After 13 years of drafting the first policy, Wits will finally implement Sesotho, IsiZulu and South African Sign Language on campus.

Tebogo Tshwane and Michelle Gumede

Language Policy finally being implemented

Wits has begun rolling out a new language policy that aims to make the university a multilingual environment, said Deputy Vice Chancellor Prof Andrew Crouch.

Wits is in the first phase of implementing the new policy, 13 years after the first language policy was approved. This will include setting up a language board and the creating signage in English, isiZulu and Sesotho, said Crouch.

The first policy, which was initially adopted in 2003, was aimed at promoting and developing the use of Sesotho as well as English as languages of communication for all staff members and students at Wits. However, it was never implemented.

The policy currently being implemented was adopted in 2015 after being approved by University Council and Senate.

First Phase involves putting up signage

However, some people have called the idea of indigenous languages signage in the policy as only “symbolic” and that there is a need for a more comprehensive approach to the situation instead of a “cosmetic” one.

“It’s not about signage, these are easy battles to fight and these are easy solutions if you have a conservative administration,” said Prof Dilip Menon, director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa.

“You don’t need to put 16 signs over a toilet or 16 signs or 12 or whatever number of languages telling you where the library is. That is the tip of the iceberg.”

In the new policy, the university said it acknowledges the importance of creating a multilingual environment where language “is not a barrier to access and success”.

A need for financial resources has previously been cited as the main obstacle to implementing the policy. Menon said that in addition to resources, we should also consider if there is political will to promote South African languages. He said an example of political will at work is reflective in the development of Afrikaans as a language of instruction that is on par with other languages.

“The university and the political class has to commit to providing a parallel stream of teaching and learning in the language of the region apart from English,” said Menon.

Crucial step toward decolinising the university

Associate Professor of Linguistics Tommaso Milani told Wits Vuvuzela via an e-mail the policy at Wits takes into account two of the nine African languages and South African Sign Language, which is crucial for “decolonisation”.

“Writing about colonialism, the Kenyan thinker, Ngugi Wa Thiongo [cogently] said: ‘The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language [i.e. English] was the means of the spiritual subjugation’,” said Milani.

He added that in implementing the policy “Wits University could play a key role in starting to reverse the colonial project.”

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected since being published. It initially had reported that the first language policy adopted in 2003 was intended to promote Sesotho, English, isiZulu and sign language. In fact, the initial policy was intended to promote only Sesotho and English.