[lg policy] South Africa: Language Policy stalled at Witwatersrand

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jul 28 15:19:42 UTC 2012

Language Policy stalled at Wits

Published in Wits Vuvuzela 17th Edition 27 July

Wits’ language policy to introduce Sesotho as the university’s second
language has been a failure, says Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor
Yunus Ballim.

The policy, implemented in 2003, aimed to have Sesotho spoken by all
lecturers and provided for academically. “I think it’s fair to say the
document failed. In its intention it was noble, but in its practical
implementation sense it was ill-conceived. It is in serious, serious
need of a rewrite,” Ballim says.

The person responsible for that rewrite is Dean of Humanities Prof
Tawana Kupe, who wants to move back to the basics by “beefing up” the
African Languages department. This additional “academic scaffolding”
would provide the structure for the department to lead the university
forward with an updated policy.

The policy is almost ten years old. The aim was for Wits to join the
University of the Free State and the University of Lesotho in
advancing the Sesotho language in the academic arena.

Ballim explains that a fundamental error in the policy is its attempt
to carve up the language geography of the country. “We were mistaken
in the way we conceived of the language policy … in part what we had
responded to was an apartheid conception of the geography of African

While the policy itself has not led to any direct developments, it is
not all doom and gloom for the advancement of African languages at the
historically English-dominated university.

Ballim implemented a compulsory Zulu course in the Health Sciences,
which is now an examinable subject in 2nd year. This was a departure
from the Sesotho-based policy, and isiZulu was chosen as a more
accessible language for interaction, most importantly for
communication with patients.

Ballim used the influence of creative writing as a more effective tool
for challenging academic discourse, rather than trying to learn from a
textbook. “Universities have not responded to the dynamism in
language. We need to modernise our conception of the teaching of
African languages.”

Kupe agrees, pointing to the diversity of languages used in local
soapies and the changing way we perceive language. “We need to teach
language in a way that people understand.”

On the policy’s lack of success, Ballim concedes: “I’m embarrassed to
say it is an area we should have picked up and we didn’t, and it is
something we should have done better at.”


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