A seemingly innocuous development, yet one loaded with diplomatic potential for Africa happened last week — the announcement that Kiswahili will be taught in primary schools in South Africa.
It is probably one of the most important developments in the trajectory of the language since it joined English, Portuguese, French and Arabic as the official language of the African Union in 2004.
Interestingly, the adoption of the predominantly Bantu language at the AU was in part thanks to former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano’s surprise delivery of a farewell speech as AU chairman in Swahili in 2004.
Indeed, the announcement by South African basic education minister Angie Motshekga, quickly garnered vibrant discussion on social media platforms in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.
This is evidence of the great potential for Kiswahili as the glue in the quest by Africans to speak with one voice.
In the immediate, qualified Kenyan and Tanzanian Kiswahili teachers have an opportunity to head south to earn a living while propagating the language.
In the medium term, the number of Swahili speaking South Africans will rise adding to the approximately 150 million Swahili speakers in Africa.
In the long term, it is probable that other African countries in the southern, central and western reaches of the continent will take up Swahili aiding in cross-continental communication.
It will be recalled that South Africa’s approval for the teaching of Mandarin in 2015 was greeted with opposition by a section of the populace worried over what some considered — erroneously — a form of Chinese cultural imperialism.
By contrast, the wide acceptance of Kiswahili emanates from its African roots in the broader context neo-Pan Africanism.
In other words, unlike foreign languages such as French and German, Kiswahili is attractive to Africans, if nothing else, because it demonstrates the global purchase of a language indigenous to Africa.
In the wake of the announcement, radical South African opposition leader Julius Malema spoke in the same breath as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s enduring thesis — decolonising the mind through African languages.
Malema went as far as suggesting that the continental adoption of Kiswahili would spur the rejection of foreign languages such as English as mediums of communication by Africans.
This constitutes an ideological perspective to the language question in Africa, one in which Kiswahili is viewed positively.
What can Kenya and Tanzania - the two “home” nations of Kiswahili - do to promote the language?
In Kiswahili, these countries have been sitting on a potent cultural diplomacy resource.
South Africa has now handed Kenya and Tanzania an opportunity to leverage language as a tool for cultural diplomacies.
Kenya’s cultural diplomacy strategy released in 2016 spoke of a plan to establish “Kiswahili institutions” abroad among other forward-looking strategies.
In Tanzania, one of the missions of the Baraza la Kiswahili La Taifa Nchini Tanzania (National Swahili Council) is to promote the language continentally.
South Africa provides the perfect opportunity for the implementation of the plan and potentially serves as the testing ground for the introduction of the language elsewhere in Africa.
Indeed, Kenya and Tanzania can put aside their frequent intemperate diplomatic schisms to forge a joint strategy for promotion of Kiswahili across the continent.
In so doing, they need not reinvent the wheel. Under the East African Community, the region already has the East African Kiswahili Commission (EAKC), which ought to resuscitate itself from a deep slumber following South Africa’s pro-Kiswahili education move.
An official from the Kiswahili Council should by now be headed to Pretoria bearing a powerful message: We can offer you expertise in Swahili pedagogy and teaching resources.
Again, the council should see the adoption of the language in the South African education system as an opportunity to promote the language to the rest of the continent.
One of the points of exuberance about Swahili is that it is the most spoken African language, well ahead of Hausa.
With speakers in at least 11 countries sharing borders with Kenya and Tanzania, it is the most spoken African language in terms of numbers as well as geographical reach.
However, the language is not well-rooted in the hinterlands of Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Mozambique, Comoros, Ethiopia, Zambia, DR Congo, Uganda and South Sudan.
What would it cost Kenya and Tanzania to help these countries with Kiswahili language development for instance through curriculum developing and dispatching teachers to schools.
What if the two countries started offering scholarships to a small number of budding Kiswahili speakers from African countries?
By investing in what may be conceived as Kiswahili language diplomacy, Kenya and Tanzania would be boosting their soft power on par with the public diplomacy strategies of China (Confucius institutes) and France (Alliance Francaise).
Rather than Kenyan and Tanzanian ministries of education and foreign affairs constantly being on the lookout for scholarships for their nationals, the reverse can be undertaken.
Dr Wekesa is a media and geopolitics scholar at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa: [email protected]