Global Perspectives on Human Language:
The South African Context

      Language Systems in South Africa and Their Parallels to the Linguistic Struggle of Blacks in the U.S.  

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Tracy Conner
Updated 9-19-2004

South Africa is a country where the fierce hold of apartheid is a decade removed and economic success is still sharply divided among color lines. Nevertheless, some of the most progressive policies dealing with language have been constructed. Under the National Language Policy Framework (NLPF) organized in 2003, higher salience was placed on languages other than those of previous European colonizers. Although the expanded policy ideally should have evened the racial playing field, it has actually continued racial and economic stratification through the subtleties of language. Before 2003, the language policy in South Africa allowed only for two official languages, Afrikaans and English, meaning these were the only languages of instruction. Today English is considered to be the language of upward mobility, and Afrikaans is the language of instruction in many schools, while the mother tongues of much of the population are the indigenous languages of Southern Africa.

Before legislation expanding the official languages was passed, the masses who had been labeled inferior during apartheid were now "free" to speak an "inferior" language under that system. The NLPF passed this new policy to equalize languages within society. However, one must keep in mind that "[i]t is not language per se, but its power to function as a 'proxy' for wider social issues which fans the flames over public disputes over language," (Johnson, 599). For this reason, the linguistic differences that led to hardship in this country in some ways parallel similar language issues in the Black community of the US.  By comparing and contrasting these language issues, it may be possible to realize a common goal, and continue to move forward address existing linguistic inequalities.

Official Languages of South Africa

After the long reign of apartheid ended in 1994, the new government of South Africa transformed its language policy to include indigenous languages. The policy that was created made way for 11 official languages, including nine indigenous tongues, instead of solely supporting the languages of the previous colonizers. The represented languages include the following: 

        Sesotho sa Leboa      Sesotho sa Leboa, is a spoken mostly in the northern province of South Africa. It is sometimes wrongly referred to as Sepedi, which is a dialect of the language. This indigenous language has 3.6 million first language speakers and was converted to written form by Berlin missionaries.

            Sesotho     Sesotho is the mother tongue of 3.1 million people, 8% of the population of South Africa. It is the official language of Lesotho and also is spoken in Pretoria and Brits. Sesotho was one of the first languages reduced to writing, which explains their development of literature. It's a tonal language that allows phonetically identical utterances to have different meanings based on the intonation.

          Setswana     Setswana (also known as Tswana) was the first Sotho Language written. It is spoken in Botswana, Northern Cape, Central and Western Free State as well as the North West Province of South Africa. The history of its speakers dates back to the 15th century occupation of the Transvaal. The Sotho people depended on livestock and cultivation to fuel their society.(3)

        SiSwati    Also known as Swazi, SiSwati is the official language of Swaziland, and has over one million 1st language speakers. It is closely related to Xhosa, Zulu and Ndebele. The Swazi people originated from the Pongola river valley in KwaZuluNatal.  

          Tshivenda     600,000 people in Northern Transvaal and in Zimbabwe speak this language. It is truly an amalgamation of many languages and traditions. It shares a grammar with Sesotho and various other Shona dialects in Zimbabwe. The religion of its speakers is a combination of many forms of Christianity and the culture incorporates East and Central African, and Ngoni and Sotho characteristics.

          XiTsonga     In South Africa alone, 1.5 million people claim Tsonga as their first language, although there are another 4.5 million speakers in Mozambique. The homeland is Gazankulu, and by 1960, the Transvall. Their society is fueled mostly by gold and manufacturing.

        isiNdebele         Originally from the Nguni people, isiNdebele is the least spoken of the 11 official languages of South Africa. It has less than 590,000 first language speakers. This language is spoken near Polokwane and the culture associated with its speakers boasts of artistic talents including beadwork and colorful painted houses. Other speakers are located in the area formerly known as KwaNdebele and also in areas like Pretoria.  

          isiXhosa     With 6.5 million speakers,   Xhosa is the most widely distributed African language in South Africa, though it doesn't have the largest number of speakers. It is spoken by at least three dozen districts in the Eastern Cape Province close to the Orange Free State, and in the Transkei and Ciskei; it may also be heard outside of the areas mentioned. The dialect that is most popular is Mpondo.

        isiZulu     Zulu is a tonal language named in the 16th century for the chief who erected the royal line. Famous African figure Shaka Zulu raised the area to prominence in the 1800's. It is the most spoken indigenous??? language in Africa, making up the mother tongue of 9 million Africans. It is the written language of Nguni people and is spoken from the Cape to Zimbabwe.

