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kiSwahili – not just any other African language

Educational authorities in South Africa have announced their decision to introduce KiSwahili to the pool of additional languages available to school learners. This decision has met with a controversial reception. Mphuthumi Nthabeni presents the arguments being made against its inclusion in the curriculum and argues that we would be ill-informed and unwise to reject the additional language.

I don’t really understand the bases for the objections that are being levelled against the introduction of KiSwahili in our schools’ national curriculum. Let us consider some of the arguments.

We already have too many languages in the curriculum. Our dismal literacy rates only confirm our inability to adequately manage the lingua franca and the ten additional languages that we already have, let alone the possibility of another. Introducing yet another language, as a second or third language option, will only compound the issue.

This argument isn’t at all convincing. It is compulsory for matric learners to receive a passing grade in at least two languages, a home language and one other. Additionally, many learners across the country study three languages.

The introduction of a further linguistic choice, to the already long list, does not necessarily add more burden; it merely widens the choices. Why should an African child have the choice to learn German or French but be denied the opportunity to learn KiSwahili, the language most widely used within the African business sector?

From personal experience, working on construction sites in Africa, I would certainly vouch for KiSwahili to be made compulsory. This should be the case especially for those wanting to pursue degrees related to engineering and the built environment, given the ever-growing business opportunities on the Continent.

The same logic should apply to commerce-related courses. Consider the banking and financial sectors, where we are seeing a rapid expansion of South African businesses into other African markets.  It would seem that we could do worse than to offer our young people the communicative proficiency that this shift in the business paradigm requires.

Others argue still, that KiSwahili has no immediate connection to South Africa. I’m not sure how one can claim that a Bantu language has no connection with our country when Bantus like the amaXhosa, amaZulu and amaSwati abound here.

KiSwahili was originally spoken on the African East coast as a business language, used between Africans and foreign traders. The language has a few external influences. Its grammar, vocabulary and sounds are inherited and there are significant Arabic influences, even if the greater part of its vocabulary has taken its influence from other African languages.

Thomas Spear, writing in The International Journal of African Historical Studies in 2000, said: “Arab influence was particularly limited and relatively recent […] Arabic influence was greatest during the 17th – 19th centuries.”

The influence of the Arab language on KiSwahili was a result of religion, law, trade, kinship and administration. Quintessentially, it is a Bantu-rooted language with only around 4% Arabic influence.

Perhaps, Swahili’s Arabic origins come because the word ‘Swahili’ means people of the coast, derived from the Arabic root ‘Sahel’, used to refer to the southern coast of the Sahara.” Today, KiSwahili has, through trade, spread throughout Africa and is spoken by many African people across different cultures.

The Swahili people tended to be discriminated against by other African people, accused of not being truly African. This began when Africans associated Arab trading with the trading of African slaves.

African slave trading started long before Atlantic slave trading. It continued as Africans began resisting Islam. The Swahili were caught in-between and were seen to be suspect because of the Arabic influences in their language. KiSwahili firmly the lingua franca Africa-wide.

As to the present situation in our country. It is simply self-defeating to resist the spread of KiSwahili. Especially, if we want to grow in cooperation with our African counterparts and shed ourselves of the perceived arrogance with which we are already branded by our African sisters and brothers.

Aside from this, together with English and French, KiSwahili is the most commonly spoken language in Africa. It is often used as a common language between the Francophone and Anglophone people of Africa.

In fact, countries like Cameroon, where English and French are seen to be competing for the distinction of lingua franca, could just drop both and adopt KiSwahili, as in Tanzania. It could possibly even bring calm to the national tensions there, allowing them to move on from their tragic colonial past which has for long been the cause of the ongoing bloodshed between its peoples.

I am confident that the introduction of KiSwahili in schools will add great value to the South African educational experience. Not only will it give us a valuable common skill, shared with so many other Africans; but will also have other positive spin-offs. For one, South Africans will discover that they are not a nation apart from other Africans.

This commonality will underscore the similarities and with some luck, they will help us to bury our nefarious xenophobic tendency towards other African people.

Let a thousand linguistic flowers bloom from coast to coast. We shall be better and stronger if we learn and appreciate the values that they can ultimately bring. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


  1. I suppport the introduction of Swahili in our school system. It will be all Black people’s language allowing us to unite for one purpose. Let’s however not forget fortifying other indigenous languages in all areas.