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Why Mandarin?

China is South Africa’s biggest trading partner. “The trade volume between South and China has grown from 15 billion to about 300 billion United States dollar,” said David Monyae, co-director of the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute (UJCI).

Speaking with a team of Africa-China Reporting Project journalists on November 13, 2017, at his office in Johannesburg, Monyae said that claims of imperialism undermine the growing cooperation between Africa and China. According to Monyae, China grows as the world’s second-largest economy. With this, he said people in countries, including the United States, are eager to learn  Chinese. “I can tell you that the highest number of Confucius Institutes is found in the US,” the UJCI’s co-director said.

Monyae dismissed as ill-informed insinuation that Mandarin will overtake other local languages, saying “it is not based on facts”. He said there are other languages by colonisers, like English, German and French that are not the mother tongues of Africans.

The UJCI, Monyae said, is not only established to teach Mandarin, but also to research on how China relates to the world, its peace missions, and people-to-people diplomacy, among others. With such a huge trade volume and still counting, Monyae stressed the need for SA and China to have a common understanding, also based on language and culture between them. “Africa-China relations is nothing new. But our argument remains strong, that you cannot deepen these relations without understanding each other,” he added.

Like its sister institutions, UJCI promotes the study of Chinese and an interest in Chinese culture. To this end, it  offers Mandarin courses for university staff and students, members of other organisations as well as members of the public; administers international proficiency tests in Chinese; and organises events and exchanges aimed at promoting an understanding of Chinese language and culture.

Ntombizondira Mathebula (Maureen) is a senior teacher, Gwala Nondumisa and Ngwenga Londiwe are young teachers at the Winnie Mandela Secondary School.

Winnie Mandela Secondary School is a state secondary school located at 9043 Mandela Drive, Tembisa Ext 24, Tembisa, Gauteng Province, South Africa. Besides English that is the major Language, three local languages include Sepedi, Tsonga and isiZulu are also optionally taught at the school.

The teachers spoke of the importance of introducing Mandarin in schools, which they say is an opportunity for many South Africans who travel to China. According to them, it will also increase the chance of South Africans getting jobs at Chinese firms as well as understanding the culture of the Asian country.

“People are concerned about Mandarin because South Africa hasn’t introduced any local language as a national language. It’s just that concern, but some think it necessary to know Mandarin as a language because, as South Africans, we travel a lot. And it is easy…and one feels comfortable knowing the language whenever he’s among those who speak the language,” Maureen said.

Among other things, Maureen said teachers or government cannot choose and so parents have greater roles to play in the introduction of Mandarin. “Let our Department of Education allow for parents to make the choice because it is their kids that are going to the face the world outside there,” she urges. Gwala Nondumisa and Ngwenga Londiwe expressed a similar view.

Mr. Eddie Kekana, principal of the school, said they are yet to introduce Mandarin in the school. He explained that the plan is good. He supports the SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) position that Mandarin should be optional and that local languages be treated equally.

Anton Harber, a journalism professor at Wits University, told Africa-China Reporting Project fellows that there is no evidence of imperialism as others claim. “The agreement to teach Chinese in South African schools is driven by investment and trade. Confucius Institutes were established in South Africa based on agreement of the two sides.” Harber also revealed that South Africa’s trade with China has grown and so teaching Chinese in the country is welcomed.

Erwin Pon, chairman of the Chinese Association of Gauteng, South Africa, in conversation of with journalists on Africa-China Reporting Project in Johannesburg on November 9, 2017, said that the teaching of Chinese Language in South Africa is in good faith, for Chinese and South Africans to understand each other’s language and and culture as well.

It was also gathered that Chinese teaching had started years back with Chinese migrants learning their language in South Africa.

South African-born Chinese, Mr. W. K. Wai Pon, told Africa-China Reporting Project journalists in Johannesburg that he went to Chinese school.

Angela Liu, Deputy Principal of the Pretoria Chinese School, said the school started as exclusive institution to teach Chinese children, but later opened to the general public.