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Language: SA’s fiery crucible of politics and identity

Language: SA’s fiery crucible of politics and identity

The events of 16 June 1976, showed South Africa how the issue of language can become a raging political fireball. Now it’s back in the spotlight, and REBECCA DAVIS reminds us to take it seriously. 

It’s a strange issue that sees singer and professional Helen Zille-baiter Simphiwe Dana and AfriForum in agreement, but that was the unlikely case last week at the national assembly’s hearing on the SA Languages Bill. AfriForum and Dana found themselves in agreement on South Africans’ right to education and service in their home language. AfriForum’s deputy chief executive Alana Bailey lamented the fact that one could book a flight in several languages, but could not register the birth of a child in your mother tongue. Dana criticised the supremacy of English in the South African public sphere: “English is what brings us together”, she said “and English is eroding all the other languages.”

This sentiment was heard repeatedly as a Sunday Times report about the widespread scrapping of African languages in schools circulated online. On Twitter, Khaya Dlanga expressed what seemed to be a common concern among black South Africans: “Wow. Our languages are dying.” A decade ago there was a similar outcry over the apparent demise of Afrikaans. According to figures from the 2001 census, English is only ranked fifth out of South Africa’s 11 official languages as a home language. isiZulu is number one (mother tongue of 23.8%), followed by isiXhosa (17.6%), Afrikaans (13.3%), Sesotho (9.4%) and Setswana and English sharing fifth place with 8.2%. The remaining six languages are spoken at home by less than 8% of the population.  

English is clearly punching above its weight. A language spoken at home by less than 4-million South Africans is overwhelmingly the language of the country’s public space. After Jacob Zuma gave his widely panned 8 January address at the ANC centenary celebrations this month, many commentators suggested that he would be a far more charismatic and convincing orator if he were to give these kinds of speeches in Zulu rather than English. How did we get to the point where English is considered the natural medium for this kind of national address?

Clearly, the English language has benefited from, simply, not being Afrikaans. The backlash against Afrikaans through its association with the National Party government has not done the language any favours. This link fails to acknowledge the fact, though, that the majority of Afrikaans speakers in South Africa are black or coloured. By contrast with Afrikaans, however, particularly in the wake of the 16 June 1976 uprisings, English is seen as a more “neutral” linguistic choice. There is also the inescapable fact that English is the most powerful language in the world. While more people speak Mandarin, English is more widely used. And in terms of its cultural capital, it is indisputably dominant. In 1997, linguist George Weber investigated world languages in terms of their associated economic power and something rather dubious called “socio-literary prestige”, and English was ranked top of the list. Though that study is now almost 15 years old, few would dispute that hierarchy today.

But it is not merely English’s current status as global lingua franca that has led to its dominance in South Africa. Historically the situation has been more complex than that. In Neville Alexander’s fascinating 2003 paper “Language Education Policy, National and Sub-national Identities in South Africa”, he makes the point that pre-apartheid black and coloured leaders lobbied hard for their communities to master English. Alexander quotes the president of the African People’s Organisation, Abdullah Abdurahman, from 1902, “Shall it be the language of the ‘Kombuis’ or the language of Tennyson?” Abdurahman entreated his constituency to “endeavour to perfect themselves in English – the language which inspires the noblest thoughts of freedom and liberty, the language that has the finest literature on earth and is the most universally useful of all languages.”

Alexander records that in 1944, the language problem was tackled by prominent teacher and ANC member Jacob Nhlapo, who believed that the diversity of Bantu languages was the major stumbling block to their low status. Nhlapo proposed standardising one version of the Nguni tree of languages (then referred to as Zulu and Xhosa) and one version of the Sotho tree (Sepedi, Setswana and Sesotho). “English ought to be made the African ‘Esperanto’ while the question of the African Babel of tongues is being cleared up,” he wrote. And even if it never was cleared up, he believed, “English will still be the answer to the question of the many Bantu tongues as it has been in America, where nations from all parts of Europe and from Africa found themselves living together”. 

Nhlapo came to this conclusion on the basis of communicative convenience, but also because a single language used by Africans would have a greater unifying weight and hence greater power. There is an old linguists’ joke that the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. This quip points to a deeper truth: The inextricable connection between language and power.

In Neville Alexander’s view, African language speakers often do not believe “these languages have the capacity to develop into languages of power”. Alexander coined the term “Static Maintenance Syndrome” to describe “an attitude of mind, which is prevalent throughout the African continent, and which manifests itself as a sense of resignation about the perceived and imputed powerlessness of the local or indigenous languages of Africa”. 

