Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 13. Nr. August 2002

Multilingualism and Minority Languages in South Africa -

A Discussion Paper

Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg).

In South Africa, as in many other countries around the world with either an ethnically mixed population or with a colonial past, language is an extremely emotive issue with economic, social and more often than not, political implications. In essence, South Africa is a country made up of language minorities with English as the dominant language in terms of its position as the official means of communication and in its dominance in the media and the economy. This paper sets out to explore some aspects of multilingualism and the status of minority languages within the context of the debate surrounding these matters in South Africa.

In 1998 seven members of the Division of Applied English Language Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg published a paper: English With or Without G(u)ilt: A Position Paper on Language in Education Policy for South Africa. S. Granville, H. Janks, M. Mphahlele, Y. Reed, P. Watson, M. Joseph and E, Ramani examined the findings of The Language Task Action Group, which had published a document entitled Towards a National Language Plan for South Africa at the request of the Minster of Education in 1995. This text was intended to propose a policy to promote and develop the status of the historically disadvantaged African languages and counter the hegemony of English. (Subsequently the Pan South African Language Board [PANSALB] was established, and a document, PANSALB's Position on the Promotion of Multilingualism in South Africa: A Draft Discussion Document, was published in February 1998).

Although it is ideologically understandable that African languages should receive attention in an African country because of concerns such as culture and identity, in practical terms the hegemony of English is a fact of life. The problem in South Africa, as the writing team from the University of the Witwatersrand points out, is the fact that English has a colonial past but a global future. Within this context, therefore, the 1995 demand for a national language campaign to counter the dominance of English is problematic in the face of the demand by an increasing number of Black parents that their children be taught in English at school and not in an indigenous African language. This clash between ideology and reality is a problem that will not be easy to resolve. An African language as a language of learning and teaching can at best be a very long-term goal. In addition, all should have access to the language of power, which is, at present, English. The South African Constitution acknowledges eleven official languages, i.e. the nine main indigenous African languages have been added to the two former official languages English and Afrikaans. The African languages are tshi-Venda, xi-Tsonga, isi-Ndebele, isi-Xhosa, isi-Zulu, si-Swati, se-Sotho, se-Tswana and se-Pedi. Of these isi-Zulu is the largest numerically; in the 1996 census 22.9% of the South African population named isi-Zulu as their mother tongue. This language is also the most spoken African language in the Gauteng industrial hub of South Africa centered around Johannesburg. This is as a result of migrants from Zululand living and working in and around Johannesburg for the past century.

In spite of multilingualism being a sociolinguistic reality in South Africa, there is still a tendency toward monolingualism in public life. Achieving language equity will be difficult, given the situation that English is as good as exclusively used in parliament as well as at various levels of provincial and local government. English dominates the print media, although there has recently been an attempt to increase television broadcasts in local African languages or to make use of bilingual dialogue, for instance. There are regular news programs alternating between some of the nine official African languages and Afrikaans in addition to the main news programs presented in English. In spite of these efforts, the local language content remains small. The space made available by reducing Afrikaans to the status of a minority language has in most cases been occupied by entertainment and documentary offerings in English. Some originate from Great Britain and Australia, but mainly they come from the United States, which has tended to dominate television entertainment in South Africa since the days of the cultural boycott during the Apartheid regime. At that time the British content was drastically reduced due to the Equity ban that prevented British works and programs from being shown in South Africa.

In addition to the problems of achieving language equity and avoiding the impression of "imposing" a particular language on an unwilling population - a sensitive issue in South Africa, as, for instance, the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in Black schools sparked the riots of 1976 - there is the pressing problem of widespread illiteracy among the Black population. This problem is often addressed by going "straight for English" to achieve literacy without first obtaining literacy in the indigenous language of those concerned. This may be justified by the demands of the work place, where reading, writing and speaking English are important prerequisites for training, an area requiring urgent attention in South Africa in the light of accelerating globalization. Government newsletters, for instance, are often produced in English such as that of the Department of Land Affairs, which deals mainly with rural communities, often with limited exposure to English.

As the University of the Witwatersrand writing team cogently points out, such negative examples as those mentioned above overlook the right of African language speakers to have access to English. The problem seems to be ensuring that nobody is denied access to English as the language of power and, equally, that nobody is denied access to information because they do not know English. The legacy of Apartheid education, i.e. the inferior Bantu Education offered to Black school pupils, resulted in many leaving school without an adequate command of English. Because they had been denied this learning, there was a resultant inflated sense of the importance of English, thus devaluing their own language in their eyes. As mentioned before with regard to imposing a language on a people, language was one of the devices used in the social engineering of Apartheid. Thus language divided people instead of uniting them. A fact that cannot be denied is the important insight that English as a language does have material power. A good command of English is the entry ticket to social mobility, and middle-class jobs yield middle-class salaries. It would, therefore, seem wrong to deny working-class people the means to access the language promising them the greatest possibility of social mobility.

