[lg policy] Don't demonise Afrikaans

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Feb 1 10:16:58 EST 2018

 Don't demonise Afrikaans
Conrad Steenkamp |
30 January 2018
Conrad Steenkamp replies to Panyaza Lesufi's arguments against
single-medium Afrikaans schooling

*We need a new consensus on mother tongue education*

In his campaign against Afrikaans medium schools, Mr Lesufi, the MEC for
Education in Gauteng, presents two arguments
that warrant a response. The first is an argument against Afrikaans as a
racist enterprise, the second a call for multilingualism at schools.
Unfortunately, the first sets the tone of the discussion, to the detriment
of a meaningful engagement of the second.

*Afrikaans and “racist identity”*

Mr Lesufi’s argument against single-medium Afrikaans schools, begins with a
surprisingly liberal argument about individual rights. Racism, he argues,
is based on the notion that one is “a member of a collective” defined by
“race, culture and even language.” By this logic, schools like Hoërskool
Overvaal and others make themselves guilty of a racist form of identity by
the mere fact of wanting to use Afrikaans-medium instruction.

Having equated racism with identity based on, among others, language, Mr
Lesufi is further able to conclude that “language policies” are “nothing
more than crude forms of racism,” an attempt to use language for the vilest
of racist ends, namely racial exclusion.

If the notion of language as representing racist identity is the logic
behind the language policy of the Gauteng Department of Education, then it
is unconstitutional. The Constitution explicitly provides for the rights of
“cultural, linguistic and religious communities”. It even provides for a
permanent commission to protect and promote the rights of these
“communities” (or “collectives” using Mr Lesufi’s term). It also provides
for single medium mother tongue education.

In any event, South Africans across the board use language, culture,
traditions, religion or political philosophy, party, and identification
with the nation to fashion multiple, overlapping and flexible identities.
One can identify as an Afrikaner, Afrikaans, a KhoiSan, a Zulu
traditionalist, or a Presbyterian and simultaneously be a proud ANC- or
DA-voting South African. Demonising those who consider language or culture
a part of their identity literally makes no sense.

It also begs the question as to whether the logic of “racist identity”
would also apply to the tshiVenda school in Mamelodi, or the isiZulu
schools in rural KwaZulu-Natal? What about mixed-race Afrikaans schools or
black or largely white English-only schools? Are stick-fights at
traditional weddings racist by nature or does the logic of “racist
identity” apply only by virtue of the colour of one’s skin?

There certainly is no place for racism in our society and action should be
taken where schools are misusing language to achieve racist exclusion.
However, one needs more than perceptions or negative stereotypes to argue
that this is indeed what is happening. Generally, a language policy is not
simply an expression of crude racism, but about parents wanting to ensure
that their children get mother tongue education.

*Multilingual pedagogies*

Mr Lesufi also argues in favour of multilingual, multicultural and
multiracial schools, ones that reflect the full diversity of the country’s
population. What this means in practice is not spelled out, though it seems
that he may have certain multilingual teaching methods in mind. These
generally use a “common language”, such as English, alongside the several
other languages understood by the learners.

Such methods are being used experimentally in various settings and show
potential in multilingual classrooms, the norm in many schools in urban
Gauteng. It is also easy to understand why they would appeal to a
department that wants to integrate classes and eradicate racial
inequalities in education.

However, as with outcomes-based education, these approaches will require a
major upgrade of teacher skills and capacities. Like outcomes-based
education, they harbour great potential for unintended consequences – like
breaking mother tongue education.

Beware of good ideas. It is not easy to manage multilingualism in *any*
institution and the tendency for a strong international language like
English to overwhelm weaker local languages is well known.

Multilingual pedagogies may well be indispensable in some settings.
However, they are not the only method around and there is no compelling
reason to implement them immediately and in all contexts. There is
overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of traditional mother tongue
education in producing multilingual citizens.

UNESCO explicitly rejects the notion that mother tongue education is too
expensive, that the former colonial languages like English are superior to
the indigenous ones, or that learning in one’s mother tongue prevents one
from learning other languages. They strongly encourage African governments
to embrace mother tongue education up to the highest level.

We should also not confuse mother tongue education with monolingualism, as
has been done in this debate. Monolingualism is much rather the consequence
of an educational language policy that favours English over all the
indigenous languages. It is one of the reasons why also so many black
children are becoming monolingual English speakers. The long-term
consequences are immense.

*In conclusion*

It is easy to understand why many people respond negatively whenever
Afrikaans is mentioned. We are wounded in many ways and it will take more
than just one generation to overcome the pain that people feel.

Yet, the stereotypes that have been deployed in the campaign against
Afrikaans in Gauteng over the past year or so, do an injustice to the
language and its speakers.

Afrikaans was also a language of the struggle, as MK veterans from Robben
Island and many communities will testify. The majority of Afrikaans schools
are largely coloured. There are even some black Afrikaans schools and
hardly any Afrikaans schools are exclusively white. Even Hoërskool Overvaal
has black learners – happy ones judging by the way that they have been
defending the school.

Demonising Afrikaans schools with stereotypes, crushing them with mass
action and forcing them to accept English is everything but progressive. It
makes life more difficult for the ruling party, especially in other
provinces. Gauteng is not an island and it is fitting that Minister Angie
Motshekga spoke her mind on this matter.

Most speakers of Afrikaans by far reject racism. They want to be part of
South African society and part of the solution for the many problems that
we face. Please talk to us. Let us rather take the discussion about schools
and mother tongue education out of the courts and the streets. Let us
launch an inclusive effort to develop a new consensus about language and

I call on Mr Lesufi to do all in his power to make this possible.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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