What school textbooks in South Africa say about the Cold War — and why it matters

South Africa’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t that surprising in light of its treatment of the Cold War in the school history curriculum and textbooks. In these it’s reflected as having had a negative impact on Africa.

The Cold War (1945-1990) ranged the United States and its allies against their rival nuclear superpower, the Soviet Union. What textbooks contain is significant for being the officially approved representation of the nation’s history. This “official knowledge” usually embeds social controversies in ways that favor ruling groups.

We recently contributed a chapter to a book about how the Cold War is being handled in history textbooks and classrooms worldwide. We examined selected textbooks for Grade 12 (the final year of senior secondary school) for the officially sanctioned images of the Cold War.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again caused fissures between “the west” and the Soviet Union’s principal successor state, the Russian Federation. The potential nuclear stand-off between them could be terminated a new Cold War.

South Africa’s image of its own history as represented in the school curriculum and textbooks suggests that it is unlikely to result in a stance aligned with the west.

Choosing textbooks

Textbooks follow curriculum prescriptions closely but are also mediated by textbook writers’ own readings and understandings. Since 1994, the South African curriculum has been revised four times, including the latest COVID-induced “trimming”. These changes have not substantively altered the section on the Cold War.

After each revision, publishers are invited to submit textbooks for consideration in a national catalogue. Using criteria provided by the Department of Basic Education, teams of evaluators screen textbooks for the catalogue. Based on schools’ choices, provinces make selections from the list of approved textbooks.

We selected two textbooks – Focus History and New Generation History – from those topping the list for most provinces in 2016. We compared these with prominent apartheid-era textbooks.

Textbook representations of the Cold War

Under apartheid, the history curriculum was divided into two sections, international and South African history. Until 1982, the curriculum for international history included France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and the United States, while neglecting the rest of Africa and the global south. Since 1982, China, India, Vietnam, Latin America and independent African countries were included.

The Cold War was part of the section on international history. A 2018 study on textbooks’ views of Russia specifically showed that a fear of Communism was embedded in apartheid textbooks.

The post-apartheid curriculum revised this approach. The Cold War frames a section that begins with “Independent Africa” and moves on to “Civil Society Protests” (in the US and the UK) from the 1950s to the 1990s; “Civil Resistance in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s”; “The Coming of Democracy in South Africa” and “Coming to Terms with the Past”. The section closes with “The End of the Cold War” and “Globalisation to the Present.” It thus integrates African and South African history into world history, within which the Cold War is central.

The curriculum specifies that “blame for the Cold War” be taught and learned through the presentation of different interpretations and differing points of view.

Nonetheless, there is a new narrative. In both the curriculum and textbooks, the “baddies” are no longer the feared Communists. Instead, the then-superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, representing different ideologies, are both seen as responsible for the Cold War and for creating spheres of interest and conflict through proxy wars. They are presented as manipulating more vulnerable states through extensive military and financial aid, espionage, propaganda, rivalry over technology, space, sport and nuclear races.

The section on Independent Africa compares the former Belgian Congo as “a tool of the Cold War” with the African socialism of Tanzania. It closes with the way Africa became drawn into the Cold War, using Angola as an example. The Soviet Union, the US, Cuba, China and South Africa were all involved militarily in Angola. The section on the Cold War ends with the West seen as becoming dominant.

The Cold War was a binary conflict between two blocs, but also generated a more independent, neutral position led by the Non-Aligned Movement, a mostly Afro-Asian bloc. The leaders tried to assert themselves as independent of the superpowers. This isn’t dealt with in the curriculum, but it is an important dimension.

Although the role of Africa and Africans is more prominent than in apartheid-era textbooks, the current books position Africans as both passive victims of the superpowers and as fighters for freedom, imbued with agency and initiative.

South Africa’s current perspective on the Russia-Ukraine conflict claims to be in line with this as well as its own history of negotiated transition.

The question is how anticipated curriculum revisions will update treatment of the Cold War and contemporary conflicts. Curriculum designers and the writers of textbooks may wish to retain an emphasis on multiple perspectives.

This would enable the small minority of school students who study history to examine all sides of the complexities of the new Cold War so that they can decide on ethical issues for themselves.

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