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Language policy and language use in South Africa: an uneasy marriage

DE Mutasa

The change to democracy in South Africa in 1994 brought with it many changes in various spheres of activity. Languages could not escape these changes. The linguistic situation, which was previously characterised by the dominance of English and Afrikaans, could not be immune to the process of change. The other languages (Bantu languages) which were left out were brought into the linguistic scenario. This means that South Africa, an emerging nation, has chosen a multilingual approach as its language policy. As a result, for the first time in the history of language policies, there is a country with 11 official languages. The question is, is it possible for African languages, which are at their infant stage of development with regard to technical terminology, to survive at par with English, a language with a tradition of scientific and technical literature? The aim of this paper is, therefore, to discuss the problems related to the coexistence of English and African languages in South Africa. It will also focus on the attitudes towards English and the language policy in South Africa.

South Africa, an area of 1,221, 037 sq km with a population of about 40,6 million, is situated in the southern part of Africa. South Africa, a country which celebrated its change to democracy after the demise of apartheid in 1994, underwent many changes in various spheres of activity. Languages could not escape these changes. The linguistic situation which was previously characterised by the dominance of English and Afrikaans could not be immune to the process of change. The other languages, African languages (Bantu languages) which were previously left out were brought into the linguistic scenario. This means that South Africa, an emerging nation, has chosen a multilingual approach as its language policy. The constitution itself enshrines 11 official languages.

The 11 official languages and L1 speakers as a % population.

    Language L1 speakers %
    IsiZulu - 21.96
    IsiXhosa - 17.03
    Afrikaans - 15.03
    Sesotho sa Leboa - 9.64
    English - 9.01
    Setswana - 8.59
    Sesotho - 6.73
    Xitsonga - 4.35
    Siswati - 2.57
    Tshivenda - 2.22
    IsiNdebele - 1.55

(Percentage figures were taken from Prof Posthumus of Rand University)

The relevant clause states that all these languages should have an official status at national and provincial levels and that conditions be created for their promotion and development.

This language policy itself is considered by many as one of the most progressive language policies in the world. In recognising 11 languages, South Africa acted in line with the 1986 “Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Language Plan of Action for Africa” which induced member states to recognise all languages within their boundaries. (Kashioki, 1993, A paper presented to ALASA at The University of Witwatersrand). Needless to say, the policy is the best solution to a society in which language differences had continued to be preserved, and the languages had been regarded as separate languages each in its own right, each as the most distinguishing feature and symbol of a group which wanted to continue to be regarded as such.

The recognition and promotion of these languages is the most tangible manifestation of language revival leading to survival. This is because the policy itself provides for the monitoring of the continued existence and cultivation of different languages on a reasonable and equitable basis. Viewed from this perspective, the importance of a language cannot be ignored. Language is one of the most enigmatic possessions and a quintessence of our humanity. It is the principal factor enabling individuals to become fully functioning members of the group into which they are born. Nations are able to develop because language provides an important link between the individual and his/her social environment. In addition to this, it acts as a link to social equity.

A policy of this nature also demonstrates that the government has the linguistic interests of all the people at heart, for it depicts total commitment to granting every citizen an equal opportunity to take his/her rightful place in the state. Thus, this choice is a way of democratising a language policy as it responds to the needs and interests of all segments of the population. If such a multilingual policy is not adopted, we would ask ourselves the following questions:

    How can you guarantee democracy when the law of the country is not understood in the language of the people? How do you abide by what you do not know? How can you use information to which you only have limited access? How can you fully participate in anything, or compete, or learn effectively or be creative in a language you are not fully proficient or literate? Above all, how can a country develop its human resource base to full potential without the languages of the people? (Chimhundu, 1998:7)

One asks such questions because it is no longer the time to preach about decolonising the mind, national consciousness and identity. These are givens. This epoch emphasis or focus should be placed on development and nation-building, which can only be achieved through access to information, grassroots participation and grassroots leadership.

Current Trends
After according all 11 languages official status, South Africa was, is and will be expected to fulfil its constitutional obligation by implementing its language policy. However, it is now five years but it appears that very little has been achieved. Thus, as in many African countries where the rise and development of African nationalism created the impression that African languages would be the basis for the standard national languages, the policy seems not to be working. It appears to be a very painful and slow process of development.

