[lg policy] South Africa: War talk won’t end language row

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Jun 5 15:21:07 UTC 2015

 War talk won’t end language row

05 Jun 2015 00:00 Mary Metcalfe <http://mg.co.za/author/mary-metcalfe-1>

Wise leadership is needed to solve the crisis over the medium of
instruction controversy in Gauteng.
 [image: Graphic: John McCann]

Politics is the art of compromise. For moral purists, this represents a
cynical assessment of the unprincipled compromises that politicians are
perceived to make.

In the real world, tensions between competing or apparently irreconcilable
views that cannot be resolved by argument alone require sufficient
agreement as a way to move forward. Court judgments cannot resolve the
underlying conflicting beliefs and assumptions that have led to the
dispute. The determination of winners and losers exacerbates divisions.

The current dispute about the imposition of English as a parallel medium of
instruction in Afrikaans-medium schools in Gauteng is an instance of
competing views, each passionately held and each with its own logic.

On May 14, the Gauteng department of education announced that high-quality
education infrastructure in the province is under­used because demographic
profiles have changed, and single-medium schools would be converted to
parallel-medium schools to achieve maximum use of all available educational

The MEC said consultations would commence with the affected 124 schools.

But before that could begin, and because of a leaked list of the affected
schools, the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools
(Fedsas) brought an urgent application challenging the decision. On May 27,
the Johannesburg high court ruled in favour of Fedsas.

*Tatters*Public engagement has been adversarial, and the consultations,
which were to address potential fears and challenges, were in tatters
before they began.

Wise leadership is needed to find a way to bridge the competing views and
overcome the combative postures to advance the common good.

The issue of medium of instruction is complex. The Constitution is clear
that everyone has the right to receive education in an official language of
choice. This expresses the educational imperative for child­ren to learn in
a language in which they have full fluency and the constitutional right of
participation in the linguistic and cultural life of choice.

The administration of the public education system must give reasonable
expression to this in a way that is equitable and practical. Our current
reality is that, from grade four, although fewer than 10% of children use
English as their home language, more than 80% are taught in English.

In linguistically complex urban townships, many children in grades one to
three are learning in an African language that is not their first language.
This has enormous educational disadvantages.

It also contributes to a frustration that African languages have not yet
been accorded the parity of esteem and educational status intended in the
Constitution, and that the historically privileged continue to learn in
their own languages, with the positive educational consequences that

*Desegregating*The overwhelming choice of English as the medium of
instruction by African pupils has had a major effect on the racial
desegregation of what were historically white schools.

With very few African pupils choosing to study in Afrikaans, schools
historically serving white Afrikaans-speaking pupils have been slower to
desegregate than English-medium white schools, creating an impression of
islands of white privilege, and a perception that language exclusion
operates as a proxy for racial exclusion.

Not only is the danger one of perceived exclusion, but also of real
isolation from the rich social diversity of the country, and an
impoverished preparation for participation in an inclusive society.

It is this perception of exclusion and isolation that is at the heart of
the conflict. For a productive conversation to be possible between the
protagonists, one side needs not only to acknowledge but also to empathise
with the perceptions of exclusion and isolation sufficiently to contribute
to a solution. And the other side must be unequivocal in affirming language
rights and identity and education practicability, and defend the place for
Afrikaans-medium instruction within the public education system.

>From 1994, many historically Afrikaans schools have opted to offer parallel
streams of English and Afrikaans in one school.

But the educational management of a parallel-medium school is complex,
especially at high school level because of the complexities of curriculum
choice. For parallel-medium schools to be practical, the numbers of pupils
in each stream must be large enough to qualify for sufficient teachers.

*The Ermelo case*In 2007, the Mpumalanga education department instructed an
Afrikaans-medium school in Ermelo to admit 113 pupils who could not be
accommodated elsewhere and who wished to be taught in English.

The instruction was challenged and the courts required rigorous evidence
that this was a reasonable educational decision. The Constitutional Court
required the department to quantify demand for English medium in the
educational circuit, as well as to outline the administrative action taken
to satisfy this demand.

The lesson was clear: language policy cannot be used unreasonably to
exclude anyone, but any administrative decision to overrule a school’s
language policy is subject to review and, therefore, needs to be reasonable
and well motivated in every case.

Reasonableness is used twice in the language of instruction clause in the
Constitution. This is a clear marker that our courts will adjudicate
according to the evidence, and the actions of the state will be scrutinised
for reasonableness.

At the same time, the Constitution is explicit that school language policy
must take into account the need to redress the results of past racial
discrimination. The constitutional principles of equity, practicability and
historical redress can be used to justify a state decision to overrule the
language policy determined by a school governing body if the educational
circumstances reasonably require this.

The tension that must be resolved politically by debate and discussion is
between the legitimate right to a preferred medium of instruction, and the
perceptions of a language policy operating in practice to discriminate

*Challenges of perception*Ermelo has taught us that the courts are not the
best instrument to resolve what are challenges of perception, history and
the necessity of social inclusion.

This is a matter of enormous importance. It is a significant moment for
asserting that we all belong, that our futures are intertwined, that our
fervently held language and cultural identity cannot be compromised, but
that additional actions must be taken to give visible expression to our
desire to be one with those of different identities – that, although we may
learn in a language-circumscribed space, we must actively embrace and
celebrate diversity in other spaces.

A legal war of attrition will not yield this solution.

It must be won through lively and frank discussion and a mutual
determination to find a solution that communicates belonging, that builds
participation in the broader national project and is rooted in a commitment
to the shared values and common goals that gave birth to the new society
that we are still building.

To drive this discussion, we need a leadership that holds these tensions in
a reasonable and inclusive common ground. We need a leadership that
demonstrates the art of principled compromise.

*Mary Metcalfe is a visiting adjunct professor at the University of the
Witwatersrand’s school of **governance*


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