Xenophobia and school history textbooks

In the same week that xenophobic attacks were launched against foreigners in Gauteng, Zulu ethnic nationalists burnt history textbooks in KwaZulu-Natal. Xenophobes were characterised as ‘the class of 1994.’ The link between nationalism, xenophobia and how we understand our history is a close one, says Linda Chisholm.

Are schools, curricula and textbooks to blame for what is happening or are they part of the solution? Are the messages in our history textbooks fuelling xenophobia? If not, what can be done?

South Africa's transition to democracy at the same moment as migration patterns have begun to change raises questions about what kinds and how new forms of citizenship are being created through its public institutions. New forms of South African citizenship are offi cially based on recognition of the diversity of identities contained within its borders. But to what extent are distinctively cosmopolitan - as opposed to xenophobic commitment(s) - represented in these efforts?

Teachers tend to ignore textbook messages

Contemporary approaches to textbook analysis tell us that cultivating a sense of national (or international) identity is as important as the role, form and use of textbooks in actual classrooms. The message may be good, but it is useless if the book lies unopened in stockrooms or staff rooms. Teachers also do not necessarily swallow textbook messages - they often contest their interpretations or ignore them. So their education is as important as that of their charges.

The Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) history curriculum and history textbooks are anti-xenophobic in intent and content. South African history is routinely situated within a broader African and world history so that South Africans see themselves as part of the African continent. The history of Great Zimbabwe is included in the curriculum as are accounts of the recruitment of migrant workers from neighbouring countries in the history and development of mining in South Africa.

But not surprisingly, new narratives primarily celebrate the emergence of the new South African nation. ‘South Africans' are seen as coming from a common history of oppression and struggle against injustice and are presented as possessed of singular qualities that include internationalism, recognition of diversity and reconciliation. No matter how positive, such conceptions have both inclusive and exclusive dimensions.

Regardless of how sophisticated constructions of national identity are, the problem is that they create boundaries of who does and does not belong to the inner circle.

Regardless of how sophisticated constructions of national identity are, the problem is that they create boundaries of who does and does not belong to the inner circle.

But not too much weight should be placed on what such new textbooks can and cannot achieve. There are too many factors against their effective use. The ‘class of 1994' has probably not spent much time in class, let alone learning new history narratives and how to identify xenophobia in schools. Their education has been the education of the street and the prison, an education in turf protection, prejudice and fear.

Available evidence suggests that teachers often use old rather than new textbooks, that teachers but not students have access to these textbooks, that teachers often prefer to use worksheets drawn from selected textbooks rather than use textbooks. What this means is that student exposure to textbook narratives is limited even where schools have textbooks.

Values, xenophobia and burning of Textbooks

Exposure to anti-xenophobic discourses assumes time and opportunity available for messages to be conveyed and learnt. History is one subject in a curriculum with several other learning areas. Time spent teaching this whole curriculum is on average 3.2 hours per day. Most importantly, what is taught depends on the teachers who teach the curriculum, and their own values. The burning of history textbooks in KwaZulu-Natal reveals that there are teachers who not only do not subscribe to the new national discourse but are also unlikely to buy into the anti-xenophobic narratives.

Looking to schools and teachers is an important part of the solution, but for this education has to become a meaningful reality. Even if special programmes are instituted to discuss and address xenophobia, they will be meaningless if they only happen in a minority of schools. The xenophobia and book burning of this month, so reminiscent of Nazi Germany, must be a wake-up call that the values of South Africans are as important as improving their achievement in mathematics and science.

Dr Linda Chisholm, is a research director in the Education, Science and Skills Development (ESSD) programme of the Human Sciences Research Council.

This article is based on an article to be published in the South African Historical Journal by Linda Chisholm titled, ‘Migration, Citizenship and South African History Textbooks'.