Facing the Past: Facing History and Ourselves in South Africa

On May 10, 1994, South Africa changed forever. Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activities, was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically-elected black president. Though the official abolition of apartheid took place in 1990 with the repeal of the last remaining apartheid laws, the election signaled a new beginning for South Africa, one in which all citizens were guaranteed increased freedoms and human rights.

The change was cause for much celebration, but it also required a serious shift in public consciousness as South Africans – kept apart under apartheid rule for almost 50 years – were now able to live in the same areas, sit next to each other on busses, and attend the same schools. For many South Africans, trying to navigate this new reality was a struggle. This was especially true for the nation’s educators.

South African educators participate in Facing the Past professional development.

Following the end of apartheid, South Africa’s National Department of Education introduced new curriculum that aimed to teach students about democracy, promote equality, and ultimately create well-educated, active citizens. The new curriculum was put in place without training for the country’s teachers – the majority of whom had taught under apartheid. Some of these teachers had actively upheld the apartheid state through their teaching. Others had used the classroom as a place of resistance. Many, possibly the majority, had just done their job and taught. Now, this very disparate group was expected to teach a curriculum that for the first time covered issues of human rights and put a value on democracy.

To help support educators implement this new curriculum, Facing History and Ourselves partnered with the Western Cape Education Department and the Cape Town Holocaust Centre in 2003 to form Facing the Past – Transforming our Future, an initiative to provide professional development and resources to South African teachers as they incorporated this new curriculum into their classrooms, and to help South African educators and students better understand their own history and how their own choices could impact the future of their new democracy.

Facing the Past began to hold workshops and seminars throughout the country that used human behavior and the actions and decisions of individuals as a lens for exploring South Africa’s past. The program developed resources that helped educators address apartheid in the classroom and created a teachers group that provided mentor support for teachers and curriculum advisors across the country.

Ten years later, Facing the Past is still here and has had a profound impact. Since that first year we have trained over 373 teachers and reached more than one million students in over 180 schools. We have also trained over 650 pre-service teachers and work with students taking part in leadership programs developed by Shikaya, the organization that today manages Facing the Past.

The work is not easy, and the program has challenged many participants to test their own assumptions. But educators who have had Facing the Past training say it has made a positive difference in their teaching.

“I had to look in the mirror and had to face, yet again, the atrocities committed by my people to my people,” said Zolani*, a Facing the Past educator. “It made me realize again how important my role is to be an agent for human rights – not only in my classroom but also my community.”

Teachers also say the program enhances their satisfaction with teaching as a profession, and helps them relate history to their own lives. “What the Facing the Past workshops have done is to give us space and acknowledgement that our stories are powerful, too. This of course is mirrored in what we then do in our classrooms,” said Pieter*, another Facing the Past educator.

Other educators have said that Facing the Past resources and teaching strategies help students to understand their own roles in a democratic society and to think critically about the impact of history on their own lives. “If we’re not critically looking at how it is that who we are influences how we teach, then we’re just perpetuating either hatred, or maybe indifference towards the other,” Portia*, another former Facing the Past educator, said. “[Without doing that,] how do we possibly create a new way of being?”

Today there is a vibrant community of South African teachers brought together through the common thread of Facing the Past. In 2003, the first Facing the Past seminar took place just a short walk from where Nelson Mandela addressed the first democratically-elected Parliament at his inauguration. Today, many of the teachers from that first group, who came from such different experiences and held such different beliefs, still meet to discuss teaching practices and strategies, and to learn from, share with, and listen to each other. It is these teachers and others like them whose bravery, honesty, caring, and inspiration we should celebrate when South Africa marks 20 years of democracy in May, 2014. It is these teachers and their students who give us hope for the next 20 years.

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