The University of KwaZulu-Natal has announced that starting next year, all entering students must study Zulu. Zulu is spoken by perhaps a quarter of South Africa’s population and the extensiveness of its use is probably second only to Afrikaans. However, it is an exceptionally difficult language for adults to learn, and few whites, coloreds, or Asians do so.
The university says the new requirement is designed to promote nation-building.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal is the result of the merger of the apartheid-era whites-only University of Natal with the Asians-only University of Durban-Westville. The merger was part of the effort to dismantle the educational structure of apartheid. The university now has a large black enrollment.
Thomson-Reuters’ “The World University Rankings” lists only four universities in Africa, all of which are in South Africa: the University of Cape Town, University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”) in Johannesburg, the University of Stellenbosch (traditionally Afrikaans), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Thomson-Reuters ranks the University of Cape Town at 113, Wits between 226 and 250, University of Stellenbosch between 252 and 275, and KwaZulu-Natal between 351 and 400. It ranks the California Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Oxford as the top three in the world.
Everybody involved in educational policy understands the limitations of such ranking systems, but they do indicate something of relative reputations.
It remains to be seen what the consequences will be of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s bold language experiment. Will it impact on the numbers of non-Zulu speakers who matriculate?