South Africa in the 1930s & 40s: A Living Timeline

This activity was created by Dan Lyndon who has made his extensive and valuable work available on his fast-developing site on black history:

Here's Dan's description:

I have been teaching about Apartheid (Edexcel Coursework Unit) for a number of years now, having studied South African history at University. For this activity I wanted the students to be able to answer the question 'Describe the treatment of black South Africans in the 1930s and 1940s' and was bored with reading the same things being copied from the worksheets that I used.


A WORD version of this activity and accompanying files can be downloaded:

For Activity file [ click here ]

For statement cards [ click here ]

For card sort [ click here ]

For planning grid [ click here ]


The main focus of the question is for students to understand that life was very difficult for black South Africans in the 1930s as a consequence of the white supremacist attitudes that were prevalent from the 19th century onwards. The racist attitudes manifested themselves in a series of Acts that produced a framework of legal discrimination, ranging from the Natives Land Acts of 1913 and 1936, which restricted the amount of land available to blacks to a maximum of 13%, to the job reservation laws that made the South African railways a white-only employer. However the impact of the Second World War gave blacks a glimmer of hope that their living and working conditions would improve as the white industrialists realised that healthier, better trained and educated black workers were needed as labour in the newly mechanised factories. This feeling was reinforced by the re-emergence of the ANC, led by the dynamic activists in the Youth League (Mandela, Tambo et al) and the signing of the Atlantic Charter in 1941.

Setting Up

I decided to construct a living timeline which was set out as follows:











I created a series of statement cards (in black for the 1930s and green for the 1940s) which represented the different events or attitudes that were prevalent at the time. For example

Many whites believed that Africans were more suited to ‘natural conditions’ living in the countryside rather than in the cities

I then created a series of cards covering the laws that were passed or which matched the different themes that were on the statement cards (blue for the 1930s and red for the 1940s). For example:

• Urban Areas Act 1923

There are also cards for the overarching themes:

• White supremacy and Legal discrimination in the 1930s (purple)

• The impact of WW2 and Civil Rights (pink)

• Date cards

• Positive/Negative cards

The Activity

I cleared the desks from the centre of the room and placed the chairs around the edge of the room. I then gave individual students a card (either a description - whites believed that blacks were more suited to 'natural conditions' and should live in the countryside - or a law/attitude eg Urban Areas Act) and they had to place it in the correct chronological place on the floor.

Then they had to decide if the card was positive (above the line) or negative (below the line).

Once all the cards had been laid on the floor I then introduced the linking themes - White supremacy and Legal discrimination in the 1930s and Impact of WW2 and civil rights in the 1940s and asked them to group cards together under those themes. The end result was a very clear visual image of not only when the key events took place but also allowed the students to see links between the different themes.


The follow up activity was to get the students to use a miniature version of the Living timeline that could be placed on the desktop. This helped them to fill in a planning grid which clearly set out the main elements of each decade. Some higher order thinking was introduced by asking students to explain the impact of these elements on the black population.

Notes & Variations

An alternative approach to the timeline was also suggested by Chris Culpin. Instead of approaching this initially from a chronological stance the students could start by sorting the cards into positive and negative (this would make the colour coding less obvious) and then into themes (which would allow the linkages to come through well) and finish with a chronological timeline. I was very pleased with the depth of understanding (from all of the pupils) that occurred as a result of this activity and it reduced the amount of plagiarism enormously. The students enjoyed it too.


1. How often have you used this kind of living graph activity before with this class? Does the frequency of use affect its effectiveness and, if so, what effects will this have on your overall course planning?

2. How did tackling this topic through this physical activity affect students’ learning? e.g. was understanding of the patterns of events deeper? Did they have a better-developed sense of the possibilities for different interpretations?

3. Did this have an impact on the quality of discussion among students? If so, how and why and what can be learned from this?

4. Where else can you use this technique to increase students’ confidence and familiarity with it?

This Page




Setting Up

The Activity


Notes & Variations