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S.Africa seeks to shore up local languages

South African radio broadcasts in 11 languages. The national anthem includes verses in five.

TV ads, soap operas, ATM machines, and newspapers have all begun using more languages since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.

But in a nation that has in the past been violently divided over languages, there is an awkward discomfort that English increasingly predominates in South Africa.

“We always talk about being a nation united in diversity, yet we can’t afford certain languages a right to be heard,” Culture Minister Paul Mashatile told AFP in an interview.

“This is our chance to do just that,” he said.

Mashatile’s ministry has proposed a new South African Languages bill, which would require that government communicate in at least three of the official languages.

Most government communication now happens in English and Afrikaans, the language most closely associated with the white-minority regime. The decision to force students to learn in Afrikaans sparked the Soweto uprising in 1976, a milestone in the anti-apartheid struggle.

The decision to keep most government communication in Afrikaans and English after Nelson Mandela was elected in 1994 was mainly out of convenience, since that is the way it had always been done, Mashatile said.

“We are saying add one indigenous language to be used with the two dominant languages,” Mashatile said.

“This bill is meant to promote multilingualism, not just one specific language,” said Mashatile.

For regional governments, the third language would be chosen based on local demographics, with preference given to “diminishing” languages, he said.

The bill, on the cards since 2007, is in response to a provision of the constitution which states that government must “take practical and positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of indigenous languages”.

“So far there has been no legal framework that binds the state to actually implement this clause,” Mashatile said.

The bill is currently open for public debate before it is discussed in parliament.

“There has been a lot of interest from the public. People take pride in their languages and it is a very emotional subject,” said Mashatile.

Recently some wealthier public schools stopped teaching indigenous languages, prompting outrage from government.

Some privates schools opt for European languages like French, German and Spanish as additional languages, citing demand and interest by pupils.

The bill does not address the worries about the curriculum, but Mashatile said the Department of Education would have to communicate in three languages, which would have ripple effects on the schools.

“We have noted the problem around the use of African languages in schools. This bill will have far reaching consequences in terms of addressing these situations,” he said.

“No language is more important than the other”.

Most of South Africa’s indigenous languages are regional. Zulu is the most common language spoken at home, understood by 24 percent of the population, followed by Xhosa at nearly 18 percent, Afrikaans at 13 percent and Pedi at nine percent, according to government information. English follows at eight percent.

Afrikaners in particular worry that the bill would disadvantage their language.

Others worry that the bill would impose no punishment for failing to comply, and provides no budget for translation services to implement the law.

Mashatile could not reveal the cost of implementing the bill, only admitting that it would be a “costly exercise”.