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New Course Report

Southern Africa (HS 399)


by Alison Fletcher

When I arrived at Juniata eighteen months ago, my colleagues encouraged me to develop classes on African history.  I was excited by the thought, because  in my own research I look at Christian converts from southern Africa who travel to Britain in the nineteenth century. Also, as I am fascinated in a general sense by African history, it seemed a wonderful opportunity to learn more.  However, as Africa is a rather large continent, it seemed prudent to concentrate on a specific region of Africa! As I am a British empire historian, the obvious place to start was  South Africa, which at one time had been part of the British empire.

So far, I have taught the class twice and discovered that it is a real challenge to help students develop an understanding of the complexities of South African culture and history. South Africans like to say that their country is both a very old country and a very young country—old because there are signs of very early human habitation and young because it was only in 1994 that the country became a democracy, ending  46 years of apartheid rule.  South Africa is also a very diverse country with 11 national languages, two main ethnic groups (Zulu and Xhosa), and two white setter groups— those that trace their heritage back to Dutch, German and French Huguenots (today’s Afrikaners) and those that trace their heritage back to Britain.  Perhaps because of the immediacy of the recent apartheid past, a part of South African history that is often forgotten is the long period under the Dutch East India Company, when the colony was a slave holding colony. This means that slaves were brought from around the Dutch empire:  Indonesia, Malaya, India, and Madagascar, adding to the diversity of the present-day population.

To help us understand this diversity, we read primary sources and a number of books that allow us to explore more deeply a number of specific topics.  Students responded positively to Kaffir Boy, a memoir by Mark Mathabane, which recounts his childhood growing up under apartheid in devastating poverty and amidst growing violence.  They also found My Traitor’s Heart, by Rian Malan, a compelling book. Malan is a descendant of the original white settlers, and his memoir explores his struggle with his own guilt and racial prejudice during the apartheid period.  Although both these books are at times painful to read, because of the atrocities they depict and the questions they ask, the students found them memorable, and they helped them understand the difficulties of everyday life under apartheid.

The South African film industry is beginning to boom, so we transported ourselves to South Africa by watching movies.  Students found this a  great way to think about how the past has shaped the present and what specific challenges face South Africans today—poverty, a high rate of HIV/AIDS,  and crime. Among those we watched were Forgiveness; The Wooden Camera; Beat the Drum; Max and Mona;  and Tsotsi.  As I discovered when I visited last summer, South Africa is an incredibly dynamic place—catchy music seems to boom out of every door and window.  To connect to that feeling, I played music in class for the students and sometimes in my office—I obviously have tolerant colleagues!