Teaching Apartheid

Five months later, I think of South Africa often, but nothing took me back to South Africa like this past week.

My 20th Century World History Accelerated (aka honors) students are studying nationalism and decolonization in these weeks before winter break. Mostly, the unit gives them a general narrative thread (in their homework) along with a few case studies (in class). I’d really love a full term on any one of the case studies we have, but this gets them started and exposes them to some history they’ve never thought about.

As a case study, South Africa is an interesting starting point, since it’s not about independence from European power (as they see in India or Congo). Independence from the apartheid regime is certainly key, though, as is nationalism. While apartheid South Africa looks different than many other places we could examine, it’s a powerful case study any way you look at it.

I also think that the story of resistance to apartheid, and the ways in which the South African people have tried to move forward, is one that connects well to recent publicity around police brutality and Black Lives Matter in the US. The story of Hector Pieterson, in particular, connects well to the topic of state intervention against peaceful protests.

In this post, I’ll take you through how I taught apartheid (and the end of it) in South Africa this year in one 90-minute session. Below, I talk about how I revamped the class this year and my goals with the new approach, the way I framed the class, what I’d do differently, and offer the resources that helped me make this class.

At this time last year, my approach to apartheid was a pretty basic:

  1. What was apartheid?
  2. How did South Africans overcome it?
  3. What did apartheid look like?

I struggled with resources; I’d found MSU’s Overcoming Apartheid, but hadn’t done a very good job in figuring out how to adapt the resources to the time I have. In 2016, I began playing with the c3 framework of guided inquiry – something I’m still tweaking (a lot) – but one of the best things I’ve gotten from that is how to frame questions to guide a unit. I go with more than one per unit. These are the two that apply for South Africa:

  • How does a country transform its identity?
  • What did it take to end apartheid?

To help my students engage in answering these questions, I went back to the drawing board on everything in light of my own research into South Africa last spring and, of course, my trip there last summer. I chose a 90-minute class session so I could do more this year, with a goal of giving my students a survey of apartheid and its demise. I picked 4 things that I thought they should know about. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. Reading: Find a textbook-type source that would give my students a better sense of what apartheid was, why/when/how it was enacted, and how South Africans fought against the system.
  2. South African Voices: use at least one primary source they could investigate to learn more about the fight against apartheid
  3. Must-Know Moments: Introduce students to:
    1. Nelson Mandela’s role in the end of apartheid
    2. District Six in Cape Town
    3. The Soweto Uprising and the death of Hector Pieterson
    4. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Framing the Lesson

I purchased a copy of Choices.edu’s “Freedom in our Lifetime: South Africa’s Struggle” (http://www.choices.edu/curriculum-unit/freedom-lifetime-south-africas-struggle/) so I could use parts of it with my students. The background reading was a bit longer than I usually give my students, but the overview of apartheid, from its origins after 1910 through the Sharpeville Massacre, was a really accessible piece.

I began class with this quote on the board:


I did not include Nelson Mandela’s name on the board, but in every section, a few students were able to guess (correctly) that was a quote from him. I asked students what they thought it means, and what they thought of it. It didn’t elicit as much conversation as I hoped, but by the third class, I’d reframed it slightly and began telling the students that this quote tells us a lot about the ways in which South Africans have tried to move on in the years after apartheid ended. I told them we’d come back to that quote by the end of class.

Homework Discussion
The Choices reading includes question-focused headers that break up each section of text and help guide students through the details. I wrote those questions on index cards and handed out one of the questions to each pair of students. With a minute-and-a-half on the clock, students pulled from their notes and the reading  to answer their question. When the timer went off, each pair handed their card off to the pair on their right, and I handed a new card to the group closest to me. We repeated the process four or five times; we never got through all the questions, but the strategy allowed me to listen in on their discussions of specific homework points and see where they had questions.

At one point, the Choices overview gives a Mandela quote that calls the ANC’s 1955 Freedom Charter “a revolutionary document” – but they hadn’t actually seen the document. I drew their attention to that part of the text to segue into the primary source segment of the class discussion.

