Tool of exploitation

2010-01-13 00:00

THE development of a country is determined by the education of its citizens. South Africa’s slow pace of development is caused by the fact that the overwhelming majority of its citizens are uneducated.

Language is a hindrance to learning for the majority of South Africans. The language used in schools is not the home language of the majority. Thus the majority are disadvantaged and their languages are discriminated against in favour of minority languages, English and Afrikaans. This means the majority in the country are still colonised from primary to high school education and, of course, in the work place. The sooner this is corrected the better for the whole country.

Developed countries like the United States, England, France, Germany, Russia, China and India use home languages in all spheres of life, hence their high development. Language here is not just a hindrance to pupils’ achievements but teachers also struggle to teach in English and Afrikaans.

The officials in the Department of Education are not immune. When these officials communicate they use their mother tongue. Why then should pupils be treated as aliens? It is clear that the ruling class does not want to give the majority an equal chance to compete fairly in economic and social life. As long as indigenous languages are secondary in education and the workplace, performance will remain as it is. In this country, capitalism uses language as a tool of exploitation.

We all agree that private schools are ideal as they are well resourced. But from which families do pupils in these schools come? As a country we should be worried that after independence we are still perpetuating class division and segregation, the same evil system we struggled against when it was an obsession of the white racist regime. The white regime had separate schools because of skin colour and today our democratic government has separate schools because of wealth and language. What is the difference? During apartheid, white pupils were advantaged and today they continue to be advantaged because of language, but now a few black children are allowed in because of wealth.

I often ask teachers and department officials why they send their children to private schools if they believe in the education provided in the public schools? The answer I get: the Constitution allows it.

We must learn from the private- school environment that although you can provide the best resources, none will surpass home-language usage. This means no pupil can master a subject perfectly in a language that is not his or hers.

The 2009 private school results tell us that the majority of African pupils did poorly despite quality resources. This can only be attributed to the dominant language used in these schools. White and Indian pupils are at the top of the list of the top 50 pupils.

Likewise, public school results, released on January 7, show that the pass rate is better where mother tongue is used as the medium of instruction in most subjects. Multiracial schools did fairly well compared with “all-African schools” because the former use the mother tongue. But even there, white and Indian pupils dominate the top hierarchy of good performance.

Calling for English to be improved in African schools is missing the point. What is urgently required is to change the language policy so that the majority of the pupils can learn maths and science in their home language.

Here is an illustration of the problem. Ask a Grade 12 class of African and white pupils what a cockerel is. White pupils will tell you it is a young, male chicken. Correct. But African pupils will hardly give a correct answer. They may think about a “kokoloshe”, which is the Zulu word for a cockroach because of the sound of the word. Ask the same question in Zulu to white pupils. What is iqhude? (a cockerel). The sky will fall. Why? Because Zulu is not their home language.

The excuse that it would be too expensive to use African languages as a medium of instruction in all subjects is a lie. Nothing is more expensive than the high failure rate we are currently experiencing. We are one of the most spendthrift countries on things that are not beneficial to the majority of South Africans. Think about the billions spent to purchase armaments while the country is not under threat, the huge salaries paid to executives, we build and then break down houses that are less than five years old, golden handshakes and the like. The list is endless. The government needs to phase in home languages as a matter of urgency. We must stop philosophising when we know what needs to be done.

Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics after Vladimir Lenin, wrote in his treatise Marxism and the National Question in 1913 that “a nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture. It must be emphasized that none of the above characteristics is by itself sufficient to define a nation. On the other hand, it is sufficient for a single one of these characteristics to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation.”

This tells us that a nation is a nation because of its language. And full equality of languages implies the repudiation of all privileges for any one language and recognition of all languages used by ethnic groups falling under a nation. Our Constitution is failing us in this regard because of a clause that limits imposing this situation.

Delaying the use of mother- tongue instruction in education is to delay the fullest liberation.

• Mandla Mthethwa is an SACP uMgungundlovu District executive member and a teacher. He writes in his personal capacity.

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