South Africa has one of the most vibrant economies on the Continent and has long been an engine for regional growth, entrepreneurship and technology innovation. One way that the country has overcome a history of racial division and tribal conflict to sustain this leadership is through a balance between respect for the linguistic heritage of its diverse components, and by a near universal embrace of English as the language of business.
South Africa is a linguistic hodgepodge, with the majority of the population speaking IsiZulu (22%), isiXhosa (16%) and Sesotho sa Leboa (9.1%), along with the European-derived languages of Afrikaans (13.5%) and English (9.6%), plus a half dozen other major tribal languages and the mother tongues spoken by immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa.
So how did a language native to less than 10% of the population come to be the glue that holds South African society, culture and commerce together in the 21st century? One major component is South Africa’s history as a British colony dating from the 1795 until independence following the Boer War in 1910, and thenceforth as a member of the British Commonwealth. Throughout that period, the English-speaking British constituted the governing elite, despite being vastly outnumbered by Afrikaans-speaking Boers and the indigenous population, neither of whom had much affection for the Brits.
Notwithstanding that conflicted relationship with Britain and Anglo culture, when South Africa achieved majority rule in 1994, the new government recognized that standardizing on English as the language of business and government could help bring social unity and maintain economic prosperity in a globalizing world.
Writer Peter Ball, on the South African site The Heritage Portal, compares the situation with that of Ireland, another country balancing disdain for British colonialism with economic reality. There, many speak Gaelic in their homes and lives, keeping alive the rich tradition of music, poetry, artistic passion and oratory that are hallmarks of the culture. But when they go to work, they speak English.
The Irish example I hope will apply to the future of South Africa and that local languages (Afrikaans included) will still be robust in keeping culture and traditions alive. In my view, the most practical way forward in a globalised world is for all South Africans to speak at least two languages: their mother tongue and English. This means that one has the best of both worlds, your home language tells you where you come from and English tells you where it is possible to go.
South Africa presents a good model for how a country with its own linguistic traditions can preserve the diversity of cultures and heritages while still positioning itself for economic success through embrace of Business English. Organizations looking to upskill their workforce with English language skills can learn from this example, embracing a learning approach that focuses on the instrumental value of English for professional communication and exchange of ideas, rather than the imposition of a set of cultural values.