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Is South Africa’s Way of Approaching Language Promoting Segregation?

You cannot choose your skin colour, you cannot choose your (home/first) language, and you cannot choose the economic or social situation you grow up in. You are born into an already structured world. In a sense Martin Heidegger stated it correctly: you are thrown into the (already fixed and existing) world with little you can do about it. I am a white South African Afrikaans male, and I had no say in the way I grew up. I did not choose to be Afrikaans, or white, or to be brought up in a home where food and water were taken for granted. Life just is. The same can be said about a person who grew up in a township without a father or mother, begging on the street to buy food. He did not choose to be on the street, have the skin colour he has, or the language he is speaking. Life just is.

South Africa is known for the shift from two official languages (Afrikaans and English) to eleven (including Afrikaans and English). The lesser known fact is that the promotion and integration of the nine Bantu languages (linguistic term) into the academic and social structures, are stagnant and sometimes non-existent. In most (privileged but still state owned) schools the default option for languages is Afrikaans and English. Most people who do a third language do German, and only a handful do a Bantu language. There is no incentive to study a foreign language, and even less to study a language like Xhosa. (If I look back at my own studies, I would have taken Xhosa if I could do it over.)

Education in South Africa is worse than it looks; covered up by a lot of statistics that are misused, misinterpreted and “hard” to find for the average person. In 2014 The department of education proclaimed a 75.8% pass rate for the national exams. People who saw the number and knew that some of the schools did not have textbooks, written exam papers went missing etc., looked skeptically at the number. Taking into account the number of students entered into grade one in 2003, and the number of students who passed in 2014, the percentage of students who really passed drops to 41.7%. There are a lot of reasons for this, from schools who do not have textbooks, schools who are in regions inaccessible on foot, the list goes on. But I think one of the most overlooked problems is language.

As previously stated, primary options for most (privileged) schools are Afrikaans and English. If you are from a township and you get the odd chance to study at a more privileged school, and you know only Xhosa and a little English, the chances that you will achieve sufficient results to study further is very low. The only reason: language. In the twenty plus years that apartheid ended the state did little to nothing to promote Bantu languages in schools. The language that textbooks use is primarily English (and Afrikaans). If you only know sufficient English to communicate, the chances that you will understand complicated physics is little. (I know this is a lot of speculation, but hard data is not easily available due to the sensitive nature.) With elementary online research you can at least find some (outdated) data of English as second language:

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The question is as follows: In a country that wants to promote multilingualism (evident in the eleven national languages and all over the news) is it “fair” or reasonable to make the official language of tuition English (the fourth widely spoken language)? If less than 10% of the country can use English on 2nd language level/comprehension (or for arguments sake make the figure 25%) is it ethical to provide tuition in English? Is it ethical to promote English and not a language like Xhosa or Zulu, which is the two most spoken languages in South Africa? (Doing some elementary math and you can deduce that only about 15% to 20% of South Africans (English 1st and 2nd speakers) have the ability to study at university.) The quest to incorporate Bantu languages is evident in the University of KwaZulu-Natal, were undergraduate students need to pass a compulsory Zulu language test. But is this the way to integrate and incorporate a language into the academic world, or is this an abuse of power and a “cover” to “promote” Zulu?

At the start I mentioned that we do not have a choice in what language we grow up with. It is “thrown” onto you. If I happen to be a Xhosa or Afrikaans speaker, then is it reasonable to force me to study in a “foreign” language like English? Is this not the basis of segregation (some universities follow “parallel-medium” education were Afrikaans and English classes are separated)? In South Africa English is linked with power and status. If you look at the demography, English is spoken mostly by people with status, including politicians, private schools, and English is more “liked” over Afrikaans because of the apartheid connections. If you make tuition and education predominantly English, who are you helping: those who do not have education and want it but are not fluent in English, or those who have the ability to pay for education in English and are mostly privileged? Is it reasonable to exclude so many from education only based on language? In the 20 years that South Africa relinquished apartheid, education is still far from being accessible to all.

Jaco Louw Promo


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