- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

JOHANNESBURG - Parents and teachers across South Africa reacted with fury this week to a government proposal to downgrade English from a compulsory to an optional subject in schools.

Naledi Pandor, the education minister, is expected to announce the reforms in a speech to Parliament. Reports suggest that she will make English optional while the subject of “life orientation” will become compulsory.

“Such a policy is absolute nonsense,” said professor Jean-Phillippe Wade of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“As it stands, the level of teaching English at school is absolutely appalling, and this will draw attention away from the urgent need to improve English teaching.”

English is one of 11 official languages in South Africa, along with Afrikaans and nine indigenous tongues.

If not the most widely spoken, it is certainly the most used in public services, commerce, industry and academia and is preferred by urban blacks as the most effective means of communication.

Teachers organizations object to the change. They argue that English is a universal language and is essential for anyone seeking advancement in society.

“Many parents in poor, rural areas who do not speak English insist on their children being taught it in school, knowing they will have great difficulty in life without it,” said a black headmaster.

“Obviously, students will want to study their home language, be it Zulu, Xhosa or Afrikaans, as it is a vital part of our multicultural society. But when it comes to a second language, I am convinced most parents will opt for English, and any attempt to devalue its worth will be deeply regretted in future.”

Language always has been a sensitive subject in South Africa. The Soweto uprising in the 1970s, seen as the start of South Africa’s black revolution, was ignited by the apartheid government’s edict that Afrikaans would be the main teaching medium.

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