Primary Source Work
The Freedom Charter isn’t very long, and divides easily. I printed each plank on a separate piece of paper (and enlarged the font for easy reading, and I used a Word document version that I had). I laid out all the sections on tables and whiteboards across the back of my room and passed out post-it notes.

The students headed back to the document and took turns reading the various pieces. I told them they could read it in any order they liked, but they should at least read the bolded planks that comprised the main pieces of the Freedom Charter. I asked them to remember that this was written in 1955, and instructed them to leave comments on 1-2 of the items. They could comment on anything they found interesting, anything they had a question about – I simply asked them to engage and respond.

I asked them to consider “What problems was the ANC trying to address, based on what you see here?” and this led to a number of fascinating observations. Some things they struggled with; for example, a plank about land ownership led a number of students to make comments about communism. They didn’t quite understand the problem with prisons. Many of them observed that the document was too idealistic and impractical.

The Survey
There’s so much to know about apartheid in South Africa, and no way to fit it all in during a 90-minute period. To really do this topic justice, I’d like to have a full course, and I dream of that happening one day. In the meantime, I decided one of the best things I could do was to try to bring this to life for them. I call this the survey section of the course, but you might call it the video clips segment.

First, we watched a six-minute excerpt from Biography’s Nelson Mandela

Next, I was ecstatic when I discovered an 8-minute documentary about the destruction of District Six in Cape Town, a place that I’d never encountered until my visit. In the 1960s and 1970s, the apartheid government evicted the people of this area – a community of people of all colors, clearly a violation of apartheid norms. This documentary takes you inside the District Six Museum, and to the long-overgrown streets of District Six itself. I framed this to the students as an example of how apartheid worked.

When I was in South Africa, visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum was one of the most emotional moments I had. I think it’s a particularly poignant piece for high schoolers, who are the same age as many of the students who participated in the Soweto Student Protests in 1976. I came across a TIME magazine mini-documentary about the photographer behind the famous photograph from Soweto, the one of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson’s body being carried after he’d been shot to death. This remarkable documentary introduces students to primary source footage of the documentary, interviews with Hector’s sister, and the sister of Mbuyisa Makhubo, the boy carrying Hector’s body in the photo. I cried the first time I showed it.

But I didn’t want to end it there. I want my students to start thinking about what you do after you dismantle a system like apartheid. In my studies last spring, I finally learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for the first time. I read Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness, where he recounts many of the events of the TRC, including Winnie Mandela’s testimony. At the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, one of the final stops is a small theatre that shows TRC clips on repeat. The last thing I saw before I walked out was Winnie Mandela’s TRC session. I struggled to find video clips on the TRC, but found a brief 2-minute video that gives highlights. I supplemented this by telling them about Winnie Mandela and what I saw at the Apartheid Museum.

The Wrap-Up
Just before they left, I offered them two final pieces.

  1. South African Democracy. I pulled up a photo of South Africans lining up to vote for the first time in 1994 and told them “This is what democracy looks like.” The visual shocked them – they’d never imagined people lining up for so long to vote.
  2. Mandela’s quote. I re-read the quote on the board and told them, when we look at South Africa, and perhaps, in particular, Mandela’s role and the TRC, I’d argue that this is what we see: that in South Africa, as apartheid came apart, Mandela and his supporters worked hard to put this idea into action. It may have been done imperfectly, but this is what they aimed for.

Now what?

It wasn’t perfect. I’ve put a lot of reflection in my notes above. I found that each section got better than the last, and in the end, I think I gave them an introductory narrative that at least opens their eyes to what happened in South Africa. Next week, I’m going to give them a New York Times article that came out this fall regarding the impact of apartheid (see resources, below).

I’m not sure what’s next. We’re about to do major course redesigns in our department, so I’m optimistic this will be a jumping-off point for further expansion in the years ahead. We’ll see what happens.


Choices.Edu – Freedom in Our Lifetime: South Africa’s Struggle

Nelson Mandela: Mini Biography

District Six – Cape Town

TIME Magazine documentary on Hector Pieterson Photo


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