Prof Rajendra Chetty
It is indeed a distinct honour to serve as the 17th President of the English Academy of Southern Africa. The Academy has a proud history since its inauguration in 1961 and is considered as a unique institution globally. 2011 marked the Golden Jubilee of the Academy with an international conference on Language, Literature and Literacy as well as the publication of the commemorative edition of our accredited journal, the English Academy Review: Southern African Journal of English Studies.
Our vision is of a democratic society in which effective English is available to all who wish to use it, where competent instruction in the language is readily accessible and in which the country’s diverse linguistic ecology is respected. The Academy continues to give high priority to education and the effective teaching and use of English at all levels. Closely allied to education is the Academy’s interest in English culture, scholarship and research. The Academy recognizes that Southern Africa is part of the global English family and has added significantly to this literature. A wide range of authors across the spectrum of our society have made contributions to a uniquely South African English literature.
Our half century has seen many achievements. The Academy was founded to engage with those in power and with the general public about the role and significance of English. It has done so vigorously, with dignity and in a positive spirit. Regular submissions have been made to state departments on language issues, valuable conferences and lectures have been held, seasonal schools have been run for teachers, first-rate journals have been published, and a growing range of prestige prizes has been established to recognise outstanding work in English. The e-journal, Teaching English Today, continues to provide a lively forum for English teachers. As circumstances have changed, the Academy has become more nuanced in its approach, recognising the complex linguistic ecology of our region, and happily accepting the challenges of our democratic order.
English is vital to Southern Africa. Providing good quality English knowledge is important and it empowers learners. Good command of English will aid in minimizing socio-economic disadvantage, especially within the post-apartheid context of South Africa. English can also be seen as an attempt to unify a people susceptible to be divided along ethno-linguistic lines. In a sense one can argue that English equalizes our society. Ideally, because of our location on the African continent, an African language should be playing this role and indeed, current efforts to promote African languages into higher status functions should be encouraged. However, the fact remains that at least in the foreseeable future, English will continue to be a major language in this country and the world at large. One can therefore argue that imperatives for the foregrounding of English as language of teaching and learning should be examined so as to provide every South African child with an opportunity to master the language that might control his/her access to the means of socio-economic and educational empowerment.
As we embark on a new era in the intellectual and social life of the Academy, it is fitting to shift the emphasis to recent debates about literacy. The crisis of decreasing literacy levels in the public schools needs to be addressed more seriously. For this to happen, creative solutions (and massive expenditure) would have to be applied to the teaching of English, particularly in disadvantaged and rural schools. If well managed, mastery of English in disadvantaged settings may be an invaluable tool of exchange between those living on the margins of society and those who are part of the global village.