Language policy and language use in South Africa: an uneasy marriage

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 16 13:43:50 UTC 2007

Language policy and language use in South Africa: an uneasy marriage
DE Mutasa

The change to democracy in South Africa in 1994 brought with it many
changes in various spheres of activity. Languages could not escape these
changes. The linguistic situation, which was previously characterised by
the dominance of English and Afrikaans, could not be immune to the process
of change. The other languages (Bantu languages) which were left out were
brought into the linguistic scenario. This means that South Africa, an
emerging nation, has chosen a multilingual approach as its language
policy. As a result, for the first time in the history of language
policies, there is a country with 11 official languages. The question is,
is it possible for African languages, which are at their infant stage of
development with regard to technical terminology, to survive at par with
English, a language with a tradition of scientific and technical
literature? The aim of this paper is, therefore, to discuss the problems
related to the coexistence of English and African languages in South
Africa. It will also focus on the attitudes towards English and the
language policy in South Africa.


South Africa, an area of 1,221, 037 sq km with a population of about 40,6
million, is situated in the southern part of Africa. South Africa, a
country which celebrated its change to democracy after the demise of
apartheid in 1994, underwent many changes in various spheres of activity.
Languages could not escape these changes. The linguistic situation which
was previously characterised by the dominance of English and Afrikaans
could not be immune to the process of change. The other languages, African
languages (Bantu languages) which were previously left out were brought
into the linguistic scenario. This means that South Africa, an emerging
nation, has chosen a multilingual approach as its language policy. The
constitution itself enshrines 11 official languages.

The 11 official languages and L1 speakers as a % population.

Language L1 speakers %
IsiZulu - 21.96
IsiXhosa - 17.03
Afrikaans - 15.03
Sesotho sa Leboa - 9.64
English - 9.01
Setswana - 8.59
Sesotho - 6.73
Xitsonga - 4.35
Siswati - 2.57
Tshivenda - 2.22
IsiNdebele - 1.55
(Percentage figures were taken from Prof Posthumus of Rand University)

The relevant clause states that all these languages should have an
official status at national and provincial levels and that conditions be
created for their promotion and development. This language policy itself
is considered by many as one of the most progressive language policies in
the world. In recognising 11 languages, South Africa acted in line with
the 1986 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Language Plan of Action for
Africa which induced member states to recognise all languages within their
boundaries. (Kashioki, 1993, A paper presented to ALASA at The University
of Witwatersrand). Needless to say, the policy is the best solution to a
society in which language differences had continued to be preserved, and
the languages had been regarded as separate languages each in its own
right, each as the most distinguishing feature and symbol of a group which
wanted to continue to be regarded as such.

The recognition and promotion of these languages is the most tangible
manifestation of language revival leading to survival. This is because the
policy itself provides for the monitoring of the continued existence and
cultivation of different languages on a reasonable and equitable basis.
Viewed from this perspective, the importance of a language cannot be
ignored. Language is one of the most enigmatic possessions and a
quintessence of our humanity. It is the principal factor enabling
individuals to become fully functioning members of the group into which
they are born. Nations are able to develop because language provides an
important link between the individual and his/her social environment. In
addition to this, it acts as a link to social equity.

A policy of this nature also demonstrates that the government has the
linguistic interests of all the people at heart, for it depicts total
commitment to granting every citizen an equal opportunity to take his/her
rightful place in the state. Thus, this choice is a way of democratising a
language policy as it responds to the needs and interests of all segments
of the population. If such a multilingual policy is not adopted, we would
ask ourselves the following questions:

How can you guarantee democracy when the law of the country is not
understood in the language of the people? How do you abide by what you do
not know? How can you use information to which you only have limited
access? How can you fully participate in anything, or compete, or learn
effectively or be creative in a language you are not fully proficient or
literate? Above all, how can a country develop its human resource base to
full potential without the languages of the people? (Chimhundu, 1998:7)
One asks such questions because it is no longer the time to preach about
decolonising the mind, national consciousness and identity. These are
givens. This epoch emphasis or focus should be placed on development and
nation-building, which can only be achieved through access to information,
grassroots participation and grassroots leadership.

