Twenty-two years after the independence of South Africa, the last colonial outpost in Africa, it is starkly clear that the struggle for social, economic and cultural freedom and equality is not over. In this context, the recent confirmation by the University of Pretoria that all its lectures will be offered in English only, in response to student protests against its apartheid legacy language policy, represents a notable step forward for a society and continent still reeling from the long-lasting effects of colonialism.
Let me first dispose of a question that had me scratching the back of my head in puzzlement as I observed these momentous events from afar. There is a heavy dose of situational irony when the abandonment of Afrikaans in the classroom in favour of English is considered a victory of huge significance. What really is the difference between Afrikaans and English to an indigenous African? After all, aren’t they both colonial tongues? And if we are going to get rid of one shouldn’t we get rid of both in the classroom and replace them with a couple of indigenous languages?
The answer could be that Afrikaans represents the most virulent form of racism against which hundreds of young Africans sacrificed their lives demonstrating in the tragic Soweto Uprising of 1976. In addition, there is the matter of practicality, where the overt cultural symbol of racial privilege is beaten back in favour of English which, while unquestionably a colonial language, promises easier upward mobility and is, at the very least, spoken almost worldwide.
To focus on the colonial origins of the English language is to miss the point entirely, which is that unlike Afrikaans, which was imposed on South Africa’s education system, English is a language that African students and staff at the University of Pretoria have chosen for themselves.
Which brings me to the wider pan-African discussion, of which South Africa increasingly becomes a more recognisable part (as it used Afrikaans as a language of tertiary educational instruction, South Africa could be seen as an outlier on the continent in that it conducted its education in a language other than English, French or Portuguese).
African countries are multilingual nations. This rambunctious diversity is an unsung positive defining feature of African culture that flies in the face of the homogenising hegemonic thrust of the languages and culture of the erstwhile colonial powers. Let’s not forget that despite more than two centuries of active denigration, repression and undermining of African languages and cultural practices, sub-Saharan Africans have managed to conserve the world’s richest collection of cultural resources.
The more than 2,000 languages spoken on the continent today make it the most linguistically diverse continent by far. However, far from being a source of pride, African mother tongues continue to suffer from neglect, if not from active suppression and official discouragement.
While this could be a symptom of the wider colonial hangover syndrome described so vividly by Frantz Fanon and other perceptive commentators, blame should also fall squarely on the shoulders of African governments and the elites of their educational and cultural establishments.
In general, African leadership has been characterised by expediency. Instead of making a clean break with the colonial past and starting over, African leaders found it easier to continue to use both the colonial structures and the policies they inherited. The problem is that their independence rhetoric promised a different outcome for the African people. Unsurprisingly, despite the changes in political power, the continuation of inherited policies has not delivered the postcolonial outcomes that the African populace rightly expected.
This state of affairs is exemplified by the confused language policies of Africa. Africans know full well that the colonial language was never introduced and imposed on them with the aim of empowering the local community socially, economically or culturally. Unfortunately, the elites entrusted with coming up with new policies for the freshly independent states were the very ones who had been co-opted and educated into having a negative attitude towards their own languages.
Even today the paradox remains that the higher the education level of African elites, the lower their opinion is of their own languages, to the point that many of them have stopped speaking their mother tongues altogether and speak European languages exclusively, even at home. It is a badge of honour for many an elite African family in the capital city to have children whose first and only language is English or French.
Zooming out again to the policy arena, let us recognise that language policy is a metaphor for African government policy in general. The problem is not that the policies do not exist on paper. The point is that the policies, sometimes drawn up with the help of top-notch international consultants, are entirely cosmetic. They are not followed through with any sense of conviction and they do not trigger the requisite adjustments in allocation of resources and funding.
Therefore what takes place in practice is the result of ongoing inertia where people continue to do what they have been used to doing. And the results get more and more mediocre as even the original colonial ethos crumbles without any fresh impetus.
And yet it is not all doom and gloom. Tanzania stands out as an exception that proves the rule. They are admired across the continent for having adopted Kiswahili as their national language and it has been far more effective as an avenue for nation-building than European languages have been in neighbouring countries. Across the continent, Africans have continued to speak and develop their languages, against the odds. A new generation is rising up to challenge the postcolonial momentum behind inherited policies, such as those epitomised by instruction in Afrikaans, which protect historical privilege while discriminating against the disadvantaged.
Africans will continue this sacred struggle entrusted to them by their ancestors until they arrive at the definitive solution. My guess is that this eventual solution will be directly opposite to the Eurocentric view of a singular hegemonic language holding sway as the main road towards upward socio-economic mobility. Rather, what will ignite and fuel the true African renaissance will be the implementation of a coherent, equitable pan-African language policy as multilingual, multicultural and multilayered as African culture truly is. A long struggle lies ahead. DM