Defend Truth


Vital need for salvaging literacy out of South Africa’s enormous 12-language Tower of Babel


Dr Michael Kahn is an independent policy adviser and honorary research fellow in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

Medium of communication matters, be this in schools, colleges, workplaces or community. If you cannot readily communicate, then at a minimum your oral literacy is deficient. So I confess to being somewhat illiterate.

This is the third in a series of columns on “What 10 words best describe our South Africa?” Read the first two here and here.

It’s true confession time. Compared with the president, I am illiterate. Cyril Ramaphosa can tell us stories in maybe seven of the official languages. He talks in tongues, for sure. Moreover, he seemed unfazed by the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Maybe he understood something that we did not. And SA Sign Language is now our 12th official language. The khoi polloi will have to wait their turn.

In his book China in Ten Words, author Yu Hua wrote 40 pages on “Writing and Reading”. My thoughts on those topics are compressed under the title “Literacy”, for which 1,000 words must do.

My illiteracy? Your scribe is English-speaking, pretty fluent in Afrikaans, has a smattering of Setswana, and conversational skills in German and French. Add mathematical, cyber and technical literacy, the culinary arts and visual literacy, and you have me.

But something is missing, and it is this. My friend and colleague, educator John Volmink, nailed it perfectly in the question — “in the majority of classrooms of our universities, who is disadvantaged?” The answer is that in most cases it is the instructor, lecturer, professor, whose language and cultural appreciation is radically different to that of the students. The staff lack comprehension. Medium of instruction matters.

Medium of communication matters, be this in schools, colleges, workplace or community. If you cannot readily communicate, then at a minimum your oral literacy is deficient. So I confess to being somewhat illiterate.

The tsotsis amble behind me, chatting as to how they will mug the madala with his leather bag and watch. And I plod along in ignorance, yet am spared the imminent shock and indignity through the intervention of an older woman passer-by who admonishes the would-be-muggers in their language. They back off. My ears should have detected their intent, but my so-called education has ensured otherwise.

This literacy gap is the product of colonial occupation and hegemony.  There was the collision of Khoisan, Portuguese, Dutch and French up to 1806, when hello, along came the British Crown.

And there followed another suppression of language, and resistance, and wars, Grand Apartheid, and separate development, and we are of course civilised and each to their own, and here’s Springbok Radio, and Radio Bantu. Fast forward to 12 official languages, and we are perfectly equipped to talk and walk past each other.

It is 10:20 of a Wednesday in Gagonabereka High School. Come and sit in the Grade 11 mathematical literacy class, and listen to the dialogue. The fully qualified teacher is explaining the meaning of the items on a pay slip. The pupils listen, uncomprehending. The topic is relevant, but the English language skills of the teacher and those of pupils shred the dialogue. Learning is reduced to some notes, complete with errors.

The fact is that the language demand for those studying mathematical literacy is higher than that needed for mathematics, where the symbols do the talking. You take your leave, saddened by the lost opportunity.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Clinging to monolingual education undermines SA’s rich linguistic diversity

Yes, the opportunity was lost. Back in 1999, then Minister of Education Kader Asmal announced that adult literacy would be eliminated in five years. He failed the grade.

So where are we? Hard to tell. In the schools, some 80% of Grade 4s cannot read for meaning. But please don’t subject the teachers to a language test. Remember what happened to then-Limpopo Education MEC Dr Aaron Motsoaledi who required matric maths examination markers first to write the exam. Some 60% flunked, and in response Sadtu gave Aaron his marching orders and he was sent to herd cattle.

On the other hand, government boasts that 85% of adults are literate. Go figure.

Paradoxes abound.

Our teachers are recorded as fully qualified with their four-year post-matric certification. They are among the highest paid in the world, but education outcomes are dismal. One might ask the universities, who provided the necessary taxpayer-funded top-up qualifications, what exactly they thought they were doing. But their overpaid vice-chancellors must have had other things on their minds.

And in the universities and colleges, staff-student communication remains problematic. The populists demand that mother tongue should be the medium of instruction (MOI). This is an ideal solution, but takes time and effort.

A case in point is the country named Italy that came into being in 1871. But there was no codified “Italian” until the late 1920s when Mussolini’s fascisti found it useful to standardise and eliminate regional dialects. It takes time. The same was true for Afrikaans, and modern Hebrew. It can be done with huge effort.