Current Trends

After according all 11 languages official status, South Africa was, is and
will be expected to fulfil its constitutional obligation by implementing
its language policy. However, it is now five years but it appears that
very little has been achieved. Thus, as in many African countries where
the rise and development of African nationalism created the impression
that African languages would be the basis for the standard national
languages, the policy seems not to be working. It appears to be a very
painful and slow process of development.

The same fate is also noticed in some African states which made as one of
their declarations (of intent) a commitment to a multilingual approach
with the objective of developing African languages and empowering people
through African languages. What those countries achieved is hardly more
than a label without legal implications. It is all lip service. As Ayo
Bamgbose (1991:111) rightly observed, language policies in Africa, no
matter how good they are, are characterised by, among other aspects,
declaration without implementation. This points to the fact that there are
odds against the implementation of these policies.

In South Africa the recognition of the indigenous languages as official on
the national level may be the declared goal of the policy but, from
observation, most linguistic communication in domains of national
significance remains English and to a lesser extent Afrikaans. The people
do not see much value in African languages. Authorities seem to be
reluctant to ensure that African languages, by appropriate legal
provisions, assume their rightful role as the means of official
communication in public affairs. No one seems to take African languages
seriously. They seem to have nothing to offer except in everyday
communication between members of families. For example, if one were to go
for an interview for a post to teach an African language, the whole
process is conducted in English. Even if one is proficient in the African
language, being able to communicate using all its idioms and proverbs if
he/she cannot communicate his/her ideas effectively in English, he/she
does not get the job.

Another observation is that, in spite of the fact that the country is
intending to promote all the languages at the official level, people
continue to relegate African languages to second-class status. On many
occasions some African celebrities such as boxers and musicians use
English during interviews on television and radio even if they are not
fluent in English. They grope for words and struggle to construct good
sentences. One wonders if this is necessary, considering the fact that
they (musicians) became famous through singing in African languages. Why
do TV presenters and organisers allow such embarrassing moments when the
African language is at their disposal? Some people in leadership positions
such as politicians use English when addressing at rallies or political
meetings, even if they are addressing rural people who do not understand
English. In order for one to make an objective analysis of the language
situation, research was carried out.

Aims of the research

The research was aimed at establishing the language situation on the
ground, that is, with regard to peoples awareness of the new language
policy and the problem of implementing the policy as a result of the
co-existence of African languages with English, a language of wider

Research Methodology

As alluded to earlier, informal observations were made but objective
evidence was necessary and useful for one to establish the situation on
the ground. So, for this paper research was conducted. In carrying out the
survey, the methods of questionnaire, the media and structured interviews
were used. However, sociolinguistic surveys such as interviews have their
methodological limitations. The research may not be entirely objective,
for the interviewees may perceive the desired responses. Thus, to
complement the questionnaire, it was, therefore, desirable to rely on the
media, that is, radio, television and newpapers.

The questionnaire was administered to people of diverse backgrounds who
work or study in Pretoria. Of the 350 respondents, 100 were students and
the rest work for different departments, government and non-governmental.
All the respondents are above the age of 23. The questionnaire and
interviews were aimed at the perceptions and attitudes of the respondents
to the policy and the extent to which the policy is implemented.

Findings from the questionnaire

As was expected, all the respondents were aware of the new language
policy. This should be attributed to the effective way the information
about the policy was disseminated by the media and politicians. The
political past contributed, indirectly, in that it was the language issue
that led to political upheavals in 1976. However, all the respondents
admitted that at present the use of language at work places, in education
and mass media was not in line with the new constitution.

Some 80% of the respondents viewed the policy as a good one. The reasons
given by some of the respondents for this opinion are quite plausible.
Some of these are:

It promotes languages previously ignored.
It helps improve our levels of literacy.
Everyone should be able to access information.
It takes cognisance of all the citizens and cultural groups.
Three percent rated the policy as a bad choice. The following are some of
the reasons that were cited:

Eleven languages are too many; we should have one lingua franca.  It is a
waste of time and money to encourage diversity. The sooner we agree that
English is by far the only language we can use effectively to communicate
across cultural lines, the better for the country, e.g.  printing in 11
official languages is a waste of time.  South Africa is a multilingual
country, therefore, we should use English because it is used in business
and it is also a world language.  Indigenous languages are not fully
developed in the technical sense. Needless to say, the reasons belong to
the old school of thought where some researchers argued that unity and
progress can only be achieved through the use of one language; that
language being that of the colonial master.

