Goodbye isiXhosa

The South African constitution guarantees "parity of esteem" to no less than 11 languages. But English, despite being the mother tongue of only 9 per cent of the population, will soon crowd out the rest
May 19, 2006

Race has clearly been the dominant factor in South Africa's difficult history, but language comes a close second. Generations of Afrikaners bristled with anger at the story of how, in Alfred Milner's South Africa, immediately after the Boer war, a child who spoke Afrikaans was made to sit facing the wall wearing a dunce's hat. More than 60 years later, as the tide of linguistic nationalism trampled over Anglo sensibilities, the South African post office was still stamping every letter with the slogan "Die Wonder van Afrikaans." And while the apartheid government was able to jail Mandela in 1962 and intimidate his supporters into silence, it went a step too far in 1976 by trying to insist on Afrikaans tuition in black township schools. The resulting explosion inaugurated an era of popular protest which never really stopped until apartheid was toppled and majority rule ushered in.

When, however, the new constitution was drafted in 1996, African nationalist indignation at the centuries of white dominance mingled fatally with linguistic correctness to produce a perfectly mad language policy: there were to be 11 official languages as well as special measures to promote and expand the almost dead languages of Khoi and San. The 11—isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, English, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga and isiNdebele—had to enjoy "parity of esteem and must be treated equitably." In addition, the Pan South African Language Board was set up to create "conditions for the development and use of all official languages."

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The French, when weighing the question of British entry to the EEC, worried that "three languages mean one." That is, while French-German bilingualism was a viable mix, once English was admitted, any gathering of three nationalities would quickly lapse into English because it was the one international language almost everyone knew. And so it has proved: today English is the EU's dominant language by far. But if just three languages mean one, then 11 do even more certainly. The ANC elite, many of whom spent decades in exile in London, invariably speak English. The space occupied by Afrikaans in the broadcast media has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was and manufacturers have quietly removed Afrikaans instructions from their products. You can use any language you like in parliament but 90 per cent of the proceedings are in English, and Hansard gives only an English translation of the other ten languages. English is reinforced at every turn, not only by the familiar forces of the anglosphere but also by the arrival of satellite television, English football, the internet and South Africa's re-entry to the Commonwealth. Even next-door Namibia and Mozambique, Commonwealth members both, are striving to become English-speakers. Since 1994, South Africa has rapidly and irreversibly moved towards becoming an English-speaking country.

Yet the oddity is that according to the 1996 census, English is only the country's fifth language: 22.9 per cent have isiZulu as their mother tongue, 17.9 per cent isiXhosa, 14.4 per cent Afrikaans, 9.2 per cent Sepedi and only 8.6 per cent English. And, theoretically, not only must the ten other languages enjoy "parity of esteem" with English, but the country is supposed to be moving towards "the use of all official languages," including their use as languages of science and research at university level. This doctrine is so ludicrously at odds with reality that it asks for trouble.

Thus far the main problem lies with Afrikaans, whose 20th-century achievements were undeniably remarkable. From being the lingua franca of downtrodden ex-slaves (the coloureds) and of the beaten, broken and divided Boer nation in 1902, the language progressed to a point where, well before 1994, a huge volume of literature had been translated into Afrikaans, which had also generated its own impressive corpus of poetry, novels, history and biography (see "Rainbow Afrikaans" by Rachel Holmes, Prospect May 2004). Afrikaans press, television and radio thrived, and there were five Afrikaans-language universities (Pretoria, Stellenbosch, Potchefstroom, Free State and Rand Afrikaans) and another bilingual one (Port Elizabeth). Afrikaner nationalism was easily the most successful form of African nationalism the continent had seen, and by the end of apartheid the vast bulk of Afrikaners were modern middle-class people, appalled at their racist past and keen to make peace with their fellow South Africans. They are critical to the success of the new South Africa, for although hundreds of thousands of them are to be found in diaspora in the English-speaking world, they are notably less likely to emigrate (or more likely to return) than their white English-speaking peers. For an English-speaker like myself, it is a real pleasure to find that the old animosities separating Afrikaners from anglophones have disappeared completely. And whereas 40 years ago you often met Afrikaners who couldn't speak English, today no such person exists.

