Folk devils and decolonising the African mind

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the move to make "history" a compulsory subject in schools


In her announcement that History would become a compulsory subject through to matric, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga made a revealing comment. It inadvertently showed exactly why this should not happen, at least not under the control of apparatchiks masquerading as educationalists.

“This is not a propaganda exercise destined to shore up and buttress support for the oldest liberation movement in Africa, the African National Congress,” Motshekga said. “As a principle, we are against the rewriting of History for the sole purpose of achieving short-term political expediency.” 

But the Basic Education Department must make sure that our History books reflect correctly the “true story”. Motshekga says History has a number of positive effects especially in a country like South Africa, by contributing to nation building, social cohesion and cultural heritage.

Any good History teacher, especially those of that liberal mindset that the task team appears to find so offensive, would mark down Motshekga for such triteness. Similarly, an English teacher would question the ambiguities exposed in her aim to rewrite history not for the “sole purpose” of benefitting the ANC.

Nation-building and social cohesion may possibly result from the inhabitants of a geographical space understanding from whence they came and how they got to where they are now. That is especially so in SA, where there are so many contending narratives, many of which have been, and continue to be, suppressed. 

It is also important to understand the rich tapestry of cultural heritage. Again, that is especially so in SA, where the primacy of one culture over all others was, and often continues, to be asserted.

But those are not the primary aims of studying History. On the contrary, those are the propagandistic objectives of politicians, priests and parents and have little to do with establishing a factual understanding of people and processes in the past.

It is inherent to those who want us to be malleable – the ideologues, both secular and theological – to want to simplify our understanding of the world. By reducing the complexities of the past to pabulum, they can proclaim that this story, their story, is the “true story” and that the solutions they proffer are the only rational ones.

In contrast, an honest interrogation of the past must inevitably challenge the preconceptions we have of our world and of why we are as we are. It is only through such a rigorous and unflinching process that we can conceive how we are likely to be tomorrow.

Motshekga touches on this aspect – history as a bridge to the future – in her speech, but as is the way of the politician, clothes it in feel-good cliché. “I must declare that our intentions remain noble as we believe in the wise words … of Edmund Burke who said: ‘Those who don't know History are destined to repeat it’.” 

Another minus mark, Ms Motshekga, for unwarranted conclusions. Just take the obvious example of the Jews and the Arabs – they know every rivet, bolt, screw and nail in their respective histories – yet seem destined to repeat their tragedies ad infinitum.

Motshekga says that the “recalibration” of the History curriculum “must include the last bid attempt at the decolonisation of the African mind… We must without any apology remove the vestiges of apartheid’s sanitised version of History.

“In this equation, the apartheid rulers will henceforth be presented as folk devils. We want a nuanced approach to both the writing and teaching of History.”

Apartheid rulers as folk devils? Nuanced approach? Is this history? Anthropology? Or political scapegoating?

Wikipedia explains it perfectly. Since folk devils is Motshekga’s and the task team’s concept of a “nuanced approach”, it merits quoting Wiki at length.

Folk devils are “people portrayed as outsiders and deviants, and are blamed for crimes or other social problems. The pursuit of folk devils frequently intensifies into a mass movement [during which] the folk devils are the subject of … pervasive campaigns of hostility through gossip and the spreading of urban legends.

“The mass media sometimes get in on the act … to promote controversy. Sometimes the campaign against the folk devil influences a nation’s politics and legislation.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

What Motshekga proposes would have made perfect sense to apartheid’s rulers. The use of History as a chisel to slice, shave and shape school-kids into “ideal” citizens that understand the “true story” was integral to the Verwoerdians’ messianic duty to preserve Western civilisation. 

Move on a few decades and we have new Messiahs but the same megalomania. Now the goal is the “decolonisation of the African mind”, no less. 

That’s no surprise, given where the ANC finds inspiration. The task team considered, among others, Russia, China and Zimbabwe to be textbook examples of History teaching, worthy of emulation. 

In the face of practical difficulties such as a lack of qualified History teachers, it is not a given that this bizarre proposal will be implemented. But if this happens, there is a consolation to be found in our own nation’s history. 

Even when taught badly or with sinister intent, as it was in the apartheid years, History has a potential to grip the imagination like few school subjects. History opens young people's eyes.

Decolonisers will eventually face what the Verwoerdians had to deal with: The “true story” will be found wanting, full of holes, contradictions, and lies.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye