Pan-Africanism in South African high school history classrooms: Unveiling classroom realities

Esma Karadag is a PhD candidate at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. She is a guest PhD researcher at the ASCL for a period of 12 months. Karadag is a Turkish Ministry of National Education (MoNE) scholarship holder. 


As a PhD student at the University of Cape Town, I am conducting an interdisciplinary study that delves into the representation of Pan-Africanism in South African high school history classrooms. This research aims to shed light on how teachers educate their students about Pan-Africanism, drawing from history textbooks, other related resources, and/or personal interpretations. The study investigates the dynamic nature of Pan-Africanism as a concept and its role in shaping a new national identity in post-apartheid South Africa. It also explores the disparities in teaching approaches between different types of schools and the impact of class on these representations.
Not a fixed idea
Pan-Africanism, as a socio-political and cultural concept, encompasses the idea of unity among Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. However, Pan-Africanism is not a fixed ideology; rather, it evolves according to the political climate and societal needs of the time. In South Africa, it has transformed into a more inclusive understanding that emphasises human solidarity, ubuntu, unity in diversity, and global citizenship as crucial components for building a socially cohesive society.
Shaping a new national identity
Furthermore, the study recognises the pivotal role of history in shaping a new national identity in post-Apartheid South Africa. Education plays a crucial role in fostering cultural values, and the content taught in schools is of paramount importance. This understanding sets the stage for an exploration of how South Africa's Department of Basic Education seeks to maintain social control through education and how this education unfolds in the classroom.
Interviews with history teachers
The research employs an interpretive qualitative approach and involves the collection of data through interviews with Grade 11 and 12 in-service history teachers from urban schools. The sample includes teachers from three selected provinces: Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and Western Cape, representing diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Public schools are categorised into five quintiles based on resource allocation, with quintiles 1 to 3 designated as no-fee schools and quintiles 4 to 5 as fee-paying schools. Thematic analysis is used to identify patterns within the data, encompassing both explicit and implicit content.
The impact of class
One of the most significant findings of this research is the impact of class on the representation of Pan-Africanism in South African high school history classrooms, which I will illustrate below:
Fee-paying schools: awareness of social justice debates
In fee-paying schools, Pan-Africanism is taught in greater detail, primarily due to students’ bottom-up demand and their awareness of social justice and decolonisation debates, largely influenced by movements like #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, and #BlackLivesMatter. Teachers in these schools emphasise the importance of teaching history as a discipline, leading them to utilise diverse sources beyond prescribed textbooks. A vast majority of the interviewed teachers in fee-paying schools believed that Pan-Africanism in the South African history curriculum and textbooks was not treated as an idea or theme but in a superficial, vague, disconnected, and isolated way, causing them to look for other resources. These teachers often explore the changing discourse of Pan-Africanism throughout history, considering different perspectives and its global context, including the African Diaspora. They link Pan-Africanism to historical thinking concepts, such as historical significance, cause and consequence, and continuity and change, and stress its significance in economic decolonisation. Teachers in these schools aim to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of Pan-Africanism, its historical roots, and its relevance to the present.
No-fee paying schools: combatting xenophobic attitudes
In contrast, teachers in no-fee schools primarily address Pan-Africanism to combat xenophobic attitudes among students towards African-born migrants. These teachers emphasise the need to raise awareness among students about derogatory terms and foster an inclusive attitude. Pan-Africanism is often discussed within the context of Afrophobia and South African ‘tribalism’ to amalgamate different black South African ethnic groups. Teachers in those spaces often taught Pan-Africanism from their own experiences during the apartheid era. These schools rely solely on prescribed textbooks and teach Pan-Africanism as a local concept, with minimal exploration of global perspectives.
The role of educators
Clearly, there are stark disparities in the representation of Pan-Africanism in South African high school history classrooms, based on the socioeconomic status of the school. While fee-paying school teachers provide a comprehensive and global understanding of Pan-Africanism, no-fee schoolteachers focus on addressing immediate issues of Afrophobia and brought their lived experiences to the classroom. The findings of my research underscore the complex intersection of race and class in South African education and raise important questions about the role of educators in shaping students’ perceptions of Pan-Africanism and critical thinking skills.
By highlighting the impact of class on the representation of Pan-Africanism, my research emphasises the need for a more equal education to ensure that all students receive a well-rounded education that is aligned with the country’s social cohesion goals.
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Photo: Street vendor selling paintings, Kalk Bay, Cape Town, South Africa. Courtesy of Esma Karadag.

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