Swaziland: English Language vs Nationalism. (Feature: Swaziland)

By Hall, James | New African, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Swaziland: English Language vs Nationalism. (Feature: Swaziland)


Hall, James, New African


English is the official language of Swaziland but the nationalists want it pushed to second place behind the native tongue, SiSwati. The debate is heating up, reports James Hall (Gemini) from Mbabane.

Swaziland is facing the question of whether a language imposed by foreign rulers in this tiny Southern African country should remain compulsory in schools. For at least the 10th year in a row, 10th grade students have shown a steady decline in pass rates because of poor English language skills. This has prompted some educators to question the necessity of English as an obligatory subject.

"The pass rate is now 86%, down from 91% three years ago, and the majority of students failed the exams because English is a required subject," says Ben Dlamini, the recently retired head of the Exams Council who administered school exams for two decades.

Other compulsory subjects are maths and science.

In his weekly newspaper column devoted to educational issues, Dlamini has campaigned for a downgrade of English in the curriculum, and says the importance of English as a subject is a vestige of colonialism. Until independence in 1968, Swaziland was a British protectorate acquired as a spoil of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902.

Politicians from both the prodemocracy and royal conservative camps have taken up the issue as a test of nationalism, and have called for the elimination of English as a make or break subject in school.

"SiSwati, the language of the Swazis, is what is spoken by the people, and yet it is not made a passing subject," notes Senator Simeon Simelane, a founding member of the conservative cultural group, Sive Siyinqaba, which takes its SiSwati name from the slogan on the national emblem that means, "We are a fortress".

Dlamini was challenged in an editorial comment at the end of March by the Sunday Times, where his column appears: The reasons for insisting on high standards in English are sound, and include the fact that English is the official language of government, the courts and the international world beyond our borders."

The newspaper's editor, Vusie Ginindza, says of "educational demagogues" who wish to "lower the bar" by lessening English skills standards: "It's like asking a carpenter to build a chair, and when it becomes obvious that he can't, settling for a stool instead because that's easier for him to make."

Ginindza's fellow editor, Martin Dlamini, of the Times' daily edition, says: "English is not a question of choice, it's a matter of practicality, of dealing with the world as it is, not how we might wish it to be."

The two editors have, however, comfortably closed their eyes to the fact that even in Europe, Germans French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Swede, and other students are educated in their native languages, first and foremost. …

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