Language policy in South Africa and the unfounded fears of a Zulu hegemony

Neville Alexander
Given South Africa’s stated commitment to multilingualism, you might not think that a requirement from one of the country’s universities that its students learn an indigenous African language would raise much alarm. Yet alarm has nonetheless been the reaction from a few unexpected quarters to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s announcement that all first-year students enrolled from next near onwards will be required to develop “some level” of isiZulu proficiency by the time they graduate.

The university’s announcement doesn’t mean that it will become a dual-medium English-isiZulu institution in 2014. Far from it. In keeping with the gradualism of South Africa’s transition from apartheid, the requirement is flexible and allows faculties to exempt students with evidence of isiZulu proficiency at the required level. At the moment, that’s well over half of the university’s annual intake of new students. And even though there are plans to introduce isiZulu as a medium of instruction, the university estimates that it won’t happen until at least 2018, because centuries of colonialism and apartheid have meant that very little work has gone into developing isiZulu and the country’s other indigenous languages for use in higher education.

In some quarters, the mostly lauded decision has been called unconstitutional, which it isn’t, while others said it was impractical and unfair, as it will mean that many non-isiZulu speakers will encounter the language for the first time in an educational setting over a decade later than the optimal time to be learning a new language. Others have argued it will be expensive. Indeed, it was estimated in 2006 that the cost of this first phase of the university’s isiZulu development policy would cost almost $1.5 million at today’s exchange rate.

Some have even said the decision is further evidence of the preeminence of the Zulu hegemony in current politics.

Stanley Mabuza, an aggrieved listener of public radio station SAfm, emailed the station’s The Forum@8 morning talk show to register his dissatisfaction. Mabuza’s email, read by the show’s host, said, “When we speak of transformation in our tertiary institutions, we are not inviting the introduction of unpopular policies by senseless individuals who are intent at institutionalizing tribalism in our public institutions. You cannot force an Indian child who wants to study at the UKZN to now include isiZulu in their programme. I’m not being tribalistic, but I’m afraid some people are trying to force their language and culture upon all groups in the country.”

Mabuza’s comment underlines what has perhaps been the most surprising aspect of the reaction, which is that some of the backlash has, for various reasons, come from black South Africans against what is perceived as an act of Zulu domination.

Much of the criticism is answered by the late educationist and anti-apartheid activist Neville Alexander (portrait above) in his posthumous collection of essays, Thoughts on the New South Africa. Alexander, who played a central role in developing the country’s higher education language policy, argues that developing African languages is necessary because English and Afrikaans—the West Germanic language whose imposition on black high school students was the final straw that triggered the 1976 Soweto Uprising—are not functioning adequately in South Africa as languages of higher education. He says many students aren’t making it to graduation owing in large part to a lack of proficiency and grasp of idiom in languages not their own. He also rebuts as a non-question the notion that developing African languages in the way UKZN and other South African universities are will create “ethnic universities”.

Alexander has also, in other essays and papers, charted the development of an appetite for multilingualism in post-apartheid South Africa, despite what he described as the persistent fallacy that assigning indigenous languages an official status in post-colonial African states would lead to ethnic rivalry and separatist movements. He put it down to South Africa’s liberation movement—in its true, broad multiparty sense, not just the African National Congress—understanding multilingualism’s role in intercultural communication and social cohesion.

That some black South Africans have reacted angrily to this announcement could be due to a misunderstanding of the rationale behind the UKZN’s choice of isiZulu as its African language to punt—a choice informed by the university being located in a mostly isiZulu-speaking province (in a country where isiZulu is the most common first language). The choice was also informed by the purpose of this initial phase of the policy, which is to provide the university’s non-isiZulu-speaking graduates with the facility to interact with the communities where they’ll be living and working.

The reaction may also be due to not knowing that the country’s other universities have also adopted a similar policy to develop other indigenous languages. The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, for example, is focusing its language development work on Sesotho and Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape is developing isiXhosa. All of them are doing so following the path advocated by the national policy: first focus on building proficiency in the language among all staff, enrolled students and graduates while at the same time developing the language for introduction at a later stage as a full-fledged language of instruction at the institution.

This nonetheless has not stopped some influential pundits from arguing that UKZN’s decision is further evidence of the so-called “Zulufication” of the country, as intimated by Mcebisi Ndletyana, head of the faculty of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute think tank. Ndletyana said, during an interview on The Forum@8 this week, that language policy in the country should be directed towards encouraging people to speak languages other than their own because regional monolingual communities, which he said South Africa has many, propagate ethnic stereotypes that can be co-opted for political campaigning.

Absent from Ndletyana’s analysis is the recognition that no such monolinguistic communities exists in South Africa, save for a few enclaves of English and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans speakers. The majority of South Africans have a basic knowledge of English and are fluent in at least one other language. Ndletyana’s definition of monolingualism, it appears, scopes out English and Afrikaans, and refers only to speakers of one indigenous South African language.

But Alexander warned of this specific type of casual acceptance of the English and Afrikaans linguistic dominance. He said English and Afrikaans gained their position as “legitimate languages” first through colonial conquest, then through the consent of the victims of colonial subjugation who accepted and internalised the superiority of the languages. South Africans would do well to keep his warning in mind.


