Swahili will now be taught in South African classrooms. Will West Africa join the train?

Kiswahili, the lingua franca of East and Central Africa, will now be taught as an optional language in South African schools from 2020, as part of efforts “to bring Africans together”, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga has said.

It will be the first African language, from outside South Africa, to be offered at schools. French, German and Mandarin are among foreign languages already offered as optional subjects in South African schools.

Kiswahili is the most spoken language in Africa after English and Arabic, It is a lingua franca of parts of eastern and south-eastern Africa, including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Motshekga is confident that the teaching of Kiswahili, one of the official languages of the African Union, in South African schools will “promote social cohesion with our fellow Africans.” “[It] has the power to expand to countries that never spoke it and has the power to bring Africans together.”

Experts estimate that the Bantu language which has lexical and linguistic similarities with many African languages on the continent is spoken by more than 100 million people. It has found its way even into mainstream western media such as in the Disney animated film “The Lion King.” Hakuna Matata. “It means no worries” goes the song lyric. However, Disney fails to mention that “Hakuna Matata” means “no worries” in Swahili.

Swahili is gradually expanding into countries that never used to speak it (even outside Africa), and with this popularity and expansion, the possibility of Swahili making an entrance into West African nations may be present. When The Nerve Africa asked Manish Rungta, Managing Director Duet Private Equity Limited(DPEL) what African language he would like to learn, he said Swahili. Manish already speaks five languages.

Last month, South Africa radical opposition leader Julius Malema said Kiswahili should be developed into a “continental language” as parts of efforts to “decolonise” Africa.

The battle of colonialism and African expression is a long one that dates back in the literary scene. The use of English by authors of the continent to garner visibility has often resulted in long debates with some making the decision to revert back to African languages such as was done by renowned author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

However, others like Nigerian literary great Chinua Achebe had argued in the famous language debate with Obi Wali in the 1960s that in spite of English being imposed on him, he was glad to use it as the vehicle of his literary creativity, adding that “English was capable of carrying the African experience.”

English may be able to carry the African experience, but it loses its potency in a continent that has more than 2,000 distinct languages, some of which are gradually going extinct.

Over the last few decades, the place of African languages has suffered negative consequences due to colonization, globalization, and the entrenchment of official languages like English and French. African languages have often been labeled as a hindrance to learning, and have suffered delegitimization at social, economic, and political spheres. Ironically, like Cameroon where the conflict between Anglophone and Francophone rages, it presents the irony of being separated along the lines of a language inherited from colonisers and the inequalities of rating benefits only on that which can be obtained from the West.

As Africa’s most “internationally recognized language” becomes an option in South African classrooms, the question of a common African language rises up once again with Kiswahili better positioned and ahead of all its peers.

It will be the first African language outside South Africa to be offered in class. Even as xenophobic attacks leading to loss of homes and businesses of communities including Malawians, Somalis, and Nigerians have been rampant in South Africa in the past decade.

Many governments and activists have moved to call for institutions, both local and foreign, to embrace the Swahili language. Hashtags like #SwahiliIsNotIndonesian and #TwitterRecognizeSwahili have been pushed by several Kenyans for a long time, petitioning social networking giant, Twitter to recognise the African language. The American company made efforts in May this year.

According to Motshekga, the decision had been approved by the country’s Council of Education Ministers, and will be offered at public, private and independent schools.

“We must have a language which unites Africans,” South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party leader Julius Malema had said. “We then do away with speaking to each other in English,” he continued.

An Africa united by a language may seem like a huge feat, but the prospects of breaking barriers on the continent in language and geography may well be worth it.