JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa’s largest circulation weekly newspaper, the Sunday Times, this month reached a milestone: It is the first national paper to publish an edition in Zulu.

English is the lingua franca in South Africa, used in business and government, and the country’s print media is English-dominated. But while about half of South Africans can speak some English, only about 8 percent speak it at home. In comparison, 24 percent of South Africans speak Zulu as their mother tongue — about 12 million people.

The launch of the Sunday Times Zulu edition comes when the press is under fire from the ruling African National Congress party, which has threatened to impose a tribunal to regulate the media. One of its criticisms is that 16 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa's media is owned mainly by whites and lacks diversity.

Advocates for the revitalization of African languages in media and education are hoping that the launch of a mainstream Zulu paper will mark a shift in South Africa’s media world toward more indigenous language publications.

The media has a “very, very critical” role to play in promoting the value of indigenous languages in South Africa, said Chris Swepu, acting chief executive of the Pan South African Language Board, established by parliament to promote multilingualism.

“The media is quite influential in the thinking of the nation,” Swepu said.

Under the white minority apartheid regime, English and Afrikaans (an offshoot of Dutch) were the country’s only official languages. Today, however, South Africa has 11 official languages. English is only the sixth most spoken language at home, after Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Northern Sotho and Setswana.

In addition to English newspapers, South Africa has a few major Afrikaans dailies and some successful but local Zulu papers.

The 32-page Sunday Times Zulu edition, which is circulated in KwaZulu Natal province where the Zulu language is most dominant, features a range of stories translated from the English paper. The Sunday Times decided to create a Zulu edition when market research indicated there was a demand among South Africa's rapidly growing middle class. And where there is demand, advertisers will follow. The Zulu edition is already proving so popular in KwaZulu Natal province that the paper is considering circulating the paper in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area, as well.

Isolezwe, one of the local Zulu papers based in KwaZulu Natal province, increased its circulation by 34 percent in the first quarter of 2010 to a daily average of 104,481 copies, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Sister newspaper Isolezwe ngeSonto, a Sunday paper, increased by 34 percent over the same period.

Swepu said that the Sunday Times Zulu edition is “commendable,” but he noted that while there are several Zulu-language publications in KwaZulu Natal province, there is a paucity of newspapers in South Africa’s other African languages, some of which have a significant number of speakers. For example, nearly 18 percent of South Africans speak Xhosa at home.

“What worries me is that all the efforts are concentrated in one province,” Swepu said.

Swepu is convinced that there is a demand in other areas of the country for newspapers in local languages apart from Zulu, and publishers are not yet taking advantage of it.

“There is a market out there,” he said.

With the exception of the online versions of Zulu-language local newspapers, South African indigenous languages also have a distinct lack of presence on the internet — not surprising for a country where only 10 percent of the population is online. While Facebook is available in dozens of languages, including Afrikaans and Kiswahili — spoken in East and Central Africa — none of South Africa’s indigenous languages are offered.

Developing the African-language press could require a lot of training of young journalists. While some journalists may speak Zulu or Xhosa at home, they may not have studied it formally and don’t feel comfortable writing in the language. Many parents in South Africa prefer their children to be educated in English, which they see as a global language.

At Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape province, journalism students have a new requirement: They must pass two semesters of Xhosa — the main language in the area — before they can graduate. The school has also held classes for journalism professors to teach them basic Xhosa skills.

Russell Kaschula, a professor of African language studies and head of the school of languages at Rhodes, said there is a growing demand for graduates who are strong African language speakers. For example, a Xhosa-language radio station in the Eastern Cape was desperate to hire staff who could speak the language at a high level and who could translate stories from English.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of students studying African languages at Rhodes in the past three years — from fewer than 100 to about 300 students this year.

Growth has been sparked by a more modern way of teaching the language, with a focus on offering “hip and happening” courses, and involving students in the process of bringing the language’s terminology up to date, Kaschula said.

He emphasizes the need for a “linguistic regeneration” of African languages, with the goal of creating a true “equality of languages” in South Africa. But he admits that this will be long-term project.

“We quickly rush out to see how we can save the rhino, but we don’t do anything about our languages,” he said.

More GlobalPost stories about Africa's middle class:

• In Kenya, the educated professionals of the middle class pressed politicians to end the political and ethnic violence of 2008. Now they must encourage reform.

• In South Africa, upwardly mobile blacks are shaking off years of apartheid oppression and buying homes in areas previously reserved for whites. They are also buying BMW cars from a Johannesburg dealership owned by a black businessman.

• In Ghana, the private Ashesi University College is offering students new educational opportunities that will enable them to embark on professional careers.

Liberia’s 14-year civil war dismantled the once-thriving middle class, but now, a few years after the war ended, the middle class is beginning to return.

Sierra Leone’s 11 years of civil war — between 1991 and 2002 — also caused many of the educated middle class to flee, but now they are trickling back and helping to rebuild the economy.

• And in the United States, two well-educated Africans decide to keep working overseas in order to be able to send money back to their families in Africa.

These stories show middle-class Africans at work. By working to improve their own lives, and the futures of their families, they are also helping to boost Africa’s political and economic future.

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