School girl's claims of discrimination illustrate language still bitter issue in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A 16-year-old who believes she was kicked out of class for speaking her first language at school has prompted government investigations, and the case is demonstrating how volatile the issue of language in education remains in South Africa.

School officials insist a disciplinary problem and not racism sparked the case, but it's now making headlines a generation after hundreds here were killed when students revolted over being forced to learn in Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors under apartheid.

Luthando Nxasana says that when a business class teacher told her to speak English "or get the hell out of my classroom," she gathered her books and left to complain to a more senior teacher. Luthando said she told her teachers she believed being kicked out of class for speaking Xhosa was "very racist."

Xhosa is spoken by Nelson Mandela and some 10 million other South Africans and is one of the country's 11 official languages along with English and Afrikaans. However, those languages of South Africa's colonizers still rule in the classroom and elsewhere, a recipe for resentment in this nation of 50 million.

Shawn Scannell, head of the parents' board at Roosevelt High School, said many of his students and teachers felt they had been unfairly portrayed in the storm of publicity since Luthando went public with her complaints.

"The school ... encourages respect for all racial and cultural groups," he said in an e-mail, noting that students come from South Africa, Angola, Namibia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Asian countries.

Scannell said Luthando was punished because she was speaking loudly enough to disturb others. He said other students who speak Xhosa said Luthando was criticizing the business teacher and other girls' appearances.

Luthando, though, said she was only encouraging a friend who was worried about grades. Luthando said other students may have mocked the teacher in their home languages but she said she should not be punished for others' bad behavior.

Tensions escalated, and Luthando's father even went to the police, accusing teachers of trying to intimidate her and her twin sister, Lusanda. Prosecutors declined to pursue the case, saying it would be better handled by the Department of Education and the Human Rights Commission, which is investigating.

Chris Swepu, who heads another government agency investigating what happened in that business class, the Pan South African Language Board, acknowledges it's not yet clear whether Luthando's "linguistic human rights" were violated. But nonetheless he says the case has put the spotlight on the issue of language in schools.

Many parents and students have come to him with similar cases in his three years as chief executive of the board. For the most part, they are middle class black South Africans who can afford to send their children to schools like Roosevelt in neighborhoods where once only whites could live.

White parents still dominate the governing boards that wield most of the power at such schools. They set fees, determine in which languages subject will be taught and devise policies on behavior.

The tensions and anxieties run in many directions. Students thrust into an English-speaking school after speaking only Zulu at home for years sometimes resent their parents. Black parents proud to be able to afford to send their kids to schools in the best neighborhoods can be embarrassed when they visit their home villages and discover the children no longer share a language with their grandparents. Many black South Africans suspect white South Africans have failed to learn African languages because they look down on African culture.

Even after the controversy, though, the twin sisters are studying at Roosevelt. In an interview with The Associated Press, they wore their blue and gold uniforms with the school's emblem on their blazers.

Luthando said if she just changed schools, she might find a worse situation: "The problem with racism is, it's endemic," she said.

This weekend, the girls plan to take part in a meeting about language with other South African teens in Soweto, an impoverished township far from their upscale neighborhood. The gathering will take place at the museum memorial to Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old shot and killed by police trying to put down the 1976 Soweto uprising, protests against an edict ordering black students to be taught in Afrikaans.

The girls' father, Thami Nxasana, is a policy analyst and communications technology expert who has advised the Department of Education and other government bodies. He says he would like his daughters' battle to end in schools like Roosevelt offering courses in Zulu, Xhosa and other African languages alongside English and Afrikaans.

When asked if she could have been more tolerant of her teacher, Luthando pauses. Her father jumps in, repeating a refrain often heard since apartheid ended in 1994 — that while blacks forgive again and again, whites rarely respond.

Yes, Luthando then said, adding that her teacher's situation could be seen as sad. But "she needs to start accommodating and adapting to the new South Africa," she said.