It came on a boat — Is English as a medium of instruction morally justified in modern day South Africa?

If there were a scent of this time, it would be ‘revolution’, pronounced in French if the smell one is after is something decidedly bourgeois. The centre (read dominant culture) is in the witness stand, being questioned, as it were, by the periphery. Decolonisation is the language of our time — decolonising curriculums, institutions, the list goes on — yet the language of these movements has not been subject to the same rhetoric of decoloniality. Slogans of these movements are in English — FeesMustFall, RhodesMustFall, BlackLivesMatter — and the ideologies of these movements are shaped and rendered in the dominant tongue. In the rage against coloniality, the utilitarian discourse about the centrality of English as requisite for economic prosperity for some countries has stood firm. Indeed these movements have become marked by their failure to engage dominant language ideologies that have been used to justify pedagogically flawed practices and undue siphoning policies based on language.

In this essay, I argue that the language policy in education in South Africa, while informed by a utilitarian justification of the Benthamite tradition (based almost entirely on the power of English as the lingua franca of South Africa and the world) lies in opposition to the present day desires for liberation from the grips of imperialism and coloniality of the South Africa people. To make this argument, I outline the ‘pure’ utilitarian grounds on which this language policy is made, focusing on the value of English as currency in an increasingly interconnected global economy first, and later on the problem posed by the linguistic diversity in South Africa, which a single language of instruction attempts to solve via cost-benefit calculus. I present the tension between the economic ends of an education with the desires of an education as a tool for liberation from imperialism and as a catalyst for socio-political change for the formerly oppressed, which is supported under the Mill’s ‘quality’ utilitarianism approach. To substantiate this claim, I argue that English could be a hindrance to self-actualisation of black South Africans, and that ultimately the current language policy leads to inequitable outcomes, which cannot be justified by the Benthamite utilitarianism and cost-benefit analysis that its supporters put forward.


Under Apartheid, language policies that prioritised English and Afrikaans were instituted to serve as a ceiling for black South Africans, whose languages and linguistic traditions held no value in the economic and social landscape of the country. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and later when he was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994, the feeling of possibility was palpable (Harris, 2011). Many South Africans assumed that language policies selected by the African National Congress government would redress the inequities that existed under apartheid when English and Afrikaans were placed on a pedestal above all native languages. During the first weeks in government the country declared eleven official languages including English and Afrikaans. This declaration was seen as a harbinger of more redress to come, but ultimately the gesture carried nothing more than symbolic value.

The Ministry of Education in South Africa implemented the language policy that required state schools to use English as a medium of instruction (EMI) in schools from Grade 4 to university, with an exception allowed for a minority of schools and universities where Afrikaans could also be a medium of instruction at all levels of education. This meant that most students receive mother-tongue instruction from Grades 0 to Grade 3, after which they are expected to learn one of the eleven official language (presumably their mother tongue) at home language level and another to the level of an additional language. The reasoning provided for a policy so at odds with what was desired was that English would serve as the medium of instruction while resources and capacity was built for mother-tongue instruction (Pandor, 2005). Two decades on, very little has changed. There has been a lackadaisical effort on the part of government to build capacity for mother-tongue instruction. It is becoming apparent that part of the reason that the language policy has stood unchanged is that it is seen by policymakers to serve some good. The next section outlines the justification for keeping the policy 22 years on.


Utilitarianism contains a theory of good and of right, wherein the rightness if an action or a decision is determined by its goodness. Under Bentham’s conceptions of utilitarianism, the goodness of an action (its utility) is determined by its capacity to bring pleasure to the people for whom the act is done. When applied to language policy in post-apartheid South Africa, Bentham’s ‘pure’ utilitarianism justifies the policy if and only if the policy brings the greatest pleasure to the people for whom this policy is intended (Bentham, 1789). English is thought to be a neutral, global language of commerce and science and the vital tool for international interaction, desired by non-English speaking countries themselves (Li, 2000). Since English is widely accepted as the language of power and commerce it can be assumed that those who have a fluency in it also have employment prospects that lead to economic prosperity, which would allow individuals to pursue all the whims that ultimately maximise their pleasure. Under Bentham’s conception of utility, it would seem that the policy is justified. Mill extends the theory of the right of utilitarianism by stating that actions are good not only if they bring pleasure but also if they avert pain (Mill, 1861). It is clear that poverty brings disutility, so if acquiring English will provide opportunities that would stop the suffering from poverty then it is in the interest of all South Africans to take up English as the language of affairs.

