Speech by Minister Department of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande at the African Languages Steering Committee meeting, St Georges Hotel
16 Sep 2011Let me take this opportunity to welcome all of you and thank you for the positive response to my invitation. Thank you for your contribution and work leading to the roundtable in October last year and a special thanks and welcome to those who are meeting with us for the first time. As you may know the roundtable meeting was not the end but the beginning or rather continuation of this important work on the development and promotion of African languages.
The reason I have called this meeting is because I am concerned that very little work has been done since the roundtable last year on this very important matter. I strongly believe that we need to move speedily in making the development of African languages a reality at our universities.
The development of African languages as languages of scholarship is an imperative that we all need to commit ourselves to. It is not for government alone to see to it that African languages get their rightful place in our society, but indeed this is the responsibility for all of us.
Academic institutions, language practitioners and broader society should all come on board to ensure that African languages are strengthned at universities and in society as a whole. I was particularly pleased at the round-table last year that this seems to be a theme that resonates with many within the sector.
I am also very pleased that this meeting is being held during our heritage month, as African languages constitutes one of our most important heritage, about who we are and about who we want to be and the kind of South Africa we wish to build, including the manner which we use our languages.
My input today will therefore focus on practical things that I believe need to be done from today onwards, and for you to reflect, enrich and improve on these. After today I would like to see a very concrete work-plan towards the achievement of our objectives, and as from the next few weeks we must start with practical work. I am sure we are all committed to this.
I would also urge the relevant Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) officials to prioritise this work and assign people who are going to devote time and energy to this effort.
Policy and legislative context for the development of African languages in higher education
The development of African languages in education in general and higher education in particular is mandated by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. Section 6 (2) of the Constitution states that, “recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages of our people, the state must take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages”.
Therefore, we are and we should be guided by this constitutional imperative, but also by our own commitment as we should not only not allow our languages to die, but we need to strengthen them in line with our constitution and broader educational and societal needs. I should also add that, if we are not seeking to develop our languages as practitioners in higher education, then no one will.
The Higher Education Act of 1997 (Section 27(2) authorises the Minister to determine the language policy for higher education. The Act states that subject to the development of the policy by the Minister, the councils of public higher education institutions, with the concurrence of their senates, must determine the language policy of a higher education institution and must publish and make such policy available on request. So, we are keeping an eye on the compliance of institutions with this requirement. Moreover, this is one of the many aspects that we hope the panel could advise on.
It was in line with these constitutional and legislative obligations that the Language Policy for Higher Education was developed and promulgated in 2002. The policy broadly aims to promote multilingualism in the institutional policies and practices of institutions of higher learning. It identifies the main challenge facing higher education as, according to the Language Policy, “to ensure the simultaneous development of a multilingual environment in which all our languages are developed as academic/scientific languages, while at the same time ensuring that the existing languages of instruction do not serve as a barrier to access and success”.
The policy clearly acknowledges the linguistic diversity of the South African society and the university student populations in particular. It emphasises the need to promote South African languages for use in instruction in higher education and the need to develop strategies for promoting proficiency in languages of tuition.
Contrary to the general perception, the policy recognises the retention of Afrikaans as a language of the academy. It acknowledges the value and contribution of Afrikaans (and English), in scholarship and calls for the preservation of these languages while ensuring that these languages are not used as barrier to access for those students who are not first language speakers of these languages. It encourages all institutions to consider ways of promoting multilingualism and requires institutions to indicate in their plans what strategies have been put in place to promote multilingualism.
The issue of the development of African languages at universities also came up strongly in the 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions (the Soudien report). The report noted the increasing feeling of marginalisation by English second language speakers at universities, and recommended amongst others that the Minister initiates a broad review of the obstacles facing the implementation of effective language policies and practices at institutions.
As it has been said in different contexts and areas of speciality, we have the right policies and what remains of us is to act, that is, to implement them. So, implementation is the key challenge that lends our good policies to gather dust in our shelves. I, therefore, call upon you to assist us to implement these policies and to even improve on them.
Our work is informed by perhaps three critically interrelated tasks – the strengthening of African languages departments in our institutions of higher education; the promotion of multilingualism; and the development of African languages, as mediums of instruction and as languages of science and academia.
