“I am an African, I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hinsta and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetswayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers that Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.” – Thabo Mbeki, former South African President.

Globalised into what?
On my daily bus ride home from work, I often find myself sitting near Dominic, a little 6-year-old black boy. Dominic lives with his mother, a Xhosa-speaking woman, yet Dominic does not understand a word of his mother tongue. She switches to English when she communicates with him. This is not his fault, but there are few things sadder than seeing a young black child who cannot communicate in his or her own language.

It has gradually come to my attention that people here value the English language to such an extent that they associate it with intelligence. But it will be a sad day when everyone is introduced to English and nothing else from birth.

Some of us are globalising ourselves to such an extent that we are losing our sense of being; some have lost it already, and slowly our heritage and languages are becoming extinct. We seem to be forgetting that our mother tongues promote and preserve diversity.

Model C school. Some Black school kids insist on speaking English exclusively so they may be accepted where the grass is 'greener'. Source: Times Live © Nina Bekink
Model C school. Some Black school kids insist on speaking English exclusively so they may be accepted where the grass is ‘greener’. Source: Times Live © Nina Bekink

Pride and identity
The teaching of African languages has always been contested in South Africa. Given the history  of our country, it is important for parents to teach their children their own languages and encourage their use. Because of the missionary influence on African languages, English and Afrikaans took root in South Africa, resulting in the marginalisation of the indigenous African languages. We have divisions among the “have” and the “have-not”, the citizens who are communicatively competent in English, those who have partial knowledge and those who speak no English at all.

We have 11 official languages in South Africa, and the black population is divided into four major ethnic groups, namely Nguni (Zulu, Ndebele and Swazi), Sotho (Sepedi, Sotho, Tswana), Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. Yet we are dominated by English. In Xhosa they say, silahekelwe kukuzingca kobuntu bethu (We have lost our sense of pride and identity).

Constitutional Court: The words 'Constitutional Court' written in all 11 of SA's official languages. © Lauren Kim
Constitutional Court: The words ‘Constitutional Court’ written in all 11 of SA’s official languages. © Lauren Kim

Save the rhino
A lot of noise is made about saving rhinos, but where’s the noise about preserving our linguistic heritage? We are where we are because our languages are not seen as fashionable. We live in the “English age”, and English is the global language, so our languages aren’t really necessary.

Many also see English as a sign of modernity. This is especially so among disadvantaged people living in rural parts of our country. Even those who can’t speak it would rather break it up in order to be seen as modern.

“We call upon South African to take pride in their diversity, including languages, as this is strength rather than a weakness.” –  Culture Minister Paul Mashtile.

Imagine if English were the only language spoken in the world. What a disaster that would be. The rainbow nation is about multilingual and cultural diversity, and multilingual education.

Multi-award winning rapper Khuli Chana is one of the few South African artists who insists on rapping in his mother tongue. Source: Botswana Gazette
Multi-award winning rapper Khuli Chana is one of the few South African artists who insists on rapping in his mother tongue. Source: Botswana Gazette

I am not saying lets increase the visibility of other languages and decrease that of English. I am saying let us create an appropriate multilingual environment.

Future leaders
Home is where it begins. No child should ever feel ashamed of speaking their own language at home, and if we want to groom our children to be future leaders, they need to know who they. They need to be told our stories, so that they in turn can tell them to their children, and language matters with stories. It’s not for nothing that people usually prefer to read books in the language in which it was written. Great leaders are those who understand the dynamics of society, and the only way to truly understand people you serve is to be one of them, and speak their language. A leader cannot serve people he does not understand.

We need to breathe life into the languages as a collective and take control of the implementation process, working as a unit with the government, private sector, universities and citizens.

Former President Thabo Mbeki, who made the iconic 'I Am An African' speech speaks of a pride that is not realised in South African society. Source: SABC
Former President Thabo Mbeki, who made the iconic ‘I Am An African’ speech speaks of a pride that is not realised in South African society. Source: SABC

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” – Nelson Mandela.

How can they be democracy, effective service delivery, effective policy and education through the medium of language that many do not speak or understand well?

“It is time to choose and to choose now, either for or against the further evolution of the human and linguistic spirit. It is for us, to apply whatever knowledge we have, in all humility but with due speed and to try and learn more as quickly as possible. It is for us, much more than any previous generation, to become serious about the future, linguistically, environmentally and otherwise, and to make choices that will be weighed not in a decade or a century but in the balances of geological time. It is for us, with all our stumbling, and in the midst of our dreadful confusion, to try and disengage the tangled wing.”Russell H Kaschula