In 1976, the South African apartheid government introduced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools for learners in grade 7 – formerly known as standard 5 for those of us born before democracy – and upwards. This was greatly opposed by learners, teachers and principals. Teachers weren’t well equipped to teach in the language, which was for most, a third or foreign language.
According to various sites like Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy, that’s when Soweto based learners called a meeting and agreed that on the 16th of June 1976 they would gather in a mass demonstration against Afrikaans. As planned, on the 16th thousands of them set off to Orlando West Secondary School. The plan was to move to Orlando stadium, but someone was clearly on the government’s payroll because before they could even leave, the police arrived and formed a wall against the students telling them to disperse. Without cooperation from the learners’ side, the police fired the first shot straight into the crowd. All hell broke loose and the students fought back by throwing stones at the police and burning down property.
(Sounds similar to the #FeesMustFall marches that had happened all over South African universities since 2015. They start out peaceful until the police interfere using brutality, causing the main point of the demonstration to be overlooked, turning it into a media spectacle. But that’s a topic for another day.)
The number of people who died is estimated at 200, according to SA History Online. The number of wounded people was estimated to be over 1000.
Afrikaans, which is respectfully a home language for a significant number of South Africans today, was the language of the oppressor during apartheid. The language was forced upon many non-Afrikaans speaking citizens through various circumstances. For example, if you were a domestic worker in an Afrikaans household you had to learn how to communicate in Afrikaans.
In most of our schools today there remains no other language to choose to learn besides English and Afrikaans. English is mainly taught as a home language, to most students that speak a native official South African language at home, and Afrikaans as a first additional language, which most of them never actually use anywhere. This is usually the case in multi-racial “Model C” schools that say they want to cater for most the learners in the school, which in most cases aren’t even Afrikaans speaking.
My question is if they want to cater for the majority of learners, then why Afrikaans – the very language our Youth Day heroes were fighting against – and not any other official language?
According to census data from 2011,isiZulu is the most widely spoken language in the country with 11,6 million speakers. It is followed by isiXhosa with 8,15 million speakers, then Afrikaans with 6,85 million speakers. Wouldn’t Zulu then be the language that learners should be learning as a second language for those that have another language as a home language? (with the exception of those that have Afrikaans as a home language – English would be their second language)
I remember having a talk with one of the learners I tutor over weekends. She goes to a multi-racial “Model C” school where the majority of learners are black. They, like many other similar schools, only have the option of learning English and Afrikaans. She struggles with Afrikaans and says that although the issue of teaching other official languages has been brought up several times during parent meetings and SGB meetings, they are always given the excuse that there isn’t enough staff to cater for the demand. Her father, like many other black parents in the school, is concerned that his daughter is not learning her own home language, but is instead learning a language that won’t be useful to her in our current post-apartheid era or even career wise.
The school’s claim that there aren’t enough teachers available to teach native languages can be disputed by research done by The South African Civil Society Information Service that shows that newly qualified black teachers struggle to find jobs as opposed to their white counter-parts that are frequently hired. “Model C” schools like the one my learner goes to has mainly white teachers, which explains the “inadequate staff to fulfill the demand” excuse. It can therefore be argued that there are teachers available for the demand, but they just don’t hire them.
Surprisingly, they have one learner at the school who is being taught French instead of Afrikaans because she never learnt Afrikaans in primary school. French? It isn’t even an official South African language. And yes, the learner is of South African origin, just not black. And no, I’m not playing the race card (although they could be). I mean, they can cater for one individual’s special language request and not for a larger group that has made several pleas to the school asking to be taught their home languages?
It would be blatantly ignorant to say that all schools do this. There are a lot of schools, mainly black government schools, that give their learners a variety of native languages to choose from. However, black parents that want quality education for their children through private schooling (Model C schools) also deserve to have their children learning their home languages. There are government schools, like the one I went to – Glen Cowie Secondary school in the rural district of Ga-Sekhukhune in Limpopo – that are able to cater three different home languages (without including English) with only around 300 learners in the whole school.
These parents aren’t forced to take their kids to these schools and these schools are at liberty to teach any language they see fit. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. My biggest concern is why Afrikaans is almost always the first option a school chooses to offer as a second language. This even happens in schools where there isn’t even one Afrikaans speaking learner.
I think we are still living under oppression unconsciously. The cause the learners of 1976 fought for wasn’t fully corrected. Schools don’t have to teach in Afrikaans, but learners still have to learn Afrikaans.