ZAM reporter

Mamokgethi Phakeng: ‘Language is political’

South Africa’s efforts to keep all languages alive have global impact

In South Africa all languages are equal but one is more equal than the others. Teachers, students and parents alike often prefer English as a vehicle for jobs and access to education. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng called for practical solutions in order to safeguard her countries multilingual dream rather than a desperate ‘war on English’.

Phakeng’s key note speech attracted a full house at the annual Dutch Drongo Festival in Utrecht. The event on Friday 25 February 2015, organised together with ZAM and Maandblad Zuid-Afrika, was opened by Dutch Ambassador for International Cultural Co-operation Renilde Steeghs. The Netherlands with its multitude of citizens originating from all parts of the world could learn from the South African efforts to keep the constitutional recognition of eleven languages alive, Steeghs argued.

In a moving lecture, Phakeng introduced the audience to the multiple complexity of these efforts. On the eve of her speech South Africa celebrated its Heritage Day. One of the opposition parties proposed to take Die Stem, the anthem of Apartheid South Africa, out of the new national anthem (as a result of the negotiation process between the liberation movements and the white minority regime, Die Stem had been integrated in the new anthem.) The fact that, almost 40 years after Sowetan students rose against Afrikaans as ‘the language of the oppressor’ the issue is still burning, shows, Phakeng said, that languages have a lot to do with politics and carry the burden of history.

In a situation where there is a clear preference for English, how does one promote linguistic diversity? By moving away from rigid formulas, Phakeng argued. A professor in mathematics at the University of South Africa (Unisa) she developed several models combining mother tongue languages like Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans and IsiSotho with English in educating maths. The new models provided a solution to the problem that students doing maths were being judged on their ability to doing it in English. Giving up this requirement proved highly successful, Phakeng said.

Looking back at the event on her Instagram, Phakeng wrote: “What a day! (…) The festival is an excellent idea and it was very well organized with over 80 exhibitors and loads of people from all kinds of professionals attending - academics, teachers, language practitioners, former anti-apartheid activists, etc. It is amazing how interested people here are in South Africa. (…) Being here made me wonder why we don't have a multilingualism festival. We should! (…) After all in our policy documents we talk about promoting multilingualism.”

Listen to the podcast of Phakeng’s key note speech here.