The idea that Afrikaans and English are no longer the sole province of white South Africans may makes for a sexy sound bite, but the truth is that this doesn’t represent a major shift in South African language use over the last decade, particularly when it comes to Afrikaans. The results of Census 2001 found that 13,3% of South Africans spoke Afrikaans at home, and by the time Census 2011 rolled around, this figure had risen only fractionally, to 13,5%.
The popularity of English as a home language has grown slightly more significantly, from 8,2% in 2001 to 9,6% in 2011, and this spurt has allowed English to move up a rung in the popularity chart. In 2001, English was tied for the fifth most spoken home language with Setswana, after isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans and Sepedi. By 2011, English was beating out both Sepedi and Setswana as the fourth most popular home language.
Possibly the more interesting finding, however, is the degree to which English is dominating the South African education system. Of the 12,2 million South African school pupils, just 850,000 (7%) speak English at home. But the SAIRR’s 2012 South Africa Survey, drawing on figures from the Department of Basic Education, found that 7,6 million of them (around 64%) wish to be taught in English. When it comes to Afrikaans, similarly, more pupils want to be taught in the language (11%) than speak it at home (9%), though it lags far behind English as a desired medium of instruction.
[. . . L]anguage has always been a thorny issue in a South African context, and pragmatism of this kind has often not been considered sufficient to swing the debate. For illustration of just how heated these issues can become, South Africans have never had to look further than 16 June 1976, when the spark that lit the tinder box that was the Soweto Riots was the decision taken by the National Party government that Afrikaans should be a compulsory medium of instruction in secondary schools within the Department of Basic Education. That day is a powerful reminder of the significance and centrality of language to national identity.
In South Africa today, English is not just dominant in the education system, but also as the language of power. IsiZulu may be spoken in the greatest number of South African homes, but it is English that is heard in the corridors of power. Parliamentary proceedings are carried out overwhelmingly in English; Hansard, the record of what is said in Parliament, is published in English; and all addresses of national importance – like the state of the nation address, or the annual budget speech – are given in English. This echoes the situation all over post-colonial Africa, where the official language of communication has generally been the language of the former colonial power (mainly English, French of Portuguese), even though knowledge of these languages may be minimal.
There are, of course, consequences to this if the majority of the population is not sufficiently fluent in the language of power. In Language in South Africa: The Role of Language in National Transformation (2002), University of Pretoria linguist Victor Webb makes the point that such languages can become substantial barriers to much of the population accessing their national rights and privileges, and also to accessing the country’s formal economy.