One of the most interesting points raised by the writing team is their argument that "English has achieved global dominance by being in a position of increasing returns"(Granville, Janks et al,1998: 258). As they note, "British colonial domination spread the use of English from Europe to several continents. This was followed by an aggressive post-colonial policy of teaching English as a second language worldwide. English second-language teaching is currently one of Britain's largest export industries." Added to this, one may note America's domination of world markets, thus leading to further diffusion of English. In short, English has come to overwhelm other languages worldwide and so, the writing team notes: "The more the domains of English use increase, the more people need to learn it. The more people know English, the more the domains of its use can expand and the more profitable it is to produce resources in English. A cycle of increasing returns for English is thus perpetuated" (ibid: 259). The conclusion reached by the team is worth noting, as it opens the way for a re-evaluation of indigenous languages in South Africa:

There is no doubt that the widespread access to English increases its hegemony. However, it can be argued that in many countries, including South Africa, English is a language of the educated middle-classes and acts as an effective social and economic gatekeeper. If everyone had access to English, English would no longer be an elitist language. In this way English could come to be seen as a resource, not as a problem. (Granville, Janks et al, 1998: 259)
At present, Afrikaans is the only language that has ever challenged the hegemony of English in South Africa. This occurred during the Apartheid years from 1948 to 1994. Since then, however, Afrikaans has been put on a par with the other indigenous languages, although it is still compulsory in schools. This is mainly because teaching resource materials are readily available. The desirable goal of pupils learning one of the African languages remains something yet to be achieved in many instances, as teaching materials still have to be developed within a stringent economic climate. Many South Africans are already multilingual and resources still need to be poured into offering South African school pupils equitable access to good English language skills.

Where does this leave non-indigenous languages within the South African context? Given the pressing need to ensure access to English in the first instance, it is perhaps little wonder that the foreign languages find themselves in a rather embattled state, not only in schools, but also at tertiary education institutions. There does, however, seem to be a glimmer of hope for languages other than English contained within the draft discussion document of the Pan South African Language Board when one looks at the wide brief of this board:

5. A Pan African Language Board established by national legislation must -

a. promote and create conditions for the development and use of -
I. all official languages;

II. the Khoi, Nama and San languages; and

III. Sign language; and

b. promote and ensure respect for-

c. I. all languages commonly used by communities in South Africa, including German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Portuguese, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu; and

d. II. Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and other languages used for religious purposes in South Africa. (PANSALB, 1998: 2)

In expressing the view that monoligualism is inherently disempowering and also that the hidden stores of knowledge contained in the local languages should be promoted, the PANSALB position paper, apart from wishing to revalue language systems such as those contained in the local languages, including South African Sign Language, specifically points to the advantages of embracing diversity and the benefits of multilingualism in developing a democratic society:

The promotion of multilingualism, ... gives us the opportunity of participating more fully in the international/global community, since the spin off would lead to learning languages of wider communication for purposes of trade and international communication. For example, it should lead toward the identification of Portuguese, French, Swahili, Arabic and Hausa for trade and co-operation in Africa.
Research conducted in this country in the 1930s and 1940s showed that bilingual people demonstrate greater social tolerance and are more likely to have academic success than monolingual people are. This research lay unnoticed for more than half a century. It is now being supported by research conducted in other countries, such as North America, Australia, India and Scandinavia. Thus from both socially cohesive and educational perspectives, the promotion of multilingualism is likely to have important advantages for the entire South African Society. (PANSALB, 1998: 6)

© Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)

TRANSINST        table of contents: No. 13


  1. S. Granville, H. Kanks, M. Mphahlele, Y. Reed, P. Watson, M. Joseph and E. Ramani: English With or Without G(u)ilt: A Position Paper on Language in Education Policy for South Africa. In: Language and Education, Vol. 12: 4, 1998, pp. 254-272.
  2. PANSALB's Position on the Promotion of Multilingualism in South Africa: A Draft Discussion Document. Pretoria, February 1998, 9 pages..

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Kathleen Thorpe: Multilingualism and Minority Languages in South Africa - A Discussion Paper. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 13/2002.

TRANS     Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 26.08.2002     INST