[lg policy] SA's shifting language landscape

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 24 15:09:34 UTC 2013

“Afrikaans and English no longer ‘white languages’,” read a press release
from the SA Institute of Race Relations this week. The analysis of data
from the 2011 census indicates that only 40% of South Africans who speak
Afrikaans at home are white, while less than 34% of those who speak English
at home are white. While isiZulu remains the most commonly-spoken language
by quite a wide margin, it is English which is leading the way as the most
preferred teaching language. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The idea that Afrikaans and English are no longer the sole province of
white South Africans may makes for a sexy sound bite, but the truth is that
this doesn’t represent a major shift in South African language use over the
last decade, particularly when it comes to Afrikaans. The results of Census
2001 found that 13,3% of South Africans spoke Afrikaans at home, and by the
time Census 2011 rolled around, this figure had risen only fractionally, to

The popularity of English as a home language has grown slightly more
significantly, from 8,2% in 2001 to 9,6% in 2011, and this spurt has
allowed English to move up a rung in the popularity chart. In 2001, English
was tied for the fifth most spoken home language with Setswana, after
isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and Sepedi. By 2011, English was beating out
both Sepedi and Setswana as the fourth most popular home language.

Possibly the more interesting finding, however, is the degree to which
English is dominating the South African education system. Of the 12,2
million South African school pupils, just 850,000 (7%) speak English at
home. But the SAIRR’s 2012 South Africa Survey, drawing on figures from the
Department of Basic Education, found that 7,6 million of them (around 64%)
wish to be taught in English. When it comes to Afrikaans, similarly, more
pupils want to be taught in the language (11%) than speak it at home (9%),
though it lags far behind English as a desired medium of instruction.

The reverse is evident for African languages. Only one third of the 3.1
million pupils who speak Zulu at home choose to receive teaching in their
home language. As a whole, the South Africa Survey suggests, “only between
a quarter and a third of pupils who speak an African language at home learn
in that language”. While most pupils begin their education at the
foundation phase in an African language, the switch to either English or
Afrikaans tends to happen as early as Grade 4.

SAIRR researcher Thuthukani Ndebele said that the overwhelming dominance of
English in the South African public school system is unsurprising,
“reflecting a global trend for the preference of the language”. Ndebele
notes that at least one in four people in the world speak English to some
level of competence.

But language has always been a thorny issue in a South African context, and
pragmatism of this kind has often not been considered sufficient to swing
the debate. For illustration of just how heated these issues can become,
South Africans have never had to look further than 16 June 1976, when the
spark that lit the tinder box that was the Soweto Riots was the decision
taken by the National Party government that Afrikaans should be a
compulsory medium of instruction in secondary schools within the Department
of Basic Education. That day is a powerful reminder of the significance and
centrality of language to national identity.

In South Africa today, English is not just dominant in the education
system, but also as the language of power. IsiZulu may be spoken in the
greatest number of South African homes, but it is English that is heard in
the corridors of power. Parliamentary proceedings are carried out
overwhelmingly in English; Hansard, the record of what is said in
Parliament, is published in English; and all addresses of national
importance – like the state of the nation address, or the annual budget
speech – are given in English. This echoes the situation all over
post-colonial Africa, where the official language of communication has
generally been the language of the former colonial power (mainly English,
French of Portuguese), even though knowledge of these languages may be

There are, of course, consequences to this if the majority of the
population is not sufficiently fluent in the language of power. In *Language
in South Africa: The Role of Language in National Transformation* (2002),
University of Pretoria linguist Victor Webb makes the point that such
languages can become substantial barriers to much of the population
accessing their national rights and privileges, and also to accessing the
country’s formal economy.

In South Africa, it hasn’t always been either English or Afrikaans that
presented a ticket into the formal economy. For the first one-and-a-half
centuries of the Dutch occupation of the Cape, it was Dutch. “Anyone who
wanted to do business with the Dutch authority had to display knowledge of
Dutch,” writes Nkonko Kamwangamalu in “When 2 + 9 +1: English and the
Politics of Language Planning in a Multilingual Society”. The situation was
flipped when English replaced Dutch as the language of rule in the Cape
Colony from 1806 onwards.

With the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910, English and
Dutch were technically bestowed equal status, with Afrikaans added as a
part of Dutch in 1925, but in practice English retained top billing until
Afrikaners took power in 1948. At that point, knowledge of Afrikaans became
a requirement of entry into the civil service. The major reason why many
black people spoke out strongly against being educated solely in African
languages during Apartheid was because they spied in this policy the
intention of the Nats to block them from entry into high-prestige jobs that
required knowledge of English and Afrikaans. The late Neville Alexander
wrote that education in indigenous languages “came to be equated in the
minds of most black people with inferiority and racial ghettoization”.

Today access to the top rungs of South Africa’s formal economy still
generally requires a fluency in English or Afrikaans, and linguistic
proficiency becomes another proxy for race or class in contexts like job
interviews. “In all post-colonial societies,” wrote Alexander, “knowledge
of the conquerors’ language [becomes] a vital component of the ‘cultural
capital’ of the neo-colonial elite. It was and remains their knowledge of
English and/or French that sets them apart from the vast majority of their
African compatriots and which keeps them and their offspring in the
privileged middle and upper classes.”

English is often presented as a kind of equaliser – a neutral global *lingua
franca *which just happens to be the most practical way for people to
communicate. Of course, there is little neutral about it: English is the
language of global corporatism, which is exactly why there are strong
practical reasons for South Africans to learn the language well – however
much you might decry its use as the vehicle of imperialism, globalisation
and a host of other ills.

“English is not a solution to the unravelling of ‘unequal power’ relations
in the world but an integral part of the problem,” writes linguist Richard
Alexander; but he notes, too, that when people want to hold a protest
banner up to an international TV camera, the writing in that banner will
often be in English. As is evident in the history of South Africa, English
can be used both to oppress and liberate.

When Sibusiso Bengu, then the minister of education, announced South
Africa’s new language policy in education in 1997 he declared that it was
aimed at, among other things, “creating an environment in which respect for
languages other than one’s own would be encouraged”. The learning of two or
more languages should be general practice, he stated, to “counter any
particularistic ethnic chauvinism”. He saw the end result as both important
and simple: “Being multilingual should be a defining characteristic of
being South African.”

What the dominance of English in the education system today suggests is
more that a functional division of languages is likely to be increasingly
entrenched. In other words, future South Africans are likely to see English
as the language of business, science, technology, politics and so on,
whereas indigenous African languages may be increasingly relegated to the
domestic sphere. This will presumably allow the English-learning pupils of
today to take their place as the “global citizens” of tomorrow, but not
everyone will be convinced it’s a great idea.
In 1995 the Ghanaian sociologist Kwesi Prah wrote: “One cannot
underemphasise the fact that unless the generation of knowledge, discourse
and knowledge transfer is effected in the language of the masses, the
conditions of the masses cannot be transformed.”


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