Article for the Cape Times
by Tracy Bailey
October 2005

As an English-speaking South African, who grew up in the 1980s in KwaZulu-Natal, the English language seemed so universal and inevitable. I took great pleasure in learning isiZulu, but competency in the language bore no direction relation to my survival and advancement.

Some twenty years later, very little has changed about my linguistic experience as a South African. Now that I live in Cape Town, I have been trying out my school Afrikaans on unsuspecting strangers, and translating my limited isiZulu into a very tentative isiXhosa.

But, as before, I am not pressed to do so. Most people with whom I interact, for whom English is not their mother-tongue, slip easily into accommodating me and my 'language disability'. This is especially so in my professional life.

English, and to a lesser extent Afrikaans, predominate in the South African business world, and in other so-called 'high status functions' in society. Internationally, English is one of the primary languages of trade and commerce, politics, science and technology.

Given the option, it seems that many parents in South Africa are choosing English as the first language for their children's education. The reason? Their children's future survival and advancement. Indigenous African languages simply do not offer the same tangible benefits, as they do not have the same currency as English in politics and the economy.

It seems intuitively reasonable that encouraging all South Africans to develop a competency in English is a good thing. It could help us to overcome other challenges, such as how to deal with the somewhat unwieldy 'diversity' of the population, or how to enable more people to pursue economic opportunities.

This line of thinking is smooth on the surface. But it is quite wrinkly underneath.

Language is, and always has been, a weeping sore on the underbelly of our people and the African continent. The economic and political domination of the colonial powers relied heavily on the cultural and linguistic domination of the indigenous peoples. English, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese were the carriers of and portals to power.

The same kind of linguistic domination characterised the tussle for political and economic power between the Boers and the English; and later in the oppressive forces of apartheid. It cannot go un-remembered that one of the most significant turning points in our struggle history - the Soweto Uprising - was sparked by resistance to oppression through language.

If the debates that raged on Cape Talk Radio around the Mikro Laer Skool case are anything to go by, we are still impassioned about our freedom to choose the language(s) through which we are educated and socialised. Language debates strike a deep chord in many of us because they bring in to focus other issues that keep us divided and in conflict, like race, class and power.

It is no small surprise that most of the people who have little or no competency in English, also happen to be poor, black and living in rural or marginalised urban areas. On the flip side, the economically and politically empowered in South Africa, still an alarming minority, inevitably have a command of the English language.

In this sense, language is very much about class and power. In South Africa, if you cannot access the world of English, you cannot influence the machinery of power around decisions that affect your life. You are also more likely to be excluded from the economy.

Language and privilege are still kissing cousins.

From another perspective, if we choose the universality of English, what happens to indigenous African languages? What would it really mean to us if sePedi or Afrikaans became extinct?

To me, the socio-cultural implications are profound and difficult to grasp. Losing a language must mean losing a unique way of understanding and expressing lived or imagined realities and experiences. It must mean, for the people whose language is being lost, and for the nation as a whole, that there is a loss of identity and cultural legacy.

As Neville Alexander once wrote, indigenous languages are assets or resources that are essential to the full development of a people. What does it mean, then, if people are compelled to conduct their main business in a language that they do not command?

How are children, who battle to follow the language of their teacher, supposed to grapple with abstract concepts? And, if children do not acquire a competency in their mother tongue, how will they develop the kind of conceptual understanding that is required for scientific, philosophical and creative thought?

Finally, what does it mean to me, and to future generations of English first language speakers in South Africa, not to be adequately exposed and engaged in the other languages of our land?

"Language, class and power in post-apartheid South Africa" is the topic of the next Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust open dialogue event, and will be presented by Dr Neville Alexander, Director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA). Thursday, 27 October 2005, 6pm for 6.30pm at the T H Barry Lecture Theatre, Iziko Museum, Queen Victoria Street. RSVP wolpetrust@mweb.co.za or 021 424 7543.

Tracy Bailey is National Co-ordinator of the Wolpe Trust