        Afrikaans      Afrikaans is a language unique to South Africa; the country is the place of its origin and the only place in the world where it is spoken. The Dutch, who arrived in 1652 to establish a colony at Cape Town, had the most influence on the creation of the language. However, mixing between a variety of languages including Dutch, German and, Flemish; the Asian and African slave populations solidified its creation. Now, Afrikaans is spoken by over 5.5 million people as their home language and was the language of instruction in early schools.(4)

          English         English is the home language of about 3.4 million South Africans. The British first arrived in 1795, but it was only after the discovery of gold and diamonds in 1870 that members of British high society began to take interest in the colony. Along with Afrikaans, English also was the official language during apartheid and still is linked with upward mobility due to its global importance. It also is the primary language used in government, business and commerce.(5)

Observations in Language and Education Policies

In the years of apartheid, English and Afrikaans were the official languages, so all education was administered in these tongues. The Bantu education system, created in 1953, further stratified education by creating 19 levels of education (based on color) to determine the degree of access to education. During the apartheid era, the population was divided into whites, blacks, and "coloreds," the mixed-race people. From these classifications, the rigor of education was determined and therefore the opportunities for each student's success were supported or suppressed. Black students were taught only to the 7th grade and were encouraged to obtain jobs within the working class. Coloreds were educated to age 15 and whites to grade 12. (See "A Brief History of Educational Inequality from Apartheid to Today")

During apartheid, racism was a facet of the law. The education system is just one instance of the institutionalized racism of that time. Afrikaans was the first language of oppression by the Dutch. Soon the British colonized the area, oppressing the indigenous people as well as the Afrikaaners, the white and even some colored before the national party Africans of the area. This cycle of linguistic oppression was symbolically loosened when apartheid was abolished and was dissolved more officially in 2003 when the revised language policy proclaimed the inclusion of the nine indigenous languages. The policy affirms that "pupils have a right to be taught in a language of their choice, and states that they must inform the school which language they wish to be taught in."(1) Although the language policy seems inclusive, the inequalities built in to the current system are still staggering. Despite the fact that 11 different languages are recognized, the language of upward mobility, economic success, and higher education is still English. 

The majority of the South African population that lives in poverty has little choice in the education that can be provided for their children. The schools in townships and the informal settlements which typically surround them reflect the legacy of extreme economic disparity. Even though education available in many areas has improved and made English language resources more accessible, there is little available within these poorer areas. Some parents feel that children should be taught in the language that presents economic success. But without money to transport children out of townships to the schools that provide these opportunities, this goal seems a far-fetched possibility.  Even Afrikaans is a language that has little power, based on its limited use world wide as well as in the rest of the continent. The new policy does little to reform the effects of the Bantu system with its benign approach to post-apartheid linguistic equality.

The linguistic legislation passed after apartheid was in no way a cure for racial inequality and economic stratification in South Africa based on language. The breadth of the progressive policy did not result because the government, in the moment of liberating South Africa, were so filled with compassion that they created an idealistic system as a result.  According to linguist Raj Mesthrie, the language policy was more like an "eleventh hour proposal,"(6), a stepping stone in the ANC's laundry list of compromises. It is an ambitious and inclusive policy, yet allowing for so many different languages seems to inhibit all of them having equal status, and thus creates difficulties for the education system.

  Language and Global Mobility            

The Early Learning Resource Unit (ELRU), is a program in South Africa that provides multilingual resources and training for teachers in South Africa. The program advocates teaching in the mother tongue during early education to build a foundation upon which later languages can be factored in. By developing books and other teaching materials relevant to  life in the townships as well as identity-building resources, the center has made great strides toward increasing literacy and education. By using mother tongues, the ELRU seeks to increase awareness of identity by teaching in home languages. The programs, mostly aimed at teacher training, have seen success in bettering the quality of education that mother tongue speakers receive. Organizers of the program believe that this foundation in the indigenous language will aid learners in acquiring and developing  proficiency in other languages like English that are typically presented after three years of instruction.. The importance of the home language is paramount to learning, yet because of social issues, some may not even reach a grade level where English is taught because of the staggering drop-out rate of 50%-80% among blacks in many areas. Even children who are able to study English in later years may not develop the confidence in the language to use it to glean the opportunities it might potentially offer.

