Anyone who intends to enrol at the University of KwaZulu-Natal next year must brace themselves for a course in isiZulu. The last time South African students were forced to study in a language that was not their own, the country saw a build-up to the 16 June 1976 uprising in Soweto.
However, the setting is different this time. Independent Online reported that in a democratic society, the University of KwaZulu-Natal has taken the decision to make conversational isiZulu compulsory for all students who enrol at the university next year. The university wants to engage the students and staff in a move that prioritises social cohesion.
The deputy vice-chancellor of UKZN, Professor Renuka Vithal said that the university had been approached by both students and staff members with a request to make isiZulu a prerequisite for everyone. On Wednesday, the leadership of the university voted to make the new policy effective as of 2014.
Until now, only students pursuing a course in the Health Sciences faculty of UKZN were expected to successfully go through a semester of isiZulu. In the Western Cape, students at the University of Cape Town are required to be able to converse in isiXhosa. The reason that these institutes of higher learning encourage students to learn vernacular languages is so that students can learn how traditional beliefs influence patients’ perceptions of illness and treatment thereof.
Professor Ian Scott at the Centre for Higher Education Development at UCT believes that this will be a huge challenge for students whose mother tongue is not isiZulu. Until 2018, the roll-out for this endeavour will see students learning isiZulu so that they will be able to interact on academic issues verbally. Thereafter, from 2019 to 2029, students must be able to write in isiZulu. This is part of the UKZN transformation charter. He thinks this decision by UKZN is “ambitious”.