This paper contrasts two different efforts to develop indigenous South African languages for use in government, higher education, and business. The first case, the development of Afrikaans during the 1920’s and 1930’s, can generally be seen as a success, although development was not as rapid as might have been wished. By contrast, the prospects for success in the second case, the modern effort to develop nine indigenous African languages, appear to be far more limited. While contextual differences between the cases doubtless explain some variation in the success of language development efforts, this paper argues that the key explanatory variable is the political salience of a linguistically defined ethnic identity. Language development is unlikely to be successful unless it is an issue on which the survival of the government depends. The Apartheid government’s use of African ethnic identities to further segregation and discrimination have delegitimized the use of these identities as a political tool in post-Apartheid South Africa. While this has been valuable in securing political stability and avoiding inter-ethnic tension in modern South Africa, it has also meant that political value of the successful development of any indigenous African language is extremely limited. If language development efforts in modern South Africa are to be a success, new strategies which take into account the political realities of the country will be essential.