South Africa, colonialism, language and China

Terry Bell
Terry Bell.
Terry Bell

The whole question of colonialism has come to the fore again, courtesy of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) and its vehement objection to the introduction of the Chinese Mandarin dialect to local schools.

The Chinese government, keen to unify its disparate territories, refers to this major dialect as Chinese; basic education minister Angie Motshega calls it the “language of Confucius”, which merely adds to the confusion.

It was Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke who labelled the introduction of Chinese as “colonialism”. And he has warned that it will be resisted by the union “with everything that we have”.

This presents quite a change of political tack for Sadtu since the union has traditionally been one of the most vocally loyal of government supporters. Many of the union’s leading members, who, as members too of the SA Communist Party (SACP), have also been highly supportive of China and its ruling Communist Party (CCP).

This is understandable, not only because the SACP claims a certain ideological kinship with the CCP, but because the Chinese have, in the recent past, provided financial support to the “fraternal” South African party. The deputy national chairperson of the SACP, Thulas Nxesi, also maintains strong links with Sadtu, having been the union’s general secretary before transitioning into parliament where he now serves as public works minister.

However, supporters of the move have pointed out that since China is South Africa’s major trading partner, “Mandarin” should be on offer, as an optional subject in the same way as are the languages of other trading partners, such as French, Italian and Spanish. This argument was only mildly confused when Motshega included Latin, that has not been spoken anywhere for hundreds of years.

Language is, therefore, one issue, colonialism another. As well as how the two might relate to one another. Especially since, historically, language followed gunboats and the physical conquest of territories. These were then carved up on maps by competing imperial powers, leaving Africa with a legacy of national borders that make no linguistic, kinship or much real sense at all, certainly so far as the people on the ground were — and are — concerned.

In order to understand and be understood by the new dominant powers, and to trade, negotiate and generally get ahead, it was necessary to learn English, French, Portuguese and, in one small enclave and island, Equatorial Guinea, Spanish.

However, a major language in east and parts of central Africa, came about through trade, without any formal conquest of territory. For hundreds of years before Europe’s colonial expansion, trade mainly with the Arab world, but also with India and China, saw the development of a trading language, kiSwahili, that remains a prime means of communication, mainly in Tanzania and Kenya. So there is no evidence that language has, historically, preceded colonial expansion.

However, today we live in a different world where it is no longer necessary for powerful nations or groups such as the Dutch East India Company, to physically control a territory in order to exploit it: dominate the economy and social and political dominance will follow.

But China is governed by the CCP and is regarded by unions such as Sadtu, as well as the SACP, as “socialist”. It could not, therefore, be a colonial power.

However, this is not the first time this problem of reality contradicting ideology has had to be faced. South Africa became a self-governing dominion in 1910 and, along with countries such as Canada, an equal partner in a “commonwealth of nations” in 1931.

Perhaps ignorant of reality, Josef Stalin’s Comintern had decreed in 1928 that South Africa was a colony. So the then Communist Party of SA adopted this and, when the SACP was formed in 1953, the Stalinist myth persisted.

But this created problems since South Africa was clearly no colony in any accepted sense. So reality was bent to the needs of ideology and after the SACP was founded in 1953, it decreed that what existed in South Africa was “colonialism of a special type” or CST.

So Sadtu should not resist, because the answer is clear: if a colonial situation arises regarding China, perhaps the union should simply accept it as a beneficial CCST or Colonial Communism of a Special Type.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. No inference should be made on whether these reflect the editorial position of GroundUp.

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