Chaotic language policy goes to rights commission

| Selby Nomnganga
Source: Wikipedia. Public domain.

Mr. Zolile Prusente is the curriculum specialist with the regional education department in Upington. Recently, he sent a complaint to the South African Human Rights Commission regarding a problematic shift in language policy in the past year.

He alleges that the school principal and the school management team implemented a language policy that designated English as the first language of instruction for all subjects against the advice of the law or parental preference. Afrikaans, isiXhosa and Setswana were set aside and offered as alternative languages. The decision was an abrupt change from the former policy which provided for instruction in the students’ first languages rather than English.

For Prusente, the shift in policy is most harmful for the students. “[This situation] clearly shows that the SGB [school governing board] is not in control of language policy and that language policy is dictated by educators to suit their needs,” he wrote in his statement to the Human Rights Commision. Prusente believes that the students’ constitutional rights are violated by the “one-way” decision to teach primarily in English. Those responsible, he said, acted “without…taking cognisance of the additive bilingual approach promoted by the language-in-education policy.” In his statement, he refers to the Northern Cape Education Department circular 37 which also highlights “the importance of mother tongue instruction in the Foundation phase.” In their response, the principal, Ms. AB Silwana, and the chairperson of the SGB, Mr. Themba Smith, denied Prusente’s claims and said that the “overwhelming majority of parents” voted for their children to be taught in English.

While most teachers have agreed to the change, there are some who doubt the validity of the vote and who have consequently received “warning letters” from Silwana. Mrs. Thembisa Magodi, who is an SGB member and one of the two grade two teachers who refused to implement the English-only medium, said she and her colleague were not aware of any parents meeting or voting. They have refused to acknowledge Silwana’s warnings and stated that any policy “that [asks] us to teach in a foreign language [English] is not reasonable [and] unlawful because the Law encourages mother tongue teaching.”

Magodi and her colleague point to the 2007 whole school evaluation report that “has shown that learners do not understand English” as further proof that the new policy is not beneficial to students. Both teachers have announced that, ignoring the new policy, they “will continue in the third quarter to teach in the home language of learners and English only as an additional language.”

Silwana and Smith contend that the South African schools act No. 84 of 1996 gives the SGB the power to determine the language policy. They state that, since 2009, the SGB has engaged in thoughtful deliberations regarding “the complexity of formulating a language policy” for a “multi-cultural and multi-lingual learner population.” Furthermore, they maintain that the adoption of English-only policy is based on a “research/survey” taken during the 2011-2012 year that demonstrated that “parents preferred English as the language of learning and teaching.”

Prusente believes that the policy change is rooted in the SGB’s biased aversion to multi-lingual education. He claims that the boards sees “many languages spoken by learners as a problem instead of a resource.” This leads them to favor English instruction, he explained, and makes them “guilty of killing [the home] languages of the learners and community.” He challenges the SGB to provide evidence of the minutes and attendance register where the language policy was decided upon.

Mrs. Miriam Gatyeni (54) is the grandmother of a grade two and grade three learner. She remembers the survey looking into language preferences, but denies that English was the overwhelming favorite. She, for one, chose Afrikaans. “Another parent chose isiXhosa and another man preferred English,” Gatyeni recalled.

The new language policy has forced her to consider different options for her grandchildren’s schooling. If the mother tongue of her grandchildren is not used to teach them, she will be forced to take them to an Afrikaans school in Blikkies, known as Progress, which is “far” from her home. “Home language is the best. It is [the] language [in which] I talk to them at home, just like it was with my mother,” said Gatyeni.

When asked for a copy of the language policy, Silvana referred this writer to Smith who said that while the policy “is not closed or classified information”, it has to be handled “carefully”. He also said that only the documents guiding the policy formulation process can be availed.

The site steward at Vela-Langa, Mr. Daniel Mokopi, said they reported the language policy chaos to the South African Democratic Teachers Union and decided that they “don’t want to interfere in individual school matters.”

The South African Human Rights Commission will hold a meeting regarding the matter today.

Nomnganga is a free-lance journalist. Follow on Twitter: @kasifiles.

TOPICS:  Education

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