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Why is learning Afrikaans in school still compulsory after June 16 1976 uprising?


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

We need a wide-ranging debate on school curriculum reform, and a good starting point is to ask why Afrikaans is still a compulsory subject. Or are our children free from the issues they marched against and sacrificed their lives for?

The website South African History Online gives a succinct account of how the June 16 1976 uprising “profoundly changed the sociopolitical landscape in South Africa. 

“Events that triggered the uprising can be traced back to policies of the Apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953.”

I am aware that it is two months too early to start discussions around the commemoration of the 1976 massacre of black school children during a protest march in Soweto, now apologetically called National Youth Day. The marches were sparked by the apartheid government forcing Afrikaans to be the medium of instruction for black children.

But there is a reason for this early take on the Soweto massacre: we will soon be celebrating Freedom Day on Wednesday, 27 April 2022, the day on which we will commemorate the first democratic elections held in South Africa on 27 April 1994.

As we move closer to Freedom Day, the South African government has conceded that “although we have made remarkable progress since 1994, the spectre of inequality, poverty and unemployment remains one of the most glaring impediments to South Africa’s goal of national unity and social cohesion”.

The next major national commemoration will be that of the so-called Youth Day on 16 June. The common thread between these two events on the national calendar is FREEDOM. Are we free – or are our children free from the issues they marched against and sacrificed their lives for?

A year ago, in discussing the plight of African children and the Soweto Uprising in Daily Maverick, I wrote: “As if running from apartheid brutality was not enough, South African children and youths still have to run from the hardships visited upon them under the democratic government, whether it is being forced to learn Afrikaans or study under trees or in dilapidated school structures.”

The June 16 uprising dealt with an issue of great sociological interest – the curriculum. Those in curriculum studies will tell you that curriculum is the content of schooling, or what is learned in the schooling environment. But curriculum goes beyond that and has more significant consequences from both its socialising or de-socialising nature, depending on how it is constructed or how you look at it.  

The Soweto massacre dealt with the de-socialising nature of forced language requirements in “Bantu” schools. This was and remains a polarising historical event in South African curriculum development. The compulsory teaching of Afrikaans to black learners was both a factual and an ideological battleground.

I do not think that anyone can dare argue that it is no longer a battleground unless you have been living somewhere under a rock sheltered from the discourses on the issues of language in school and curriculum transformation in general. 

Decades after the massacre in 1976 – and precisely 28 years into democracy – black children are still forced to study Afrikaans until Grade 12. The use of the word “forced” may appear very strong, but that is exactly the reality – the school subject choice dispensation does not allow them the freedom not to choose Afrikaans.

Strange though, as democratic South Africa is characterised by ongoing debates on curriculum transformation at institutions of higher learning, particularly concerning the issue of language. And also by significant court judgments involving language requirements at universities (notably Chairperson of the council of Unisa v AfriForum [2021] ZACC 32 and; AfriForum v University of the Free State [2017] ZACC 48); and the provisions of section 29 of the Constitution that, in part, states that “everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable”.

Curiously, this transformation trajectory and debates at universities are not in tandem with the environment at the basic education level. This, in my view, is the worst disservice any country can do to its young generation and the most fallacious example of curriculum transformation. Humanising education and curriculum transformation should be underscored by, among others, inclusiveness.

Unfortunately, whatever is regarded as reform in basic education as far as the language issue goes, and in particular forcing black learners to do Afrikaans, tells a different story. The basic core education curriculum, in my view, still exhibits in some respects Bantu education accoutrements that disadvantage black learners.

Though my opinion started focusing on the continued forced teaching of Afrikaans to black African children – a subject many black parents find as difficult as learning French when it is not spoken at home – it calls for a larger national discussion on proper curriculum transformation in schools. 

Addressing curriculum transformation at universities while leaving schools behind is foolish and useless.

The debates on curriculum transformation must start at the basic education level, or must run parallel with basic education and tertiary education. Questions relating to how and what our learners are taught at schools must be confronted, and hard decisions must be made when it comes to influencing and trimming the content of some subjects.

Basic education in countries like Canada has made great strides concerning curriculum transformation and truly enlightening subject content, even more so than some South African universities have done.

For example, Toronto had a Grade 11 history class on genocide and, as one of the set books, learners were given “Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide” by Barbara Coloroso. Learners in Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I was very impressed that learners at that level are exposed to texts on bigotry and racial stereotypes, perhaps because I only read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a prescribed book in one of my law studies.

I must end this contribution by an acknowledgment that educational reforms and curriculum transformation have been a much-publicised priority in South Africa since 1994.

