Don't demonise Afrikaans

Conrad Steenkamp replies to Panyaza Lesufi's arguments against single-medium Afrikaans schooling

We need a new consensus on mother tongue education

In his campaign against Afrikaans medium schools, Mr Lesufi, the MEC for Education in Gauteng, presents two arguments that warrant a response. The first is an argument against Afrikaans as a racist enterprise, the second a call for multilingualism at schools. Unfortunately, the first sets the tone of the discussion, to the detriment of a meaningful engagement of the second.

Afrikaans and “racist identity”

Mr Lesufi’s argument against single-medium Afrikaans schools, begins with a surprisingly liberal argument about individual rights. Racism, he argues, is based on the notion that one is “a member of a collective” defined by “race, culture and even language.” By this logic, schools like Hoërskool Overvaal and others make themselves guilty of a racist form of identity by the mere fact of wanting to use Afrikaans-medium instruction.

Having equated racism with identity based on, among others, language, Mr Lesufi is further able to conclude that “language policies” are “nothing more than crude forms of racism,” an attempt to use language for the vilest of racist ends, namely racial exclusion.

If the notion of language as representing racist identity is the logic behind the language policy of the Gauteng Department of Education, then it is unconstitutional. The Constitution explicitly provides for the rights of “cultural, linguistic and religious communities”. It even provides for a permanent commission to protect and promote the rights of these “communities” (or “collectives” using Mr Lesufi’s term). It also provides for single medium mother tongue education.

In any event, South Africans across the board use language, culture, traditions, religion or political philosophy, party, and identification with the nation to fashion multiple, overlapping and flexible identities. One can identify as an Afrikaner, Afrikaans, a KhoiSan, a Zulu traditionalist, or a Presbyterian and simultaneously be a proud ANC- or DA-voting South African. Demonising those who consider language or culture a part of their identity literally makes no sense.

It also begs the question as to whether the logic of “racist identity” would also apply to the tshiVenda school in Mamelodi, or the isiZulu schools in rural KwaZulu-Natal? What about mixed-race Afrikaans schools or black or largely white English-only schools? Are stick-fights at traditional weddings racist by nature or does the logic of “racist identity” apply only by virtue of the colour of one’s skin?

There certainly is no place for racism in our society and action should be taken where schools are misusing language to achieve racist exclusion. However, one needs more than perceptions or negative stereotypes to argue that this is indeed what is happening. Generally, a language policy is not simply an expression of crude racism, but about parents wanting to ensure that their children get mother tongue education.

Multilingual pedagogies

Mr Lesufi also argues in favour of multilingual, multicultural and multiracial schools, ones that reflect the full diversity of the country’s population. What this means in practice is not spelled out, though it seems that he may have certain multilingual teaching methods in mind. These generally use a “common language”, such as English, alongside the several other languages understood by the learners.

Such methods are being used experimentally in various settings and show potential in multilingual classrooms, the norm in many schools in urban Gauteng. It is also easy to understand why they would appeal to a department that wants to integrate classes and eradicate racial inequalities in education.

However, as with outcomes-based education, these approaches will require a major upgrade of teacher skills and capacities. Like outcomes-based education, they harbour great potential for unintended consequences – like breaking mother tongue education.

Beware of good ideas. It is not easy to manage multilingualism in any institution and the tendency for a strong international language like English to overwhelm weaker local languages is well known.

Multilingual pedagogies may well be indispensable in some settings. However, they are not the only method around and there is no compelling reason to implement them immediately and in all contexts. There is overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of traditional mother tongue education in producing multilingual citizens. 

UNESCO explicitly rejects the notion that mother tongue education is too expensive, that the former colonial languages like English are superior to the indigenous ones, or that learning in one’s mother tongue prevents one from learning other languages. They strongly encourage African governments to embrace mother tongue education up to the highest level.

We should also not confuse mother tongue education with monolingualism, as has been done in this debate. Monolingualism is much rather the consequence of an educational language policy that favours English over all the indigenous languages. It is one of the reasons why also so many black children are becoming monolingual English speakers. The long-term consequences are immense.

In conclusion

It is easy to understand why many people respond negatively whenever Afrikaans is mentioned. We are wounded in many ways and it will take more than just one generation to overcome the pain that people feel.

Yet, the stereotypes that have been deployed in the campaign against Afrikaans in Gauteng over the past year or so, do an injustice to the language and its speakers.

Afrikaans was also a language of the struggle, as MK veterans from Robben Island and many communities will testify. The majority of Afrikaans schools are largely coloured. There are even some black Afrikaans schools and hardly any Afrikaans schools are exclusively white. Even Hoërskool Overvaal has black learners – happy ones judging by the way that they have been defending the school.

Demonising Afrikaans schools with stereotypes, crushing them with mass action and forcing them to accept English is everything but progressive. It makes life more difficult for the ruling party, especially in other provinces. Gauteng is not an island and it is fitting that Minister Angie Motshekga spoke her mind on this matter.

Most speakers of Afrikaans by far reject racism. They want to be part of South African society and part of the solution for the many problems that we face. Please talk to us. Let us rather take the discussion about schools and mother tongue education out of the courts and the streets. Let us launch an inclusive effort to develop a new consensus about language and education.

I call on Mr Lesufi to do all in his power to make this possible.

Conrad Steenkamp is CEO of the Afrikaans Language Council (Afrikaanse Taalraad).