Should Afrikaans be declared South Africa’s indigenous language?

30-09-21 USAf 0 comment

Professor Mbulungeni Madiba, Dean of Education at Stellenbosch University, chaired the question-and-answer session which wrapped the fourth plenary session – The New Language Policy for Higher Education: Kindling the Conversations for Change – which formed part of the first day of the Colloquium on the New Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions.

The online language symposium was hosted by Stellenbosch University (SU) under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf) and is a joint project with USAf’s Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (COPAL).

Journalist Ané van Zyl posed the question to the panellists as to whether Afrikaans should be an official, indigenous language of South Africa and, if not, why not.

The revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions, published in October 2020, excluded Afrikaans from the definition of indigenous languages. The policy only defines languages that “belong to the Southern Bantu language family” as indigenous.

Professor Nokhanyo Nomakhwezi Mdzanga (left), Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University and also the Deputy Chairperson of CoPAL (Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages), believed that the question was debatable.

“On the one hand, there’s this definition that is mentioned in the language policy framework. On the other hand, if we look at the history of the development of Afrikaans, you realise that Afrikaans was developed here in South Africa, so what does that make Afrikaans to be? Maybe what needs to be clarified is our operative definition of indigenous? What does the word actually mean? Then you would be able to answer the question.”

Professor Madiba reflected on how Afrikaans had developed from a “kitchen language” to one that was used in high levels including academia.

“However”, he said, “some critics will argue that the Afrikaans model is not easily replicable for other languages because the context is different. There were huge resources poured into the intellectualisation of Afrikaans. These resources are not available for African languages.”

Judge Albie Sachs (right), renowned activist and a former judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa (1994 – 2009) also referenced the definition provided in the policy. He also commented: “They (Afrikaners) may have had the resources; but it took a long time to transform their language. Groups were formed in 1912 and it was about 35 years before we got the first textbook. It took a long time and it was not a miraculous thing and there was plenty of investment. That’s an example of what you can do. It was about destroying the exclusive and suffocating hegemony of English without being anti-English. In fact, you can even host conferences in English to promote multilingualism. It sounds like a paradox, but it’s practical way of going about things.

“When I came back from exile, I went to Stellenbosch and they were very proud that they were doing a huge official dictionary of the language. But you can’t say that other people in different communities or areas speak bad Afrikaans – it’s different in Namaqualand and in parts of the Western Cape. That’s part of the richness of Afrikaans. It has a number of different forms in which it can appear and that’s part of its vitality. It’s not an official language perhaps in the way it was defined before but that’s a source of strength not weakness,” he said.

Said Mahlubi Mabizela (left), Chief Director responsible for higher education policy and research support at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET): “During the process of the development of the policy, there was a lot of consultation. One of the issues was around the definition (of indigenous) and we arrived at the definition that we have now in the policy after lengthy consultation. So it’s not a definition that the DHET came up with and, of course, we abide by that definition unless it is revised. We will keep looking at aspects of the policy that may at some point become irrelevant. And if and when the time comes, then we can make the necessary revisions. And even those revisions will be consulted on.”

As the online Colloquium was wrapping up on Day Two, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Rhodes University and USAf’s Chair of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group, commented on the chat platform: “The debate of whether or not Afrikaans is an indigenous South African language is a non-debate. Afrikaans IS an indigenous South African language. Same can be said of the English language, which is distinctly South African and has been enriched by the local context.”

Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf’s Chief Executive Officer, agreed with the perspective above. In his closing remarks he said “all 11 official languages plus, are South African languages. Even English has become our English – re-shaped by us… For me, the major challenge is to embrace this as a social justice project. It is about building the capacity of all African Languages to be used in academic discourse — in the sciences, humanities, and more importantly, in propelling South Africa into the global knowledge system on its own terms.”

If the institutions do not follow the policy, will they be held liable for legally contravening it?

Mabizela: “Not at all. This is a framework that seeks to assist the institutions and also help with the development of our languages. We need to look at the bigger picture of what the policy is trying to achieve.”

When will the national language plan developed by the department be available?

Mabizela: “For the record, this colloquium is helping us a lot. The idea is to have it almost finalised by the end of the year to start with its implementation in 2022. There have been questions of how we get funds for the implementation of the policy. We therefore want to come to the sector with the guideline. It’s also about having all the other government departments, as well as the entities that have got something to do with the development of languages (on the same page), so that we don’t work in silos. In the development of this policy, we also consulted with representatives from the Department of Basic Education and will continue to do so as the basic educational level is vitally important.”

South Africa has numerous good policies but a limited appetite for implementation, what can you do about this?

Mabizela: “The difference with this policy is that it’s got a follow up; it’s not just a policy that is designed and put out there. We are doing an implementation guideline. Institutions are required to submit annual progress reports on the implementation so there is an accountability.”

What are the plans with regard to the development of teaching and learning materials in African languages to facilitate the implementation of the revised policy?

Mabizela: It’s not just about an implementation plan but what the department is already doing because we are not simply waiting for the implementation of the policy. We are assisting institutions in the broad development of indigenous languages and also the development of teachers, particularly language teachers. Some of the universities have language units and that is where the development of African languages, particularly scientific language, has got to be taking place.”

Chair Professor Madiba’s final take out from the plenary:

“We must stop waiting. We need to start flying our pilots (programmes). Language policy is already in practice in some institutions but this has not yet been documented. Let us hope that people start to do something even by implementing it on a smaller scale – we can then scale it up! And then we will be able to have progress rather than waiting for a day when everything will be ready for us to implement.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa