How about we beat the Chinese at their own game?

South Africa’s education minister has announced that Mandarin, the group of related Chinese dialects that together are spoken by nearly a billion people – more native speakers than for any other language – will be phased in as an optional and examinable subject in public schools from January 2016.

Angie Motshekga’s office feels the move will bring South Africans closer to China, it’s biggest trading partner, but has been scant on details; almost like throwing a grenade in the dark and taking cover. And in the absence of a clear rationale, the reaction by South Africans has been anything but kind, almost viscerally so.  

Why is our government bending over backwards for China? Do we have any say in it or is it just being rammed down our throats? Aren’t we just aiding the new colonialists? Who is really benefiting? Do the Chinese even learn African languages? Will we have to learn another language when China is no longer our major trading partner?  

Talk to a man in his language
The powerful teachers’ union was especially succinct: over our dead body. The backlash is valid and expected, and the government has to package its message better, and fast, before the opposition is set in stone. But amid all the furore, is there a chance that it might actually be a good move, even if not for the reason you would expect? First, the more general view. Learning an extra language, even Chinese, does open up new doors, and few parents would be impervious to the chance of more opportunities to their children. If this is communicated better, it could have a chance of securing the difficult buy-in of those it is targeted at. And South Africa’s sluggish economy certainly needs all the help it can get, if it is to thrive in a highly competitive global environment. But at what cost?  

China’s veritable march across the continent has been well documented and remains the subject of much discussion. And despite all the talk of partnerships and shared history, China has never really hidden the fact that the economic objective ranks highest. Beijing’s business interest in Africa remains evident. So how about we view this their way, and get better at it than them? The Chinese are already learning some African languages, from Lingala and Kiswahili to seSotho. This is because they understand that being able to communicate with the locals makes it much easier to gain their confidence, and achieve their broader objectives. Nelson Mandela alluded to it: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”   

This is why black people are easily mesmerised when a person from a different race speaks their language – it is a bit puzzling considering that across the continent Africans are proficient in the languages of our former colonial masters. 

No illusions
The Chinese workforce in Africa has no illusion that it will take time to win the trust of the locals, and while they already have African governments in their pockets, they can also be very patient when they need to be – Who would have thought China would in our lifetime threaten to become the world’s largest economy?  

Chinese methods may be questionable, such as the second-tier status of human rights, but they seem to work economically. Should Africa therefore adopt the ways of the East wholesome? Hardly, but we can borrow those that work, and adapt them to our economic circumstances on the continent. Patience is one: backed by deliberate consistent effort it yields outsized returns.  The other is cultural. Far from viewing Mandarin inculcation as backward, we can instead look to see the value of teaching African languages that are already spoken widely across the continent, such as Setwana, Kiswahili, Yoruba, IsiZulu and even French and Portuguese. 

This would go a long way in fostering cultural and social cohesion amongst Africans, and may strengthen pan-African social and economic partnerships. Also, this would greatly strengthen the cause of African multinationals, further helping the fledgling integration effort and help the continental collective. In an ideal world, Africa would build its empire on its own terms – we already have the natural resources, brilliant scholars and thought leaders, innovative businesses and driven entrepreneurs. But the reality is that we do not exist in a vacuum, and we have to learn to use the system to our advantage. 

Do we have to choose Mandarin over our African languages or vice versa? Not necessarily – the more knowledge we acquire, the more we strengthen our hand globally, allowing us to venture out with the skills and confidence to sell ourselves as even more credible partners to the world. Therefore what we must push for is a fair playing ground – African governments should not sign away our birthrights on the altar of bilateral agreements – both hard and soft. We can save ourselves the humiliation of having our foreign partners translate and tilt trade agreements in their favour as we look on and smile, in the hope that it is all in good faith. Learning Chinese language should not necessarily put Africa’s future generations at a disadvantage, as long as we are clear about what’s in it for us. China will do what works for China, Africa can learn to play the game better. 

Palesa Thinane-Epondo is an avid traveller and commentator on socioeconomic issues in Africa. She is based in Johannesburg.

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