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South Africa Furor Over School Books

April 24, 2001

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) _ A literary furor has erupted in South Africa over recommendations from members of an advisory group of teachers that works including Hamlet and a book by South African author Nadine Gordimer be dropped from the curriculum.

A few teachers from the Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, found Gordimer’s celebrated ``July’s People,″ a novel about a white family given refuge by their black servant during a civil war in South Africa, to be ``deeply racist, superior and patronizing.″

They considered Shakespeare’s Hamlet too eurocentric, and found South African author Njabulo Ndebele’s short story ``Fools″ to be unsuitable and too complex.

Since the comments were first reported just over a week ago, they have caused an uproar prompting education authorities to quickly reject them. Gauteng education department spokesman Tom Waspe said the books would not be removed from the curriculum.

The negative comments were made by a handful of 1,400 teachers asked to comment on 350 literary works. Those comments are then sent to a specialized panel that submits recommendations to the education department for final selection.

``This is just the first screening,″ Waspe said. ``Our mistake was to submit the comments of the teachers to the publishers.″

Still, the reports raised accusations that the government was employing censorship tactics reminiscent of apartheid, when the all-white regime used classrooms to indoctrinate South Africans to its racist ideology.

When apartheid ended with all-race elections in 1994, schools were integrated and a complex process of revising curriculums and prescribed books was instituted.

Gordimer, an outspoken critic of apartheid and the winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in literature, said members of the panel showed ``abysmal ignorance.″

Kader Asmal, the education minister, personally phoned Gordimer to apologize, saying the views expressed were ``ill-informed, pedagogical unsound and smacked of anti-intellectualism.″

Ignatius Jacobs, head of the Gauteng education department, said the book selection process was flawed, which allowed it to be affected by the views of a small minority, and that this would be overhauled to ensure fairness and transparency.

Gordimer welcomed the announcement, saying the government’s intervention provided reassurance about the integrity of the process to reform the education system.

``The abandonment of the system of evaluation is a democratic victory for the wide public concern expressed for our children’s development as intelligent, thinking human beings,″ she told the Sunday Independent newspaper.

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