Issues in the Making of South Africa's Language in Education Policy

By Mda, Thobeka V. | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Issues in the Making of South Africa's Language in Education Policy


Mda, Thobeka V., The Journal of Negro Education


This article argues that, to be truly understood, South Africa's new Language in Education Policy (LiEP) must be examined in the context of both historical and recent developments. It provides this background discussion and focuses on the LiEP as it presently affects curricula, classroom practices, institutional restructuring, subject choices in South African schools, and the rights of South African parents and students. It also addresses the educational and extra-educational tensions associated with the LiEP, inhibiting factors impeding its implementation, initiatives and activities deserving of priority consideration, and models for effecting meaningful change in this policy area.

INTRODUCTION

Although there are many languages in South Africa, official and nonofficial, two major language battles, with two competing language groups in each case, loom most prominently. On one side are the nine local languages of the African majority that were recently granted official status: isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. On the other are English and Afrikaans, the two former official and privileged languages. One contention is whether, with the advent of Black majority rule in the recently democratized nation, the African languages "deserve" their newly elevated status. Contesting this are Afrikaans speakers, who also rage against what they perceive as the diminished position of their language and the superior position that seems to have been given to English by South Africans of British descent and Africans alike. It should be noted, however, that statements alleging that the status of Afrikaans has receded are typically more an expression of fear than fact, depending on which side of the political fence one sits.

Additionally, resistance to the official use of African languages as languages of instruction has surfaced among South Africa's African majority, many of whom contend that their children should be exposed to and immersed in English, which is rapidly becoming the language of commerce and politics in South Africa, as early as possible. Other observers have pointed out the unchanging status of the nation's minority and majority language groups from the previous regime to the present, noting that the South African economy remains in the hands of the powerful White minority. They argue that it has not been possible to level the playing field insofar as African languages are concerned because written texts in some languages, like isiXhosa, have been available since the early 19th century, while other languages such as isiNdebele have existed in written form for fewer than 15 years.

Into this fray in 1997 stepped the Language in Education Policy (LiEP)-or the Language Policy in Education, as it is known in some quarters-part of contemporary South African society's efforts to distance itself from its apartheid origins and spirit (Republic of South Africa Department of Education [RSADE], 1997b). The present article argues that, to be truly understood, the LiEP must be examined in the context of both historical and recent developments in South African society. Included among these developments are the following:

(1) the first democratic elections in South Africa, held in 1994, and the subsequent installation of a more truly representative Black-majority government, a Black President, a Black Minister of Education, and a Black Director-General of Education, along with the integration of the nation's previously segregated education departments;

(2) the country's 1996 adoption of a new Constitution (RSA, 1996b), its founding provisions, and Bill of Rights, along with the passage that same year of the omnibus South African Schools Act (SASA), which provides a "uniform system for the organisation, governance and funding of schools" and amended and repealed laws relating to schools (RSA, 1996a, p. 2);

(3) the generation of national educational policy documents such as the 1995 White Paper on Education and Training (RSADE, 1995a) and the 1996 Education White Paper 2: The Organisation, Governance and Funding of Schools (RSADE, 1996a), both of which document the new government's intentions and proposals for the education and training in the democratic era;

(4) the creation in October 1995 of the Pan-South African Language Board, whose mission includes promoting and creating conditions for the development, use of, and respect for all official languages, nonofficial languages of native inhabitants, and sign language;

(5) the exodus, since 1991, of Black students from exclusively African township schools, where African languages are the primary languages of instruction; to the formerly allWhite, Indian, and Colored city schools, where English or Afrikaans is the language of instruction;

(6) the increasing acceptance and promotion in recent years, in both the Constitution and recent education policy documents, of multiculturalism and multilingualism as assets and valuable resources in the educational process;

(7) the 1995 institution of a uniform senior high school national examination system that prescribes the same examination procedures, dates, times, and questions for all learners at the school exit level (grade 12);

(8) the creation in February 1995 of the National Commission on Higher Education, which in December 1996 released its Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation (RSADE, 1996d) which served as the basis for the Higher Education Act (RSA, 1997) (passed in December 1997) and which challenged South African colleges' and universities' resistance to broadening the number of official languages of instruction used at institutions of higher education;

(9) the return to South Africa's schools of large numbers of exiled citizens and other learners who do not speak any African languages; and

(10) other corrective developments in the country, both educational and noneducational, such as name changes of rivers, suburbs, and airports to reflect and honor the multicultural and multilingual heritage of the nation; removal of apartheid-stigmatized statues and pictures from government properties; changes in the governance and programming of the South African Broadcasting Corporation; the growth and spread of adult basic education and training; and the establishment of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), the new Department of Education's integrated approach to education and training that "[links] one level of learning to another and [enables] successful learners to progress to higher levels without restriction from any starting point in the education and training system" (RSADE, 1995a, p. …

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