[lg policy] South Africa: Our cultures should interact, not just coexist

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jun 13 15:05:20 UTC 2015

Choosing any single medium of instruction at university level simply
reinforces racial exclusivity.
 [image: Rocking the boat: ‘The vocal defence of multiculturalism that we
frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for
plural monoculturalism,’ Amartya Sen writes. (Matthew Lloyd, Getty Images)]

Rocking the boat: ‘The vocal defence of multiculturalism that we frequently
hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural
monoculturalism,’ Amartya Sen writes. Photo: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

Ideas about which language to use as the medium of instruction remain
contested around the world in education and politics, especially in
countries described as multicultural.

In China, bilingual policies are meant to promote the state and community
languages in multilingual regions. The interpretation of such policies
influences the survival of indigenous ­languages and also the ability of
communities to gain access to higher education and economic and social

In Yunnan, which has great linguistic diversity, the state adopted
bilingual policies in which Mandarin was paired with English in secondary
schools, but the local languages were used in primary schools.

Sociolinguist Catherine Snow has demonstrated that whereas Mandarin is ­now
perceived as a threat to regional languages English has come to be
associated with opportunities for mobility.

The challenges for indigenous languages are many, not least the phenomenon
of 21st-century urbanisation – in which the languages of the regions come
together, making the use of a lingua franca inevitable.

These dilemmas echo those leading to the Soweto uprising of 1976, which was
targeted against another policy of compulsory bilingualism. In this
context, the state’s insistence on mother-tongue education was
paradoxically regarded as reinforcing race exclusivity.

The transition to compulsory Afrikaans together with the compulsory use of
the mother tongue provided circumstances in which English seemed to be a
the state by South Africans resisting apartheid.

In the new South Africa these competing needs (or dilemmas) are framed by
the Constitution in terms of rights to education in the mother tongue.
Though the Language in Education Policy of 1997 and the Language in Higher
Education Policy of 2002 promote indigenous languages (including English
and Afrikaans), neither policy allows for the preservation of languages in
­isolation from the transformation ideals of the Constitution, in which
multiculturalism is key.

When, for example, a school chooses isiZulu or Afrikaans as mediums of
instruction, people may be excluded on the basis of both language and other
variables (such as race).

In the case of Afrikaans, this restriction privileges white
Afrikaans-speakers as, by default, a “majority” of speakers in many
schools; language rights win, but multiculturalism loses.

A rights-based discourse leads private education groups such as Curro to
consider it desirable to “stream” children according to language
preference. Except, of course, such streaming is race-based, by default.

Failing to acknowledge the constitutional framing (nonracism, nonsexism and
integration) of language policies lays bare another revealing fracture in
South Africa: multiculturalism.

When Nobel laureate Amartya Sen considered whether multiculturalism had
succeeded in the United Kingdom following generations of postcolonial
migrant settlement, he asked: “Does the existence of a diversity of
cultures, which might pass each other like ships in the night, count as a
successful case of multiculturalism?”

His question is relevant in South Africa, not only in terms of language and
culture, but also in terms of issues such as xenophobia or equally shocking
cases of corrective rape and gender violence.

Language and culture are often seen as contiguous. Objecting to the use of
Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools and universities might be
viewed as opposition to race integration and the notion of what it means to
belong together to a new South Africa.

The basis for that refusal might be framed in terms of protecting
mother-tongue education, but language protection and race exclusion run too
closely together. Because racial integration is a touchstone for
postapartheid South Africa, its perceived refusal, on the basis of
language, ethnicity or religion, evokes powerful emotions.

Sen writes: “The vocal defence of multiculturalism that we frequently hear
these days is very often nothing more than a plea for plural

What role does ­multilingualism play in the creation of plural
monolingualism or multiculturalism? University language policies must be
considered in terms of the extent to which they promote transformation
goals (racial integration, nonsexism, nonracism and multiculturalism).

Higher education has three features in South Africa: functionally
multilingual, bilingual and monolingual. Many former Afrikaans-medium
institutions have opted for policies that have been termed functionally

Staff and ­students “choose” the language advertised as the medium on a
campus and, where necessary, there are options to have it interpreted into
another language, or to attend a parallel lecture in that language.

In the first instance, interpreting in the “primary” language stops short
of developing indigenous languages as languages for higher education. In
the second instance, offering a parallel lecture in another language closes
down opportunities for intercultural understanding and integration. Both
“options” make engaging with diversity difficult.

Universities have a mandate to develop indigenous languages, but to adopt
any language as a lingua franca (at least in terms of teaching and
learning) might mean that a university becomes a narrowly regional or
vapidly national institution.

English, a minority language, is currently the lingua franca of choice, but
it cannot function as a way to people.

Thus all groups are required to contribute to the notion of what South
Africanness must mean, from the perspectives of their differences and
similarities: in other words, from the perspective of diversity.
Universities should lead debates about questions of renewal, rejuvenation
and transformation.

There are alternatives to functionally multilingual practices in
institutions such as Rhodes University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal,
where some provision exists for the promotion of additive bilingualism (in
which indigenous languages are compulsory and specific requirements for
some professions). Though these are nascent examples, they do represent
new-generational thinking: away from one language, one culture or one
language, one university.

Integration has to be planned, supported and lived if diversity is not to
be simply about “tolerance”.

Then there are the monolingual institutions where no indigenous language is
promoted, taught or otherwise used officially.

Here, students do not self-divide along racial or linguistic lines (Walter
Sisulu University is an example) because almost all students are black

Yet, even here, the “choice” of one language does not attract diversity in
which race and language have to be recognised.

This latter context is close to Sen’s notion of plural monoculturalism and
the University of Zululand might exemplify this: the dominant language of
the community is isiZulu but the language of the university is mostly
English. All students and teachers are compelled to find expression through

Such places may foster a strong local nationalism, but in the absence of
any recognition (intellectual as well as social) or engagement with
diversity, such institutions struggle to appeal to anyone other than an
already dominant group. Unsurprisingly, debates about what diversity means
are difficult to get going and hard for people to get excited about.

Finally, some linguists suggest that languages must be associated with
institutions to retain “higher-order” purposes, culturally and

In South Africa, the Federation of Afrikaner Cultural Organisations and the
Afrikaans Language and Culture Association are examples of bodies that
promote and develop Afrikaans successfully without an institutional base at
any one university.

The historical privileging of Afrikaans and English requires that other
languages be developed, too, and that universities commit to developing
indigenous languages because it is there that academic expertise can be
grown – but, more than this, so as also to recognise, through
multilingualism, the need to engage with a South African multiculturalism.

*Robert Balfour is dean of education sciences at North-West University*
Originally published in: Getting Ahead


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