Multilingualism in South African Literacy

Image and Reality

Seminar Paper, 2009

29 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

List of Figures

1. Introduction

2. Historical Context
2.1. The Pre-Apartheid Era
2.2. The Bantu Education Act
2.3. The Era of the Apartheid
2.4. Intermediate Results

3. The Present Situation
3.1. A General Analysis of the Present Situation
3.2. Reasons for Increasing Anglicization
3.2.1. Political Reasons
3.2.2. The Curriculum 2005
3.3. An Analysis of the Present School Situation
3.4. Hands on: An Online Survey in July 2010
3.4.1. Methodology
3.4.2. Results
3.5. Critical Review
3.5.1. Cultural and Demographic Problems
3.5.2. Teacher‘s Response and Code-switching
3.6. Intermediate Results and Attempts at a Solution

4. Conclusion

5. References

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

List of figures

Figure 1: Eleven major languages of South Africa

Figure 2: Language use outside the classroom

Figure 3: Preferred MOI

1. Introduction

South Africa in the year 2009 represents the home of approximately 45 million people of different origin, religions, cultures and languages. Its population is, consequently, anything but homogenous neither from a cultural nor, and especially, from a linguistic point of view.

In order to understand how these exceptional diversities could develop, it is absolutely essential to review the country‘s history first. Like many African countries, South Africa is exceedingly characterized by the colonial times as well as the apartheid era. Major influence derives from Dutch and British colonies, which is still reflected in contemporary daily routine. Furthermore, several wars and changes of government result in a country of little economic power and discordance about major governmental issues.

These disunities affect one major area most notably negative: the education system. Education has been a controversial subject to the government from the early twentieth century, starting with the Boer War, until today. Ever since, media of instruction in schools and other educational institutions has been questioned, changed, and changed all over again. The final result, as of now, seems to be a tendency towards English as the preferred MOI. It must be reviewed critically, however, if this is really the case or not.

When reviewing South Africa‘s colonial history, the inequity in governmental movements, especially with regard to education, is revealed. Why, then, do especially parents of Blacks and Coloureds insist on EMOI? Where is the use of the mother-tongue concept in a multilingual society like that in South Africa? And is it possible at all, regarding this multilingualism, to implement additive bilingualism in literacy effectively? In other words, it is to be questioned whether a multilingual education system like it is expected by law, does work or not. In connection to that, the reasons for either result will be identified and dedicated to the appropriate historical time and incident.

2. Historical Context

English and South Africa initially contacted in 1795, when the British came across a dutch colony, the Afrikaaners, who spoke a modified form of Dutch, namely Afrikaans. The British obtained superiority over the Afrikaaners and the district after numerous martial conflicts and consolidated the four british colonies to the Union of South Africa in 1910. The conflict climaxed with the Boer War, which lasted from the year 1899 until 1902, and which also adjudged Afrikaans the right to be used in school and court (cf. Hansen, Carls, Lucko 1996: 191f).

2.1. The Pre-Apartheid Era

Afrikaans officially relieved Dutch with the Union Act in 1925, and the white Boers aimed for total independence of Great Britain and the Commonwealth in the following years. English and Afrikaans became equal MOI in state schools, either coincidently as in dual medium schools or separately as in simultaneously instructed ones (cf. Fishman, Conrad, Rubal-Lopez 1996: 311). Source of these attempts is the Whites‘ fear of a government of Blacks. Hence, the so-called apartheid-regime developed in 1948. From a linguistic point of view, its main aim was to prevent the black population from establishing a common communications device, grounded on a Bantu language (cf. Hansen, Carls, Lucko 1996: 193), by forcing them to cope with English and Afrikaans on a, consequently, linguistically low level.

Additionally, English savored the highest status in the society since it functioned, in terms of socioeconomics, as a portal to higher status for the majority of the socially lower ranked population (cf. de Klerk, Gough 2002: 357). Thus, de Klerk and Gough describe English as a „symbol for membership to the elite, education and power“ (2002: 369).

Before the implementation of apartheid policy, South Africa‘s literacy mainly reflected the African population^ struggle to avoid and buck the threatening anglicization. As a consequence, African languages were hardly present in state schools, neither as MOI nor as a subject (cf. Kamwangamalu 2005: 388). English was, meanwhile, seen as the „language of the oppressor in the mouth of the oppressed44 (Kamwangamalu 2005: 388). While state literacy institutions were gearing towards the education of Whites, education of the Blacks fell into the hands of the church and missionary schools (cf. Mesthrie 2002: 18).

When the ANP gained power in 1948, they actively promoted the resistance against English and the consolidation of their own language, namely Afrikaans. Part of this „nation building program44 (Louw 2004: 320) was the development of instruments and mechanisms, which functioned as separator between South Africa‘s indigenous population and other ethnic and consequently linguistic groups. The separation of school systems played a central role in this process.

