Strategy for multilingual success

By the book: The Constitution provides the country with a legal foundation that protects linguistic rights. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

By the book: The Constitution provides the country with a legal foundation that protects linguistic rights. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)


South Africa is like a “policy superhighway”. We create policies without policing them. There are very few rest stops along this “highway” in which we can properly engage with policies to assess their effectiveness and appropriateness.

For every policy there should be an implementation plan and review process. It is no different for any university’s language policies.

What follows is a brief analysis of the creation and implementation of a language policy at Rhodes University and its influence on the teaching and learning of African languages – arguably, a success story. The purpose of this case study is to assess the extent of “meaningful engagement” with these languages.

Language committee formed
Recognising a need from students – and after engaging with management – we introduced isiXhosa mother-tongue courses in 2008. It is, indeed, almost inconceivable that a university in the heartland of the amaXhosa would not have offered isiXhosa as a mother-tongue subject of both learning and teaching.

Previously, students could learn isi­Xhosa only as a second or additional language.

Today there are 500 students studying isiXhosa at both mother-tongue and second-language levels at Rhodes – from first year to third year as well as at honours, masters and PhD levels. There are also vocation-specific courses in isiXhosa in journalism, law, ­education and pharmacology.

It could be argued that the growth in numbers and diversification of isiXhosa courses came about through a process of “meaningful engagement” with students, management and experts in these fields, as well as with practitioners on the ground. Interviews with practitioners and observations in loco ­influenced the design and content of the respective curriculums.

These developments are informed by Rhodes University’s language policy, which the senate and the council accepted in 2005. Following the necessary engagements, the university approved the formation of the Rhodes language committee in 2011.

This is made up of representatives from across the university community, from support staff to students, professors and faculty deans. The committee’s main function is to oversee the implementation of multilingualism on campus in a meaningful ­manner, as well as to revise the language policy every three years.

The policy was last revised in 2013, and these revisions were approved by the senate and the council last year. The policy is trilingual and makes teaching and learning available in isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans.

This revision involved extensive engagement. A questionnaire was sent out to the entire university community, including the student council, all heads of departments, units, institutes and trade unions. This was to assess the state of multilingualism on campus and to ­determine what the university community wished to achieve regarding the implementation of the language and ­multilingualism policy.

The responses were collated and analysed by a subcommittee of the language committee that then reworked the policy in line with the collated comments and suggestions. The revised document was tabled a number of times to the language committee.

‘Meaningful engagement’
Once accepted, it was forwarded to the equity and institutional culture committee. The document was again reworked by a subcommittee that the vice-chancellor constituted and that included members of the language committee. It was then submitted for the senate’s final approval in May 2014 and duly accepted.

All these processes show an interlinked relationship between ­language and law, in which a co-dependency is established between the legal concept of “meaningful engagement” and the creation and implementation of language policies.

We have tried in this article to open the dialogue associated with the applicability of the concept of “meaningful engagement” as a framing reference for the language rights embodied in the Constitution – the supreme law of the country – that places enormous emphasis on language and elevates the status of African languages.

The Constitution provides the country with a legal foundation that protects linguistic rights and tasks the community at large with the mandate to give effect to its provisions.

The late Neville Alexander, in his extensive body of work – ranging from those dealing with the inception of a democratic South Africa to his last publication, titled Thoughts on the New South Africa (2013) – pointed out that there has been no one policy or piece of legislation that has been able to address the Constitution’s language provisions and successfully implement them.

There seems to be a disjuncture between the law (that is, the legislation) and the linguistic component – namely, between the content of the policy and its implementation, resulting in failures regarding African-language teaching and learning.

Where is the problem located? Is it in the policies and legislation, which do not give effect to the constitutional mandate, or is it the implementation phase that is problematic?

There are many policies and much legislation that deal only with languages, or that make reference to and include a section on languages. This can be viewed as an advantage, but the number of policies does not illustrate successes in the implementation stages.

It rather illustrates a failure in the implementation stages, where policies seem to overlap and carry out the same mandate. A contributing missing link is the lack of any legislation that is all encompassing. The Use of Languages Act of 2012 attempts to provide for this, though it is not without major complications.

Useful tool
Through assessment, it is evidently clear that there is a failure to implement for a number of reasons at our universities. A solution that is legally sound and linguistically equipped to resolve problems and successfully implement language legislation and policies is required: the concept of “meaningful engagement”, as illustrated above. Attempting to find a tool that has the potential to reverse the status quo and implement language policies and legislation successfully is now even more important.

“Meaningful engagement” is a tool that has been successful in situations similar to the language policy issue, where subjective factors were central to ensuring implementation success.

With the development of the original concept, the protectors and enforcers of the Constitution, namely the Constitutional Court justices and particularly Justice Zak Yacoob, introduced the concept of “meaningful engagement” and developed as well as successfully applied it in the socioeconomic rights sphere.

Language and law are inseparable, and “meaningful engagement” allows for a legal concept to be used, which should have the potential to result in the successful implementation of language policies and legislation.

There has been a constant call for engagement to occur, as Alexander wrote unequivocally in 2013: “My sincere wish is [my] readers will consider these thoughts, take a step back and try to get a perspective on what has actually been happening since 1990, when the new South Africa began. Even more optimistically, I hope that such a rethink will inspire the reader to want to find a point of engagement.”

This provides the inspiration to propose the concept of “meaningful engagement” as a tool to achieve a fully multilingual society. The time has finally come when South Africans, united in linguistic diversity, could emerge as a powerful force.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, rector of the University of the Free State, wrote two years ago that “citizen action is vitally necessary as we come out of the heady days of post-apartheid euphoria”.

Appropriate implementation
We now propose the tool of “meaningful engagement” not only within the country more generally, but also within context-driven environments where language policies have been and are being drafted: for example, universities, banks, the schooling system and within the broader public and private sectors.

Language policies at South African universities must be accompanied by appropriate implementation plans. If not, then we will forever be faced with the “forked tongue” of multilingualism when we talk about “language policy” but don’t walk this talk.

Russell H Kaschula is the NRF SARChI chair in the intellectualisation of African languages, multilingualism and education, and chairperson of the Rhodes University language committee. Zakeera Docrat is the student nominee on the Rhodes University language committee 



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