Margaret Owen-Smith

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa
Fellow Since 2007
This description of Margaret Owen-Smith's work was prepared when Margaret Owen-Smith was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007 .


Language rights are guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) but are not properly administered or protected. A leader in improving equality in the corporate workplace, Margaret “Margie” Owen-Smith has developed a program that increases the number of students learning African languages and the efficiency of their learning.

L'idée nouvelle

The 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa guarantees certain rights to all South Africans, including students’ rights to be taught in their mother tongue. Margaret is creating an opportunity for children to learn in their native African language; increasing their proficiency and the quality of language skills in English schools. Since the Department of Education has not developed a system to implement these rights effectively, Margaret developed a program that makes teaching African languages, in addition to English, simple and effective.
Using a model that teaches African languages along with English to read and problem-solve helps level the playing field in school and enables students to retain an important part of their vibrant culture and relevant part of their identity. The impact is significant. When language is associated with education and progress, it is perceived as more valuable beyond the home and family. There is also documented research that indicates that learning at least two languages during the early years of childhood improves academic performance across all disciplines.
Margaret mobilized and lobbied stakeholders until she successfully piloted a dual medium learning program in five schools in the province of Gauteng. An independent study has shown that her intervention is having an impact on student performance and confidence. Margaret is also lobbying teacher training departments and curriculum designers to better place the model within the education system from the top down.

Le problème

An education system segmented by race and language was a detrimental consequence of apartheid. The White schools were prioritized, while conditions deteriorated in Indian, Colored, and African schools. African schools were often neglected in terms of infrastructure, resources, and quality of education. The issue of “language of instruction” was a flashpoint during the struggle against apartheid, and with the advent of South Africa’s democracy, there was a commitment to create equity and integration in education. Though much progress has been made, this work is far from done.
According to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, the right to language maintenance; the right to learn to read and write in a first language; to use support materials and learning resources in one’s first language; and, the right to learn one’s native language as a subject at an Africa language level (if only as an elective/extra course) is enshrined and supported. South Africa has eleven official languages.
However, the full provisions to implement and integrate these rights within the education system are not in place, nor does there appear to be a focus or planned response from education departments. As a result thousands of learners’ rights are being compromised in addition to their ability to learn conceptually. A child’s most basic tool to learn is using his/her language. Since it generally takes 6 to 8 years for a child to be optimally taught in another language, to not have this option places them at a real disadvantage. 
The Western Cape schools now offer education in Xhosa, English, or Afrikaans. However this approach may still segregate education and not offer the integrated response appropriate in the context of South Africa. Some public schools are beginning to better reflect their demographics, but very few are teaching African language learners in their mother tongue. The problem is compounded in urban areas where many students know more that seven or eight different first languages.

La stratégie

Margaret has designed a methodology and is implementing a strategy to ensure the rights of all African language speakers; to learn at their optimal level and to retain their language as a vibrant part of their lives. Margaret’s efforts to ensure language rights began in 2002 as a member of her children’s school governing body (SGB), when she realized nothing was being done.
Margaret began her mobilization in the school her daughters attended. She approached five other schools in her district and invited them to a workshop on the language rights issue with other stakeholders and experts. Using the input from the workshop and support from language experts, she began to engage education officials and design the framework for her model. The five schools she approached agreed to be used as pilot sites.
Margaret approached the Gauteng province education department to lobby their support. After initial resistance, her lobbying efforts paid off and she received support for two teachers (able to teach six African languages between them) to be trained to implement Margaret’s model at the pilot sites. Margaret’s organization, the Home Language Project, is a registered citizen organization (CO).
The model focuses on two areas: Reading and writing, and mathematics. Working in both primary and secondary schools she ensures that children are able to read in both their African language and English. This covers reading, comprehension, creative writing, and translations. Learners are grouped into language peer groups and are taught lessons in their shared language. The ability to communicate proficiently in their native language and English improves their overall performance. The interventions in class are supported by other required reading in their native language, such as history and other conceptual subjects. 
Margaret’s other focus is teaching mathematics in an African language. By obtaining translations of the current mathematics curriculum (“outcomes-based”) in African languages, they are taught concurrently with English lessons. Children are able to problem-solve in their mother tongues which increases their comprehension and internalization of the logic and processes. Others advocate for different language schools, but Margaret believes they would be socio-politically regressive and not reflect the contextual reality. Students benefit most when they can speak both their first language and English. Her method ensures that the learner learns more efficiently and speaks improved English than if they struggled with only English.
An evaluation conducted by an independent CO found after two years of intervention of the concurrent language course there was significant increase in test scores. Learners in the project showed significant increases on all subtests in the Home Language test.
Margaret is attracting a diverse group of stakeholders to implement her multi-lingual education model. Her entrée to the Education Department ensures the implementation of a Constitutional right, and meets their policies with regard to the requirement that schools offer the option for students to learn in their first language during the first three years of school. Her main partner in approaching the Education Department is the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Margaret is working with the HRC to take the Education Department to Constitutional Court. She is also taking advantage of the existing movement for the preservation and teaching of African languages at an academic level. While some schools provide spaces for courses on African language as a second language, Margaret engages professors of African languages in her methodology; becoming advocates and reaffirmed in their efforts to preserve and maintain African languages. The professors also become resources for the program’s development. Margaret’s lobbying of government departments is beginning to yield results and create space for her model to expand throughout the province and nationally.

La personne

Margaret was raised in a family that encouraged independent, creative thinking and contributing to society by fighting injustice. With a strong sense of social justice—the lens through which she views the world—Margaret trained as a teacher, but was quickly disillusioned by the education system and environment.
A turning point was her work with the Anglo-American Corporation; recruited to set up a policy unit on industrial relations. Margaret played a critical role in developing a new framework for industrial relations to improve not only Anglo-American but to influence national policy (particularly regarding the relationship between management and Black trade unions). She contributed to the Wiehahn Commission on Labor Legislation and played a significant role to resolve workplace issues, e.g. eliminating racism, introducing employment equity and affirmative action. Margaret was a leader in very choppy waters, and far ahead of other business enterprises. She was also instrumental in working with a local business school to develop a curriculum on the subject—her first experience with educational design. 
In 1984 she left full-time employment to start a family, but stayed involved with a few part-time projects. In 1995 she was energized to realize the schools in her neighborhood were perfectly placed to take a lead in social transformation—but disappointed by their lack of vision. She promptly joined the SGB of her children’s school.
On the SGB, she introduced an Education Support Group to get parents more involved in the running of the school. She facilitated the process of consultation with parents and introduced new school management structures, such as an Education Policy Committee and Human Resources Management Committee. She mobilized teachers and parents to review school policies in an effort to inject new thinking, accept changes to the curriculum, and encouraging them to make things better. In 2002 her attention was drawn to the issue of language rights.