The Legacy of Apartheid & Mother Tongue Education

Since the end of Apartheid, the South African government has enacted policies toward making multilingualism a defining characteristic of being South African (Davis, 2013). In 2014, a new pilot policy, Indigenous Languages Across Junior Schools (ILAJ), came into effect that mandates that all schools teach at least one African language (Elijah, 2014). The ILAJ is noteworthy because it ends the previously voluntary nature of pre-existing mother tongue education (MTE) policies. The government intended to implement ILAJ incrementally from 2014 to 2026. The ILAJ’s pilot launched within an initial group of 15 schools in grades K & 1. One month into the program, the media announced the ILAJ a failure (Makhubu, 2014). Reportedly, The government put little thought into its implementation and failed to train teachers for MTE (Makhubu, 2014). The government erroneously concluded that native speakers could simply teach their mother tongue without training or curricular support (Makhubu, 2014). The Department of Basic Education acknowledged that it handled ILAJ poorly and has reduced its pilot grades to only Grade 1 (Elijah, 2014). Such a senseless failure to broaden multilingualism supports Neville Alexander’s criticism that the government only pays lip service multilingualism while the country slides into dysfunctional pockets of mono-lingualism dominated by English (Alexander, 2004).

This paper argues that MTE policy failure, such as the ILAJ, is symptomatic of the lingering legacy of Apartheid’s mother tongue education (MTE) policy. This paper reasons that Apartheid’s legacy has undermined the social, political, and economic motivation needed to transform post-apartheid South Africa into a multi-lingual society. A multi-lingual society is one that calls upon a linguistic repertoire rather than an official language to communicate. The paper is structured to provide a foundation in MTE learning science, The MTE policies of Apartheid, and the legacy of Apartheid MTE policies. The paper concludes that the government’s undermined and insufficient MTE policies will do little to prevent South African society from continuing to slide further toward English dominance.

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Foundations in MTE

MTE is a collection of learning science principles centered on mother-tongue language learning. MTE is grounded in the theory, “that the best predictor of cognitive/academic language development in a second language (L2) is the level of 
development of cognitive/academic language proficiency in L1”(Bell, 2010, p. 21). MTE is based on the notion of cognitive interdependence amongst languages learned (Bell, 2010). Following the MTE theory, students who become competent in their mother tongue (L1) are able to transfer their linguistic competence to their L2 (Bell, 2010). Educationalists attest that in order to reach L1 competence before L2 transfer students must pass a threshold of at least six to eight years of formal L1 study (Heugh, 2013).

MTE programs are classified as additive if the L2 is introduced as a subject of study within an L1 learning environment. MTE programs are classified as subtractive if the L1 is used as a means to transfer the entire learning environment into the L2. In the subtractive case the L1 is used as a means toward the L2’s ends. In an additive case the L1 and L2 are both valued as ends (UNESCO Bangkok, 2008). Apartheid-era MTE policies were not founded on either the additive or subtractive classification, but rather on an exclusionary basis that aimed to separate the African majority from any linguistic capital (Alexander, 1989).

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Language Policy During and After Apartheid

During Apartheid (1910-1994), language policy was employed as a strategy through which the white Afrikaans-speaking state maintained its hegemony over black Africans (Chick, 2002). During Apartheid, when the official languages were Afrikaans and English, the Afrikaners employed additive MTE from their L1 (Afrikaans) to their L2 (English) (Alexander, 1989). Although European MTE was additive, the Afrikaners decreed “separate freedoms” for black Africans in regard to African MTE education. These “separate freedoms”, exemplified by the exclusionary nature of the Bantu Education Act (BEA), would separate Africans from any means of linguistic capital and/or formal power (Alexander, 1989).