Inevitably, many Afrikaners view the shrinkage of the Afrikaans cultural space with dismay. An ironic and little noticed fact is the way Afrikaners have sought new, urban homelands. Once formerly white high schools became racially integrated, they normally became English-speaking, so Afrikaners wanting their children educated in their mother tongue were forced to quit rural and small town communities and congregate in larger agglomerations still able to support viable Afrikaans schools. If you drive through Limpopo province (the old Northern Transvaal) you see how one small dorp after another has been abandoned by whites, now congregated in a few larger centres like Louis Trichardt, Potgietersrus, Pietersburg and Pretoria—and even these have been renamed, respectively, as Makhado, Mokopane, Polokwane and Tshwane. The result is far fewer Afrikaans high schools than before but more Afrikaans matriculants. To see towns commemorating such trekker heroes as Louis Trichardt and Andries Pretorius lose those names breaks many an Afrikaner heart.

Meanwhile, Rand Afrikaans University has become the University of Johannesburg and has become predominantly English-speaking, like all the other Afrikaans universities, with the sole exception of Stellenbosch, currently the subject of a major cultural struggle. Stellenbosch, the intellectual cradle of Afrikanerdom, is the jewel in the crown: one of the top research universities in the country, it is set in the beautiful and historic town of Stellenbosch amid the Cape winelands. Those concerned about the survival of Afrikaans, led by the great historian of the Afrikaners, Hermann Giliomee—a man victimised under apartheid for his liberal views—argue that it is crucial that at least one Afrikaans university remain. They have done their homework, anxiously researching how some small language groups—the Danes, Finns, Swedes, Norwegians, the Flemish and the French Canadians—survive. The answer is clear. First, all Flemings (for example) must be fluent in a major international language—English, French or German, often all three—so that they are not handicapped through being Flemish-speakers. Second, they must not only be able to send their children to Flemish-language primary and secondary schools but there must be at least one Flemish university. This is critical because the propagation of a culture requires the renewal of an intelligentsia that writes its books and newspapers, translates works from other languages, teaches in its schools, produces its radio and television programmes and so on. And, if tertiary-level education was only available in, say, French or English, this would quickly become an argument for these languages to take over at secondary and primary level too. While it is likely that English and other international language texts will predominate at postgraduate level, it is important that seductive arguments for bilingual language instruction at undergraduate level be resisted, for experience shows that if such arrangements are allowed between a minority language and an international language, they become mere staging posts en route to the complete victory of the stronger international language.

The campaign to preserve Afrikaans recently won an important victory when Giliomee and two of his supporters were elected to the university council at Stellenbosch. The unusually vigorous campaign saw both the university's rector and the chairman of the council oppose the Giliomee slate, which nevertheless won with 79 per cent of the vote. Still, it is far from certain that those who wish to preserve Afrikaans will win in the end. Partly this is because the government continues to exert pressure on Stellenbosch to "broaden access." For although the university is happy to take in Afrikaans-speaking black and coloured students, most blacks and many middle-class coloureds want to be taught in English, and so 72 per cent of Stellenbosch students are white. The only way to change this is for the university to offer more courses in English. With language rights guaranteed by the constitution, the university could hang tough on this if it wanted to, but—and this is the critical factor—a large proportion of Afrikaners, including the rector, Chris Brink, would far rather expand the role of English, despite the slippery slope that means for Afrikaans, than remain outside the new South African mainstream. For Afrikaners are Christian folk, and many are now carrying a great load of Calvinist guilt about having inflicted apartheid on the country, and are uncomfortable about doing anything which carries echoes of apartheid—such as maintaining a mainly white university. Such feelings are powerfully reinforced by a wish to stay on the right side of government. But their anxiety is more existential. For so long and so loudly did the apartheid government make Afrikaans the language of racism and oppression that many Afrikaners are now reluctant to assert their own identity or culture, in much the same way that after 1945 many Germans became uncomfortable with assertions of German identity. Indeed, many Afrikaans families now have children in London or Sydney, and even back home some send their children to English-language schools. When Giliomee and others insist that if the pass is not defended Afrikaans will retreat back from the public realm into merely a kitchen language, they often encounter Afrikaners whose response is a shrug of the shoulders and a Que sera, sera.

