23/01/2018 17:14 SAST | Updated 11/04/2018 10:23 SAST

Local Languages Must Be Developed To Their Full Potential

The right to receive education in one’s mother tongue cannot outweigh the right to education.

A police van outside Höerskool Overvaal during protests on January 19, 2018.
GULSHAN KHAN via Getty Images
A police van outside Höerskool Overvaal during protests on January 19, 2018.

Q: There are many issues conflated around the Höerskool Overvaal situation – language, privilege, political moves, power games... And in the middle of all this, are children who have the right to go to school. What of the rights of these children?

A: The right to receive education in one's mother tongue cannot outweigh the right to education. This is all the more true for South Africa, given our history, in which Afrikaans was imposed on black schools, leading to the 1976 uprising. However, the Höerskool Overvaal case is not clear-cut.

It seems there are two other schools in the area that could accommodate children who want to receive their education in English. If this is true, the question of deprivation of learners who want to learn in English is not at issue. It might rather be a case of a political move against a school, because its language of tuition is solely Afrikaans. This may be a result of how Afrikaans has been abused after apartheid to keep certain spaces white – including in the education sector.

This is an elaboration of how the language was appropriated and abused in the past to exclude people. Afrikaans as language has become associated with white Afrikaans-speakers, even though it originated as a language among people of colour and has been spoken by them for one hundred years.

In the early 20th century, however, Afrikaner nationalists appropriated the language from its original speakers, and it has since been abused to exclude black people from the centres of power. It has, therefore, become tainted as "the language of the oppressor".

But even today, the majority of Afrikaans-speakers are black. It is important that Afrikaans be wrested from the racists and returned to all the people of South Africa as an asset.

READ: Hoërskool Overvaal: The Heart Of Racial Tensions

Q: What do the events that played out last week say about race relations in SA? Is it fair or accurate to say this is a symptom of a larger racial instability in South Africa, or is politics a big part of the situation reaching boiling point? Could it be a bit of both?

A: The events at Höerskool Overvaal seem to have resulted from a specific political agenda to target education as a sector that is vulnerable to interference and violence. Within this political agenda, race is an important factor. One could call it "racial populism", through which a public discourse reracialises all social interactions, and paints black and white people as having inherently irreconcilable positions because of race.

Of course, white privilege remains an offensive legacy of apartheid and colonialism that must be overturned. But if other schools in the same area as Höerskool Overvaal have space for learners who want to learn in English, depriving Afrikaans-speakers of education in their mother tongue cannot be justified. A balance must be struck between the political goal of ending white privilege, and the continued recognition of our constitutional rights as also pertaining to white people.

Q: What does the situation at Höerskool Overvaal say about the state of the education system and language policies?

Why are political parties and their proxies not launching protests about the sinking standards of the government schooling system for all children, black and white? All children – but particularly those from poor backgrounds, who are predominantly black – are being massively compromised by the crisis in our education system.

Not only are they being taught at substandard levels that compare poorly with countries with far fewer resources than South Africa, but schools are also unsafe environments where children are at risk of violence, including sexual assault and abuse by teachers. One sure way of overturning white privilege and ending black deprivation is to address this crisis in education.

That said, in areas where children's only option for schooling is an Afrikaans-language school, the language at that school must be changed to accommodate those children who do not speak Afrikaans. But to this I must add that, even as we make education accessible in areas with limited schools by using English as the language of tuition, we must be applying our minds as to how we will build multilingualism and develop the treasure trove of local languages.

Afrikaans can be an asset in this regard, because apart from being the third most commonly spoken language in South Africa, it provides a good model for how other local languages could be developed as academic, scientific, technical and legal languages. The benefits of mother-tongue education at especially primary level have been well researched, as has also been seen in relation to Afrikaans – and that could go a long way toward resolving the learning crisis.

READ: Panyaza Lesufi: 'Language Policies A Crude Form Of Racism'

Q: What can be done to ensure that language as a form of inclusion becomes prioritised in our education system?

Language has different functions. When it comes to education, we must ensure that language is not used to exclude some people. As mentioned, part of the problem with Afrikaans is how it has been abused to keep certain spaces white. English can help to some extent in bridging the social fissures left by apartheid and colonialism, including in education. But it also poses an ethical problem, because it is a colonial language – by giving it so much space, it is crowding out local languages.

This also speaks to the function of language in relation to how accessible the learning process is – indeed, if English is not your mother tongue but you are obliged to use it as a language of learning, it could affect comprehension, especially at primary level. We should instead be developing local languages to their full potential, and ensuring that white South Africans also learn indigenous languages other than Afrikaans. This could be an effective way of creating racially integrated spaces, both at a school level and beyond.

Q: How can parents, teachers and the government work together to ensure that children get a quality education and ensure the safety of their children in these institutions?

As South Africans, we must ensure that the issue of language of tuition does not become politicised at the expense of education. Where Afrikaans is being used to keep out black leaners, those schools must be opened to all. But if this is not the case, Afrikaans must continue, as part of the fulfilment of the principle of multilingualism.

Afrikaans can also serve as a model for the advancement of other indigenous languages in the education sector. Multilingualism must be advanced as a matter of urgency, to make education more accessible at particularly the primary level, to promote social integration by expanding the use of indigenous languages to white South Africans, and to prevent the loss of these languages and the rich interpretive paradigms and worldviews that they each represent.

Prof. Christi van der Westhuizen (Ph.D.) is an author, socio-political analyst, columnist and former journalist