A number of years ago I worked for an organisation in which the inconsiderate use of Afrikaans in staff meetings was routine and made it hard for non-speakers of this language to comprehend and participate meaningfully in such meetings. People, especially black Africans, complained ad nauseam about this practice but no one ever took them seriously. In fact, those who dared raise their voices were systematically treated as spoilt brats with chips on their shoulders who thought that the new South Africa was about them alone. As a result, they were almost systematically marked for some kind of retribution later on when they least suspected it, especially when salary adjustments and performance were discussed.
But this retribution also came in many other forms. In order to keep their jobs and to stay out of trouble, many simply stopped raising their voices during the meetings but, nevertheless, continued to complain in private when they felt to be in safe, sympathetic, company. It was a very difficult organisation to work for because even the top management was never sympathetic to the cries of the black employees; all was simply dismissed and swept under the carpet. Upon the matter being raised during one executive management meeting, one senior director responded that “black employees need to understand that this is an Afrikaans organisation”. The organisation in question is a parastatal. The then CEO, also present, never bothered to correct that remark.

An incident that left a lasting mark on me was the day when members of the board and the executive management had sessions during which some mid-level scientists came to present some exciting projects that they were involved in. Coloured and white employees made their presentations in Afrikaans – a language that they grew up with and that they spoke at home and in their everyday lives with ease – while black employees made their presentations in English – a second language that they barely mastered, for most of them. Naturally, the Afrikaans language speakers were much more enthusiastic, flawless and engaging in their presentations because the audience was mostly Afrikaans speaking. While the content of the presentations by the black scientists was also interesting, the delivery was much less engaging; it was even full of flaws. It was clear that they needed to overcome the language huddles before they could even get their message across, something that was not the case with their coloured and white counterparts. It was also clear that they knew their work and would have been much more engaging and interesting to listen to had they been presenting it in the languages that they were most comfortable with, the languages that they spoke at home. Because most of the audience was Afrikaans speaking, they were thus able to ask questions and entertain long and in-depth discussions in Afrikaans with the young scientists who spoke this language; not so with the black scientists. In fact, very few questions were asked after the presentations by the black scientists and very little discussion engaged in. On the whole, they were merely politely acknowledged. The language barrier was so heavy that one could almost touch it. I deeply felt their struggle.

I was reminded of this sad part of my career recently when – for the first time in my life – I attended a post-local government election swearing-in of councilors at a council meeting in a town not too far from Cape Town. All the DA councilors present, white and coloured, spoke in Afrikaans and all the ANC councilors present, mostly black African, spoke in English. The former spoke in a language that they grew up with and that came naturally to them; the latter spoke in English, a language – it became clear – that did not come naturally to them. It was immediately obvious that most of them struggled expressing themselves eloquently in the Queen (of England)’s language; even when they attempted to ask what seemed to be the most basic of questions and to make the most basic of remarks, their speech was full of flaws, almost hesitant. The search for words and the right expression to say what they could say eloquently in, say, Xhosa, stood between them and their audience. They seemed to be strangers in a strange land, aliens as it were. It was even harder for them to successfully make jokes and obtain the intended response from the audience of councilors and members of the public present when some of them attempted to do so. This was not the case with the Afrikaans speaking councilors because not only were they self-assured in their speeches, they managed to connect with the many members of the public present, who laughed from time to time whenever funny remarks were made in Afrikaans. There was a palpable strict divide; councilors who occupied ANC benches spoke approximate English and councilors occupying DA benches spoke what seemed to me like flawless Afrikaans.

Things worsened after the new DA office bearers were elected in a secret ballot. The proceedings, which had been conducted in English from the start, were taken over by the new authorities and conducted in Afrikaans to the exclusion of anyone in the gallery who did not understand the language. It was almost like newly acquired power was being wielded. In the council room full to capacity – with many people standing on the isles, along the walls, just inside and outside the doors – only those seated on the benches could access the interpretation system. Yesteryear memories came flooding back and I found myself saddened again for our country.

Upon asking a black African member of the public sitting next to me why the African language speaking councilors did not exercise their right to speak in a language that they were most comfortable with, he gave me the most unexpected response: “the ANC is a multi-cultural organisation, they have to speak English in order to accommodate everyone”. Noble answer, I thought, but also wondered, at the expense of appearing to be like children learning to speak again in such an important forum when they should be presenting adult arguments to represent their constituencies?

Now, much has been said about the importance of considering the introduction of mother-tongue education for children in South Africa. This debate has been correctly focused at children, leaders of tomorrow, but there is, clearly, a need to also look at the struggle by many black African adults – often otherwise brilliant in their subjects – to perform optimally in their careers simply because they often lack the (English or Afrikaans) language skills required in the labour market in order for them to show their luster. It doesn’t seem right that thirty-five years after 1976, black Africans can still be alienated by language in professional situations. Now that the law allows it, I fail to understand why black Africans in situations described above cannot simply use their constitutionally protected right – like their Afrikaans speaking counterparts correctly do – to make their speeches in African languages and be the adults that they are when they speak with self-assured authority in their own languages. It is for this reason that all levels of government seats provide for interpretation services, or so they should.

Having witnessed the above described scenarios, I now firmly believe that the debate about the place of the ‘home language’ (which is not necessarily ‘mother-tongue’) in early education, and in the South African labour market in general, is still at its infancy.