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Monday, 3 January 2011

Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill 2010: Part II

The Republic of Zambia and Its Sovereignty

Part II relates to the “The Republic of Zambia and Its Sovereignty”. The provisions here have been the focus of much media attention, especially the absence of the Barotseland provisions. We shall leave those much debated issues aside and focus on the actual provisions made - specifically Article 7 which has not received much attention:
(1) The official language of Zambia is the English language.
(2) Any language, including sign language, other than the official language, may be used as a medium of instruction in educational institutions or for legislative, administrative or judicial purposes, as provided by, or under, an Act of Parliament.
(3) All local languages in Zambia are equal and the State shall respect, promote and protect the diversity of languages of the people of Zambia, including sign language.
There are three specific problems with this provision.

First, it is not clear why the “official language” provisions are in the Constitution at all! It seems to me that this is something that should be a matter of evolving policy not something that defines who we are. I keep emphasising that because along the way the purpose of the Constitution has been forgotten. 

Secondly, the elevation of English above other languages is retrogressive and continues to reinforce a colonial mentality. Provision (2) clear allows, under an Act of Parliament for other languages to be used in paralle to English. However, the existence of provision (1) clearly speaks volumes about how see our local languages relative to English. We regard them as second fiddle, or more precisely equal fiddles under Provision (3). 

Thirdly, Zambian unity demands more official languages rather than a single one. There's some flawed thinking perpetuated by some that unity is derived from uniformity. That could not be far from the truth. If as a country we to achieve a structural shift in inter tribal relations, it will need to be sustained on broader education and language reforms. We need to see language as medium of education which we can use embrace differences, but at the same time teach the new generation how to communicate and relate to one other. Compulsory languages of other tribal languages and cultural lessons are particularly vital. However, to have that will need the erosion of the single national language requirement currently proposed. It is now accepted among leading African thinkers that for many African countries the adoption of a single national official language probably does more harm than good. Although these policies are predicated upon the desire to foster inter tribal unity, they do so at the expense of reinforcing the dominance of rich African elites. More worryingly, such measures also prevent citizens in our villages from communicating with the governments, effectively turning the existing provision into what Wangari Maathi has called “the strongest forms of discrimination, and indeed, means of oppression and exclusion”.

The example from South Africa is one we need to consider and possibly adopt a suite of national official languages. There may of course be transaction costs associated with multiple official languages but focusing only costs without considering the benefits is a wrong way to develop national documents. Incidentally, I don't think the "additionality" of these transaction costs is obvious. The elevation of  a single language may perhaps lead to "efficiency gains" because using one language may reduce translation costs, but that ignores other costs like "information loss" - what about instances where new costs are generated because obvious "meaning" is lost? A problem clearly alleviated under a multiple suite of national languages though it imposes other costs. 

The point here is that this requires careful thinking. It should be noted that a recent United Nations study Why and how Africa should invest in African languages and multilingual education, makes a powerful case for a multilingual approach not only nationally but also for its education benefits:
We recommend that policy and practice in Africa nurture multilingualism; primarily a mother-tongue-based one with an appropriate and required space for international languages of wider communication. It is important to ensure that colonial monolingualism is not replaced with African monolingualism. The bugbear of the number of languages is not impossible to overcome. It is not true that the time spent learning African languages or learning in them is time lost from learning and mastering supposedly more productive and useful languages that enjoy de facto greater status. It is not true that learning these languages or learning in them is delaying access and mastery of science, technology and other global and universal knowledge. In fact, the greater status enjoyed by these international languages is reinforced by unjust de jure power arrangements. It is not proper to compare local languages to international ones in absolute terms. They complement each other on different scales of value, and are indispensable for the harmonious and full development of individuals and society.
These and other studies demonstrate not only the importance of flexibility in these matters but are suggestive that a better approach is to reword Article 7 and simply empower Parliament to formulate on-going legislation after evolving public discussion.

Next Stop : Part IV

Part III apparently does not exist.

All posts in this ongoing review can be found at the Constitution of Zambia page.

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