At present, Afrikaners are putting up a fight for mother-tongue instruction in their schools. Because they are Afrikaners, the immediate implication is that it is a ploy to exclude Black people from their schools. That may or may not be the case but conflating mother-tongue instruction with racism, detracts from the question of the medium of instruction in schools: an extremely complex issue that is at the centre of education and development.
The reason that the Afrikaner demand for mother-tongue instruction is regarded as racist, stems from the apartheid era. Afrikaans was made an official language, was made a compulsory subject in schools, became a requirement in various fields and inhibited progress among those who could not gain the required competence in the language. Afrikaans was being used as a means of discrimination, control and attenuating traditional cultures. Then in 1976, Afrikaans was made the medium of instruction in certain subjects at high school level for African children. That led to the Soweto Uprising.
As a result, there is little sympathy for Afrikaner demands for recognition of their language. But Afrikaners are very sensitive to the question of language; it has been a long fraught struggle in their community. It began with the transition from Dutch to Afrikaans. Then with the British occupation of South Africa, when English became the official language, Afrikaners, if they had not already perceived it, were made to understand fully the powerful role of language in political domination. When they came into power, they made no mistake. They promoted Afrikaans vigorously and through it pursued what we today call affirmative action and gave rise to a vibrant and dominant Afrikaner community. Now, with the integration of schools, Afrikaners fear the extinction of their language and culture and that fear communicates itself as a form of racism because mother-tongue, i.e. Afrikaans, as the medium of instruction would exclude or severely disadvantage African children.
When the ANC came into power, it did not have that history of a language struggle behind it. Unlike Afrikaners who resisted the imposition of English, the ANC adopted the language as its means of communication and did not interrogate the colonial baggage that that carried with it. Because the struggle was primarily against apartheid and not against colonialism, it repudiated Afrikaans but retained English. In fact, the ability to speak the Queen's English became a status symbol. Now that the ANC is in power, unlike the National Party when it came to power, it has not made an African language its means of communication and thus remains caught between cultures. The problem, of course, is that there are many indigenous languages, whereas the Afrikaners had only one. So for the ANC it was not possible to build its political power through an indigenous language or feasible to develop an educational system based on mother-tongue instruction. So English has become the chief means of communication.
As a result, those Africans who have adopted English as their first language have become the beneficiaries of affirmative action. Those who retain the mother-tongue are disadvantaged at school and in the work environment. And people continue to speak of education, training and skills development without thought for the complications of having to learn through a foreign language.
If one takes the race element out of the Afrikaner demand for mother-tongue instruction, one would see that mother-tongue instruction is an essential ingredient in the development and progress of a nation.
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