Africa’s most “internationally recognized language” will soon be taught in South African classrooms.
Starting in 2020, schools will teach Kiswahili as an optional language, making it the first African language outside South Africa to be offered in class. Education minister Angie Motshekga said the move was meant to promote unity and “social cohesion with fellow Africans.” Anti-immigrant sentiments have brewed in South Africa in the past decade, leading to sporadic attacks on the homes and businesses of communities including Malawians, Somalis, and Nigerians.
The push to embrace the Swahili language comes as African countries look into plans to reform and critically assess their education systems. There’s also the recognition that the continent needs a new strategy for mother-tongue based education from primary through to tertiary level education, and to cast aside dependence on foreign languages. This realization also arrives as African languages continue to die as governments adopt official languages while discouraging local ones, in hopes of forging a harmonized national identity.
In a continent with more than 2,000 distinct languages, the role and importance of indigenous African languages in post-colonial modern societies has also proved to be a contentious issue. Over the last few decades, the place of African languages has suffered negative consequences due to colonization, globalization, and the entrenchment of official languages like English and French. African languages have often been labeled as a hindrance to learning, and have suffered delegitimization at social, economic, and political spheres.
More often than not, foreign languages have also displaced African languages in educational, cultural and even leadership spheres. For instance, at his farewell speech as the chairman of the African Union in 2004, Mozambique’s then-president Joaquim Chissano surprised African leaders by delivering his remarks in Kiswahili. At the time, the AU was only using English, Portuguese, Arabic, and French as its official languages—and government officials, caught unawares, scrambled to find translators. The event later pushed the continental body to introduce Kiswahili as an official language.
Since then many governments and activists have moved to call for institutions, both local and foreign, to embrace the Swahili language. In 2015, Tanzania announced it would dump English and solely stick to Kiswahili as a language of instruction. Campaigns have also been launched to get social media giants like Twitter to recognize Swahili—albeit in vain so far. Motshekga’s announcement also comes just weeks after the leader of South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party Julius Malema suggested Swahili be adopted as the language of the African continent.
*Welcome to South Africa
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox