South Africa pupils open up to wounds of apartheid past

CAPE TOWN (AFP) – Black-and-white pictures were projected onto the wall of a South African classroom and gospel music played evocatively in the background.

The pictures told a chilling tale: Angry protesters. Policemen beating crowds. Corpses lying scattered on the road. Coffins piled up.

The date of these events – March 21, 1960 – is etched in the annals of history.

It was the Sharpeville Massacre, the day the world became shockingly aware of the cost of the black struggle in apartheid South Africa.

But for many of the schoolgirls at the Herschel private school in Cape Town, a class was the first time they would learn of the event that changed the course of the fight against apartheid.

That morning their history teacher Leah Nasson invited the 20 students, all white with one exception, to immerse themselves in their country’s turbulent past.

A quarter of a century after the advent of democracy in South Africa, teaching apartheid remains a difficult ride.

Milton Changwa leads a workshop on the apartheid-era at the Vusisizwe Secondary School in Zweletemba, an impoverished area outside the South African rural town of Worcester, some 120km from Cape Town. – AFP

For educators, there is the challenge of finding balance and emotion to convey this terrible chapter of the country’s history.

For students, the story of apartheid touches on collective memories – of suffering, fear and identity – that so easily flare into pain, guilt or anger.

Nasson emphasises “emotion and empathy in history” which “makes the understanding of the content much easier”.

For 10 minutes, images of the police massacre of 69 black township residents shocked the young students.

“I felt a little bit horrified that something like that could happen,” said Louisa Siebel, 16.

Dressed in her smart blue uniform, she did not hide her sense of shame.

“I didn’t do anything directly but as a country, as a people, something went wrong and it makes me feel guilty as well,” she said.

Siebel’s classmate Carly Carter, 15, is of mixed race.

“I know that people of the generation before me, people of my colour and my race, have gone through that – that really breaks my heart,” said Carter.

“Everything that happened in the past, we must worry on now and that there are a lot of things we don’t talk about now because we think it’s too heavy.”

At end of the slideshow, Nasson projected several modern-day photos of Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township.

A sea of corrugated metal roofs, piles of rubbish, broken tarmac laid bare how South Africa remains one of the most unequal places on Earth despite the dawn of democracy.

“It’s important they know about their past because it conscientises them to the present,” said Nasson.

“That allows them to understand why we are here, why this unequal balance, to counter racist attitudes.”

History lessons are not compulsory for the last three years of secondary school in South Africa.

The government wants to make it compulsory and overhaul the curriculum, said Education Minister Angie Motshekga, to stop it “perpetuating a colonial or western perspective”.

But the planned reforms have proven politically controversial in a climate in which all debate about apartheid and its legacy is potentially combustible.

“There are teachers who are inadvertently bringing their own history, and others who use (apartheid) deliberately to lead kids to the conclusion that they either should be angry or guilty,” said Dylan Wray, founder of Shikaya, a non-profit organisation that supports teachers.

Since 2003 his organisation has trained 5,000 teachers on the topic – but that has not entirely removed the risk of controversy, something Nasson knows well, having faced a backlash from parents at her previous school.

“There were quite a lot of racist attitudes that were popping out in my class so one day I decided to do a lesson on prejudice,” she said.

There was a lot of complaints after that, I was accused of doing politics in a history class… there is still resistance.”