Not all utilitarian reasoning would justify this policy however. Mill, for instance, fortifies Bentham’s utilitarianism by offering amelioration to the pure utilitarian approach Bentham put forward. He argues for what could be deemed the ‘quality’ approach to utility. Mill distinguishes between contentment and happiness. Happiness, he argues, is superior to contentment, which is often animalistic and reliant on physical pleasure (Mill, 1861). In fact attaining happiness need not be pleasurable. Imagine the capricious and painstaking work of writing a novel, for instance, and the happiness that comes from that solitary experience — happiness that has very little to do with hedonistic pleasure. If Mill’s quality utilitarianism were applied to language policy an entirely different policy would have been crafted. One could argue that an education is not only meant to turn people into pure commodity whose skill is to be auctioned off at the employment marketplace, but also to impart on individuals an independence of thought and a sense of themselves. Under this conception of the value of an education, perhaps mother tongue instruction could be the policy of choice. In the context of post-apartheid South Africa, this seems particularly true.

One might be tempted to argue that language alone cannot be oppressive or limiting to the self-actualisation of an entire people. I argue that the acceptance of the importance of English over native languages reinforces the dominance of Euro-centrism and whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa. Kamwangamalu notes that parents in South Africa do not want their native tongues used as the medium of instruction even in lower levels of education because these languages do not carry any economic value (2013). English is the yardstick with which people’s value is measure, and it is not simply the ability to speak the language, but the accents in which they speak as well. Frantz Fanon observes this about language: “For it is implicit that to speak is to exist absolutely for the other…To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation” (1967). The language Fanon writes of is French, but his observations are no less true in post-apartheid South Africa where English, and by extension the proximity to whiteness, acts as the gatekeeper of power and prestige. The reliance on English creates an internalised inferiority of nativity reminiscent of the period of apartheid but normalised. If education is also meant as an avenue for actualisation and liberation from internalised inferiority, then the EMI policy can be thought to reinforce rather than redress these feelings, and is therefore not justifiable.

COST BENEFIT JUSTIFICATION: Does distribution of benefits matter?

Another argument for the institution of the policy is one of the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) variety provided by Minister Pandor. South Africa is a linguistically diverse country with 10 official languages excluding English. There is an argument to be made about the feasibility, both in terms of cost or resources and in terms of implementation, of creating a state-funded schooling system that prioritises all these languages, especially considering great resource constraints. Seen in this light, using English as a medium of instruction appears the best option for setting up education in South Africa, because any other arrangement would be far too costly to justify especially given that instrumental and economic benefits of mother tongue instruction are scant at best. Another benefit for using English as a medium of instruction that can be raised by followers of utilitarianism is that argument that a single common language helps bridge the chasm between communities — it serves as a bridge from one tribe to the next.

The problem with this justification of EMI policies is that education in a second language benefits mostly the privileged minority. The educational outcomes across all disciplines depend greatly on the quality of English instruction received and the quality of English instruction depends on the socioeconomic stratum that an individual occupies. Most black South Africans remain at the lowest rungs of society, meaning that they are doomed to lacklustre performance in schools. It is this inequity that cost-benefit analysis as a system operationalising utilitarianism fails to take into account. Mill grapples with this in his work on utilitarianism, where he argues that people have an equal claim to happiness and an equal claim to the means to happiness. Inequities such as those imposed under EMI policies are therefore unjust and the policy cannot be justified using cost-benefit analysis arguments (Mill, 1861).


The conflict presented by the EMI policy in education is one pertaining to the different conceptualisations of the ends of an education. On one hand, education is seen to provide economic value, and on another, it is valuable because of the important benefits to identity that comes from it. A constrained utilitarian calculus of the Benthamite sort fails to capture the value of education as an identity shaper, but when a more pluralistic approach is applied, then utilitarianism can still account for this requirement. Ultimately, my recommendation is not that South Africa do away with English entirely (there are, after all, people who may benefit from it), but rather that the policy be updated to reflect an acknowledgement of the importance of other languages and linguistic traditions. It is important that these traditions and languages be used for studies, and that they are valued alongside English study, instead of putting them as secondary to it. I conclude that the practicality arguments for not using all official languages in education constitute a handicap in imagination from policy makers, and ultimately undermine the progression toward equity and prosperity that is so important to South Africans.


Bentham, Jonathan (1789). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Garden City: Doubleday.

Fanon, Frantz (1967). Black skin, white masks. Print

Harris, Verne (2011), Madiba, Memory and the Work Of Justice, UKZN,

Kamwangamalu, Nkonko (2013). Effects of Policy on English Medium Instruction in Africa

Li, D (2000). Hong Kong parents’ preference for English-medium education: passive victims of imperialism or active agents of pragmatism? Curtin University

Mill, J. S. (1861). Utilitarianism, edited with an introduction by Roger Crisp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Pandor, Naledi (2005), Budget Speech of the Department of Education, Pretoria: Parliament Document

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