Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A Flawed Plan

12 April 2011

The ANC is the party of grand plans, grand rhetoric, and grandstanding but it lacks substance. This is highlighted by two related instances currently reported in the media.
First, the Dept of Higher Education is considering compelling university students to include an African language into their academic curriculum. As someone who learnt both German and Xhosa at University level, I know how difficult it is to learn a foreign language at that stage of one’s life. My daughter on the other hand, studied Xhosa from primary to high school and the language became second nature to her. Surely Blade Nzimande, Minister of Education, and a former professor of Industrial Psychology, knows that language is best learnt at primary school level. African languages are not just difficult for non-African speakers, but also for African students. Just do the arithmetic and see how many African students study indigenous languages at universities? The small numbers are surprising but they show that even African students find the linguistic, literary, and grammatical aspects of the language difficult. The same applies to any other non-mother-tongue language instruction.  

In recent years, language departments at universities have been merged and amalgamated because students no longer pursue foreign languages in big numbers as when I studied German in 1972. In my class alone, at the time, there were about 400-500 students at first year level. Today this no longer applies. South Africa’s eleven languages are stupidly given official status within the Constitution. The state, furthermore, is also obliged to “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages.” To legislate that all these languages must form part of the intellectual fabric of South African society, is simply impractical however desirable it might be. Where no practical plan and policy exist to develop and implement the acquisition of languages at primary school level, achieving this goal at university level is an even taller order. If the ANC wants to succeed with such a policy, it should learn from the apartheid government how it went about making Afrikaans one of the world’s most celebrated minority languages, with its own canon, literature, and scientific domestication. Money and expertise were the key ingredients to making Afrikaans a language that could be transacted in medicine, law, science, the social sciences and the humanities. The ANC on the other hand has, since 1994, put very little money and expertise into developing any African language and the threat to thrust this requirement on students is nothing but political coercion to whip non-African speakers into line.

A second related issue is the ANC’s grandstanding about wanting to capture the Western Cape from the DA. It has indulged in all kinds of trickery to wrest the province from the DA. Sadly, where the ANC governs and is in control, it has made a colossal mess of things. Not only does it loot the state’s coffers for its own gain, but it has also been spectacularly incapable of spending its municipal and provincial budgets, to quote Linda Ensor, on “construction, maintenance, upgrading and rehabilitation of new and existing infrastructure in education, health, roads and agriculture”. That R2, 5 billion has been returned to the treasury unspent, points to an even bigger malaise. Much-needed schools, clinics, and hospitals are not built because the capacity deficits in departments are astronomical.

 Capacity-deficits, of course, are a euphemism for cadre deployment and for the appointment of people who are incapable of doing the job. Hundreds of engineers, technicians, artisans, and experts are needed to manage municipalities successfully. 

Instead of retaining the skills that are developed and training and educating students for the economy in our colleges, technikons and universities, the government dabbles with threats to impose compulsory African language instruction upon students, further exacerbating the throughput rates.

Social engineering that is devoid of tackling these deficits at source will lead to even more chaos. At a Higher Education Summit feedback session last year, Council members were told that unless, equity, diversity, and transformation are prioritised in higher education, we should be prepared “to be governed”. In the same breath, we were instructed condescendingly to produce the skills the country needs. Nothing wrong with that!  Just refrain from cadre deployment and employ the skilled people produced by this country, and half of the country’s problems will be solved.

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