create a new South Africa ready to move away from a traumatic past. Hence Weldon (2009:177) argues that, “in transition societies, education policy becomes a crucial arena for asserting political visions for a new society and signalling a clear break with the past. Part of the process of ‘moving on’ is creating a common national identity, which reflects memories that acknowledge the trauma of the past in a way that prevents denial”.

But ironically Christie (2006:375) believes that it is “important to recognise that the ‘regimes of practice’ and ‘savoirs’ of governmentality are not foundational truths or rational laws; they are the products of ‘petty circumstances’ and chance happenings, illusions and mystifications, as well as calculations and strategies in the exercise of power”. What this might mean is that whatever political imperatives that were taken by the then ANC-led government were to prove that they could govern a modern state and at the same time legitimise itself, but were not in the interests of the people.

For a new government to make those decisions it meant engaging with already established rules and procedures (regimes of practice) as well as established bodies of knowledge (savoirs) which address and frame up issues in specific ways, (Christie, 2006:377).  And if  education was to be seen as tool in addressing the welfare of the majority of poor South Africans, then the then ANC-led government had a lot of work to do.

However those political imperatives, demands or requirements in post-conflict societies are determined by the way in which conflict was resolved. In a South African context this conflict was resolved through political negotiations which resulted in many political compromises and in the end a Government of National Unity (GNU), which was to be in power for only five years, was formed  as part of the transition period and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)  was also established, (Weldon, 2009:177).

But for Jansen (1999) the political imperatives that influenced education policy and curriculum change in the transition period should be understood in the context of ‘compensatory legitimation’ or ‘political symbolism’. This means that any decision that was taken by the state in relation to education policy or curriculum change was symbolic in that it was the way for the new government to prove to every South African (the world included) that they can govern and it was also their way of legitimising their power in governance. This supports Christie (2006) claims.

 Jansen (1999) further argues that using the construct of political symbolism, one will appreciate the fact that, the syllabus revision process should be understood in the context of bureaucratic and constitutional constraints of political transition under a GNU. The process emerged in the context of weak and at times vulnerable political leadership in the education ministry and this was propelled by mounting pressure on the ministry from the allied ANC constituencies, the media at large and the broad public.

Symbolism according to Tarvuvinga and Cross (2012:140), “is meant to reposition people and reframe people’s mind-sets by providing the feelings or perceptions and sometimes some experience that things have indeed changed or the country has achieved a point of no return”.

There were also dominating players that were involved in the process of curriculum and education policy change, which were university-based intellectuals, the African National Congress (inside and outside government) and teacher unions (including the South African Democratic Teachers Union, National Association of Professional Teachers Organisation in South Africa and the Suid Afrikaanse Onderwysers Unie), (Chisholm,2003:2)

The curriculum (syllabus) revision process of late 1994, according Jansen (2001:43), “was presented as an attempt to alter in the short term the most glaring racist, sexist and outdated content inherited from the apartheid syllabi, which were still widely used in the aftermath of the first post-apartheid elections in April of the same year”.

That resulted in two major curriculum shifts taking place in South Africa since 1994, each of which should be understood within the political context of that time. According Weldon (2009:180), “the first period of policy making was characterised by the politics of compromise in the interests of peaceful transfer of power and of national reconciliation. The second was carried out after the election in 1999, which ended the Government of National Unity, when the ANC received enough support to govern on its own”. Each period was dictated by negated policy systems involving labour and academic, which engaged different political and ideological territory. And the nature in which settlement was reached in South Africa constructed a distinct context for the structuring of the education policies of the early phase of transition.

However the policy proposals put together by the GNU were in themselves extremely problematic in that, “they were flawed in their conceptualisation of policy and the policy process, and they misjudge[d] the educational context and dynamics on the ground”, (Christie, 2006:374). This might be the reason why Weldon (2009:180) claims that this had ramifications for history education in that, “the politics of reconciliation in South Africa provided the context for a continuing tactic understanding of compromise in education”. 

Post-1994 the department of education in South Africa introduced three national initiatives focused on schools. According Jansen (1998), “the first attempt was to purge the apartheid curriculum (school syllabuses) of ‘racially offensive and outdated content’, while the second introduced continuous assessments into schools. However, the most ambitious curriculum policy since the installation of the Government of National Unity has been referred to as outcomes-based education (OBE)”.

The first initiative was Curriculum 2005 (the first post-apartheid curriculum), which was an outcome based approach to schooling which unified subjects into learning areas. Its desire was of a new South Africa which its citizenry was able to build social cohesion, advocate for democracy and at the same time devote to an economically booming country. According to Tarvuvinga and Cross (2012:128), “OBE’s C2005 was therefore a compromise curriculum which reflected and captured elements of constructivism, progressivism and traditional essentialism and in its in intent, C2005 was a dramatic departure from the authorization subject and teacher-centred apartheid curriculum and pedagogy, as it marked a paradigm shift from a subject-dominated to an integrated curriculum with an active learner and a facilitating teacher”.

Sadly at this time, history education was not considered in the process the discipline devalued), this was so perhaps because at the time the country was not sure or did not know which histories were ‘best’ to teach in a the new South Africa. But “avoiding the past in the curriculum allowed for the expression of new values and a national identity located in a vision of an economically prosperous nation”, (Weldon, 2009:180). But the emphasis on science and technology in a curriculum represents therefore a shift toward positivism, in other words toward a reactionary conservatism, which fosters an undialectical and one-dimensional view of the world, (Bam, 2000:5). This only means that effective long-term curriculum planning was sacrificed in favour of political expediency.

