Public schools in South Africa will be offering Mandarin as a second language option beginning next school year, along with a dozen other languages, in an effort to boost the country’s global ties.
But the change has prompted widespread criticism for two reasons: the government’s close economic ties with China, and a failure to engage with local languages.
Mugwena Maluleke, the General Secretary of the nation’s largest teachers union, said that the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) opposes the focus on Mandarin and other global languages: He said:
SADTU rejects this imposition with the contempt it deserves. We will prioritize African languages in order to build social cohesion.
Language instruction is a political matter worldwide, but particularly in South Africa. The country has 11 official languages, according to Times Live, with English as the dominant language of business and politics. Indigenous languages are often not available in schools, which to many is a continuation of the imperialism that has defined the country for its recent history. The government agency responsible for promoting the use of native languages, the Pan South African Language Board, is historically and consistently underfunded.
A spokesperson for South Africa’s education department said that the Chinese government would be providing teacher training support. China has been encouraging the expansion of Mandarin in Africa, writes Lily Kuo of Quartz, with scholarships to study in China and government-funded language and culture schools, known as Confucius Institutes, across the continent. The stated goal is to strengthen economic ties with the country. China has been South Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009.
Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said that this is part of a ten-year plan that South African President Jacob Zuma signed last December. He said:
There are teachers who travel to China for training while China has and will bring trainers into the country to support us.
Supporters of the plan believe that this is a harmless attempt to increase collaboration between countries with up-and-coming economies. Al Jazeera quoted Paul Tembe, a research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University:
If the government did not act now, we would have a generation of scholars from private schools learning Mandarin and it would leave everyone else in public schools behind… Learning Mandarin would help people access the public good and future opportunity.
We are in the 21st century and we need to respect China’s dictum that they are not into expansionism and we shouldn’t treat them as imperialists.
In South Africa, students are required to study two languages: a home language (usually English or an indigenous language) and a second language. Mandarin will be introduced in some schools next school year, and leaders plan to offer it to all students between 4th and 12th grade by 2018.
Kenya is also considering adding Mandarin to its public school curriculum.