News / Africa

South Africa Welcomes Chinese Language, Influence in Schools

FILE - Schoolchildren attend classes at the Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg.
FILE - Schoolchildren attend classes at the Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg.
Anita Powell
South Africa's education minister says the nation of 11 official languages will introduce Mandarin into its school curriculum. The move is part of a greater effort to get closer to major trading partner China, and has been criticized and welcomed.  

If you want to say hello in South Africa, you have no shortage of options in this nation of 11 official languages.  It’s "sawubona" in Zulu, "hallo" in Afrikaans and "dumelang" [in the plural form] in Setswana. And, of course, there is always, "hello."  

But now, South Africa’s education ministry hopes to add another language to this polyglot nation, by saying "ni hao" to Mandarin Chinese.

An agreement this month between the two nations focuses on five areas of cooperation: curriculum development, math and science, teacher training, vocational education, and research and development in basic education.

New partnership

Ministry of Basic Education Spokeswoman Troy Martens said the new partnership is extremely valuable to both countries, though officials have not said how much the initiative will cost.

”It is very exciting because it takes the relationship between South Africa and China beyond just trade relations, and into the mutual development for both of our developing countries," said Martens. "So it is very exciting and both countries have indicated that for them education is a high priority, and that is why education is high on the agenda of collaboration between the two countries.”

The aspect of the plan that has garnered the most attention is a Mandarin language roll-out in schools.

A Pew study last year found South Africans have mixed feelings about China.  The survey showed 46 percent of South Africans did not like the spread of Chinese ideas and customs in their country, and 60 percent dislike Chinese music, movies and television.

Martens said the market, though, trumps those feelings.

”China is South Africa’s biggest trading partner," noted Martens. "So it is extremely beneficial to learners in South Africa to be exposed to the Mandarin language as well as Chinese culture.

"Now this will not be compulsory, it will not be for every school, and it will not be for every child," she added. "But for schools that feel they have the capacity to offer Mandarin as a subject, we think it is a great opportunity for South African learners to be exposed to this international type of language.”

Mandarin studies

South Africa’s census does not say how many native Chinese speakers there are in this country of nearly 51 million people, though they are likely somewhere within the 830,000 South Africans who told census-takers their first language was not among the 12 most popular.

Principal Lisette Noonan heads the Pretoria Chinese School, a kindergarten-to-grade-12 private school of about 500 students in the capital, Pretoria. Every student there studies Mandarin.

Noonan said the school, which has been around for 80 years, welcomes the new collaboration between the two nations.

”We were quite excited by the announcement. We do believe that it is in the best interests of children to know Mandarin, especially with China becoming such a huge economic power in the world,” she said.

South African schools suffer from the legacy of apartheid, which just two decades ago intentionally gave inferior education to the majority of the population. China has in that time drastically expanded its education system, and last year the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked students in Shanghai as the world’s top scorers in reading, science and mathematics.

South Africa hopes the alliance will not only better South African students, but also bring them some of China’s success.

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