International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by UNESCO in November 1999. In May 2007 the UN General Assembly called on its member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world” and proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages to promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

The UN website says that this year’s theme “emphasises the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in the early years of schooling. It facilitates access to education – while promoting fairness – for population groups that speak minority and indigenous languages, in particular girls and women; it raises the quality of education and learning achievement by laying emphasis on understanding and creativity, rather than on rote and memorisation”.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General, says: “Mother languages in a multilingual approach are essential components of quality education, which is itself the foundation for empowering women and men and their societies”.

It is therefore clear that internationally this is an important day and issue, because the international community and the international organisations have over many years realised the importance of mother language, multilingualism and diversity, especially in education.

What about South Africa? In one of the Founding Provisions of the Constitution, in Chapter 1, section 6 establishes that South Africa has 11 official languages. It is also stated that the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) should “promote and create conditions for the development and use of all official languages”, as well as the Khoi, Nama and San languages, and sign language. It should also promote and secure respect for another 11 languages used by communities in South Africa, including those used for religious purposes.

The “founding fathers” deemed language, and by implication, the mother languages of South Africa’s people, to be so important that they included them in the first chapter of the Constitution. It is important to note that – unlike the rights included in the Bill of Rights – the provisions in Chapter 1 of the Constitution are not subject to the limitation clause in section 36 of the Constitution. They can thus be amended only by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly and – because any such amendment would affect the provinces – by at least six provinces in the National Council of Provinces.

If we look at the factual situation, however, it is clear that South Africa has fallen far behind international norms and standards. Not only is there a push to establish English as the primary (and often only) language in the public sector, but there is almost no promotion of indigenous mother languages as languages of tuition in education. Officially, mother language is supposed to be used in schools up to the end of grade 3, but that simply does not happen in practice. Both officials and parents are under the illusion that English is the best language of tuition, and the change to English is implemented very early on – at great cost not only to the indigenous mother languages, but also to the learners and their quality of education.

This is exactly what the UN’s 2016 theme emphasises above: mother language education “raises the quality of education and learning achievement by laying emphasis on understanding and creativity.” In addition, it is alarming to note that the one indigenous mother language that is being used in schools and universities, Afrikaans, is at the moment under tremendous pressure to be replaced by English, clearly not for educational reasons, but political and ideological ones.

It is therefore sad to note that with regard to the use and importance of mother language, South Africa is out of step with international research and practice. The South African government, at both national and provincial levels, must take responsibility for this. The fact that the PanSALB is not doing its constitutional duty in this regard or is not allowed to do this through lack of capacity or funding, must be a serious cause for concern.

The FW de Klerk Foundation has recently established a Centre for Unity in Diversity. The issue of mother language education will be high on its priority list – not only for the sake of minority languages, but in the interest of all South Africa’s learners.

It is often said that South Africa cannot afford mother language education. The real question is whether we as a country can afford not to have mother language education? The dismal state of our basic education system and our learners’ inability to perform even close to international standards, are clear indications that we are failing the next generation.

Dr Theuns Eloff, Chairman of the FW de Klerk Foundation