Continuing socio-economic polarisation in South Africa has been compounded by the diminished status and use of indigenous languages, says Bhekumuzi Abdul Shabalala. He argues that this is raising concerns about the functional limitations of the law and its complicity in maintaining the prevailing social hierarchies and unequal power relation in the country today

IN his major non-fiction work, Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o evaluates the role of language in literature and elsewhere in consolidating some of the ongoing contradictions in post-colonial Africa. This article present essay follows in that tradition – with the hope of reintroducing language dynamics as a way of understanding the persistent legacy of colonialism and apartheid. This bears particular relevance because prior to the democratic breakthrough in the 1990s, through legislative and other measures, indigenous languages were not recognised as official and their active use was confined to the different homelands spread across South Africa. English and Afrikaans, however, had official status and were routinely used in the administrative functions of government and other shared spaces.


Against the background of the historical marginalisation of indigenous languages and the cultural subordination attendant to it, the new Constitution has provisions that seek to restore their status and use. Section 6(1) and 6(2) respectively confer official status on the nine indigenous languages alongside English and Afrikaans, and place a positive duty on government to make efforts towards the progressive realisation of the equal status and use of all the official languages. These provisions are bound up with the political project that facilitated South Africa’s transition from apartheid rule to a constitutional democracy and were part of the government’s attempt to foster reconciliation among the different racial groups and restore dignity to black people.

The constitutional promise of equal status and use of all official languages notwithstanding, it is interesting to note that little has changed with regard to language dynamics in South Africa. For example, English is often used across all areas of communication – administration, formal economy, academia, as well as in mainstream everyday discourse. The use of African indigenous languages, by contrast, is limited to intimate domains, as a learning area at the pre-tertiary schooling level and sometimes in government communication as a tick-box exercise to satisfy the constitutional requirement to use at least two official languages.

There are important systemic reasons that underlie the continued diminished status and use of indigenous languages. These are inevitably linked to the liberal framework that South Africa’s constitutional jurisprudence is based on and nuances concerning structural power and privileged social identities.

Constitutionalism is an important defining feature of liberalism. In addition to its insistence on restricting how government wields power, it posits the idea of a written constitution which, through a set of rights and duties, regulates the vertical relationship between the state and its citizens. From this reading it is clear that the South African Constitution has a liberal influence because of the general language it is couched in and, more importantly, the emphasis it places on the utility of rights and duties as a measure towards substantive redress. Against this background, it is therefore necessary that in evaluating the continued diminished status and use of indigenous languages, language rights are not looked at in isolation but within the context of the general framework of the Constitution.

Despite its popularity in the modern nation state, the liberal legal tradition has often been criticised for quite a number of reasons. Part of the criticism centres on its knee-jerk response to invoke rights as a solution to problems that are nuanced and sometimes even extra-legal. For example, the political scientist, Wendy Brown, has observed that rights are limited in that the most they do is to acknowledge injustices or asymmetrical relations in society but do not include a wholesale assault on the conditions that produce injustices in the first place. Thus, language rights in the Constitution presuppose the historically diminished status and use of indigenous languages but are inadequate to altogether address the language problem within the existing political, legal and economic system.

Michel Foucault argues that a set of legal guarantees – either by way of rights or duties – is not enough to facilitate the social arrangement envisioned by the law. This should be understood against the background of the Foucauldian conception of law, in terms of which the centrality of law in the routine exercise of power has devolved to other apparatus of governance. On this view, provisions of the law do not play a pivotal role in constituting power relations and prevailing cultures in society but instead other extra-legal institutions do. Implicit in this argument is the suggestion that in order to change established patterns in society, legal guarantees alone are inadequate but instead other apparatus of power will have to be engaged for this purpose.

The Foucauldian critique of the law provides helpful insight with regard to how language dynamics play out in post-apartheid South Africa. Although there are relevant constitutional and even statutory provisions that anticipate the elevation of the status and advancement of the use of indigenous languages, this has largely not happened. This is because the legal guarantees in place are not enough to change language dynamics in a meaningful way. Beyond almost passive legal guarantees and similar to the reconfiguration of traditional Mandarin in China in the early 1950s, this requires, for example, engaged efforts towards what in linguistics is described as ‘corpus planning’–developing the vocabulary and linguistic registers of indigenous languages so that they have the functional sophistication equivalent to English. However, even if this was done use of indigenous languages in the formal economy and other shared spaces would be contingent on other factors, especially economic relations.

An equally compelling charge has been made by academics sympathetic to the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement. Karl Klare argues that legal conservatism in certain quarters of the judiciary has had the effect of reining in on constitutional transformation. This feeds into the general scepticism in the CLS movement towards interpretations and applications of the law that are formalistic and cautious not to upset the status quo. An example in this regard is Lourens. This case involved an application seeking an order compelling government to enact a language act regulating its use of official languages. Despite the fact that this is anticipated in section 6(4), the court declined to grant the order, holding that it could not compel the government to adopt such an act because it was not required by the Constitution. Such decontexualised attitudes towards the law partially explain the delay in the rather drawn-out idea of transformation.

