Freshman students at Denison High School got a glimpse Thursday of what life was like for many South Africans during the peak of apartheid, thanks to an interactive lesson which mirrored the basic structure of the condemned segregationist system.
The nearly two dozen students in Brandon Cates’s world geography class took part in an activity in which three classmates served as the ruling party, while the rest remained in a small area of the classroom and had to abide by the school-appropriate laws and directions of those in charge. The students also researched the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, an apartheid critic who was imprisoned for nearly 30 years, but ultimately rose to become South Africa’s president and a global human rights icon.
“It’s important for these kids to know how people live and have lived all over the world,” Cates said. “I think the apartheid is relatable to these kids because the United States itself had a history of segregation. And today, they got to experience a fraction of what it was like to be oppressed. They learned about the strict limitations and laws that were enforced.”
Apartheid was a social and political system established and enacted in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. With the nation’s white minority in control of the government, the majority of black South Africans and other nonwhite populations were forced to abide by strict laws which dictated where they could live and work, as well as who they married. Dissent and protests were frequently punished with lengthy prison sentences and abuse.
To help simulate this system, Cates created a simplified model in which the students playing the oppressed waited for those in ruling positions to assign them jobs. Once selected for a task, the oppressed then had to secure themselves a stamp that allowed them to leave their area. After completing their jobs, the students were paid a low sum in candy and returned to their area. If at any point the students violated the laws or voiced displeasure, they faced a two minute jail sentence in a cordoned-off section of the room.
Meghan Brooks, who played the part of an oppressed South African said the rules were stringent and the margin for error was slim.
“They were really strict,” Brooks said. “We had to have a this passport thing just to move from place to place and they just didn’t treat us like we were equal. You could make a lot of mistakes pretty easily and if you did, you had to go to jail.”
Izzy Hernandez, a member of the class’s ruling party, said the system benefited her but that didn’t change her opinion that it was unjust. She said she had difficulty imagining the challenge so many South Africans faced.
“If I was in their shoes, I really would have felt like it was unfair,” Hernandez said. “If I had a family back then, there’s no way I could have afforded to feed them or make enough money for them.”
Cates explained that although apartheid ended more than 20 years ago, its affects are still remembered and felt.
“South Africa is still dealing with problems today because of the apartheid,” Cates said, adding that the country continues to struggle with racial issues, poverty and an unequal distribution of wealth.
The geography teacher said he hoped the lesson left his students with a sense of empathy and gratitude.
“I hope they appreciate the rights they have,” Cates said. “I want them to understand that no matter how frustrated they get living here (in the U.S.), there are people elsewhere in the world who are struggling.”