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Unintended consequences

| March 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

One school’s story.

By Fiona de Villiers

Shereen Cachalia is the kind of teacher we all wish we’d had.

Her combination Zulu and computer classroom is cheerful and inviting – less because of the jolly posters on the walls, and more because of the gentle warmth and care she exudes as her little students settle themselves before the screens. Some teachers have voices that grate like nails on a chalkboard; Cachalia’s soft, respectful tone makes the gruelling job of an educator sound like tasting the most divine, foamy, angel food cake ever.

CAPS creates an interesting situation at the ‘chalk face’

The school she’s called a home away from home for years is also rather special. Here at Parkview Junior School (PJS) in Johannesburg, a diverse cross-section of South African parents jostle annually in queues on registration day, desperate to claim a space for their child. It’s a small state Foundation Phase school with a giant reputation.

Cachalia’s passion for teaching and learning is equalled only by her humility. She’s an especially rare kind of educator; charged with teaching Information Technology (IT) as well as Zulu to Grade 1, 2 and 3 pupils. In her customary quiet and unassuming way, she’s efficiently compiled methodologies and lesson plans that any publisher would die to get their hands on.

But it’s not entirely business as usual at present. Both Cachalia and PJS are in an interesting position. The Department of Basic Education (DBE) has this year unrolled its national Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS), intended to render the national curriculum easier to teach.1 In the languages arena, students are now required to study English and only one additional language, instead of two. This requirement has already had some ironic and unintended consequences, bringing into focus yet again the chasm that often exists between those who design education policy and those who must implement it in the classroom.

“At the end of last year, we met with our parents, who have always been a really progressive group of people, to choose our first additional language (FAL). Things got heated when it emerged that half the parents want the school to opt for Afrikaans, while the other half feels passionate about retaining the FAL status of Zulu,” explains Cachalia.

Debate ongoing across the country

It’s a debate raging in schools across the country. On the one hand, proponents argue that children must learn an ‘indigenous’ language, both to accelerate social cohesion in a diverse and ‘free’ South Africa and to strengthen pride in the cultures and histories of the First Nation peoples of the southernmost part of Africa. This ‘black pride’, they rightly argue, was denigrated by various colonial oppressors – the most infamous of which was the Afrikaner, whose mother tongue was Afrikaans.

Ironically, it’s Afrikaans that’s gaining currency with increasing numbers of parents and students – many of them black – as the FAL of choice in secondary schools. Pupils complain that African languages are too difficult and that resource material is uninspiring, and parents maintain that English is the passport to job success.2

The debate is an important aspect of the ongoing search for a post-apartheid nationhood, but it’s the situation ‘at the chalk face’ that is of more immediate concern. The supply of properly qualified and experienced African language teachers has not kept pace with the provision of Afrikaans teachers, with whose help, say parents and pupils, secondary school students will more easily attain the required pass rate of 30%.

Language mastery must begin in the Foundation Phase Back at PJS, parents and teachers alike know that success in any subject depends on thorough mastery of the basics in the Foundation Phase. And no teacher is going to impart these basics unless she’s passionate, skilled and experienced. Like many Zulu teachers, Cachalia developed a love for the culture and the language as a child herself. “I spent most of my weekends and holidays on my uncle’s farm, Dekuilen, outside Standerton in Mpumalanga,” she remembers fondly. “I learnt to speak Zulu with the children from Dekuilen and we spent all day in the maize fields playing, learning to milk the cows, and eating pap at the huts.

“My late dad owned a general dealer’s shop in Standerton and I used to help out some days. This was another source of exposure to the Zulu language and culture, interacting with the mainly Zulu customers.”

Cachalia started teaching at PJS 16 years ago, when African languages were first placed on government school syllabi. “I had a group of 52 children whose parents had chosen for them to do Zulu instead of Afrikaans. There was no formal syllabus for Zulu at the time, so I devised my own learning programme and assessment standards.”

Learning based on play

Cachalia – and her equally competent colleagues – is the reason for the annual lengthy queues at PJS. Parents report that their children adore her Zulu classes. There’s no special alchemy at work, she insists, just an understanding that very young pupils learn best through play. “The children play various games like bingo, hopscotch, pass-the-parcel and so on, expanding their Zulu vocabulary or revising words as they play. I also collect items integral to traditional Zulu culture and we have an annual concert – based, say, on the rituals associated with an important cultural event, such as a Zulu wedding, after which we all enjoy ‘pap and gravy’. Puppet shows staged in our special theatre are a more regular affair.

“I also share with the children the symbolic importance of Zulu beadwork. They quickly grasp the general concept of respecting other cultures. As important as this, is the fact that our Grade 3s are able to have a short conversation in Zulu by the end of the school year, and they can read simple Zulu books. They are also able to write simple sentences in Zulu by the end of the year.”

Cachalia is equally enthusiastic about her computer lessons, having long ago seized the opportunity to combine them with Zulu classes. “My students learn a variety of computer skills, and soon they’re able to produce an illustrated African animal fable that was the result of a group work exercise that every teacher can use with great success.

“Each child in the class in turn creates a sentence to build up a Zulu story, at the end of which a lesson must be learnt. Children acquire a number of skills through this exercise. They learn to wait their turn when collaborating, they learn to listen to the previous sentence so they can build on that to keep the story flowing, and most of all, they have lots of fun!” Best of all, says Cachalia, the little printed books don’t just gather dust on a shelf. Her students give them to fellow pupils at other schools that don’t have libraries, where they are enjoyed time and again.

Multilingualism the main thing

Cachalia is philosophical about the possibility that PJS parents may choose Afrikaans as the FAL, due to the shortage of Zulu teachers at the local middle and high schools that will enrol PJS students after graduation. She’s more worried about something she discovered at a recent CAPS-related meeting organised by the local district office of the DBE. “At this meeting, teachers were informed that CAPS forbids the use of English in FAL lessons. This may have negative consequences for very young learners in all schools, many of whom need to first grasp concepts in English before learning how to translate them into another language.”

Whatever happens, Cachalia will continue to be valued by PJS parents. And seeing her interact with her students – each one gets a special ‘sweetie’ if they’re able to say goodbye in Zulu, and most them can, with ease – it’s obvious that in years to come, each one will cherish the memory of the teacher who opened the door to multilingualism in such a positive, passionate manner.


1. See, for example,
fileticket=N2JAbH83NLY%3D &tabid=420&mid=1216.

2. See, for example, Govender, P. (2012) ‘Xhosa, Zulu Being Axed at
State Schools’, available at:
01/22/ xhosa-zulu-being-axed-at-state-schools.

Category: Autumn 2012

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