Swaziland: English language vs nationalism. (Feature: Swaziland).
Swaziland is facing the question of whether a language imposed by foreign rulers in this tiny Southern African country should remain compulsory in schools. For at least the 10th year in a row, 10th grade students have shown a steady decline in pass rates because of poor English language skills. This has prompted some educators to question the necessity of English as an obligatory subject.
"The pass rate is now 86%, down from 91% three years ago, and the majority of students failed the exams because English is a required subject," says Ben Dlamini, the recently retired head of the Exams Council who administered school exams for two decades.
Other compulsory subjects are maths and science.
In his weekly newspaper column devoted to educational issues, Dlamini has campaigned for a downgrade of English in the curriculum, and says the importance of English as a subject is a vestige of colonialism. Until independence in 1968, Swaziland was a British protectorate acquired as a spoil of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902.
Politicians from both the prodemocracy and royal conservative camps have taken up the issue as a test of nationalism, and have called for the elimination of English as a make or break subject in school.
"SiSwati, the language of the Swazis, is what is spoken by the people, and yet it is not made a passing subject," notes Senator Simeon Simelane, a founding member of the conservative cultural group, Sive Siyinqaba, which takes its SiSwati name from the slogan on the national emblem that means, "We are a fortress".
Dlamini was challenged in an editorial comment at the end of March by the Sunday Times, where his column appears: The reasons for insisting on high standards in English are sound, and include the fact that English is the official language of government, the courts and the international world beyond our borders."
The newspaper's editor, Vusie Ginindza, says of "educational demagogues" who wish to "lower the bar" by lessening English skills standards: "It's like asking a carpenter to build a chair, and when it becomes obvious that he can't, settling for a stool instead because that's easier for him to make."
Ginindza's fellow editor, Martin Dlamini, of the Times' daily edition, says: "English is not a question of choice, it's a matter of practicality, of dealing with the world as it is, not how we might wish it to be."
The two editors have, however, comfortably closed their eyes to the fact that even in Europe, Germans French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Swede, and other students are educated in their native languages, first and foremost. English, to them, is a side subject. So are the Chinese, Japanese and the Taiwanese. Yet all these people live and deal with the same "world as it is" -- a world of which English is fast becoming (if not already) the dominant language.
Some educationalists in the country are concerned that pass rates generally are too high and do not reflect the learning skills of students.
"We are promoting students who are functionally illiterate, who can scarcely form a coherent English sentence, write a paragraph, or perform simple maths problems in real life situations, like converting money from one currency to another or balancing a cheque book," says Rose Bhembe, a teacher in the agricultural town of Tshaneni.
"The scandal is not that the pass rate has declined marginally, but that it remains so high, just so school administrators can look good, and poor parents will not have to pay school fees for their children to repeat grades," she says.
Bhembe and some teachers say the goal of schools is to produce an educated person, not merely a certificate holder. But politics and nationalism have entered the debate, particularly in regard to English.
"English is important, but it should not determine a student's fire, and destroy his or her future if that student is good in other subjects," says Phineas Magagula, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, whose membership includes the country's headmasters.
The minister of education, John Carmichael, who is embroiled in another controversy after expressing a desire for universal, tuition-free education sn a country that has no means to finance such a scheme, is non-committal toward dropping or retaining English as a passing subject.
But a source at the ministry admits: "International testing for college placement such as the [internationally-recognised] Oxford exams, are in English, and require proficiency in English. We would be condemning students to failure if we lower English standards more than they already are."
As the debate heats up, Swazi students face the task of learning English as a second language in an environment where it is rarely spoken. "We speak only SiSwati at home, and the radio is always on the SiSwati station," says Thembi Matsebula, an Mbabane high. school student. She says she converses with her friends in SiSwati, folding English words and slang into the mix.
And 10 times more listeners tune into the government-owned radio's SiSwati Service than the English Service. A practical world indeed!