ICTJ Forum: Teaching the Past in South Africa



In this episode of the ICTJ Forum, we turn to South Africa, where educators are challenged daily to teach the country's past of apartheid to their students, while the country still grapples with ongoing inequalities, discrimination, and divided schools. In this discussion between South Africa's Gail Weldon, co-founder of Facing Our Past, Transforming Our Future and co-author of the national history curriculum, and Roy Hellenberg, the Head of History at Rondebosch Boys School and leader of the Facing Our Past teacher training program, we explore how South Africa's education system is engaging with the past.

Weldon and Hellenberg joined ICTJ and UNICEF for a two-day roundtable on transitional justice, education and peacebuilding. Read more about the roundtable here.


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In this discussion with ICTJ's Rachel Goodman, Roy Hellenberg and Gail Weldon explain why after conflict, education is a critical tool for a society's positive transformation.

Roy Hellenberg believes that it is especially important to compel young people to learn about the past because they tend to be focused on the now and on the future.

"The past defines us," says Hellenberg, "So whether we study it or not, the reality is it affects us as a nation and it affects us as individuals as well. The advantage of studying it is it gives us an idea of what streams have impacted us and to what degree, and also, how it has unfolded in our community, in our society and the institutions that we are a part of. Until we understand where we come from, we don't really appreciate where we are. And we can't really define the pathway forward."

Even twenty years after the fall of apartheid, significant challenges of teaching the past in South Africa remain, and South Africa continues to be a deeply divided society. As Gail Weldon points out, the schools that have become most integrated are the former white-only schools, while other children are still “trapped” in poverty in the townships. These inequalities, she says, create real challenges for teachers in township schools.

"You have teachers having to teach a past that still looks very much like the present still—a past that was divided,” says Weldon. “The ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ were divided by color, and they continue to be largely. Although there has been a significant redistribution of wealth, the townships remain really poor. So for a history teacher teaching these young people, who have been told and are taught that our constitution gives equal opportunity to everybody, that they have access to all of this, and our young people look around them and say, 'But why are we still here?'"

The challenges can be personal as well. Hellenberg, who teaches at a school that used to be for white people only—recalls that when he arrived at Rodenbosch and saw the huge amount of resources that had been available to white students, he was filled with anger over the loss at the opportunities that could have been presented to students of color.

"One of the challenges is overcoming the baggage that we carry," he says. "Facing the Past, and participating in it as a teacher in that program, helped me to open the suitcase that I was carrying around, to take the articles out. I wish I could say that the suitcase is empty--that I've moved on from there--but it's not true. But at least I understand what's inside there and what's affecting me."

This podcast is part of a special series on the relationship between transitional justice, education and peacebuilding, developed from ongoing research collaboration between ICTJ and UNICEF. Learn more about the research project here.

Photo: School children in uniform walk long distances to and from school in the rural Kwa Zulu Natal. South Africa, 2007. Photo: Trevor Samson/World Bank