The Elizabethfontein School is another program that seeks to use education to bridge the social and economic gap in rural society. The school has been awarded for the stellar education it provides for the colored children of farm workers on the outskirts of Clanwilliam. The school has made great strides toward empowering its students to value education and to have confidence in themselves. The institution serves as a boarding school for its learners during the week, which creates a community devoted to learning. The children are taught in Afrikaans until grade four, when English is introduced. Though the children were very bright and displayed tremendous confidence within the classroom, most of the discourse is in Afrikaans. Despite its status as an official language, and the home language of most of the children, this proficiency in Afrikaans, draws a boundary around the realm of opportunities available. It is hoped by the Elizabethfontein teachers that the English programs in place in their students' later education will be implemented with the same rigor that is used with Afrikaans in the early years. However, the exterior issues do not permit many students to finish or even enter the secondary schools that would solidify proficiency in English. The organizations working to improve the education system are creating opportunities that might not otherwise be available. These efforts are beneficial to communities, and are perpetuating the trend of giving important resources to the people, but in a currency that is not accepted throughout the education system or even outside of South Africa.

U.S. Parallels

The linguistic inequalities in the U.S. and in South Africa are directly related to the dynamics between conflict between identity and upward mobility. In 1998, the Oakland Unified School Board passed legislation to redefine Ebonics as the primary language of the students in the district. This effort was made to allow the district to appropriate funds for bilingual education for the students who spoke a non-standard form of English. Because the language that the students in Oakland spoke was not recognized by the U.S. as a separate and systematic language, School Board's requests were not met. What is now known as "the Ebonics Controversy" is an example of the linguistic struggle of Blacks in the U.S. to recognize and address the convergence between home language, identity and access to economic opportunity.

In the U.S., the language of the Black students in the Oakland district is deeply tied to identity. By acknowledging this language, the Oakland school board was trying to place value in the language that is very much a part of the Black community, while using Ebonics as a medium to develop proficiency in English, the language of power. The core of the struggle with Ebonics was over whether or not to reclassify the language that kids in Oakland spoke as a language deserving of the resources allocated for certain bilingual programs.  In the South African context, the mother tongue languages are given extreme salience because multilingualism is valued in this society. Because of the new legislation, much of the languages of instruction are indigenous, from Xhosa to Afrikaans, and English is only incorporated after the three years of instruction. The English that is implemented may be minimal and even sparse depending upon the resources the school can afford.  Given the importance of children learning this language well for economic success and to ameliorate the affects of apartheid, why not teach English earlier? In Cape Town alone, most of the population is multilingual. Programs to introduce English at an earlier age parallel to instruction in the mother tongue seem as though they could provide pride in ones language as well as the linguistic tools to increase mobility with proficiency in the language of opportunity.

For both the Ebonics situation and the current language policy in South Africa, what is the salient issue is reversing the strains of racism that have impoverished Blacks who have been enslaved. With the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, legislated racism is beginning its downward descent.  Racist ideas, nevertheless, are deeply entangled in many areas of society. In the case of these two language policies, it is imperative that we collaborate to find a solution which can empower both groups while still seeking to educate them in English. The best recourse for the Oakland School Board was to provide bilingual education which used the "mother tongue" to reinforce learning English. Groups like the Elizabethfontein School and the ELRU are groups that are supplying the foundation. (A next step) Perhaps the next step is for the government to actually examine the economic disparities that perpetuate inequalities in education to truly be able to examine and implement language policy in South Africa. What was created in the "eleventh hour" must now come to the forefront as it is the next step to continuing the struggle for equality.



(1) Accessed September 17, 2004

(2) Accessed September 17, 2004

(3) Accessed September 16, 2004

(4) Accessed September 18, 2004

(5) Accessed September 17, 2004

(6) Informal lecture by Dr. Raj Mesthrie on September 17th, 2004.

Other Resources used:

Baugh, John. Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic Pride and Racial Prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

McCormick, Kay. Language in Cape Town's District Six. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Language Accessed September 17, 2004