Throughout Apartheid, Afrikaners saw English-speaking black Africans as a threat to Afrikaner political hegemony (Orman, 2007). Starting in 1949, the Apartheid government began closing English missionary schools intentionally to cut Africans off from English education, and move them into the Bantu education system (Orman, 2007). Beginning in 1953, the Bantu Education Act introduced compulsory mother-tongue schooling for blacks for the first eight years of primary education, after which secondary education would be continued in English or Afrikaans (Orman, 2007).

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The BEA was widely viewed as a “government trick”, since black African students rarely advanced beyond eight years of schooling (Orman, 2007). Also, the proposed transfer to English or Afrikaans in secondary school was subtractive and did not provide for language bridging into secondary school (Orman, 2007). The BEA separated black Africans from the European linguistic capital needed for political participation, higher education, and the few channels of social mobility available to them during Apartheid. Likewise, the Bantu Education Board was established to censor any materials published for the African MTE programs (Alexander, 2004). Not only did the Bantu System relegate the majority of African school goers to their mother tongue, for the students who advanced into European language secondary schools their language options were further limited.  

Between 1955 and 1976, those few African language-speaking students who did continue from the Bantu system into secondary school were legally obligated to take half of their secondary school courses in Afrikaans (Heugh, 2013). This obligation excluded them from entering English-only schools and attempted to carve a prominent place for Afrikaans within South African society. An attempt in 1976 to make Afrikaans the language of instruction in black primary schools sparked the Soweto Uprising, in which police killed 176 African protesters (Orman, 2007). The BEA’s implementation exemplifies harsh top-down nature of Apartheid MTE policy.  


The BEA it did not match the linguistic reality of the black African people. The BEA was motivated by a political agenda to separate the black African populace into distinct and competing ethnic groups, in order to stimulate social tension and disunity (Alexander, 1989). The Bantu Education Board invented linguistic-tribal identities in order to delineate society along the Eurocentric vision of linguistic homelands (Alexander, 1989). Apartheid-era linguists documented language distinctions between regions and enforced the fiction of homeland languages (Alexander, 1989). It was the Apartheid government’s linguistic surveys that created a number of tribal identities that did not previously exist (Alexander, 1989). These language policies were part of the colonial divide and rule concept (Orman, 2007). Similar sentiments inspired the creation of Northern Sotho as a distinct buffer between Sotho the national language of Lesotho and Tswana the national language of Botswana (Orman, 2013). It is conjectured that this division was to dilute tribal sympathies across national borders (Alexander, 2003).


On a conceptual level, the Apartheid government’s strategy fits the monolingual Eurocentric concept of a single nation with a common lingua franca, but doesn’t fit the traditional African reality of a diverse linguistic repertoire as a means to communicate (Van der Walt, 2014). Even the idea of a single mother tongue is incongruent with the urban context where inter-lingual families are common (Huegh, 2013). The nine African languages delineated during Apartheid and the oppressive legacy of the Bantu Education Act would impact Post-apartheid policy and undermine black Africans support for post-apartheid MTE.


With the end of Apartheid, The South African Constitution of 1994 combines the nine African languages delineated during Apartheid along with English and Afrikaans to identify eleven official languages. The Constitution does not designate a single national language. Under the Bill of Rights everyone has the right to receive education in the official language of their choosing–with the caveat “where this is reasonably practicable” (Davis, 2013). Due to the sensitivity enshrined into the Bill of Rights, MTE remains voluntary for schools or districts to implement. The voluntary nature does not commit the government to broader MTE implementation (Beukes, 2009).


South Africa’s first two national curricula, 1997’s Curriculum 2005 and 2002’s Curriculum 2011, were based on a subtractive early transition into an English learning environment (Heugh, 2013). The curricula set that by 4th grade the MTE programs would transfer into English. In 2013, 79.1 percent of 4th graders studied through English as a medium of instruction (Heugh, 2013). Despite the governments best intention to foster a multi-lingual society to undo the lingering ethnic chauvinism of Apartheid (Davis, 2013), a deeper analysis of the legacy of Apartheid on society and policy illustrate that the South African population is suspicious of MTE policies, reluctant to invest in their mother tongue, and that political class is partial to English as South Africa’s lingua franca.