The following questions must be asked: Are these educational and curriculum reforms necessary for diversity, inclusivity and reinforcing faltering national unity and reconciliation? 

Have these reforms and transformation initiatives at schools been applied to the curriculum to incorporate black African perspectives?  

Have we confronted issues of white privilege and anti-racist pedagogies to bring about multicultural education? DM


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  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    The writer seems to have a visceral dislike of Afrikaans per se. Dropping a subject because parents find it impossible to follow would be an unfortunate principle to apply. I didn’t follow maths and physics well but one of my children delighted in them. Afrikaans is a major lingua franca in South Africa. Being ignorant wont move us forward merely enable prejudices.

  • Gill Green says:

    Prof Sibande appears to be very ill- informed. Public schools in SA are required to have a language policy, drawn up by the Governing Body that determines the Language of Learning and Teaching, the Home Language that is offered and the First Additional Language, or Languages, that are offered. There is also the option of a Second Additional Language. At the school where I was Principal, a choice of two First Additional Languages was offered : Isizulu and Afrikaans. The school employed extra teachers, at the parent’s expense to teach Isizulu, as the Department of Education would not provide extra posts to facilitate the choice of FAL. It was a choice, nobody was forced to do one or the other. In the majority of schools in this area of KZN, IsiZulu is offered as Home Language and the First Additional Language offered is English. There is no sign of Afrikaans!! I don’t know where all these African learners are that are forced to do Afrikaans! Parents must choose a school that offers the languages they want their children to learn.

    • Jacques Wessels says:

      I could not agree more the Prof. is clearly having a Afrikaans hangover of note. I however agree that adjustments in all curriculums is an ongoing necessity but to cloud it with personal dislikes & based historical biases are unproductive & will lead to political grandstanding with absolutely no progress as the past decade has clearly illustrated

  • Elindi van den Heever says:

    I am questioning the validity of the Afrikaans forced in schools? Based on the information on the Education departments website you must have 2 languages to pass Matric. One home language and one additional. It does not say it has to be Afrikaans? As far as I am aware this was changed quite a while ago. I agree that curriculum transformation is needed but it seems the basis of most of this article in 2022 is wrong and perhaps a bit skewed.

  • Jill Thomson says:

    Afrikaans is definitely not compulsory in SA schools. I am very surprised that this misconception still exists.

    • Hercules Louw says:

      I am even more surprised that Daily Maverick would publish an article that is based on a glaring untruth. The heading is fake news and it is a disappointment that Daily Maverick assisted in the propagation thereof.

  • Jennifer Hughes says:

    Great article. I am fine with a compulsory second language but I would far rather my English-speaking children learn Zulu or Xhosa than Afrikaans. And our education about apartheid and general racist history is sorely lacking; as mentioned in another article, Germany did a much better job of teaching its children about the wrongs of their forefathers and making sure their children understood the importance of addressing them and never making the same mistakes again. We could, and should, do better.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    As far as I am aware, Khosa can be taken as First Additional Language in NSC in Western Cape schools in place of Akrikaans.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    ” ….as difficult as learning French when it is not spoken at home ..”

    We also did not speak Science or Biology at home but my kids still did the subjects to matric. Anyone speak maths at home?

  • Hercules Louw says:

    Daily Maverick, I am really disappointed in you!

    As self-proclaimed defenders of the truth, your editorial team should check the facts before an article is published under your banner, even if it is listed under “Opinionistas”. The heading is already fake news with the only purpose to stir up emotions and give rise racial tensions.

    You must do better than this!

  • Darren Turnbull says:

    DM. Surely you shouldn’t bother publishing opinions based on such an obviously false premise?

  • Hulme Scholes says:

    Huh? Afrikaans is not compulsory and learners can choose other languages.

  • Craig B says:

    Most South Africans speak some English and if they don’t there is a ton of interpreters always close by. We should have English as compulsory first or 2nd language. To be understood in Africa we just tend toward English most politics happens in English and it gives all the children access to most of the world as many people all over have English around. Zulu and all these languages are great domestically especially the click ones very unique and culturally deep rooted

  • Johan Buys says:

    Is Afrikaans compulsory?? Afrikaans is probably still taught because it is the home language of 1.5 times many South Africans as English is. It is really lazy intelligence to try and tie Afrikaans to Apartheid. Afrikaans is a means of communication not a religion.

    But sure, I think the economy would be better off if schools had a local language plus English. The local language can be whatever is the majority language in the community. If local majority is English, the second compulsory language should be a local black language in order to promote diversity. That will go down like a lead balloon in Constantia, Sandton, Camps Bay, Houghton, Hyde Park, etc 🙂

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