Bilingual Ed Debate Rages in South Africa: Afrikaans vs Zulu

Now that the new national curriculum for schools in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa is about to be rolled out, a controversy over which language — Afrikaans or Zulu — will get a preeminent spot in the curriculum has erupted. Because of the requirement set out by the Basic Education Department that each school only offer one first additional language, schools in the province are increasingly choosing Afrikaans over Zulu, which is the preferred second language of the local residents.

Parents of students attending Hillary Primary School near Durban say that the school didn’t properly canvass for local opinion before they decided to drop Zulu in favor of Afrikaans. Although school administrators asked parents to fill out a survey on which language they’d prefer, according to those who took the survey, it appeared to be biased towards Afrikaans.

The issue with the mailer was the warning that if children leave the province after completing their education, they were unlikely to move somewhere where Zulu was widely spoken. The implication seemed to have been that Afrikaans would be a more useful language outside the borders of KZN.

School officials denied that they were attempting to sway votes, saying that they simply wanted parents to be fully informed when making their choice. They also pointed to findings by education experts around the country who support Afrikaans because it is easier to learn and because teaching materials in that language are more widely available.

lex Ndlovu, the chairman of Hillary Primary School’s governing body, said that since their survey in 2011, no parent had raised the issue. Ndlovu said, that instead of calling a meeting, they sent out letters because most parents failed to pitch up, and they usually ended up calling more than one meeting. He said most of the survey letters returned to the school called for Afrikaans instead of Zulu, but he did not know what percentage of parents were in favour of this. Hillary Primary had 800 to 900 pupils, of whom 65 percent were Indian and 25 percent were Zulu. Most parents felt that learning Afrikaans was much easier than Zulu.

The issue of the two languages is coming up now because the national curriculum strictly prescribes how many subjects each school can teach and how much time it can spend on each one. While previously schools could teach up to 8 courses, once the new curriculum goes into effect, they will be limited to six courses: home language, first additional language, mathematics, natural sciences and technology, social sciences, and life skills.