/ 13 December 2018

Chinese will not take over our classrooms

Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture have opened in South Africa
Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Chinese culture have opened in South Africa, sparking a fear of neocolonialism the authors say is unfounded. (Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)


The not-so-recent and not-so-minimal investments in the South African economy by Chinese corporations, and the Chinese government itself through state-owned enterprises and banks, carry numerous implications for education in South Africa. Such upshots cannot be taken too lightly.

South Africa has experienced a number of the economic difficulties in the past five years or so. These include political instability because of a number of Cabinet reshuffles, mainly under former president Jacob Zuma, and excessive looting of the state coffers. Zuma and organisations such as Black First Land First contended that the accusations against him were a result of his decisions to take South Africa “East” and to join the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc. This argument cannot survive scrutiny because South Africa’s relationship with China predated Zuma’s assumption of office.

In fact, this link can be traced to 1998, when Nelson Mandela formed relations with mainland China because of Taiwan.

South Africa remains tied to both the East and the West, and has done so since 1994. Indeed, since the democratic dispensation, Pretoria has opted for an open economic diplomacy that allows for diversity in partnerships and has opened doors for all, including Eastern countries who played critical roles in the fight against apartheid.

At the same time, however, it is worth mentioning that, although Britain, the European Union and the United States seem to have an upper hand in relations with South Africa, the unprecedented and growing influence of Beijing over the economy of South Africa is evident in its investments in more than 150 corporations that employ more than 30 00 people.

Chinese involvement in South Africa is further seen in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s 20% stake in banking giant Standard Bank, as well as the fact that China is our largest single export and import partner. Furthermore, the Asian giant has opened up more than five Confucius Institutes in the country that teach Mandarin and disseminate Chinese culture.

In 2015, the government announced it would in the following year introduce Mandarin as an additional language, beginning from the early grades, through to high school in a multiphased plan. Organisations and citizens criticised this move, arguing that South Africans were still grappling with their own languages, and that the introduction of Mandarin reeked of a takeover of our institutions of learning and cultivation of young minds.

This overlooks the benefits. To begin with, much of this criticism showed that many South Africans are not cognisant of the thousands of South Africans of Chinese descent who have lived here at least since the late 1800s. Thus, depriving them of an opportunity to learn their mother tongue can be considered unconstitutional (although Mandarin is not recognised in the Constitution).

But another crucial point missed is that Mandarin is an optional language, and one the country would benefit from if learnt. The dividends would lie in the fact that the country would have a window into what is one of the most mysterious political-economic machines, one we barely understand, but to which, in this globalised world, so much of our own economic fortunes are tied.

Not only has Mandarin been introduced into the curriculum, there has also been an increase in the number of South Africans taking up studying opportunities in China made possible by scholarships offered by the Chinese government.

A number of South Africans have the chance of an education even if it does not offer social reproduction as envisaged by the likes of bell hooks and Steve Biko. The move is also in contrast to the notions of a decolonised education demanded by the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements. After all, it has long been argued by renowned educationalists such as Paulo Freire that education is not devoid of ideology.

There are arguments about the mismatch of South African and Chinese standards with regard to medicine. There is also some pessimism, as if our students abroad are blank slates to be brainwashed in their temporary countries of learning. The opposite may be true. Perhaps, ironically, the greatest critics of Eurocentrism and the most vocal proponents of decolonisation have been Mandela-Rhodes scholarship recipients and others who have studied abroad, including Weidenfeld scholarship recipient, Oxford graduate and PhD candidate Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, author of the highly scathing Democracy & Delusion.

So, there is room for a more pragmatic midway view that does not see China as either a saintly benefactor or a neocolonial power in waiting. Rather, it is a matter of defining our interest in learning Mandarin, the language of more than a billion people worldwide. The most active Mandarin learners at the moment are in the US and the EU. These are not sites of Chinese neocolonialism as far as we know. There is also scope for the domestication of this language. For example, Professor Herbert Mushangwe, a co-director of the University of Zimbabwe Confucius Institute, has written an introductory text to Mandarin based on Shona idioms, culture and social contexts.

China will not be taking over our classrooms. The teachers being trained are South Africans, and families, guardians, school governing bodies and the department of basic education maintain their powers of intervention. The fact that the introduction of Mandarin is phased means there is much more room to intervene early on.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the research director at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg and research co-ordinator at UJ’s Confucius Institute. Gift Sonkqayi is doing his honours in education at the University of the Witwatersrand. These are their own views