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The Legacy of Apartheid in Modern South Africa: Language Barriers

The word “apartheid” comes with a big, bad history and even worse connotations. No one wants to talk about it publicly for the fear of being scorned. With the eradication of apartheid, everyone lived in the euphoria of post-apartheid, but a lot of things got looked over. One of these things is the national language policy. South Africa boasts with pride about its 11 official languages, but it is not good enough to have these languages only on state documents. Implementing 11 official languages in a diverse country like South Africa turned out to be a disaster.

The majority of my articles on this website have concerned language problems in South Africa. It is a big problem, and it starts to eat at you when you know you can do nothing about it. It is a small problem in relation to hunger or infrastructure problems, yet it is the most fundamental thing to being human and being free. If you have a house that does not have electricity, water or even a roof, you are still free and a citizen of your country. But if your country does not provide services like education or medical help in a language you understand, it will feel like you are not a citizen of that country. If you do not understand the language that is spoken in your school or university, you are not going to achieve anything. Language is a barrier. Language can either help you, or kill all the chances you may get to have success in life.

If you don’t understand, how can you learn?” is a simple question asked by a study conducted by UNESCO. It is so simple it may even be absurd to think about it, or to argue about it. How can you learn in a language you do not understand? If you woke up one morning speaking the same English as the day before, but everyone around you started speaking French or Chinese, how would you survive? How will you get medical attention? How will you be educated or do your job? The sad fact is that, in South Africa, children in rural areas and townships get taught in English – a language they barely understand. They don’t hear it at home, or in the towns they live, they only hear English at school. They don’t pass because they don’t understand English, not because they couldn’t understand the content.

Post-apartheid South Africa has its problems. Equality is a major issue at the moment, as is proper housing, infrastructure and so on. The list may go on and on, but the problem underlying all of the above is education. If you don’t get proper education, you will never develop skills to help you get out of a bad situation. If you are from a township and you had access to education, but you did not pass your tests because your “education” was given in a second, almost foreign, language the chances that you will get a good paying job is slim. And this does not sit right. If language prevents you from getting a quality job, and not your mental capabilities, then the system must be broken.

The situation is not easy to solve. The implementation of African languages, like Xhosa, into the education system, should have been handled better post-1994. We cannot stand in 2016 and still blame the past; something must be done. “Keeping them [the population] uneducated will not allow them to escape from poverty, and people trapped in poverty are very easily manipulated,” said Richard Gruning. The legacy of apartheid is still being felt with inequality in language. South Africa has 11 official languages, but there is only one that is being used: English. In a country which has only 10% native speakers of English, its choice as the state language was obviously wrapped up with colonialism, but now one can only speculate about the reasons why it is used. It is not easy to get rid of this problem, but a practical way of helping is to get people talking; let’s start the discussion.


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