Kiswahili as an antidote to xenophobia in South Africa

This year’s International Literacy Day, observed last Sunday, was held under the theme Literacy and Multiculturalism. It came just after the latest round of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, aptly underscoring the role multiculturalism could play in quieting the mobs.

Kiswahili, an East African coastal language widely spoken on the continent, is being adopted as a teaching language in the country beginning 2020. It could be an antidote to the intolerance, helping heal the country’s often conflicted kinship with the rest of the continent.

This is well acknowledged. South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Angelina Matsie Motshekga, stated as much when announcing the new policy in September 2018 that schools in her country would start teaching the language.

“We are confident that the teaching of Kiswahili in South African schools will help to promote social cohesion with our fellow Africans,” the minister said.

However, the promise held in a new language is universal, which is something UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, reiterated in her message on this year’s literacy day.

She noted how “embracing linguistic diversity in education and literacy development is a key part of developing inclusive societies that respect ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’, upholding human dignity."

A language encompasses culture and history and, therefore, is a repository of concepts on anything we know or do. By learning a new tongue, linguists assert, the words and their meaning influence or play a role in the way we think and feel. This brings us closer to the other person’s culture, making us empathetic in the recognisable humanness her language opens up.

African Arguments emphasises that if policy-making can be a tool to set aspirational goals, then the introduction of African languages in the education system can provide an entry-point for the post-apartheid state to define itself as a place where Africa’s best impulses can take root.

These impulses take root in schools, any nation’s engine for social values and the enculturation of the next generation.

As of July this year, plans have been underway to implement Kiswahili teaching in select pilot schools in South Africa before full implementation next year.

Swahili will be joining 15 other non-official languages taught in South African schools as optional subjects. These include indigenous languages as well as French, German and Mandarin.

It is expected not to be difficult to learn, essentially because it is a Bantu language, same as some of the widely spoken languages in South Africa such as isiXhosa, isiZulu and isiNdebele.

More broadly, South Africa will be joining the around 100 million Swahili speakers in East African countries including Somalia, as well as in Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa republic up the southern reaches of West Africa.

Kiswahili is also an official of the African Union, which brings to mind an anecdote of how this came about. It is told that when the then Chairman of the AU, former Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, was giving his farewell speech in 2004 he surprised delegates by delivering it in Kiswahili.

At the time, reports Quartz, the AU was only using English, Portuguese, Arabic, and French as its official languages—and government officials, caught unawares, scrambled to find translators. The event later pushed the continental body to introduce Kiswahili as an official language.

As UNESCO reiterates, multilingualism contributes to the development of inclusive societies that allow multiple cultures, worldviews and knowledge systems to coexist and cross-fertilise.

This may be viewed against the offensive term makwerekwere used in South Africa for foreigners from the rest of Africa.

Because the term is demeaning and belittling, it removes empathy making it easier to attack the makwerekwere. Yet, the term may dissolve in the appreciation of Swahili culture, including in the sheer beauty of the spoken language as well as in mashairi (poetry) and the taarab music.

However, the desired effect to finish the intolerance will not be immediate. It will take time to build the critical mass, given that it is starting with school children. It may take generations of school children.

Thus, in the immediacy of the problem, there have been efforts such as international pressure as well as demonstrations by human rights activists in South Africa against xenophobia with calls for increased political will and more proactive involvement of the police to stump it out.

The solutions may also be informed by the country’s difficult history as suggested in an Al Jazeera opinion this week titled, Failed decolonisation of South African cities fuels violence.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.