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African Innovation and African Language Systems

27th of September 2011 – Wits Main Campus – Speech at the Thinkers’ Symposium

The Department of Linguistics in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology says – “If development is seen as the sustainable socio-cultural, economic & technological transformation of society, then language is important. Language is a granary, a repository of the world-view of its speakers, it is this particular language that best contains and expresses the indigenous belief systems of any society. New belief systems are immediately related to these existing systems. Then it goes without saying that a successful conceptualization and implementation of the societal transformation that is development can only be achieved through the use of the mother-tongues or the languages indigenous to the society.”

MSC Okolo says – “The most virulent element working against the repackaging of the African personality is the vision of Africa in colonial languages. Of all human inventions, language alone affects, structures, defines, interprets all other aspects of human life. Beliefs, ideas, ideologies, culture, knowledge, experience, values, prejudice are acquired & conveyed through language”

Kwesi Kwaa Prah contends – “No society in the world has developed in a sustained and democratic fashion on the basis of a borrowed colonial language. Underdeveloped Afrika remains so partly on the account of cultural alienation structured in the context of the use of colonial languages.”

And finally Ali Mazrui asks – “Can any country take off if it relies on foreign languages for its discourse on development & transformation?”

My question – Is there a link between language, cultural identity and innovation?

The authors I have quoted seem to believe so and frankly so do I.

Western Culture has always had a superiority complex. If you do not fit into it’s definition of what intelligence is then you are deemed of inferior intelligence. This has seen it play a paternal role and it is responsible for the genocide of a lot of cultures, in Africa and elsewhere.

The development of Africa was curtailed by the advent of colonialism, which brought and enforced new concepts of being and new knowledge systems that were at odds with African knowledge systems.

Now to think that Africa accepted these foreign knowledge systems because she felt hers were inferior is to accept that colonialism was a necessary evil. This is not to say that Africa should have rejected all foreign knowledge – but I say Africa should have rejected the wholesale cultural enforcement whose sole[1] [2]intention was to replace her own – and she tried and failed. It is difficult to say no when there’s a gun pointed to your head.[3]

Civilizing Africa has been the excuse of many a colonialist as they raped and plundered the continent, building monuments and leaving broken societies in their wake.

To kill a tree you must cut off it’s roots, if you only cut off the branches the tree will grow new branches come springtime. To kill a society you must disassociate them from what informs their worldview – their culture, their language, their identity. Then they shall forever be willing slaves to your agenda, as they will have nothing else. If you only take their land and leave their societal fibre, their knowledge systems intact, they will soon come to themselves. I have not mentioned religion because in the African context culture and religion were/are synonymous.

Exploring Africa on its website says – A world-view can be thought of as a system of values, attitudes, and beliefs, which provide people with a mechanism to understand the world in which they live and everyday events and occurrences. Maybe we can think of a world-view as being like a language. Can you imagine how hard it would be to explain or understand everyday events and occurrences if we did not have language-words? Words are essential tools that help us explain and understand events and occurrences. Words and their meanings help shape the way we see, and therefore how we explain, events. Similarly, the world-view (values, attitudes, beliefs) that an individual learns from the time she is a baby provides a mechanism that influences how she understands all that happens to her, her community and the world in which she lives.

What is meant when we speak of knowledge systems?

South Africa is the last African country to gain independence from colonialism, albeit a compromised independence.

All the other African countries that gained independence before South Africa have not faired well. South Africa might be the richest country in Africa but this is not because the previously disadvantaged have made strides towards economic emancipation, but because of the compromise agreements that made sure it was business as usual after 1994. The compromise agreements more or less maintained the apartheid status quo. BEE is crumbs off the table where sits a huge pie. Those crumbs are only accessible to the few elite, who also happen to be the guardians of the huge pie.

The reason why African countries have, after independence, not done well is because they have not done away with colonial culture. I put it to you that Africa has so internalized the inferiority complex inferred upon them by colonialism that they have feared to break away from colonial knowledge systems.

In fact those we, upon independence, put our faith in to lead us back to ourselves, have been so far gone in their pursuit of relevance and importance, that they could only pay lip service to African identity and innovation, while pursuing colonial excellence. In other words, George Orwell’s Animal Farm has been uncannily brought to real life across the African landscape.

Can we blame Africa for not trusting her own intelligence? Psychologists say that if you’ve been abused long enough without reprieve you start to internalize the hate abuse comes with. You start to believe it is for your own good. You indeed start to see your abuser as saving you from yourself. You begin to distrust yourself and you lose yourself. Losing yourself has psychological ramifications. You cannot run away from yourself forever, the self-loathing will eventually break you. A lion cannot deny its carnivorous nature – that is one dead lion.

