[lg policy] South Africa: Language policies reflect a complex web of power and disparity

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Dec 8 20:06:31 UTC 2015

 *The dividing line in our society, between the haves and the have-nots,
has become the ability to speak English*
Hans Pienaar
08 December 2015


In recent weeks, President Jacob Zuma and South African Broadcasting
Corporation boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng have been mocked for their poor command
of the English language — and many believe they deserve this. But how many
of us can truly say we speak English better than them? The 4 million-plus
South Africans who say the language is their mother tongue? One million of
us? One hundred thousand?

I can’t claim I have a 100% command of English, even though I make my
living as an editor fixing other people’s language — recently I changed
"soldier on" to "shoulder on". I’ve lost count of the times I have come
across "damp squids" or "just deserts".

But when debating the language policy of Stellenbosch University, it has
been taken for granted that we can all speak English properly. The
university’s council announced last Monday that Afrikaans and English would
have equal status, and it would henceforth devote itself to multilingualism.

All sides can claim victory. Open Stellenbosch should be happy with the
undertaking that any demand to be taught in English should be met, even if
it means that, eventually, the offering in English supercedes that of

But some in the movement for transformation have already rejected this
advance. Their major gripe, expressed in a petition signed by hundreds of
lecturers a few weeks ago, seems to be that multilingualism is a "guise" to
retain Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.

Taking a stand against multilingualism, and assuming that SA’s English
proficiency is strong enough to step into the void, recalls the infamous
Macaulay Minute. In the colonial power’s debate on education in India, Lord
Thomas Macaulay declared in 1835 that all indigenous languages should be
regarded as inferior to English, including those as ancient as Sanskrit and
as widely spoken as Arabic.

The Macaulay Minute became a keystone in ideologies of white supremacy
driving the British empire, and of the policy to use English as a tool to
co-opt local intelligentsia into the strategy to govern territories with
only a handful of whites.

While it is true that English is the language the most people in the world
claim they can understand, it is the mother tongue of far fewer, about
300-to 400-million, ranked third. In SA, it also comes in third, after
isiZulu and Afrikaans.

The more convincing argument is that English is the language of science and
technology, but this is not a fait accompli. When science started to become
a major preoccupation in the 19th century, English shared this status with
French and German. The latest major triumph of science, the Higgs boson,
was discovered by scientists from all over the world, many of whom
struggled to express themselves in English.

According to Michael Gordin in his book Scientific Babel, German became so
stigmatised by the two world wars that scientists shunned it, preferring

During the Cold War, Anglo-American governments poured vast sums of money
into the translation of Russian scientific papers into English, for their
scientists to pirate new findings as quickly as possible and so further
cement its status.

The primacy of English as a language of science is not due to any magical
property, but to the machinations of power. This will change, as Korean,
Chinese and Japanese grow in stature.

A key concern that may explain the anxiety over local languages among some
Maties staffers is that it would compromise their ability to plug into
global academia.

What really happened with the Open Stellenbosch movement was that the
short-term, self-interest of a handful of black students — some of them
from foreign countries — merged with the long-term needs of globalised
academics. This reinforced a trend started in 2000, when Nelson Mandela’s
solution for indigenous languages was implemented: at least two
universities should be devoted to each of SA’s 11 languages, provided they
also made lectures available in English.

As historian Hermann Giliomee has shown, when Stellenbosch University
started offering lectures in English, it quickly became a victim of its own
success and student numbers exploded.

The percentage of black Afrikaans students surged, but they were vastly
outnumbered by white, English-speaking students from other parts of the

The least taxpaying South Africans could expect from state-subsidised
universities is that their policies be geared towards solving local
problems and that they provide personnel for local enterprises and effort.

A local problem is the education disaster. Many factors play a part, but
poor literacy has been a consistent culprit. In 2013, the Department of
Basic Education’s annual national assessments found only 37% of Grade 9
pupils were considered literate.

Despite this, students enrol at universities with the belief that they can
understand English, and because their marks are routinely adjusted up —
ironically, to make up for the fact that they are taught in a
non-indigenous language. The result is SA’s spectacular university failure

Bettina Wyngaard, a black lecturer at Stellenbosch University, calls it a
"horrendous fallacy" that her colleagues "can speak English with the same
facility as Afrikaans, and that their students can properly understand

Black students have a double challenge: not only do many have to cope with
a vastly inferior education in maths and science, they also have to master
a language that is not their mother tongue. It is absolutely no surprise
that the average failure rate for first-years is 60%.

The dividing line in our society, between the haves and the have-nots, has
become the ability to speak English. It is probably best seen in the
diverse fates of Zimbabweans who have fled to SA to escape Robert Mugabe’s
misrule. Those who mastered English have been welcomed by companies chasing
black economic empowerment points; those with deficient English settle in
shacks, where their linguistic disabilities became their identity —

Amalgamated Beverages Industries, Africa’s largest bottler of Coca-Cola,
earlier this year launched a project in Matjhabeng, Free State, inviting
young entrepreneurs to be trained as vendors. About 2 000 responded, this
was cut down to 66, and eventually 22 — with proficiency in English as one
of the criteria.

This is a stark example of the application of Macaulay’s strategy; he
advocated that English be promoted among "the higher class of natives at
the seats of government", as crucial to the divide-and-rule strategy of the
British empire.

SA obviously needs to improve the teaching of English in schools. This
cannot be the only solution, as the backlog of teachers who can teach in
English is huge. We also have to tackle teaching in domestic languages, and
changing our universities into multilingual institutions will be vital.

If Open Stellenbosch wants to avoid being tagged as Macauley acolytes, it
will need to start a new chapter, Open UCT, and agitate for Afrikaans to be
introduced as a medium of tuition there in order to serve poor, black
Afrikaans speakers from the Kaapse platteland.


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