The same fate is also noticed in some African states which made as one of their declarations (of intent) a commitment to a multilingual approach with the objective of developing African languages and empowering people through African languages. What those countries achieved is hardly more than a label without legal implications. It is all lip service. As Ayo Bamgbose (1991:111) rightly observed, language policies in Africa, no matter how good they are, are characterised by, among other aspects, “ … declaration without implementation.” This points to the fact that there are odds against the implementation of these policies.

In South Africa the recognition of the indigenous languages as official on the national level may be the declared goal of the policy but, from observation, most linguistic communication in domains of national significance remains English and to a lesser extent Afrikaans. The people do not see much value in African languages. Authorities seem to be reluctant to ensure that African languages, by appropriate legal provisions, assume their rightful role as the means of official communication in public affairs. No one seems to take African languages seriously. They seem to have nothing to offer except in everyday communication between members of families. For example, if one were to go for an interview for a post to teach an African language, the whole process is conducted in English. Even if one is proficient in the African language, being able to communicate using all its idioms and proverbs if he/she cannot communicate his/her ideas effectively in English, he/she does not get the job.

Another observation is that, in spite of the fact that the country is intending to promote all the languages at the official level, people continue to relegate African languages to second-class status. On many occasions some African celebrities such as boxers and musicians use English during interviews on television and radio even if they are not fluent in English. They grope for words and struggle to construct good sentences. One wonders if this is necessary, considering the fact that they (musicians) became famous through singing in African languages. Why do TV presenters and organisers allow such embarrassing moments when the African language is at their disposal? Some people in leadership positions such as politicians use English when addressing at rallies or political meetings, even if they are addressing rural people who do not understand English. In order for one to make an objective analysis of the language situation, research was carried out.

Aims of the research
The research was aimed at establishing the language situation on the ground, that is, with regard to people’s awareness of the new language policy and the problem of implementing the policy as a result of the co-existence of African languages with English, a language of wider communication.

Research Methodology
As alluded to earlier, informal observations were made but objective evidence was necessary and useful for one to establish the situation on the ground. So, for this paper research was conducted. In carrying out the survey, the methods of questionnaire, the media and structured interviews were used. However, sociolinguistic surveys such as interviews have their methodological limitations. The research may not be entirely objective, for the interviewees may perceive the desired responses. Thus, to complement the questionnaire, it was, therefore, desirable to rely on the media, that is, radio, television and newpapers.

The questionnaire was administered to people of diverse backgrounds who work or study in Pretoria. Of the 350 respondents, 100 were students and the rest work for different departments, government and non-governmental. All the respondents are above the age of 23. The questionnaire and interviews were aimed at the perceptions and attitudes of the respondents to the policy and the extent to which the policy is implemented.

Findings from the questionnaire
As was expected, all the respondents were aware of the new language policy. This should be attributed to the effective way the information about the policy was disseminated by the media and politicians. The political past contributed, indirectly, in that it was the language issue that led to political upheavals in 1976. However, all the respondents admitted that at present the use of language at work places, in education and mass media was not in line with the new constitution.

Some 80% of the respondents viewed the policy as a good one. The reasons given by some of the respondents for this opinion are quite plausible. Some of these are:

  1. It promotes languages previously ignored.
  2. It helps improve our levels of literacy.
  3. Everyone should be able to access information.
  4. It takes cognisance of all the citizens and cultural groups.

Three percent rated the policy as a bad choice. The following are some of the reasons that were cited:

  1. Eleven languages are too many; we should have one lingua franca.
  2. It is a waste of time and money to encourage diversity. The sooner we agree that English is by far the only language we can use effectively to communicate across cultural lines, the better for the country, e.g. printing in 11 official languages is a waste of time.
  3. South Africa is a multilingual country, therefore, we should use English because it is used in business and it is also a world language.
  4. Indigenous languages are not fully developed in the technical sense.

Needless to say, the reasons belong to the old school of thought where some researchers argued that unity and progress can only be achieved through the use of one language; that language being that of the colonial master.

