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“Ni Hao” South Africa

(People's Daily Online)  Yu Meng  2016-02-18 09:03

South African learners mastered the Chinese paper-cutting handcraft in Chinese class. (Confucius Classroom)


The year 2015 was the Year of China in South Africa as part of the bilateral agreements for the promotion of trade and people to people exchange between the two nations. In order to promote the mutual understanding between South Africa and China as well as strengthen the bilateral trade, on March 20th 2015, the Department of Basic Education approved the listing of the Chinese language to the school curriculum, as a subject choice for pupils in grades 4 to 9 as a non-official language. Other language choices in the same category include German, Serbian, Italian, Latin, Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu.

It is not surprising therefore that, from time to time you hear a friendly South Africans saying “Ni Hao” to a Chinese person as they walk about in the street, shopping mall or even a golf course. Although sometimes Chinese can be introverted, yet upon hearing the greetings in the home language, they always smile, another proof of language being the most convenient instrument to close the distance between two cultures.

South Africans are full of curiosity and love for the Chinese language. Using myself as an example, I was asked to show the Pin Yin input method, the Chinese input method on the computer, by my lecturer at school. I know of one kindergarden in Johannesburg that is teaching toddlers to say “Kiss Kiss” in Chinese. I know of many of my South African friends that even keep Chinese ink and brushes for their Chinese calligraphy practice at home.

Whist some might be speaking Chinese as only a hobby, for some, it is also a valuable language skill in the job market. There are more than one hundred Chinese enterprises within the South Africa-China Economy and Trade Association who are actively looking for local multi-lingual talent in South Africa and even more, across the Africa continent, where there are more 2 500 Chinese companies.

Mandarin is going to be instituted at a select number of schools from January 2016 as per the programme of the Department of Basic Education. The Confucius Classroom at the Chinese Culture and International Education Exchange Centre in Pretoria is undertaking the teaching task. The Chinese Centre, established in 2012, as an education institution affiliated with the Confucius Institute Headquarters (Hanban), is committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services in South Africa. There are four other Confucius institutes at the University of Johannesburg, the University of Cape Town, the Durban University of Technology, and the Rhodes University.

The Confucius classrooms are for elementary and middle schools while the Confucius institutes are for universities. As of 1st December 2015, there are 23 Confucius classrooms and 46 Confucius institutes across Africa according to the official data.

Some schools already had Chinese courses in Gauteng province as part of a pilot project. “Learners are showing great enthusiasm in Chinese classes,” says Evelyn Song Peters, the course coordinator who is also teaching at the Pretoria High School for Girls. She says. “some learners voluntarily teach, or more like show off, Chinese to classmates during school breaks”. Ms. Peters even has three teachers in her Chinese class.   

In 2015, over 300 South African learners from Gauteng participated in the "China in My Eyes" Essay Contest, which was co-hosted by Gauteng Department of Education and the Chinese Centre, as part of the “Year of China” celebration. Ms. Peters’ students performed Jasmine Flower Song at the awarding ceremony.

Whilst not all of the participants had ever visited China, most came up with their story ideas through reading and observation. In the eyes of these learners in South Africa, China is beautiful, a state of ceremonies and tradition; and the fact that, the Chinese people righteously supported South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle from the very beginning.

Some expressed their eagerness to visit China in the near future. They have written about China’s history and folklore stories, some introduced China’s economic development; some observed that China was a vast country of 1.3 billion population, 56 ethnic groups and over 5000 years of history.

The learners also wrote about the twelve Chinese zodiac signs in China, the meaning of the colour “red” in the Chinese culture and why the number “8” symbolized wealth; the delicious Chinese food, tricky chopsticks, and the fearsome martial arts. One of the contestants wrote: "Should I ever have had to fight against the Chinese, I wouldn’t have stood any chance because they can strike with their breaths.” Dr. Lu Zhilei from the Chinese Centre believed that learners from the schools in which Chinese were taught, achieved excellent results in the contest. Ms. Peters had one student who had won first prizes from the Pretoria High School for Girls.

According to the Basic Education Department’s Chinese teaching plan in 2016, there will be 15 schools in Gauteng, officially offering Chinese as a subject of choice. The teaching materials will also be uploaded to the Gauteng E-learning platform at the same time, for the convenience of the learners.

“There were schools in South Africa that were offering this language as an option and what we are saying now is that all schools that do so, should do so, with the necessary resources," Elija Mhlanga, spokesperson for the Basic Education Department was quoted when he announced that Mandarin was to be offered in SA state schools.

By 2019, South Africa will have one hundred primary and secondary schools offering Chinese lessons. This means an increased demand for teachers. For this reason, the Chinese Centre plans to train local people, especially those that have acquired teaching degrees from China, to teach Chinese. Both of the language classes and the training for the teachers are free of charge, said Dr. Lu.  

To meet the language and acculturation demands from the South African civil servants, especially the diplomats, the Chinese Centre has also helped the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) with its Mandarin training courses for official communication purposes as part of the memorandum of cooperation signed in June 2015. It has been noted that, as bilateral exchanges between the two countries increase, the demand for Chinese language training is growing rapidly.

Before DIRCO, the Chinese Centre has also provided faculty assistance for Mandarin training for the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The Chinese Centre also carried out the training program for the Chinese ICT giant Huawei South Africa in 2015. Mr. Sizwe Zuma, the private consultant to President Jacob Zuma and the Chairman of the national INSIKA Foundation attended the opening ceremony of the training program at the Huawei WOODMEAD training Centre.

Since June 2015, the Chinese Centre has offered 60 to 240 hours of language lessons for each of the local employee in Huawei South Africa, including mandarin training, culture orientation and cross-culture communication ability training.

Ms Peters, the lecturer of the course, says that now that there are more employees who understand the Chinese values and Huawei’s corporate culture, the mis-communication within the company has mitigated.

Mr Sizwe Zuma said that from the head of the state to ordinary people, South Africa held profound feelings toward China and the Chinese people. He hoped in the future there would be more people-to-people exchanges and cultural activities for the service of the local people.

About Hanban

As China's economy and exchanges with the world have seen rapid growth, there has also been a sharp increase in the world's demands for Chinese learning. Benefiting from the UK, France, Germany and Spain's experience in promoting their national languages, China began its own exploration through establishing non-profit public institutions which aim to promote Chinese language and culture in foreign countries in 2004: these were given the name the Confucius Institute.

Confucius Institutes/Classrooms adopt flexible teaching patterns and adapt to suit local conditions when teaching Chinese language and promoting culture in foreign primary schools, secondary schools, communities and enterprises.

Hanban/Confucius Institute Headquarters, as a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, is committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide, it goes all out in meeting the demands of foreign Chinese learners and contributing to the development of multiculturalism and the building of a harmonious world.

(The story was originally published on Business Day on January, 29th, 2016.)