It was a hot summer afternoon and normally we, the boys of Form 2, would be on the verge of nodding off.
Except in history.
Mr Stewart was that kind of teacher: someone who made a subject come alive. We liked him and, more importantly, respected him – not in the least because we knew, from painful experience, that if we stepped out of line, he would not hesitate to remind us who was in charge with a stinging two or three lashes on the bum.
We had been discussing the French Revolution and its significance was not lost on some of us.
Pearson (second names were your identifier) raised his hand.
“Sir, is Ian Smith leading the Africans to revolution?”
There was a shocked silence. Good white Rhodesian boys did not even think these things, never mind voice them in public.
In the ’70s, most whites in the former British colony believed (or wanted to believe) that Smith was leading this brave band of righteous people in the fight against Godless Communism.
It never occurred to us – up to then – that we were in the midst of a revolution: one which sought to overthrow white rule.
And our fellow countrymen were rebelling against us.
(It was an ideal some of us would go off to defend, almost unthinkingly, as national servicemen
in the army. Two of the boys listening to Mr Stewart that day would come back in body bags.)
Mr Stewart was silent for a moment. Then, he said: “Do you want to get me sacked?”
He then diverted us back to the French Revolution … but it was quite clear we had opened the door to a dangerous new world – one that challenged our view of life and our very existence.
And that all happened because of history … that most subversive and powerful of school subjects.
The ANC government says it wants to make history a compulsory subject up to Grade 9, and I can see exactly why they want to do it.
They are well aware that those who are not aware of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.
But that is probably not their reason for wanting to control what enters the minds of young children.
That’s because the move to make history compulsory goes hand-in-hand with moves to rewrite the curriculum.
In and of itself, revising the history we teach our children is no bad thing: like many former British colonies, we have been fed only the version of the world through the eyes of our erstwhile colonial rulers.
And, the English are, to be kind, economical with the truth at the best of times.
However, while the ANC intends to broaden the history syllabus to include the struggle of indigenous people to be free, one wonders how balanced it will be.
There are ominous signs already that the history that will be taught will be the history of the ANC, or whatever faction of the ANC is on top when it is compiled.
The organisation has already shown it is not that interested in the story of people such as the Khoi-San, and has shown itself adept at appropriating the ideologies of pan-Africanism and Black Consciousness for its own ends.
They are well aware that history, as much as it can open people’s eyes to injustice by understanding examples of it in the past, can also have a much more sinister purpose in doing exactly the opposite.
There’s a simple word for that: brainwashing.