South Africa: Hope, Promise and Folly - What South Africa's Embrace of Kiswahili Means


South Africa's relationship with the rest of Africa is often conflicted. The decision to teach Kiswahili in schools gives a glimpse into what could be.

This is the third article in the seven-part series Living In Translation about language and identity. They are guest edited by Nanjala Nyabola and will be published across this week. See all the articles published so far here.

In late-2018, the South African Ministry of Education announced that it will introduce Kiswahili in the country's schools in 2020. It will be added to the fifteen other non-official languages students can currently take as an additional language option. As the Minister of Education, explained, "there is unfortunately no African language in the list at present".

The minister's use of the word "unfortunate" is a sad recognition that South Africa's education system has a long way to go when it comes to appreciating Africa. In fact, despite South Africa's expansive constitution since the advent of democracy in 1994, xenophobia has remained part of the political identity of a country many once thought would blaze a pan-African trail.

As early as 1995, the arrests of undocumented migrants accounted for 20% of arrests made in the Witswatersrand - the area around Johannesburg - arguably to boost police figures. Since then, there have been periodic outbreaks of violence directed at Africans living primarily in townships, the deadliest episode occurring in May 2008 when 56 people were killed and hundreds of shops and homes were burned down and looted. As researcher Nahla Valji has written, in South Africa and beyond "'the foreigner' has become a site for the violent convergence of a host of unresolved social tensions".

While ruling party politicians have routinely denounced xenophobia, the violence repeats itself. Human rights groups accuse the South African government of paying mere lip service to addressing xenophobia. Indeed, campaigns aimed at ending violence against African foreigners have done little to change general sentiments and the government's handling of applications from African-born refugees leaves much to be desired. Police often mistreat Africans from beyond South Africa as do civil servants responsible for providing health and other services.

The irony of course is that many of the women and men who now sit in cabinet positions were once provided asylum in various African countries in the 1970s and 1980s. They were given refuge and protection in the likes of Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Zambia, but are today ambivalent about the presence of migrants and refugees from those same countries.

Partly, they are responding to the views of their constituents, but the political elite has also failed to develop a coherent and forward-looking approach to managing mobility. Given the economic trajectory of the country, a more innovative set of policymakers would have accepted and embraced the diverse groups of African migrants who have made South Africa their home.

Instead, caught between human rights obligations and the apartheid-era fortress mentality that continues to define the country's approach to border control and immigration, South Africa has floundered, failing to take advantage of its access to relatively healthy, talented and dynamic Africans willing to work hard to establish themselves in a new society. Even the professional class of Africans with excellent jobs experience casual xenophobia. And while there are those who oppose it, many South Africans of all races continue to cling stubbornly to tired tropes about the continent as a place of squalor and danger.

The propaganda machine of the old South Africa was focused on cultivating a sense of national identity based on the idea that Africa beyond the country's borders was a strange and hostile territory. That fear is still palpable .

"Our fellow Africans"

Given this history, the education department's decision to allow schoolchildren to learn Kiswahili must be commended.

There is no doubt the move will be resisted or simply ignored in many quarters, but there is also no question that the decision reflects the changing political landscape. When the #RhodesMustFall student movement began in 2015, it signalled the beginning of the end for educational models that hold up Europe as the gold standard. When university students called for a decolonised agenda, they were asking the educational system to privilege African ways of knowing and understanding the world.

As the minister announced the new policy, she declared: "We are confident that the teaching of Kiswahili in South African schools will help to promote social cohesion with our fellow Africans."

The government's desire to bring about social cohesion through the addition of Kiswahili represents both an attempt to assert its will in the face of belligerent and hard-line xenophobic elements and to promote a set of democratic ideals about who belongs in South Africa. This is admirable.

Yet if the objective is social cohesion, Kiswahili itself may or may not be the best choice of African language. It is true that it is the most widely-spoken African language on the continent with over 100 million speakers across eastern and central Africa and that it is an official language of the African Union. There are also many Kiswahili-speakers already in South Africa, including many from the Congo, Burundi and Uganda as well as Somalis who lived in refugee camps in Kenya. These migrants will ultimately become South Africans. As a Bantu language, Kiswahili is also relatively easy for first-language Zulu or Xhosa speakers to pick up, sharing similar sentence and grammatical structure as well as certain basic words.

However, in promoting cohesion, South Africa could have picked many other African languages. There are many Zimbabweans in South Africa, for example, and isiNdebele - one of the two major languages spoken in Zimbabwe - is already one of South Africa's official languages. Adding Shona, the other major language, would make demographic sense.

One could also make a strong case for selecting a language widely spoken in West Africa. Yoruba would be a prime candidate, with over 40 million speakers mostly in Nigeria but also in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ghana, Niger and Togo. An even bolder choice would be including West African pidgin, a widely-spoken creole that unites people across English-speaking West Africa, as the BBC did in 2017. Pidgin is instantly recognisable to audiences of popular Nigerians and Ghanaian Afrobeats artists like Davido and Stonebwoy, as well as the millions of Africans who watch Nollywood films.

South Africa's unexceptionalism

Regardless, if policy-making can be a tool to set aspirational goals, then the introduction of African languages in the education system can provide an entry-point for the post-apartheid state to define itself as a place where Africa's best impulses can take root. After all, schools are the nation's engine for social values and the enculturation of the next generation.

Four decades ago, many African leaders had turned into dictators of previously hopeful independent nations. Liberation parties morphed into corrupt parties presiding over one-party states. The wave of democratic movements in the 1990s saw Africans take to the streets to reclaim the rights they had lost to these authoritarians.

This pattern is repeating itself in South Africa, albeit under a delayed timescale. Today, it is clear that South African exceptionalism was a clever ruse. The country is just as fallible as its neighbours, just as capable of breaking with its old patterns and establishing new ones.

Indeed, South Africa is a complex country that provides occasional glimpses of what it might have been like if its leaders and its citizens had lived up to their potential in the heady days of constitution-making and democracy-building. The instinct to teach Kiswahili in a country that is still so hopelessly incapable of understanding the continent in which it is located speaks beautifully to this potential and this folly. It remains to be seen whether it will be a success in terms of take up. What is already clear, however, is that finally, in some small way, the country at the tip of the continent is finally beginning to recognise that its future lies with Africa.

Nanjala will be doing a twitter chat from the African Arguments handle on Thursday 9 May at 10am GMT (i.e. 11am West Africa standard time; 12pm Central Africa Time; 1pm East Africa Time). Chat to her and ask her about all things language and identity using the hashtag #LivingInTranslation.

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