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Is ‘Chinese-ification’ Changing the Culture of Africa?

download (21)SOUTH Africa’s education minister has announced that Mandarin, the group of related Chinese dialects that together are spoken by nearly a billion people—more native speakers than for any other language—will be phased in as an optional and examinable subject in public schools from January 2016.

Angie Motshekga’s office feels the move will bring South Africans closer to China, it’s biggest trading partner, but has been scant on details; almost like throwing a grenade in the dark and taking cover.

And in the absence of a clear rationale, the reaction by South Africans has been anything but kind, almost viscerally so. Why is our government bending over backwards for China? Do we have any say in it or is it just being rammed down our throats? Aren’t we just aiding the new colonialists? Who is really benefiting? Do the Chinese even learn African languages? Will we have to learn another language when China is no longer our major trading partner?

Talk to a man in his language

The powerful teachers’ union was especially succinct: over our dead body.

The backlash is valid and expected, and the government has to package its message better, and fast, before the opposition is set in stone.

But amidst all the furore, is there a chance that it might actually be a good move, even if not for the reason you would expect?

First, the more general view. Learning an extra language, even Chinese, does open up new doors, and few parents would be impervious to the chance of more opportunities to their children. If this is communicated better, it could have a chance of securing the difficult buy-in of those it is targeted at.

And South Africa’s sluggish economy certainly needs all the help it can get, if it is to thrive in a highly competitive global environment.

But at what cost? China’s veritable march across the continent has been well documented and remains the subject of much discussion. And despite all the talk of partnerships and shared history, China has never really hidden the fact that the economic objective ranks highest. Beijing’s business interest in Africa remains evident.

So how about we view this their way, and get better at it than them?

The Chinese are already learning some African languages, from Lingala and Kiswahili to seSotho. This is because they understand that being able to communicate with the locals makes it much easier to gain their confidence, and achieve their broader objectives.

Nelson Mandela alluded to it: “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.”

This is why black people are easily mesmerised when a person from a different race speaks their language—it is a bit puzzling considering that across the continent Africans are proficient in the languages of our former colonial masters.


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