A 2011 census put the number of South Africans who speak isiZulu as a home language at 22.7%, isiXhosa 16%, Afrikaans 13.5%, English 9.5%, Setswana 8% and Sesotho 7%. Most South Africans are able to speak or understand either English and Afrikaans, despite these languages not being dominant against the combined number of home language speakers in the country. The reality is that people fluent in isiZulu and isiXhosa, with the highest number of home language speakers in SA, have had to adapt to speaking English and Afrikaans.

Yes, one can bring up South Africa’s past or argue that English is the accepted business language globally to believe that this language dominance is acceptable. But can SA afford simply to stick to the status quo with language still a hotly debated issue two decades after our democracy, particularly when it comes to its importance in education? At the heart of the debate are two motivations pushing for better local language development. One says the key to improving the standard of education in South Africa is to upskill all language teachers – no matter which language they teach. The other argues for the promotion of mother tongue education for children (particularly in rural areas), because it’s widely accepted that children grasp complex concepts more easily when they learn them in their mother tongue. This being the case, one can also question why this debate still exists today, when it could and should have been a vital focus for the government to have acted on in the last 23 years.

In the midst of this comes the announcement by the government that there are plans to introduce Mandarin as an elective subject in SA schools. A March 2016 Daily Maverick piece by Andrea Teagle and Calvin Chiu states: “The teachers’ union, SADTU, called it tantamount to a new form of colonisation. Others argue it will give our kids a global advantage and strengthen economic ties with China.” The article goes on to say: “Maybe we should be focusing on promoting cross-cultural understanding between South Africa’s own peoples by teaching indigenous languages.” Could it be, then, that African languages can and should play a critical role in trying to achieve this objective of promoting cross-cultural understanding. It was our very own late president and political giant, Nelson Mandela, who once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Mbalenhle Sibanyoni chats to three South Africans about the importance of African vernaculars in education and as an aid to social change.

Three South Africans who aren’t able to speak an African language, and one individual who challenged himself to learn a number of vernacular languages during his university days, tell of how this has impacted their lives...

Melinda Ferguson, publisher, author, recovery life coach and motoring journalist

I did sign up for a beginner’s isiZulu course through UNISA after leaving university in the mid-90s. I was inspired to try and learn a language that the majority of South Africans spoke. I was deeply ashamed by the fact that so few white people could converse in an African language, especially after the ANC came to power in 1994. A year later, I passed the course, but it was pretty theoretical and I didn’t really get much help with practising speaking. As a white person, I felt ashamed to show my ignorance and like many others, rather kept quiet, instead of saying something wrong and looking like a fool. I’m able to do really basic conversing, greeting, asking simple questions, but I am always shocked by how happy and impressed black people are when I greet them in their language.

So many white people have no inclination to learn an African language. I don’t think they see how absurd this “language apartheid” in South Africa is. It’s the whole “white gaze” thing, where white people are still wearing “white glasses”, seeing the world through “white eyes” and “white language”. My mother grew up near a farm and she could speak quite a lot of isiZulu. But today I know very few other whiteys who can. I was quite transfixed during the local elections by the Democratic Alliance’s Athol Trollip, the mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, who can speak fluent isiXhosa. It was powerful to see someone respecting people through one-on-one communication. I would like to get individual tutoring in isiZulu and/or isiXhosa and actually practise speaking to get over my awkwardness. It would change my life a lot. I’d feel less like a visitor, and would be able to really get to know people on a deeper level. Language is the bridge to understanding and real transformation in South Africa. I think if I was able to speak an indigenous language properly, it would definitely make people feel more comfortable and acknowledged when they’re around me. I’m planning to pick up the broken pieces and give it a bash again. All white people should. I feel we’ll be left behind if we don’t get with the programme.

Arrion van Villing (35), project manager

I grew up in Eldorado Park, and during those years it wasn’t very integrated. We had only one black family in the whole neighbourhood. Black people in Eldos were in the minority, so they had to speak Afrikaans. I then went to an English primary and high school and, in Grade 11, I moved to a Model C school and had my first exposure to diversity in terms of the people I was socialising with. I always knew I wanted to learn an African language, but like everyone else who wanted to, I simply didn’t take the time. During those years, I taught Afrikaans to a black friend of mine and he was, in turn, teaching me isiZulu. But after a short while, he disappeared and that was the end of the language lessons. I then went to study in Cape Town. I was 18 years old, going on 19, and felt awkward being a coloured person from Eldos living in Cape Town. I didn’t fit in very well with the coloured people there. I made friends with a group of black guys who were from Johannesburg and were also studying in Cape Town. I made a conscious decision to immerse myself in the group and decided early on that I had to learn their languages. Through my group of friends, I was exposed to Setswana, isiXhosa, Sepedi and Xitsonga. My roommate was a Xhosa guy and he started teaching me how to speak and write in isiZulu. I knew I couldn’t let barriers – like the fact that I was learning new languages much later in life – discourage me. But I must admit it was difficult. I had to throw away all that I thought I knew, because the process of learning a language was also learning everything about the culture. I’m quite sociable and whenever I go anywhere and interact with black people, I naturally go into speaking vernacular and they’re amazed. Most people automatically assume that with my high level of fluency, I must have grown up on a farm. They’re actually quite surprised when I say I learnt to speak vernacular at varsity. As a result of African languages, I make a tremendous amount of friends and my network is phenomenal.

Faaiza Haafajee (32), Montessori teacher:

I grew up in Azaadville, which is a very Indian-dominated area, and our household was very much based on our culture and heritage. I went to school in Azaadville, married there and still live there. We’re situated a couple of kilometres away from Randfontein, Krugersdorp and Kagiso. The entire community is mostly Indian, but we do have a few black families who have now moved in. When I started school in 1990, by then South Africa had changed a lot; I had friends of many different cultures. However, English and Afrikaans were the dominant languages – to the point where if you failed one of those subjects, you’d fail the entire year. Those languages were the only options we had at our school. I remember doing one isiZulu lesson in Grade 1 and then it sort of phased out. I suspect there wasn’t a demand for it, so we ended up not even having the option to choose it. Now, as a Montessori teacher and working at a school based outside of where I come from, being able to relate with everybody else is great. I realise that being exposed to different languages and cultures is so enriching. As South Africans, we have a common base, so I can only imagine how much better this understanding would be if I knew Setswana. There simply aren’t people who speak African languages in Azaadville. I do wish I had learnt at least one African language. I’d really love to learn isiZulu. My dad is originally from KwaZulu-Natal and when he speaks the basic isiZulu greetings that he knows, I can see that it reduces the perceived barriers between people. I’d definitely support having African languages offered at schools. South Africa has changed so much and having exposure to African languages is important. Even if they’re not a tested subject but are still introduced to little children, it would make a difference and open up so many more opportunities for them later in life.