The Legacy of Apartheid Language Policy

Examining the contemporary MTE curricula, Curriculum 2005 and Curriculum 2011, we see that they are not only subtractive, but too short for the recommended six to eight year proficiency threshold. Since South African schools transfer to the L2 by grade four, mother tongue materials and teacher training are not available to students and staff beyond grade three (Heugh, 2013). Although longer term MTE will lead to a strong acquisition of L2, suspicious parents opt their children out of voluntary MTE education. Due to Apartheid’s legacy, MTE remains stigmatized as a means to limit socio-economic mobility (Heugh, 2013). The retention of Bantu-era languages in the new Constitution undermines popular support for the MTE policies (Orman, 2007). The anti-MTE population is accused of mistaking contemporary MTE as a residual from the Bantu Education Act (Beukes, 2009).


The legacy of the Bantu Education system inspired black Africans to view English as the vehicle for social mobility (Orman, 2007). Black political figures in the anti-apartheid movement, coined the  “Afro-Saxons” (Orman, p.111), learned English in the English missionary schools that the Apartheid government closed (Alexander, 1989). The African middle class that emerged in the post-apartheid era is predominantly pro-English. Seeking social mobility and linguistic capital, they send their children to English-medium schools and complete their higher education in English. They are criticized for perpetuating the misconception of “ English as education itself” (Alexander, 1989 p. 60). The anti-Apartheid movement’s pro-English stance would translate into a societal inclination toward English and away from valuing the mother tongue.


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South African political figure Neville Alexander criticized that in the post-Apartheid era South Africa suffered from, “the colonized mind—that is to say, the fact that the vast majority of black people simply do not believe that their languages can or should be used for higher-order functions” (Alexander, 2004 p. 121). Alexander goes on to argue that African language speakers suffer from low confidence and political isolation (Alexander, 2004). South Africa’s multi-lingual society assigns languages varied degrees of social capital. Since English carries the greatest value on the “linguistic market,” English undermines the economic value of the African languages (Heugh, 2013). Globalization, the economic driver of the post-apartheid era, has expanded the linguistic market for English from within the South African economy unto the world economy. Information technology is driving English as the global lingua franca. Since an international component is essential for modern careers, English is seen as a necessary skill for the new economy that South Africa is eager to develop. Given that the population is weary of MTE and that economic forces are pulling Africa toward English dominance, it is not surprising that the African political class is not entirely supportive of creating a multi-lingual society.


The South African Constitution promises citizens the right to mother-tongue education however the caveat, “where this is reasonably practicable” allows the government to skirt responsibility to provide for it. This caveat unintentionally limits MTE to schools in the marginalized townships and rural areas, which cannot afford English language instruction (Beukes, 2009). Likewise the voluntary nature of MTE as a right does not commit the government to fund broader MTE implementation (Beukes, 2009). MTE is seen not as a national priority, but as a fallback for schools that cannot afford English medium education (Beukes, 2009). Although the new constitution’s deliberate lack of a national language can be viewed as a return toward the African concept of a multilingual repertoire, African language scholars expressed doubts about the Constitution’s designs for a multilingual society. They believed that designating eleven official languages without a national language was impractical and that society would inevitably regress toward English as the lingua franca (Heugh, 2013).


The South African government’s tacit acceptance of English as South Africa’s de facto national language can be observed from a number of angles. The eleven official languages policy required the new government to build up extensive and expensive linguistic resources in order to offer government services in all languages (Beukes, 2009). Due to low motivation and resources, it was not until 2007 that a focused effort to provide essential government services and documents in the nine African languages was orchestrated (Beukes, 2009). During that thirteen-year gap, English remained the primary language of official government services. Neville Alexander criticized that the post-apartheid development strategy, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), didn’t include language resources as a critical infrastructure (Alexander, 2004). The GEAR championed the government’s assumption “that everything would happen in English” (Alexander, 2004 p.121). The government’s continued functioning in a unilingual, English- dominated, working environment hindered the marginalized populations access to services and hence maintained the social capital imbalance that English held in South Africa (Alexander, 2004). Although the government maintains it goal of creating a multi-lingual society, its contemporary policies continue the legacy of insufficient forethought and low government motivation.

