Kiswahili goes to school in South Africa

Saturday January 11 2020

School kids from the Milton Mbekela school wave flags as they sing wishing former South African president Nelson Mandela a happy birthday on July 18, 2013 in Qunu. South African students will soon have the option to study Kiswahili in their schools. PHOTO | AFP


South Africa has become the first southern African country to offer Kiswahili as an optional subject in schools, raising hopes for the growth of the language considered the lingua franca of East Africa.

Kiswahili will be taught along with French, German and Mandarin. The government plans to roll out the teaching in 90 schools.

It is the first African language from outside southern Africa to be offered in schools. Already, South Africa has reached out to Kenya and Tanzania to recruit teachers of the language.

Besides promoting African indigenous languages, South Africa also hopes that the introduction of Kiswahili will promoting cohesion and help to address xenophobia, which has resulted in over 600 attacks since 1994, leading to more than 300 deaths.

“We have had a lot of challenges when it comes to xenophobia and using derogatory terms when referring to other African people. That shows that we do not understand that we are actually of the same origins. If we want social harmony and cohesion, language is the best vehicle to do that,” Elijah Mhlanga, a spokesman for the Department of Education in South Africa, said in media interview.

Chaired by Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) last year adopted Kiswahili as its fourth official language of communication in addition to English, Portuguese and French.


“Our vision for language planning stems from intellectualisation of indigenous languages on four spheres—provincial, national, regional and continental level. Swahili is inevitably well-positioned to integrate the SADC region,” said David Maahlamela, the Pan South African Language Board chairman, following the announcement by SADC.

Kiswahili, a national language of Kenya and Tanzania, is the continent’s most spoken African language with between 100 and 200 million speakers stretching from Mozambique, the Comoros Islands, northern Zambia and Malawi in southern Africa, to Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and southern Somalia, as well as small pockets in Uganda’s urban areas.

It is an official language of the EAC, and in 2004 it was added to English, Portuguese, Arabic, and French as an official language of the African Union.

In his book The Story of Swahili, John Mugane traces its growth from what he says was an obscure language to one that “is to eastern and central Africa what English is to the world”.

Kiswahili, he writes, is the only language of the dozen with more than 100 million speakers in the world which has more second-language speakers than native ones: A staggering 100 non-native speakers for every native speaker.

English and French both have at least one native speaker for every non-native, with Spanish boasting of five native speakers for every person who speaks it as a second language.

This strategic importance of Kiswahili in Africa is further compounded by research that shows that by 2050, 85 per cent of French speakers in the world will come from the continent. Currently, with 300 million French speakers in the world, 44 per cent of them live in Africa.

Second language

“Although Swahili lacks the numbers of speakers, the wealth, and the political power associated with other global languages such as Mandarin, English, or Spanish, it is distinctive in being primarily a second language for close to 100 million speakers,” Mr Mugane says in his book.

In a continent with over 2,000 different languages—the second most diverse in terms of language after Asia—the presence of Kiswahili, and its incremental reach beyond its East Africa home, has been lauded.

The language shares grammatical and sentence structures with Bantu, the most diverse language group in the 1.2-billion-people continent, and Arabic, the most spoken language in North Africa.

“Its popularity is growing tremendously, and it has rapidly spread throughout eastern and central Africa in particular as a lingua franca—that is, a second language that speakers of any number of home languages use to communicate with one another informally, particularly in public settings,” Mr Mugane says.

Since its introduction as an official language of the African Union in 2004, and the subsequent development in southern and central Africa, much still needs to be done continentally and regionally to further Kiswahili’s reach.