On the Language Question
Over the last few weeks, very significant discussions and developments have taken place on the language question in South Africa. The first was an article by Simphiwe Dana in the Sunday Times two weeks ago on the need to recognise a single language for everyone in order to deepen our culture, and the second was the launch by the Sunday Times of its Zulu edition this weekend.
We must applaud Dana for her initiative and bravery about her views, and the fact that she has displayed that artists and/or celebrities should not only be recognised for their debut or continuous appearance in Shwashwi, but for their equal intellectual prowess and thought. We hope that many more will join in and ensure that they express their views on the construction and reconstruction of our society and building of its unity, reconciliation and rehabilitation. I do not agree with Dana in some of her assertions, but I believe that she is taking us further.
We should also applaud the Sunday Times for joining institutions such as Ilanga, umAfrika, Isolezwe and many other newspapers that have been delivering news and opinions to our people in their language. This development should be followed by other dominant newspaper houses whose revenues are dependent on the buying power of the working class and the poor of our country. The question of the quality of news delivered is a matter we leave for another day.
Both these developments seek to profile the role of language in building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. The Apartheid society had ensured that in order for its ideas to be easily assimilated and for the convenience of the master, they had to impose a single language medium in schools, business dealings and almost all facets of our society. Language therefore became an instrument of oppression, rather than an instrument of communication. This is one of the reasons why June 16 happened, a revolt against the system on the basis of its undemocratic imposition of a language that was identified with the oppressor. Thus, even in the debates building up to the adoption of the constitution by parliament, the key question was "which language will be the official one".
Thus, in order to complete the task of national reconciliation, the question of the diversity of our languages and the need to offer equal recognition and respect for all these languages is important.In the same vein, because of the recognition of Afrikaans by apartheid as a tool of oppression, the language also assumed the status of anti-democracy and thus became the target of the liberation movement. Many people could not get work, go to certain institutions of higher learning, enter certain professions or become full citizens because they did not understand or couldn't communicate in Afrikaans. Universities, schools, hospitals and many other social institutions were built for the reproduction of Afrikaans as a language. Many of these institutions are still present, and because of the legacy of Apartheid, all the other languages, except English, are not afforded the same prestige and practical recognition as would Afrikaans. This remains a travesty of justice.
In modern times, one of the major symbols used during the xenophobic attacks was language, where people were asked to say certain things in Zulu or Pedi as a determination of their South "Africanness"; herein lies the Achilles heel of Dana's argument, that of a monolingual society.
But the issue here is not only about Afrikaans, Zulu or English. It is about how language can exclude people from democratic participation and expression. It is also about how perceptions are formulated and accepted in society mainly because of the question of language. In so many instances, we use language, especially English, to wrongly determine whether people have the necessary intellect to lead in society or not, and the more they break the kings language, the lesser the chances they have to lead. This, although subtle, is in some instances used as criteria, and thus, excludes people from exercising their right to participate in public office.
Many people are excluded from participating in formulation of legislation because, even though parliament recognises and seeks to promote all the languages, the major languages used for development of policy and legislation is English or Afrikaans.
Few political parties formulate their messages in all the languages, and thus preventing the electorate from making a concise democratic choice. Even worse, not a single political party sought to communicate with the Khoi people in their language, and thus, excluding them to fully and consciously participate in the electoral process knowing that they are making the right choices.
The question of language therefore also touches on the human rights aspect. The right to education, to participate in the economic life of society, the right to express one's culture, the right to administrative justice and many others are merely paid lip service to, in the name of lack of resources. I fundamentally submit that if, for instance, every child is taught in their home language in schools, the prospects of them succeeding in subjects such as Mathematics and Science will be higher as is the case in some Afrikaans and English medium schools. Parents seem obliged to take their children to English medium schools where they pay exorbitant fees only because they are made to believe that the kings' language is the language of the learned friends.
Staying within the ambit of the law and some of the shortcomings with respect to interpretation in courts; I attended the rape trial of the President of the republic, and in one of the examinations of his evidence, he submitted that after what had happened between him and the accuser, he said to her in isiZulu, "uyintombi ngempela".
The translator, and subsequently every major newspaper in the land, interpreted this to mean "You are Delicious", thus completely distorting the message. Again on the president, the snobbish intellectual, Prince Mashele, in an article in the Sunday Independent, castigates the President on the basis of his inability to read a speech eloquently in English and thus brings to doubt the president's intellect. We can mention many anecdotal incidents which deny people the right to express their ideas and opinions in society, and thus resulting in them being regarded as lesser of human beings precisely because they cannot express themselves in a particular language. This has a barring on the outcomes of most cases in our country and equally access to the justice system by the majority of our people.
The function of the state in giving equal prestige to all the languages will also remove the tribal and ethnic barriers that exist between us. In KwaZulu Natal, for instance, if you cannot speak isiZulu or you originate from other parts of the country, you are in some areas referred to as isilwane (animal). Where I grew up in Modimolle, there was some prejudice towards Venda and Tsonga speaking people and an attempt to impose sePedi as the dominant language. Derogatory names where used to explain people from the far North, and this seems to be present even in the political landscape of the province.
We have to do much in building unity in our nation, promoting democracy and bringing an end to exploitation if we are to ensure that the National Democratic Revolution succeeds. Both Dana and Sunday Times contributions will go a long way in doing this, but it is to the extent we are prepared as a people to break this artificial barrier. We need to see more newspapers, literature, textbooks, magazines, movies, television series and others media programmes in different languages. This will help deepen our knowledge of other cultures and languages, and even develop the languages themselves.
I have learned my Zulu, are you prepared to learn your Venda. That's the Bottomline, cos the YCLSA said so!