[lg policy] South Africa: Exorcising the imperialist in your tongue

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Mar 5 16:15:13 UTC 2016

 Exorcising the imperialist in your tongue

Language politics has taken centre-stage in South Africa, often under the
banner of #AfrikaansMustFall. But what would a truly “decolonised” language
landscape in South Africa look like?
By Scott Burnett <http://www.thesouthafrican.com/author/scott-burnett/> -
March 4, 2016
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CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - SEPTEMBER 01: A group of students shout slogans
and hold banners during an anti-xenophobia demonstration against the
alleged racist attitude of the administration of the Stellenbosch
University in Cape Town, South Africa on September 01, 2015. (Photo by
Ashraf Hendricks/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Image Credits:Getty

It’s an odd thing, seeing the decolonial student movement demand
English-only education. English is after all the colonial language *par
excellence*. Afrikaans, on the other hand, has home-grown bona-fides: first
spoken as a Dutch creole, it was at first rejected by the settler
population for not being “pure” enough. Today, only 40% of people whose
home language is Afrikaans are white.

In *Decolonising the Mind*, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes the imposition of
European languages on Africa as doing to African spirits what guns and
bullets did to their bodies. Colonialism systematically debased and
undermined African languages and culture, imposing Christianity and a
reverence for European art and history.

*Is Afrikaans, which was also suppressed under British rule, experiencing a
similar colonial obliteration by the students*, and the university councils
that are slowly giving in to their demands?

Not exactly. At one level, the moment we are in is not about language at
all, but about fairness. The success of Afrikaans as an academic language
required massive public investment from the state, an investment that was
explicitly targeted at uplifting white Afrikaners. And it worked: children
educated in that system have thrived, both in South Africa, and where they
have settled around the world.

So, that was unfair enough at the time. But what compounded the unfairness
post-1994 was the* failure of the most prominent universities to lead the
way in making similar investments in other languages.* Although signs and
names were changed in a way that hinted at linguistic diversity, the only
real concession, especially at formerly Afrikaans-only institutions, was an
awkward mix of English and Afrikaans.

If investment had been fair – if students could study, research, and learn
in the language they feel most comfortable in – then it is possible that
Afrikaans would not stick out as a bastion of white privelege and
exceptionalism. *Die Taal has been the victim of bad language policy*, and
a failure to invest in all South African languages.

*If you think that English is the “international language” of research, and
that teaching and researching in other languages is a waste of time,
consider Sweden. They have 14 world-class universities (a couple of which
usually rank in the Top 100) where you can study, research, and publish in
Swedish. And yet there are fewer speakers of Swedish in the world than

But, many will complain, *we simply cannot afford a fair language policy,
and comparisons to Sweden are laughable*.

OK: so Sweden has 14 universities (and 16 public colleges): could we not
just start with one good isiZulu university? UKZN has been trying,
insisting that staff and students learn basic isiZulu and conducting some
of their tutorials and lectures, and supporting some publications, in that
language. Wits has a new policy on the table which, if properly funded,
could see isiZulu and South African Sign Language join Sesotho and English
as official languages of teaching, learning, and research. Other
universities are getting on board.

This does require considerable investment. But can higher education in
South Africa afford to continue indefinitely, setting a colonial tone in
the way it is structured? What are the long-term costs of ignoring our
linguistic diversity?

Thirty years have passed since wa Thiong’o made the call for *“the
rediscovery and resumption of our language… a regenerative reconnection
with the millions of revolutionary tongues in Africa and across the world
demanding liberation”.* Wa Thiong’o himself has written mostly in Gikuyu
since then.

*So long live Afrikaans as a language of teaching*, learning, and research,
but never at the expense of isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana,
xiTsonga, Tshivenḓa, or Siswati, or isiNdebele, nor, for that matter, South
African Sign Language.

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