Failed policies, false promises bedevil multilingualism in SA

10 March 2022 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Lerato Maduna. Read time 9 min.
“We are a multilingual country with monolingual practices.” – VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng. Prof Phakeng delivered the inaugural BIVP public lecture on 8 March, International Women’s Day.
“We are a multilingual country with monolingual practices.” – VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng. Prof Phakeng delivered the inaugural BIVP public lecture on 8 March, International Women’s Day.

Twenty-seven years after democracy, English retains its hegemony as the language of influence, means and access in all spheres of life – despite progressive language policies and government promises to foster all 11 official languages. “We are a multilingual country with monolingual practices,” said University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng in a public lecture, delivered as Bristol Illustrious Visiting Professor (BIVP).

The lecture on 8 March was hosted by the University of Bristol, and marked International Women’s Day. Professor Phakeng is Bristol University’s inaugural BIVP, appointed in October 2021. In this year-long role, the vice-chancellor engages with Bristol’s academic community, participates in a public lecture series and builds institutional partnerships.

The University of Bristol’s deputy vice-chancellor and provost, Professor Judith Squires, welcomed Phakeng and introduced the topic: “One country many languages: Can South Africa’s multilingualism contribute to social cohesion?”

The gist of Phakeng’s response was that yes, it should; but we’re not nearly there yet. She later proposed five recommendations to change this status quo. But first she contextualised the problem, starting with the failures of basic and higher education in this regard.

Policies in places, practices flawed

In 1997 South Africa announced a new Language in Education policy for schools, recognising 11 official languages and encouraging multilingualism. Within this policy, learners must choose the preferred language of learning on admission to a school. Where the language they choose is not available, parents can apply to the provincial education department to provide instruction. Most choose English – probably through their parents’ influence, as it holds the key to opportunities, said Phakeng.

In 2020 the Department of Higher Education and Training published a language policy framework for public higher education institutions. These policies are intended to develop and strengthen indigenous languages as languages of scholarship, teaching and learning and communication in South African universities, said Phakeng. The policy framework is also meant to highlight the role of higher education in creating and promoting conditions for the development of historically marginalised official South African languages of the Khoi, Nama and San peoples, as well as sign language. (The lecture featured a sign language interpreter.)


“Mother-tongue instruction has a bad image among speakers of African languages.”

History has shown that despite their lofty intentions, both policies have failed to redress the situation. English still dominates in almost every facet of public life. The reasons are many and complex, said Phakeng, but starkly apparent in the resultant limitations for speakers of indigenous languages.

“For example, you can be fluent in six of the country’s 11 official languages but denied an opportunity to join the military, because your matric English mark was 45%. It doesn’t matter that you scored 78% for your home language, Xhosa.”

On the ground, implementation of the policies faced significant constraints, she added.

“Research suggests that schools are not opting to use indigenous African languages as languages of learning and teaching, in both policy and practice.”

Those in power should have known better, Phakeng said.

“Mother-tongue instruction has a bad image among speakers of African languages. It is associated with apartheid, and hence inferior education – parents’ memories of Bantu education, combined with our perception of English as a gateway to better education, and making most black parents favour English from the beginning.”


“Access to English means access to social goods, such as higher education, jobs, international opportunities, status, etc.”

English is also a prerequisite for anyone aspiring to become a professional in South Africa.

“Students need to pass a school-leaving examination in English as a first or second language, in addition to mathematics, for example, to enter and succeed in the English-medium training programmes in professional fields such as medicine, science, engineering and technology, and to earn qualifications to enter these high-income professions.

“Access to English means access to social goods, such as higher education, jobs, international opportunities, status, etc.”

Highly political

The nature of language remains a highly political issue, Phakeng said.

As is the case in many post-colonial countries, South Africa does not share one indigenous national language, the linguistic riches of which are celebrated and nurtured by all, and which are able to contribute to the nation’s development.

“When and how one uses language is no trivial decision for those of us who are multilingual. And the decisions are always political.”

As a vice-chancellor, Phakeng said, she uses different languages to communicate in different modes. In her official role and as a scholar, she communicates in English. But when negotiating with UCT workers, for example, she switches to an appropriate indigenous language, “which has [its own] cultural and power values attached”.

“Words are never just words,” she said.

“And I avoid using academic jargon deliberately, because there are different sorts of status attached to these two identities: that of a scholar, and that of an African who understands and identifies with the plight of the poor.”

With English so well entrenched in the various administrative, educational and professional arenas of South Africa, a symbolic market has been formed, where English constitutes the dominant (if not the exclusive) symbolic resource.

“It is a prerequisite for individuals aspiring to gain a share of the socio-economic and material resources enjoyed by an elite group.”

Multilingual but monolingual

“Given the hegemony of English, the choice that our policies offer is false; and the promise of inclusivity and social cohesion that such policies offer is false.”

As monolingual teaching at any level of education is inconsistent with South Africa’s multilingual policies, Phakeng noted; it is discriminatory. The country must explore multilingual approaches to teaching and learning, both in basic education and at universities.

Phakeng listed five recommendations for government.

“First, we are an African country, and it should be mandatory for every citizen to learn at least one of the nine official indigenous languages.

“Second, matric learners must pass at least one African indigenous language as a subject with a 50% [pass requirement].

“Third, fluency in more than one indigenous African language must be a requirement for everyone in the public sector whose work is client facing.


“There has to be value in being fluent in these languages.”

“Fourth, fluency in one of the nine official South African indigenous languages must be an added advantage for anyone seeking employment. And this kind of fluency ought to be remunerated.

“Fifth, African languages should be taught in an African language. In South African universities, many African languages courses are taught using English … so in essence, they’re learning about an African language rather than learning the language.”

South Africa must endow these languages with power so that people can exchange them for some form of capital, whether that is cultural, social, intellectual or commercial, she added.

“There has to be value in being fluent in these languages … [so that] I stand a chance of getting a job or an opportunity or getting business in South Africa.”

As for social value, shared languages promote interaction and bonding – without any group feeling marginalised simply because their language is not recognised, Phakeng said.

“One thing that causes polarisation in our society is that people of different races don’t talk as much as they should. And if they talk, it’s the marginalised or formerly oppressed who must change, up their game and speak English to have a conversation. This makes them feel, well, I’m not needed here. ‘Of course, this is your continent, your country; but hey, you’ve got to be like us to be able to talk like us.’”

That breeds anger, in addition to the many other challenges the country faces, she said.

“There are many countries that are post-colonial. But they share a language … there are some issues they don’t have which we do, even 27 years after democracy. My view is that language can be an important tool for social cohesion. It will not solve the whole problem … but it will help ease tensions present in our midst.”

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