Namibia: Africa: Eternally Trapped?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jun 17 13:35:52 UTC 2006

Friday, June 16, 2006 - Web posted at 9:57:06 GMT

Africa: Eternally Trapped?

Before we take an excursion on this linguistic journey, two caveats should
be in place however.One is that Arab-speaking Africa is excluded from this
discussion for obvious reasons. The other is by way of a quick
counter-factual. To ask: are these languages on loan with a "return by"
date or have they been permanently inherited by Africa and thus part of
the cultural, intellectual and linguistic landscape of the continent?
Lapsing into a relativist mindset, I would say: it depends on one's take
on the issue. And it also depends on which part of Africa you find
yourself in.

During my travels in a number of African countries and discussion with
people of various backgrounds, one comes across some contrasting views on
the issue and use of foreign languages. In both francophone and lusophone
Africa, I have come across a number of people with very strong
associations with either French or Portuguese saying these languages are
part of their culture - they are our languages, they would say. Whereas in
anglophone Africa English is mainly accepted for its utilitarian value. In
fact, when I raised the issue of a common language for SADC as part of the
integration project in Harare back in 1999, a Mozambican colleague called
me naive. And mind you, this was a lecturer at a leading university in

But such are the strong sentiments in favor of European languages in parts
of Africa. Or indeed among a number of individual Africans everywhere -
especially the elite. Closer to home, before Independence, we also
regarded English as the language of liberation and Afrikaans that of
oppression. And this was true both of South Africa and Namibia. The
protests of the 1970s against Bantu education were also partly against
Afrikaans and obviously pro-English. A publication of the then
Lusaka-based UN Institute for Namibia dealing with language options for
independent Namibia made a strong case in favour of English. Of course, as
we know, Namibia adopted English as the official language after
Independence - thus discarding Afrikaans.

>>From a practical point of view, Namibia is a star performer in this
regard. But retrospectively we were somewhat naive to see English as the
language of liberation as our Zimbabwean colleagues would testify to the
contrary. Language plays different roles in society. It can be a source of
communication, national pride and unity. But it can be a source of power
and thus social and economic oppression. It can also be a source of
division. Thus, from colonial times to the present, the colonial language
has played varied and, at times, contradictory roles.

The mastery of the colonial language both during and after colonialism in
Africa became one of the obvious indicators of social division and status.
Those who are conversant in the official language - the language of
education, business, administration and the media, always have a clear
competitive edge over others in terms of employment opportunities and
getting simple things taken care of. At the horizontal level, the colonial
language has arguably united different communities and groups whereas at
the vertical level it has done exactly the opposite. Now with a number of
regional and continental integration experiments underway, what role will
these languages play? An extrapolation of the language policy from the
national to the regional and continental levels might have the same
unifying effect - horizontally speaking.

But as it stands now, the situation is not very conducive to either
regional or continental unity. When last did you browse through SADC,
Comesa, Ecowas, AU or ADB Websites?  I urge you to. Especially if you are
looking for a good job with these continental bodies. The only hurdle is
that you would be required to pass three European languages. So forget
about your advanced university degree. Instead, visit your nearest British
Council or French Cultural Centers to see if you can get a handle on a new
language. A typical requirement for a job with all these bodies, in
addition to normal educational requirements, is a heap of European

The UN is even worse. At the UN, the powerful nations have their languages
as either official or working languages. Now just imagine the amount of
papers and documents that get translated during the endless meetings and
summits of these organisations. And most of the time they are translated
from English into the other languages - which shows that there is
basically one dominant international language. And I can tell you it's fun
to watch some of these African gatherings, especially when the delegates
from different countries stand up to speak in "their languages". You would
be excused if you thought you were watching the European Union Parliament
proceedings - except that you should be able to recognise Muamar Ghadaffi
speaking in Arabic.

What I'm calling for then, in addition to the many other things that are
still to be put in place such as a common currency, central bank or
passport; is a common language for Africa in order to facilitate the
various cross-cutting interactions in a regional or continental community.
The choice would be among the three European languages used in Africa.
Although one might legitimately ask why not Arabic, Swahili or even
Ndebele as a choice? I'm surprised that most pan African centres are mute
on this issue - including our own Pacon. But the adoption of a common
language for SADC, Ecowas, Comesa or even the AU, will not only enhance
regional integration but will also represent a small liberating act -
reducing one of the many vestiges of colonial interferences in our

We have to break loose from these Anglo, Franco and lusophone categories.
It is time Africa starts to take some small steps towards re-discovering
herself. But which group of countries would be prepared to give up their
colonial inheritance and thus commit a "cultural suicide"?

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