Over the past few years a serious crisis has developed in South Africa around mother tongue education in general and Afrikaans mother tongue education in particular. This crisis stems from, amongst others, predominantly two factors. The first factor is the fact that language communities themselves do not take responsibilty for their institutions of education, often preferring to think of education as a responsibility of only the state and not also the community. The second factor is the South African government’s neglect of the Constitution’s call for mother tongue education, leading to a situation where English is becoming the de facto language of education, whereas more than 70% of South Africans are not sufficiently fluent in English. This is a serious obstacle towards democratizing South Africa, as it leads to the exclusion of the majority of our people from quality education.
This state of affairs has manifested itself particularly with regards to Afrikaans, as Afrikaans is the one indigenous language that has succeeded on the basis of a community movement between 1875 and 1925 to become a fully developed language of the spoken and printed word. Since 1994 Afrikaans has become an obstacle in the way of the anglicization of South African public life, and this has led to huge tensions around Afrikaans, where Afrikaans is often blamed as a barrier to education access. What can South Africans in general and speakers of Afrikaans in particular do to solve this crisis?
The first step lies in communities accepting responsibility for education in their mother tongues. With the great Kenian writer and thinker, Ngugi wa’Thiongo, we declare that only when Africans can live their lives in their own languages, will they truly break the shackles of colonialism. It is when we are educated in our mother tongues, that we unlock the doors to economic and political self-sufficiency and self-respect.
Secondly, if Afrikaans as the one indigenous language that has successfully fought the colonial legacy falls as a language of education, our other indigenous languages will be even worse off than what they already are. This is why we have agreed on a special plan of action where all speakers of Afrikaans can take certain steps to assure the future of Afrikaans education. This plan will be discussed with the broad Afrikaans world, white, coloured and black. This plan is initiated from within Afrikaans civil society, and we hope that we may share our experience with our brothers and sisters from the other indigenous languages on the road towards true freedom and democracy.
Thirdly, we shall no longer accept the present state of affairs where Afrikaans is blamed for government’s own failure to provide quality education and access for all. This failure stems primarily from the fact that government insists on enforcing a policy where the majority of our people are educated in their second or third language, leading to enormous waste of scarce resources. It is not those Afrikaans institutions of education that continue to struggle to retain the successes they achieved in their own anti-colonial struggle that must be blamed for a lack of access to education for all in South Africa, but precisely government’s failure to use and develop our indigenous languages in public life. A glaring example of this is that government is forcing the majority of black children to study in Afrikaans or English, because no study materials are made available in our other indigenous languages beyond grade 3.
We are not against English, but we are against the misuse of English to keep us in a colonial situation in our own country. English is a key to Africa and the rest of the world, but not when it destroys our indigenous languages. It is precisely because we have been the victims of this misuse of English, but also because Afrikaans itself has been misused during apartheid to oppress people, that we understand the nature of this danger. That is why we call on all fellow South Africans today to join us in the struggle for indigenous language liberation.