The push is on for South Africans to learn Mandarin and Russian, and it’s proving controversial as trade and economic links grow with China, the country’s partner in the BRICS group of emerging economies.
Mandarin courses have been introduced this year in more than 40 South African schools with plans to be in 500 schools in the next five years, Xinhua reported, according to ECNS.
In September, South Africa’s Department of Tourism introduced a language program to teach Mandarin and Russian to South African tourism frontline staff including tour guides and hotel staff, Independent Online reported.
In the first half of 2016, 49,811 Chinese visited South Africa, according to Tourism Department statistics — a 21 percent increase over the same period in 2015.
By comparison, 4,089 Russians visited South Africa in the first half of 2016, according to IOL
Learning foreign languages will foster better working relations with BRICS member countries, said Tokozile Xasa, Deputy Minister of Tourism.
The BRICS group of emerging economies includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Together they are home to half the world’s population and 22 percent of the gross world product.
“South Africa has proposed establishing a coordinating forum for tourism within BRICS,” Xasa said. “Cooperation on tourism is critical to maintain our competitive edge.”
The South African government’s tourism department is encouraging staff to take Mandarin classes at the Chinese Culture and International Education Center. A Confucius Institute classroom opened in April 2015 and now teaches Mandarin courses to half a dozen government departments.
New direct flight from Beijing to Johannesburg and an easing of visa regulations helped raise Chinese tourist visiting South Africa to 58,000 in the first half of 2016, more than double the same period a year earlier.
The Chinese government underwrites much of the Mandarin language education in Africa through the Confucius Institute — language and cultural training centers affiliated with China’s Ministry of Education, China File reported. There are at least 46 Confucius Institutes across Africa with more expected in the coming years.
Not everyone’s happy about learning Manadarin in South Africa, where the issue has become a full-fledged political debate. Elsewhere in Africa, demand for Chinese classes is booming, according to China File.
The South African government caused an uproar in 2015 when it decided to start offering Mandarin classes as a foreign language option at schools nationwide. Opposition to teaching Mandarin centers on the difficulty of the language and the argument that resources are needed more in other areas of South Africa’s under-performing educational system.
Challenges to the school system include lack of resources and growing class size.
South African parents turned to social media saying learning Chinese could come at the expense of improving skills in English, French, Arabic, and Kiswahili. It could distract from children’s core educational objectives.
Tanzania and Kenya are both home to growing Chinese communities as more Chinese companies win bids to build infrastructure projects and Chinese entrepreneurs and traders come seeking new business opportunities, Quartz reported.
While living in Tanzania and Kenya, where Kiswahili is a national language, lexicographer Yuning Shen saw a business opportunity. His online dictionary, Siwaxili, is the first comprehensive online transliteration for Kiswahili in Mandarin. Few other Chinese-Kiswahili dictionaries exist. China’s ministry of education published one in 2013. Before that, the last version was in 1971. The Siwaxili online dictionary has about 14,000 dictionary entries, or lemmata, according to Quartz.
Up to 100 million people speak Kiswahili in Africa.
Nelson Mandela famously said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
“I get the feeling that more and more Chinese share the same view with Nelson Mandela,” Shen said.
As China grows its presence in Africa, more schools have begun offering Mandarin. As of 2015, there were 60 locations of the Chinese government-sponsored Confucius institutes in Africa, according to Quartz:
It’s not just business opportunity that motivates Shen. He believes the continent suffers from a form of linguistic inequality, where local languages aren’t prioritized. “Language is a powerful tool that mobilizes or immobilizes people,” he says. “I wish that African leaders will also promote their own languages in the future.”
Prominent African attorney Patrick Ache agrees with South African parents who worry Mandarin classes come at the expense of their children’s core curriculum, according to China File. But if Chinese language education is accompanied with sophisticated technical training it could help African youth get jobs, he said.
Punkah Mdaka is a South African government employee who is learning Mandarin. “We expect Chinese companies to do business in the country and hope South Africa will do the same in China,” she said, according to ECNS. “The relationship is here to stay.”