The unfounded fears of a Zulu hegemony

The hysteria around developing isiZulu and the country's other indigenous languages for use in higher education.

Hillbrow, Johannesburg (Matthew Stevens, via Flickr CC).

Given South Africa’s stated commitment to multilingualism, you might not think that a requirement from one of the country’s universities that its students learn an indigenous African language would raise much alarm. Yet alarm has nonetheless been the reaction from a few unexpected quarters to the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s announcement that all first-year students enrolled from next near onwards will be required to develop “some level” of isiZulu proficiency by the time they graduate.

The university’s announcement doesn’t mean that it will become a dual-medium English-isiZulu institution in 2014. Far from it. In keeping with the gradualism of South Africa’s transition from apartheid, the requirement is flexible and allows faculties to exempt students with evidence of isiZulu proficiency at the required level. At the moment, that’s well over half of the university’s annual intake of new students. And even though there are plans to introduce isiZulu as a medium of instruction, the university estimates that it won’t happen until at least 2018, because centuries of colonialism and apartheid have meant that very little work has gone into developing isiZulu and the country’s other indigenous languages for use in higher education.

In some quarters, the mostly lauded decision has been called unconstitutional, which it isn’t, while others said it was impractical and unfair, as it will mean that many non-isiZulu speakers will encounter the language for the first time in an educational setting over a decade later than the optimal time to be learning a new language. Others have argued it will be expensive. Indeed, it was estimated in 2006 that the cost of this first phase of the university’s isiZulu development policy would cost almost $1.5 million at today’s exchange rate.

Some have even said the decision is further evidence of the preeminence of the Zulu hegemony in current politics.

Stanley Mabuza, an aggrieved listener of public radio station SAfm, emailed the station’s The [email protected] morning talk show to register his dissatisfaction. Mabuza’s email, read by the show’s host, said, “When we speak of transformation in our tertiary institutions, we are not inviting the introduction of unpopular policies by senseless individuals who are intent at institutionalizing tribalism in our public institutions. You cannot force an Indian child who wants to study at the UKZN to now include isiZulu in their programme. I’m not being tribalistic, but I’m afraid some people are trying to force their language and culture upon all groups in the country.”

Mabuza’s comment underlines what has perhaps been the most surprising aspect of the reaction, which is that some of the backlash has, for various reasons, come from black South Africans against what is perceived as an act of Zulu domination.

Much of the criticism is answered by the late educationist and anti-apartheid activist Neville Alexander in his posthumous collection of essays, Thoughts on the New South Africa. Alexander, who played a central role in developing the country’s higher education language policy, argues that developing African languages is necessary because English and Afrikaans—the West Germanic language whose imposition on black high school students was the final straw that triggered the 1976 Soweto Uprising—are not functioning adequately in South Africa as languages of higher education. He says many students aren’t making it to graduation owing in large part to a lack of proficiency and grasp of idiom in languages not their own. He also rebuts as a non-question the notion that developing African languages in the way UKZN and other South African universities are will create “ethnic universities”.

Alexander has also, in other essays and papers, charted the development of an appetite for multilingualism in post-apartheid South Africa, despite what he described as the persistent fallacy that assigning indigenous languages an official status in post-colonial African states would lead to ethnic rivalry and separatist movements. He put it down to South Africa’s liberation movement—in its true, broad multiparty sense, not just the African National Congress—understanding multilingualism’s role in intercultural communication and social cohesion.

That some black South Africans have reacted angrily to this announcement could be due to a misunderstanding of the rationale behind the UKZN’s choice of isiZulu as its African language to punt—a choice informed by the university being located in a mostly isiZulu-speaking province (in a country where isiZulu is the most common first language). The choice was also informed by the purpose of this initial phase of the policy, which is to provide the university’s non-isiZulu-speaking graduates with the facility to interact with the communities where they’ll be living and working.

The reaction may also be due to not knowing that the country’s other universities have also adopted a similar policy to develop other indigenous languages. The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, for example, is focusing its language development work on Sesotho and Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape is developing isiXhosa. All of them are doing so following the path advocated by the national policy: first focus on building proficiency in the language among all staff, enrolled students and graduates while at the same time developing the language for introduction at a later stage as a full-fledged language of instruction at the institution.

This nonetheless has not stopped some influential pundits from arguing that UKZN’s decision is further evidence of the so-called “Zulufication” of the country, as intimated by Mcebisi Ndletyana, head of the faculty of political economy at the Mapungubwe Institute think tank. Ndletyana said, during an interview on The [email protected] this week, that language policy in the country should be directed towards encouraging people to speak languages other than their own because regional monolingual communities, which he said South Africa has many, propagate ethnic stereotypes that can be co-opted for political campaigning.

Absent from Ndletyana’s analysis is the recognition that no such monolinguistic communities exists in South Africa, save for a few enclaves of English and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans speakers. The majority of South Africans have a basic knowledge of English and are fluent in at least one other language. Ndletyana’s definition of monolingualism, it appears, scopes out English and Afrikaans, and refers only to speakers of one indigenous South African language.

But Alexander warned of this specific type of casual acceptance of the English and Afrikaans linguistic dominance. He said English and Afrikaans gained their position as “legitimate languages” first through colonial conquest, then through the consent of the victims of colonial subjugation who accepted and internalized the superiority of the languages. South Africans would do well to keep his warning in mind.

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