A Mother and Her Daughters: Jewish Teachers and the Fight against Apartheid
by Alan Wieder — 2007
Before 1999, there was little research on teachers and apartheid aside from some biographical sketches. “A Mother and Her Daughters” is part of an ongoing oral history project of teachers who fought apartheid. It is contextualized through the literature on Jews and apartheid in South Africa and joins the growing literature on teachers in the country.
The article describes and analyzes the lives of three Jewish women, a mother and two of her daughters, who as teachers challenged the apartheid regime in their communities and in their schools. The elder teacher taught in a Jewish day school and brought the issues of apartheid to Jewish studies, and her daughters taught in black schools during the struggle years. The lives of the three women portrayed are analyzed within the context of the political divide among Jewish South Africans during apartheid.
Setting and Participants:
“A Mother and Her Daughters” is part of an oral history project in South Africa with over 200 teachers from each of the apartheid government designated ethnic groups: Africans, coloureds, Indians, and whites.
I have spent the last six years working on an oral history project with teachers who fought apartheid. The first people that I interviewed were referred to me by university colleagues in South Africa. As the project continued, I spoke to teachers who often provided me with lists of other teachers. The methodological process is what ethnographers define as network sampling, or snowball sampling. As I have argued elsewhere, and with a sensitivity to issues of memory, culture, class, race, ethnicity, gender, and power and their relationship to oral history, I view my work as testimony as oral history. While most oral historians conduct research by identifying informants and conducting interviews, testimony as oral history recognizes that individuals need to speak—to testify and provide witness to their lives.
The women portrayed in the article joined many other South Africans on the ground to fight the apartheid regime. The lives of the Silbert women are important because they went against the norm of their own Jewish community, and white South Africa, to work for the end of apartheid and for a democratic South Africa. They went against the grain of most South African teachers and represent what scholar and politico I. B. Tabata called “teachers with the fighting spirit.” Marlene, Beth, and Patti Silbert combined pedagogy and politics to fight apartheid. Their stories are significant because with other “teachers with the fighting spirit,” they were part of derailing apartheid and facilitating the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. In addition, individually and collectively, the stories of the Silbert women offer possibilities of education for democracy—in South Africa and throughout the world.
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