Of course, if you are lucky enough to go and study in the US or Russia or China, you will have to show competence in their MOI, and spend time learning to speak the tongue. This will ensure that you can enjoy and benefit from your studies. But we in South Africa? Perish the thought! No, this is not what our universities and colleges must do. Language-competence testing? Never. Fail one. Fail all!

So many lost opportunities, begging the question, “what is to be done?”

Think about these things. According to Census 2021, we have four main language groups — Nguni (48%), Sotho-Tswana (27.5%), Afrikaans (13.5%) and English (10%). This conceals the fact that many, many of the African majority speak up to five of the sub-tongues. Their oral literacy is very high. Most of the minority groups speak English and/or Afrikaans. But we do not have a lingua franca. English is the language of commerce, with Afrikaans in certain industries. We avoid the reality, even as parents urge English for their children.

Mozambique has Portuguese in its cities and towns; ditto Angola. Namibia has opted for English. The DRC has French. Tanzania and Kenya kiSwahili and English as official languages. Zimbabwe recognises Shona, Ndebele and English. Zambia hosts 70 languages; English is the only official tongue.

Dear Mr President. Your language skills are exemplary. Those four language groups are the key. The goal? Take us toward a National Linguistic Revolution. Everyone will be able to communicate in at least one of Nguni/Sotho and English/Afrikaans. Throw resources at achieving this in five years — social media; print; radio; TV. Free to air, fun, noisy and happy.

Oh, just think of the jobs to be created. And yes, all civil servants will be required to have that competence. (This is the Canadian model).

You have shown us that it can be done. Ngifundise. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Webster says:

    Using any language other than English, which is the lingua franca of the world and has by far the largest corpus of any language on Earth, as a MOI is not based in logic but purely based in cultural advocacy and the nonsensical idea that all languages are equal, when they are unequivocally not. How can you even try to compare the reach, the depth of corpus and the usefulness of English with that of some other indigenous language which on average has under a million speakers, a severely restricted corpus and is spoken nowhere else in the world except in SA.

  • Rod Stewart says:

    James, that is the kind of arrogance that hard landings are made of.

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:


    • andrew farrer says:

      No Rod, I don’t think you are reading James’comment correctly. With a good understanding (oral and written) of English, many more doors are opened, whether for education or employment. As someone who’s been responsible for employing staff (for corporations and my own business), if someone couldn’t speak English it severly affected what jobs they could get, if one at all. A candidate who could communicate in English was almost allways going to get the nod over someone who couldn’t.
      A country closer to home which put aside politics and culture in favour of “what’s best for the people of the country”, is Mauritius, which (?) 30 years ago accepted English as the official language of Mauritius for government administration, the courts and business sector. SA needs to follow suit. I’m not saying do away with home language MOI, just make English compulsory (to Matric) as a second language. Kid’s pick up languages very easily, so why not make home language and English compulory to martic (read, write, converse, comprehend) and a third language to a conversational level with at least one language being either an Nguni (isiZulu?) or Sotho-Tswana (Sesotho?).

  • Daniel Cohen says:

    Thank you for the most entertaining serious article I have read in a long time

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    “Back in 1999, then Minister of Education Kader Asmal announced that adult literacy would be eliminated in five years. He failed the grade.”
    Surely you mean ‘passed’ the grade as adult literacy seems to have been effectively eliminated? (You meant to write ‘illiteracy’, yes?)

  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    Just curious. Where on earth do you get the idea that SA teachers are among the highest paid in the world?A simple Google search will tell you otherwise!

    • Charles Robertson says:

      Precisely. It’s a false narrative. This is not the first article on Daily Maverick boasting that SA teachers are overpaid and the top earners.

  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    Should I be able to speak isiZulu? Of course I should, but the hours required to learn a new language elude me. Should children be taught in their mother tongue? Undoubtedly. And the fact that matrics are still only examined in English and Afrikaans 30 years later is tragic. But are we educating children for the limited South African economy or for the world?
    P.S. My nephew who is doing post doc studies in Norway affirms that research is undertaken in English.
    Nice to be a MT English speaker, but there you go. Speak to the rest of the world, or don’t. Your choice.

  • Michael Kahn says:

    Thank you all for your comments. A seriously loaded issue, this. Mother tongue instruction is of course the best way to go. But … if you want to communicate globally, you may want to have facility in another tongue. Once upon a time that was Latin. then along came French and German and English, and we should all learn Mandarin. Nicht so? On the d=sidebar of teacher pay, note this. A headteacher total cost of employment is around R1,4 million. The average teachers is at R450k. Weight with the USD ZAR according to the Big Mac Index, and you happy a super class. More to follow.

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