The death of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has exposed how dangerous a single narrative of the past can be. For me, it elucidated the damage and consequence of the apartheid approach to education, and how decades later we are still struggling to reclaim an accurate representation of history. Nearly 25 years since the achievement of democracy and all we know for certain is that what we were taught cannot be trusted.
“There’s several advantages to ‘Separate Development,’” I recall my high school teacher intoning. “Learn them because I will ask for them.” And I did. I learned them because she did ask for them and it was easy points. I still recall that it had something to do with “Protecting language, encouraging preservation of cultures” and so on. I also remember a few of us objecting to being taught this. And I remember her furtive glance when she said, “It doesn’t matter that we might or might not agree with this. It’s in the syllabus and you need to know it.”
It was the same education system that banned “Sons and Lovers” as our matric set work because at 18 we weren’t ready to read about sex. There would be enough time for that when we got married, apparently.
The passing, memorialising and burial of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has highlighted a fascinating aspect of South Africa’s troubled past. Until now it has been accepted and documented just how evil the “Bantu Education” system was. Enacted in 1953 in The Bantu Education Act, the law effectively legalised and legitimised a system that would provide (what it considered to be) high level education for white South Africans but would ultimately deprive the majority of South Africans of decent schooling and tertiary education.
Universities too were made “tribal” when in 1959 “non white” universities and colleges were included with the Extension of Universities Act. It is clear that the policy of Bantu education was aimed to drive black or non-white youth to the unskilled labour market, although Hendrik Verwoerd, at the time Minister of Native Affairs, claimed that the aim was to solve South Africa’s “ethnic problems” by creating complementary economic and political units for different ethnic groups.
The effects of this policy was significant and South Africa in 2018 still struggles to rectify a horrific system that deprived millions of one of the most fundamental and significant rights, education.
Another aspect that needs to be spoken about is the impact of the apartheid system on the white learner. Propaganda and mind forming were not limited to the school or education system but also to the press, to media that South Africans were allowed to be exposed to. And just how significant this is can be seen be varying reactions to the passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
The complexity and tragedy of Winnie Mandela’s life is without question. Her commitment to the cause, her personal sacrifice, her loss and her own struggles are visible for all to see. So too are her imperfections. And yet her passing has in many ways pushed to the surface the negative and shocking images of the woman.
On Friday, ahead of the funeral, I interviewed Tonya Khoury on the breakfast show. Tonya is a media expert and monitors main stream as well as social media. Her view was very simply that the death of Winnie Mandela has forced white South Africans to recognise that they too received “Bantu Education.” Suddenly it became obvious that the past might not have been that which we thought it was. With a little perspective, and some discussion we realise that things might not have been exactly as were told it was. Which is very confusing. And scary. And vital.
Because, although different, and in most ways incomparable, white South Africans too were victims of a system that was designed to keep them ignorant.
The passing of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has highlighted the long walk that South Africa still has to take in order to really achieve integration and racial cohesion. The past is a complicated beast and we simplify it at our own peril. That said, the fact that we can have these conversations and deal openly with the issues that plague us, is also testimony to have far we have already come.
I don’t profess to understand the pain, the commitment, the sacrifice and the imperfections of Winnie Mandela, but I do know that there is no better way to honour her life, and her struggle than to have these conversations in her memory and her name.