So is the case in Africa, one by one countries are crumbling because they sought to maintain colonial systems instead of redreaming Africa. By colonial systems I mean systems of governance, education systems, religious systems, language systems, cultural systems. The systems are crumbling because the knowledge systems they are based on are foreign to the African landscape and thus the African cannot innovate based on them. It is in this context that in South Africa those who benefited from apartheid can sometimes be heard complaining that [4]the African government is taking the country to the dogs. Not only are they talking about corruption, I mean they were/are corrupt themselves, but mainly the mismanagement of the perfect system that they handed over to the African government. It should come as no surprise based on this why the Western Cape would be the most well run province even as it marginalizes Africans, Coloureds and Indians. The system can best be run by those whose knowledge systems it stems out of – and the system best serves those who know how to work it.

That in no ways makes the African incapable, but sadly everyone, including the African, believes it does.

Look at the issue of education in South Africa for instance. Government spends the most money on education, yet year after year the education crisis deepens. Yes we understand that despite the huge budgets there are still not enough resources to properly equip black schools that were disadvantaged by apartheid. We understand that the changes in the curriculum and their improper implementation have killed the morale of both teacher and learner. Here is something interesting though. Between 1953 and 1976 the apartheid government slowly phased in mother tongue education and for 8 years in a learner’s life they were taught in their mother tongue. This improved the matric pass rate significantly. The abolishment of mother tongue education is what led to the Soweto Uprising. Thereafter the pass rate dropped to as low as 44% (Heugh, 1999).

I believe that the introduction of mother tongue education alone would drastically improve learner results. To be able to have ,explained to you, complex concepts in a language you understand and a language based on your worldview gives you an advantage. Currently those who have an advantage in our education systems are only those who are descendants of or have adopted the colonial culture. This further entrenches inferiority and superiority complexes.

Coming to the African worldview. I believe that when Bantu Steve Biko spoke of Africa giving the world a more human face he was referring to the harmonious, spiritual understanding and interaction of the African with her world, the reverence given to nature and the social cohesiveness as enshrined in the Ubuntu philosophy.

But to give a human face to the world Africa must first rediscover her own humanity. Biko spoke of this at length. That the aggressive dehumanization that blacks, particularly Africans suffered had to be met with an equally aggressive rehumanization, to infuse back life to the empty husk of the black man.

What is this self-love he spoke of? Is it not the love for what makes an African human? What informs the humanity of an African? Is it not her worldview – her knowledge systems – her spirituality?

Would it then not be fair to say that the beginning of the emancipation of an African starts with embracing her knowledge systems and her worldview?

If language is the repository of the worldview of it’s speakers, let South Africa speak, be taught and do business in an African language. If development is seen as the sustainable socio-cultural, economic & technological transformation of society, let South Africa speak, be taught and do business in an African language.

If no society in the world has developed in a sustained and democratic fashion on the basis of a borrowed colonial language, let South Africa speak, be taught and do business in an African language.

I believe that any African language carries the worldview of all African ethnic groupings. Our worldview has given birth to our knowledge systems and our culture. These are the ties that bind. To strengthen them is to strengthen and fast track development.

We have a wealth of information that we are not tapping into. Africa is a rich continent yet its inhabitants are poor. It is poor because we want to be importers of knowledge and innovation instead of [5]exporters. This is a sure path to neocolonialism, and this time we will have no one but ours[6]elves to blame if opportunists ransack and pillage our continent a second time while we continue to have famine in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia.


Ultimately education in Africa can only be seen in this context for it to have any real impact on our overall evolution. Education must teach African Excellence in a language that has the ability to carry the worldview from which stems thousands of years of Africa’s knowledge. At the World Conference on Science held in Budapest, July 1999 – the acknowledgement and endorsement by the global scientific community of the relevance of indigenous knowledge speaks to this vacuum we have left in the global community by our involuntary, and now increasingly voluntary, abandonment of our knowledge systems.

Spiritually we do not know why we are here on earth. We do not know how or why we developed in such diverse ways – but increasingly we are finding that our individual cultural uniqueness puts us in a position to have information that the other does not have. We are finding that to keep our planet not only progressive; but healthy we all need to contribute to the global information pool. We are finding that to keep humanity healthy of mind and body we all need to contribute to the global spiritual pool.

The question then is, what does Africa currently have to contribute to the world?


About Simphiwe Dana

Musician, Writer, Activist, Mom


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