The 17% that did not rate the policy, as good or bad, expressed their sentiments in their responses:

  1. The policy caters for everyone on paper.
  2. English receives preferential treatment.
  3. Some languages are still underrated.
  4. There is a lack of interest in African languages.
  5. Language policy should treat all languages as equal. There are languages that dominate and cater for one or two groups.
  6. TV should broadcast in all official languages. Apartheid is still rife in TV broadcasts because English and Afrikaans dominate.
  7. Every language should have equal opportunity in Parliament, in courts and schools.

These responses indicate that these respondents support the policy. The motivation for their sentiments is understandable. They seem to be disgruntled by the slow pace in implementation of the policy.

On the possibility of implementing such a policy, 72% of the respondents said it was difficult to achieve. The following reasons were given:

  1. It is not practical.
  2. It is expensive to translate documents into 11 languages.
  3. There is a general lack of interest or willingness from stakeholders.
  4. People are not taught in their languages.
  5. English is dominating; it is still the medium of instruction and dominates on TV.
  6. In the economic sector, English and Afrikaans still dominate.
  7. Indigenous languages are languages without political and economic baggage.
  8. African languages will always be a few steps behind English.

However, all these respondents are people with no linguistic or sociolinguistic background. Because of this, some comments are made out of ignorance of the capabilities of African languages. In a way they present the situation as they see it on the ground.

On the education of children, all the parents in the sample send their children to English-medium schools, those schools that formerly catered for whites only. Some 99% of those parents want their children to be taught in English and one percent preferred Afrikaans. Some 99% of the students preferred English while one percent preferred an African language. The following reasons were given by the 99%:

    For English
  1. It is an international language.
  2. English communicates concepts better.
  3. Globalisation requires the knowledge of English.
  4. Textbooks are written in English.
  5. It is the language used in the workplace.
  6. It enables communication between people of different cultures.

The following reason was given by the 1%:

    For an African language:
  1. I understand concepts much better in my own language.

In the mass media, TV and radio, 99% listen to English radio stations and support the allotment of more airtime to English because it is widely understood. One percent want all languages to have equal slots on TV.

From the responses to the questionnaire, one notices that English still dominates in the domain of national significance. The results also indicate that the majority of the respondents see something good in the language policy but when it comes to practical reality or implementation, they appear to support the dominance of English.

Findings from the media and interviews
For this discussion, attention was also drawn to a few role players so as get a picture of what transpires as the country battles to implement the language policy. The findings are based on the analysis of radio broadcasts, articles from newspapers and interviews carried out by a colleague.

The Department of Culture, Science and Technology
The department of Culture, Science and Technology was commissioned by the government to devise a clear plan of how to promote the languages of South Africa. Anne-Marie Beukes, a Senior Civil Servant, interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), acknowledged that the government has a constitutional obligation to promote the 11 official languages. Although at the time of the interview the government did not have a clear plan of how to promote the languages, Anne-Marie Beukes believed strongly that having so many languages in South Africa should be viewed positively: “A multilingual set-up is not a simply demonstrates our rainbow is an asset, not a liability to this country.”

The immediate goal of the department was to recruit translators to serve in the health service where some doctors are not able to communicate with patients. Such idealism is quite valuable and plausible but the problem remains, with practical realities such as the cost factor. According to the BBC, cost may impede the development of multilingualism. Translating documents into 10 languages is costly and cumbersome, considering the fact that it costs about R10 million to translate documents into Afrikaans alone every year. However, it remains a necessary “evil” if we are to empower people through their own languages.

In another interview, the Senior Civil Servant recognised English as “ … an important link language, ... a very important pivotal link language in South Africa.” (Radio 5, SA.FM 1998). It is important to note that if one language is cited as playing a pivotal role, one gets the impression that the multilingual or linguistic dreams of South Africa can at best be partially realised.

Department of Education
In education the constitution states that everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of his/her choice in public educational institutions where it is reasonably practical. With reference to some conservative institutions, the Minister of Education himself deplores a situation where students spend five or more years doing one course just because their languages are not catered for.

