Johannesburg (AFP) - South African state schools will introduce Mandarin lessons next year in a bid to bolster cultural relations with China, its largest trading partner, a government official said Wednesday.
Basic education spokesman Elijah Mhlanga told AFP that South Africa hopes to teach Mandarin to "as many people as far as practically possible".
Mhlanga said that the programme -- part of a 10-year plan signed by South African President Jacob Zuma in December last year -- was already under way.
"There are teachers who travel to China for training while China has and will bring trainers into the country to support us," said Mhlanga, adding that China was footing the bill for the training.
But the decision to introduce the language has outraged the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU), which said it was "tantamount to a new form of colonisation".
"SADTU rejects this imposition with the contempt it deserves," said the union's general secretary Mugwena Maluleke.
"We will prioritise African languages in order to build social cohesion."
The roll-out of Mandarin will see China training hundreds of South African teachers and building three Confucius Institutes, research centres similar to Germany's Goethe-Institut designed to promote Chinese culture.
In 2009, China became South Africa's largest trading partner.
But the trade balance has been skewed in favour of China, with Africa's most developed economy exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods, causing concern that the trade between the two countries is not a mutually beneficial relationship.
A research fellow at the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University believes the decision was long overdue.
"With the ubiquity of China in all spheres of African society, it would be absurd if our government didn't arm our people with Mandarin," said Paul Tembe.
"When I was in China in 2004, Chinese schools were already teaching Swahili and Zulu."
South Africa has 11 official languages -- a hallmark of Nelson Mandela's rainbow nation -- but English dominates business.
Mandarin is already taught in other southern African countries.