Namkelekile eChina

The Wits African Languages department is taking isiZulu to China. The department will host scholars from Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) who will learn isiZulu which they will then teach to students at their home institution as part of a project between the two institutions. The trained academics will then offer isiZulu at BFSU as a third language option for teaching and learning.

The project was launched early last week at the university where the South African ambassador to China was present.

The head of the strategic partnerships office at Wits, Dr Mahomed Moola, said that representatives of BFSU approached the South African embassy in Beijing which in turn approached Wits to head up the initiative.

According to Moola, a PhD scholar will be coming to Wits from China next year to complete an undergraduate course in isiZulu for non-zulu speakers. He added that these scholars will have to obtain a professional degree and teaching qualification before they can go back to China to teach isiZulu to their students.

Associate professor in African Languages, Innocentia Mhlambi, said this will be the first collaboration of its kind for Wits. “The programme has been launched through their initiative, our part is when the two institutions would have agreed on standard terms which will allow exchanges and other forms of collaboration,” she said.

Mhlambi added that BFSU has set the pace for themselves since the launch last week and according to their numbers, a dozen of students chose the course as their third language.

“Once we have the memorandum of understanding, agreed upon, then we shall have greater participation and direction the teaching and development of the course,” she said.

“We are actually greatly pleased that there are certain kinds of developments, very marked kinds of advances to see that isiZulu begins to be seen not only as a local language, but as a language that also appeals to international kinds of arenas,” Mhlambi told Wits Vuvuzela.

She said that such a collaboration will also benefit exchange staff and students from South Africa to get employment in China.


Moola said the signing of the final agreement with the institution will take place in the weeks ahead.


Third year postgraduate LLB student, Nhlanhla Mjiyako, who completed a course in African Languages in his undergraduate degree, said this is good idea because it facilitates “global cultural exchange”.

He said, “it’s a positive variant of globalisation other than the monolingual or hegemonic English establishments”, he added that it is good for Asia and Africa relations as well.

Language Policy stalled at Wits

Published in Wits Vuvuzela 17th Edition 27 July

Wits’ language policy to introduce Sesotho as the university’s second language has been a failure, says Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Yunus Ballim.

The policy, implemented in 2003, aimed to have Sesotho spoken by all lecturers and provided for academically. “I think it’s fair to say the document failed. In its intention it was noble, but in its practical implementation sense it was ill-conceived. It is in serious, serious need of a rewrite,” Ballim says.

The person responsible for that rewrite is Dean of Humanities Prof Tawana Kupe, who wants to move back to the basics by “beefing up” the African Languages department. This additional “academic scaffolding” would provide the structure for the department to lead the university forward with an updated policy.

The policy is almost ten years old. The aim was for Wits to join the University of the Free State and the University of Lesotho in advancing the Sesotho language in the academic arena.

Ballim explains that a fundamental error in the policy is its attempt to carve up the language geography of the country. “We were mistaken in the way we conceived of the language policy … in part what we had responded to was an apartheid conception of the geography of African languages.”

While the policy itself has not led to any direct developments, it is not all doom and gloom for the advancement of African languages at the historically English-dominated university.

Ballim implemented a compulsory Zulu course in the Health Sciences, which is now an examinable subject in 2nd year. This was a departure from the Sesotho-based policy, and isiZulu was chosen as a more accessible language for interaction, most importantly for communication with patients.

Ballim used the influence of creative writing as a more effective tool for challenging academic discourse, rather than trying to learn from a textbook. “Universities have not responded to the dynamism in language. We need to modernise our conception of the teaching of African languages.”

Kupe agrees, pointing to the diversity of languages used in local soapies and the changing way we perceive language. “We need to teach language in a way that people understand.”

On the policy’s lack of success, Ballim concedes: “I’m embarrassed to say it is an area we should have picked up and we didn’t, and it is something we should have done better at.”Students chatting on the Great Hall steps