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HomenewsIndigenousSouth Africa’s Language Question Remains Unanswered

South Africa’s Language Question Remains Unanswered

The governing African National Congress (ANC) held a rally in Sharpeville (suburban Johannesburg) on March 21 to celebrate Human Rights Day and to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, widely regarded as the inaugural event in the struggle that eventually led to the end of apartheid in 1994. President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC party leader, gave the principal speech. South Africans vote on May 8, so the event also served as a pre-election rally. 

Rather than the conventional topics such as inequality, poverty, corruption, or economic growth, Ramaphosa chose to speak about the “promotion of indigenous languages,” a theme of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages. He spoke with feeling about the need to preserve indigenous languages: “It is said that when a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it.” The South African constitution protects the rights to indigenous languages as part of “promoting and deepening a human rights culture.”

In practice it is more complicated. South Africa has eleven legally recognized languages. Zulu is the largest; it is spoken by about a quarter of the population, but only by the Zulu people, and it is difficult to learn. Afrikaans, on the other hand, is spoken by both Afrikaners and non-Afrikaners alike, making it the most widely spoken language in South Africa. However, it is also considered the language of apartheid, having been imposed on speakers of indigenous languages by the government, so most South Africans would find it unacceptable as a universal language of instruction. English is the language of commerce and also of connection with the outside world, but it is the first language of only about 10% of the population. From an economic perspective, it would be the logical language for primary and secondary education, but as Ramaphosa implied, recognition and use of an indigenous language can be an affirmation of an individual’s human dignity. 

South Africa’s unemployment rate is 25% or higher, yet employers constantly complain about the lack of qualified workers, by which they often mean English-speaking workers. For example, South Africa does not host call centers as India does, partly because of the shortage of English speakers. Johannesburg offices often engage Zimbabweans as receptionists and telephone operators because they speak and write English well. Zimbabwean primary education did not collapse under the Mugabe regime, and English was the usual language of instruction. This is not the case in South Africa, where there is a lively and unresolved debate about what language should be used in primary schools. Should it be the pupil’s first language, likely indigenous, or another, likely English? Though South African primary education has many challenges, among them underpaid and undertrained teachers, enormous class sizes, and very poor physical facilities, language is also crucial.

The debate over the language of instruction in South Africa is reminiscent of a similar debate in the U.S. Should primary education be in English or the pupils’ first language, most often Spanish when not English?

The quality of much of South African education is abysmal. Yet the country hosts the best universities in Africa and many superb primary and secondary schools. Most of these either are private or were established for whites under apartheid. The language of instruction is usually English and occasionally Afrikaans, with indigenous languages offered as electives. They are now all integrated, and non-whites are often half of the student body. However, at just 9% of the population, white South Africans are still overrepresented in elite institutions of learning. Black oligarchs and the emerging black middle class also have access to these institutions. This may reduce pressure from them for improvement of education for the mass of the population, and with it, the resolution of the language question.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He is the coauthor, along with Matthew Page, of Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, which was published in July 2018, and he writes the blog Africa in Transition. From 1975 to 2007, Campbell served as a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officer. He served twice in Nigeria, as political counselor from 1988 to 1990, and as ambassador from 2004 to 2007. Campbell’s additional overseas postings include Lyon, Paris, Geneva, and Pretoria. He also served as deputy assistant secretary for human resources, dean of the Foreign Service Institute’s School of Language Studies, and director of the Office of UN Political Affairs. This article was previously published on the Council on Foreign Relations Blog at

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