The Power of Language or the Language of Power?

 isiZulu  and English in South Africa

July 29, 2013

In May, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) announced that from next year, all new students will be enrolled in a compulsory isiZulu course. Gradually, all undergraduates and staff will participate in the programme, and will be tested on their ability to communicate in the language, both verbally and in writing. Broadly, the policy has two main purposes: to allow UKZN gradually to introduce dual-medium teaching in both English and isiZulu, and to promote social cohesion.


Although South Africa’s Constitution recognises eleven national languages, English – spoken as a home language by only 9.6% of South Africans – has become the language of power; it is the language of government, business, the media, and academia. African languages do not share the same status as English and, to a lesser extent, Afrikaans, which still retains some prominence partly because of its privileged status under apartheid. A degree or course in English at university will help a graduate in accountancy to find a job. Proficiency in isiXhosa (spoken by 16% of South Africans) or Sepedi (9.1%) probably will not.


The government has committed to promoting multilingualism, and particularly at schools. The Constitution states that ‘all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably’. While, as Pierre de Vos, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Cape Town (UCT) explains, ‘This does not mean that the Constitution requires all languages to be treated in exactly the same manner in South Africa,’ it is certainly the case that more could be done to promote learning in African languages at school.


Earlier this year, the Department of Basic Education and Training announced that from 2014, all school pupils would be taught an African language from their first grade of primary school. There is plenty of – justified – concern that the Department lacks the resources fully to implement this new policy. Also, it isn’t clear how raising the status of African languages at schools will help to fix the country’s failing education system more generally.


So UKZN’s decision to introduce classes and, gradually, tuition in isiZulu – spoken by almost a fifth of South Africans – is certainly a bold move. It isn’t the only university to teach in languages other than English: medical students at UCT learn isiXhosa; classes at Stellenbosch are in English and Afrikaans. Also, as Nicola Jenvey writes:

The institution most advanced along the multiple languages road is North West University, which has for the past decade pioneered multilingualism in the classroom and on its three campuses.


It has English, Setswana and Afrikaans as official languages of communication for staff, a language ombudsman to tackle concerns and complaints, and a commercial interpreting services that is used by a local college, local primary schools and two other universities.


Significantly, North West also provides classroom interpreting services. At its Potchefstroom campus, where Afrikaans in the language of tuition, English interpreting is used in a wide range of programmes and there is interpreting in Setswana for some modules.


But the commitment to teaching students and staff isiZulu seems to be unique. As someone with a long association with Stellenbosch – I studied and taught there – I found UKZN’s language policy particularly interesting. From the 1930’s onwards, Afrikaans was developed as a technical and academic language partly at Stellenbosch, an institution with a long association with the apartheid state. It produced the vocabularies and terminologies which allowed academics to use Afrikaans to write about their research. It was partly for this reason that when I studied economic history, students could choose to read Marx’s Capital in either English or Afrikaans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the fiercest battles to rage at Stellenbosch post-1994 was its language policy: should it remain Afrikaans-medium, thus excluding the majority of South Africans who do not speak Afrikaans (it’s the home language of 13.5% of the population), or should it be prepared to offer classes in English? It seems as if the question has been solved, at least partly, by the students themselves, who demand – overwhelmingly – to be to taught in English. The university has also realised that it has little chance of being listed in any of the international university rankings if most of its research outputs are published in Afrikaans.


IsiZulu, though, is not Afrikaans; it has had none of the institutional backing that Afrikaans has had. I think that teaching students an African language is an excellent idea, and it’s likely that offering tuition in isiZulu may improve students’ performance at university. However, I am concerned that UKZN lacks the infrastructure and resources adequately to develop isiZulu as an academic language. Also, the university has experienced a prolonged crisis – caused partly by a traumatic period of transformation – and I wonder to what extent this new language policy will simply exacerbate the university’s woes, or offer a means of obscuring them.

Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Sarah Emily Duff is an NRF Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Stellenbosch University, South Africa and is a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be contacted at [email protected]



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