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The politics of language

By: Simphiwe Dana2011-10-02 10:00

Language has been linked to cultural identity and innovation. But, as we know, the development of Africa was curtailed by the advent of colonialism and its languages.

To kill a tree you must cut off its roots.

To kill a society you must disassociate it from its culture, language and identity.

Can you imagine how hard it would be to explain or understand everyday events and occurrences if we did not have language?

Words are essential tools that help us explain and understand events and occurrences. Can we blame Africa for not trusting her own intelligence when she has lost her language?

Psychologists say that if you’ve been abused long enough without reprieve you start to internalise the inferiority.

The same goes for countries. Government spends the most money of any developing country on education, yet year after year the education crisis deepens.

Despite these huge budgets there are still not enough resources to properly equip schools that were disadvantaged by apartheid.

The changes in the curriculum and their improper implementation have killed the morale of both teacher and learner. But I’ve learnt something interesting.

Between 1953 and 1976 the government phased in mother tongue education and for eight years learners 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. Studies show that the pass rate dropped to as low as 44%.

Isn’t it time to rethink the language in which we teach our children?

To be able to have complex concepts explained to you in a language you understand and a language based on your world-view gives you an advantage.

Currently those who have an advantage in our education systems are those who are descendants of or have adopted the colonial culture. It further entrenches inferiority and superiority complexes.

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 and language. Biko spoke of this at length; that the aggressive dehumanisation that blacks, particularly Africans, suffered had to be met with an equally aggressive rehumanisation, to infuse back life into 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 world-view – her knowledge systems – her spirituality, her language?

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 world-view?

If language is the repository of the world-view of its speakers, let South Africa speak, be taught and do business in an African language.

If development is seen as the sustainable socio-cultural, economic and 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 world-view of all African ethnic groupings. Our world-view 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.

The acknowledgement and endorsement by the global scientific community of the relevance of indigenous knowledge speaks to this vacuum we have left in our community by our involuntary, and now increasingly voluntary, abandonment of our knowledge systems.


Excerpts of a paper for the Thinkers’ Symposium Published in City Press


About Simphiwe Dana

Musician, Writer, Activist, Mom


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