Language, education and upward mobility: The introduction of isiZulu at UKZN

By Cathy Cain

In May of this year, the University of KwaZulu-Natal announced that it will make isiZulu a compulsory language for all undergraduate programmes of study. In the public sphere, this move has generally been praised as a bold but welcomed policy. Aside from Afrikaans (University of Stellenbosch), such a policy has not in recent times been implemented with any of the other 10 indigenous languages of South Africa, even though the constitution guarantees the right to language through the development of those which were previously marginalized. However, on the sidelines it has also caused some tension among some South Africans, particularly people whose native or indigenous tongues are one of the other formerly marginalized language. The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB), established by Parliament in 1995, applauds the move as “a watershed moment” that will help to reclaim South Africa’s heritage of multilingualism.

The program requires all students to pass or obtain a credit in isiZulu, unless exempted for reasons that have yet to be specified. It was passed by the University’s Senate, indicating it underwent a consultative process, and will be rolled out in two phases. According to UKZN, the first phase of implementation starting in 2014 will require students and staff to “develop communicative competence” in both isiZulu and English for the purposes of “academic interaction.” By 2019, continues the University, the commencement of the second phase “will encourage and facilitate all academic disciplines to assist students and staff to develop appropriate writing skills in English and isiZulu in their disciplines.”

While the specifics of the plan according to the university’s statement are slightly vague and perhaps unfinished, they imply the long-term goal of incorporating isiZulu as a language of academic discourse in the context of both scholarship and instruction—the first phase requiring a rudimentary understanding of isiZulu in addition to English language skills, and the second phase integrating written components of isiZulu in addition to English for the purposes of academic discourse.

Proponents see compulsory isiZulu as a way to reverse the marginalisation of indigenous languages, a cultural legacy of colonialism and years of institutionalised racial and ethnic hierarchy. It has also strategically been coupled with scholarship in English language, which is important both for political and practical reasons.

In the 2010 Transformation Audit “Vision or Vacuum,” Daniela Casale and Dorrit Posel observed that while the usage of mother-tongue instruction in schools is rhetorically encouraged, English is still the dominant language of choice in schools. This of course is transnational; English is the language of choice internationally for economic opportunity. The report also emphasises the positive relationship between English-language proficiency and income earnings. The problem is that according to the 2008 National Income Dynamics Study conducted by the University of Cape Town, only 9.4% of adults in South Africa consider English to be their home language. English literacy—vis-à-vis reading and writing capability—is furthermore sharply differentiated by race. Moreoever, reading and writing ability of home language is also differentiated by race: self-assessed reading ability is 62% and 69% for Black African and Coloured South African adults respectively while it is 82% and 94% respectively for Indian and White South African adults; very similar figures describe writing ability. Casale and Posel’s compiled figures demonstrate that the South African economy is largely tied to whims of globalisation, and that the beneficiaries of it are those that are able to engage in the lingua franca of its primary hegemon the U.S., the full political ramifications of which will not be discussed here.

Casale and Posel’s analysis also points to the argument that children should first master reading and writing proficiency in a home language, if they are expected to be taught to learn and master a second. The key word here is “children,” and the fact that UKZN is an educational institution at the tertiary level may seem premature for these purposes, but hopefully the university’s policy will produce the ripple effect of encouraging a more rigorous and academic pursuit of isiZulu (and hopefully other mother tongues) at the primary and secondary levels.

Even though the full implications of a compulsory isiZulu policy are yet unclear, contextualized in bilingualism, one would hope that it will in the long run produce gains in both economic and social terms—a.) by being coupled with English to fend off accusations of unsustainable radicalism, and b.) by promoting the furthering and cultivation of a mother tongue and empowering the cultures that speak it. One would also hope that the policy will also lead to the strengthening of other indigenous language programs both internally within the school itself as well as externally in terms of other competing universities, and that that will curb any fears of ‘Zulu-fication.’ And on this level, it also helps that the policy is not state-sponsored under the Zuma regime, but taken out of the own initiative of UKZN, a school that is based in a province where well over 80% of the population are isiZulu speakers. Other schools may finally take their own initiative to exercise the “right to language.”

If implemented wisely, UKZN’s policy has great potential for its own credentials as a university as well as towards the larger goal of true reconciliation.

Cathy Cain is an intern at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She is currently studying towards her M.A. in International Studies at the New School in New York. 

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