More than a decade after Wits agreed to adopt Sesotho as a second language, the university is no closer to implementing this commitment.

In 2003 Wits University drew up a language policy that said the university would use an African language, Sesotho, as a medium for teaching and learning.

“The resources of the university need to be mobilised to enhance the language competencies of staff and students and, in partnership with the government, play a role in the development of one of South Africa’s African languages,” reads the policy.

However, while the policy has remained in effect its implementation has been hampered by a lack of resources.

“Unfortunately, I do not have a good story to tell … I think we must take some responsibility, we say one thing and we do another,” said Vice-chancellor Prof Adam Habib.

Habib said the current language policy was “all for show” and the university needs to be realistic about its ability to implement an African language for teaching. “We love the policy but where are we going to find the millions of rands? It’s all for show and not for the reality of where we are. It’s a symbolic statement we make [more] than a real statement,” he said.

The 2003 policy outlined the implementation of Sesotho in four phases however, a decade later, not a single phase of implementation has taken place. Phase one, offering Sesotho classes for staff members, was supposed to have been implemented in 2010.

The policy was adopted by Wits because government made it a requirement for all higher educational institutions to further transform. The university signed the policy but took little action to implement it.

THE ISSUE: Adam Habib in conversation about the Language Policy.

THE ISSUE: Vice- chancellor Prof Adam Habib in conversation about the Language Policy. Photo by: Anazi Zote

“The university said ‘let’s go into compliance and let’s tick the boxes’ and we kept quiet and nobody asked,” Habib said.

The university began to look at revising and implementing its policy last year after government said it would conduct a survey of indigenous languages at higher education institutions.

Prof Libby Meintjes, head of the School of Language and Literature Studies, said the first draft of a new language policy would be released in October.

“We are moving back to mother tongue teaching and if we cannot manage it in lectures we will have it in tutorials,” Meintjes said.

According to Meintjes, last year the university sent an email survey asking what was the preferred African language as a medium of learning and teaching. The results showed that isiZulu was in demand more than Sesotho.

“Staff and students put isiZulu ahead of Sesotho because of the language competence and the number of people that speak it but we don’t feel that because isiZulu has replaced Sesotho we will only go for isiZulu,” Meintjes said.

Habib said Wits needed to be honest about what it can do in terms of using African languages with current resources.

“We cannot spend so much time lying to ourselves. I think we should come into terms with it, if we don’t have the resources, the will, and we don’t have the courage, let’s not pretend that we do,” he said.

However, he concluded that Wits can achieve some kind of transformation, but it would be skewed by South Africa’s history.