Mass participation limited
by English as sole medium
Jerome Mutumba, Lecturer in the Department of English,
Ongwediva College of Education
Southern Africa, like most parts of Africa, is confronted with complex linguistic problems. There are many languages in Southern Africa that linguists like Pütz (1995:1) observed that the population of sub-Saharan could be measured against. Languages are tools for communication and the medium through which thoughts, values and attitudes are transmitted within and between cultural groups.
During colonialism in Africa, languages were used as tools for perpetuating divisive ideologies and the spirit of hatred among indigenous Africans (Benjamin Jean in Fardon & Furniss 1994:47). Divisive ideologies were promoted through colonial language policies aimed at legitimising the then colonial governments. Language policies during the colonial era in Southern Africa promoted European languages in schools and in most social domains of the sub-Saharan communities at the expense of indigenous local languages. With the advent of political independence, one would expect language policies aimed at reversing the disastrous colonial language policies in Southern Africa.
However, most African countries, upon attainment of political independence, opted for the languages of their former colonisers to be official languages (Matinee 185 in Pütz 1995:1). The Republics of Zambia and Botswana opted for English, the language of their former colonisers, and Mozambique and Angola opted for Portuguese. Later Namibia also joined the anglophone team. Language choice, in terms of what language had to be accorded official status, was difficult for post-colonial African governments because of the fear of being accused of ethnic or tribal favouritism for one individual language among thousands spoken.
With the advent of independence in formerly colonised countries in Africa, most post-colonial governments attempted to mould so-called „contemporary national‟ cultures.
cultures: that, supposedly, reflect the pride and true identity of the indigenous people. As part of the new cultures in developing countries, creation of national identities is frequently given high priority by the political leadership (Weinstein 1990). During the process of moulding the nations, political leaders felt obliged to accelerate the pace of national reforms in accordance with their political philosophies.
Educational reforms, often integral components of nation-building programmes, have sometimes been results of hasty deliberations in political chambers. Some countries, such as Namibia, exhibit clear discrepancies as well between policy statements and their actual implementation processes. The Namibian Government, upon the attainment of independence in 1990, through the then Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport (MECYS), took three years to produce a guiding language policy
document entitled “The language policy for schools”. The document was issued in June 1993 (Pütz 1995:169).
By the time the language policy document was issued, however, the MECYS had already implemented the language policy in all state schools. The phasing in of English as a medium of instruction took effect from 1992. Both Grades 8-9 in state schools were being taught in English. In fact only two years after independence was the language policy in schools „ready‟ for implementation. With the implementation, one would expect that all the required resources such as teachers, textbooks and other relevant materials, would be in order, but this was not the case.
However, despite the problems mentioned, the Namibian language policy made provision for commendable guidelines for implementation. The implementation was planned to take place in phases. From 1992 Grades 8-9 were supposed to implement English medium instructions. In 1993 this had to continue to include Grades 8-10, 1994 Grades 8-11 and finally in 1995 all Grades (8-12).
The phasing-in of English in Namibia is in itself a good idea in principle, but the issue is whether it was well-timed. It is hard to judge its successes. I could not find evidence, such as a report or any documented proof by the Ministry of Education and Culture or its implementing agencies that spelled out the successes of the first phase before moving to the second phase. In the absence of a report or any documented evidence on the application of the language policy for schools, it is difficult to determine whether there is a proper monitoring system in place. The onus is upon the institutions and all other agencies entrusted with overseeing the implementation process to define the success of the Language Policy, the critical issue being in this case the transition to English.
No matter how sound a policy can be, if it is not carefully applied, it is doomed to fail. As stated by Gaelge in Weinstein (1990:143), the judicious application of a policy by
various governmental agencies, such as the ministry of education, is of course its ultimate test, leading towards success of failure, excellence or mediocrity.
