Johannesburg. 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?
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 opportun