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

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 24 14:54:50 UTC 2013

Language policy in South Africa and the unfounded fears of a Zulu hegemony
May 23, 2013 By T.O. Molefe <http://africasacountry.com/author/tlotlang/> 9

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
has been called unconstitutional, which it
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 at 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
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
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

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
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 at 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.


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