But if the future of Afrikaans is now in some doubt, then, a fortiori, all the other African languages must be under far greater threat. None of them, after all, has a fraction of the accumulated literature or institutional support of Afrikaans. When the apartheid government set up separate tribal homelands, the first act of each new homeland government was to adopt English-medium education. And although the apartheid government set up a series of tribal universities—Transkei, Zululand, Venda and so on—not one even considered using anything but English. And even though the then government would doubtless have made money available for it, none of these universities made any serious effort to promote or develop indigenous languages. The irony is that now that the homelands have been scrapped and there is an assertive African nationalist government that views tribalism as reactionary, it has committed itself to promote these indigenous languages in a way apartheid bureaucrats could only have dreamed of. This commitment is, moreover, made in the teeth of market forces. African language departments report dramatic declines in student numbers, to the point where keeping them open is mainly a matter of political will. Similarly, although educationalists are unanimous that children do best when allowed to use their mother tongue to learn other subjects, black parents are almost equally unanimous in resisting this option. Although primary education is given in mother tongues, when Limpopo province recently introduced mother tongue education into state secondary schools, many black parents angrily accused school authorities of "academically damaging" their children. They, like their Afrikaans counterparts, have understood that proficiency in English is the key to the job market—and in a country with 40 per cent unemployment, this has an understandable urgency.
The workaday reality is that the courts still use just English and Afrikaans (though black judges, who often don't know Afrikaans, are exerting pressure for an English-only system) and each province is required to teach at least two of the official languages in its schools, taking into consideration the dominant languages of the region. What this usually boils down to is that schools continue to offer English and Afrikaans as they always did but now add isiZulu in KwaZulu-Natal, isiXhosa in the Eastern and Western Cape, Sesotho in the Free State and so on. This induces a sense of equity, but at a price. There is a huge shortage of properly qualified African-language teachers. The curriculum has to find space for three languages, of which two will only ever be of any use in South Africa and, quite possibly, only in one province of it. And, since the curriculum is already top-heavy with languages, there is no room for other international languages or even for the other main languages of Africa—French, Swahili and Arabic.

The ministry of education has, nevertheless, asked all universities to submit plans explaining how they are going to promote and develop African languages. Most universities have submitted plans of such vagueness that the ministry has asked them to resubmit, but since doing anything serious would inevitably be expensive and higher education is cash-strapped, it is clear that little will happen. With one thunderous exception: the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the country's second biggest, where the black vice-chancellor, William Makgoba, is a committed Africanist.

Makgoba is a controversial figure who left Wits University in 1995 after a storm in which he stood accused of maladministration, bringing the university into disrepute and falsifying his CV. In his autobiography, where he describes himself as "a first-rate, world acclaimed African scientist," he also happily admits that he consulted witch doctors for special potions with which to scare his enemies. He writes of "my unquestioned brilliance as a scholar and (my) pioneering achievements, with few equals in my field." Certainly, his inauguration was that of a monarch, with massed bands, choirs, operas, recitals and presentations at four different centres, and he swiftly granted himself a salary considerably larger than President Mbeki's. The campus lampposts are now festooned with banners describing UKZN as "the premier university of African scholarship." Although a majority of the university's academics are still white males, Makgoba launched a broadside in which he compared white males to displaced senior apes and insisted that they must learn to speak, sing, eat, dance and dress like Africans if they were to find any hope of acceptance. His inaugural address had the promotion of isiZulu as a key theme and UKZN has announced that it is preparing to introduce compulsory isiZulu courses for all students and to make fluency in isiZulu a condition for all academic appointments.

