The Medium of Education

“What is being brought home to them, to him and his mother, is that in Cape Town different classes of people attend different schools. St. Joseph’s caters for, if not the lowest class, then the second-lowest. Her failure to get him into a better school leaves his mother bitter but does not upset him. He is not sure what class they belong to, where they fit in. For the present he is content merely to get by. The threat of being sent to an Afrikaans school and consigned to an Afrikaans life has receded–that is all that matters. He can relax.”

J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life

In his fictionalized 1997 memoir, J. M. Coetzee recounts growing up in 1940s South Africa from the perspective of his boyhood self. This evocative account of attending school in South Africa as the National Party ascends to power in 1948 (with its policy of apartheid that would plague South Africa until 1994) draws attention to the issue–perhaps threat is the more fitting word–of language and its impact upon education. Indeed, the medium of education, as Coetzee eloquently writes, can “consign” an individual to a certain lifestyle, and, at the same time, can exclude others from this same lifestyle. Throughout Boyhood, the narrator fears the Afrikaans who bully younger children, and, consequently, this fear is projected upon all Afrikaners and their language writ large (an allegory of the nationalist violence visited upon lifestyles not “consigned” to the Afrikaans worldview).

Soon after D. F. Malan is elected in 1948 the narrator worries because “There are rumors that the Government is going to order all schoolchildren with Afrikaans surnames to be transferred to Afrikaans classes” (69). Here we see the National Party’s nascent educational segregation as white English students are separated from white Afrikaans students, a policy that would continue and culminate in H. F. Verwoerd’s 1953 Bantu Education Act that sought to train black South Africans for menial labor because, in Verwoerd’s infamous words, “There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour…What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?” Notice how, on the level of language alone, Verwoerd’s words refuse to recognize black South African children as human beings and instead excludes them from the category “human” through the dehumanizing pronoun “it.” Language became a tool that, on the one hand, represented the Nationalists and, on the other hand, maintained the party’s societal control.

ImageIn 1976, the apartheid regime attempted to institute Afrikaans as the language of education in math and social studies and English for science for those black students lucky enough to be receiving an education as they began standard five (equivalent to seventh grade). Problematically, up until standard five, these black South Africans were being taught in regional languages and not the languages of the oppressors, which meant that a curriculum at standard five was being taught in Afrikaans and English to students who did not possess the proficiency in these languages to succeed. On June 16, 1976 students in Soweto protested the new policy, and, in what is now known as the Soweto Uprisings, were violently suppressed by the government with hundreds of casualties (the amounts vary depending on the source–the government’s Cillie Commission claims 575, but some report the number as high as 700).

(An interesting literary note: June 16 is, of course, Bloomsday, which celebrates James Joyce’s Ulysses, a text that makes a play thing out of the oppressor’s language. Set on June 16, 1904, Joyce often alludes to the colonial catastrophes that the British visited upon the Afrikaners–especially the creation of concentration camps that killed countless women and children during the Boer War. On June 16, 1976 we see yet another struggle to throw off colonial oppression and the dynamic role language plays)

Unfortunately, the issue of language continues to haunt South African education, even post-apartheid. In its 1996 constitution, the South African government recognizes eleven officials languages (Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa and isiZulu). As Act 6 Article 2 reads, “Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.” While a noble ideal, the implementation of this policy is creating serious problems throughout the nation’s education system because Afrikaans and English continue to dominate as the medium of Education. As Professors Jansen and Vandeyar write “many white schools set conscious caps on enrollments to retain the dominant white culture and student body, or simply kept out black students altogether invoking language rights as in the elite white Afrikaans schools” (viii). While nominally schools are desegregated, in practice language proficiency in Afrikaans and English bar certain students (read black, coloured and Indian) from attending some of the best schools in the country.

The politics of language are omnipresent in South Africa, and the linguistic and cultural capital afforded to Afrikaans and English cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, Coetzee’s boyhood worries over assimilation resonate today as much as they did in 1948.

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