South Africa: All 11 official languages should receive equal treatment

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 16 13:48:14 UTC 2006

All SA's 11 official languages should receive equal treatment

By Dr Mongezi Guma

June 16, 1976. This date will be forever etched on the country's political
memory as the height of the inhumanity of the apartheid state in killing
the innocents and at the same time a symbol of national refusal to bend to
the systematic endeavours of that state to reinvent the African identity
by imposing Afrikaans as the vehicle of the acquisition of knowledge. June
16 was, and is, about the fight for the right to language arising out of a
violation of the communities' "right of language". My generation was the
first consumer of that Afrikaans onslaught and I can attest that it
compromised our capacity to assimilate information and accelerate our
development. It was a barrier to learning.

Undeniably, June 16 serves as a permanent reminder to all of us that no
one group can impose its will on other people without due consideration of
how it will be received. As we dance down memory lane to mark the 30th
anniversary of June 16, a question that lurks in my mind is whether we are
any wiser - May 8, 1996, the day the country adopted its constitution -
notwithstanding? The issue is whether we have come to terms with the
constitutional provision of 11 official languages. If it was possible, "by
whatever means necessary" to successfully develop Afrikaans from a kombuis
taal into a language capable of carrying all knowledge, including nuclear
science and heart transplantation, so it is possible to do the same for
the African languages.

History will judge us harshly if, along with the removal from cultural and
linguistic primordial moorings of apartheid, we do not at the same time
set up systems to free ourselves from its residual effects. The situation
we currently have is one in which the languages of the African majorities
are marginalised and underdeveloped in comparison to Afrikaans and more
particularly English. Against the background of official status given to
11 languages, we have to consciously move away from the current dominance
of English to a situation in which all South African languages are treated
equally and properly - not only on paper but in fact. The continued
condition of cultural deprivation of the languages of the majorities
cannot serve as a viable basis of social and economic development.

As long as the languages for the production and reproduction of knowledge
are exclusively located in small minorities, the majority languages will
continue to be neglected and undermined. Within the framework of our
constitutional provisions, we will have to encourage multi-lingualism on
the basis of full equality of the cultures and languages of South Africa
as a matter of public policy. Otherwise, the ordinary person can neither
identify with the state nor acquire even the most rudimentary information
about delivery and social services.

As we commemorate June 16, we have to guard against the amnesia of why we
had it in the first place. The antidote to that is to uphold the cultural
and linguistic rights of all communities rather than encouraging a one-way
traffic of cultural integration of the majority into the cultures of the
minority. The bottom line is that our constitution seeks to empower people
to negotiate their identity in ways that affirm and enhance their dignity.
As we remember the events that led to that fateful moment in our history,
we have to guard against the continued marginalisation of African
languages, and the accompanying silencing of the voices and concerns of
African people. The present framework of language policy in our schools
presents major challenges. As quickly as possible, we need to expunge our
educational curricular of the remnants of the legacy of apartheid past.

I agree with Cameron Dugmore and Aaron Motsoaledi, the Western Cape and
Limpopo MECs for education, respectively, who say in order to promote
multi-lingualism certain indigenous languages have to be made compulsory
in the curriculum. We cannot continue to create a situation in which
African children are made to leave their African languages at the gates of
learning. The ideals enshrined in our constitution on language have to be
socially engaged. This is necessary as there is an intrinsic and
primordial connection between language, culture and identity.

Our schools have to create an environment in which our children learn on
how culturally we blend our borders. Our emerging experience suggests that
people tend to belong to multiple communities and multiplex universes, and
therefore need to be enabled to communicate - thus nurturing an
alternative linguistic citizenship. A decade into our constitutional
democracy, we have to constantly and collectively create a cultural space
that is South African. We must take and give from each other on the basis
of equality, otherwise certain languages will remain dominant and

Policies will need to be put in place that will take us beyond pious
proclamations and pompous declarations of intent. So that we can all shout
from our cathedrals and temples of development that June 16 did not happen
in vain. The experiences of our gallant youth were not meaningless.

Dr Mongezi Guma is the chairman of the Commission for the Promotion and
Protection of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.

 Published on the web by Cape Argus on June 15, 2006.

[manager's note: June 16 is the 30th anniversary of the Soweto
Uprising.(hs) ]

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