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South Africa in World Historical Perspective
Comprehensive Unit


1999 (63 pages)


Curriculum Guide / VHS tape $21.95

In his books White Supremacy and Black Liberation, George M. Fredrickson has compared the histories of the United States and South Africa, arguing for the recognition of similarities in the historical development of these two geographically distant countries. His work has provoked questions as to the reasons for these affinities, particularly regarding the issue of racial injustice. Moreover, his work has pointed out the methodological benefits of comparison, of moving beyond national perspectives to place topics in a global perspective in order to re-contextualize and understand them anew.

The purpose of this curriculum unit is to place South Africa's history in a world historical perspective. Although this unit cannot provide a comprehensive analysis of South Africa's place in the world, it does intend to provide an introductory framework by exploring the broad themes of settlement, economic development, and political development. With these themes, teachers and students will arrive at a basic understanding of South Africa's history and will be able to make comparisons with other parts of Africa and the world.

This unit can be used in high school classes of world geography, history, or culture. It is specifically designed to conform to the National History Standards set in 1996 for high school students studying world history. Important to emphasize is the introductory nature of this curriculum module. This unit is intended to be flexible enough to help those teachers who seek a basic framework to teach South Africa's history exclusively, as well as those who seek to incorporate South Africa's history into a pre-existing curriculum.

To address the above themes, the unit is divided into three lessons. A combination of lecture outlines, handouts, and small group activities is provided for each. The lecture outlines provide a thematic narrative of facts, issues, and discussion questions to help teachers organize class time. Handouts are provided so that students can follow the more important issues and topics in each lesson. A timeline, historical background handouts, and a glossary of historical terms and concepts are provided at the end of this Unit Introduction as reference materials for both teachers and students to further reinforce the history and concepts discussed in the lessons.

Multimedia and small group activities are the key part of learning in this module. For Lesson One, map transparencies focus on the early settlement of both African societies and European colonists and the eventual geographic demarcation of contemporary South Africa. In Lesson Two, a small group activity involving the 20th-century legislation underscores how racial injustice was sanctioned by the South African government before and during the apartheid era. For Lesson Three, a video of South African political posters illustrates the spectrum of political strategies that existed during the 20th century to counter policies of racial discrimination. After students interpret the visual content of these posters, a political poster-making activity allows students to engage in the issues that South Africans face today, specifically the difficulties of creating and maintaining a multiracial democracy and closing the gap between rich and poor. In addition to these materials, a small group activity on forms of political resistance and a readers' theater are included. Overall in this unit, media materials and small group activities are intended to generate further class discussion about historical and current social issues and their effects on daily experience.

Supplementary materials for both students and teacher can be used to extend the unit. Suggested materials are listed in the appendix. The extent to which these themes are elaborated is left to the individual teacher.


The purpose of this unit is to introduce students to the historical origins of contemporary South Africa. This will be done through an episodic historical examination of the region. Although the unit deals mainly with South Africa's history, it will nevertheless prepare students to make broader conceptualizations regarding historical change in other parts of Africa and the world, particularly former colonies.









  • to learn basic features of South Africa's geography and the main episodes of its history from the 17th through the 20th century
  • to understand the historical origins of South Africa's racially diverse population
  • to comprehend the transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy and how this change affected the country as a whole and the daily experience of individuals
  • to understand the historical relationship between government policy and the racial hierarchy that evolved, and to understand how this racial hierarchy also related to the class structure that developed as South Africa industrialized
  • to learn the historical development of the government policy of apartheid
  • to learn the history of the political activism that resisted racial discrimination and to recognize the significance of the 1994 elections
  • to understand the social issues that South Africa currently faces as a result of its historical legacy


  • to appreciate the importance and relevance of another country's historical tradition, noting similarities and differences with our own
  • to recognize the larger historical issues of European colonization and industrial development and how such episodic changes impacted local populations
  • to gain a greater critical understanding of the historical origins of race as a social category and discrimination as a social practice within a society
  • to acknowledge and begin to comprehend the complexity of South Africa's history, moving beyond simplistic media images of conflict between blacks and whites to an informed perception of the variety of ways racial discrimination was implemented and resisted




  • to make general conclusions regarding the roots of contemporary South Africa based on recognition and analysis of historical trends
  • to point out similarities and differences between South Africa's history and the histories of other countries of the world
  • to deduce basic principles of colonization and development
  • to analyze and interpret media materials and derive hypotheses from their interpretation
  • more generally, to develop a critical approach to such topics as race and class and to develop a thought process on how to approach history: Whose perspective does a historical account or document represent? How does this affect the portrayal of history?


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