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Developing Historical Consciousness for Social Cohesion: How South African Students Learn to Construct the Relationship Between Past and Present

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Historical Justice and History Education


In a society mired by racial segregation, the post-apartheid South African history curriculum was designed to promote social cohesion through a centralised narrative of oppression, liberation and democracy. However, in this chapter, Robinson argues that a centralised historical narrative is not sufficient to promote social cohesion. What is required is a focus on historical consciousness—how young people understand the legacy of the past—since it is beliefs concerning this legacy of historical injustice that shape many of South Africa’s defining questions. Historical consciousness is therefore the focus of this study, and in particular how it is developed in four South African Grade 9 history classrooms. The study finds that while history teachers convey the same historical facts, the way that the legacy of the past is communicated differs widely between racial groups in South Africa. A range of pedagogical strategies are used which position the apartheid past as either temporally distant and having little impact on the present, or temporally close and having profound and lasting impact on the present. Furthermore, at times it is the students themselves who police the ways in which the legacy of the past is communicated.

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  1. 1.

    While recognising that race is a cultural construct, often oppressive in nature, and with no scientific validity, it nonetheless holds meaning in the minds of many South Africans. To ignore race would not only be a refusal to acknowledge the lived reality of those I purport to study but would also blind me to the lines along which discrimination and privilege fall. In this study I therefore use capital letters in reference to racial terminology to serve as a reminder that these identities are politically constructed labels, rather than descriptive.

  2. 2.

    A multi-racial ethnic group that claim a distinct identity and were labelled as such by the apartheid government.

  3. 3.

    These questions were largely addressed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  4. 4.

    Government schools in South Africa may choose to charge fees, however as a result of charging fees they receive reduced government funding.

  5. 5.

    Group Areas Act was the title of three acts of the Parliament of South Africa, which assigned racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas. Under the Group Areas Act Black and Coloured people were forcibly removed from neighborhoods which were designated as ‘White’.

  6. 6.

    A common South African expression of surprise or shock.

  7. 7.

    A South African slang term meaning ‘extreme’ or ‘stressful’.


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Robinson, N. (2021). Developing Historical Consciousness for Social Cohesion: How South African Students Learn to Construct the Relationship Between Past and Present. In: Keynes, M., Åström Elmersjö, H., Lindmark, D., Norlin, B. (eds) Historical Justice and History Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham

  • Print ISBN: 978-3-030-70411-7

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