Elsewhere in Africa, there have been vigorous debates and advocacy around the appropriate roles of English and indigenous languages. Possibly the most vocal language campaigner on the continent has been Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo, who is primarily concerned with the question of which language African novelists should adopt. Writers like Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe have justified their decision to write in English by saying that English can be adapted to more authentically capture an African reality. (In Things Fall Apart, for instance, one way Achebe does this is through the frequent use of translated proverbs.) Achebe wrote in 1965: “I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home, but altered to suit new African surroundings.

”The Senegalese writer Leopold Senghor explained his decision to write in French as being motivated partly by his desire to reach a wider audience: “We express ourselves in French since French has a universal vocation and since our message is also addressed to French people and others.”

To Ngugi, both these justifications are cop-outs because they fail to take cognisance of the more insidious effects of learning, writing and thinking in the language of the colonising power: “the means of the spiritual subjugation”, as he puts it. His concern is with the relationship between language and identity, and the effects that language can have on how a person comes to see their place in the world. In 1983’s Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi writes: “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe.”

Education in English for an African child has particular problems, Ngugi suggests, drawing on his own experience growing up in colonial Kenya. “The word ‘missile’ used to hold an alien, far-away sound until I recently learnt its equivalent in Gikuku, ‘ngurukhi’, and it made me apprehend it differently. Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally-felt experience.” In Simphiwe Dana’s submission to Parliament last week, she made similar points about education. Speaking of her experience visiting black school pupils in South Africa, she said: “The learners could express themselves openly and passionately in their mother tongues, because this is the language of their birth. I would ask them a question in English and they would all of a sudden be tongue-tied and stupid.”

As evidence of the benefits of mother-tongue education in South Africa, Dana cited an interesting episode in apartheid-era “bantu education”. Between 1953 and 1976 the apartheid government introduced mother-tongue education for eight years of a pupil’s school career, and the matric results for black pupils improved phenomenally. In fact, the results were better than ever before, and ever since. When first-language education was scrapped in 1976, the pass rate dropped to as low as 44%.

Yet even this apparently clear-cut success story is not as simple as it looks. Alexander suggests the apartheid government’s choice to introduce mother-tongue education was a “cynical manoeuvre” along the grounds of the Bantustan system, motivated by a divide-and-conquer philosophy. It aimed, he says, to “promote the ‘retribalisation’ or ‘ethnicisation’ of the African people”, at a time when black leaders had come to associate all worthwhile education with the English language.

The fear that those given first-language education in an African language will end up with limited options due to the supremacy of English on the global stage has frequently been aired over the last week. (Indeed, one of the objections to education in Afrikaans by black leaders in 1976 was the fact that it was spoken nowhere else in the world.) Simphiwe Dana last week dismissed the argument that English should be favoured because it is the language of global commerce. “China, the biggest economy in the word today, does just fine without Anglicising their society,” she said. This may be true from a cultural and political perspective, but is not entirely valid from a linguistic one. There is an apparently insatiable desire to learn English in China, with an estimated 300-million Chinese people studying English. Some top English-language trainers in China operate like televangelists, touring and delivering lectures to up to 30,000 people at a time.

One of Dana’s proposed solutions, that Swahili be adopted in South Africa as a unifying language, raised many eyebrows – understandably, since it is not an indigenous South African language. While the idea may sound crazy, Dana has a point in the sense that Swahili is probably the closest thing to an African common language, since it is an official language in five African countries, and was adopted as the official language of the African Union in 2004. (English is an official language in 21 African countries.)

But Dana has a further point, that our language situation is rendered fiendishly complex by the sheer number of languages. In those rare African countries which are effectively monolingual – such as Somalia and Swaziland – the development of national language policies is naturally far more simple. In African countries where there is an indigenous linguistic “superstratum” – a language which has highest prestige – policy is also able to be more simply (though sometimes problematically) implemented. Still, in the majority of African countries, regardless of their linguistic situations, the colonial language is still used today as the language of education after the first three or four years of school.  

If South Africa were to do things differently, Alexander suggests, the consequences would not be trivial. “If we learn one another’s languages, and if our children learn these languages, we can save this country from some of the worst things we have seen north of the Limpopo River,” he told Parliament last week. But, he warned, “we must not make the language question confrontational”. In the events of July 1976, South Africans have a brutal precedent for what can happen when the issue of language becomes “confrontational”.

A testament to the complexity of these issues is perhaps found in the concluding words of Simphiwe Dana’s submission last week. “I will now apologise for my address being in English,” Dana said. “Had I been able to explain some of these complex philosophies in my own language I would have. Alas, the conditioning goes very deep.” DM





Read more:

  • Language education policy, national and sub-national identities in South Africa, by Neville Alexander;
  • Xhosa, Zulu being axed at state schools, in the Sunday Times.

Photo: Reuters.


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