Shucks! A Zulu in my curriculum

2013-05-21 00:00

THE University of KwaZulu-Natal has announced that it will make Zulu-language classes compulsory for all first-year students from next year. This modest step, aimed at promoting multilingualism in South Africa, has been sharply criticised. Some people have compared it to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools in 1976 (a move that led to the Soweto Uprising), while others have argued that the move is unconstitutional. It is nothing of the sort.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal introduced the compulsory Zulu classes to promote “nation-building” and to bring “diverse languages together”.

Zulu is among the most widely spoken official languages in South Africa and is the mother tongue for about 23% of the population.

Section 6 of the Constitution recognises 11 official languages in South Africa and requires that “all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”.

This does not mean that the Constitution requires all languages to be treated in exactly the same manner in South Africa. It only requires that languages must be treated fairly, depending on how widespread the usage of a particular language is in a province, and taking into account other considerations of practicality and expense.

Despite these constitutional provisions, we all know that in South Africa — for many elites, at least —English is more equal than other official languages. English is also the only language in which many white South Africans are conversant.

Despite the fact that section six of the Constitution recognises the “historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages” (other than Afrikaans), due to the effects of colonialism and apartheid, and requires the state to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages”, little has actually been done by the South African state to promote multilingualism in society.

I think it is a brilliant idea for a university to require all first-year students to study the dominant neglected indigenous language of the region in which the university is situated (in other words, not Afrikaans or English, the two languages officially promoted and advanced during apartheid, and the two languages still most economically dominant in South Africa).

It is a pity that all other South African universities won’t follow suit and that, say, the University of Cape Town is not going to require all first-year students to study Xhosa.

By officially requiring first-year students to study a neglected indigenous language, a university would signal its willingness to engage in a practical manner with the cultural diversity of its surroundings.

The move would help to promote an awareness of multilingualism among those South Africans who go through life speaking only English.

It would also promote understanding and respect for diverse cultures, because language and culture are so closely connected.

Of course, there is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a university from requiring students to take a specific course. Just as a university can force all students to take a course in English, in media studies or in mathematics, so it can force all students to take a course in Zulu. Students who do not like taking that compulsory course can always choose to study at another university.

For obvious reasons of fairness, I would not support a move by a university to force students to take one of the languages unfairly advantaged by apartheid (in other words, Afrikaans and English), but even if a university did require study of such a language, this would not be unconstitutional.

It would just be politically untenable and unfair.

The move by the University of KwaZulu-Natal is not that different from the decision by the University of the Free State that all first-year students be required to pass a course that engages critically with both local and global issues.

The Free State course — another brilliant idea that is sadly not being followed by other universities — is aimed at promoting diversity in terms of literacy among students, and to promote social cohesion among them.

Of course, the situation is slightly different when a university does not only require all students to take a particular language course, but when it decides to make a particular language (not widely spoken by potential students) the medium of instruction.

If the University of KwaZulu-Natal required half of all lectures to be taught in Zulu, interesting legal and moral questions would arise. Such a move would exclude most white students from attending the university and it could arguably be seen as unfairly discriminating against those excluded students on the basis of race.

The issue would be complicated by the fact that Zulu is a language diminished by apartheid and by the fact that white people are generally still reaping the benefits of apartheid, making it more difficult for white people to convince a court that an exclusionary policy unfairly discriminated against them.

I am therefore in two minds about whether the compulsory use of Zulu as a language of instruction at the University of KwaZulu-Natal would be found to be unconstitutional or not.

(It would probably be academically unwise, because it would preclude many good students from attending that university.)

The situation is more problematic at an institution such as Stellenbosch, where an insistence on the exclusive use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in certain classes would unfairly discriminate against many black South Africans.

As Afrikaans was given preferential treatment by the apartheid state, and as many black South Africans are not conversant in it, the exclusive use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction would unfairly rob many black South Africans of the opportunity to be taught at one of South Africa’s primary higher education institutions (which is subsidised by all taxpayers’ money).

That is why the move by the University of Stellenbosch away from the exclusive use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction is not only fair, but probably also constitutionally required.

The move is also good for the university, as it will allow the university to draw from a wider pool of excellent students (including excellent black students), thus increasing the quality of students attending that institution.

Be that as it may, I am surprised that all South African universities are not promoting previously diminished indigenous languages through their various admissions policies.

Why not award extra admissions points to all university applicants who can speak a diminished indigenous language such as Xhosa, Zulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga or Ndebele, as part of the affirmative action admissions policy of a university?

If universities were to signal to potential students that they would gain easier access to that university if they spoke languages other than Afrikaans and English, many parents would insist that the school their children attend offer a wider range of indigenous South African languages and many pupils would then take such languages.

This would promote wider multilingualism (and with it, social cohesion) in society — especially among the educated elite.

It seems to me that many of us who grew up white in apartheid South Africa were deprived of an important tool for navigating our world when we were taught only in Afrikaans and English.

We are lesser human beings for being unable to speak other indigenous South African languages, or for being able to speak them only very badly.

The move by the University of KwaZulu-Natal would ensure that the same damage is not inflicted on a new generation of white students.

• Pierre de Vos is Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town. This article first appeared on his blog at www.consti

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