IN recent weeks, President Jacob Zuma and SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng have been mocked for their poor command of the English language – and many believe they deserve this. But how many of us can truly say we speak English better than them?
The four million-plus South Africans who say the language is their mother tongue? One million of us? One hundred thousand?
I can’t claim I have a 100% command of English, even though I make my living as an editor fixing other people’s language – recently I changed “soldier on” to “shoulder on”. I’ve lost count of the times I have come across “damp squids” or “just deserts”.
But when debating the language policy of Stellenbosch University, it has been taken for granted that we can all speak English properly.
The university’s council announced last Monday that Afrikaans and English would have equal status, and it would henceforth devote itself to multilingualism.
All sides can claim victory. Open Stellenbosch should be happy with the undertaking that any demand to be taught in English should be met, even if it means that, eventually, the offering in English supercedes that of Afrikaans.
But some in the movement for transformation have already rejected this advance. Their major gripe, expressed in a petition signed by hundreds of lecturers a few weeks ago, seems to be that multilingualism is a “guise” to retain Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.
Taking a stand against multilingualism, and assuming that South Africa’s English proficiency is strong enough to step into the void, recalls the infamous Macaulay Minute. In the colonial power’s debate on education in India, Lord Thomas Macaulay declared in 1835 that all indigenous languages should be regarded as inferior to English, including those as ancient as Sanskrit and as widely spoken as Arabic.
The Macaulay Minute became a keystone in ideologies of white supremacy driving the British empire and of the policy to use English as a tool to co-opt local intelligentsia into the strategy to govern territories with only a handful of whites.
While it is true that English is the language the most people in the world claim they can understand, it is the mother tongue of far fewer, about 300 to 400 million, ranked third. In South Africa, it also comes in third, after Zulu and Afrikaans.
The more convincing argument is that English is the language of science and technology, but this is not a fait accompli. When science started to become a major preoccupation in the 19th century, English shared this status with French and German.
The latest major triumph of science, the Higgs boson, was discovered by scientists from all over the world, many of whom struggled to express themselves in English.
According to Michael Gordin in his book, Scientific Babel, German became so stigmatised by the two world wars that scientists shunned it, preferring English. During the Cold War, Anglo-American governments poured vast sums of money into the translation of Russian scientific papers into English, for their scientists to pirate new findings as quickly as possible and so further cement its status.
The primacy of English as a language of science is not due to any magical property, but to the machinations of power. This will change, as Korean, Chinese and Japanese grow in stature.
A key concern that may explain the anxiety over local languages among some Maties staffers is that it would compromise their ability to plug into global academia.
What really happened with the Open Stellenbosch movement was that the short-term, self-interest of a handful of black students – some of them from foreign countries – merged with the long-term needs of globalised academics. This reinforced a trend started in 2000, when Nelson Mandela’s solution for indigenous languages was implemented: at least two universities should be devoted to each of South Africa’s 11 languages, provided they also made lectures available in English.
As historian Hermann Giliomee has shown, when Stellenbosch University started offering lectures in English, it quickly became a victim of its own success and student numbers exploded. The percentage of black Afrikaans students surged, but they were vastly outnumbered by white, English-speaking students from other parts of the country.
The least taxpaying South Africans could expect from state-subsidised universities is that their policies be geared towards solving local problems, and that they provide personnel for local enterprises and effort. A local problem is the education disaster.
Many factors play a part, but poor literacy has been a consistent culprit. In 2013, the Department of Basic Education’s annual national assessments found only 37% of Grade 9 pupils were considered literate.
Despite this, students enrol at universities with the belief that they can understand English and because their marks are routinely adjusted up – ironically, to make up for the fact that they are taught in a non-indigenous language.
The result is South Africa’s spectacular university failure rates. Bettina Wyngaard, a black lecturer at Stellenbosch University, calls it a “horrendous fallacy” that her colleagues “can speak English with the same facility as Afrikaans, and that their students can properly understand English”.
Black students have a double challenge: not only do many have to cope with a vastly inferior education in maths and science, they also have to master a language that is not their mother tongue. It is absolutely no surprise that the average failure rate for first years is 60%.
The dividing line in our society, between the haves and the have nots, has become the ability to speak English. It is probably best seen in the diverse fates of Zimbabweans who have fled to South Africa to escape Robert Mugabe’s misrule.
Those who mastered English have been welcomed by companies chasing black economic empowerment points and those with deficient English settle in shacks.
Amalgamated Beverages Industries, Africa’s largest bottler of Coca-Cola, earlier this year launched a project in Matjhabeng, Free State, inviting young entrepreneurs to be trained as vendors. About 2 000 responded, this was cut down to 66 and eventually 22 – with proficiency in English as one of the criteria.
This is a stark example of the application of Macaulay’s strategy. He advocated that English be promoted among “the higher class of natives at the seats of government”, as crucial to the divide-and-rule strategy of the British empire.
South Africa obviously needs to improve the teaching of English in schools. This cannot be the only solution, as the backlog of teachers who can teach in English is huge.
We also have to tackle teaching in domestic languages and changing our universities into multilingual institutions will be vital.
If Open Stellenbosch wants to avoid being tagged as a Macauley acolyte, it will need to start a new chapter, Open UCT, and agitate for Afrikaans to be introduced as a medium of tuition there to serve poor, black Afrikaans speakers from the Kaapse platteland.
This article first appeared in Business Day.