The Provincial Director (in the Dept of Education in Gauteng) who was interviewed (by a colleague, in August 1998), says his department is committed to the language policy. He sees the problem not as being the language policy but parents’ perceptions of languages. People appear to resist change. He laments a situation where black parents and black teachers who teach in township schools send their children to English-medium schools (formerly whites only), where no African language is taught. What this implies is that English will continue to dominate as a medium of instruction for as long as parents continue to envy English-medium schools. The director suggests that the way forward is for people to demand to be taught in their language.

University of the Western Cape Professor Kwesi Prah, also observed that: “Children are now sent to English-medium schools and in some families both parents communicate in their indigenous language, but insist that the children be spoken to in English.” Kwesi Prah castigated such African parents who allowed their languages to die. He encouraged Africa to follow the example of Asia where indigenous languages are used in education. (Sowetan, 1998). However, the current trend undermines the government’s declared goal.

The Department of Justice
At the time of the research the officer interviewed (by a colleague) said that the department is still working on how to implement the policy. However, an article published by one High Court Judge in the October 98 Edition of the South African Attorneys’ Journal De Rebus reports that four High Court judges are in favour of using one official language, English, for practical reasons. The author of the article, Harry Barker argues: “The administration of justice and the development of law in one court language would reduce the demands upon practitioners and the law’s inevitable delays.”

Harry Barker paints a gloomy picture when he says: “the expectation that the lesser- known indigenous (African) languages would enjoy parity of esteem with a world language is surely destined to be merely a pious hope”. (Citizen, 1998). In this case the language policy is considered to be “pie in the sky”. This, then, defeats the purpose of the new language policy. If the use of English alone is adopted as policy in the Department of Justice, then the language policy is good on paper and cannot fulfill its practical realities.

Failure to cater for one’s language in the legal system means that the release or conviction of the individual continues to depend not necessarily on the mercy of the judge but upon the competence and impressions of the interpreter.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
The SABC itself is committed to broadcasting in 11 official languages, particularly from Parliament. However, despite having a large political team, its head, who was interviewed by the BBC, says it is not possible for the SABC to cover every story in every language, despite the problems that this causes among listeners who are very sensitive about language. The head of the political team covered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission accompanied by a Zulu reporter. When she covered the constitution she was accompanied by a Xhosa reporter. According to the Zulu reporter, the Zulus complained bitterly and marched to the regional station when the report was disseminated in Xhosa (BBC). Although the languages are mutually intelligible, the Zulu speakers insist that they want these broadcasts to be done in their language. What this implies is that the SABC has not taken language issues seriously in areas like journalism.

Pat Pillai, Manager: Media & Public Liaison, SABC, Auckland Park, defended the policy at the SABC when he responded to an article, “Let us fight our own battle for more airtime.” In his article entitled Language policy defended featured in the Sowetan, (1996), Pat Pillai pointed out that the SABC’s language policy is based on home language as well as shared languages. The guiding principle of the policy specifies proportionality in the allocation of airtime. What this entails is that languages that command bigger groups would be allotted more airtime. Pat Pillai’s contention is that English is understood by the majority of the population, hence, most of the airtime is devoted to English. This argument does not hold water because IsiZulu is widely understood in South Africa. Added to this, there is mutual intelligibility among four languages: IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa and Siswati which are referred to as Nguni languages, which makes IsiZulu a viable option.

Pat Pillai acknowledges the importance of language as a critical component of culture and that makes it necessary to broadcast in all the languages. He concludes by expressing a commitment to equitable service in all 11 official languages to the best of the SABC’s ability. Such a paradigm is also valuable, but the problem remains - the practical realities - considering the fact that the SABC is under fire for cutting television broadcasts in Afrikaans, which is one reason why some Afrikaners feel marginalised. (SABC 1, Felicia Mabuza talk show, 26/10/98).

Television itself remains a thorny issue as demonstrated by some responses to the questionnaire and Mr Worried who wrote, “Let us fight our own battle for more airtime”. (Sowetan, 1996). Of about 200 programmes broadcast every day on television, only one or two programmes are in one of the African languages and of these programmes one or none is in Tshivenda and Xitsonga. It is important to note that television is supposed to reach all the viewers on a variety of issues because it is a supplementary tool, a technological medium that could provide basic education and information to all.

