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Natasha Robinson,

PhD candidate at the Department of Education

Since its first democratic elections in 1994, the South African government has tasked history education with the development of social cohesion and national belonging (Asmal, 2003). But twenty-four years into democracy, with the country still sorely divided, is history education fulfilling its mandate?


My research explores how students develop historical consciousness; how they learn to use history to make sense of contemporary society and their position within in. It builds on literature which shows that South African students, having completed the national school history curriculum, hold fundamentally different understandings of South African history, specifically its emphasis and agency (Angier, 2017). What’s more, these different understandings are racialised, highlighting the importance of sociocultural factors in the development of young people’s historical consciousness.


While much has been published on the construction, content, and delivery of South African history education, very little is known about how students develop these diverging historical consciousnesses over time, through experiences they have in the classroom. Yet historical consciousness, how students make sense of the past and construct expectations for the future (Ahonen, 2005), is essential for creating a shared national agenda, particularly in a country where past conflict has a contemporary legacy of structural injustice which needs to be addressed.


For my research, I observed four racially diverse Grade 9 history classrooms for nine months in Cape Town as well as extensive interviews with the teachers. In parallel, I followed a group of five students from each class, engaging them in longitudinal interviews and focus groups throughout the nine months, to investigate how their understanding of the relationship between past and present changes over the course of an academic year.   


I found that the legacy of the colonial and apartheid past are subtly constructed and understood very differently across schools and communities. I looked at how historical legacies are presented by teachers and the school environment, and how the racial and socio-economic backgrounds of the students interact with their classroom experiences to shape their historical consciousness. My research therefore raises questions about the potential of the South African history curriculum, which currently makes no reference to the contemporary legacy of apartheid, to fulfil the country’s aspirations for social cohesion.