Date: 15 Nov 1994
From: Leslie Witz (
History Dept, University of the Western Cape, South Africa

The World History Standards: A non-US perspective

By Leslie Witz, 15 November 1994

It is fascinating to eavesdrop on the debate about national history curriculum from the South African periphery. As South Africa is undergoing massive changes so is what is constituting history changing. This is most visibly evident in the debates over the future of the statues of apartheid symbols. But it is also evident in the discussion over a new history syallabus for South African schools. Up until now school children have been fed with apartheid history. This has meant that blacks have been virtually excluded from school history and when they have been included they have been represented in a distorted way to fit into an apartheid past. Moreover, and this is very crucial for us teaching at a university which has students from disadvantaged communities, all the school pupils are taught to do is to recite the text book off by heart and never question the authority of the teacher. In the political terminology of the days of the anti-apartheid this was termed gutter education. A new history syllabus has recently been proposed, but because of the lack of sufficient texts hardly anything has changed. All that has happened is that the same basic ‘white’ apartheid history has been kept and the role of blacks has been inserted in parenthesis. Also sections that have been considered contentious, such as national symbols and monuments, have been left out in order to achieve a common history. Though there is a recommendation that critical skills be encouraged, there is still a heavy reliance on a single text as the authoritative voice. Considering that many of these are still riddled with apartheid history it seems, quite unfortunately, we will be left with the same school history for the next few years—perhaps it would be more correctly termed a transitional history.

This is really bad news for us because one of the central things that we try to achieve in history 1 at the University of the Western Cape is to show that history is argument and debate. What we do is, like Danile Segal suggests, to have debates between lecturers in the history 1 class. So we have debates on the nature of precapitalist African societies, the role of African rulers in the Atlantic slave trade, the role of human sacrifice in the Aztec Empire and the causes of the destruction of the Aztec empire. We find that not only does this generate a considerable interest in history as a subject but it also manages to move students away from their rote learning approach.

It thus seems to me, from the discussions that are going on, is that what we require in South Africa is something along the lines of what is being proposed in terms of a national standards curriculum in the US.

I hope that this intervention from the southern tip of Africa will help further some of the debate that is going on.