South African University Makes Zulu a Requirement

The University of Kwa-Zulu Natal said the symbolic move would promote social cohesion.

Posted: 05/16/2013 10:50 AM EDT
South African University Makes Zulu a Requirement

South Africa’s University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, one of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning, has announced that all incoming students will be required to take a Zulu language class.

In what the university called a “watershed” moment, officials said they hoped the change would help inspire social cohesion in the country where 11 official languages are recognized and a host of others are spoken.

"You can come through the schooling system without learning any of the indigenous African languages," University of KwaZulu-Natal Deputy Vice-Chancellor Renuka Vithal told the BBC. "It is surprising that this is still the case, nearly 20 years after apartheid ended."

During South Africa’s system of legalized racism and segregation, called apartheid, African languages were shunned and English and Afrikaans (a Dutch-based language created by white settlers) were South Africa's only official languages.

Vithal says more than 60 percent of the university’s students are Zulu-speaking and it is estimated that in the area where the school is located, KwaZulu-Natal, nearly 80 percent of the population speaks Zulu.

Beginning next academic year, staff and students will take semester-long Zulu courses aimed at establishing a basic level of speaking proficiency. In 2019, the university plans to add writing requirements to the course.

Prior to the decision, health sciences majors were the only students required to complete Zulu courses. Now, professors say that Zulu knowledge has importance beyond professional necessity.

“… it’s about more than just being useful in some situations. It is also a symbolic act through which we indicate the value of languages and their potential to develop as far as we need them to do,” language Professor Leon de Stadler told South Africa’s The Mercury.

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(Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)