South Africa: The Status of African Languages in Previously White Schools

Participants at an AfroCuration workshop with AfroPunk and Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2019.

Why do African languages continue to occupy the lowest place on the curriculum in previously white schools in South Africa? In most ex-model C high schools in Cape Town, for example, isiXhosa classes are undersubscribed and those who do enrol are almost exclusively black home language speakers of isiXhosa.

One of the reasons for the lack of status afforded African languages, is that ex-model C primary schools generally do not offer an African language as a compulsory academic subject. So, learners do not receive the preparation they need to study it as a subject at high school. A review in January 2020 of 10 previously white, English primary schools in Cape Town revealed that all 10 prescribe Afrikaans, not isiXhosa, as the second language.

Many of these same primary schools do offer isiXhosa as a third language, which is taught at a conversational level, but this subject is not required for promotion. The result is that schools allocate fewer resources to third languages: less teaching time, less staffing, little reading or writing and fewer books. Once learners get to high school, they are unprepared to take an African language as an academic subject.

Language policies that privilege English and Afrikaans...

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