Heritage Month: History, Culture and Social Cohesion

How does knowing South Africa’s history contribute to celebrating our diverse culture and reinvigorate our vision of social cohesion?

South Africa celebrates Heritage Month annually in September, culminating on the 24th. The month, in the aftermath of Apartheid, is intended to provide an opportunity to create awareness of the diversity of the people in South Africa in terms of amongst other attributes – race, religion, tribes and ethnicities. Awareness firstly, but secondly and perhaps the most important since the advent of democracy in 1994: social cohesion.

Heritage month cannot be commemorated or celebrated in the absence of understanding the tumultuous history of the country. In what we may term our “modern” beginning, the San and Khoekhoen provide rich historical evidence for their hunter-gatherer and pastoralist lives as far back as 2000 years.

The first European settlement was commercial, through the Dutch East India Company or VOC which was the world’s first corporate conglomerate, initially intended for trade with India, but it soon became apparent that there were more opportunities for expansion and in 1652, South Africa was settled starting in the Cape. The settlement was intended as a docking station for ships but soon morphed into a colony. It’s worth noting that the Portuguese did land in South Africa in 1497 as part of Vasco da Gama’s voyage of “discovery”, but unlike the tales of myth; he and his company did not discover South Africa or settle in it at that time. The British Empire, who by now, had used its vast and strong naval fleet to become a major colonial power, moved to settle South Africa, to ensure the Dutch did not lay claim to the wide potential of resources, arriving initially in what is now known as Nelson Mandela Bay, in 1820.

Throughout the 1800s, European colonialists moved to occupy the country and divide  into four provinces: the Cape and Natal controlled by the British with Free State and Transvaal under the administration of the Dutch. The British moved quickly to extend its area into the northern part of the Cape as diamonds were discovered there from 1867. Later, the gold and gems discovered in the Free State and Transvaal led to bitter competition over mineral resources, resulting in the brutal Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902.

Often glossed over is the slave history of the Cape Colony for over 200 years until 1834 when slavery was banned. Slaves were commodities that were sold and had their occupation and lives determined. The majority of slaves bought and sold within South Africa were from Angola, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia and Mauritius. From this infusion between the San, Khoekhoen, African tribes who had settled south, the colonialists and the slaves, emanated the language of Afrikaans, which particularly amalgamated Dutch with Malay. Added, religions such as Islam and Hinduism were brought to our shores alongside a variety of Christian missionary denominations. Augmenting, the slave culture mingled with the European colonials to create a race now known as Coloureds who were mixes of the races. They developed a culture of their own in how they used Afrikaans, traditional food, music, dance and cultural observances. Likewise, the British, Dutch, Huguenots who sought sanctuary from France, Indians, Khoekhoen and San each came and in time adapted their language, food and cultural practices, reinforcing their religious beliefs in the process.

This is the colonial history and it’s often unfortunate that  Black tribes, other than the San and Khoekhoen, find too large gaps in our history between this period to the 1900s.  Colonial apologists are fond of using the “empty land myth”, which attempts to argue that other than what they term the Khoi-San, the European colonialists and Black tribes arrived in South Africa at a relatively similar time and had equal claim to “undiscovered” land.  The closer truth is that Bantu tribes started moving and settling south around 500AD. Within this broad categorization were our Zulu ancestors. The Xhosas in turn formed part of the Nguni tribes, who also moved south and were thriving settled prior to the Dutch arrival in 1652. Likewise, by 1500, the Sotho and Tshwane had established solid chiefdoms. It is therefore a false narrative that Black Africans were not settled and had claimed South Africa as their home alongside the San and Khoekhoen, significantly before the Dutch, British, French Huguenot and also Portuguese i.e. European settlement.

