How language sparked a revolution
Last month I visited South Africa where my parents and grandparents were born, and many family members still live. My parents left South Africa in the early 1970s because they didn’t want to raise children in an apartheid state. In 1948, the South African government introduced official apartheid, a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation (although intense racial division and oppression had already been in place since colonization). While apartheid was resisted from the beginning by many groups, a major tipping point came in 1976 with the Soweto Uprising: a series of protests in defense of South Africa’s many languages.
In 1974 the government introduced the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which legislated Afrikaans and English (the two official languages at the time) as the languages of instruction for all schools. The many Indigenous languages spoken by black South Africans could no longer be used for teaching major subjects. Resentment for the legislation grew until the students at one high school in Soweto, a township of the city of Johannesburg, decided to go on strike in April 1976. This inspired students in other schools who took similar actions, and culminated in a collectively organized protest on June 16, 1976 with an estimated 20,000 student participants. The protestors were met with intense brutality by police who shot at students, killing up to 700.
The brutality of the state during the Soweto Uprising sparked outrage nationally and internationally. White students marched in protest of the killing of children, black workers went on strike in solidarity, the United Nations condemned the South African government, and the international boycott against South African apartheid intensified. From that year forward, the apartheid government was unable to restore economic or political stability in the country.
It still took until the early 1990s for apartheid to officially come to an end. Nelson Mandela was elected as president in the country’s first democratic election in 1994, and a new Constitution was adopted in 1996. South Africa’s Constitution is considered one of the most progressive in the world and, of most interest here, it gave official status to nine local African languages in addition to English and Afrikaans. This was an important step in honouring the country’s linguistic diversity, and one of Mandela’s most famous observations:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
The languages of South Africa
Although English and Afrikaans continue to be the main languages of commerce in South Africa, and English is the main language of the South African government, media, and education systems, neither of these is the most common first language of South Africans. The most common first language is isiZulu (23%) and the second is isiXhosa (16%). These are followed by Afrikaans (14%) and English (9.6%). The other official languages are are isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. Most South Africans speak at least one of the nine African languages, if not more, and one of the two colonial languages.
The nine official African languages are all Bantu languages, a group of about 250 languages spoken in the southern half of Africa that have origins in a common language spoken about 3000 years ago in what is now Cameroon in west Africa. Prior to Bantu expansion into southern Africa, the languages spoken in the region were Khoisan languages, spoken by the Khoi and San peoples, the original Indigenous peoples of many parts of southern Africa. These languages are characterized by the extensive use of click consonants, a feature which spread to several Bantu languages including isiZulu, isiXhosa, and Sesotho in South Africa. The new South African coat of arms, adopted in 2000, includes a motto written in a Khoisan language. The Khoisan languages are recognized as the oldest languages of the country and, although they do not have official status, the Constitution emphasizes the importance of developing and supporting them as well.
What does it mean to recognize 11 official languages at once?
11 official languages might seem like a lot. Here in Canada the official status of English and French means that, among other things, all Canadian products must include labeling in both languages. A common response to hearing about more than two official languages is, “but how can you fit that many languages on one product label?!” But in South Africa (and the Northwest Territories for that matter, which also has 11 official languages), things like product labels are not the concern. In general, the official languages of a country or region are the languages used by the government and for accessing government and judicial services.
Declaring languages as official is also about recognizing the responsibility of governments at all levels to take “positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages” (a direct quote from the South African Constitution). This includes ensuring access to media, arts, and education in those languages. In my opinion, the latter is the most important. I have written many times about the importance of mother tongue education. There are many proven benefits to educating children in their first language first – and language maintenance relies on it! By declaring multiple official languages, South Africa has demonstrated its commitment to maintaining and strengthening its Indigenous heritage.
How far has South Africa really come?
Despite the progressive ideals of its Constitution, South Africa has faced many challenges in its efforts to undo the damage caused by its colonial history. Official apartheid may be over, but society is still stratified along racial lines, and English is still the language of upward mobility. While students have a right to be taught in a language of their choosing, the majority of South Africans live in poverty and have little choice when it comes to education. There is a huge lack of learning resources developed in the Indigenous languages, and of teachers trained to teach in those languages. Like many of South Africa’s progressive goals, the linguistic dreams of the country have been stalled by competing government priorities and bureaucratic mismanagement, as well as neoliberal push-back which emphasizes economic progress, and therefore the need for English, over all else.
However, since the 2012 Use of Official Languages Act and subsequent initiatives across government departments, there appears to be a renewed commitment to quality mother tongue education and multilingualism in South Africa. There has been an increase in literacy development initiatives and teacher training programs, as well as requirements for Indigenous languages to be taught as additional languages in English or Afrikaans medium schools. I hope this trend continues, and that in the coming years we witness as the progressive ideals of South Africa’s language policies become the reality on the ground, an example for multilingual communities around the world.
Note: much of the information in this article comes from Wikipedia and other internet sources. Any corrections or other feedback are most welcome.