Presentation of the Summary of the Harare 1997 conference for readers of the Bisharat! web site. Return to Basic Documents.


Harare (Zimbabwe), 17-21 March 1997



  1. The intergovernmental Conference on language policies in Africa was held in Harare (Zimbabwe) from March 17-21, 1997. It was organized by UNESCO in close collaboration with the Zimbabwe Government and with the support of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and of the Agence de Francophonie (ACCT). This Inter-governmental Conference had been convened by the Director-General of UNESCO in accordance with Resolution 3.1 adopted during the 28th Session of the General Conference (1995).
  1. All African Member States of UNESCO were invited to the Conference and the following Member States participated: South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cap Vert, Central Africa, Comores, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Uganda, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Zaire, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
  1. At the invitation of UNESCO, India and Switzerland sent delegates to the Conference and Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the Vatican State sent official observers as did three Intergovernmental International Organizations.
  1. The objective of the conference was to define a realistic language policy which would enable the status and functions of languages present in each country to be ascertained in order to define an appropriate strategy which could be adapted to each specific situation. Consequently, the conference had to formulate and adopt a document which would serve as the accepted standard for the specific language policies for each State. The common standard would have to be sufficiently flexible to be used by countries with a complex language situation, but at the same time be sufficiently precise to enable the development of a coherent global language policy. The Conference was divided into two parts. The Conference of Ministers, held from March 20-21 1997, which was preceded and initiated by the meeting of government experts, which took place from March 17 to 19.



  1. Statements outlining the language situation in Africa and experiments carried out in some African countries, India and Switzerland led to a discussion on the management of multilingualism which came to the following conclusions:

a) All African countries are recognized as being multilingual. This multilingualism effects relatively simple and more complex situations. In this respect the specialists fond [sic] the typologies pertinent as outlined in the working paper.

b) Imported languages and particularly the languages of former colonial times have become an accepted part of the language situation in Africa. Managing this situation judiciously meant that conflicting situations in connection with national languages and imported languages could be avoided. One speaker summed up in a few works [sic] the position of the specialists: he said that it was necessary that the African languages be given elbow room in relation to the foreign languages because there are some essential functions that the latter are unable to fulfill. In particular, there should be a linguistic coherence between the national languages and foreign languages within the educational system.

c) The specialists believed that the multiplicity of languages was not a bug bear but a source of enrichment for the African people. The ideal policy should enable the African people to maintain their ethnic identity through the vernacular, but allow integration into the national community via the predominating language or through one of the major national languages and to upon up to [sic] the rest of the world through the language of international communication.

  1. As the main question concerned strategies and perspectives for harmonious multilinguistic integration, the delegates agreed that the debate should concentrate on the following four points:
    • an African perspective
    • the principal actors for the formulation of general policy
    • political options
    • implementation strategies.
  1. The delegates laid particular emphasis on the problem of African languages in connection with the developmental process. Considering that in the majority of States, less than 20 per cent of the population have mastered the former colonial language, the Experts considered that the African languages constituted a key factor in African economic, social, cultural and political development. Therefore, everything must be done to allow these languages to be used effectively within the democratic process. In this respect they should not be confined to the areas of oral communication, literacy and primary school training, but should play a more important role in other areas of development.
  1. This is why the use of African languages in all aspects of National life captured the attention of the Experts. It was felt necessary to define a common linguistic policy, and in particular to define the framework of political and technical management and to identify management tools. The majority of the Experts emphasized the need to create adequate structures for linguistic planning on the one hand, and the need to train staff on the other hand. Some Experts indicated that it was important to know the population's attitude regarding their own languages. Two Delegates gave an account of experiments carried out in their own countries in order to make the population more aware of the need to give priority to their own languages over foreign languages. They indicated the importance of the role of the Mass Media in the promotion of languages.
  1. The Experts then underlined the importance of regional and sub-regional cooperation for the development of language policy [emphasis in original]. Bearing in mind the work carried out under the guiding hand of UNESCO which has enabled the identification of common languages and to ascertain the situation regarding research on these languages in the different countries in which they are spoken, they invited UNESCO to contribute to the redynamism [sic] of the specialized institutions in the regions and sub-regions (CELHTO, EACROTANAL, CICIBA etc.) to enable them to carry out their mission. Also, the experts strongly recommend the creation of a Pan-African Linguistic Association to bring about regional cooperation in the field of linguistic research.
  1. Deploring [the fact that] the often pertinent recommendations proposed at the Pan-African meetings had been supported but never put into practice, the Experts elaborated concrete proposals for action to implement policies. In this respect, they decided to adopt a detailed plan of action accompanied by a programme of feasible activities. They insisted that UNESCO should monitor the follow-up of this conference. These propositions were submitted to the Conference of Ministers in the following documents:



