Negotiating South Africa’s Many Languages and Customs

Matthew MacLachlan

7 Mar 2014

Since the end of Apartheid, changes within South Africa have impacted all areas of government, business, culture and daily life as the Rainbow Nation continues to develop its more inclusive identity.  This includes the attitude and policies toward South African languages – whether indigenous, imported or evolved.

South Africa now has 11 official languages, including Afrikaans, English and nine Bantu languages spoken mostly by Black Africans tribally and culturally linked to the language.  The Economist has explored many of the challenges in managing such a large number of official languages and questions the support received for the Bantu languages in particular.

Criticism is aimed at the government and especially focussed on the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), which is meant to regulate use of the country’s official languages.  PanSALB was set up to act in a manner similar to other bodies whose aim is to protect and promote language, such as the Académie Française or English-Speaking Union.  However, instead of emulating these valuable organisations, PanSALB has been accused of the all too familiar charges of corruption, mismanagement and general lack of cooperation.  So far, even institutions that would normally be in the forefront of promoting linguistic  equality have failed to support  the Bantu languages, and PanSALB has seemingly done nothing to change the situation.

Linguistic Challenges Facing South Africa’s Official Languages

There are very different attitudes amongst the general population about the two official languages recognised during the Apartheid era.  Afrikaans, the language whose roots come from Dutch, has been seen as a more rural language – and the language of oppression politics during the apartheid era.  Although spoken as the mother tongue of about 60% of South Africa’s white population, it was the Apartheid government’s policy of mandatory instruction in Afrikaans that was a major catalyst in the Soweto riots of 1976.

English, brought to South Africa by the early British settlers, is seen as a more urban language, as well as the dominant language of commerce and of the outside world.  Although English language speakers were complicit in some of the country’s more difficult history, it wasn’t seen as institutionalised as Afrikaans and thus has been spared the worst resistance from Black South Africans.  Indeed, most people involved in the Soweto riots were campaigning for instruction in English.

Bantu languages are not in immediate danger of dying out.  However, they have no status in institutions that matter, including education, government, and the justice system.  And as pointed out by Cultural Survival Organisation, these Bantu languages are spoken almost exclusively within their own ethnic groups.

Additionally, local languages are mostly oral, for a number of cultural and historic reasons.  Chances of losing cultural heritage could increase if Bantu languages are superseded by the more dominant languages even before they have had a chance to develop as equal partners within all aspects of South African life.

Promotion of Linguistic Traditions in India and Singapore

So what can be done to preserve and promote the linguistic and cultural traditions of South Africa’s indigenous languages?  Looking toward other countries where linguistic challenges have been met more successfully would be a good place to start.

India is a country familiar with supporting regional languages as it has recognised 22 of them officially along with their old colonial language, English.  The country has a multitude of regional, non-profit organisations looking after the linguistic health of its minor languages.  This helps preserve the local language even when its native speakers may be using English throughout the day at work – sometimes with other Indians who share no other common language.

Singapore, with four official languages and a predominance of English, accomplishes similar goals promoting Mandarin Chinese with its Speak Mandarin Campaign.  Mandarin is seen as a tool to unite different Chinese linguistic groups and also facilitates business in much of mainland China.

Language is a Reflection of Culture

Language is not just a collection of words; it’s a reflection of a culture as well.  Losing or marginalising a language – even an official Bantu language – loses the richness of a culture as well.  South Africa should look around to countries that have also been challenged with preserving regional, marginal and minority languages.  India and Singapore provide good examples.  So does the UK, where there is a real effort to promote Welsh (at least in Wales).  The Canadian government is doing good work to protect the Aboriginal languages of its indigenous First Nations and Inuit peoples.  South Africa has good role models.  Will they recognise their value?

Languages of South Africa