Allow me therefore to table before you the following practical action steps and proposals that I hope you will spend the rest of this meeting fine-tuning and practicalising it:
1. We should undertake a literature and policy review of all relevant policies on this subject, especially since 1994. These would include, amongst others, the relevant provisions in the Constitution and how to practicalise them; the Higher Education Act, 1997; the Language Policy for Higher Education; the Ndebele report that was published in 2005 regarding the development of African indigenous languages as mediums of instruction in higher education; the Soudien Report; and the recommendations of the Roundtable we held last year. In such a review we should assess how much has been implemented as well as the relevance or otherwise of all these policy recommendations.
2. Related to the above, an audit must be undertaken into all initiatives at our universities relating to the development, teaching and research, as well as good practice in the promotion of African languages in particular, and multi-lingualism in general. This must include an assessment of whether all our institutions, as required by law and policies do have language policies and the extent to which these are being successfully implemented, including obstacles to the development of African languages in our universities. Such an assessment must also look into curriculum innovation, language competence of staff and students, and research. I am aware that there are good initiatives on this front by a number of our universities!
3. We must also immediately work towards coming up with proposals on how to save and strengthen African languages departments in our universities, and also the importance of these for foundational phase learning at school. This must include the identification of incentives or legislative and other policy interventions that may be required in this regard.
4. We must explore the feasibility and possibility of promoting and making it a requirement that all South African students in higher education must at least be able to speak/read/write at least one African indigenous language. In this regard we would also have to look at the implications of this for teaching and usage of African languages in our entire education syste.
5. A matter that was strongly raised in our roundtable last year was that of the obstacles presented by the current structure and operations of the publishing industry in the development and usage of African languages. I would like that this matter be closely examined and for you to come up with very bold proposals in this regard. Related to this, though distinct, must be the exploration of the use of information communication technology (ICT) in strengthening African languages in higher education.
6. We must also look into the proposals on African languages as contained in the Draft Charter for Humanities and Social Sciences that is currently under discussions, and make appropriate responses and suggestions in this regard
7. This initiative must also concretely interact and engage with the Ministerial Task Team on the Review of the Funding Formula for universities, as well as with the Green Paper process currently underway and ensure that these do adequately factor in the necessity to promote and strengthen teaching, research and development of African languages in our higher education institutions. Critical for consideration in this regard is how to mainstream the teaching, research and development of African languages into the mainstream budgets and academic activities of our higher education institutions
8. I have also been thinking about the establishment and funding of Research Chairs on various African languages. The Research Chairs would aim to promote research on these languages, develop young researchers in African languages and make contributions to curriculum development. I would like you to reflect on how this can be done, as part of strengthening African languages in our higher education system
9. We should look at the possibilities of establishing a national forum for the sharing of good practices, ideas and strategies for African language development in universities, including areas such as the development of language competence in professional fields, implementation of multi-lingualism policies, teaching of African languages, research in African languages, and curriculum innovation including teaching in African languages at universities. We can work with Higher Education South Africa in this regard – to see if the issue of multilingualism cannot be one of the themes they discuss in their strategy groups. Otherwise, we can also assist with the establishment of a Community of Practice of African Language practitioners.Such an initiative can also be strengthened by the establishment of a journal as a critical platform for debate and sharing of research and experiences.
10. Related to the above, linkages must be forged with other relevant bodies and institutions that may enhance prospects for the realisation of our objectives.
11. Most importantly I would like to suggest that we formalise the establishment of a representative Ministerial Advisory Panel on African Languages in Higher Education, consisting of not more than 11 people, to look into all the above issues and advise the Minister and DHET accordingly. The Advisory Panel must produce its first report by the end of March 2012. In a way all the above constitutes the key terms of reference for the work of the Advisory Panel going forward. The DHET will act as secretariat to the Panel, and provision of extra-full time capacity will be considered if necessary, especially over the next 6 months
12. In order to further practicalise this a broader reference group of experts and other interested parties (eg actors, translators, etc) as part of a broader, inclusive and consultative process to enhance all the necessary expertise in this regard.
In order to start work, I suggest that the panel must produce a work plan and programme within the next 4 to 6 weeks, properly costed for consideration and approval by the Minister.
These are some of the ideas that I would like to encourage you to discuss in this meeting and provide us with concrete and practical suggestions. You are most welcome to think broadly and creatively.
I look forward to your feedback and input.
Issued by: Department of Higher Education and Training
16 Sep 2011
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