Study finds South African school textbooks are not inclusive enough

The Department of Basic Education has released a new report focusing on the diversity of South Africa’s textbooks.

The report is the work of a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) established in 2016 who were tasked with identifying discriminatory and biased content so that inclusive texts are ultimately produced in future.

With more than 630 textbooks in use in the school system it was agreed – to make the exercise more manageable – that the report would focus on an evaluation of two textbooks in use at the exit grades of the four phases of learning, in the following subjects:

  • Mathematics and Mathematics Literacy;
  • English (First Additional Language);
  • Afrikaans (First Additional Language);
  • IsiZulu (Home language);
  • Life Orientation, Life Skills;
  • Social Sciences; and History.

This yielded a sample of 48 texts for analysis across grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.


In its executive summary, MTT acknowledged that the review would, both in its execution and its reporting, generate some controversy.

“This controversy would arise in relation to the political and cultural nature of the issues,” it said.

“It was accepted that members of the broad South African community would have positions and understandings of what was understood by the social factors that were being investigated and that there would be disagreement about how these factors should be described and explained.

“Particularly contentious, it was understood by the MTT, would be the questions of race, gender and sexuality, about which there would be quite divergent understandings,” it said.


The results show that with respect to race and gender, textbooks in South Africa generally conform to the demographic diversity of the country.

Proportionally, however, in terms of demographics, white and male subjects are over-represented.

“White subjects never constitute less than 9% of the totality of the people represented across both subjects and grades,” the researchers said.

“In terms of gender, across subjects and grades, males are present in greater proportions than females by a margin of 10%.”

An example of these discrepancies include:

  • Representations of black African and white are exactly the same in visual representations for professional roles in English FAL textbooks;
  • However, in Afrikaans FAL textbooks the dimension ‘white’ enjoys a 30% higher frequency than that for ‘black African’ within professional roles;
  • The highest representation of the dimension ‘coloured’ is within working class roles in English FAL, Afrikaans FAL and Life Skills / Life Orientation;
  • There is a 60% discrepancy between categories of male and female within professional roles, and 80% discrepancy within working class roles in Social Science/History textbooks.

Sexuality was not often identified, the researchers said.

“References to LGBTIQ representations were hardly ever made in any of the textbooks.

“With respect to religion, family status and disability there are notable silences and omissions. Atheism, same-sex or child-headed families and mental impairment were not identified in any textbook. African traditional religion, single-parent families and physical impairment only arose occasionally.”

Despite these discrepancies, the researchers said that the quantitative data from the sample of textbooks presented in the report point to limited if any evidence of discrimination in respect of any of the eight categories.

“Notwithstanding this, the data point to some bias and prejudice with respect to almost all categories with a middle-class normativity present and with obvious omission of orientations such as LGBTIQ that do not conform to a norm,” they said.


The report makes the following five recommendations to address the above issues:

1. Widen inclusion

There is a need to widen the notion of inclusion to reflect the diversity in society.  Such a recommendation would focus on moving beyond the heteronormativity of current textbook including:

  • Non-nuclear families;
  • Diverse forms of sexuality.

2. Address discrimination

There is a need to attend to the most obvious form of discrimination in the textbook text and visual representations. As such, textbooks should more visibly deal with:

  • Disability;
  • Mental health;
  • Role representations which do not conform to stereotypical representation of gender, race, class, etc;
  • Religion.

3. Strengthen screening processes

Practically there is a need to strengthen the screening processes for textbooks.This would include:

  • Changing the assessment criteria;
  • Broadening the base of reviewers from diverse groups and constituencies;
  • User group/affected group participation;
  • Tightening the specification for publishers in producing textbooks – tendering process.

4. Diversifying writers

  • Diversifying the writer base such that it includes writers from a wider pool reflecting the diversity in society.

5.  Decolonising

Dealing with the content and pedagogy of textbooks which reflect:

  • The context of Africa and South Africa in a global context – link to the decolonisation debate;
  • Ensuring that textbooks deal more effectively pedagogically speaking with issues of inclusion and equity.

Read: How many kids are being home schooled in South Africa

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Study finds South African school textbooks are not inclusive enough