These plans have met with strong resistance. Jean-Philippe Wade, professor of culture, communications and media studies, points to the lack of isiZulu textbooks and journals, and even of many academic concepts in isiZulu. If Makgoba's plans go ahead, he says, they will turn a university of 60,000 students—anglophone since its inception—into "an academic wasteland and a global joke." Even the proponents of such a change find it so difficult to conceive that they have drawn up a 20-year plan for its implementation. And they admit that a mountainous (and expensive) task of translation into isiZulu lies ahead if the plan is to become real. Most academics at the university seem determined to ignore it and hope that it will go away.

Yet the idea deserves some sympathy. Already more than half the university's students are isiZulu-speakers—though many of them insist on speaking English, which is seen as more fashionable and modern. Moreover, isiZulu is the best developed of all the African languages, as well as the most widespread. There are three Zulu newspapers but none in any other African tongue, and Zulu-language radio and television have large audiences. And isiZulu is an Nguni language, so can be understood without too much difficulty by other members of the Nguni group—Swazis, Ndebeles and Xhosas. If you go to Soweto, you find that the language actually used on the street is Tsotsitaal, a strange mixture of isiZulu and Afrikaans, and in other townships you find other such amalgams, though always with an isiZulu base.

In Kenya and Tanzania, post-independence governments favoured Swahili-based education, with the result that this single lingua franca is now entrenched, not just in east Africa but far beyond. Clearly, this was a route the South African government could have taken. Had it done so, it would have had to choose isiZulu as its vehicle, tried to encourage its broadening into a sort of pan-Nguni language and given large-scale support to it. But even to mention such an idea is to see its political impossibility. For non-Zulus, this would be seen as nothing less than a continuation of Shaka's forcible incorporation of vanquished tribes into the Zulu nation. (Defeated warriors would be killed or enslaved and their women and children forcibly integrated as slaves or concubines, so that within a generation they all spoke only isiZulu.) Xhosas, who predominate in the ANC leadership, would strongly resist, as would the branches of the wider Sotho group (including Sepedi, Sesotho and Setswana-speakers). It would, in a word, reawaken the spectre of tribalism, of which the ANC is terrified. It is clear why the constitution-makers took refuge in the safer solution of 11 official languages.

That constitutional provision seems certain to guarantee the death of most of the languages it claims to protect. Yet everyone is pretending otherwise. At Stellenbosch, those who wish to expand the role of English pretend it will not happen at the expense of Afrikaans, though it certainly will. Tell isiZulu or Sotho-speakers that their languages are under threat and may one day disappear, and they simply do not believe you. Last year I attended the premiere in Durban of the touching film Yesterday, set in the foothills of the Drakensberg where Aids ravages black communities as badly as plague once ravaged London. The producer Anant Singh told a rapturous audience how he had decided to "dump English" and shoot the film in isiZulu with English subtitles. One Zulu luminary after another, including the provincial premier, followed him to the podium to emphasise this triumph of the isiZulu language and the vital importance of promoting Zulu. They were all applauded to the echo—yet every one spoke in English.

Few wish to acknowledge what is going on. Point out that Nigeria has adopted English as its official language, that China is launching whole new universities with English-language instruction, that proficiency in English has been made obligatory at the University of Maputo in next-door Mozambique, and that South Africa cannot escape these trends, and you will be met with a smile and much confident claptrap about our 11 official languages, all of which are supposed to have a rosy future. It would be almost unbearably painful to many South Africans to realise that this is just not so, that a language which is the mother tongue of just 8.6 per cent of the population is taking over completely and will gradually exterminate most or even all the other ten languages. And one really is talking of extermination. The ancestors of South Africa's 1m Indians arrived here 120 years ago speaking only Indian languages. Today the last university department of Indian languages has been closed down and very few Indians can speak a word of Hindi or Gujarati. They are uniformly English-speaking.

The notion that African languages in South Africa are on course to emulate the fate of the Indian languages has not yet struck home. When it does, such an outcome will seem like a final triumph of colonialism over African nationalism.