Cape Town-120117-Simpiwe Dana at the Public Hearings on the SA Languages Bill, where she addressed the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture. Behind her is Prof Koos Malan from the Dept of Public Law at the University of Pretoria, who addressed the Committee on behalf of the Society of Lawers for Afrikaans. Reporters: Parliamentary Staff. Picture Jeffrey Abrahams

Deon de Lange

Political Bureau

THE language policy is holding children back.

This view emerged yesterday when MPs and members of the public met in Cape Town to discuss the SA Languages Bill, now before the National Assembly’s arts and culture committee.

The draft was criticised by representatives of linguistic, cultural and academic organisations who said it fell far short of the government’s constitutional obligation to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of (indigenous languages)” and to ensure the 11 official languages enjoyed “parity of esteem” and were “treated equitably”.

Much criticism was focused on mother-tongue education, which several speakers said would do more than many other interventions to improve the quality of education.

Committee chairwoman Thandile Sunduza (ANC) said her dissertation would have been accepted at university if she had been able to write it in her mother tongue, Xhosa.

An impassioned plea for the introduction of mother-tongue education was made by singer Simphiwe Dana, who said it was grossly unfair for children to have to learn in a “foreign language”. On a nationwide “education tour”, she had seen how well children expressed themselves in their home languages, only to become “stupid” when they were expected to speak in another language.

“I think we are doing our children – and our country – a huge disservice by continuing to uphold English as the main language of instruction in schools,” she said to approving nods from several MPs.

But her suggestion that Swahili be adopted as the “unifying language” – “because we are too divided to choose Zulu or whatever other language is most commonly spoken” – gained less traction.

Dana’s views on mother-tongue education were shared by many participants, including AfriForum.

“Millions in state and private funds have been wasted in courts during the past decade, where the rights of learners to be taught in their mother language had to be defended against the national and provincial departments of education,” lamented AfriForum deputy chief executive Alana Bailey.

Bailey also suggested that the language policy – under which English had become the de facto and default language of commerce and government – had failed non-English speakers in many ways, including in education and the courts, and robbing many of their sense of identity.

“Even the new identity documents are being issued in English. We carry proof of our identity in a language that is the mother tongue of less than 8 percent of the population.”

Bailey also decried that one could easily book a flight in several languages, but could not register the birth of a child in one’s own language.

Academic and political philosopher Neville Alexander warned that “we must not make the language question confrontational”, as language had the power to divide and reconcile people. “If we learn one another’s languages, and if our children learn these languages – we can save this country from some of the worst things we have seen (happening) north of the Limpopo River.” Alexander warned against seeing Afrikaans as “the language of the white man”, whereas most Afrikaans speakers were Africans.

He said that 70 years ago, Afrikaans was in “exactly the same position” indigenous languages now found themselves in. “We have a democratic country now. We can make the resources and people available to make sure that in another 30 or 40 years every single African language could be used – if we wanted to – to make an atomic bomb,” he said to enthusiastic applause.

The SA Languages Bill stems from a Constitutional Court judgment, Lourens v President of SA and others.

The government has until March 16 to comply, prompting speakers yesterday to suggest it should rather seek an extension than rush the legislation through Parliament.