The ABCs of Post-Apartheid South Africa ; 25 Years Ago, Forced Use of Afrikaans in Black Township Schools Sparked Unrest. Now the Language Struggles

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The walls of the cheery preschool classroom at the Alma Mater Akademie in Krugersdorp, near Johannesburg, are covered with words 3-year-olds the world over learn: colors, numbers, animals.

But the 20 or so blond children who sit waiting for their midday snack are part of one of South Africa's new educational trends. Unheard of a decade ago when the National Party ruled, new private Afrikaans-language schools like the two-year-old Alma Mater are opening around the country, catering to a growing group of well- off Afrikaans families concerned about the decline in public education and the growing dominance of English.

Twenty-five years ago, black students in Soweto rose in protest over government efforts to force the use of Afrikaans, the language of white Dutch settlers, in black township schools. Now the tables have turned, linguistically speaking. Eight years into the new South Africa, the growth of schools like Alma Mater reflects a growing fear in the Afrikaans community that their language will be lost.

"Parents feel that the state schools are no longer offering an adequate education for the Afrikaans-speaking people," says Simon Lee, a spokesman for the Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa (ISASA), the country's largest association of private schools. "A lot of Afrikaans people are concerned that their culture will be overwhelmed completely by English, and that their language will disappear."

In South Africa, which now has 11 official tongues, control of language, especially in education, has long been highly politicized. During the apartheid era, the government tried to enforce the use of Afrikaans as the country's primary language, requiring its use in black schools and in government.

The issue ultimately became the tinder that ignited the anti- apartheid movement, after police fired on elementary school students marching June 16, 1976, to protest a new law requiring use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. More than 700 people died in the riots that engulfed the country over the next four years.

Nelson Mandela's government, which came to power in 1994, gave the country's 11 languages equal status and allowed students to choose the first language in schools.

English flourished under the new system and has been embraced by many families who were forced during the apartheid era to study in Afrikaans or languages native to Africa. In the private school sector, the trend in black communities is toward foundation of small independent schools that emphasize English.

Meanwhile, Afrikaans-speakers are clinging to their linguistic tradition. In 1991, South Africa had no independent Afrikaans- language schools. Today, ISASA has 17 Afrikaans schools as members, and Mr. Lee says there are likely a number of other fledgling schools around the country that are unaffiliated. …

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