2.2. The Bantu Education Act

The biggest change for the education of South Africa‘s black population came with the Bantu Education Act in 1953. Its main goal was regaining control of the education system by wresting it out of the White‘s hands, and thereby escaping the accompanied linguistic disadvantages.

One basic idea of Bantu education was mother tongue education (cf. Kamwangamalu 2005: 390). The Bantu Education Act intended to supply more importance to the indigenous languages. By entering secondary schools, Blacks had to be introduced in English and Afrikaans mandatory; a policy which was pushed through although it rained heavy protests from both Whites and Blacks. The act, as a result, collapsed induced by lack of consultation and communication with the advocates, reduction of experienced and qualified teachers and, consequently, due to the lack of interest in black education in general (cf. Banda 2000: 53).

Nevertheless, the Bantu Education Act also caused a positive effect. The collapse clearly demonstrated the fact, that pupils must not be enforced to be instructed in a medium they decline. This understanding provides the answer to the question whether those who prefer EMOI should be instructed in their mother tongue mandatory or not, or if pupils, in contrast, should have the right to freely choose the MOI they prefer. Thus, language rapidly advanced to a criterion of distinct education. There were schools for speakers of every African language teaching in the appropriate MOI. This accounted for Whites of British and Dutch origin in the same way.

This obviously meant a new beginning of the struggle for the national identity of Afrikaaners (cf. Kamwangamalu 2005: 391). In the following three decades, the government insisted on Afrikaans as subject in school in order to stay, at least, at the same linguistic level as English (cf. Fishman, Conrad, Rubal-Lopez 1996: 312).

The most noticeable changes, however, affected secondary school. From grade eight onwards, pupils had to be introduced in English and Afrikaans bilingually, since these languages were relevant for examination subjects. African languages, on the contrary, were relevant for non-examination subjects. The resultant disadvantage for black pupils, namely the fact that they had to cope with three languages simultaneously in school, while all others only had to be proficient in one language, is evident and an obvious indication for the systematic isolation of Blacks from political processes.

In sum, the school situation was conditionally limited and insufficient, so that learning English rather meant a burden than a steppingstone for the average black child. Many Blacks, nonetheless, saw this through and boycotted their mother tongue as MOI, since they regarded it as social deadlock and barrier to higher bands of education. For these children, English turned into the language of freedom accordingly (cf. Kamwangamalu 2005: 394 & Alexander 2006: 2). This attitude is still present today.

2.3. The Era of the Apartheid

In 1948 there was a tendency against pre-apartheid anglicization towards a reinforcement of Afrikaans. In doing so, the government was seeking for a separation of the individual ethnic groups of Xhosas, Zulus, Sothos, Tswana, Pedi, Swazi, Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele, Indians and Coloureds, who all ought to have isolated politics and, accordingly, isolated lobbies (cf. Louw 2004: 320).

Apart of human‘s segmentation according to race and language, the apartheid regime insisted on mother tongue education. Therefore, Whites were split into two factions: those who spoke English and those who spoke Afrikaans. According to Lanham (1996: 26), the ANP announced „confrontation with all things ... and all attempts [were] made to enforce Afrikaans over English in every sphere of public life“. The basic idea was to make non-Whites incapable of achieving an equally powerful status as Whites (cf. Banda 2000: 56).

Furthermore, the apartheid-regime not only aimed at isolating the Blacks from the Whites, but also from among each other. One result of this policy of tribalization is the formation of ten Homelands in which, besides English and Afrikaans, a Bantu language as a third official language pertained. This third one was usually the language which was most common in the specific area.

In regard of the education system, segregation of ethnic groups was a central point of the dispute as well. During the apartheid era, South Africa had been divided into 19 distinct departments responsible for literacy, among those, one for the Coloureds‘ and Indians‘ education each, four for the Whites‘ and 12 for Blacks‘ education (cf. Kamwangamalu 2005: 389). Furthermore, the multilingual MOI schools were allowed to choose a unique MOI from grade five upwards by then. Thus, schools that were locked to several ethnic groups opened for everybody. Subsequently, many Blacks left their schools for EMOI ones, while Coloureds and Asians tended towards visiting schools which were mainly influenced by Whites until then, since those savored the highest prestige (cf. Fishman, Conrad, Rubal-Lopez 1996: 316).

However, the MOI of the individual groups varied. Whites were instructed in English and Afrikaans through all three bands of education, whereas Indians and Coloureds were instructed mainly in English. Meanwhile, the linguistically most complicated situation developed for black pupils. They were being instructed in their mother tongue up to grade five while simultaneously having English and Afrikaans as subjects, starting in second grade. From the fifth grade onwards English was the MOI (cf. Kamwangamalu 2005: 389f).