In addition Bam (2000:2) assert that “South Africans are grappling with finding a place in the global world of markets for productivity and “outcomes” while simultaneously facing the task of nation building and healing”. This could be another reason which led to curriculum 2005 not recognising the importance of history education, thus allowing an impression of denial of conflict. But while history was not recognised in formal education curriculum, a new official narrative of South Africa’s past was being established through the TRC, the commission which was created and seen as a tool for Nation Building (Weldon, 2009:181).

Though the TRC was seen as a tool for ‘nation building’ and can to a certain extent shape historical understanding, it was also narrowed and distorted in its historical understanding in that in its investigative approach or mandate, it had limitations because it only viewed apartheid as a result of racism only rather than any other result, such as its historical roots in slavery, colonialism, industrial revolution or capitalism, (Bam, 2000:5).

With Curriculum 2005 failing to produce the desired or envisioned results, a review committee of the system was established in 2000 in order to deal with multiple factors that affected the educational system and curriculum 2005 under the new minister of education in Professor Kader Asmal. According to Chisholm (2003:4) to address problems that affected the educational system and curriculum 2005 at that time, “the Review Committee proposed the introduction of a revised curriculum structure supported by changes in teacher orientation and training, learning support materials and the organisation, resourcing and staffing of curriculum structures and functions in national and provincial education departments”.  This was yet another major shift that needed to be undertaken, which in the process cost the country a lot of money.

Within these recommendations made by the Review committee history was to be instated within the formal education system, the development and establishment of a Revised National Curriculum Statement which was to promote conceptual coherence, have a clear structure and be written in understandable and clear language, and design and promote ‘the values of a society striving towards social justice, equity and development through the development of creative, critical and problem-solving individuals’, (Chisholm et al, 2000m viii) cited in Chisholm (2003:4).

With regards to the reintroduction of history as a subject to be taught in our schools, there were a lot of contestations in relation to what histories should be taught and which ones should be left out. “Common elements of the discourse were opposition to evolution in the curriculum, to the alleged values of ‘secular humanism’ that informed the curriculum, ‘interfaith religion’, sexuality in the curriculum and exposure of their children to ‘pagan’ faiths and cultural practices as the Africanist values that underpinned the history curriculum”, (Chisholm, 2003:8).

However, “the history curriculum that emerged in South Africa during the second phase of curriculum revision did not follow the predictable course evident in other post conflict societies, such as eastern Europe, of denouncing the past and celebrating the present and new heroes. Rather, what was created was an official history which aimed “at permitting the unofficial, the hidden, to become visible”, (Chisholm, 2004:188) cited in Weldon (2009:181).

With such events having been unfolding right in front of our eyes, one wonders if we really had an unwilling state to change the status quo? However, one can never downplay the fact that the new democratic dispensation in South Africa was evidently dealing with the change challenge of creating a new South African state that could function in and find a place in the larger world. But for Jansen (1998a) cited in Tarvuvinga and Cross (2012:141), “there is no way of understanding such behaviour outside of a political analysis of state and curriculum in the South African transition”.

Tarvuvinga and Cross (2012:146), ask thought-provoking question(s) in, “what, then, ought to be the new role of curriculum scholars who were invariably absent, silent bystanders, resisters or collaborators to the bureaucratic project?” This is a question that as a nation should really engage with and have a meaningful discourses about it.

In concluding, this artcle has attempted to critically discuss the political imperatives that influenced (history) curriculum reform in the transition from apartheid to a post-apartheid South Africa, drawing from Cole and Barsalou (2006) who argue that “in societies recovering from violent conflict, questions of how to deal with the past are acute, especially when the past involves memories of victimisation, death, and destruction so widespread that a high percentage of the population is affected”.


Reference list

Bam, J. (2000). Negotiating history, truth and reconciliation and globalisation: An analysis of the suppression of historical consciousness in South African schools as case study. Mots Pluriels, No. 13

Carr, W. (1998). The Curriculum in and for a democratic Society, Curriculum Studies. Vol.6, No.3

Chisholm, L. (2003). The Politics of Curriculum Review and Revision in South Africa. Paper presented at the Oxford International Conference on Education and Development.

Christie, P. (2006). Changing regimes: Governmentality and education policy in post-apartheid South Africa. International Journal of Educational Development, 26

Jansen, J. (1998). Curriculum reform in South Africa: A critical analysis of outcomes-based education. Cambridge Journal of Education, 28(3), 321-331

Jansen, J. (1999). The school curriculum since apartheid: intersections of politics and policy in the South African transition. University Of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa

Jansen, J. (2001). Rethinking education policy making in South Africa: Symbols of change, signals of conflict. In A. Kraak & M. Young (Eds.), Educational in retrospect: policy and implantation 1990-2000 (pp. 40-57). Pretoria, South Africa: HRSC Press

Jansen, J. (2007). The Leadership of Transition: Correction, Conciliation and Change in South African Education. Faculty of Education, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, 0002, South Africa

Taruvinga, M. M & Cross, M. (2012). Jonathan Jansen and the Curriculum Debate in South Africa: An Essay Review of Jansen’s Writings Between 1999 and 2009. Wiley Periodicals, Inc

Weldon, G. (2009). Memory, identity and the politics of curriculum construction in transition societies: Rwanda and South Africa. Perspectives in Education, Vol. 27 (2)