In spite of the SABC’s proclamation, one senior executive officer interviewed by the BBC said implementing the policy would be expensive on two grounds. The first is that the SABC replaces American or British Co. programmes which are relatively cheap to buy. What this means is that the SABC has to prepare programmes and incur production costs. The second is the question of opportunity cost or loss because locally produced programmes in African languages do not attract the affluent market or viewers. In addition to this, the senior executive officer argues, it would also be very difficult to attract advertising revenue for the programmes. Thus, the affluent viewers and the private sector that are targeted for their big money exacerbate the problem by supporting English. Thus, the SABC’s budgetary constraints undermine the government’s declared goal.

It is observed that many view the policy as a noble one but consider its application to be impractical. For some, it is increasingly difficult for an African language to do all there is to be done by English, a language of wider communication. The Pan South African Languages Board also noted with regret that English appeared to dominate (in domains of national significance), to the detriment of the country’s 10 other official languages. (Citizen, 1997).

Thus, in South Africa where a language of wider communication, English, exists, it is difficult to speak of “language equity” or parity. At present it is appropriate to speak more abstractly of “language equity” as ideology, an idea in the mind rather than a reality to which actual usage or implementation may conform. This is because English appears to be a dominant language. English appears to have established itself in domains such as administration, education, jurisdiction and other government-controlled and non-governmental institutions, to the extent that it has become a major impediment, a brake or constraint on the promotion and implementation of the language policy. Perceptions have not changed. People still view English as a language with far-reaching socio-economic implications for nations. This political and economic dominance that some Africans still preach will disadvantage the African languages, especially when the control or potential for economic improvement continues to be associated with one language, English, rather than with other languages.

The way forward
All segments of the population should realise the following:

  1. that unity and progress are not necessarily achieved through the use of one language,
  2. that people can only be empowered through their languages,
  3. that it is a myth that African languages cannot be developed to function like English as was the case with Swahili (spoken in East Africa) and Afrikaans (one of the official languages of South Africa).

Parents should be informed that learning takes longer in a foreign language than in the mother- tongue (Macnamara (1996)) which means that African languages ensure linguistic accessibility to studied material, help to develop critical thinking and foster effective communication.

Steps to be taken
Although it is discourteous to prescribe, there is the urge to make the following suggestions.

  1. Mother-tongue speakers of African languages should demand that their children receive education in their languages; not as a way of advancing selfish interests.
  2. All transactions should be done in the language of the client to ensure mutual understanding of the contents of the contracts before the client signs. (Some of Isabela Jones’ findings are cases in point. (SABC 3).
  3. The government may introduce the Languages Equity Bill. (It may be a necessary “evil”, although, from a social point of view, it may have repercussions.)
  4. Study material should be written in different mother-tongue languages.
  5. People in leadership positions should address rallies and meetings in the audience’s home languages, where it is reasonably practical in order to show commitment to the policy.
  6. Establish regional and national institutes that develop all the languages.
  7. Establish newspapers to cultivate African languages.

These suggestions may be adopted, making sure that people’s and authorities’ rights are not interfered with.

Thus, the nation should not wait for the 21st century to implement its appealing language policy. People should be able to employ their languages in all sectors of the economy and should be able to learn in their own languages as is the case in Adult Education/Literacy and with Afrikaners.

  • Bamgbose, A. 1991. Language and the Nation. The Language Question in Sub- Saharan Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Chimhundu, H. 1997.’ Keynote address at the Meeting of The Intergovernmental Conference On African Language policies.’ Unpublished paper.
  • Kashioki, M. 1993. ‘OAU Language Plan of Action for Africa’. A keynote address to ALASA.
  • Macnamara, J. 1966. Bilingualism in Primary Education: A Study of Irish Experience. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • The Citizen, Johannesburg, 13 June 1997; 30 September 1998.
  • The Sowetan, Johannesburg, 8 May 1996; 27 May 1996; 17 September 1996.

    Radio stations
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (Focus on Africa.)
  • Radio 5 of South Africa, 5 October 1995.

  • South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC)
  • SABC 1 26 October 1998
  • SABC 3

DE Mutasa
University of South Africa
Department of African Languages
P.O. Box 392
South Africa

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