14 thoughts on “Language policy in South Africa and the unfounded fears of a Zulu hegemony

  1. Fascinating, but I think it’d be interesting to pay more respectful attention to the fears minorities have of being compelled into taking up a language of a politically powerful group. The same intuitions that lead to the questioning of the primacy of English or Afrikaans, lead small groups to question the motivations behind the imposition of IsiZulu.

    Are there other ways to achieve the same progressive ends, without creating new put upon minorities or otherwise creating and perpetuating language hierarchies.

  2. You refer above to Afrikaans as a West Germanic language which is incorrect, it developed as a “pidgin” dialect popularised and broadly used by the variety of slaves & indentured peoples brought to the Cape of South Africa. Its basis is Dutch only in so much that it was the lingua franca of the time amongst the slaves and indentured peoples who ranged from the east indies (Java, Sumatra, etc) to African slaves and sailors from the rest of Africa who spoke amongst other languages, Arabic, KiSwahili, Portugeuse & French.
    But as is the lot of saves, it was taken from them by their slave masters as it wouldn’t do for the slaves to communicate in a way that the master couldn’t fully understand.
    Those slave masters form the core of the current South African white Afrikaans community and through their misappropriation and weaponised use of the language as a tool of oppression it was vilified and tarred with the same brush.
    The history is not hidden, its there for whoever wants to look. So despite the modern majority of Afrikaans speakers in South Africa being not white and thousands upon thousands of non-whites having spoken it for at least a century before Apartheid, it became the symbol of oppression.
    And now as that modern majority of non-white Afrikaans speakers are finally close to a position in terms of numbers and social clout to reclaim what is rightfully theirs, everybody else is too intellectually lazy or deficient or wilfully ignorant to see the wood for the trees.
    Its not a small thing to lose your language, get told you have no culture and to be treated as the vile products of rape.
    But clearly its easier to just listen to the loudest voices and ignore the bruised & bleeding human being those loud voices are standing on, having silenced them by cutting out their voice.
    Ah well, the wheel turns I suppose…

    • Well “eesh” I’m not sure where the Mr Molefe got his source from, but if you check the ever-unreliable Wikipedia, their article on Afrikaans starts off with: “Afrikaans is a West Germanic language…”. I hope you and others help to fix that awful article, but I cite it just to prove that the “Afrikaans is West Germanic” thing is still widely circulated.

      Then there is this thread on come where the origin of Afrikaans and its creole-or-dialect status is summarised: – and it has lots of back and forth debate but also this quite telling quote from H.A. van der Rheede, VOC commissioner-general, who reported of his 1685 visit to the Cape that then already:

      “It is a custom among all our people that when these natives learn the Netherlands speech and speak it in their own way in a very crooked and almost unintelligible manner, our Netherlanders imitate them, indeed yes in such a way that if the children of our Netherlanders also accustom themselves to it, a broken language will be established which it will be impossible to overcome afterwards.”

  3. A great and logical thing to happen but a very biased article full of incorrect information. The first being the use of the term West Germanic. Firstly, it is incorrect as pointed out by “eesh” above and secondly, it is incorrect as there is no such thing as WEST Germanic. It appears the writer has his politics all skewed. Another mistake is the claim that isiZulu is the most commonly spoken language in South Africa, I believe that Pedi is. To blame colonialism and apartheid for the lack of indigenous language development is actually passing the buck. there have been many emminent black scholars that could have done development but chose not to. It didn’t take long for the bible to be translated into indigenous languages!
    I chose to learn Afrikaans fluently as it helped tremendously in many ways when dealing with government officials and the police. I have chosen to learn Pedi for the same reason, it just makes life easier when dealing with (un)civil (non) servants.
    A fact that cannot be ignored is that English is the internationally accepted language of business and without English one would be confined within our borders, and I believe the same goes for academics. Indigenous languages are, unfortunately, a career limiter.

  4. Reblogged this on colouredraysofgrey and commented:
    Outside of the urgent need to elevate Afrikan languages from the position (relegated by colonialism and post colonialism) of secondary, useless or primitive in an effort to instill a sense of pride in our us-ness, it is also important that all tertiary institutions on the continent do this too because ensuring that everyone is able to communicate effectively and comfortably is important to the development of Afrikan countries. I fully support this move by the University of KwaZulu Natal and other South Afrikan Universities.

  5. knowing more than one language and speaking other languages will never be a barrier to our own language. But development should be on both side. Thank you for such a wonderful article

  6. Now we are heading in the right direction for the spread and revival of the Zulu tongue;after all Africans were made to speak the language of the racists whites in our occupied home land so what’s wrong with this affirmation?
    As far as I am concerned,every African country must move in this direction and erase the tongues of the white man.

  7. I find it odd that anyone would find it problematic that a university in Africa wants people to learn an African language. Reconciliation means that we extend a hand and get to know the other side and our neighbors. That, my countrymen and women, includes knowing the other person’s language. Most black people I know speak English so i wonder why anyone would have a problem with learning isiZulu at UKZN, isiXhosa at Rhodes, seSotho at UFS etc. We should in fact question why an Indian, a white, or a Venda child born and bred in KZN does NOT speak isiZulu. Part of the reason why we are still so stuck with apartheid stereotypes of each other is because many of us have never extended a hand to get to know the other side (language, foods etc). Hellen Zille speaking isiXhosa should not be applauded. It should be normal.Oh and egteSafrican? isiZulu is actually the most spoken African language in SA. sePedi is the most spoken African language in Pretoria and Limpopo:-)

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