Why Afrikaans, are you a South African?


Last week I was at a lunch and sat across from a retired politician and businessman from the last twenty years – not one of the Zuma cronies, but a very sensible and respectable person.

Next to me sits Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, former rector of the University of Cape Town, a managing director at the World Bank and almost politician with Agang. Mr. X asks me what I’m doing these days. I tell him about Astral and the difficulty in the chicken industry, about the Afrikaans trusts of which I am chairman and that I am also chairman of a private company that buys and builds Afrikaans schools – the MOS initiative.

“Why Afrikaans?”, he asks. “You must be a South African”. “Yes”, I replied, “but I don’t speak South African, but Afrikaans. I want all Afrikaans-speaking children to receive education in their mother tongue. In fact, all South African children are entitled to mother tongue education”.

There is no understanding in his eyes. He went to school in Limpopo during the apartheid era and speaks fluent English, in addition to probably Pedi.

I grab the opportunity with both hands. The biggest problem with our education system is that millions of non-English speaking (mostly black) children (especially from the rural areas) cannot speak English when they go to school and are taught in English from grade 4 by teachers who themselves are not fluent in English not. Are we surprised that our matric results are so poor? The matric pass rate is very misleading, I continue. To pass, a learner only needs to get 40% in three subjects (one of which is his/her home language), 30% in two more subjects and at least/just 20% in the remaining subject.

There is ample international evidence provided by the United Nations’ Unesco that mother tongue education (MTO) up to at least grade 8 is a requirement in countries with a good education structure, and that in those countries without a good education structure – such as South Africa – at least up to grade 10 should last. There are therefore good internationally recognized pedagogical reasons why MTO is essential. In addition, they found that if you have mastered your mother tongue in terms of sentence constructions, grammar and vocabulary, you can learn a second or third language so much better and easier.

At this point I get support from an unexpected, but welcome place. Dr. Ramphele highlights another reason for MTO. “Our children do not know who they are. They want to be American but can’t even understand English decently. MTO is essential to make them understand and appreciate who they are culturally. It is not opposed to South Africanness, but alongside their national identity.”

I jump in one last time: “I am an advocate of MTO for all language groups that want to. But while the other language groups are still arguing about whether it is really necessary and affordable, we assure Afrikaans people that it is at least available to Afrikaans speakers”. The retired politician and businessman greets with: “We have to have lunch – I want to talk about this further”. I hope it happens.

The good news is that there is a growing realization among the black academics and intelligentsia that MTO is absolutely essential to save our education system and better equip millions of learners for life beyond it. Dr. Ramphele is one of them. The bad news is that the current and older ANC leadership (especially those in self-imposed exile) have no understanding of MTO. They probably associate different languages ​​(spoken in different former homelands, but also Afrikaans) with apartheid thinking.

This causes them to want to create a new nation that mainly and preferably speaks English. Indigenous African languages ​​are for the home and inter-social intercourse, not for education and other formal uses. The tragic fact is that the lack of MTO in our education system (apart from Afrikaans of course) contributes to the failure of the basic education system and that the government thereby commits a “crime against humanity” (to paraphrase Max du Preez).

The wonderful privilege we have as Afrikaans speakers is that we still have enough and good schools in our public education system that offer excellent teaching in Afrikaans – and whose results stand head and shoulders above others. We do this because there is international evidence that it is educationally better. We do this because we understand how important cultural transmission is. Afrikaans schools are indeed under severe pressure, among other things due to the changes that the ANC government intends through especially articles 5 and 6 of the Bela legislation. But the government is far from winning that battle.

In addition, African organizations started with a parallel strategy. Support Afrikaans public schools to remain full and good (in terms of quality), but also start a stream of independent schools. This is what the MOS initiative was created for. Within four years, it bought and built 10 schools across the country. The MOS currently serves 1,700 learners. In addition, the Schools Support Center (SOS) of the Solidarity Movement intends to soon launch an independent school.

But in addition to the pedagogical argument, Dr. Ramphele pointed out another one. Language, and especially mother tongue, is an important means of cultural transmission. Through this, learners understand where they come from, what their cultural and linguistic roots are and where they are going. This cultural identity is not opposed to a broader South Africanness as a national identity, it complements it.

February is mother tongue month. We as Afrikaans speakers and Afrikaners can celebrate this with gratitude – we, our children and grandchildren are privileged. But the battle for MTO is far from over. Afrikaans remains under pressure from wanton and ignorant political leaders. Since last year, a small pilot project has been launched by the department of basic education in the Eastern Cape, to test MTO among isiXhosa learners. The first signs are that it is highly successful.

Let’s hope, for the sake of all the children and all residents of our country, that the government will have the political will and courage of its conviction to look at MTO differently after 30 thirty years. This can ultimately only benefit Afrikaans.

  • Theuns Eloff is chairman of the Trust for Afrikaans Education.