Political measures working against the threatening anglicization were, among others, the introduction of a 50/50 bilingualism into public bureaucracy as well as bilingualism‘s elevation to official status in public domains such as signs, train stations and television. Furthermore, social media was promoted, e.g. radio structure became multilingual and film and theatre productions in Afrikaans were supported. Besides, the educational infrastructure and, in connection to it, the book industry obtained higher acceptance. Consequently, English speakers were obliged to learn Afrikaans in school, the government even invested into Afrikaans-medium schools, universities and colleges. In addition, dictionaries, rules for grammar and pronunciation as well as proper terminology was developed in Afrikaans (cf. Louw 2004: 321f).

It lasted until the Soweto uprising in 1976, shaken by the economic and political crisis, that the country turned away from Afrikaans MOI and focussed on language‘s functional, instead of symbolic characteristics in lieu. This, then, led on to significant change in the education system. Although Afrikaans had achieved a minimum of prestige, it was the dominant language in nearly every public domain (cf. Fishman, Conrad, Rubal-Lopez 1996: 315). English, moreover, advanced from a British towards a South African variety out of which more varieties of English developed in the different domains.

Up until the year 1978, already 96% of all Blacks from the fifth grade upwards were being instructed in English. This switch, however, caused some major issues. Given, that poverty made it impossible to attend school at all, schools failed to provide fundamental resources like qualified teachers, proper learning materials and even adequate classroom sizes (cf. Fishman, Conrad, Rubal-Lopez 1996: 316). This resulted in a completely new classroom situation, both from a linguistic and sociolinguistic point of view, for both pupils and teachers. Besides, there often was a fundamental lack of terminology in the African languages, not to mention books (cf. Probyn 2001: 250).

2.4. Intermediate Results

Between 1948 and 1994, the apartheid regime actively tried to protect Afrikaans from being overwhelmed by English and to strengthen Afrikaans at the same time. Hence, apartheid must be seen as attempt to escape, and respectively resist, the process of cultural homogenization and an Anglo-American cultural imperialism (cf. Louw 2004: 320). From a linguistic point of view South Africa can be entitled, until 1994, as a society in which „Afrikaans in a bilingual system was by far more important than English and in which Bantu languages had been codified and taught in and through schools“ (Louw 2004: 322).

On the one hand, apartheid offered a possibility to the indigenous Africans to realize their national identities and languages, and coincidentally made way to cultural diversity and multilingualism. On the other hand, in unison, it closed the doors to social and communal success for the westernized (anglicized) black population, which actually gave reason for strong protest, especially from this part of the population (cf. Louw 2004: 326).

Apartheid, effectively, provided a negative connotation to pluralism within South Africa, which resulted in calling the aim for cultural diversity as ill-famed apartheid (cf. Louw 2004: 327) and adjudging African languages inadequacy and deficiency (cf. Heugh 1995: 43).

Furthermore, the sudden switch from an indigenous language to English poses a problem by itself: According to a study by Luckett (1995), pupils are not capable of transferring content acquired in the mother tongue into English and vice versa without further measures (cf. Banda 2000: 58). MacDonald (1990) demonstrated the mentioned effects in ex-DET schools thoroughly. At the end of fourth grade, pupils have around 800 words of vocabulary available, whilst textbooks introduced in grade five require around 5000 words of vocabulary (cf. Probyn 2001: 251 & Heugh 1995: 43).

The Bantu Education Act, nowadays, results in a highly complex construct in the area of literacy. It can be generally stated, that for all pupils until sixth grade, the mother tongue is to be used as MOI. In contrast, the official languages, as being distinctive of the mother tongue, are handled rather carelessly as a subject. Coloureds are free to choose either English, Afrikaans, or both as MOI, whereas among Asians EMOI schools tend to be in the dominant position. This regulation means a difficulty, especially for Coloureds and Asians, since their mother tongue is neither of English nor of Afrikaans origin, so that their fundamental literacy consists of learning these languages (cf. Hansen, Carls, Lucko 1996: 196) in order to cope with school.

Despite the Bantu Education Act of 1953, the described distinction into Homelands was not eliminated until 1994 in the course of a restructuring of the country into nine provinces. Since then, English, Afrikaans and nine other African-originated languages co­exist in South Africa as official national languages (cf. Hansen, Carls, Lucko 1996: 194), whereas only English is frequently present in each of the nine provinces until today (cf. de Klerk, Gough 2002: 358).

In sum, it can be stated, that English played the dominant role in the 1990‘s in the commercial, industrial and higher educational domains, whereas Afrikaans was dominant in public and governmental affairs. African languages, in contrast, were only being used as MOI in primary schools.

3. The Present Situation

Today there are 11 official languages spoken among the South African population, according to the last census in 1991, these are distributed as shown:


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Multilingualism in South African Literacy
Image and Reality
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Multilingualism, South, African, Literacy, Image, Reality
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Tolga Güneysel (Author), 2009, Multilingualism in South African Literacy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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