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From an economic perspective people will gravitate toward the language with the highest linguistic capital. Since South Africa’s current MTE curricula are subtractive, society is justified with its low enthusiasm for MTE. If the South African government wants to continue toward a multi-lingual society they are best to convert to additive MTE policies that treat both languages as an ends and provide a smooth transfer from the L1 to the L2 learning environment. Additive MTE is more expensive, requires sustained curricular support, and stronger teacher training. The Government will need to deflect the criticism of simply paying lip service to multi-lingualism and fund an additive MTE curriculum. Without this the status quo, sliding toward English, will not change.  


Even in 2014, the legacy of Apartheid continues to haunt the government’s ideal of a multilingual society. In a complete power reversal the Afrikaans community is lobbying for Afrikaans to be listed as an indigenous language. Hence allowing the Afrikaans private schools to continue Afrikaans MTE during the ILAJ curriculum (Davis, 2013). If this becomes the case, then the ILAJ’s impact in shifting the status quo is further diminished (Davis, 2013). In order for South Africa to shake off this lingering legacy of Apartheid the government must convince the people of every class that the mother tongue has value, adopt an additive curriculum that preserves that value, and properly fund and support those initiatives.




Alexander, N. (1989). Language policy and national unity in South Africa/Azania (Digital Ed). Sea Point: Buchu Books. Retrieved from

Alexander, N. (2003). Language education policy, national and sub-national identities in South Africa. Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 1–28. Retrieved from

Alexander, N. (2004). The politics of language planning in post-apartheid South Africa. Language Problems & Language Planning (Vol. 2). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Bell, J. (2010). Educational Equity for Children from Diverse Language Backgrounds. UNESCO International Symposium: Translation and Cultural Mediation, 1–87. Retrieved from

Beukes, A.-M. (2009). Language policy incongruity and African languages in postapartheid South Africa. Language Matters, 40(June 2013), 35–55.

Chick, J. K. (2002). Constructing a Multicultural Society: South African Classrooms as Sites of Struggle between Competing Discourses. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 23(April 2015), 462–478.

Davis, R. (2013). Analysis: Can Basic Education’s new language policy work? Daily Maverick, 1–10.

Elijah, M. (2014). African Language Policy Pilot. Pretoria: Department of Education.

Heugh, K. (2013). Multilingual Education Policy in South Africa Constrained by Theoretical and Historical Disconnections. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33, 215–237.

Makhubu, N., & Lancaster, K. (2014, February). Mother tongue language plan flops. The Mercury. Durban. Retrieved from

Orman, J. (2007). LANGUAGE POLICY AND NATION-BUILDING IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA by Jon Orman Submitted for the degree of PhD. University of London.

UNESCO Bangkok. (2008). Improving the Quality of Mother Tongue-based Literacy and Learning: Case Studies from Asia , Africa and South America. Bangkok: UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education.

Van der Walt, C. (2014). Special issue on bi/multilingual identity in South Africa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 17(6), 635–637.


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One Response to The Legacy of Apartheid & Mother Tongue Education

  1. Mats Liekens says:

    Well Deren, that was quite the read. It sounded more like an essay at times, which is the greatest of compliments coming from an unstructured fellow expat-blogger. You taught me new things about South Africa, a country which I’ve sadly never visited. My knowledge on the topic does not exceed Mr Mandela, sadly, although he has been a great help in my classes up until this week. The quote my students have dissected last Sunday was; “May your choices reflect your hopes, and not your fears”. I’m glad that you’re doing the same.

    I’m glad your blog is active again. It has taken a turn into the academic aspect, same as you.


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