Instead of calling for a debate on race, we should simply get on with the debate, says the writer. File picture: Paballo Thekiso

Children of the Class of 1976 are losing out as most formerly white schools offer only Afrikaans and English, writes Thabo Leshilo

Last Friday a colleague’s daughter told me excitedly: “Today I wrote the last Afrikaans paper of my whole life.” Her face was a picture of relief. I shared her joy.

She then spoke animatedly about her frustration at having been forced to learn Afrikaans, with which most black children struggle. She spoke like someone who had endured 12 years of torture.

Her story touched a raw nerve. I have been grappling with the same vexed issue ever since my son and daughter started school in the north of Joburg.

Sepedi, our home language, and other indigenous languages are not taught at schools in the area.

They offer English and Afrikaans only, with the high school making a feeble attempt at providing isiZulu from Grade 10 only – way too late for a child wanting to do well in Grade 12.

My son also struggles with Afrikaans.

May I hasten to add that the problem is not Afrikaans in itself, but its imposition and the lack of choice.

And, being viewed as a necessary evil – to be endured to pass – does the language no favours.

Thousands of former exclusively white public schools have carried on as if the official defeat of apartheid in 1994, which heralded an era of reconciliation and nation-building, did not register on their radar screens.

They reluctantly accept the “encroachment” of black children into “their” schools – on their own terms.

Their attitude is: “We know your constitution recognises 11 languages, but not here. At our school, we recognise only two – English and Afrikaans. Take it or leave it – or, as you people say, finish and klaar.”

This is while they wax lyrical about the goodness of Nelson Mandela, praising him for having helped avert a bloody race war.

The schools continue to be led by the same people – or people with a similar laager mentality – who have yet to appreciate the dynamics of living in a multicultural, multilingual African society.

The importance of preparing children to function comfortably in a diverse society and workplace, where black people are increasingly in ascendancy, is lost on them.

Yet they are charged with nurturing young minds and have the nerve to call themselves educators.

The school meetings I have attended over the years have left me with the distinct impression that a major part of the problem lies with their dangerously reductive concept of education – which is to prepare the pupils to enter the University of the Witwatersrand. In fact, a principal at high school said as much at an information evening.

And, to enter Wits, the children need to pass only two languages – English and Afrikaans. The school ticks the box.

Forget about holistic education and children having to be developed into sensible, well-rounded and decent human beings in their professional lives and in relation to other people.

The school also remains vehemently opposed to introducing soccer to the pupils, dismissing it as a sport for thugs. Yet it sees nothing wrong with taking our children on a tour of Old Trafford Stadium, the home of Manchester United, whenever the school visits Europe.

But I digress.

Who would have thought that, 20 years into black majority rule, our indigenous languages would continue to be marginalised, reduced to the periphery of the education mainstream – despite a constitution that enshrines the equality of 11 official languages?

Those of us who have not bought into the notion that our languages are inferior and want to see them continue to develop and thrive are having to do with teaching them at home, without the support of an education system.

For all the nice talk from the Department of Basic Education this week about the “incremental introduction of home languages” into the education system, isiZulu, Sesotho, Sepedi, Setswana, isiXhosa, isiNdebele, siSiswati, Xitsonga and Tshivenda continue to be treated to a large extent as if they do not exist.

It is against this backdrop that the department’s announcement on Monday about increasing the pass mark for Grades 7, 8 and 9, as part of its efforts to improve the quality of education at public schools, was greeted with ambivalence among many black parents in previously white suburbs.

To pass, pupils in these grades will have to achieve at least 50 percent in their home languages and at least 40 percent in their first additional languages, compared with 40 percent and 30 percent before.

This is a welcome development to anyone who appreciates the importance of quality education, if our children are to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive, globalised knowledge economy.

But it was as if the department was not talking to many of us living in previously white suburbs.

The announcement begged many questions: What of the thousands of black children at formerly white public schools that do not offer any of their home languages?

How will the 50 percent home language and 40 percent additional language requirements apply to them?

Which of the two privileged languages, English and Afrikaans, will then be treated as their home language, and on which grounds?

And, more pointedly: Why are African languages being neglected on the government’s watch, 20 years into democracy?

Department spokesman Elijah Mhlanga said: “The department has addressed this matter through the incremental introduction of African languages (policy).

“We know that there are 3 700 schools (among) the 25 000 public schools that do not offer an African language. The success of the incremental introduction of African languages will depend on the availability of teachers.

“A statement from the department said (the policy had) gained momentum with the finalisation of plans to continue the pilot programme in Grade 2 in 2015.”

The department says that across eight provinces, 228 schools that did not offer African languages before have successfully implemented the policy’s pilot in Grade 1 this year.

The policy aims to promote and strengthen the use of African languages by all pupils by introducing them incrementally in Grades 1 to 12.

“(The policy) seeks to improve proficiency in previously marginalised African languages, raise the confidence of parents to choose languages for their children, and increase access to languages beyond English and Afrikaans.”

Mhlanga correctly points out that in 2004 the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation highlighted that the language of instruction and language policy were critically important to effective learning.

“We’ve done our homework particularly conscious of the importance of languages and communication in promoting social cohesion and nation-building,” he reiterated.

The pilot programme will be expanded to Grade 2 in the 228 pilot schools next year.

The plan is to phase in full-scale implementation in the more than 3 738 schools that do not offer an African language in 2016.

Something is finally being done to address the anomaly. It is about time.

Until then, though, many of us and our children will have to grin and bear it, continuing to make a plan on the margins of the education system.

And, some of us – the generation who revolted against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in 1976 – will continue to field awkward questions from our brothers and sisters in the African diaspora about why their children cannot learn any of our indigenous languages at our schools as they attempt to immerse themselves in the culture of their host country.

* Leshilo is a freelance journalist and editor.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

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