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Indigenous South African Languages: The time is now

As the world today observes World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, ‘cultural diversity’ of language in a country like South Africa is becoming more and more meaningless



Growing up during a time of South Africa’s political transition, English for me had significant aspirational value. My parents invested much of their resources into me being able to integrate into a new (whiter) society. I remember, at some point, raising concerns about them forcing me to take Afrikaans as a second language over my home language, isiXhosa. Their response? ‘You speak that language at home’. Suffice it to say, I still cannot speak or understand much Afrikaans. Besides the fact that the imposition of that language on my scholarly predecessors ignited the student protests of 1976, I don’t have a problem with the language. But I gained subconscious indifference to my home language, driven by an inherited attitude that my knowledge of it was sufficient.

Little did I know that a language is more than just words; it contains knowledge of a people’s beliefs and bits of history; how a people came to make sense of the world around them. A word like umthetho (law), for example, is related to the word thetha which can be translated into the verb ‘speak’. This may say something about how customary laws were originally enacted. Many isiXhosa speakers don’t know the months of the year in their language. The month in which we are is not ‘uMeyi’ as it is commonly referred to, but as the original language named the months according to harvests and constellations, May is uCanzibe (the month of Canopus).

Today is a day that the United Nations declared World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. Officially, South Africa is home to all kind of diversity, including 11 languages, the lingua franca being English. Which is understandable, considering the country’s colonial history. Yet is this reason enough for the other languages to wither into oblivion?

Recently, after a rigorous search, I managed to obtain a copy of one of my grandfather’s published books – a collection of short stories of which I am very proud. I shared my delight with my friends on social media with much excitement.


What I didn’t know is that, even though the book was written in my mother tongue, I was clueless about what my grandfather had written. He, a fluent speaker of the language, told hilarious stories set in his village where I do not live but those stories remain inaccessible to me because my understanding of the language is rather limited to domestic usage. This disconnect is merely a symptom of a larger malady.

This illness is the unequality that continues to plague the country. Much of the country’s wealth and land belongs to a white minority who inherited it from the oppressive ancestors. Naturally, as they wield the economic power, they also have the cultural power. Thus anglicisation becomes an imperative for many black people’s prospects of success in the country. You see this where black become ever more accommodating to whiteness, shortening their names like ‘Lukhanyo’ into ‘Luke’.

The problem is then further perpetuated by our leaders; men and women who lay their lives on the line in the fight for equality still try to conform to an unnecessary norm.

President Jacob Zuma has often been ridiculed on social media with videos capturing his numerous mistakes in the reading and pronunciation of English words in his speeches. But why would he feel compelled to speak English when, firstly, the majority of the national assembly (and country) is black and, secondly, Parliament employs many translators who are highly proficient in their crafts? He would certainly gain a lot of respect from me if he gave authoritative and even emotive speeches in isiZulu, adding some texture to a fading lexicon.

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A heated debate is ongoing in the eloquent circles of South Africa’s literati. Thando Mgqolozana, a published writer and activist, astounded many readers (myself included) and writers when he recently announced his ‘retirement’ from the country’s white-dominated literary industry.

His much-publicised comments, in front of a mostly-white audience at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival, were, rather predictably, received with much tumult and animosity. His contention lies in the fact that at such festivals his prowess as a writer becomes second to his being paraded around as an “anthropological subject” in front of all-white audiences. He said he was tired of hoping that organisers would make more efforts to grow an inclusive reading culture in their environments – so he decided that this year’s festivals was his last. What is clear is that Mgqolozana is lancing an ageing abscess, one with different sources of pus.

Indeed, of all the panels I attended (or even saw on the timetable) at last year’s FLF, none included authors of books written in an indigenous language. All panelists were somehow involved in projects which were in English. A strange phenomenon considering the fact that only 10% of the population could identify with the language as their mother tongue. So perhaps the problem would not be with the festival only but with the publishing.

Graph source: Census 2011, Statistics South Africa

Graph source: Census 2011, Statistics South Africa

In voicing her opinion about Mgqolozana’s views, award-winning arts journalist, Karabo Kgoleng, also made a similar critique of the local education and publishing landscapes.

“Less than 30% of our schools have libraries and most of those that have libraries are in appalling condition, teachers themselves can’t transmit that passion for reading. We are not teaching in indigenous languages, so we are already disadvantaging most of our population and limiting the nurturing of storytelling and imagination,” she told Books Live.

Indeed, this majority government does need to make more preservation efforts for our linguistic heritage. The education curricula and art culture ministries need to address the problems for which, as freedom fighters, they fought for.


My worry then becomes: if things continue on this trajectory, how will the future look? Not promising, I presume. But perhaps I should choose to not worry myself about such grand visions of a pro-African utopia here in the South. For me, it’s back to finding a tutor who can help me re-learn my home language so that maybe one day I can get past the second page of my grandfather’s book.

What worries me is that some day my offspring will ask me about meanings of certain words in isiXhosa for which I’ll have no answers. But what I know for sure is that they’ll be able to read this.

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