Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has announced that Khoi, Nama, San and sign languages will be introduced as additional subjects in South Africa’s school curriculum. The Minister made this announcement during a debate of her department’s Budget Vote in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), where she also proposed a policy shift to promote mother-tongue teaching and learning in schools.

“We increased the number of languages in the sector. We have added additional languages in our list of subjects; they are Khoi, Nama, San as well as African sign languages. Had it not been for the disruptions of Covid-19, the introduction of Swahili in our schools would have started. We are still pursuing it and Tanzania and Kenya are willing to assist us finalise plans to introduce the language in South African schools,” she said.

Minister Motshekga also told the House that it was time for South Africa to begin a serious debate on mother-tongue teaching and learning, as currently children only learn in their mother tongue until grade three and then switch to English or Afrikaans as a medium for learning. “More than 80 per cent of children continue to learn in a language that is not their mother tongue. I think we are the only continent teaching children in a language that is not their home language, and this continues to contribute to under-achievement and poor performance. We must have a policy shift in this area,” the Minister said.

She gave an example of the Eastern Cape province, which has piloted mother-tongue teaching from grades 4 to 12. The results are very encouraging. “It is showing that learners who have been taught in their mother tongue perform better. Other provinces are on their way and we will report [soon] about progress in mother-tongue instruction in our schools,” she said.

The Minister believes that if children have to read with meaning by the age of 10, they should do this in their mother tongue, like every other child in the world, rather than expect them to read with meaning in a language they do not understand.

She also announced that the department will be introducing a general education certificate for grade 9. It is being piloted in 268 schools nationally and in 2023 it will be expanded to all districts.

The Chairperson of the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture, Mr Elleck Nchabeleng, supported the move to increase African languages in schools and plans for the development of mother-tongue education. “Without concerted effort of introducing mother-tongue learning and teaching in our schools, we run a risk of institutionalising colonialism. It is therefore imperative that we advance the decolonisation of our education system through developing African language systems and our own native knowledge in our curriculum,” he argued.

Mr Nchabeleng centred his debate speech on the theme “improving our education system through strengthening early childhood development and strengthening legislation”. He also advocated legislation to make early childhood development (ECD) a compulsory phase of schooling. “Early childhood development is a critical phase of a child’s cognitive development that has long-term implications for the growth of the child. Investing in the early years of a child’s development helps break the cycle of poverty, addressing inequality and boost productivity,” the committee Chairperson said.

He also raised concerns about incidents of racism, discrimination and sexual harassment in schools and called for joint efforts to address these social ills.