Linguistic Diversity: Does it Unite or Divide?

By Glynis O'Leary

The Debate:

Some say that having 11 different languages promotes individual identity rather than national identity.  Others argue that due to South Africa's unique history, it is necessary to preserve and promote the rich linguistic identity of the country's diverse population, and the country even celebrates International Translation Day.  Most of the arguments against the recognition of all 11 languages center on the complications that comes with the formal recognition of so many languages and the cost and effort that must go into translating official documents into 11 different languages. Below are some examples of times when the debate over the many languages became particularly heated.

 Example #1:  The TRC Hearings


During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings about the crimes committed under apartheid, all documents, testimonies, and ultimate findings of the committee were translated into all 11 languages - this ended up being one of the largest translation projects in modern history.  The government had to employ thousands of translators certified through the South African Translator Institute who worked all around the country to accurately document the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators.  For those who were victims of crime under apartheid, it was important to be able to tell their traumatic stories in their own language, especially given that one of the goals of apartheid was to eliminate all languages except Afrikaans.  This was an important turning point in the modern history of South African and much of the current national character can be linked to the TRC hearings.  That language was an important issue during these monumental preceedings is no small coincidence.

 Example #2:  The Constitutional Court


An exterior photo of the Constitutional Court in Johanneseburg shows "Constitutional Court" written in all 11 official languages.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa allows those who appear before the court to have their hearings in the language of their choice.  Often, a prosecution team and a defense team will request to present their case in different languages, and the Constitutional Court allows this and the government assumes all costs associated with translating speeches, documents, and any other relevant materials.  This often leads to substantial delays in hearings as well as rulings, and some critics says that this ultimately compromises the judicial process and weakens the judicial system.  However, under apartheid, all court proceedings and documents were only allowed to be in Afrikaans, which further compromised the ability of differing cultural groups to be active participants in the judicial process.

Example #3:  Public Schooling

South Africa's public school system has gone through tremendous reforms since the apartheid era.  As part of the Bantu Education Act of 1953 all schooling was required to be in Afrkaans, and teaching any other language was forbidden.  This was all in an atempt to permanently rid the country of so-called "Native languages" such as Zulu or Xhosa and reinforce white Afrikaaner supremacy.  Today, parents can request instruction in any of the 11 official languages, and public schools must then provide instruction or tutoring in that language and must cover the majority of the cost for instructors in the requested languages. 

Think, Pair, Share...

Having read a bit about the ways in which language unites and divides in South Africa, decide for yourself: do you think having 11 different languages in your country would unite people or divide them.  Do the complications that come with many different languages outweigh the benefits of having such a diverse culture?  Write down your thoughts and then share and discuss with a partner or in a small group.



Return to Main Page