An Introduction to Apartheid through Role Play

29 APRIL 2015
Role play can assist the teaching of South African History, adding a more challenging and dynamic element. Written by Virgoe Buckland.

african people on a bus.jpg

Virgoe Buckland was born in Southport, Queensland, but grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. This paper was originally published in the March 2015 edition of the HTANSW journal Teaching History.

This paper aims to share ideas that can assist in making the teaching of South African  History more challenging and dynamic for students. Above all, it aims to provide students with an empathy for, and understanding of, the complex layers operating in Apartheid South Africa. The lesson is pitched at Senior Secondary students (Grades 10 to 12). One key to successful teaching of this lesson is to change teaching style from democratic/consensual to authoritative/dictatorial without any warning.

This lesson deals with hard-hitting and at times confronting issues. It is aimed at students in the Senior Secondary years. It is best delivered after you have taught the class for a long period of time and when rapport and understanding are well established. After teaching the lesson(s) and again in ‘normal’ teaching mode one needs to take time to debrief students about the process. Feedback from students about this lesson consistently suggests that it is the Modern History experience they most remember – this feedback was independently given to management as well as to me directly.

Setting the scene – The Rules of Engagement
As students arrive at class assert firmly that they are to line up in pairs and to follow the “Rules of Engagement”. If you can produce a good South African accent use it – otherwise this can be perfectly effective without. Begin the lesson with a series of military drills – standing at ease/attention/right dress. During this exercise let the students know that you are the boss ‘Ek is die Baas’  in Afrikaans. Once the students are intentionally a bit scared and uncertain of what is going on ask for a volunteer – explain that the outcome could be good or bad – as much of what happens in Apartheid South Africa is random.

Introducing the Role Play – Allocating Characters
The purpose of allocating characters is two-fold – to involve students in the lesson and make it interactive, and also to build empathy and help students to understand the complex layers in South African society. There are a vast range of ethnic and racial groups in the society. It is not just a black and white issue. For example, within the black population there are a myriad of different tribal groupings, and in the white population there are those whose first language is Afrikaans and others where the base language is English. The coloured population is an ethnic group comprised of mixed races.

Once you have the first volunteer introduce them to a life of privilege and give them conditions normally not allowed in a classroom. Give them some money to go down to the tuckshop and buy themselves food and drink of their choice (explain to tuckshop beforehand). This student will later return to the teacher’s desk, with access to textbooks, computer, data show – whatever they need – and are treated with complete favour throughout the lesson(s). A few other volunteers are called who still have privilege, but not to the extent of the first volunteer. One of these students has a desk and chair, the other just a chair.

The remaining students – the vast majority – are ‘herded’ in under strict instructions to set up a rectangle of tables to create a ‘kraal’ (enclosure) where they are to sit on the floor. These students have no books or pens  – they have access to no classroom resources. More characters are introduced, but this time no choice is provided – they are allotted. The characters represent some of the ethnic/racial groups evident in Apartheid South Africa as follows:

Andrew Shelton – privileged white – English
Jaap Marais – poor white – in this case Afrikaans – but can be the other way round
Suneel – young Indian
Travers – coloured
Annie – Xhosa – older lady

One could add other tribes – Zulu, Venda, for example, if one wished.

As the lesson progresses the students allocated roles read out the synopsis of their character – once for mid 1980s and once for early 1990s (time range can be varied by the teacher). Below are examples of two of the characters.

Mid 1980s
My name is Andrew Shelton. I am studying medicine at the University of Cape Town. I live with my family in Rondebosch, which is an elite white suburb. Since leaving school I have completed my military service (2 years) but saw very little conflict, as I was based at Simonstown Naval Base, just 30 minutes drive from home. My family had contacts! I am a member of Kelvin Grove, an elite sports club in Newlands, and enjoy watching the rugby and cricket when I am not studying. In my University class there is one African and an Indian. The other 90 are all white.
Early 1990s
Andrew Shelton’s life has not changed a great deal. I still live at home, despite the fact that I have finished studying now. I have a full-time job at Groote Schuur Hospital. I am engaged to be married and intend going on a two-week honeymoon to Zimbabwe to see the Victoria Falls and some of the Game Parks. Tanya (my fiancée) and I are concerned about the changes in South Africa. We are not too keen on bringing up children here and are investigating other options.

