I have nothing against learning Mandarin, but I would rather first understand what my compatriot is saying, says Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Durban - A story is told about a man who once approached his boss just ahead of Easter and said: “Sir, I am going home for good. Remember my father died last year, so I must go undress my mother and do my father’s job”.
Baffled by the sudden turn of events after many years of good working relationship and a salary better than what others in the same industry paid their unskilled labour, the boss went home to ponder what could have happened to his loyal employee and a why a man of conservative morality would even suggest undressing his mother.
As it turned out, the man intended to have his boss know he was returning to his ancestral village for the Good Friday holidays and would return after Easter.
He needed to perform the ritual associated with his mother taking off mourning clothes she had worn since her husband died a year earlier.
I am reminded of this old story by the excitement over the introduction of Mandarin as a school subject in South Africa.
According to the education department, Mandarin will be optional, just like Greek, French and Latin are. It is hard to fault the education department’s logic behind introducing Mandarin.
China is already the second biggest economy in the world. Indications are that the day is not too far off before it overtakes America’s and becomes the largest.
It therefore makes sense to give South African children a head start if the rise of China as an economic superpower is inevitable.
It seems to make even less sense to have Latin, which is hardly spoken anywhere. Even the Constitutional Court hardly uses Latin in its judgments and resorts to the ancient language only if a more contemporary word in English is insufficient.
Surely those worried about imposition of foreign languages to our schools are inconsistent if they do not have problems with Greek or Latin, which seem to have no more than a sentimental value to those who choose to learn them.
Those opposed to Mandarin point out that African languages are dying a slow death. The former model C schools seem to teach them in half-hearted ways. They are treated more like a politically correct chore than a life skill and a contribution to part of our national heritage.
Going back to my example, if only the boss had made an effort to learn the language spoken by his employee, he would have had a better understanding of what his employee was on about.
As you, dear reader, would be aware, every word of the employee’s communication to his boss was in English, yet none of it would make sense to a native English speaker.
The majority of business in South Africa is carried on by South Africans with other South Africans either in commercial transactions between themselves or as employer and employee.
The big grocery wholesalers that dot the South African map are sustained mostly by people who do not speak English as their first language. For many of the people who make the wholesalers wealthy, the only interaction with anything Chinese is that they might get cheaper goods or that they might play or know someone who plays Fahfee, the Chinese numbers game.
The trouble with many policy positions in South Africa is that the contenders seem to believe that it is either one or another.
It is this zero sum mentality that makes some want to wish the advantages of Mandarin away just because the native South African languages are neglected.
This either-or approach goes against the grain of the constitution which enjoins the Pan-South African Language Board to “promote the use of all official languages, the Khoi, Nama and San languages, and sign language. It must promote and respect other languages used in South Africa, such as Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu and other languages used for religious purposes”.
Languages at schools must not only be about facilitating commercial transactions. They must be about creating better understanding between the many and various South African communities with the intention of forging national cohesion.
There is a greater chance that a South African will go to a butchery in suburbia looking for ingqina or mala-mogodu (if you need to have these translated, you have just made my point) not knowing what they are called in English and hoping they will find a black butcher.
Why are their transactions treated as more urgent than a theoretic transaction between a South African and a Mandarin speaker?
So, yes, let us prepare our children for the challenges and opportunities that come with being part of the global world like learning Mandarin. In the process, let us not forget they will have most conversation with other South Africans about South African daily realities, like going home “for good”.
* Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is the editor of The Mercury. Follow him on Twitter @fikelelom