While scrolling through social media this week, I came across a video of a black mom helping her daughter with her isiZulu homework.
The daughter struggled to pronounce the isiZulu words and failed several times to get them right. Then the mom gently broke down the phonetic structure and pronunciation, and the child succeeded.
I gathered that the video was posted to elicit some comedic engagement, but it made me feel sad for the child. I shared it with friends of mine who have children, and that conversation crystalised why I felt sadness. It illustrated that South Africa has a generation of black children who are growing up not knowing their mother tongues.
For most children who grow up in urban areas, English is the medium of instruction and therefore what they become proficient in. Anyone who has had to learn a language other than their mother tongue will know that, to be truly proficient, you have to immerse yourself in both the language and the culture to understand various nuances.
Language is not merely a communication tool; it is also the custodian of culture and family and community bonds. It carries historical significance and determinants of the present and future. It is also a purveyor of social capital and who gets to wield it.
One has to be deliberate in teaching a mother tongue and prioritising its importance, because within it also lies the foundations of one’s identity – and identity is not something that can be created outside community and culture. In South Africa, the loss of knowledge of black languages is unequivocally linked to the legacy of an unjust system that privileged English and Afrikaans over other mother tongues.
Punt Janson, who was the deputy minister of Bantu administration and education from 1972 to 1976, is quoted as having said: “An African might find that ‘the big boss’ only spoke Afrikaans or English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages. I have not consulted the African people on the language issue, and I’m not going to.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: The status of African languages in previously white schools
It is a most galling statement, and we still feel the damaging consequences of this policy. So, the significance of coming across this video during Youth Month is not lost on me. The reason we have Youth Month is precisely because the youth of 1976 were protesting against the unjust Bantu education system.
Our Constitution recognises all 11 of our official languages and in Section 29(2) states: “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. In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single-medium institutions, taking into account – (a) equity; (b) practicability; and (c) the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.”
This brings home how South Africa’s school education system has failed to rid us of the legacy of Bantu education. Not knowing your mother tongue can be an incredibly isolating experience and, 30 years later, it has never been more urgent to do better for our children. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.