12 May 2008

Language culture and education

clipped from www.thetimes.co.za

Afrikaans-speaking parents are pulling their children out of Newcastle High School, claiming the pupils are being discriminated against.

Twenty-seven learners left the former Afrikaans-medium school this week to attend the neighbouring Ferrum High School.

Parents claim that black teachers can’t speak Afrikaans. They also maintain that deputy principal Muggie Liebenberg was overlooked for the principal’s position, despite doing “excellent work”.
Parent Francois Lichtenstein, who unsuccessfully took the governing body to court to force it to retain the school’s Christian identity, said Afrikaans was deliberately being eroded.
But new principal Manuel Govender denied that Afrikaans was being done away with. “It’s very sad that people can’t accept change. I understand change is very difficult, but at the end of the day we can learn to tolerate our differences,” he said.

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I can't help thinking that there is more to this story than meets the eye. Even when one reads the full version, rather than the bits I've cited in the clip, it seems that there is more in the subtext than in the text itself, one needs to read between the lines to find the issues that everyone seems to be trying to avoid.

The trouble is that there are several different issues here: does one try to unravel them and deal with them one by one, or must they be seen holistically, as things that cannot be disentangled?

One issue is language.

A group of Afrikaans-speaking parents are unhappy because the language used in teaching has changed, and their children are being taught in English rather than Afrikaans.

My mind goes back 30 years, when I lived in Utrecht, which is about 50 km from Newcastle. An English-speaking family I knew took their daughter out of the local primary school and sent her to a church school in Newcastle. Why? Because the local school was predominantly Afrikaans. Back in those days, of course, all the pupils at government schools were white. In Natal, most government schools in small towns were dual-medium -- they taught in both Afrikaans and English, and each child was theoretically entitled to be taught in its own language.

In Utrecht, however, the majority of the children and all the teachers were Afrikaans speaking. The school principal spoke to the child's mother, and asked why she wanted to take her child out of the school. She was doing quite well, and she could understand the lessons that were given in Afrikaans. The mother replied that those were not her objections. She was quite happy for her daughter to be taught Maths, Geography and the like through the medium of Afrikaans. What she was not happy about, however, was that the child was being taught to speak bad English by the Afrikaans-speaking teachers who could not speak English very well. The teachers at the Utrecht school would mark her English homework wrong when it was right, and punish her for speaking and writing correct English. The mother sent her daughter as a weekly boarder to Newcastle so that she could learn to speak and write her own language properly.

Now the boot is on the other foot. Afrikaans parents are having to have their children taught by English-speaking teachers. I can sympathise with their position. They surely have a right to have their children taught to speak and write their own language properly, even if they learn Maths and Geography through English.

If language were the only problem, then it could be solved by the education department doing a survey, and discovering how many Afrikaans speaking children there are in the town and where they live, and plan schools accordingly. The trouble is that most of the existing schools were planned in the days of apartheid, when people lived in segregated areas, and Afrikaans schools were given preference. The legacy of apartheid lives on. Now the demographics have changed, and perhaps the Afrikaans schools need to be consolidated.

But there is more to it than just language, of course, and that is where the sub-texts come in.

One person quoted in the report spoke of the "Christian identity" of the the school, and another mentioned an "Indian broederbond" that had taken over the school governing body.

So it's not just language, but religion and race as well.

And that is where I wonder about the things that we are not told in the report.

What is meant by the "Christian identity" of the school being eroded? Is it that most of the teachers are now using a heathen language like English, or are they now singing hymns to Shiva at the school assembly?

The platitudes from the principal that end the article don't seem to get near what is really going on.

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