The 17% that did not rate the policy, as good or bad, expressed their
sentiments in their responses:

The policy caters for everyone on paper.
English receives preferential treatment.
Some languages are still underrated.
There is a lack of interest in African languages.
Language policy should treat all languages as equal. There are languages
	that dominate and cater for one or two groups.
TV should broadcast in all official languages. Apartheid is still rife in
TV broadcasts because English and Afrikaans dominate.
Every language should have equal opportunity in Parliament, in courts and

These responses indicate that these respondents support the policy. The
motivation for their sentiments is understandable. They seem to be
disgruntled by the slow pace in implementation of the policy.

On the possibility of implementing such a policy, 72% of the respondents
said it was difficult to achieve. The following reasons were given:

It is not practical.
It is expensive to translate documents into 11 languages.
There is a general lack of interest or willingness from stakeholders.
People are not taught in their languages.
English is dominating; it is still the medium of instruction and dominates
	on TV.
In the economic sector, English and Afrikaans still dominate.
Indigenous languages are languages without political and economic baggage.
African languages will always be a few steps behind English.

However, all these respondents are people with no linguistic or
sociolinguistic background. Because of this, some comments are made out of
ignorance of the capabilities of African languages. In a way they present
the situation as they see it on the ground.

On the education of children, all the parents in the sample send their
children to English-medium schools, those schools that formerly catered
for whites only. Some 99% of those parents want their children to be
taught in English and one percent preferred Afrikaans. Some 99% of the
students preferred English while one percent preferred an African
language. The following reasons were given by the 99%:

For English
It is an international language.
English communicates concepts better.
Globalisation requires the knowledge of English.
Textbooks are written in English.
It is the language used in the workplace.
It enables communication between people of different cultures.
The following reason was given by the 1%:

For an African language:

I understand concepts much better in my own language. In the mass media,
TV and radio, 99% listen to English radio stations and support the
allotment of more airtime to English because it is widely understood. One
percent want all languages to have equal slots on TV.

>>From the responses to the questionnaire, one notices that English still
dominates in the domain of national significance. The results also
indicate that the majority of the respondents see something good in the
language policy but when it comes to practical reality or implementation,
they appear to support the dominance of English.

Findings from the media and interviews

For this discussion, attention was also drawn to a few role players so as
get a picture of what transpires as the country battles to implement the
language policy. The findings are based on the analysis of radio
broadcasts, articles from newspapers and interviews carried out by a

The Department of Culture, Science and Technology
The department of Culture, Science and Technology was commissioned by the
government to devise a clear plan of how to promote the languages of South
Africa. Anne-Marie Beukes, a Senior Civil Servant, interviewed by the
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), acknowledged that the government
has a constitutional obligation to promote the 11 official languages.
Although at the time of the interview the government did not have a clear
plan of how to promote the languages, Anne-Marie Beukes believed strongly
that having so many languages in South Africa should be viewed positively:
A multilingual set-up is not a simply demonstrates our rainbow is an asset, not a liability to this country.

The immediate goal of the department was to recruit translators to serve
in the health service where some doctors are not able to communicate with
patients. Such idealism is quite valuable and plausible but the problem
remains, with practical realities such as the cost factor. According to
the BBC, cost may impede the development of multilingualism. Translating
documents into 10 languages is costly and cumbersome, considering the fact
that it costs about R10 million to translate documents into Afrikaans
alone every year. However, it remains a necessary evil if we are to
empower people through their own languages.

In another interview, the Senior Civil Servant recognised English as   an
important link language, ... a very important pivotal link language in
South Africa. (Radio 5, SA.FM 1998). It is important to note that if one
language is cited as playing a pivotal role, one gets the impression that
the multilingual or linguistic dreams of South Africa can at best be
partially realised.

Department of Education

In education the constitution states that everyone has the right to
receive education in the official language or languages of his/her choice
in public educational institutions where it is reasonably practical. With
reference to some conservative institutions, the Minister of Education
himself deplores a situation where students spend five or more years doing
one course just because their languages are not catered for.

The Provincial Director (in the Dept of Education in Gauteng) who was
interviewed (by a colleague, in August 1998), says his department is
committed to the language policy. He sees the problem not as being the
language policy but parents perceptions of languages. People appear to
resist change. He laments a situation where black parents and black
teachers who teach in township schools send their children to
English-medium schools (formerly whites only), where no African language
is taught. What this implies is that English will continue to dominate as
a medium of instruction for as long as parents continue to envy
English-medium schools. The director suggests that the way forward is for
people to demand to be taught in their language.

University of the Western Cape Professor Kwesi Prah, also observed that:
Children are now sent to English-medium schools and in some families both
parents communicate in their indigenous language, but insist that the
children be spoken to in English. Kwesi Prah castigated such African
parents who allowed their languages to die. He encouraged Africa to follow
the example of Asia where indigenous languages are used in education.
(Sowetan, 1998). However, the current trend undermines the governments
declared goal.

The Department of Justice

At the time of the research the officer interviewed (by a colleague) said
that the department is still working on how to implement the policy.
However, an article published by one High Court Judge in the October 98
Edition of the South African Attorneys Journal De Rebus reports that four
High Court judges are in favour of using one official language, English,
for practical reasons. The author of the article, Harry Barker argues: The
administration of justice and the development of law in one court language
would reduce the demands upon practitioners and the laws inevitable

Harry Barker paints a gloomy picture when he says: the expectation that
the lesser- known indigenous (African) languages would enjoy parity of
esteem with a world language is surely destined to be merely a pious hope.
(Citizen, 1998). In this case the language policy is considered to be pie
in the sky. This, then, defeats the purpose of the new language policy. If
the use of English alone is adopted as policy in the Department of
Justice, then the language policy is good on paper and cannot fulfill its
practical realities.

Failure to cater for ones language in the legal system means that the
release or conviction of the individual continues to depend not
necessarily on the mercy of the judge but upon the competence and
impressions of the interpreter.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)

The SABC itself is committed to broadcasting in 11 official languages,
particularly from Parliament. However, despite having a large political
team, its head, who was interviewed by the BBC, says it is not possible
for the SABC to cover every story in every language, despite the problems
that this causes among listeners who are very sensitive about language.
The head of the political team covered the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission accompanied by a Zulu reporter. When she covered the
constitution she was accompanied by a Xhosa reporter. According to the
Zulu reporter, the Zulus complained bitterly and marched to the regional
station when the report was disseminated in Xhosa (BBC). Although the
languages are mutually intelligible, the Zulu speakers insist that they
want these broadcasts to be done in their language. What this implies is
that the SABC has not taken language issues seriously in areas like

Pat Pillai, Manager: Media & Public Liaison, SABC, Auckland Park, defended
the policy at the SABC when he responded to an article, Let us fight our
own battle for more airtime. In his article entitled Language policy
defended featured in the Sowetan, (1996), Pat Pillai pointed out that the
SABCs language policy is based on home language as well as shared
languages. The guiding principle of the policy specifies proportionality
in the allocation of airtime. What this entails is that languages that
command bigger groups would be allotted more airtime. Pat Pillais
contention is that English is understood by the majority of the
population, hence, most of the airtime is devoted to English. This
argument does not hold water because IsiZulu is widely understood in South
Africa. Added to this, there is mutual intelligibility among four
languages: IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa and Siswati which are referred to
as Nguni languages, which makes IsiZulu a viable option.

Pat Pillai acknowledges the importance of language as a critical component
of culture and that makes it necessary to broadcast in all the languages.
He concludes by expressing a commitment to equitable service in all 11
official languages to the best of the SABCs ability. Such a paradigm is
also valuable, but the problem remains - the practical realities -
considering the fact that the SABC is under fire for cutting television
broadcasts in Afrikaans, which is one reason why some Afrikaners feel
marginalised. (SABC 1, Felicia Mabuza talk show, 26/10/98).

