Language used as a barrier

One of the basic tenets of racism is the notion that an individual is meaningless and that membership in a collective, particularly race, culture and even language, is the source of identity and value. To the racist, an individual’s moral and intellectual character is the product, not of his own choices, but of the genes he or she shares with all others of their race, language and culture.

This philosophy of racial division, cultural and language individualism remains entrenched in our education system. That is why Hoërskool Overvaal’s legal victory – in keeping out 55 Grade 8 English pupils from the Afrikaans school in Vereeniging – was a major setback for transformation and the struggle for a nonracial society, and should be repudiated.

The Gauteng education department believes that to promote and encourage a true multicultural diverse education, the public education system must advocate: an authentic multilingual curriculum with competent instructors and administrators committed to the agenda; an ethnic self-identification process that goes beyond the use of appropriate ethnic labels, but one that explores intrinsic idiosyncrasies of a nonracial society and a genuine multicultural education that promotes ethnic constancy.

What our rainbow nation needs is a ruling that recognises a language policy for what it is: a malignant policy that harms everyone and is the very essence of racism. Unlike the policy of racial integration, some language policies propagate all the evils inherent in racism.

The advocates of language policies believe that admitting other language groups creates a diversity of viewpoints in schools, a major reason racial division remains entrenched in society.

The value of racially integrated schools lies entirely in the individualism it implies: that the pupils were chosen objectively, with skin colour, language or culture ignored in favour of the standard of individual merit.

But that is not what diversity advocates of language policies want. They sneer at the principle of colour-blindness. They use language as a proxy of racism. They want admissions to some schools to be made exactly as the vilest of racists make them: by bloodline. They insist that whatever is a result of your own choices – your ideas, your character, your accomplishments – is to be dismissed, while that which is outside one’s control – the accident of skin colour – is to define your life.

It is time for our society to identify language policies as nothing more than crude forms of racism: pernicious behaviour which some might like to dress up as language policy but is, in fact, too low to be accorded that degree of respectability.

An inclusive ethos and practice

On the one hand, multilingualism is seen as an asset for educators and business people. On the other, second-language education has been systematically suppressed by some school governing bodies in favour of monolingual education.

So, in the light of the recent Hoërskool Overvaal’s ruling, it seems appropriate to ask what our schools can do to ensure a more stable, inclusive and diverse society.

Our schools need an inclusive ethos and practice in their programmes – a real inclusive practice as part of the school’s culture in all activities, such as informal and formal programmes, including sports games, clubs and other extracurricular activities.

As role models, teachers should be involved in mentoring through open relationships between teachers and pupils. Teachers need to continue professional development, particularly in cultural and linguistic knowledge.

Pupils should be given the opportunity to socialise and learn in an open, tolerant and supportive environment in which high standards are set and expected for all and everyone is treated with respect and dignity.

Language cannot be viewed as an isolated construct but must be analysed as an extension of culture.

In this global world the idea supporting the total suppression of one language over another is inconsistent with and detrimental to a nonracial society.

That is why no school should exclude a pupil on the basis of language.

The right to education is one of the most fundamental rights in the Constitution and if any school, in applying its language and admissions policy, acts contrary to the Constitution, that policy must be disregarded.

The Hoërskool Overvaal and other cases before have actually disregarded language rights. Language rights are protected in the Constitution and will be respected by the department, as they have in the past.

The issue is about access to education and the question of language is being used as a false shield to exclude those who are entitled to education at a school in which they qualify, in terms of the legislation.

At the centre of our nonracial crusade is how much equal opportunity we as a nation are willing to sacrifice as we pursue diversity and a nonracial culture.

The point is, if we want the virtue of our kids being exposed to kids of different races and backgrounds, then we have to be willing to accommodate any pupils, irrespective of language, culture and race.

Protecting a language, such as Afrikaans, as the sole basis of communicating will not only hinder progress, but place this country in jeopardy of losing its justified title as an emerging economic giant.

Few people of open minds and good hearts would deny that social cohesion and nonracialism are not just an admirable goal but a necessary one for schools that aim to prepare pupils for life in the real world.

Lesufi is Gauteng MEC for education

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