This poster was issued by the African National Congress (ANC) and produced by the Silkscreen Training Project (STP). Source:

South Africa: proof that language in school can be a source of grievance if not done right

This poster was issued by the African National Congress (ANC) and produced by the Silkscreen Training Project (STP). Source:

The Soweto uprising is probably one of the most impactful demonstrations for language and learning rights to take place across the globe. It placed the anti-apartheid struggle on an international platform and presented a massive shift in gear for the struggle for a free South Africa. These events took place 40 years ago. We should remember them as we celebrate International Mother Language Day this week.

Students gathered in Soweto 40 years ago to protest the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in black, but not white schools. The new language education policy was enforced through the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which stated that Afrikaans and English should be used in a 50-50 mix as the medium for instruction.

The decree was resented deeply by blacks, because Afrikaans was widely viewed as “the language of the oppressor” as Demond Tutu once famously said. “No, I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to”, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, said at the time.

Around 20,000 students took part in the uprisings that followed, which resulted in international pressure being put on governments to speak out about apartheid.

Murphy Morobe, one of the student leaders and member of the South African Students Movement, the organisers of the march, said “it was clear that the strategy (of the apartheid government) was that Afrikaans would become the language of instruction in all high schools. We felt that […] in the end it is not just about Afrikaans, […]in the end it is a question of white domination in South Africa.”

The example of South Africa is one in a long list of countries where the language chosen for a school system has been a source of grievance linked to wider issues of social and cultural inequality. The new GEM Report paper out last Friday shows that the fault lines of violent conflict have often followed the contours of group-based inequality exacerbated by language policies in education – a fact that makes this such a hot political potato for so many. For example, disputes about using Kurdish in schools have been an integral part of the conflict in eastern Turkey. In Nepal, the imposition of Nepali as the language of instruction fed into the broader set of grievances among non-Nepali speaking castes and ethnic minorities that drove the civil war.

As with the Soweto uprising, disputes over language often reflect long stories of domination, subordination and, in some cases, decolonization. In Algeria, the replacement of French by Arabic in primary and secondary schools after independence in 1962 was intended to build the new government’s legitimacy but marginalized the non-Arabic-speaking Berber minority.

In Pakistan, the post-independence government adopted Urdu as the national language and the language of instruction in schools. This became a source of alienation in a country that was home to six major linguistic groups and fifty-eight smaller ones.

constitutional court
The Constitutional Court with the 11 official languages of South Africa.

In South Africa’s case, the Soweto uprisings resulted in a progressive constitution that recognises language rights. Article 29 of South Africa’s constitution states that: Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.

Since 1994, not only Afrikaans, but 11 languages in the country were declared official and given the same status in education policy. Despite this, however, mother tongue language education is still a sore point in South Africa. English is still chosen by many as their language of instruction, partly because the language is still seen as holding a higher status. Some argue that the South African government has not yet provided the human resources and physical resources needed to promote multilingualism. And as a result, despite the new language education policy, linguistic barriers in primary schools continue to divide and hamper learning.

The new GEM Report paper and many experts believe that a shift is needed in South Africa to promote teaching in mother tongue languages in schools. Teachers need to be encouraged at university level to teach in these languages, and supported with the necessary resources and training. Learning from its past, and from experiences documented across the world, these are changes that should be prioritized. A language, after all, is an identity and, because of this, it can serve as a double-edged sword: while it strengthens an ethnic group’s sense of belonging and social ties, it can also turn into a basis for their marginalization. This should bolster policy makers’ drive to address the issue correctly in their education plans.Source: UNESCO



  1. The travails of the South Africans have been unprecedented, but the focus on language is a bit misunderstood. Everywhere language is linked to status, and the blacks wanted higher status and respect.
    Africaans strangely is a language native to the blacks. It arose from Dutch in the 1600-1700 through intermarriages with natives and other immigrants. For many, particularly the ‘Cape colored,’ it has been the home language. In the rebellion, the blacks demanded use of English, which was linked to the higher-status British who also did not like apartheid. They did not demand Zulu, Xhosa, etc.
    Ironically, the south Africans got a mixed bag with English. It is an outlier orthography whose spelling system takes 3 years to learn and brings out dyslexia in the brains of susceptible people. It also needs many teaching resources and training. By contrast Africaans (and all the African languages) are spelled consistently, so basic reading can be learned in 4 months or so.
    The best way for South Africans to learn English is to become fluent readers in one of the African languages (including Africaans, which dropped most of the earlier Dutch irregularities.) The government has made this point and teaches in 11 languages. But many people want the mark of status early on. This is one reason why South Africa is doing much worse in basic skills than expected.

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