/ 21 April 2011

The future will be spoken in all tongues

We support the view, expressed by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, that as many South African university students as possible should learn a local African language. But we do not agree with his ostensible justification for this position. He is reported to have said: “We can’t be expected to learn English and ­Afrikaans while they don’t learn our languages.”

This argument highlights the purported significance of race, implying that the initiative is aimed principally at white students who should learn an African language to redress the injustices of the past. But how will repeating the injustices of the past be a way to overcome them? The 1976 uprising against the ­imposition of Afrikaans in black schools has, for more than three ­decades, made it utterly impossible for Afrikaans-speakers to expect — let alone oblige — any outsider to speak their language and has left them in a language laager of their own making.

Moreover, the reason black students are so keen to learn English has nothing to do with the demands or expectations of white South Africans. They want to learn English because it is the language of global communication and they know it will be for a long time, despite the ongoing shift in economic power from West to East.

We feel that race needs to be removed entirely from the argument for learning a local African language. The premise should be the growing division between a middle-class elite and a mass of impoverished citizens. The elite is now composed of both black and white South Africans, who are able to communicate in English and are happy to do so because it is the language of global commerce, industry, government and the professions. Such people are entirely rational in their preference for English and it would be naive to criticise them for being traitors to their languages of origin (which include Afrikaans, as well as the African vernaculars).

Yet it is also true that these people — both black and white — are the beneficiaries of a post-apartheid dispensation marked by increasing inequalities. Thus the elite has become distant from the masses, who have derived little, if any, benefit from the new era. The elite’s embrace of English is both a sign of this distancing and a means by which it is being achieved.

This is the gulf any new approach to African languages in higher education should aim to bridge. We assume that university graduates are likely to acquire stable, salaried employment and, therefore, join the beneficiaries of the new dispensation. Such students should therefore be encouraged, and in certain instances required, to learn at least one of the languages of those outside the category of beneficiaries.

It is all too easy for those on the inside of this category to ignore the difficulties that poor, elderly or rural people may face in dealing with administrators, bureaucrats and diverse service providers who cannot, or will not, speak an African language. One may argue that not all students will come into contact with the disadvantaged. But the ability to communicate in an African language would be a crucial indication of their willingness to serve the whole nation, not just a favoured portion.

White students in the humanities or the service professions fall into this ­category. But so do their black counter-parts who could well be required to learn an African language other than their home language (or an Nguni language if their home language is in the Sotho-Tswana cluster, and vice versa).

One final, provocative thought. Given that the correspondence between race and class is decreasing in South Africa and that more whites are falling out of the elite, one could say to students in certain fields that they should learn any South African language other than English or their home language. Then Afrikaans might be more accurately seen as a language that, alongside Xhosa or Pedi, the elite should know to bridge growing inequalities.

Ideally, of course, the acquisition of any language should occur long before university. But the introduction of African-language instruction in primary schools would be a long-term project and at present it is the ­universities that are best placed to begin the task of educating an elite who will be able to speak to the whole nation.

John Sharp is deputy dean and Sandra Klopper dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Pretoria.