Mind the Language Policies

Reflections on the Youth Day protest of 1976 and South Africa’s present language issues in Education.

On the 16th of June 1976, thousands of young people took to the streets to protest in Johannesburg, South Africa. They were ambushed. Several of them were killed. While there is no accurate figure of just how many young people were killed on the day, the estimates range from 170 to over 500 youths. Their protest, the Soweto Uprising, has been immortalised by being granted an annual public holiday in South Africa, and each year our social media profiles are filled with retweets and shares of the ‘iconic’ Hector Pietersen photograph. Oddly enough, many South Africans have very little idea what exactly Youth Day is about, or what so many young people were protesting in ‘76.

Of course, these were not just youth on a mission to ‘paint the town red’, they were protesting a language policy which would see Afrikaans adopted as a compulsory language in township schools. Additionally, they were protesting government’s attempt to prohibit the use of local languages in township schools. The majority of Black students were faced with having to adopt the language of their oppressors and they chose to act against it. The irony I wish to highlight is that, despite the deaths of those youths we mourn as a nation and despite the recognition offered on youth day, the language problem ,together with language ideologies and policies which privilege some and disadvantage others, still persists, even in 2017.

We live in a country where Black learners face the brunt of school disciplinary procedures for talking in their home-language in classes, because educators and fellow learners who do not understand the tongue are “suspicious”. In a country where a learner who sings in their mother-tongue is called into the headmaster’s office because fellow classmates feel the singing sounds “political”. This not only shames the Black child but also recasts the Black student as someone to be feared or of whom to be suspicious.

Many schools still suffer from hysteresis and the inability to change to the new context as schools begin to diversify in demographics. The changing student body is occurring mainly in former Whites-only public schools and private schools as those families with money increasingly attempt to get their children into better-resourced schools. However, it is also occurring in the Coloured townships where schools have become commuter schools and there is now an intersection of Black isiXhosa learners and English/Afrikaans speaking Coloured learners for example. Yet these experiences are only the surface-level, day-to-day interactions, that point to deeper systemic issues concerning language and education in South Africa.

Our present education policy is of such a nature that the bulk of school-going learners are taught in the home-language from Grade R-3, receiving only minimal instruction in English during the same period. Following this, in Grade 4, they are expected to switch to schooling in English/Afrikaans. For many of the learners, English/Afrikaans may even represent a third language. The policy is essentially creating an environment where learners are expected to be taught in a  foreign language. I doubt many English or Afrikaans speaking South Africans would be comfortable with having their own children switch to receiving an education in isiXhosa from Grade 4. It is not only disadvantageous to several students but it is bizarre to think that we can draw comparisons in terms of academic performance as many of the benchmark tests attempt to do, while we hold to a language policy like the one we have now.

Alexander (2013) suggested that “for reasons connected with the colonial history of southern Africa, the language of power in post-apartheid South Africa is undoubtedly English” and “Afrikaans continues to play an ancillary role in the processes of economic production in the formal sector of the economy, even though there are determined attempts to reduce its significance in this domain…”

In a similar vein McKinney & Guzula (2016) have argued written that: “the continuing denigration of African languages and exclusive valuing of English is evidence of apartheid’s long shadow. It also points to the internalisation of colonial racism and the continuing power of whiteness.”  This ongoing legacy of colonialism and Apartheid is of such a nature that the minority still benefits at the cost of the majority. English and Afrikaans students, are the only students who are able to be taught in their home language from Grade R, all the way through their tertiary studies.

According to Census 2011 data, English is only the fourth most spoken language in South Africa (9,6%), Afrikaans ranks third (13,5%), with isiXhosa second (16%) and isiZulu first (22,5%). Considering the language distribution reflected in the Census 2011 data and the reality that we still have a higher education institution that uses Afrikaans as a language of instruction, as opposed to isiXhosa or isiZulu, should cause us to stop and think about how much has changed and how much has in fact remained the same since 1976.

As we reflect back on our past this Youth Day and the fight for justice, we should recognise the power of language in society. Language may be used as a weapon for cultural injustice, as it has been used in the colonial project; but it could also be used as a tool to bridge social divides. Instead of continuing to promote monoglossic ‘language silos’ (McKinney, 2016), perhaps we should seek to encourage trans-languaging and multi-literacy practices. Instead of remaining silent about the inequalities in academic attainment generated by the present language policies in basic education, perhaps we should use Youth Day as an opportunity to raise our voices against linguistic injustices that trouble our youth here in South Africa, and see this as a justice issue globally as it relates to children and their education, and future.

Ashley Visagie, is the co-founder at Bottomup, a nonprofit organisation offering education enrichment in under-resourced schools in Cape Town, South Africa.

Read more of his articles here.


Alexander, N. (2013). Thoughts on the New South Africa. Auckland Park: Jacana Media

McKinney, C. (2016). Language and Power in Post-Colonial Schooling: Ideologies in Practice.New York: Routledge.

McKinney, C. and Guzula, X. (2017). How schools use language as a way to exclude children. [online] The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-schools-use-language-as-a-way-to-exclude-children-64900 [Accessed 12 June 2017].

Statistics South Africa. 2012. Census 2011: Statistical release [Online]. Available at: http://www.statssa.gov.za/census/census_2011/census_products/Census_2011_Census_in_brief.pdf [Accessed 12 June 2017)

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