When Children Shape a Society

Social Sciences5 MIN READ

History professor Sarah Duff turns her South African childhood into a lesson for us all

By Kardelen Koldas ’15
January 9, 2020

As a child, Sarah Duff was part of an effort to create a new South Africa; now she studies why and how.

Duff was 10 years old when her school in South Africa became racially integrated. Duff, who is white, still remembers being given the South African constitution and recalls the changes in the school curriculum as her country transitioned from apartheid to democracy.

Now she’s an assistant professor of history—and children are very much at the center of her work.

“In many ways, and for very good reason, we [children] were a target of a lot of interventions in imagining a new democratic South Africa,” she said. “And I suppose that at least part of that experience made me interested in the experiences of children as reasonable, thinking, feeling subjects who should be taken seriously.”
Duff’s book, Changing Childhoods in the Cape Colony: Dutch Reformed Evangelicalism and Colonial Childhood, 1860-1895, examines how ideas around white children were constituted under the British rule in the Cape Colony, as the region around Cape Town was then known. By the late 19th century, the idea of white childhood had emerged there, Duff writes, as the government, along with churches, became interested in identifying a category of white children.

“At that stage the Cape Colony’s economy was booming because of the discovery of diamonds and gold,” she said. “They’re interested in having a generation of young people who they can educate and then make responsible for maintaining white supremacy.”

By looking at other British colonies, Duff puts events in Cape Colony into context. “In many ways Cape Colony was quite similar to other parts of the world,” she said, noting that Australia and New Zealand were similarly anxious about creating and protecting a white childhood.

“At least in South Africa, education has long been used as a tool or a weapon in social engineering to uplift whites and to make sure that [black] Africans, in particular, are kept really at the bottom of the social pile,” Duff said. Both the Cape Colony and, later, the apartheid regime used education to their own ends. And the post-apartheid regime tried to redress that.

She’s now researching one example of that redress effort: sex education.

“Teaching sex education is a way of teaching children and young people how they should form families, who they should fall in love with, when they should have children, or if they should have children. So sexuality then becomes at the core of imagining South African society.”

Assistant Professor of History Sarah Duff on the apartheid-era South African government’s efforts at social engineering.

“Different groups of people at different times in South Africa have become interested in sex education for young people because it allows them to control the future,” she said. “Teaching sex education is also a way of teaching children and young people how they should form families, who they should fall in love with, when they should have children, or if they should have children. So sexuality then becomes at the core of imagining South African society.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, conservative organizations used sex education to preserve racial segregation and to keep South Africa in white hands, Duff explained. Some of their teachings included telling both black and white youth to refrain from sex until marriage, which they stressed shouldn’t be interracial, and telling white children that they should have children.

However, sex education wasn’t always just used by conservatives. The then-exiled African National Congress also became interested in using sex education as it envisioned a gender equal, post-apartheid future, she said. “Don’t you think that’s fascinating?” she asked with visible excitement.

Duff was a high school student when the HIV/AIDS epidemic caused “a concerted attempt to introduce sex education into all South African schools for the very first time.” Until that point, sex education was called by other names, like guidance, in school curriculum. “I suppose that has left in me a lingering interest in how people learn about sex,” she said.

As she continues to research sex education in South Africa, she’s teaching various courses at Colby. Last fall, she introduced a new course called “Africa in New England, New England in Africa” with Erin Rhodes, Colby’s archives education librarian. As part of the class, students examined materials from Special Collections, like reading about the life of African-American Colby graduate Joseph Washington ’37, who enlisted in the British army and worked at a hospital in Sierra Leone (Washington also received an honorary degree from Colby during the 1970s.)

Students learned about Barbara Grant Nnoka ’43, an American woman who worked as a teacher in Nigeria from 1954 to 1966, too. “It is a fantastic insight into Nigeria, not only from an American woman’s point of view, but at an interesting moment of transition as Nigeria becomes independent,” Duff said. The class also explored materials on the powerful anti-apartheid movement at Colby during the 1970s and 1980s to learn how students at the time represented South Africa and framed the anti-apartheid movement, in relation to American politics in the 70s and 80s.

Whether it’s teaching or research, Duff’s work has a deep focus on race. Raised by parents opposed to apartheid, she grew up highly aware of her class and race and the privilege those gave her, both within and beyond South Africa. Consequently, she believes writing—and talking—about histories of race and racism, especially about whiteness, is absolutely crucial for understanding the present and for finding ways to end racism.

However, there’s a difference in speaking about race here in the United States and in South Africa, she observed. “I noticed that students [here] immediately clap up; there’s an absolute unwillingness to speak about race,” Duff said, “whereas if I taught exactly the same classes in South Africa I’d never get them to keep quiet.”

South Africans, she explained, talk more easily and openly about race and attributed that to the country’s sudden and speedy transition from white minority rule to multiracial democracy.

“It is absolutely incumbent, particularly on white people, to talk about race and racism in the same way that it is absolutely incumbent upon men to talk about patriarchy,” she said. “These are conversations that have to be had regardless of whether they make us feel uncomfortable.”