Mid 1980s

My name is Annie. My family lives in Lesotho, a Bantustan, or homeland in the white man’s language. There is not enough work for me in Lesotho, so I travel down to the Cape to work in one of the Golf Clubs. I see my family 3 times each year – for short periods only. Some of the whites at the Golf Club are friendly, but on the whole they are very rude and treat me poorly. I work from 8am to 5.30pm every day and on top of that it takes me two and half hours to get to work. I walk for half an hour then catch the train and bus to get to work. The compartments on the train are horribly overcrowded and we have no seats. Once or twice I have been beaten-up on the way to work.
Early 1990s
Annie still only sees her family three times in a year. The conditions in her life have hardly improved, even though some blacks and coloureds are now members of the Golf Club and the conditions on the trains have improved. I was forcibly removed from my squatting abode last year and now travel even further to work. The walk to work is even more hazardous now with the increase in inter-tribal and black-white conflict in neighbouring townships. I have been beaten again on two separate occasions. The removal of ‘petty apartheid’ laws does not improve things for me. Until I can live in a suburb close to where I work with my family I will never feel human.

Key Historical References and Concepts to be Covered
During the course of the lesson students are given a broad overview of key historical developments in South Africa from pre-European society to the arrival of the Dutch East India Company and the English. Content includes reference to the Battle of Blood River, the Boer War, the introduction of Apartheid in 1948, key Apartheid Legislation, Sharpeville and the Soweto riots. Clearly, initially, this is done in a broad-brush approach.

Maintaining Roles and Pushing the Limits
Throughout the lesson(s) the teacher continues to treat students with either privilege or otherwise depending on their role. Words and phrases which are normally politically incorrect are used. For example ‘Kaffir’ which was a derogatory term used by whites during the Apartheid era may be used. In the normal question/answer phase of the lesson those representing blacks and coloureds are consistently ignored and even put down or threatened with trips to the Deputy if they don’t cooperate. The teacher attempts to place these students into a state of fear which encourages submission. Sometimes students will protest and the teacher then responds appropriately depending on the response of the class. The teacher could read the following Black Sash Report (1989) to demonstrate what could happen if they protest:

"Death Row is like a factory. I find the whole place has been brutalised, dehumanised. It’s a factory which produces corpses. You know you go in live and come out dead. To produce that product a system is developed. The whole place is serviced. They provide food. They make gardens. They give notice of execution. They hang. And they bury."

At the end of the lesson those in the ‘Kraal’ are required to return the room to its original state whilst Andrew gets handouts relevant to the term test.

The teacher could choose to maintain the role play for more than one lesson depending on how it goes. At the end of the process here are some ideas for analysis:

How did you feel being the character you were given?
Did you want to change your character? Why? Why not?
What could you do to change things?
Why did you/did you not do anything?
Choose one character – write a synopsis of where they (or their descendants) are now (2015)?

Useful Resources:
Apartheid (1993). Parts One and Two. Sydney: SBS
Carlin, J (2009). Invictus. London: Atlantic Books
Currin, B (1989). A Black Sash Research Project. Inside South Africa’s Death Factory
Dimbleby, D (2008). Mandela: The Living Legend. London: BBC
Mandela, N (2013) Long Walk to Freedom. London: Abacus
Newman, K & De Lannoy, A (2014). After Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press
Sauvageot, C & Sheppard, C (1987). Girls Apart. Paris: New Internationalist Films
Smolowe, J (2005). Winnie’s Walk Into Obscurity.                                                            
Why Nelson Mandela – and the A.N.C. – could not live with his wife any longer
Stengel, R. (2008) ‘Mandela at 90. The Secrets of Leadership’. Time Magazine
World Revolutions for Students. (2005). South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. Brisbane: Marcom Projects Pty Ltd

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Margot Goldstein - 13/11/2015
Is there a way to get a hold of the other roles? I'd love to do this with my class.