When apartheid formally ended, there was a general expectation that the African National Congress (ANC) would pursue a socialist macroeconomic programme. However, this did not happen. Instead, it opted for a more or less laissez-faire, market-oriented economic approach. Two decades into the new dispensation, however, there is growing consensus that this approach was misplaced. This is because it has not significantly altered socio-economic relations in post-apartheid South Africa. It is common for white people generally to have access to, and control over, the commanding heights of the economy while the black majority bears the brunt of skewed spatial arrangements, social exclusion, inequality and unemployment, among other things.

The above sketch concerning the economic patterns in post-apartheid South Africa is important in understanding the continued diminished status and use of indigenous languages and the appropriation of English as a preferred language in shared spaces. This is because in Marxist thought, the economy has a loosely causal relationship to the various institutions in society – respectively termed the base and the superstructure – so that the content and operational design of the latter will reflect the interests of whoever controls mainstream economic activity. As it was previously shown, white people own a disproportionate share of the country’s resources and are therefore able to wield massive influence in determining how the various institutions in society are set up and operate. The law is an example of such an institution.

A traditional Marxist critique of the law is that it is used by the dominant social class – namely, a class that presides over the means of production – to protect and maintain the status quo. Although this is generally true, an important nuance in this regard as far as language rights are concerned in post-apartheid South Africa is that we do have legal provisions that seek to alter the status quo by charging the government with the positive duty to ensure that indigenous languages enjoy parity of status and use like other historically privileged languages such as English. However, there has debatably been a lack of political will from the government to fulfil this obligation. It will be shown shortly that this failure of the government is not a random oversight but a reflection of the country’s economic set-up.

Neville Alexander notes that English has become a language of power in post-apartheid South Africa. This is because it is the preferred language in the formal economy. As a result, black people generally find it beneficial to have a facility of expression in English because this grants them access to relatively well-paid jobs, education as well as acceptance into otherwise exclusive spaces. White people, however, do not have an incentive to learn indigenous languages because they often never have to appeal to black establishments for employment, education and any other benefit that is remotely bound up with social mobility. Given the loosely causal relationship between economic relations and the super-structural institutions of society in Marxist analysis, this accounts in part for the continued diminished status and use of indigenous languages – at least to the extent that mainstream linguistic activity does not reflect the country’s diverse language pool.

Although social class is indispensable in Marxist thought, an equally – if not more – important social category is race in the context of South Africa. This is because in the ordinary scheme of things, there is an intersection between one’s race and social class. It is therefore necessary at this point to turn to Critical Race Theory. Like most abstract concepts, Critical Race Theory is difficult to pin down in a simple definition. But for our purposes, it is enough to mention that it places emphasis on the centrality of race in understanding, and challenging, prevailing social asymmetries. This emphasis on race as a relevant social category should be understood against the background of historical racism, the devastating impact it has had on black people and its persistence even in supposedly post-racial societies. Importantly – this is typically misunderstood in mainstream liberal discourse – racism within the framework of Critical Race Theory is not so much relational or interpersonal as it is structural. Therefore, a more immediate concern for Critical Race Theory are not the relational encounters between individuals but the phenomenon of how institutions of power in society marginalise the experiences, epistemological repertoire and cultural practices of black people whilst protecting and privileging white identity in its various manifestations.

Joel Modiri, while sympathetic to the strand of Critical Race Theory as developed in the US in the mid-1980s, insists that in its post-apartheid adaptation it ought to entail not only an assault against racism but capitalism, too. His argument proceeds from the premise that racial injustice has for the most part occurred within the parameters of capitalism, part of whose modus operandi is the routine exploitation of black people. On this view, he draws from the Critical Legal Studies charge that the law legitimates and maintains unequal relations in society – arguing that the liberal framework that underlies South Africa’s constitutional jurisprudence is complicit in maintaining the skewed socio-economic arrangements among the different racial groups and therefore, by extension, racial injustice itself. This is quite true because part of the reason indigenous languages continue to occupy a relatively subordinate position to English is that in the present economic atmosphere, all attempts towards redress are confined to what will not upset the ‘markets’ and this consequently acts as a proxy for structural racism.

It has been suggested that, given the many languages in South Africa, the dominance of English is desirable to the extent that it acts as a lingua franca – facilitating communication among people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. From an entirely functionalist perspective, this argument is sound. However, the assumption it is built on is problematic. In the context of South Africa, use of a common language is not random nor based within the moral framework of general consent but is instead a function of colonialism. Therefore, any argument that assumes that the status quo is unchangeable is not only misplaced but seeks to perpetuate structural racism and the attendant exclusion of black people from mainstream socio-economic activity.

I have discussed the tension between the constitutional promise of an equal and non-racial society and the reality of continuing social antagonisms in post-apartheid South Africa. To this end I used the continued diminished use and status of indigenous languages as a point of reference. In subsequent parts of the essay I linked this discussion to the relationship between law and structural power, with reference to social categories such as class and race – arguing in totality that the subordinate position of indigenous languages reflects the lack of economic and institutional power among black people.

Bhekumuzi Abdul Shabalala is an undergraduate law student at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.