Television itself remains a thorny issue as demonstrated by some responses
to the questionnaire and Mr Worried who wrote, Let us fight our own battle
for more airtime. (Sowetan, 1996). Of about 200 programmes broadcast every
day on television, only one or two programmes are in one of the African
languages and of these programmes one or none is in Tshivenda and
Xitsonga. It is important to note that television is supposed to reach all
the viewers on a variety of issues because it is a supplementary tool, a
technological medium that could provide basic education and information to

In spite of the SABCs proclamation, one senior executive officer
interviewed by the BBC said implementing the policy would be expensive on
two grounds. The first is that the SABC replaces American or British Co.
programmes which are relatively cheap to buy. What this means is that the
SABC has to prepare programmes and incur production costs. The second is
the question of opportunity cost or loss because locally produced
programmes in African languages do not attract the affluent market or
viewers. In addition to this, the senior executive officer argues, it
would also be very difficult to attract advertising revenue for the
programmes. Thus, the affluent viewers and the private sector that are
targeted for their big money exacerbate the problem by supporting English.
Thus, the SABCs budgetary constraints undermine the governments declared


It is observed that many view the policy as a noble one but consider its
application to be impractical. For some, it is increasingly difficult for
an African language to do all there is to be done by English, a language
of wider communication. The Pan South African Languages Board also noted
with regret that English appeared to dominate (in domains of national
significance), to the detriment of the countrys 10 other official
languages. (Citizen, 1997).

Thus, in South Africa where a language of wider communication, English,
exists, it is difficult to speak of language equity or parity. At present
it is appropriate to speak more abstractly of language equity as ideology,
an idea in the mind rather than a reality to which actual usage or
implementation may conform. This is because English appears to be a
dominant language. English appears to have established itself in domains
such as administration, education, jurisdiction and other
government-controlled and non-governmental institutions, to the extent
that it has become a major impediment, a brake or constraint on the
promotion and implementation of the language policy. Perceptions have not
changed. People still view English as a language with far-reaching
socio-economic implications for nations. This political and economic
dominance that some Africans still preach will disadvantage the African
languages, especially when the control or potential for economic
improvement continues to be associated with one language, English, rather
than with other languages.

The way forward
All segments of the population should realise the following:

that unity and progress are not necessarily achieved through the use of
one language,
that people can only be empowered through their languages,
that it is a myth that African languages cannot be developed to function
like English as was the case with Swahili (spoken in East Africa) and
Afrikaans (one of the official languages of South Africa).
Parents should be informed that learning takes longer in a foreign
language than in the mother- tongue (Macnamara (1996)) which means that
African languages ensure linguistic accessibility to studied material,
help to develop critical thinking and foster effective communication.

Steps to be taken
Although it is discourteous to prescribe, there is the urge to make the
following suggestions.

Mother-tongue speakers of African languages should demand that their
children receive education in their languages; not as a way of advancing
selfish interests.
All transactions should be done in the language of the client to ensure
mutual understanding of the contents of the contracts before the client
signs. (Some of Isabela Jones findings are cases in point. (SABC 3).
The government may introduce the Languages Equity Bill. (It may be a
necessary evil, although, from a social point of view, it may have
Study material should be written in different mother-tongue languages.
People in leadership positions should address rallies and meetings in the
audiences home languages, where it is reasonably practical in order to
show commitment to the policy.
Establish regional and national institutes that develop all the languages.
Establish newspapers to cultivate African languages.
These suggestions may be adopted, making sure that peoples and authorities
rights are not interfered with.

Thus, the nation should not wait for the 21st century to implement its
appealing language policy. People should be able to employ their languages
in all sectors of the economy and should be able to learn in their own
languages as is the case in Adult Education/Literacy and with Afrikaners.

Bamgbose, A. 1991. Language and the Nation. The Language Question in Sub-
Saharan Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Chimhundu, H. 1997. Keynote address at the Meeting of The
Intergovernmental Conference On African Language policies. Unpublished
Kashioki, M. 1993. OAU Language Plan of Action for Africa. A keynote
address to ALASA.
Macnamara, J. 1966. Bilingualism in Primary Education: A Study of Irish
Experience. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

The Citizen, Johannesburg, 13 June 1997; 30 September 1998.
The Sowetan, Johannesburg, 8 May 1996; 27 May 1996; 17 September 1996.

Radio stations
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (Focus on Africa.)
Radio 5 of South Africa, 5 October 1995.

South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
SABC 1 26 October 1998
DE Mutasa
University of South Africa
Department of African Languages
P.O. Box 392
South Africa


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