South Africa has announced that Kiswahili will be introduced as an optional language in schools by 2020.
The move was welcomed by many who want to see the language, known in English simply as Swahili, become the first African language spoken across the continent.
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader Julius Malema says Swahili, which is spoken by more than a hundred million people across East and Central Africa, provides Africa with a chance to free itself from colonial shackles.
“We must have a language that unites Africans. If Kiswahili can be developed and become a continental language, and then we do away with speaking to each other in English,” he said.
English is unlikely to lose its status as one of the most widely spoken tongues in Africa, where more than 23 countries recognize it as an official language.
By comparison, Swahili is an official or national language in five of Africa’s 54 countries — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
But unlike English, Swahili could provide a more native connection between African people.
“It’s a Bantu language for Africa and Bantu is everywhere,” said Isa Kenya, a Kenyan national living in Johannesburg. “Even in South Africa, Zulus they speak all the same as the Kiswahili and it will be easiest for Africa people to communicate when the African Union opens the border.”
Swahili has for centuries been the language of commerce in East Africa, becoming a second language to tens of millions across trading routes.
Sipho Mutema, principal of the Christians’ Institute of Learning in Johannesburg, believes the language can help unify the continent.
“Learning about the depth and wideness of one’s language, it is a way of finding one’s identity. I think it will bring togetherness, something that I will call Africanness,” he said.
Others argue that on a continent with 1.2 billion people and more than 2,000 languages, Kiswahili has more than a few hurdles to leap before becoming Africa’s common language.