  1. Based on the work of the Experts' Meeting, the Ministers, the State representatives and the representatives from several International Organizations made speeches which made clear the cultural, political and social foundations of language policies specific to the African continent, particularly underlining strategies for carrying out proposals and the follow-up mechanism.
  1. The OAU representative underlined the new context in which henceforth the formulation of language policy in Africa should be placed. Democratic change, good government, cultural pluralism and human rights are today the parameters which have to be taken into account in order to guide all developmental policy, particularly policy relating to African languages which support cultural identity. The OAU spokesman underlined that the protection of cultural identities would not result in the isolation of Africa from the rest of the world within the context of growing globalization, as the linguistic problem in Africa had become a central problem which concerns not only the States but also the general public. He declared that those present should put wheels in motion so that the decisions taken at the conference be put into effect. For the immediate future, he suggested that a transnational network and language data bank be constituted as well as the organization, [under] the auspices of the OAU of a Pan-African Association of Linguists Congress.
  1. Mrs. Lourdes Arizpe, Assistant Director General for Culture, representing the Director General of UNESCO stressed the importance of the conference. After reminding participants that the respect of linguistic diversity was one of the principal points in the UNESCO Charter, the Assistant Director-General for Culture gave an account of the Organization's efforts in favour of the rehabilitation and promotion of African languages as well as the formulation of linguistic policy likely to give support to cultural identity. Based on research fndings and the report of the world commission for Culture and Development, Mrs. Arizpe drew the Delegates' attention to the urgent need to formulate linguistic strategies which take into account the need to complement the vernacular with national or official languages as well as international languages. Realistic and effective language policies must be formulated in a perspective of justice and peace in order to involve all socio-political groups in a sustainable developmental policy.
  1. The Chairman of the African group of UNESCO pointed out the importance of languages as instruments of development, not only in the cultural domain, but also in connection with the economic, social and political spheres. Taking into account the diversity of languages and cultures in the African continent, and of the desire of States to construct nations, he proclaimed plurilinguism as the only path to follow in order to reconcile legitimate feelings of ethnic identity, national aspirations and community awareness. Referring to OAU's 1986 Plan of Action, he deplored the fact that the recommendations of African conferences had often not been implemented and hoped that the Governments of African States would clearly show their intention to put into effect the Harare plan of action which offers a flexible framework capable of being adapted to the specific tasks which need to be carried out. [F]inally, he reminded participants that it was urgent for each state to put into practice the recommendations of the conference [emphasis in original].
  1. After outlining the linguistic situation in Africa where indigenous languages and colonial languages co-exist, The Minister of Higher Education in Zimbabwe pleaded for plurilingualism. He stated that it was necessary to re-examine linguistic policy with a view to developing African languages at both national and regional levels by giving them the status of working languages in economic, political and social spheres. This strategy must at the same time enable the promotion of national unity, peace and stability [emphasis in original]. The policy must also facilitate communication between African States, not only through volonial languages, but also through African languages that are spoken in several countries. [T]o achieve this goal, it is necessary to give status to all languages in each country [by] clearly defining those which are considered official, national without being official, local, and languages used for liturgical purposes. Without in any way wishing to abandon English, Portuguese and French, which are for Africa the languages of international communication at both National and Pan-African levels as well as at local and regional levels [sic].
  1. On the basis of ideas expressed in these speeches which repeated and amplified the conclusions of the Meeting of Experts, the conference examined, amended and formally adopted the Declaration of Harare and the Plan of Action, which formed an integral part of the detailed work-plan. In order to ensure that the decisions taken at Harare would be carried out, the conference designated a Follow-up Committee. This Committee, which was composed in accordance with the suggestions of representatives from each geographical area, comprises:

As Zimbabwe had hosted the Conference and had taken an active part in its preparation and organization, it was also declared a member o[f] the follow-up Committee. The three International Organizations, namely UNESCO, OAU and ACCT were also designated as Members of this Committee. Messrs. Okombo and Ntahombaye were elected President of the Governmental Experts' Meeting and President of the Steering Committee respectively. They were also designated in a personal capacity as members of the Secretariat of the Follow-up Committee.

Printed copy & permission to weblish obtained courtesy of Culturelink, with thanks to Dr. Biserka Cvjeticanin.

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