Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 25, July 1999 


Language policy and African language publishing in South Africa

Phaswane Mpe
Phaswane Mpe is a lecturer in the Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits 2050, Witwatersrand, South Africa. Tel +27 11 7164078, fax +27 11 7162999, e-mail:

South African language policy has become much more democratic since the end of apartheid, which recognised only English and Afrikaans as official languages of the country. The new language policy recognises in addition nine indigenous African languages. From the Nguni language group are IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, IsiNdebele and Siswati. The Sotho group is represented by Sepedi, Sesotho and Setswana. Tshivenda and Xitsonga are also official languages. Education policies allow these indigenous languages as mediums of instruction in schools.

However, both language and education policies also acknowledge the almost impossible task of translating policy into practice. Given the complex demographics across the nine provinces that make up South Africa how does one ensure, for example, that all languages are represented fairly within each region, both in education and in provincial governments' everyday activities? One way to get round the problem has been to let each region identify which of the languages would be official for that particular region. So, for example, Gauteng, where Johannesburg is situated, has English, Afrikaans, IsiZulu and Sepedi, while Northern Province boasts English, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Xitsonga and Tshivenda as its official languages. In education, schools can choose as mediums of instruction the languages they find most suitable to their individual contexts.

This impressive range of possibilities is, in theory, good for the publishing industry, especially for those publishing in the historically disadvantaged African languages. However, as any number of publishers will report, practice is stifled by other factors. Surveys have shown that many parents still prefer their children to be instructed in English as they see this as a language that gives access to economic and other privileges. For the same reason as their parents, pupils also prefer to learn in English - with their first African language as an additional subject. This is not surprising, since blacks have mostly come to see their languages, in education, as agents of separatist ideology that our new dispensation cannot afford to promote. So in practice the somewhat anticipated expansion in markets has not taken off and the range of titles that publishers can choose to publish remains limited.

In order to understand this serious limitation, one needs to remember that while African language publishing had, before apartheid was institutionalised in 1948, developed and flourished under the care of various missionary houses, afterwards political and educational changes seriously constrained what missionaries could do. Two systems of education - Christian National Education (CNE) and Bantu Education - were introduced for white and black South Africans respectively. CNE was intended to ensure a wholesome intellectual development of white pupils in order to make them suitable future leaders in politics, the economy and in other fields, while Bantu Education impeded the intellectual development of black pupils. The main idea was to force them, through inferior education, to remain servants to their white counterparts. Those who got highly qualified would become suitable civil servants serving black bantustans - in other words, they would become handy agents of separatist ideology and rule.

Bantu Education used first languages as the medium of instruction, while simultaneously narrowing the scope of what could be taught in schools. It led to censorship on critical political and religious issues, so although first-language instruction allowed for the proliferation of African language titles, this abundance was characterised by intellectual, critical and imaginative mediocrity. This was further compounded by the fact that high levels of illiteracy and poverty among blacks meant that there was hardly any book market for African language titles outside the school markets. Thus African language publishing was taken up by educational publishers who could not afford to upset the government, on which they depended for curriculum design and prescription criteria as well as book purchasing.

The new publishing dispensation and book promotion strategies therefore carry with them the hangover from the previous political and educational conditions, hence the wholesale preference for English at the expense of all other languages in the country. Another seriously limiting factor is that in seven provinces, provincial departments still have a school prescription committee. Any title that fails to impress the board is unlikely to be recommended for school reading, so publishers are reluctant to be as adventurous as they should be. Only in Gauteng and the Western Cape are prescription methods less rigid. Western Cape leaves schools to decide on the titles they prefer, while Gauteng has both this open system and a prescription one for schools that might need the comfort of being provided with recommended book lists. The problem with the recommended lists lies in the fact that most of the members of the selection committees previously worked for the apartheid language boards which served a similar purpose - to the detriment of creativity and the critical development of many African language readers. Can we suddenly expect them to change their outlook? It is no wonder that intellectually, linguistically and stylistically challenging writers are still under pressure from publishers and publishers' readers to tone down their language, their thoughts and their styles in order to make their titles more palatable to the still conservative taste buds of educational authorities.

In book promotion African languages suffer yet another setback, where the languages themselves are treated differentially. For example, the M-Net Book Prize offers R50,000 to a winning novel in each of four language categories: English, Afrikaans, Nguni and Sotho. That is, only one novel wins in the four-language Nguni category, and only one in the three-language Sotho category, while English and Afrikaans are categories in their own right. Tshivenda and Xitsonga categories get a merit prize of R16000 each. The Sanlam Literary Award, which has just been extended to include African languages, offers R8000 each for English, Afrikaans, Nguni and Sotho categories. Tshivenda and Xitsonga are not mentioned. This may have something to do with the fact that the two language groups have very few speakers, which in publishing terms means that they do not form big enough markets.

As long as education departments are happy to remain prescriptive, publishers and their readers are too scared to take unconventional titles, and book promoters are prepared to continue with discriminatory practices based on languages - even though acknowledging that M-Net Book Prize and Sanlam Literary Award have done well to extend the awards to African languages - writers will also remain complacent. All this to the detriment of proper educational developments, cultural endeavour and healthy publishing practice.

Phaswane Mpe's Sepedi short story anthology Maru a Maso (Brooding Clouds), is due for publication by Heinemann Publishers, Johannesburg. [end] [BPN, no 25, 1999, p 12]

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