Vision for a continental language policy in Africa

By: Ali A. Mazrui

While the United States may be described as the world's first universal nation, South Africa qualifies as Africa's first universal nation. The US population consists of people from almost every country, almost every religious persuasion, and tribal ancestry.

The South African population is not as diverse as that of the US. But while South Africa has fewer "tribes" than Nigeria, it has more distinct "races" than any other African country.

People of Malay or Dutch origin arrived in that country more than 300 years ago. Indians and Chinese go back to the 19th Century. Religious traditions entrenched across generations include indigenous faiths, liberal and racist forms of Christianity, Hinduism, and diverse schools of Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism. It is also the most secular of all African states.

The US is neither linguistically tolerant nor culturally pluralistic. Historically, the country has been a great asylum for diverse peoples running away from persecution, but it has not been a great refuge of diverse cultures. The US rescues persecuted people, but it does not rescue endangered languages or cultures. Paradoxically, while the US extends a lifeline to refugees, it sentences their imported cultures to death in a generation or two.

South Africa has started its post-apartheid era as linguistically more tolerant and culturally more pluralistic than the US. Post-apartheid South Africa recognises 11 official languages.

However, it missed the opportunity of recognising languages from three continents, by failing to include at least one South Asian language or Malay in its official list. But 11 languages from Africa and Europe are still impressive. Any of those languages may be used by a Member of Parliament in the legislative process.

The 11 languages also inform the broadcasting policy. While television is more restricted in its choice of languages, radio has been stretched to accommodate as many languages as possible.

On religion and language, the South African Constitution includes a mechanism for protecting civil liberties and cultural rights. This institutionalised protection has empowered the government to resist pressure from the US, urging South Africa to detain Muslims without trial or to harass citizens in the name of UN security concerns.

South African Islam may sometimes be more radical than average. But its radicalism is sometimes more based on subjective Jihad against local crime and drugs than objective Jihad against external enemies of Islam.

While North Africa has Arab jihadists and West and East Africa black jihadists, Southern Africa has had disproportionately South East Asian and South Asian jihadists. But most South African Muslim militants are intellectual radicals rather than security risks. They are jihadists of rhetoric rather than of rockets.

To what extent is South Africa's readiness to recognise 11 official languages a consequence of the country's prior history of apartheid? The logic of the Bantu Education Act included respect for indigenous African languages, though the respect was for the wrong reasons. The apartheid regime regarded Western education through Western languages as a radicalising experience. Westernised Africans wanted to capture, or at least share power at the centre of the society.

The idea of creating more culturally relevant educational institutions for black children was bound to lead not only to the Africanisation of syllabi and curricula but also to the increasing use of indigenous languages as media of instruction.

On the whole, the apartheid regime wanted to use indigenous languages as a mechanism of compartmentalising and dividing society. The post-apartheid regime seeks to utilise indigenous languages as a mechanism for integrating and uniting society. The recognition of the 11 official languages was designed to facilitate greater national integration in administration, in the legislative process, in the media as well as in schools and colleges.

While South Africa leads in devising a highly original domestic language policy, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, is in the lead in recommending a continent-wide language policy for Africa. The Libyan leader emphasises the need for a clear language policy if Africans are serious about realising their dreams for development, independence and unity.

According to Gaddafi, African schools should teach one international European language (like English or French), one indigenous African language relevant to that particular country (like Zulu, Hausa, Wolof, Xhosa, or Kiswahili) and the Arabic language which now has more native speakers in Africa than the rest of the Arab world.

In my conversations with him, the Libyan leader did not elaborate on how he would promote a continental language policy. But I was surprised when he asked me for a copy of a book written by my father, Sheikh Al-Amin Ali Mazrui, The History of Mazrui Dynasty of Mombasa.

My father had written the book in Arabic. It was translated into English and annotated. I have no idea how the Libyan leader knew about my father's book, and why he did not ask for one of my own published works. I have since sent Gaddafi the book as requested.

The Libyan leader's interest in my father might have been influenced by the assumption that Sheikh Al-Amin embodied the three languages which Gaddafi was recommending. Sheikh Al-Amin could speak and write Kiswahili and classical Arabic. He could also speak English but not write it.

Did the Libyan leader regard my father as Exhibit A of the trilingual sub-Saharan African? This is yet to be confirmed in relation to the Libyan leader's vision of a continental language policy for Africa.

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