Fast forward to 1900 and the White European population began to stamp its authority in terms of language, religion and creating a spatial planning that used a Black manual labour force, including freed slaves to extrapolate resources to be used and refined by the colonial powers to build the wealth and military might of their empires. From this period legislation was put in place to reinforce the practice. The African National Congress was established in 1912 to attempt to push back this minority rule. South Africa was granted independence from the British Empire and became a republic in 1961. Apartheid was legislated and the United Nations had declared it a crime against humanity in 1966. The indignity and impoverishment accompanied by harsh inequality of Blacks continued until a negotiated settlement that led to the first democratic elections in 1994, which the ANC won and within 2 years in 1996 a constitutional democracy was formalized with the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We could evaluate 26 years of ANC majority rule in South Africa, but that isn’t the point. The point is to use September to delve deeper into our history from 2000 years ago and fill in the blank spaces or add the details that may even surprise you. If we acknowledge that history is based on fact, not around the fire stories and we broaden our knowledge beyond our echo chamber, we move from commemorating Heritage Month to celebrating it.

Gift your neighbour or colleague a bowl of your traditional food.  Add a little note of its history. Eat the samosa, bunny chow or Gatsby. Think about how braai meat with pap and sous binds so many of us together. Look into learning, sharing information and understanding (before judging) on practices like circumcision, wearing a bindhi, Mosque call to prayer, why orthodox Jews won’t work on a Saturday, lobola, polygamy, why no visitors are allowed after the birth of a child in some cultures and how religions vary significantly in death and burial practices.

This September 2020, though the COVID_19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has taken a heavy toll on many, we have an opportunity to take time to learn at least one small period in our history and from that, reach out a hand to say ‘tell & show me more and don’t forget the foods’. Life is for the living and we live in an incredibly diverse country with a complex history but also through openness of mind, heart and active citizenry, the ability to create a state of social cohesion, a state where socioeconomic equality is a norm, not a clash of culture or classes.

A TRIBUTE TO THE SOLOMON MAHLANGU FREEDOM COLLEGE

What was SOMAFCO’s role in the ANC’s conceptualisation of public education?

We are where we are because of our past. Nothing proves this more than South Africa’s public education system. Like other public education systems across the world, it has changed and evolved over time. Since 1994, public schools across the country have undergone drastic changes in the form of racial inclusion, curriculum amendments and financial alterations. It’s important to understand, though, that despite these challenges, the foundation of South Africa’s public schools were not just an afterthought of the 1994 elections. Many years of brainstorming and practical projects were put in place well before 1994. In this blog post, I track the attempts of the ANC’s 1970 and 1980s leadership as they wrestle through conceptualising an education system that would one day provide education to South Africa’s young learners. Join me in this historical journey as we uncover the importance of the ANC’s cross-continental foray into education provision.

The Nationalist Party, an ethnic Afrikaner political party that promoted their own minority interests,  formulated the most comprehensive and explicitly racist plan for education in South Africa. This educational plan, known as the Bantu Education Act of 1953, was labelled by the African National Congress, and other critics, as “schooling for servitude” and only re-established the already known fact that this form of education would continue to serve white interests to the detriment of the black population. Hendrik Verwoerd, who was a known Nazi supporter, said of the 1953 Act in a speech as Minister of Native Affairs on the 7th June 1954.

“The school must equip the Bantu to meet the demands which the economic life of South Africa will impose on him…There is no place for him in the European community above certain forms of labour… What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

This collective racist ideology swept through the country and ensured that black children received an education that was vastly inferior to white learners. The implementation of this sub-standard form of education was in many ways a spark that ignited protests and mobilization across the country through the decades, but it was only in 1976 that the most intense manifestation of disgust and revulsion towards these policies occurred. The Soweto uprising of 1976 was brought about by, amongst other factors, the apartheid governments forceful inclusion of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, which would diminish – in many ways – the use of English. This was the language that ensured black learners had future political and social participation on a global stage. The notion of education as a public good and a human right during this era, was clearly a farce. This lop-sided education benefitted only a white minority and demoted the black majority to slavery, all in the name of the public good.

The 1976 protests were a major turning point for South Africa’s future democracy and for South Africa’s integrated, non-racial and constitutionally equal education system.

After the Soweto uprising[1], learners directly affected in the 1976 protests and learners from across the country fled into exile fearing for their lives. Many of them crossed South African borders into neighbouring countries. The ANC leadership[2], well aware of this exodus of students, formulated and formed The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) in 1978 to accommodate all exiled students in Tanzania. The SOMAFCO had a dual role, articulated poignantly by the late Chris Hani, who visited the College in the 1980’s:

This is not an ordinary college… the idea behind this college [is] to prepare the South African youth, [who are] deprived of so many opportunities inside the country, for a role not only in the [current] struggle, but [also] a role in the future [running of our country].

The philosophy of the school was clear to see, from the visionaries at the top to the laymen implementing the plans on the ground. Firstly, it was the realization that a physical geographical space should be created, outside from the current misrepresented state-run system, to develop a black educational alternative of quality education. Secondly, SOMAFCO’s curriculum was intended as both an alternative to “Bantu Education and as a model of post-apartheid education”. This philosophy was one where the notion of education as a public good embodied democratic ideals such as equality, fairness and ubuntu. The ANC’s original conceptualisation of public education must therefore not be divorced from SOMAFCO.

This public education, as envisaged by the ANC in SOMAFCO placed a high emphasis on Maths and Science, which were subjects that blacks had limited access to in South Africa due to the policies set up by the apartheid state and implemented by Verwoerd. It also created compulsory courses which focused on the history of the struggle and a course on the development of societies, which  served to orient future leaders. The college, however, was not without its problems. The idea of being a ‘revolutionary school’ often came with conflicting views and notions of mixed pedagogy. One particularly interesting example comes from the school’s embrace of socialist education, especially Julius Nyerere’s ideas of “education for self-reliance through school gardens and farms” and the Freirean influence of Terry and Barbara Bell[3].

These Freirean views were vastly different with what was seen later, when the Eastern Bloc and Soviet Union began to disintegrate. The early notions of socialism were quickly diluted by philosophies of capitalism, as early as 1989. These global changes had drastic repercussions for the school’s noble ideas of education as a public and common good – partly because the school survived on donations from Soviet nations and Nordic countries. This therefore meant that SOMAFCO (which was interwoven with Soviet designs of a state funded education as envisioned by the Freedom charter, clause 8) was being eroded.

Despite these challenges of mixed philosophies and pedagogy, a number of notable alumni (who serve the public good, in the early sense) have emerged from SOMAFCO. Probably one of the most influential is the Honourable Lindiwe Daphney Zulu, who is currently serving as South Africa’s Minister of Social Development.  Notable educators, who were instrumental in the curriculum and formation of the ideals at the college are Lionel Bernstein, Ruth First and Jack Simmons to name a few.

The SOMAFCO era (especially in the early days) in many ways, built the foundation for the ANC’s educational policies. These policies found its birthplace in the Freedom Charter of 1955, but were also reimagined and developed in the NEPI documents of the early 1990’s, a period before South Africa’s first free and fair elections. A tribute to SOMAFCO, its teachers and students is therefore a fitting way to recognize its foundational importance for our current Educational system.


[1] An estimated 20 000 students took part in the protests which killed around 575 and wounded more than 2300 (Lapping, 1987, p. 160).

[2] The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, established in Mazimbu, Tanzania, on land provided by the Tanzanian government, was named after the first member of the exiled African National Congress to be executed by the South African government. It was the brain child and vision of O.R. Tambo, Julius Nyere, Chris Hani, Olaf Palme, Albert Luthuli, Alfred Nzo and others (SOMAFCOTrust, 2013).

[3] South African expats who had lived in New Zealand, but were asked by the ANC leadership to assist with managing the school in the 1980’s. Both ardent Paulo Freirean educationalists who believed in ‘Democratic Schooling’, freedom and responsibility..