It is imperative at this stage to revisit „the evolution‟ of the language policy for schools in Namibia. Though the then MECYS emphasised the democratic nature of its policy formulation (MECYS 1993) and claimed that there was a lengthy stage during the LP process to ensure national consensus, I found no evidence of this. In fact, the nature of the consultation left much to be desired. The MECYS set up the language development committee that produced a provisional policy for schools in 1991. The provisional draft language policy was distributed in schools with a questionnaire to solicit public response (Haacke 1994). But the results of the investigation were not made public (Chamberlain, in Haacke 1994). In fact, in response to the questionnaire, pressure groups from the Afrikaans and German communities petitioned the MECYS in an attempt to preserve their language privileges. Haacke (1994:2-45) observed that the majority of the people in the northern part of the country had not input into the draft policy. Apparently these people did not respond to the questionnaire, and therefore their silence was considered approval of the draft language policy for school. This is contrary to the claim made by the MECYS about a „lengthy consultative‟ process.
It supports the observation (supported by Haacke 1994) made earlier that political
leaders accelerated the pace of the language planning process to fit their political
agendas. I consider this act as a total disregard for the needs and aspirations of the
people and it is therefore a threat to national unity and language harmony in the
country. Fishman (1986) noted that it is social, economic and political phenomena
superimposed on ethnolinguistic, racial and religious differences which explain most
The policy document that was drafted in 1981 by UNIN entitled “Towards a language
policy for Namibia” laid down the foundation for the Namibian language policy. The
document was a product of academic investigations in line with the so-called
“International Model” of language planning. So what role have the indigenous people
played in the language planning process? I can only point out that the majority of the
indigenous peoples played a mere passive receptive role: digest what was given to
them by the ruling elite. This is a sign of the total disregard for mass participation in
determining policies which affect the population at large. No wonder there was apathy
from the majority of the people in response to questions issued in 1991 by the
language development committee. What differences was it going to make if the
people responded to the questionnaire on the draft language policy for schools?
Since the majority of the people were not consulted in drafting the „provisional
language policy for schools‟, it is reasonable to surmise that the input of even the
majority of the people could not affect the decision of the language development
planning committee which was accountable to the political elite which had appointed
them. This is a bad precedent as Kaplain and Baldauf Jr. (1997:310) observed: that: It
is likely that in any given environment, political, linguistic and social objectives may
be flying off in quite different directions and with different degrees of intensity. It is
part of the planners‟ task to try to achieve some coincidence among these disparate goals-to bring some order to this chaos as part of the language-planning process.
After the language policy was finalised, the Ministry of Education and Culture,
supported by the Overseas Development Agency (ODA) and the British Council,
arranged a national conference on the implementation of the language policy for
schools (Haacke 1994:244). The Primary purpose of the conference was to provide a
forum for informed debate and a true exchange of ideas to help promote widespread
understanding of the language policy for schools and its implementation (foreword by
the Minister of Education and Culture, MEC 1993).
The conference should be seen for what it was, a mere attempt to drum up support
from the people and to justify the rationale behind the implementation of the
Namibian language policy for schools. Evidently, according to Haacke (1994:244),
the most important papers of the proceedings of the conference, but understandably
only those in favour of the language policy, were published in a book from (MEC,
1994) and distributed to schools countrywide.
Some problems can clearly emerge as a result of the language planning process and
policy. Although the language policy ideally supports mother tongue education,
because of inadequate resources, such as teachers and textbooks, it is difficult, if not
impossible to implement mother tongue instruction in Grades 1-3 in most schools
countrywide. This is coupled with what I refer to as the „reluctance of the elite group‟ to promote indigenous languages. Haacke (1994) pointed out that during the so-called
national language conference on the implementation of the language policy for
schools, not one paper was devoted to the African languages. This poses a possible
threat to the survival and the status of the indigenous languages.
The shortage of qualified teachers is a very serious threat toward the successful
realisation of the language policy goals. As Arthur (1994) and Ridge (1997:173)
pointed out in Botswana, issues of pupils‟ abilities in classrooms are greatly
outweighed by those of teachers‟ competencies because teachers have inadequate
command of the medium of instruction.
When the education system that is intended to consolidate the national policies fails to
achieve its goals, we can expect failure of broader national policies. The future of the
broader national language policy in Namibia might also be in jeopardy. The success
of the language policy in schools to promote English and produce students who are
proficient in it remains to be seen.
With the language policy that emphasises English as a sole official language, Namibia,
like other countries in Africa such as Zambia, will limit the participation and
involvement of the majority of its people in economic, political and social
development. The education sector will be a vehicle for creating an elite class that
empowers the masses.
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