Oops, the year is almost over, and I am reminded of the pain I felt at the beginning of this year when I was looking for schools for my children. I am based in Cape Town, but I found it impossible to get them into a good school not far from home that offered an indigenous language as part of the curriculum.
Now I’m not talking about a third language as is the norm in these previously model C schools. I was looking for a school that offered isiXhosa as a first language. A third language is not functional as it provides only a very basic form of communication, as in what an employer would need to pass on instructions to an illiterate servant, whilst never truly understanding the servant’s language. That’s how black people were treated by their white employers under apartheid and racism. Surely, we can’t keep the old master/slave relations if we claim to be free.
A third language definitely does not provide a path to building a culture, or shall I say rebuilding a one? We say we have 11 official languages but in reality we have 2, English and Afrikaans; English being the main language of instruction. Why would a country battling the effects of centuries of oppression allow this? Wouldn’t language be the focal point in our struggle for cultural emancipation of our mangled identity? If we agree, then we should invest massively in the education of our children.
Now you might say to me: go to the townships if you want an indigenous language. To which I would answer this: This Is Africa! I shouldn’t be battling to find a way to learn my own language, or pass that language to my children, in my own backyard. All the races should be learning an indigenous language in schools. In fact we should have one African language being taught in all schools. Why must we beg for the promotion of African languages when the languages of our colonizers are having a field day in our country? Why is Afrikaans, a dialect of the Dutch language, being given precedence over our native languages? Why is English for that matter? Why do we call this language Afrikaans? What is African about this language besides the black people that speak it? We also know that Afrikaans became associated with the brutal oppression of black people. Before the rise of Nationalist Party into power in 1948, Afrikaans was pedestrian and less developed. With the requisite political will, it was systematically developed it into a language of science, law and commerce within only two decades!
I believe that language serves many purposes, but most importantly to inform you of the essence of your being. That includes your mannerisms, gestures; the way you walk, eat and laugh. I believe that the different African languages and tribes have a common goal; that of informing us of our Africanness, our identity. Despite the existing tribal divisions, there is a unifying African culture that transcends these divisions. Which is why I have no truck for these tribal divisions as they are ephemeral.
We need to focus on the ties that bind us, not the ones that divide us. I think we tend to romanticise our identity — and reduce it to cheap tribal mythology — to a point of rendering it non functional.
When we do this the only people that gain are the anthropologists, who then get great material for their books, because theirs is to grapple with an idyllic past, instead of helping us get on with today’s programme. Yes we need to look at the past only as a reference point; we are not the people of that past. We are today’s people.
Because we have failed to reflect and learn from the past — we only romanticise about it — we consequently find ourselves caught in limbo; plodding in a vortext of confusion as to who we are, or who we want to be. As it is, we are a colonial construct and therein lies the problem. We are pathetic versions of our colonial masters. No wonder we are so apologetic about the continued suppression of our identity, of our culture, our languages. How can we expect to evolve our culture when we are caught in this state of mind? If our languages die we only have ourselves to blame.
As the different tribes we can love/hate Shaka for iMfecane wars, but, we do need a unifying language, we are too divided and it is absurd that we would be united by English and Afrikaans. So how about we concede that isiZulu is the most widely spoken language in South Africa and urgently install it as an official language in schools? Which would later develop into the official language of instruction. IsiZulu is a bit like kiSwahili, it is easy on the tongue. That is the other reason it is so widely spoken. And this is coming from me, a Xhosa-speaking person. That wouldn’t take away from our tribes as we would still have our birth languages in our different tribal regions and English and Afrikaans as a third language.
If we find that less attractive, we could consciously promote the development of an official national language from the indigenous languages so as to accelerate the development of a unifying national culture. This does not mean we will discard our present languages. We must keep and develop them as part of our heritage. Today the whole East and Central African region has adopted kiSwahili as an official language and the spin-offs in development are enormous. Uganda is following suit. The AU has also adopted kiSwahili as an official language. This is also an option that language experts and practitioners should consider for the broader unification of the Continent.
Language is the bringer of culture. What we have forgotten of ourselves is hidden in the folds of our African languages. Language might be the revolution Africa needs. I say this because the biggest success apartheid had was making us unsure of ourselves. If I go home amongst people who speak my language, an African language, I feel more sure of myself. If our former colonisers want to reconcile they must rally behind this cause, this understanding that Africa is for Africans, and in Africa African culture rules.
But of course, in as much as we should blame our colonial past, there is no evidence that the current ruling establishment takes African languages seriously. What is the black business community doing to protect our languages, therefore, our culture? Are they interested at all?
What is the current government doing to protect and strengthen our languages? What are you and I doing to keep the government’s eye on the ball? Yes, our languages are not being used in business, but what stops them? Why is it so difficult for the President to conduct state business in Parliament in isiZulu and allow his foreign guests to enjoy the translation services? Afrikaans is so powerful and carries about it a sense of arrogance in that it claims to be an African language. It might have been polished in Africa but there’s nothing in the language itself that points to African origins, but everything that points to its Dutch origins. There is general agreement that we need to develop our country and its people. But we know that you cannot develop a people in a foreign language, unless you are not serious about it. The German, Japanese and Korean products we worship are not produced in the English language. They use their own indigenous languages. If we were to follow their example we will soon find out that we have unlock the potential of our economic development.
We need to take pride in ourselves by protecting and nurturing our languages. Let us learn from other big cultures how to be majestic… China, Japan, Germany, France, Arab states etc etc.
Published in Sunday Times – South Africa