Perhaps it is the legacy of the years of isolation under apartheid, but it would appear that South Africans remain remarkably insular to this day. That is probably why some are so opposed to Mandarin being phased in as one of the nonofficial, optional languages offered at our public schools from next year – and why there is resistance to what they believe is another sign of China’s colonial-style relationship with Africa.
The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) was quoted in the Mail & Guardian last week as saying it viewed the introduction of Mandarin in public schools as a new form of colonisation and vowed that it would oppose the move. The union urged its members not to teach it. One would be forgiven for thinking that Education Minister Angie Motshekga had announced that Mandarin was to become a compulsory language, or would henceforth take its place among the country’s official languages.
The fact that other languages of colonisation in Africa, such as Portuguese, were also approved by Motshekga as additional optional languages, failed to attract Sadtu’s ire. Perhaps there is no outcry over these languages because Portuguese remains an official language in places such as Angola and Mozambique, as French does across West Africa. Nobody, it seems, questions the utility of learning those languages, so why should we be closed to languages spoken elsewhere in the world? We should be encouraging multilingualism, not only in terms of our own official languages, but also in other languages that will help South Africans become global citizens. China does a great deal of business in Africa, so knowing Mandarin would be helpful to African entrepreneurs and state officials. If there are concerns about China “colonising” South Africa and other parts of the continent, refusing to learn one of its languages will not make the problem go away.
The real issue in China and South Africa’s relationship is the trade imbalance, which President Jacob Zuma himself has told Beijing is unsustainable, and the fact that China’s cheap imports and steel dumping are hurting us domestically (as it is hurting elsewhere on the continent), not to mention that members of our political elite appear to have cosy business relationships with Beijing – and considerable admiration for a government that’s not exactly democratic or, for that matter, a human rights standard bearer.
If we are concerned about those aspects of China, it is there that we should concentrate our efforts – not in resisting the introduction of a language that many of our school pupils may, in any event, not elect to learn.